Posted in Television

Welcome Back

The long wait has finally ended. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is once more open for business. Not, however, without potential problems.

It’s always difficult to get the momentum going again—“The Sopranos” had the same issue, as the gap between seasons continually lengthened. Last night’s two-part “Mad Men” opener got off to a slow start, Megan’s “ooh-la-la” routine notwithstanding. Things felt somewhat off-kilter during that first hour, all stemming from the same cause—the newly joined couple, Don and Megan Draper. This situation has skewed office relationships considerably—by the end of the episode’s second hour, when Megan questions the propriety of her continuing to work there, the entire world is going “Gee, Megan—think so?”

There was an even more important problem—Joan is not totally Joan unless she’s in the office, and one hour and 45 minutes of her at home with her new baby and her hyper-critical mother was no fun at all. Yes, we’ve seen her entertain dinner party guests with her accordian-playing prowess, but nothing tops Joan at work. And I didn’t even like her when the show first began. She reminded me of every office queen bee I’ve ever encountered—disapproving, territorial beyond reason and far from supportive of other women. But my opinion did a 180 with “The New Girl,” the second season episode during which, among other things, Don and Bobbie Barrett are in a car accident and Peggy comes to the rescue. And aside from Peggy’s finally calling her boss by his first name, Joan does her an invaluable service by telling her something she’s needed to hear for quite some time: “You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl.”  Joan’s been one of my favorite characters ever after, and her wry “Whatever may be on your mind?” to Peggy after Don announced his engagement during last season’s finale made me fall off the sofa laughing. Even though Lane is somewhat weird (what’s up with Delores?), I’m glad he appreciates her worth to the firm.

Fortunately Joan’s return to her native habitat is imminent, and the universe righted itself once again though the fallout from Don’s surprise party continued. Harry made an ass of himself on more than one occasion, Pete swung his weight around, Stan was surprisingly funny (especially when he supplied the soundtrack for Peggy’s “Bean Ballet” commercial) and karma did Roger a turn in the form of a bogus 6:00 a.m. meeting.

As was expected, “Mad Men” nailed the appropriate cultural markers with the appearance of weed and equal opportunity picketers. But what makes this show so interesting are changes in the characters and their circumstances: Peggy’s total assurance in client meetings, even when the outcome is disappointing; Roger’s superfluousness at the agency and the souring of his marriage to his trophy wife; Pete’s ruthlessness in baiting and then minimalizing Roger; and Don and Megan’s train wreck of a marriage (he’s the loneliest character on TV and last night’s anvils clued us into how great an actress she is, albeit with a very dark side).

Coming attractions: Looks like we get more than a glimpse of Chez Francis next week with a healthy helping of Betty’s mother-in-law from hell. I’m curious to see their new house in Rye—bet it won’t hold a candle to Don and Megan’s penthouse (the house in Ossining did indeed pay off on resale). And with Sally on the verge of teenhood (my, how Kiernan Shipka has grown), the conflicts will be endless. Can’t wait.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Music

Hollywood Sings!

Fortunately for us, the Miracle of the Secaucus Warehouse was just the beginning. So many studio recordings featuring original orchestrations of American Songbook material followed that it’s difficult to pick out a favorite. But here are two that are certainly worth more than the price of the disk or download, and then some.

Perhaps the liveliest CD in the John McGlinn canon is 1994’s The Busby Berkeley Album, a tremendous set of the Al Dubin–Harry Warren tunes that graced the Warner Brothers extravaganzas of the early 1930’s—42nd Street and the Gold Diggers films (1933, 1935 and 1937). Brent Barrett of the gleaming tenor does the songs that made Dick Powell famous, and a savvy trio of ladies—Judy Blazer, Ann Morrison and Debbie Shapiro Gravitte—do the honors on the distaff side. Best of all, McGlinn uses Ray Heindorf’s original orchestrations, and it’s lovely to hear these songs in contemporary sound, but with ’30’s style intact.

Since you wouldn’t be reading this blog unless you already know every song and line from the Busby Berkeley movies, as well as his fondness for blondes by the score, endless choruses and dance permutations and little Billy Barty leering at chorines, I can gratefully skip the background material (whew!). Let’s start where the CD does, with Judy Blazer zinging her way through “We’re in the Money,” pig Latin and all. I really love how “Forty-Second Street” is done, with the emphasized beats illustrating each ascending step of the chorus before they turn around to reveal their placards forming the Manhattan skyline. Details like this make the recording, like the softly harmonized “ha ha’s” by the female chorus in “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and the bouncy vocal rhythms of the police officers in “Pettin’ in the Park.” Kudos to the London Sinfonietta Chorus and Orchestra for a wonderfully stylish and energetic job.

However, top vocal honors must go to Debbie Shapiro Gravitte for a searing “Remember My Forgotten Man” and to Brent Barrett for a wickedly good “Young and Healthy” and an amusing “Dames” in which he plays a beleaguered theatrical producer. My only disappointment with this album is the inclusion of “I’m Going Shopping With You” instead of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which I would have loved to have heard him sing. But the rendition of my favorite Busby Berkeley song is more than satisfying—that cautionary tale of party girls who party too long and too well, “The Lullaby of Broadway.”  McGlinn & Co. give the emotional range of this number its full due, from the opening chorus to the delicately lilting variation that accompanies the white-clad dance team to the relentless insistence of the tap-dancing chorus. I don’t think a darker musical number ever served as the backdrop for an Oscar-winning song. Just to remind you:

A decade away from Busby Berkeley but just as satisfying, the 2006 CD, Jule Styne in Hollywood, pays tribute to the composer’s knack for writing some really wonderful songs for some really forgettable movies (The one possible exception? It Happened in Brooklyn, with Frank Sinatra). There’s a geniality and openness to Styne’s music that’s totally disarming, and he’s matched in tone by the lyricists he worked with during his Hollywood years, most prominently Sammy Cahn and Frank Loesser.

Kelli O’Hara, who can probably sing anything composed by man or woman, puts on her best girl singer’s hat in the opening cut of the CD, “Blame My Absent-Minded Heart.” She’s followed by Audra McDonald’s sharply funny “10,432 Sheep,” the saga of a young lady whose beau’s kiss packs enough wallop to give her insomnia. This is a classic 1940’s arrangement, with the boys in the band singing to Audra in response, topped off by her giggled line about a lost sheep: “He took it on the lam” (groan). Other surprises are Sara Zahn’s lovely “You Make Me Dream Too Much,” Johnny Rodgers’ lilting “The Brooklyn Bridge” and Victoria Clark’s gentle “Winter Was Warm,” a song Styne wrote for, of all things, the 1962 Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. There’s a lengthy medley of Styne’s Academy Award-nominated songs by Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley which I have some reservations about: while she has a phenomenally warm voice, I don’t particularly care for his over-bright tenor. Plus, she and not he should have soloed on “I’ll Walk Alone,” which is the classic World War II girl-left-behind song (Believe me, my mother cried over this one well into the 1970’s). The CD ends with two of Styne’s most famous songs: “Time After Time,” in a beautiful performance by Brent Barrett, and the wistful “The Things We Did Last Summer” sung by Rebecca Luker.  I couldn’t recommend this one more highly.

While the Jule Styne album is still in print, The Busby Berkeley Album is not, though it’s available for download. But try to get the CD if for no other reason than to have the program notes which, among other things, solve the mystery of Ruby Keeler’s heavy feet. Enjoy!

Posted in Broadway Musicals

Broadway Sings

If you’re like me, a total fan of Broadway and Hollywood musicals, you know that 1982 was the Year of the Miraculous Secaucus Warehouse. It was then that 80 crates of material that had not seen the light of day for years—unpublished songs by Jerome Kern and the Gershwins, cut songs and original orchestrations for shows from the 1920’s and reams of other goodies—were found in storage at a facility maintained by Warner Brothers in New Jersey. The tons of manuscript had accumulated as the studio acquired a number of music publishers over the years, and it was only when a Gershwin scholar was tracking down some arrangements that the location as well as the scope of this incredible trove was realized.

Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern

Because of this discovery, we not only can enjoy historic musicals as their authors intended, we can now hear how they sounded before latter-day orchestrators tried to do us a favor by “updating” them in revivals. The best example of the wonders wrought at the Warner Brothers warehouse is the classic three-CD set of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein landmark Show Boat, conducted by John McGlinn, who had helped to catalog the Secaucus material. Prior to his death in 2009 at the age of 55, McGlinn went on to record a number of classic musicals, including Anything Goes, Brigadoon and Kiss Me, Kate, as well as several compilation CDs featuring a cadre of wonderful singers: Rebecca Luker, Judy Kaye, Brent Barrett, Kim Criswell and George Dvorsky, among others.

One of my favorite McGlinn recordings is Broadway Showstoppers, which contains songs from both wildly successful shows and total flops, such as the legendary (for the wrong reasons) Bernstein–Lerner show, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (fortunately Bernstein later folded its best music into his White House Cantata). I especially like “Who?,” sung by Rebecca Luker and Brent Barrett, with its long string of choruses, each differentiated with changes in interior rhythm and counter-melody; the virtuoso “Duet for One,” performed by Judy Kaye, alternating the personae of Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes; and the lovely “Some Girl is On Your Mind” from the Kern–Hammerstein musical, Sweet Adeline, featuring Messrs. Barrett, Groenendaal, Dvorsky and Gaines, abetted by the men of the Ambrosian Chorus.  But the best track by far is the restored version of “All the Things You Are” from Very Warm for May, in an arrangement that has been known to cause jaws to drop in astonishment. The beauty of the performance lies not just in the music (which is incredible enough) but in the artistry of four soloists and a huge chorus, capped by Rebecca Luker’s voice soaring in what can only be described as the mother of all descants. I first heard this CD during a five-hour drive home from Massachusetts, and I swear I played that cut about 20 times in a row. This 1992 recording goes in and out of print, but is fairly easy to find from various internet sources. Don’t miss it.

The New York City Center “Encores!” series has also produced several great recordings, among which is the dynamite Rodgers and Hart musical, The Boys from Syracuse. This 1997 CD features Malcolm Gets, Rebecca Luker, Davis Gaines and Debbie Shapiro Gravitte doing wonderful things with some of the authors’ best material—“This Can’t Be Love,” “Falling in Love With Love,” and best of all, a bang-up version of “Sing For Your Supper,” which I’m nuts about. Here’s a later performance of the same song by, in descending vocal order, Rebecca Luker, Christine Ebersole and Debbie Shapiro Gravitte:

Coming Attractions: Hollywood Sings!, featuring The Busby Berkeley Album and Jule Styne in Hollywood.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Television

Quiz Show

The infamous “Twenty-One”

I’ve long been fascinated by the train wreck known as the “1950’s quiz show scandals.” Although the practice of favoring certain contestants had been the norm for years on radio programs, it reached its height when quiz shows migrated to television and really big money came into the picture. In order to heighten the drama and capture the viewers, not to mention making the sponsors happy, “good” contestants were kept on through a variety of means—first by asking softball questions to which they already knew the answers, then giving tip-offs to what questions they would be asked, and finally flat-out supplying both questions and answers prior to a contestant’s appearance on the show. When the lid blew in 1958 as to how the television audience had been duped, reputations were ruined, shows were taken off the air and Congress, which never misses an opportunity to promote itself, swung into action.

One film I always stop to watch when I catch it on TV is Quiz Show, a 1994 release directed by Robert Redford, which focuses on the show “Twenty-One,” and its two most famous contestants—college instructor and literary scion Charles Van Doren (played by a pre-famous Ralph Fiennes) and whistleblower Herbert Stempel (John Turturro at his best).  I remember when the film was released Redford came in for a great deal of criticism, both for portraying Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) as the man whose dogged investigation as a Congressional committee staffer broke the case, and for distorting the time frame during which these events played out. While both points are totally accurate, Quiz Show remains an excellent and intelligent film that focuses on those pesky ethical issues that mainstream films still won’t touch today.

In reality the scandal did not break with “Twenty-One” but through a complaint made to Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan by a disgruntled former contestant on “Dotto.” Damage control was temporarily had when “Dotto” was yanked off the air, but as the D.A.’s office continued to investigate these enormously popular shows (“The $64,000 Question” and “Tic-Tac-Dough” among many others), they began to fall like dominoes. “Prime Time and Misdemeanors,” authored by Joseph Stone, then the Assistant D.A. who headed the investigation and subsequent grand jury presentations, is a fascinating discussion, not only of these events but also of the personalities and motivations of the people behind the shows as well as the contestants. Ultimately some 26 former contestants lied to the grand jury about the rigging and their involvement. All pleaded guilty to perjury and received suspended sentences (the rigging itself was not then a crime though subsequently enacted legislation made it so). Interestingly, the one person whom the D.A.’s office could not shake was Dr. Joyce Brothers, a former winner on “The $64,000 Question,” among whose associate producers (and riggers) was Shirley Bernstein (sister of Leonard).  She remained adamant that her appearances on the show had not been rigged, though in reading Mr. Stone’s book it’s evident he didn’t believe her but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth taking on a young, personable female psychologist who had won all that money as an expert on boxing.

Although Joseph Stone’s book is shot through with a great deal of lawyer ego, and worse yet, doesn’t have a “family tree” as to who appeared on or produced which show, it’s a terrific read. Even better is Julian Krainin’s thoughtful documentary, “The Quiz Show Scandal” which originally appeared on PBS’s American Experience. Although the “Twenty-One” story takes up a great deal of the film, there’s so much more, including a wonderful interview with Sonny Fox, whom my baby boomer generation remembers best as the host of “Wonderama.” In Krainin’s film he describes his utter failure as a big-money quiz show host (a terminal case of screwing up the questions), but more somberly, he tells the story of Patty Duke’s appearance before the House subcommittee investigating quiz show rigging in late 1959, long after that first complaint made it to the Manhattan D.A. Prior to creating the role of Helen Keller on Broadway in The Miracle Worker, she had appeared on “The $64,000 Challenge” and been coached by Shirley Bernstein as to which areas of knowledge she needed to bone up on. Appearing before the subcommittee as a scared and pressured 12 year-old, she initially lied under oath, but when gently prodded by one of the committee members, broke down and spilled the entire story. This, along with kinescopes of the original programs which show Van Doren, Stempel and other contestants in action, makes Krainin’s film a must-see.

Redford’s Quiz Show, which for tighter drama compresses the three-year time span during which the scandal played out, features a roster of wonderful performances, including Paul Scofield (whom I thought was robbed of a Best Supporting Oscar) as Mark Van Doren, Charles’s father; David Paymer as Dan Enright, producer of “Twenty One;” and perhaps most memorably, Martin Scorsese, as the corporate head of “Twenty-One”‘s sponsor. His appearance reminds me of Anna Deveare Smith’s role in Philadelphia—a welcome respite from some rather grim proceedings. You can sense his delight throughout his big scene as he squares off against Rob Morrow’s Richard Goodwin:

While Herbert Stempel talked and talked—and talked—from the time he first tipped off television critic Jack O’Brien in 1958 that all had not been well in “Twenty-One”-land, Charles Van Doren kept his silence for over 50 years, until his account appeared in “The New Yorker.” It’s the flip side of Stone’s book, and in fact, Van Doren describes his frightening encounter with the Assistant D.A. in the article. In the final analysis you may be of two minds, as I was. On the one hand, you feel for him—he became involved in something despite his better judgment (as well as the advice of his future wife) and appears to have been pained by the entire experience even before the rigging scandal broke. Who does not share that elemental fear of being found out—“They’ll know I’m not smart”? But covering up by lying to a grand jury is something altogether different, and this is the aspect of the story that remains the most elusive, not only as to Van Doren but with respect to the others who did so. Perhaps they themselves will never know why.