The End of Human Nature

Test shot for my Valerie Solanas look.

One of the reasons I liked Hamilton was because it reminded me of the play Jim and I did, 1968. Both were done to a beat. were heavy on the couplets, and had some wacky, against the grain casting: blacks as whites, men as women, one dude obviously playing three different people. The two plays did not accurately reenact events. Rather, they relayed historical details in an entertaining way.

Acting went through a severe identity crisis in the 20th century. For millennia, stage actors had ruled the roost with exaggerated gestures and loud voices projected to the back of the theater. All this while supposedly whispering sweet nothings in their lover’s ears. It was just accepted by players and audiences that it was the way it was done.

With the advent of film, however, you could physically whisper without all the gimmickry. Relatively speaking. It was still coming across at decibel levels way above normal. But compared to the other sounds in the movie they were just right.

The biggest dilemma in the early days of film making was that all actors had been trained for the stage, a style too broad for cinema. It took decades to breed the ham out of the Barrymores.

When auteurs finally got what they wanted and realized what they had, the pressure in the 50’s and 60’s was to be as natural as possible. And no one did that better than Warhol in Sleep and Empire. So natural, soooo boring.

Once film found its Terms of Endearment niche, there was no way theater could physically compete. It resorted to schmaltzy musicals and endless examinations of self worth. With a smattering of social justice avenging thrown in now and then.

What Jim and Hamilton did was to stop spoon-feeding the audience and use a format that forces them to think.

Art is not a controlled environment where a + b = c.  If the artist does their job creating a + b then c will have a million different values depending on the perceptions of the viewers.

There are no right or wrong answers in art. There are no answers at all. There’s only the experience.

Jump in, Mabel, whenever you’re feeling it.

I once had a fan tell me I reminded him of Mabel Mercer. At first I was offended. I remembered her as being kind of dog meat-ish, a little porky.

As I processed it, however, I thought of the many show business insiders who adored her. Frank Sinatra said she was the master of phrasing and timing. She taught him everything he knew.

If that’s what the fan meant, I’ll take it any day of the week.

August marks the 5th anniversary of ls2lsblog.com. I started in 2014 by circulating drafts to friends for their opinions. In particular, I wondered what Carl and Ellen thought.

Carl’s advice was to keep the pieces at 500 words. You can see how well I’ve done with that.

Ellen, on the other hand, had tried for two decades to engage me in a writing project. The things I showed her never passed muster. She was not mean about it but neither was she satisfied. Her responses were gentle but lethal. “Let me know if you want to continue this.”

When I read the first two words of her reply to the drafts I started to cry: “Well, well…..” It only took 20 years but I was finally on the right track. I’m still riding the fumes.

In late 2017 I promised readers a revamp and new feel for the blog. True to my word and a mere 22 months later that process begins today.

The emphasis is on archiving things of mine and things of the era. Up first is Act One of 1968.

I haven’t formulated an archive plan yet but my style has always been to force the issue then make sense of it later. The Mabel inside me says I can do this.

Opening the vault to: 1968, Act One

SCUM personified.

I Am What I Am, Goddamnit!

For my birthday my roommate gave me a ticket to see Hamilton. He did so reluctantly knowing my aversion to musical theater. To me they’re always the same: downtrodden minorities overcoming impossible obstacles to rise and get revenge.

That plot can be a relief to life’s woes when administered in the tiniest of doses. On Broadway the syringe is filled with one the size of the Pacific.

All I knew about the Hamilton musical was that it was done in rap or hip-hop or house–I’m not conversant in all of the nuance. I agree with Keith Richard’s take on the genre(s). He was inclined to like them but found the 4/4 beat monotonous. “Vary the meter for Christ’s sake.”

In my lifetime earth-shattering musical productions have come along about once every decade. When I was a teen it was the flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, Hair. The 1970’s saw A Chorus Line with What I Did for Love. Wah-wah-wah.

In the 80’s there was the queer triumph La Cage aux Folles (see title above.) It was followed by Rent ten years later. Sadly I know no tunes or lines from that one. Suffice it to say it’s only a rehash of La Boheme.

So the recent buzz of Hamilton being another phenomenon did little for me.  Until I read it was based on the Chernow biography I read lo those many years ago. My interest was peaked. How in the hell did they get something juicy out of that piece of dry toast?

Somehow they did. From the opening admonishment by a queeny King George’s voice warning about cell phone usage, it sucked me in. The beat, the body movements, the constant barrage of couplets, a lazy susan stage transporting actors from one scene to the next and the diversity of the cast combined to make something I never thought I’d see in the legitimate theater. (In the illegitimate theater, yes.)

The color coding of the actors was a little baffling. Why were some white historical figures played by non-whites while others were not? Could it be, gasp, because that person was best qualified for the role? Realism in an art form founded on disbelief is vastly overrated.

As a kid I joined record clubs to take advantage of the 10 LPs for a dollar. I always included at least one musical soundtrack. I thought if it was important in Manhattan it had to be important to the world.

The summer I bought the soundtrack to My Fair Lady it took Uncle Fritz’s annual visit to put things in perspective. His version of On the Street Where You Live included a verse that began, “People stop and stare, in their underwear.” Oh! The towering feeling.

I didn’t think Hamilton had any memorable tunes. Until I went to bed that night. That’s when I realized “The Room Where It Happens” had been on a constant loop in my head since I left the theater.

And I’m not good at remembering lines after performances. Although Alexander’s son Phillip made an impression. As a teen young Philip shows he’s a playa with the pick-up line, “I’m a trust fund baby, trust me”

After graduating from college Lil’ Phil has even more game. He tells a couple girls he likes their frocks. “When I get back we’ll strip to our socks.” He then does the honorable thing by getting himself killed in a duel. You gotta love that wacky 18th Century lifestyle.

The most astonishing moment occurred when there was a passing reference to General Lee “shitting the bed at the Battle of Monmouth.” Immediately I could think of only two other people in the world who would even know what that meant, Ron Chernow and my friend Peter in Paunat, France. Anyone who can link a reference as obscure as that to a street culture where the words “Battle of Monmouth” will probably never be heard, let alone understood, deserves all the Tony’s they can get.

The one minor disappointment was the death scene where the angels seemed to alight with Alex and rest him in the bosom of the holy father. I understand that when you’re selling $150 Broadway tickets to tourists from Iowa there needs to be at least one gratuitous, schmaltzy scene to validate the experience for them. The rest of the play is so innovative and modern, however, it would have been interesting to see how they could have handled this in a different way.

Joking about death is never easy to do, though Jim Jordan did a pretty good job of it in our play 1968. Which brings me to a concluding thought: if I’ve seen the future of theater, it has striking resemblances to what Jim and I tried to do 30 years ago.

Striking a Hamiltonian pose when I was 9. Mother opted for the traditional cream background over the blingier gold.