1776 – the purfuit of happineff

Despite George Washington’s fervent wish that he not be deified, we have put our Founding Fathers on such pedestals that their humanity comes into question. Even calling them Fathers or Framers seems to impart a distant and mythic quality to them, when surely they were just ball-scratching, beer-swilling men like the rest of us; no doubt they were infused with a fiery gumption deserving our respect, and a witty intelligence that makes them endlessly quotable. To our great misfortune, this essence has rarely been distilled into an easily consumable art form.

Oh, people have tried. Most recently HBO made a mini-series about John Adams, which was actually pretty good- a bit on the long side, and it sidesteps most of the American Revolution because Adams was often in France trying to curry diplomatic favor. Hopefully we’ll get a mini-series covering most of the war someday. 1776 covers the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and manages to run nearly 3 hours to show us how the bickering delegates of 13 very different colonies managed to agree upon the need to rebel from the empire from which they sprang.

Originally a Broadway musical, it was a huge hit and was turned into a 1972 film by Warner Brothers, who hired practically the entire Broadway cast, including the director, to reprise their act on the silver screen. Part of me wishes they simply sat a camera in front of the stage, because many musicals suffer when converted into films; the energy is gone. And I’m afraid that’s what happened here.

Martha misses Tommy’s “violin.”

It’s rather like 12 Angry Men: The Musical, with a cast cooped up in the stifling meeting room of the Continental Congress; it begins with a bland political joke about the ineffectiveness of Congress that was tepid when Will Rogers said it, and is just as milquetoast here. And but for a few humanizing moments here and there, that’s as good as it gets. The problem is the music; it’s resolutely dull. I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but by this point stuff like The Sound of Music, The King and I, and My Fair Lady had come along and shown how to masterfully blend witty dialogue with equally witty and enjoyable songs. Unfortunately this has none, and feels like a Marx Brothers movie that gets rudely interrupted so the two lovebirds can sing their hearts out.

As dated as this poster design.

The Egg” was the most memorable of the songs I can recall, and is about Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams arguing about which bird should symbolize this new country: the dove, the eagle, or the turkey. Franklin famously did favor the turkey, for it was a native bird, notoriously wary and difficult to hunt. Most of the humor is of the old hindsight is 20/20 variety– ha, ha, they don’t want the eagle to be our bird? Pshaw. Or worse yet, the custodian who spouts “Sweet Jesus!” any time he’s asked to open a window, to shock us into imagining our illustrious forebears saying such uncouth things. The film was even banned from being shown in a Virginia because Jefferson says that he “burns” for his wife. I guess in Virginia, Paul Giamatti porking away at Mrs. Abigail in the HBO miniseries of John Adams precludes it from being a valid historical document.

Go fly a kite.

William Daniels plays Adams here; he’s since become more famous for playing a Doc on “St. Elsewhere,” and the voice of K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider,” so hearing him as John Adams was hard to swallow. He’s also kind of a meek voice for a character who’s chided for being so boisterous. Every half hour or so, he sings to his wife Abigail, who appears in a ghostly window to sing back to him. Harder to take was Howard Da Silva’s Ben Franklin, who seemed played for laughs throughout. I certainly don’t mind a story humanizing the man who wrote “Fart Proudly,” and coined the motto “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” but he’s almost buffoonish here.

f.u. k1ng ge0rg3!

On the other hand it’s rather beautifully filmed and has a few chuckles, and if I didn’t know that “Cool, Considerate Men” was cut as a favor to Nixon, I’d think it was cut to reduce the 3 hour running time to a tolerable level. The song’s not even that good, and seeing men in wigs practically goose-step while singing “always to the right!” isn’t too subtle. If you like flowery reconstructions of our past where the arguments over the Declaration involved passionate pleas to end slavery, when in actuality the biggest obstacle was getting Quakers to agree to war, you might like it. I expected a lot more from this. The director does a good job transitioning to screen, but the attempts at injecting romance are clumsy, and any real drama is lost; these men were agonizing over whether to commit their constituents to a long and bloody war with the greatest military power of the time, and the frequent and frivolous songs seem like window dressing, artifice meant to rouse us when the spirit of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson should be doing it on their own.

There’s a lot of love for this film, but I did not feel compelled by it. I think it will be forever colored by the time it was released- it was very difficult to feel roused to patriotism during the “peace with honor” campaign of the Vietnam War, when crime and urban decay rose to such a degree that Nixon won in a landslide on the “law and order” ticket. It just didn’t feel very passionate, and it seems like they left out the Quaker’s pacifist dilemma because we were currently fighting a rightfully unpopular war. It’s not terrible, just largely unmemorable; if you watch it enough it might become so, but I don’t think I’ll be putting forth the effort. I might give it a shot if a local theater company performs it.

Spring Awakening

Firecracker’s been wanting to see this for a year, and we finally got to it. I took her to see Rufus Wainwright for Valentine’s Day instead. While Rufus is entertaining, I wish we’d gone to see this musical instead. It’s pretty funny and very hot. For a show based on a play from 1890 that’s a surprise. There’s sort of a dearth of bawdiness in that era, and that’s what the story is about- it’s a morality tale about sexual repression, the kind of thing John Waters should be making a campy movie version of.

Sure it’s a little emo, but it’s a good show. I was thoroughly entertained and titillated. We had on-stage seats, which gives you a unique perspective; I’d probably want to see the show from the audience before I did it again. You miss a lot of the dialogue and lyrics because the actors are projecting away from you. You get the best view imaginable, and get bumped around sometimes as they bounce around the stage. The stage seats are incorporated into the show, actually- the backup singers sit with you, and occasionally the cast is standing right next to you.

Moritz, Melchior, Wendla

The story begins with young Wendla, a German girl who asks her mother about the birds and the bees. Our Prussian-Puritan background shows in that I said “birds and bees” instead of “the penis and the vagina.” We’ve got a thousand euphemisms for it. Anyway, her mom is too embarrassed to tell her not to let snakey into her no-no, so you know she’s going to get in trouble later on. From there we cut to a strict Prussian schoolroom, where mussy-haired Moritz (Blake Bashoff, Alex’s boyfriend on “Lost”) has fallen asleep during recitations of Latin. His friend Melchior (the lead, Kyle Riabko) defends him and becomes the rebel of the show, questioning the schoolmaster’s methods.

I’ll only put it in a little

He’s the one who gets in trouble with Wendla. Moritz falls asleep in class because his wet dreams are keeping him up all night, and he asks “Melchy” to write him an essay with illustrations because he’s read about sex in those forbidden books. Wendla finds him by the lake scribbling his naughty essay and eventually succumb to their throbbing hormonal urges. From the stage seats you get subjected to Mr. Riabko’s ass-crack, which delighted Firecracker. I got a look up Wendla’s skirt, and can tell you Alexandra Socha wears tighty whities. Besides being appropriately cute, the actresses and actors are all quite good. Beast said Melchior overacted, but he’s playing a rebellious teenager, and he played the part of the “Angry Young Man” from that Billy Joel song perfectly.

We’d be in those chairs on stage left

Emma Hunton was my favorite- she plays Ilse, a girl who was kicked out by her parents and now lives on the streets, posing for the Bohemian painters to live, usually wandering barefoot or in one of the artists’ shirts. She’s got great pipes and has a touching scene where she comforts inconsolable Moritz, who besides suffering the cruel injustices of the schoolmasters, can’t tell when a girl likes him. They sing a duet together that was the best song of the show, “Blue Wind.” The real crowd-pleaser is “Totally Fucked” when Melchior finally rebels, but it was loud and heavy on percussion so I couldn’t understand any of it from the stage seats.

Moritz channeling Amadeus

Overall Spring Awakening is a good show and worth seeing- the current cast is excellent, and while the story might appeal more to teenagers than adults like me, who wanted it to be campier or even more daring, it is never boring. The set design is spartan and efficient, with no big set changes- it’s not showy like Hairspray but it was clever and impressive. Check out the soundtrack on Amazon:

Young Frankenstein sings!

Our friends Josh and Daniel gave Sarah tickets for her birthday. Good guys with great taste in bad food and good musicals. The theater is decorated like a Disney theme park, which gave me pause. The show is great, however. The stage design is particularly stunning, and the cast is uniformly hilarious. They do a great job of taking the best of the movie and perking it up as a musical.

There’s the stage before the show. You can barely make out the castle. They use a lot of projection on back screens to add to the design, without relying on it too much. Roger Bart plays Dr. Frankenstein (Fronkensteen!) and does a great job. Gene Wilder’s shoes are impossible to fill, but he manages to create his own version of the neurotic, sex-starved scientist. When he gets manic and insane he screams in a way that is funny on its own. His first song is a clever bit of wordplay about the brain, sort of like the old “I am the very model of a modern Major General” and is almost too quick to catch half the jokes.

A montage advert from the show.

Christopher Fitzgerald plays Igor, he of the transient hump, and mimics Marty Feldman’s British accent. Not sure it was the wisest choice, but it works, and he’s quite funny as well, relying on a lot of physical comedy, including swinging from the castle door’s big knockers prior to that famous gag. His best scene is when he admits he used an “Abby Normal” brain for the monster. He’s sitting in a chair with a labcoat on, playing little games while the Doc fumes.

In our show Renee Feder played Inga, and she was fantastic. Quite a leggy knockout, too. They make an entire song out of the “roll in the hay” gag, and as usual it’s your risque Broadway tune. I think part of what I like most about Broadway shows is the burlesque unexpurgated quality. Calling back to the campy ending to Rufus Wainwright‘s concert, it reminds me of when America went to Times Square to be titillated, whether with tits, men in drag or gals in fishnets dancing to off-color songs. Maybe that’s why I go see shows like this, Avenue Q, the Evil Dead Musical, and Hairspray instead of dramas.

The rest of the cast is damn good as well, from Frau Blucher, who gets a funny song of her own to sing about being the first Doctor Frankenstein’s boyfriend, to Megan Mulally in the Madeline Kahn role. She does a great job with it, reinventing it as well because who can top Madeline Kahn? She does a fine job as the celibate socialite who gets to find “the sweet mystery of life” via the monster’s enormous schwanzstücker.

My favorite scene of the movie is Gene Hackman’s cameo as the old man. Here the hermit gets his own song, which is unfortunately too long. One of my minor quibbles with the show, it felt padded for time in that song. The slapstick scene is left as the original, which couldn’t be improved upon, really. The only clip I could find on youtube of the original movie was in Spanish, which loses all of Hackman’s great comedy work. It’s too bad he usually plays a tough guy, because he was hilarious in the movie.

The Puttin’ on the Ritz scene didn’t make it to my camera, but it would have looked crappy anyway. The movie scene is on youtube, thankfully. They change the finale of the movie a little, since it’s difficult to switch sets and show them using the Inspector’s mechanical arm as a battering ram. They move the scene to a gallows where the Doc is about to be hanged (and they don’t even make a “hung” joke!) The Monster arrives to save him, and everyone lives happily ever after of course. The only other iffy part of the show is a number called “The Transylvania Mania” that Igor sings to distract the villagers.

Puttin’ on the Ritz (movie version)

After the show we went to Fat Annie’s Truck Stop, which serves hearty American chow and other cardiological tragedies. For some reason they also sell raw oysters, which I avoided. Never order oysters in a truck stop, they are liable to be of the Rocky Mountain variety.
They serve po’boys and burgers and meat loaf and such, with a diner style interior slathered in chrome and vinyl. Authentic down the the NASCAR race on the televisions. Sometimes you can go too far with authenticity, but it was the Daytona 500, so maybe it would have been at any sports bar. What it lacked in atmosphere it made back with a different menu and a good burger. For appetizers we had the Frito Lay pie, which is a bag of fritos with chili, jalapeños, cheese and sour cream on top.

There ’tis in all its glory.

The menu was a bit scattershot with stuff ranging from Fried Cheese Curds from Wisconsin to Seared Yellowfin Tuna over mixed greens, which I wouldn’t order in any truck stop I ever heard of. We stuck with the basics, but Josh gave the meat loaf a thumbs down. The burgers and po’boys and appies were just fine, and the beer selection was decent with a good set of drafts. However the next time we’re in the neighborhood I’ll probably try the Irish pub next door which serves Irish breakfast all day.