It’s true: Hamilton totally earns the hype. My sweetheart treated me to a touring company performance of the musical here in Boston last night, and it was the first time either of us had seen it. What a tour de force!
It’s a constantly moving, singing, dancing, quite literally spinning masterpiece of intricate physical, vocal and emotional involvement among cast, crew, musicians, choreographers, set designers and visionaries. Everything is held aloft by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant rhythm, rhyme, and lyrical passion and inspired by Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s erudition.
It starts with a pow and never slows down, and turntables within turntables spin against each other to allow for even more movement and multiple simultaneous stories to play out before your eyes.
There is very little spoken dialog separating the musical numbers—it’s a constantly flowing, beautifully paced river of rhythm, full of emotion yet always supported by a framework of fact, a propulsive political urgency and this historical imperative: Make this moment count. Make your vision real. Fight for what matters. Keep on trying. You can rest another day—acknowledge your power to make a difference right now and turn that potential power into positive action. It’s honest, with no holds barred: thrilling, merciful, inspiring.
[In honor of the Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s 50-year-old play The Boys in the Band starring Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells, I’m reposting this piece I wrote in 2009.]
Some years ago, while watching TV in the wee hours of the morning, I happened upon a film that I’d never before heard of. I was instantly hooked. It turned out to be a milestone in gay-themed filmmaking, a cult classic that alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) delighted and appalled New York theatrical audiences in 1968 and then moved to the screen in 1970. That film was The Boys in the Band.
Written by gay playwright Mart Crowley, the play attracted celebrities and the New York in-crowd nearly instantly after it opened at a small off-Broadway theater workshop in 1968. The cast of nine male characters worked together so successfully that the whole bunch of them made the transition to the screen in 1970, which is nearly unheard of.
Crowley had been a well-connected and respected but poor young writer when his play became a smash in 1968. While still a young man, he knew how the Hollywood game was played and how to jockey his success into control over the casting of the film. Working with producer Dominick Dunne he adapted his script into a screenplay and watched director William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, lovingly keep the integrity of the play while opening it up and making it work on the screen.
It’s hard to believe that the play opened off-Broadway a year before the Stonewall riots that set off the modern-day gay rights movement in New York and then swept across the country. The characters in the play, and the whole play itself, are not incidentally gay—the characters’ behavior and the play’s content revolve around their homosexuality. For better or worse, the characters play out, argue over and bat around gay stereotypes: the drama queen, the ultra-effeminate “nelly” fairy, and the dimwitted cowboy hustler (a likely hommage to the cowboy gigolo Joe Buck in the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy, which was made into a remarkable film by John Schlesinger in 1969). The play also features straight-seeming butch characters who can (and do) “pass” in the outside world, and a visitor to their world who may or may not be homosexual himself.
The action takes place at a birthday party attended only by gay men who let their hair down and camp it up with some very arch and witty dialog during the first third of the film, then the party is crashed by the married former college pal of Michael, the host. A pall settles over the festivities as Michael (played by musical theater star Kenneth Nelson) tries to hide the orientation of himself and his guests. That is, until the party crasher brings the bigotry of the straight world into the room, and Michael realizes he’s doing nobody any favors by keeping up the ruse. During the course of the evening he goes from someone who celebrates the superficial and who has spent all his time and money (and then some) on creating and maintaining a reputation and a public image, to a vindictive bully who lashes out at everyone and forces them all to scrutinize themselves with the same homophobic self-hatred he feels. He appears at first bold and unflinching in his insistence on brutal honesty, but he goes beyond honesty into verbal assault, while we see reserves of inner strength and dignity from characters we had underestimated earlier in the play. Though The Boys in the Band isn’t the masterpiece that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, I see similarities between the two in the needling, bullying and name-calling that alternates with total vulnerability and unexpected tenderness.
The self-loathing, high-camp hijinks, withering bitchiness and open ogling made many audience members uncomfortable, a number of homosexuals among them. Some felt the story and the characterizations were embarrassingly over-the-top and stereotyped. They thought that having the outside straight world peek in and see these characters up close would only make them disdain homosexuals even more. This is a legitimate criticism; the nasty jibes, pointed attacks, and gay-baiting that goes on among and against gay characters here is the sort of in-fighting that could encourage bigots to become more entrenched in their prejudices when seen out of the context of a full panorama of daily life for these characters.
However, the play and film were also groundbreaking in their depictions of homosexuals as realistic, three-dimensional men with good sides and bad. Even as we watch one character try to eviscerate the others by pointing out stereotypically gay characteristics that make them appear weak and offensive to the straight world at large, there is also a great deal of sympathy and empathy shown among the characters under attack, and even towards the bully at times. Sometimes this tenderness is seen in the characters’ interactions. At other times, it is fostered in the hearts of the audience members by the playwright. Playwright Crowley has us witness people behaving badly, but we recognize over time how fear and society’s hatefulness toward them has brought them to this state.
These characters may try to hold each other up as objects of ridicule, but the strength of the dialog is that we in the audience don’t buy it; with each fresh insult, we see further into the tortured souls of those who do the insulting. We see how, as modern-day sex columnist Dan Savage put it so beautifully in an audio essay on the public radio show This American Life in 2002, it is the “sissies” who are the bravest ones among us, for they are the ones who will not hide who they are, no matter how much scorn, derision and hate they must face as a result of their refusal to back down and play society’s games. Similarly, to use another theatrical example, it is Arnold Epstein, the effeminate new recruit in the Neil Simon 1940’s-era boot-camp play Biloxi Blues, who shows the greatest spine and the strongest backbone in the barracks when he does not hide who he is, and he willingly takes whatever punishment he is given stoically and silently so as not to diminish his honesty and integrity or let down his brothers in arms.
The situation and premise of The Boys in the Band are heightened and the campy drama is elevated for the purposes of building suspense. This echoes the action in plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, where the uglier side of each character is spotlighted and the flattering gauze and filters over the lenses are stripped away dramatically as characters brawl and wail. The emotional breakdowns are overblown and the bitchy catcalling is nearly constant for much of the second half of the film, which becomes tiresome. However, the play addresses major concerns of gay American males of the 1960s head-on: social acceptability, fear of attacks by angry or threatened straight men, how to balance a desire to be a part of a family with a desire to be true to one’s nature, monogamy versus promiscuity, accepting oneself and others even if they act “gayer” or “straighter” than one is comfortable with, etc.
It is startling to remember that, at the time the play was produced, just appearing to be effeminate or spending time in the company of assumed homosexuals was enough to get a person arrested, beaten, jailed or thrown into a mental institution, locked out of his home or job, even lobotomized or given electroshock therapy in hopes of a “cure.” In 1969 the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village by gay people fighting back against police oppression was a rallying cry. It gave homosexuals across the nation the strength to stand up for their rights and refuse to be beaten, threatened, intimidated, arrested or even killed just for being gay. However, anti-gay sentiment in retaliation for homosexuals coming out of the closet and forcing the heterosexual mainstream to acknowledge that there were gay people with inherent civil rights living among them also grew.
Cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York and L.A. became gay meccas that attracted thousands of young men and women, many of whom were more comfortable with their sexuality than the average closeted American homosexual and who wanted to live more openly as the people they really were. There was an air of celebration in heavily gay districts of these cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the heady years before AIDS. It was a time when a week’s worth of antibiotics could fight off most STDs, and exploring and enjoying the sexual aspects of one’s homosexuality (because being a homosexual isn’t all about sex) didn’t amount to playing Russian Roulette with one’s immune system, as it seemed to be by the early to mid-1980s. Indeed, of the nine men in the cast of the play and the film, five of them (Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux) died of AIDS-related causes. This was not uncommon among gay male theatrical professionals who came of age in or before the 1980s. The numbers of brilliant Broadway and Hollywood actors, singers, dancers, directors and choreographers attacked by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is staggering.
When the film was made in 1970, all of the actors were warned by agents and others in the industry that they were committing professional suicide by playing openly gay characters, and indeed, several were typecast and did lose work as a result of their courageous choices. Of those nine men in the cast, the one who played the most overtly effeminate, campy queen of all (and who stole the show with his remarkable and endearing performance) was Cliff Gorman. He was a married heterosexual who later won a Tony playing comedian Lenny Bruce in the play “Lenny,” which went on to star Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Gorman was regularly accosted and accused of being a closeted gay man on the streets of New York by both straight and gay people, so believable and memorable was his performance in The Boys in the Band.
The play is very much an ensemble piece; some actors have smaller and more thankless roles with less scenery chewing, but it is clear that it was considered a collaborative effort by the cast and director. The enormous mutual respect and comfort of the characters with each other enriched their performances and made the story resonate more with audiences than it would have otherwise. The actors saw the film and play as defining moments in their lives when they took a stand and came out (whether gay or straight) as being willing to associate themselves with gay issues by performing in such a celebrated (and among some, notorious) work of art. When one of the other actors in the play, Robert La Tourneaux, who played the cowboy gigolo, became ill with AIDS, Cliff Gorman and his wife took La Tourneaux in and looked after him in his last days.
In featurettes about the making of the play and the film on the newly released DVD of the movie, affection and camaraderie among cast members are evident, as is a great respect for them by director William Friedkin. Those still alive to talk about it regard the show and the ensemble with great love. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating documentary on gays in Hollywood which is sometimes available for streaming on Netflix, The Boys in the Band offered “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”
According to Wikipedia, “Critical reaction was, for the most part, cautiously favorable. Variety said it ‘drags’ but thought it had ‘perverse interest.’ Time described it as a ‘humane, moving picture.’ The Los Angeles Times praised it as ‘unquestionably a milestone,’ but ironically refused to run its ads. Among the major critics, Pauline Kael, who disliked Friedkin and panned everything he made, was alone in finding absolutely nothing redeeming about it. She also never hesitated to use the word ‘fag’ in her writings about the film and its characters.”
Wikipedia goes on to say, “Vincent Canby of the New York Times observed, ‘There is something basically unpleasant . . . about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.'”
“In a San Francisco Chronicle review of a 1999 revival of the film, Edward Guthmann recalled, ‘By the time Boys was released in 1970 . . . it had already earned among gays the stain of Uncle Tomism.’ He called it ‘a genuine period piece but one that still has the power to sting. In one sense it’s aged surprisingly little — the language and physical gestures of camp are largely the same — but in the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that’s a good thing.'” Indeed it is.
Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.
Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,” “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.
As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.
Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
—A Christmas Carol
In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story. Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.
When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.
This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.
In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.
Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published on this day, 143 years ago.
When I was a teen, I used to read Shakespeare plays aloud with my mother, a high school English teacher, for fun during summer vacations. Mom and I tended toward the tragedies, but when my own daughter and I read Shakespeare’s plays during her high school summer vacations, we read most of his comedies together. We’d take two different well-footnoted editions of his works and our dog with us on a walk to the park. There the three of us would sit in the sunshine while Lily and I read through an act or two of As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Lily and I usually only got through one act a day because as we read, we compared the footnotes in each edition to better understand the allusions and puns and to get pronunciation suggestions along the way. Together we delighted in just how funny Shakespeare’s plays really are—how bawdy, how full of puns and mischief and made-up words his plays are! Lily had a knack for understanding Shakespeare, but we both benefited greatly from reading the footnotes so we could catch the jokes and puns and historical background that we otherwise would have missed. Pronunciation and word meanings have changed so much over 400 years that even Anglophiles and literature fans can miss a great deal of Shakespeare’s naughty wit without a bit of context.
This fascinating little video featuring English linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, gives examples of how Shakespeare’s plays sounded when spoken during the playwright’s own lifetime, and explains some of the jokes that modern audiences miss. Give it a listen.
Since I learned that Benedict Cumberbatch would play the title role in Britain’s National Theatre production of Hamlet this autumn, I’ve sought a way to justify another trip to London to see him on the stage. Happily, this week I was able to do the next best thing: I attended a special video presentation beamed from the Barbican Theatre in London to 1,400 sites around the world. The production wasn’t strictly live—I saw it delayed by a few hours to accommodate the time difference between London and Seattle—but it was exciting to know that it was a very fresh and special event.
The National Theatre’s staging of Shakespeare’s most popular play been a hugely successful one thanks to the justified popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch, who attained superstar status for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s exceptional Sherlock series, shown in the US as part of PBS’s Mystery series. This week’s initial showing of Hamlet in cinemas around the world drew the largest global audience for a live broadcast day of any title in National Theatre Live history; more than 225,000 people around the world saw the production in cinemas on the first day. More showings had already been scheduled in cinemas over the coming two weeks, but the first showing was so extraordinarily popular that more cinema presentations will be added during November.
I quite enjoyed the production, which also featured the compelling, charismatic Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Mance Rayder in HBO’s Game of Thrones; Julius Caesar in HBO’s ROME; Captain Wentworth in the splendid 1995 film version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion) as Hamlet’s uncle/step-father, Claudius. The video created and shared around the world this past week will be repeated in several Seattle cinemas over the next two weeks as well as in other locations around the world, so if you don’t mind sitting for 3-1/2 hours (including a 20-minute intermission) in a cinema, this is a beautiful production, well filmed.
There are quirks in this production that are entertaining or interesting to watch, but can be distracting in their oddness. Benedict Cumberbatch dressed like a soldier and playing at being at war in his oversized dollhouse flanked by giant toy soldiers is an unexpectedly lighthearted moment, and is fun to watch. Yet it is strange, and it feels not only out of character but like a maneuver meant to distance the audience from the action—this production has many anachronisms and bits of folderol meant to throw the audience off guard and to play up the staginess of the production instead of allowing us to enter Hamlet’s world and even his head, as productions of this play tend to do. It is the most introspective of Shakespeare’s plays, so to play it in a way that constantly underlines its very falseness and inauthenticity is at odds with the desires of the productions we are used to. But being shaken out of our complacency and surprised by theatrical antics is one of the things that live theater does best, so there is room for a production of this old chestnut that leaves us a bit confused and off-center. Hamlet is himself imbued with many awkward and uncomfortable traits, after all, so it makes some sense that his story should be similarly discomforting and confusing.
When Hamlet’s murderous step-father, Claudius, connives and justifies planning Hamlet’s destruction in Act IV, windows and doors blow in and the entire set becomes covered in what look like black flecks of decay, or leaves, or even shredded tires—who can say? There is no explanation, and the black bits overtake Hamlet’s world and remain on the stage for the rest of the play, in every setting, inside and out, with only small sections of stage swept clean at various points during the ensuing drama to create pathways or patches of light.
As the production wound down, Cumberbatch arose from the ground for his curtain call, bits of the mysterious dark schmutz still clinging to his face, neck and clothes. Did the particles symbolize doom, or Claudius’s corruption (and perhaps Hamlet’s, since he takes an innocent life and leads others toward death), or general decay? Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, but what exactly it is that overtakes the land is not clear.
Of all the strange and original conceits incorporated into this production, the willful and inconsistently applied anachronisms are the most noticeable and, to me, off-putting. Shakespeare’s plays are often adapted to take place in other time periods than the Elizabethan era, and such variations can be very effective. My favorite case in point is the excellent film adaptation of Richard III starring a stunningly malevolent Ian McKellen which took place in an alternate version of 1930s Britain overseen by fascist dictatorial rulers. In that case, setting the story in a historical period which is so recent and freighted with so much fascistic horror and menace made it feel particularly vivid, real and emotionally accessible.
This version of Hamlet is the first Shakespearean production I have seen that sticks to no particular time period but instead chooses to be willfully and inconsistently anachronistic, beginning with Hamlet listening to Nat King Cole’s haunting “Nature Boy” (which was recorded in 1948) on a record player in what seems to be the late 1940s or early 1950s. Hamlet is greeted by a modern hipster version of Horatio, complete with backpack, pegged jeans and body-covering tattoos; his clothes and glasses seem like they could possibly be contemporary with the Nat King Cole music, but the backpack and tattoos take him to the modern realm. Ophelia in her slouchy sweatshirts and high-waisted pants seems to be dressing in clothes from the 1980s or 1990s, while Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and her new husband (and former brother-in-law) Claudius are clothed in garb contemporary with the song by which Hamlet is captivated (and the strains of which return repeatedly during the production, acting almost as a theme song). The acting troupe to whom Hamlet gives acting lessons are dressed in 1970s gear, and Hamlet himself is often in more timeless, neutral clothing, except for his David Bowie “Aladdin Sane” T-shirt and a handpainted punk overcoat.
The anachronisms delighted my daughter, who felt they underscored the timelessness of the story and emphasized the point that Hamlet as we have come to know him is a man out of time. I see her point, yet I found that the anachronisms often jarred me out of being able to suspend my disbelief, which is something I crave in theatrical experiences, so I found it less immersive than I would have liked. Aside from that, however, I found Cumberbatch very skilled at making me feel that he was in the moment and experiencing life as Hamlet, and the sets, direction and music were very effective.
If you enjoy Cumberbatch, Hines or Hamlet, this is a worthy and thought-provoking production.
To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, let me share this delightful bit of his work (if he was indeed the author of the plays attributed to him). This performance is by Mark Rylance, who is considered by many to be the world’s greatest living Shakespearean actor—Stephen Fry believes him the best stage actor alive today.
Rylance, who has won Olivier, Tony and BAFTA awards for his acting, became the first director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 1995. It could have become a kitschy tourist attraction but he turned it into a true powerhouse of a theatrical company in the decade he spent at its helm. He is now the star of “Wolf Hall,” the BBC’s excellent production of the story of Tudor political genius Thomas Cromwell‘s tussles with King Henry VIII. The series is currently showing in installments on PBS in the U.S. (If you’ve missed the first few episodes you can still stream them online for a short while.) Rylance is famed for his simplicity and naturalism; he’s not showy, and this performance isn’t the rousing, bold performance you might expect if you’ve seen Kenneth Branagh or Laurence Olivier deliver this speech. I thought I’d give you a more subtle taste of the Bard of Avon. (Interestingly, Rylance and fellow Shakespearean great Derek Jacobidon’t believe Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare’s plays.”)
Every large city has parks or plazas where people in difficulty congregate. Some go there to commiserate with others who feel down and out; others go there looking for escapes from their pain. Drug deals clearly take place in these parks; it’s not unusual to find drug paraphernalia scattered around in some of them. Of course, not everyone who frequents such parks goes to them to break the law; people who gather there are looking for different ways to feel connected with others, to pass the time, to lessen their boredom or frustration or pain.
I rarely see women in these parks. It is easy to imagine that the men who spend their time there often feel disenfranchised and powerless, so when they gather in parks or plazas they often posture in front of others, commenting on the women who pass through their midst, calling out to females in the cars that drive past and generally making us feel, if not unsafe, then at the very least uncomfortable. There is a noticeably macho atmosphere in such places, so showing respect to women is less common there than are displays of sexual attention and bravado.
In Seattle, there are several downtown parks like this where a woman walking alone during daylight hours might feel uncomfortable. When I walk past them I don’t feel endangered, just conspicuous. When women walk by, all eyes turn to us. The men there make comments when I walk by, just as they do to most women who pass within a half block.
Last weekend I was in the part of the city that gave the world the term “skid row”—what is now Yesler Way in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle was originally a “skid road,” a path along which timber workers skidded logs in the 19th century. This part of town boasts many attractive Victorian buildings converted into art galleries; it also has many bars and missions that serve the large numbers of homeless and poor people in the area. While I was in a Pioneer Square building, I became flooded with difficult memories. I was so overcome that I needed to walk outside to avoid drawing attention as my face crumpled and tears began to well up in my eyes. There was no nearby alley to duck into, no public restroom, no bench to sit on or doorway to enter that wouldn’t expose me to strangers who would notice my distress. But there was a park a half-block away, and I walked toward it in hopes of finding an open bench where I could sit for a few minutes until I regained my composure.
This park is an open plaza without much in the way of benches since public seating tends to encourage homeless people to look for a place to sleep, and city governments tend to discourage such behavior. The only place I could find to rest that wasn’t taken was a large flowerpot with a rim big enough to lean against. I saw that there were clusters of men in the plaza but I assumed that if they saw me with my head down they wouldn’t bother to speak to me. I was wrong. One tried to make conversation with me from a distance but I didn’t look up from my handkerchief. He sounded slightly offended when I didn’t respond, as if he thought I’d entered his territory and then hadn’t had the courtesy to acknowledge him. He came closer and made another comment, this one about my looks. It was not unkind but not what I wanted. I realized that I’d entered his turf and I was the odd one out in that situation, and that if I didn’t respond in some way I might attract more attention or hear negative comments about what might be seen as my arrogance or contempt. So I wiped my eyes and looked up.
I said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble today.” With that, he and another young man walked up to me and immediately said how sorry they were, and how they hated to see me crying. One walked close to me, and as he spoke I saw that he was missing his two front teeth. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old; the other, taller man was about the same age. The toothless man said to me that he wished he could cry, but that he couldn’t anymore; he had clearly seen so much pain that he felt all cried out. I wiped my eyes and told him I was so sorry that he was hurting. He thanked me and nodded. I said, “There must be a lot of pain in this park, huh?” And he and his friend nodded and said, “Oh yeah, a lot of pain.” Then he said that I needed to know that things were going to be getting better, and that there were people who were going to be there for me, and he spread his arms wide, swooped in and gave me a big hug. I told him I wished things would get better for him soon and that I hoped he’d find comfort. Then he smiled and walked away, and his tall friend came closer. He said that he could see that I just needed to have faith, and that he could tell that things would be better for me soon, and he blessed me. I said “Thank you, sir, for your help. Bless you, too.” He said he was glad he could be there for me, and he wished me well as I walked away.
I keep thinking about those exchanges, and how for those moments in time, our ages, our races, our genders, our economic circumstances made no difference to us. These young men saw me hurting and came to comfort me. I acknowledged that their attention was kind, and they gave me respect and courtesy. They treated me not like an outsider who didn’t belong but as a human being who deserved dignity and help. In many places in this country they would be reviled and assumed to be thugs or criminals because of their appearance, but the men I spoke with were gracious and gentle. They’d seen trouble and understood sadness, and they didn’t judge me or assume that my difference in personal circumstances made me undeserving of sympathy. Our exchange was all about honoring the humanity and dignity in each other, recognizing that we have no right to judge what causes others pain, and that we can all do something to help others to bear their burdens. I felt a little embarrassed showing pain in their presence because it’s not hard to imagine that the circumstances of their lives have brought them more suffering and frustrations than I am ever likely to know. But not for one moment did I feel that they judged me unworthy of their compassion, nor did they ever show the slightest bit of disdain or outwardly assume that my troubles were less pressing than theirs.
These young men showed empathy in its purest form. They didn’t ask why I was sad; the reason didn’t matter. They didn’t need to figure out whether I was worthy based on my situation. To them I was worthy of help simply because I was a human being. They gave me, a total stranger, the most beautiful gifts they could: honor and compassion. Merely acknowledging the people around me in a public park elicited such kindness from them. I’m grateful that they were there for me and that they reminded me that my troubles were temporary, and that there are good people all around us.
At the end of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois descends into madness, and as she is being led away to the insane asylum, she famously, pitifully says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Don’t we all?
Even those of us in penthouse suites or gated communities, ivory towers or walnut-paneled boardrooms depend on the social compact to keep strangers from breaking down our doors or threatening us on the street. To stay safe, warm, well-fed and employed and to get around and go where we must we depend on strangers not only to avoid harming us but to go out of their ways to help us do what we need to do. We worry about violence and tut over stories of criminal behavior that we hear on the news, but for most of us, being a victim of crime is an uncommon occurrence. We are sheltered, we are lucky, we are, most of us, trying hard not to hurt others or be hurt ourselves. We all depend upon the kindness of strangers. We just don’t realize how much effort is made by others every day to make room for us in a world that is more theirs than ours. We are each only one of seven billion, after all, and nearly all the others in this world have less invested in our health and happiness than we do. Yet, we we live alongside each other and make way for the needs of strangers every day.
This weekend two kind strangers proved how much invisible goodwill surrounds me. I was humbled by their kindness, but also elevated—by looking up into their faces I became part of something greater than myself. I felt disconnected and hollow when I walked into their park; they reminded me that even on Skid Row, one can find connection, beauty and mercy.
Recently I’ve been listening to a song that’s been around for a half-century but which was made fresh and new to me when I heard Alan Cumming sing it last June in the latest Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret. It’s a jaded, cynical song sung by a character who pretends to feel no pain and who appears to be inured to the ugliness of the world. But the power of the performance comes from the realization that, while the prostitute singing the song may no longer seem to care what he (or she) has to do to get by, that purported apathy comes after years of suffering and having experienced so much pain and loss that no longer caring almost seems like a blessing:
I don’t care much Go or stay I don’t care very much Either way Hearts grow hard On a windy street Lips grow cold With the rent to meet So if you kiss me If we touch Warning’s fair I don’t care very much
“I Don’t Care Much,” like other songs in that brilliant musical, underscores the desperation and fear that led people living in Berlin under Nazi rule to try to blot out reality with a bit of naughty pleasure, and sometimes to lose their hearts (and maybe souls) to apathy or pretense in order to try to imagine away evils that they couldn’t bear to fight or even face.
When performed in the 1993, 1998 and 2014-15 Sam Mendes-directed Broadway productions of Cabaret, the song is sung with great bravado by an actor in drag. When I sit down to sing it at the piano, I like to do it more quietly, with restraint and softness, to underscore the fact that the singer may no longer feel so much, but she or he recognizes the tragedy in the loss of caring. The person telling the story may not feel whole and complete anymore, but he does remember that once there was a heart beating within him that could care. There is still a soul within that registers the loss. I can never be a person who does not care much, so when I sing the song, I must be a person who pretends not to care.
After singing the song so much this week, I got to thinking about some of the classic popular songs I love that are sung by or about prostitutes. It seems an odd theme for a pop song, I know, but really, aren’t a vast number of popular songs about lost love and the pain that comes from longing? Think about how many songs are about people’s desperate search for an escape from loneliness, or about the bliss that comes from feeling a deep and true connection to another person after a tormented period of hopelessness. People often think of prostitutes as dirty, dangerous and jaded, but their profession exists to offer the promise of pleasure and escape from the pain of the world. Their job is to sell a bit of themselves for a little while to people who are desperate to connect, to feel something deep and real, to feel cared for and soothed and satisfied for a sliver of time before they go back out into the freezing night, rushing to their homes, hoping to avoid being seen by those who would crush and destroy them for having the audacity to believe in whatever pleasure and happiness they can find (or pretend to find) in a dark and dirty world.
Guilt, shame and social ostracism are braided into the fiber of their lives; they exist to provide comfort and to satisfy elemental longings, but they are despised and punished for providing services that are both desperately sought after and deeply reviled. Theirs is a jaded, bitter corner of the world of longing and desire, and that is what makes their songs and stories so dramatic and powerful a counterpoint to the light and airy songs we usually associate with love. Drama comes from contrasts. In order for the spotlight to shimmer brightly, it must be surrounded by dark shadows to set it off.
I first saw the film version of the musical Cabaret when I was just nine. My outgoing mother liked to take me along with her as often as possible when she socialized, so despite the adult nature of the film, she and a friend brought me along to see Cabaret. I dutifully covered my ears and closed my eyes on command whenever Mom turned to me and whispered “PG! PG!” or “Parental guidance time!” The whole film was infused with a bawdy, mysterious sexuality far beyond my understanding, but it was compelling and fascinating enough that I enjoyed every lurid, intoxicating moment of it. It cleverly incorporated stories within stories, and it was full of great Bob Fosse dance numbers and catchy, seemingly lighthearted nightclub songs that were invested with deeper, uglier meanings. The songs reflected and expanded on the stories of the main characters and had scary parallels to the Nazi-inflicted horrors going on in the streets of Berlin just outside the doors of the cabaret.
The story is essentially about the unwillingness of many Germans (and many foreigners then living in Berlin) to acknowledge the growing danger of Hitler’s leadership in the early 1930s, and about the political apathy and, ultimately, the fear that fueled German society’s acceptance of inhumanity and depravity. The musical play, which is based on John van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 book of stories called Goodbye to Berlin, is about the sickness that grows in a culture and in the hearts of its citizens when they refuse to see what is going on around them and refuse to look after each other out of fear for their own welfare. The musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb are perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of 1930s Berlin, and are gems in and of themselves. They also expand on, deepen and enrich the power of the story in ways that few composers for musical theater ever achieve.
The team of Kander and Ebb had a wonderful knack for drinking in the style and feel of the music of the past and then creating their own versions of those songs so that they felt completely authentic but were also entirely original. John Kander has said that when he was preparing to compose the music for plays like Chicago (which takes place in the 1920s) or Cabaret (which is set in the 1930s), he liked to immerse himself in the music of the time and listen to it so fully, deeply and constantly that it filled his brain. He then put it aside completely for a while and let it marinate and stew, and then when he began to write, the influences and motifs of that time period would wend their ways into his songs naturally, so he could compose comfortably in a fashion that had gone out of style forty years before. He was so masterful at it that a number of his songs, which seem so appropriate in the context of their original plays, went on to be popular standards that can stand on their own—songs like “Mein Herr,” “Cabaret,” Wilkommen,” “New York, New York” and “All That Jazz.”
The song “I Don’t Care Much” was written for the original Broadway production of Cabaret, but it was cut from the film version. I saw a stage production of the show featuring Joel Grey (the Tony- and Oscar-winning original Emcee) over 25 years ago, but the song never stuck with me until I saw Alan Cumming sing it last June in full drag in the astounding revival of Cabaret that is currently finishing up its run at Studio 54. When he stood at the microphone in his shimmering dress and heavy makeup, he was mesmerizing. Previous Sam Mendes-directed revivals of Cabaret starring Alan Cumming were staged in London in 1993 and in New York in 1998; the video above was excerpted from the 1993 production. Mendes’s dark, lurid style of staging the show works splendidly to underscore the tatty, raw, dangerous quality of life lived by those who spent their time in Berlin’s dark underbelly during the 1930s. The costumes are ripped, the makeup is smeared, the voices are gritty and the desperate quality of the characters is more evident and affecting than in the prettier, cleaner film version and earlier stage productions.
Alan Cumming said in his excellent interview with Terry Gross on her NPR radio show “Fresh Air” that he came up with a back story for his Emcee character in which he started off as a young male prostitute and worked his way into the cabaret life, so as a former rent-boy he has no fancy graces, and no desire to hide his voracious sexual appetites or comfort with the seedier side of life. In earlier productions of the show, Joel Grey held every eye and commanded attention with his strange, sexless, voyeuristic portrayal of the Emcee: he was an outsider laughing and smirking at the performers and the audience in a detached, amoral way. Alan Cumming’s version is immersed in the world of the cabaret, reveling in it, tainted by it, and ravaged by sex and drugs and decadence. The outsider Emcee of Joel Grey acted like a Greek chorus, pointing us at the depths of degradation others went to to shield their eyes from the ugliness of the outside world. Alan Cumming’s Emcee is drenched in underworld decadence and is ultimately pulled down and destroyed by it, as are all the others who could not escape from the decadent, dangerous world they were trapped in.
Cumming stands at the microphone in the dark and sings the song of a weary, degraded prostitute stripped of feeling by a sick and dangerous world, no longer caring what he must do to make enough money to eat or pay the rent or buy a coat thick enough to keep out winter’s chill. At first, as he stands in a dress and full makeup, the audience sometimes laughs at his outlandishness, thinking this is just another lark, a humorous way to remind us of the fluid and open sexuality of decadent pre-World-War-II Berliners. But in short order, his rough voice tells us that his kisses mean nothing. His comforts can be bought as a way to keep shoes on his feet and food in his stomach, but they mean little more to him:
Words sound false When your coat’s too thin Feet don’t waltz When the roof caves in So if you kiss me If we touch Warning’s fair I don’t care very much
Love for sale, Appetizing young love for sale. Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled, Love that’s only slightly soiled, Love for sale. Who will buy? Who would like to sample my supply? Who’s prepared to pay the price, For a trip to paradise? Love for sale.
The song was banned from the radio in the 1930s, but it became a hit for multiple artists in the following two years nonetheless, and it has been recorded by scores of major singers in the decades since. Even k.d. lang and Fine Young Cannibals put their stamp on the song. The faded, jaded quality deepens as the song progresses:
Let the poets pipe of love in their childish way, I know every type of love Better far than they. If you want the thrill of love, I’ve been through the mill of love; Old love, new love Every love but true love.
During her 2011 tour, Broadway star Idina Menzel sang the song as a bored-sounding, lite-jazz mashup with another prostitution-related song, “Roxanne,” by The Police. Most of us know the driving, original version of the plaintive call by a lover to his streetwalker sweetheart to give up her career to be with him and him alone. However, my favorite version is a gorgeous, stripped down solo version sung by Sting in the filmed version of the 1981 Amnesty International benefit concert called The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. In it, Sting, accompanied only but his own spare, loose guitar playing, wails with so much more hopeless yearning than in the original song. His pain is greater, and his angst is so thick it hangs in the air and echoes along with his desperate voice. The performance is a tour de force that still gives me chills.
Elvis Costello is not the only musician in his family who can sing despairingly of the shattered dreams and desperate acts of those who walk the streets for money. His wife, jazz pianist and chanteuse Diana Krall, does a stunning version of the 1933 hit song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” No, not the song by Green Day—I mean the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic that starts like this:
I walk along the street of sorrow The boulevard of broken dreams Where gigolo and gigolette Can take a kiss without regret So they forget their broken dreams You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow When you behold your shattered schemes Gigolo and gigolette Wake up to find their eyes are wet With tears that tell of broken dreams
Gigolos and gigolettes were considered just one step, if that, from prostitution. A gigolo is, by definition, a man who seeks the company and monetary support of wealthy people (usually women) who pay him for his charms. The term came about in the 1920s as a back-formation from the term “gigolette,” which then referred to a woman hired to be a dancing partner (and sometimes something more). This song is often sung with swelling passion and force, such as in the 1952 version by Tony Bennett, but I think the slow, melting version sung by crackle-voiced alto Diana Krall is the most haunting version of them all. Its restraint is more inviting and much sexier than the bolder, brighter Tony Bennett version. As famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee said, always leave your audience wanting more.
It may seem contrarian of me to write about the darker, sadder side of love and desire just in time for Valentine’s Day, but so many of the richest, deepest songs about love are the ones based on loss and longing. If you find yourself feeling scarred or let down by life and love over the Valentine’s Day weekend, know this: you are not alone, and the pain of lost love will heal. Skip the new film about the sadist whose stalking, assault and abuse of a young virgin are painted as “romantic” by a passion-starved populace. Instead, drown your sorrows in a few of these songs about the darker side of love, and then get up, go out and be the loving, kind and openhearted sort of person you’re looking for. Acts of loving kindness set in motion by good-hearted people reverberate through time; they are carried in the hearts of the people whom we touch with our love long after we ourselves are gone. Enjoy these angst-filled musical gems, but don’t let yourself become jaded. Be your best self and keep loving.
“No little children love me. I’m told they play at Peter Pan, and the strongest always chooses to be Peter. They force the baby to be Hook. The baby—that’s where the canker gnaws.”
Last night’s U.S. television broadcast of “Peter Pan Live!” underscored what I have always believed—no other actor, not even one as entertaining as Christopher Walken, can compete with Australian actor Cyril Ritchard‘s memorable and marvelous turn as Captain Hook. That voice! That face! That prancing, preening charismatic villainy! Ritchard WAS Hook for me, and always will be. His was the voice on the 1954 original Broadway cast recording, and Ritchard’s roguish delivery and outrageous campiness earned him a Tony Award for this performance. Ritchard was also the star of another favorite Broadway musical, “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.”