Broadway Musical Fans, Here’s a Book Recommendation for You!

SHOWSTOPPERS! by Gerald Nachman: one singular sensation of a Broadway book!

If you love musicals – and I’ve loved them my whole life – then have I got a book for you!  Run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore, or better yet log onto your Amazon account, and check out SHOWSTOPPERS! by Gerald Nachman.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing about the back story of how theatrical works are put together.  In this book, Gerald Nachman presents a fascinating, detailed, beautifully researched account of Broadway hit songs and the legions of people who made them happen.

For example, have you ever heard of a 1964 Broadway show called A Damned Exasperating Woman?  Of course not.  That’s because, after Jerry Herman wrote a song that Louis Armstrong liked so much he recorded and released it before the show in question opened.  The song became such a hit it was decided that the show should be named for the song.  Its title?  Hello, Dolly!    The new revival that just opened, starring Bette Midler,  is breaking box office records right now, 53 years later, and while Louis Armstrong is long gone (and missed), we’re all still singing that song.

The back story of the music of Hello, Dolly! is just one of the dozens of fabulous behind-the-scenes-to-before-the-floodlights chapters in this book.  Ever wonder about the differences between the partnerships of Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein?  Curious about the real Annie Oakley, who inspired the Irving Berlin musical Annie, Get Your Gun, which was written with Ethel Merman in mind?  Want to find out more about another Annie, the one who was adopted by Daddy Warbucks?  Then this is the book for you.

The chapter that I personally found the most interesting is the one about the song “Wilkommen” in Cabaret.  But let me back up here.  I found the record one day when I was home sick from school as a kid, played the songs and adored them from that point on.  I’ve always particularly loved “Wilkommen,” where the Emcee of a Weimar Berlin cabaret, played by Joel Grey, welcomes the guests in German, English and French.  The song is at once a great show tune and a miniature language lesson in the bargain.  But keep in mind, the first time I played the song, I heard it.  I did not see it acted on a stage.  I didn’t know Joel Grey came out on the stage wearing bizarre make-up.  Until reading SHOWSTOPPERS!, I did not realize that the number, the first in the show, was staged to deliberately set a creepy tone for the audience and let them know what kind of theatrical evening they were in for.  Those who missed seeing many of these classics performed live  the first time around will surely welcome the chance to hear these stories.  They’re certainly giving me a new appreciation of many of my old cast albums.

This book is a treat.  Love Broadway?  Go for it!

 

IN ORDER TO LIVE by Yeonmi Park

IN ORDER TO LIVE by Yeonmi Park. Eye-opening on so many levels!

Want to know details on what’s going on in North Korea?  Read IN ORDER TO LIVE: A NORTH KOREAN GIRL’S JOURNEY TO FREEDOM by Yeonmi Park.

This is a horrifying book.  It begins in North Korea, where Yeonmi’s family cannot get ahead because they’re in the wrong political “caste,” and where their straits are increasingly  dire.  There’s a famine.  There’s the arrest of Yeonmi’s enterprising father, who was utilizing some unorthodox methods to make ends meet.  There are problems regarding the bribing of officials, medical staff, train conductors, and all sorts of people.  North Korea is a country where just about everybody who works anywhere has got their hands out in some direction, often, as in the case of the medical personnel little Yeonmi had to contend with when she was in the hospital, expecting a payoff simply for doing their jobs.

But just when you think the girl’s problems might be over after she crosses a frozen river on a cold winter night and escapes to China, they don’t!  It’s when she and her mother leave North Korea behind, and wind up in China as illegal aliens, that even more horrors begin…

As always, I don’t want to add any spoilers and reveal too much of the rest of the story.  I just want to recommend it, and add that it’s a “doozie.”  Read it if you’re not faint of heart and want to find out more about what the North Koreans go through.

God bless Yeonmi and her family, and the people they left behind in North Korea as well.

And P.S.: Shame on China for not doing a whole lot more to help North Korean economic refugees!  The horrors the illegal North Koreans were put through would not exist if China would have the balls to show them some mercy.  Come on, China – step up to the plate!

Lucille Ball Would Have Been Perfect in a Non-Musical Remake of “AUNTIE MAME”

Lucille Ball as the lovable character “MAME.”

Lucille Ball, they say, was terribly miscast in the title role of the movie MAME.  It’s been uttered so many times you’d think it was a universal truth.  “Lucy was too old.”  “Lucy couldn’t sing.”  “Angela Lansbury played it better on Broadway.”  I could  recite the list of reasons why they say she shouldn’t have done it the way she did it in my sleep.

And yet…

If you take away the distracting, and ridiculous, soft-focus shots they used to film her close-ups, which the movie could well have done without,  and if the singing numbers had been dubbed, what would you have?  The lady’s acting in the role of irrepressible, unconventional “Mame Dennis” can hardly be faulted.  She nails every scene, and not as a “Lucy Ricardo” type, either.  If I hadn’t grown up on “I Love Lucy” reruns, I never even would have guessed this part was played by the same actress.

Take the scene where she’s fired from the department store.  She’s tried on the roller skates to demonstrate them for her handsome customer, “Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside.”  She gets fired from the job.  She can’t get out of the skates because she’s knotted the laces.

What does Mame do?  Well, first let’s look at what she ought to do, what anyone else in her position back then would have done.  After all, it’s a scene set in 1929, she’s broke, the world is a different, stuffier place, and to be a lady accidentally on skates out in public in a store is supposed to be mightily embarrassing.  Yet watch the scene.  The character holds herself up high, as if being stuck in those skates is an honor, not a disaster.  She makes it look deliberate, a matter of pride, yet it’s all subtly done.

I imitated her stance for years, after seeing this movie as a child, whenever I got myself into a bit of a jam.  If life gives you lemons, stand tall, even if you’re five foot one, like me, and make some lemonade, folks.  Wherever you are, Lucy, thank you so much for that scene!

I only wish that Lucy had tried to make a remake of AUNTIE MAME, the non-musical movie version of the same basic story that was made in the 1950’s and starred Rosalind Russell.  Yes, Lucy in the musical was a mistake, but if she had starred in AUNTIE MAME, sans the unnecessary gauzy close-ups and songs, I think she’d have been remembered well for it, and rather than going down in motion picture history as something of a bad joke, it would be remembered as a good movie.

And let me add this: I hate it that Lucy took abuse for this movie!  Her version was the very first one I saw of this story, so Lucy was “my Mame.”  The joy and love and fun of this movie gave me a whole new perspective – and even got me through several godawful years at a terrible, abusive school.  Wherever you are, I say, BRAVA, Lucy!  Just wish I could have told you in person.

 

Stunning in every outfit: Lucy as MAME.

AMERICAN HEIRESS by Jeffrey Toobin

AMERICAN HEIRESS tells the bizarre story of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

Do you remember the Patty Hearst kidnapping?  I certainly do!  It happened while I was in the seventh grade, and it was the major news story of 1974, at least until Nixon resigned.  It got even more attention than the latest hilarious craze: streaking.  That kidnapping was a crazy story of countercultural revolutionaries run amok and had more twists and turns than a snake.

Patricia Hearst, grandchild of ultra-wealthy newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was first kidnapped from her apartment by a group calling themselves the “Symbionese Liberation Army.”  It was an interesting title.  “Symbionese” is not a word, and that was one of the first things I remember hearing about the story after Patricia was taken.

What happened next, after Patricia was forcibly removed from her home at gunpoint, is still a source of some debate.  Her parents were instructed by the Symbionese Liberation Army to give food packages to the poor as a “good faith gesture” to ensure the 19-year-old’s release. Meanwhile, they kept Patricia locked in a closet, blindfolded, where she was justifiably terrified.  Some of the kidnappers took turns sitting outside of the closet door and subjected her to anti-American and Marxist harangues.  These were violent people, involved in not only this kidnapping but others, carjackings, bank robberies, and even a murder, yet they didn’t like “society” and wanted to “transform” it.  (Into what?)  Patricia, stuck in a closet, had no choice but to listen to this stream of nonsense.  Within a few weeks, the case took its first incomprehensible turn when Patricia claimed she had decided to join that “Army” of the people who had kidnapped her, and didn’t wish to be released.  What the…?

Even as it happened, the country was captivated by the seeming mystery of it.  I recall a very horrible tape playing on the radio of Patricia calling her parents “those pigs the Hearsts,” not long after they gave away a fortune in food to the poor to try to ensure her safe return.  I was twelve years old – and appalled.  Why would Patricia turn against her own parents, who had spent a fortune on the food giveaway in the hopes of “ransoming” her, and toward her kidnappers?  Why would she side with this spooky, shadowy Symbionese Liberation Army, anyway, after they burst into her house with a gun?  Did she really mean what she said, or was it possible that she had been brainwashed?

And just as the rest of us, all over the country, were wondering about those questions, the situation became even more convoluted about a month later: Patricia took the revolutionary name of “Tania,” then joined her new “comrades” in robbing a bank!  There was even a security tape to prove it.

Last weekend when I saw Jeffrey Toobin’s book,  AMERICAN HEIRESS: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patricia Hearst, had come out in paperback and was sitting on a table at my favorite Barnes & Noble, I eagerly bought it.  It’s an impeccably researched book – bravo, Mr. Toobin! – and brought back a flood of memories.  I can vividly recall reading about the case in a “Weekly Reader” in my mint-green-painted 7th grade Social Studies class, though I can’t remember much else of what we read that year in that little publication; seeing another article about it at my grandfather’s house, in a magazine that had Patricia as “Tania” on the cover, holding a gun; watching the news footage when a house that was surrounded by the FBI was burning down, with many of the “Army,” but not Patricia, still in it…

Nobody knew what to make of Patricia’s “transformation” into a “revolutionary” at the time, and no one is sure what to think about it even yet.  Yet Jeffrey Toobin’s book brings up a whole other mystery about the case of which I wasn’t aware until I read it.  The so-called “Symbionese Liberation Army” turned out to be comprised not of legions of units of soldiers but of eight young discontented assorted nuts.  There had been ten, but two were in jail for a murder they didn’t commit.  It was three of the members who kidnapped Patricia who were the real murderers.

These people were the oddest collection of malcontents imaginable.  The leader, for example, is a prison escapee, often drunk, who was believed to be a schizophrenic by a prison psychiatrist, so you can imagine what kind of people were his acolytes.  The descriptions of each one are fascinating to read, though reminiscent of watching a train wreck, where you don’t want to see it, but you can’t look away, either.  AMERICAN HEIRESS is a page-turner and a jaw-dropper.  What a cast of characters!  And after reading about the members of this, ahem, “army,” there’s a new riddle to add to all the others about the unreal saga, and it’s this.  How did those eight lunatics manage to summon the logic to pull off any crimes in the first place, with guns, yet, without anyone shooting themselves in the feet?

This book needs to be made into a movie!

Splendiferous Movie Recommendation: HIDDEN FIGURES

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in HIDDEN FIGURES.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in HIDDEN FIGURES.

Would you like to see a movie that will make you stand up and cheer, and not just once, but several times?  Then I can’t recommend a better one than HIDDEN FIGURES!

It’s 1961, and the United States is in a mad competition with the Soviet Union to win the “space race.”  Far behind the scenes, three gutsy and incredibly gifted African American women are working as human “computers” at NASA in Virginia.  Their talents are being well utilized by the powers that be…but the unenlightened time period is such that the ladies, and the rest of their friends in the Computing division, are being subjected to one segregated indignity after another…

I never like to include “spoilers” in blog posts about shows and movies so I don’t want to say too much more about the plot of this wonderful and layered film, except that the three lead actresses are terrific.  Katherine, played by Taraji P. Henson, is a mathematical genius and also a widow raising three lovely little girls; that Janelle Monae, as Mary Jackson, dreams of becoming an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, is already working as her unit’s unofficial supervisor but has yet to get officially promoted.  Oh, and in addition, they’re all part of the team at NASA that’s frantically trying to get a man on the moon…

I’m already planning  to see this movie again, I liked it so much.  HIDDEN FIGURES won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble Cast.  It’s also rightfully been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and so is Octavia Spencer, for Best Supporting Actress.  My only wish is that Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae  could have been nominated as well, because they were equally superb.  Kevin Costner is also fascinating to watch as Katherine’s initially-remote boss.

Meanwhile, get out of the house and go to see HIDDEN FIGURES.  These ladies will remind you that it’s always a good idea to reach for the stars!

Here’s the trailer: HIDDEN FIGURES

 

Where in the World Is Bob Dylan?

One of the many portraits of Bob Dylan by his old girlfriend, Faridi McFree.

One of the many portraits of Bob Dylan by his old girlfriend, Faridi McFree.

My late, great friend, Faridi McFree, who was one of Bob Dylan’s many girlfriends, wanted to make a cartoon show based on him.  Since his real name was Robert Zimmerman, she decided the main character of the show would be a little “Heartoon” she named “Zimmie the Zipper.”  This was because, she related, he was “all zipped up” when it came to communicating with other people.

I’ll say!  You nailed it, Faridi!  Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, but the Nobel people can not find him!  Where in the world is Bob Dylan?  And why can’t he simply acknowledge his prize?  Could it be that he really is all zipped up?

You know, it would be great if Faridi’s “Heartoon” about “Zimmie the Zipper” could be considered worth another look by  television producers.  She had a great little idea for a cartoon series there, and it was a shame it was never moved forward.

And by the way, if you’re interested, or were wondering, zipped up or not, Faridi loved Bob Dylan until the day she died.

Now where in the world is he?  Carmen Sandiego would be easier to find…

Faridi McFree, whose cartoon series idea about "Zimmie the Zipper," based on Bob Dylan, deserves another look. Television producers, take note!

Faridi McFree, whose cartoon series idea about “Zimmie the Zipper,” based on Bob Dylan, deserves another look. Hey, Mr. Producer!  I’m talking to you, sir!  Take note!

 

The Latest JonBenet Book Should Have Been the First: WE HAVE YOUR DAUGHTER

The new book on the JonBenet Ramsey case that the public has needed all along.

The new book on the JonBenet Ramsey case by Paula Woodward.  This is the one the public has needed all along.

By all rights I shouldn’t be writing this blog post about the new JonBenet Ramsey case book yet.  I shouldn’t be sitting here putting this up on the Internet because at this moment I’m only halfway through the book and nowhere near finished reading it, though not for lack of trying since I can’t put it down.

Be that as it may, it’s got me so steamed that I can’t resist writing what I’ve found in the first half of it already.  Everybody who’s ever wondered about this case has got to read this particular book.

The book is WE HAVE YOUR DAUGHTER by Paula Woodward.  Paula is a Colorado investigative journalist who was involved with covering this case from the very beginning.  She regularly talked to the late Patsy Ramsey.  She had access to the JonBenet Ramsey “murder book” kept by the police about the investigation.  She knows the players personally, the police, the politicians in Colorado, the Ramsey family and friends.  She’s also one fantastic and refreshingly thorough reporter.

I’ve been watching several of the new specials on the JonBenet case the past couple of weeks and one thing that has been bothering me is the never-ending concentration so many of them have on one of the cellar windows, the broken one, that may have given an intruder access to the Ramsey house.  This was the window to the room where a suitcase was found.  For some reason I always thought the suitcase was found in the same cellar room as JonBenet’s body.

Not so.  It was in a storage room on the other side of the cellar.  JonBenet was found in a different room.  Woodward’s book comes complete with diagrams of every floor of the house.

About the house…the whole reason I’ve been bugged lately about that cellar window the media never stops harping about is that the Ramseys lived in a 15-room house.  Surely, I had started to think right before this new book was delivered, there must have been more ways for some creep to enter that 15-room edifice beyond that one window in the cellar.

Take a look.  Here’s the oft-photographed front entrance to the house:

Ramsey house, front entrance.

Ramsey house, front entrance.

And here is the rarely photographed back:

What a difference a another view makes!

What a difference a another view makes!

Just look at this photo!  Look at all those windows, so low to the ground.  Did you know the house had 100 windows?  That there were eight possible points of entry? That many of the windows and doors weren’t locked?  That the burglar alarm wasn’t one because the Ramseys, foolishly, didn’t bother to use it?   That neighbors, and one of the friends who came to the house on the morning the child’s body was found, saw a door that was ajar?  That JonBenet, and her brother Burke, both had second-floor bedrooms with doors leading to outdoor balconies?  That the parents also had a room with a balcony and a door on the third floor?

Paula Woodward brings out all of these points, plus a whole lot more.  JonBenet was injured with a blunt object.  Did you know that there was a dark-colored baseball bat, found outside on the property after the murder, that didn’t belong to anyone in the Ramsey family?  Woodward includes a black-and-white police picture of it.  It is a very disturbing sight.  Was this the object used to kill that little girl?  Wouldn’t it have made perfect sense, if it was, for whoever did it to have tossed the bat outside of the house afterwards?  I read about the bat, and the rest of this stuff, on Friday, then tossed and turned the entire night.  Why wasn’t all of this this publicized?

The police.  That’s why.

Here’s where I started to really get furious.  Woodward found that a lot of the “information” released to the public about the case was, deliberately, bogus.  The Boulder PD had “decided” the Ramseys “did it” and wouldn’t let go of this pet theory.  They were telling the public outright lies to make the Ramseys look as hideous as possible.  Patsy Ramsey’s appearances on television – made, Woodward reveals, while Patsy was operating under heavy-duty medical sedation – had already made her look bizarre, but the powers that be in Boulder were making things far worse.  They said they hadn’t interviewed the family, when they had.  They said Patsy wouldn’t give them DNA samples, when she had.  They insinuated there was something suspicious in the death of John Ramsey’s daughter from a previous marriage.  That daughter had been killed in a car accident involving a truck.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with the book for the moment.  I’ll write more  once I’ve finished reading the rest of this well-done book.  However, this story, at last, is finally in the hands of a writer who is capable of exploding one Ramsey myth after another, and it’s about time.  The more that get stripped away, the clearer the picture seems to look.

Brava, Ms. Woodward!  Let’s hope it helps lead to a resolution!