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!

 

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.

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!

 

Riveting Movie: SNOWDEN

SNOWDEN the movie.

Poster for SNOWDEN the movie.

As far as movie-going went, this weekend I went from the sublime – QUEEN OF KATWE – to the disturbing.  The second film I saw was SNOWDEN.

SNOWDEN, the new movie about whistleblower Edward Snowden who revealed the extent of American and international cyber-spying by leaking the story to journalists, exceeded my expectations.  I found myself hanging on every word.

Snowden is played beautifully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Rhys Ifans plays Corbin O’Brian, his instructor at a CIA training facility in Virginia.  O’Brian is not entirely honest with Snowden, who doesn’t quite realize what he’s gotten himself into.

SNOWDEN snowballs.  It starts out kind of slowly and just keeps rolling along, gathering steam.  A colleague calls Edward Snowden “Snow White,” and it’s rather fitting, since he doesn’t realize the extent of how far government agencies are spying on people.  The audience will be shocked as well.  Someone sitting at a desk in Switzerland can see into the room where you’ve left your computer on?  Uh-oh!

What elevates this movie beyond the usual techno-thriller is the relationship between Snowden and Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley, an actress I first became aware of when she was in the American Girls colonial movie FELICITY.  Snowden has to leave his Lindsay if he’s going to warn the world about what’s going on with the NSA and the CIA and a whole host of other organizations and companies.  He can’t tell her much of what is going on or why it’s so disturbing to him.  At times she thinks he’s paranoid, but still, her loyalty to him is just plain beautiful to see.  The two are a great onscreen couple, so the knowledge that Snowden will have to leave her leads you to sit there feeling a great big sense of “ouch” – but keep watching.

Oliver Stone is the director, and as usual he didn’t disappoint.  Be on the lookout for the way that Snowden gets quite a collection of classified info out of the bunker-like facility where he works, too.  This is a movie worth seeing.  If you’re ever in a position where something bad and hidden could use a nice dose of the light of day, don’t be afraid to blow a few whistles yourself!

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley.  What a great onscreen couple!

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley. What a great onscreen couple!

Uplifting Movie: Queen of Katwe

Poster for the new Disney hit, QUEEN OF KATWE.

Poster for the new Disney hit, QUEEN OF KATWE.

Want to see a nice, old-fashioned, wonderfully uplifting movie?

Then run, don’t walk, out to the nearest theater that is showing QUEEN OF KATWE  and watch it make your day!

The movie focuses on Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan child living in extreme poverty.  The family lives in a shack and sleeps on the floor.  She and her siblings don’t attend school. They can’t afford it.  They sell vegetables in the outdoor market to help their mother.  The father is nowhere to be found and has, apparently, abandoned his family.

Enter a chess coach who is working in a “Sports Ministry” while he awaits a better job.  Then watch how the devoted coach, played by David Oyelowo, begins to turn everything around for Phiona, in whom he recognizes a touch of genius…

Phiona is played by a newcomer, Madina Nalwanga.  She’s a luminous child and it’s impossible not to root for her.  I just researched her now and found out that her journey to starring in this movie is similar to that of Phiona.  Both came from poor backgrounds, but look at where they are now!  They’re both an inspiration.

David Oyelowo, by the way, is a phenomenal actor that I’ve written about before.  He was overlooked for an Oscar  nomination when he gave a terrific performance as Martin Luther King in SELMA.  When that happened, I wrote:

As they used to say in Brooklyn when the Dodgers didn’t win the pennant, “Wait until next year!”  The day will dawn when you “go home with Oscar.”  I think it’s inevitable.

Indeed, I still think it’s inevitable!  I’m hoping that this year David Oyelowo gets nominated, and for QUEEN OF KATWE this time.  I’m hoping that Hollywood’s recent newcomer, Madina Nalwanga, gets an Oscar nod this year, too!

Madina Nalwanga and David Oyelowo light up the screen - and the world - in QUEEN OF KATWE.

Madina Nalwanga and David Oyelowo light up the screen – and the world – in QUEEN OF KATWE.

Brenda Benet

Fabulous DAYS OF OUR LIVES star Brenda Benet.

Fabulous DAYS OF OUR LIVES star Brenda Benet.

She was one of the most talented actresses I’ve ever seen.

She was so fantastic at playing the villain, Lee Dumonde, on DAYS OF OUR LIVES that I can recall, one day back in the early 1980’s, wanting to throw something (though I didn’t) at the television because her performance as a “witch with a capital B” was so bone-chillingly evil that it was making me so mad.  Now that’s talent!

Her name was Brenda Benet.

It must be due to the fact that there’s so many JonBenet Ramsey specials on television lately that I keep recalling Brenda Benet.  I’ve even been wondering about the coincidence of two gals who knew how to give a great performance, who both had “Benet” in their names, dying violently.

Actually, her real name was Brenda Ann Nelson.  As stage names go, “Benet” goes better with Brenda.  She was from California.  I wish I had more information about her background, but what’s out there is rather cryptic.  I seem to recall reading somewhere that she had several siblings.  She was married twice, the second time to actor Bill Bixby, and had a little boy, Christopher Sean, with him.  She got parts in several shows in the 1960s and 1970s.

Then she was cast on DAYS OF OUR LIVES and did a spectacular job.

Unfortunately, not long after her second marriage ended, Christopher died during a ski trip.  While her role on DAYS was a feat of great acting, I remember being horrified at reading that she was receiving a deluge of hate mail because of how well she played the bad girl on the show – and that she was on the receiving end of it while grief-struck over her son.   This, I thought, was untenable.  I wrote to her in care of the studio and said how terrific I thought her performance was.  I was invited to join her fan club and wondered if I would be the only member, given the fact that her role as the “other woman” between the show’s beloved starring couple, Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes, who played “Doug” and “Julie” and were also married in real life.  I joined Brenda’s club.

Soon I received a wonderful, funny newsletter written by her assistant, Tammy Bruce.  I may have even gotten two of them.  It’s hard to remember exactly, since all of this happened around 1982.  I do remember, clearly, looking forward to the next newsletter.

The next thing I heard was that Brenda had killed herself…a month after the anniversary of the death of her little boy.  Much later more details came out, among them that on the day the poor woman shot herself, she had first locked herself in a bathroom – and arranged for Tammy Bruce to come to her house right before it happened.  The staging of the suicide couldn’t possibly have been more horrific.

It was said later that she deliberately wore no makeup on the last day she appeared on the set of the soap opera.  It was like she was symbolically removing a mask (of Max Factor) and letting people see who was underneath.  Hindsight may be an exact science, sure, but didn’t anyone there think twice when they saw the actress do that?  Did no one think to ask her what was going on?  Might someone have been able to intervene?

These aren’t questions without answers, but I think they’re worth mentioning anyway.  If you see something, say something…

What kind of fine collection of work might Brenda Benet have been able to accomplish, if only she’d lived?  She obviously had major issues.  Yet she looked like Vivien Leigh and also had one of the most enormous stores of inborn talent I’ve ever seen, before or since.  There was incredible potential there.

It came out later that the hate mail she was receiving helped to destabilize her further.  I was always so glad I’d taken the time to send her a nice note.  I’ve also always wondered just what, exactly, was the rest of the talented lady’s back story.  There’s no mystery as to how Brenda Benet died, but  what was the rest of the story of how she lived?

RIP, talented lady.

RIP, talented lady.