Sunday, November 28, 2021

Licorice Pizza by Paul Thomas Anderson

I was there. Well, not exactly there, because Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is so SoCal that even its title, the name of a record store chain during the director's youth, has to be explained to someone like me whose memory of the 1970's means remembering (or forgetting) the gritty urban decay of New York, complete with graffiti-filled subways and dangerous city sectors.

I saw this film in 70mm at the Village East theater, a landmark building that presented Yiddish entertainment at the beginning of the century. Very few people will be able to tell you who played this house. I noticed the young crowd around me that gathered to see this movie, and I realized that even fewer had any clear memory of the 1970's. And yet, PT Anderson's film, filled with such loving nostalgia for days gone by, his days gone by, resonated with this young audience. The director presented a very personal story, but he also knows that if you grew up at the turn of the century in New York's Jewish ghetto, or in the Taxi Driver New York blight, or in any other decade, or any place on Earth, one thing is certain: everyone goes through adolescence and everyone falls in love. That is the simple reality and universal theme of this film.

So, the director's approach is to mine his memory banks. Episodes of his life are beautifully recreated, focusing on a young 15 year-old high school student and child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and his pursuit of Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a twenty-something who eventually becomes his business partner and main squeeze. Together, they travel the landscape of Southern California at a time when prices were so low that a high school kid could open a water bed store and sell one to Jon Peters (a hilarious Bradley Cooper) during the time the ex-hairdresser turned producer was dating Barbra Streisand.

In PT Anderson's coming-of-age enchantment, Old Hollywood is still hanging on as the new lions are storming the gates. We don't get a glimpse of Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas in this film, but figures like Jack Holden (Sean Penn as William Holden), and Rex Blau (Tom Waits as an aging film director -- a John Huston / John Ford composite), play memorable parts in this film. The movie is also filled with cameos. Blink and you'll miss John C. Reilly, a PT Anderson stalwart, as Herman Munster. But you won't forget Christine Ebersole as a Lucille Ball-like character who beats up Gary after he commits a faux-pas on live TV.

The San Fernando Valley has never been portrayed so charming before. Especially during the gas shortage sequence, when Gary runs past lines of cars to the tune of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" In this film we find a softer PT Anderson. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Master were tough subjects, and his scalpel had to be sharper and cut deeper. Here, the director's main prop is his camera (he takes the DP credit for the first time), and it seems that his main concerns are to present a rosy recreation of his coming-of-age years, and to make sure Cooper Hoffman and Alana Kane come out of this as bright new Hollywood stars. Not a bad reason to create this film. Cooper's dad, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman had a long association with PT Anderson, the actor giving some of his best, defining performances under this director's lens. Now is the time for a new generation to spring forward, as the director turns his gaze back to the past.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Stephen Sondheim is Dead

I knew one day we would all have to go through this. The once young, vibrant enfant terrible of the Broadway stage, the one who dazzled us with the youthful lyrics of West Side Story and who matured into the greatest American lyricist/composer since Cole Porter is dead. Stephen Sondheim seemed to be an eternal presence. Although his name had not graced any Broadway marquee in quite a while, revivals of his classic work often adorned the Great White Way. And in the back of every theater-goers mind there was always the hope that there was one more in him. One more masterpiece before the long sleep; like Giuseppe Verdi who produced two of his greatest operas, Otello and Falstaff after he had called it quits.

His shows almost never made money. Sure, when he started out at first as the young lyricist to Leonard Bernstein's music in West Side Story that show was a hit. And so was Gypsy, for which he almost wrote the music, however Ethel Merman did not want to star in a show written by an unknown composer. So Stephen reprised his role as lyricist, this time to Jules Stein's great score. He was soon to come into his own as a composer and lyricist with his farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

And then, magic happened. His collaboration with director Harold Prince produced some of the greatest American musicals. Lightning kept striking every time. Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sunday in the Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, Assasins, and Passion. There were Tony Awards galore, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. If you have followed his career you have your favorites. I know I fell in love with Sweeney Todd the moment I heard the downbeat chord on the organ that begins the score. For Sondheim it was a revenge story, for director Hal Prince it was about the dehumanization of man during the Industrial Revolution. 

Definitely the Stephen Sondheim musical was not the feel good, warm and fuzzy product that Broadway audiences expected. The shows made very little money, but he was expanding the horizons of musical theater. He couldn't compete with the likes of an Annie, Les Misérables or with Andrew Lloyd Weber's British invasion. And, of course, he just could not bring in the crowds that were starting to flock to the corporate Disney shows that were filling the theaters.

I remember a radio interview Sondheim gave at the time of the premiere of Sweeney Todd, a show I got to see three times. He was talking about the struggle to find a musical language to fit a particular show. He reminisced about Pacific Overtures, a daring show about the opening of Japan in the 1800's and the  eventual westernization and commercialization of the country. Like Richard Rodgers in the 1950's who struggled with how Eastern to make the music of The King and I, Sondheim could not get the feeling for this show right. Until, as so often happens, one day it hit him. In the staccato rhythms of Spanish flamenco music somehow he found the necessary voice for his show about Japan's floating kingdom. I never forgot this incredible journey of discovery that this artist went through, and was able to tell us about it. At that moment I realized that Sondheim was not just the cerebral creator of Broadway entertainment. He had become a musical advocate for the globalization of music. The show was the customary Sondheim flop. Imagine a show where the Americans are the bad guys for destroying the beautiful traditions of Japan, playing during 1976: the year where jingoism was at its highest as America celebrated its Bicentennial.

As a composer Sondheim was unique among his peers. Everybody always said one did not leave the theater humming a Sondheim score. That might have been true, but what was always certain was that his choice of a musical idiom fitted the show like a glove. His music could be brassy as in Company, operatic with a touch of the gothic as in Sweeney Todd, and even minimalist and filled with a dash of pointillism in Sunday in the Park with George. And sometimes it could just simply sway in perfect Johann Strauss three quarter time in A Little Night Music, one of my favorite Sondheim shows, adapted from Smiles of a Summer Night, one of the great Ingmar Bergman films.

We have lost one of the great ones. I do not think we will see another one like him in our lifetime.

Monday, November 15, 2021

30 year-old "Meistersinger" returns to the MET

The month of November saw the Metropolitan Opera stage a revival of their 30 year-old production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This decision created a unique event in the world of opera. Here in the year 2021, when "Regietheatre" has become the norm, even on these shores, the MET dared to mount a production completely devoid of any agenda or director-driven point of view: the norm on the great operatic stages around the world these days. Nowhere to be found on the MET stage was the Lilliputian world that director Stefan Herheim created for his 2013 staging of this work at the Salzburg Festival. And certainly, the MET was staying clear of the World War II political treatise of Barrie Kosky's Bayreuth staging, with its exploration of the inherent antisemitism prevalent in the work. 

The MET staging, which played its last performance this season on Sunday (and which might be the last time this production is staged), is an epic imagining of this work created at a time when this opera company envisioned each staging in its repertory to last the minimum of twenty years. It was the way the MET operated under Joseph Volpe, who ran the institution from 1990 to 2006. Thus, Günther Schneider-Siemssen's beautiful sets might have cost a lot of money, but the institution would get it all back in those twenty years. Little did the creators of this production envision that thirty years down the road the MET would still be presenting their work. The only creators who remain alive are director Otto Schenk and choreographer Carmen De Lavallade, both in their 90's.

But why is this production still being mounted in a world-class opera company when similar institutions are experimenting with newer styles that break traditional stagings? The answer lies in the very fact that the New York opera audience is essentially a conservative one, resistant to watching their favorite operas in newer, more daring stagings. The Stefan Herheim production almost made it to the MET, but at the last moment that idea was scrapped, and the old production remained.

What audiences saw this November was a return to a simpler world of opera, where the composer still ruled, and where the director's job involved nothing more than the recreation of the vision of the composer. What the MET did do is populate these old sets with some of the great Wagnerian artists available today. All of them European, most of them German, and the large majority veterans of many summers at the Bayreuth Festival. Here was Klaus Florian Vogt, that amazing tenor with the sweet, youthful voice -- offering a clear antidote to Jonas Kaufmann's baritonal fach. There was also Michael Volle, who clearly owns the role of Hans Sachs at the moment, with his intelligent, humanistic approach to this wise character. There was also Johannes Martin Kränzle who, in my opeinion, can't be beat in the role of Sixtus Beckmesser, whether he is wearing a Jew's head in Mr. Kosky's current production at the Green Hill, or in this production which showcases his great comedic skills. And let's not forget Georg Zeppenfeld who belongs in the same league as René Pape when it comes to interpreting the great Wagner bass roles.

But the drawing card to this revival was soprano Lise Davidsen who continues her meteoric rise in the opera world. What a voice, and what a season she will have at the MET! Upcoming performances include two soprano roles in Richard Strauss's operas: the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos and Chrysothemis in Elektra. Antonio Pappano conducted this mighty work with a sure hand, letting the orchestra show off its brilliant playing. His reading was transparent rather than pompous. His reading of the third act prelude was one of the most beautiful I have ever heard in any opera house.

It was a great pleasure to see this staging once more, but, as gorgeous and intelligent as this production might be, let's face it: I think we are all ready to see a new MET Meistersinger soon.