Monday, December 06, 2010

Elaine Stritch is sloppy & delicacy fails to pay

I saw A Little Night Music finally, thank you Brandon, and when the curtain went up I promptly fell asleep.  That's what I tend to do when the lights go down in a theatre and I get cozy.  I'm also forced to be silent (no wonder I get so many invites?), another reason I tend to fall asleep.  Also, despite my fondness for Sondheim, is that A Little Night Music is about Swedish people in 1900 running around and sleeping with everyone and sleeping with even more people especially when the mistress starts cheating which only reminded me of shit I had to read in theatre history class.  It's a turn of the century screwball comedy, which translates in Swedish to: you have to wait 3 hours to hear her sing "Send in the Clowns". 

My head is bobbling back, snap, bobbing forward, snap, and I open my eyes to see old Elaine Stritch being wheeled out playing solitaire on a table set upon her old fashioned wheelchair and she....doesn't know her lines.  She says to daughter Bernadette Peters: "I don't object to immorality, I object to...." and there is this long pause, and she's swirling her hands around her head, and then says, "What do I object to...?" Bernadette Peters swings in for the save, "The sloppiness of my life, mother, yes I know".  And Elaine says, "Yes, precisely. The sloppiness of your life."

How about the sloppiness of her performance?

They don't wheel her out that often, but when they do Elaine Stritch fucks it up every time.  She can't remember if he was a King or a Duke who gave her that wine. Later, she's with a waiter and after the long pause blurts, "Stop staring at my bad wig and pour the champagne!" Seriously.  What was that?

In another scene she's with her 10 year old granddaughter.  There's no theatre veteran like Bernadette Peters to swoop in and save - it's just her and the girl and here we are...a huge pause as Stritch searches her brain...a very uncomfortable huge pause (which of course I am loving), and I wonder if the little girl can do anything, she's only 10, but...wait...yes....she's game!  Girl attempts a save, starts to speak, but old Stritch gives her the hand.  She gave her the hand, scolding, "uh-uh-uh" because at precisely that moment, from out of the ether, the line came to her and Stritch spoke it.  Hey, at least the actors should be getting good at improv!  No same tired show 8 times a week!

I asked the usher at intermission "Does she always forget her lines?" She replied, "ALWAYS." So I asked if she was embarrassed about it?  "Oh no," says the usher. "She's kind of stuck-up, actually."  

What's that line about knowing when to leave the stage?  That knowing when to leave is the smartest thing you can ever learn (not that I've ever learned that on nights at the bar!)?  Remember in the late 80's when they shoved Bette Davis onto the Oscar's stage to give an award and she had no idea what she was doing there? That most certainly does not become a legend most!

Another sorry thing is that the show has nuggets of beauty besides "Send in the Clowns" - nuggets I'll never know because stuck-up Stritch took me right out of the story.  There is a message of trying to find a "coherent life after so many years of muddle" - and our (unfortunately muddled) grandma is intended to bring it home.  In her final scene with the granddaughter, a scene meant to be touching and truthful, I didn't know what it was all about because grandma couldn't remember her line: "What's it all about?"

This is Broadway today.  People pay over a hundred dollars to see this show.  I highly recommend it!!  I was headed for a 3 hour nap, but give me an old broad shamelessly flubbing scenes and I'm RAPT!

It's the same schadenfreude inspired rapt attention that makes me stop and stare on the streets of New York City when I see:

a) people (especially the bourgeoisie) bending over and scooping up their dog's doo (especially when the doo is yellow and mushy).

b) a couple having a fight or screaming match on the street, especially when drunk and there are tears.

c) desperate commuters risking life and limb, impaling body parts between closing subway doors.

I just love all that!  And I've done all that myself.  But don't get me wrong, I still think Elaine Stritch should be FIRED.  She took me out of the story.  But how important is story today?  Broadway tells us, and I will spell it out.  Have you seen The Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys is a musical based on a true tale of the trial and subsequent ruined lives of nine uneducated, mostly illiterate black youths who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama.  The directing (Susan Stroman) was inspired, the acting incredible, the songs catchy (it is the final collaboration from Cabaret and Chicago team Kander & Ebb).  The show is staged as a minstrel show -- a once-popular form of entertainment based on racial stereotypes - and is used here as a platform to tell this ugly tale of bigotry from the other side, twisted into painful self-awareness (the blacks here wear black face and it is they who play caricatures of the whites).  What they endure, this savage saga, not even able to survive Supreme Court reversals, ultimately serves to push forward civil rights in the USA.  In the end, following the harrowing reveal of each of their fates, we see Rosa Parks on the bus say she's not gonna move, she's gonna rest her feet, and there is not a dry eye in the house. Not one.

The Scottsboro Boys is the best new thing on Broadway.

As the audience leapt to its feet in applause I looked around to discover -- no blacks! I hunted with Anita and we spotted only three which really made me angry.  Blacks will see anything with Denzel "I'm a notorious asshole" Washington, but aren't out full force to support this important piece of our civil-wrong history starring a talented all-black (save one) cast in the most beautiful (IMHO) theatre (the Lyceum) on Broadway?  Is it because blacks are sick of stories about racism same as gays weary of coming-out stories?  Is it because the show was written by whites?  Is it because this doomed tale of injustice is presented as a musical comedy?  Or...just tell me why? 

The Scottsboro Boys recently opened to rave reviews from everywhere, standing O's every night, hell - it even kept me awake.  And it's closing next week.  Yes, it's the best thing on Broadway and I promise you it will win all the Tonys next year (unless the Tonys decide to kiss Hollywood's ass again) and it is closing next week.  And yet Mamma Mia and Addams Family (and soon, watch, Spiderman) rake it in hand over fist.  It hurts, doesn't it?  In A Little Night Music, in a scene that Elaine Stritch actually acted, she laments the life of her daughter and the general the state of things with these all-too-apt words:

In a world where the amateur prevails
And delicacy fails
To pay


scott o. said...

Jesse, loved your post. If you're not careful you'll land yourself a legit job at as a critic at a large media conglomerate.
I've slept through 'A Little Night Music', and I laughed hysterically during the previews of 'Carrie, the Musical' (I even have the poster...yes, you're jealous, I know, and I'm not a theatre poster collector kind of gay) So this strikes a chord that makes me want to see it.
But, I am disappointed that I haven't seen any rave press for the Scottsboro Boys. Would love to see it, but I'm not around much before it closes, hate that.

Jesse Archer said...

thanks Scott! Carrie, the musical - how could I have missed that??

Scottsboro Boys - Here's a good review from the huffpo:


Margret Echeverria said...

Oh, Jesse, you are so awesome. This is one of your best posts ever!