Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Dark Knight Trilogy As Done by the Golden Age of Cinema

With the recent announcement of Ben Affleck to play Batman in the forthcoming team-up of Batman and Superman (a first for live-action film), I got to thinking about who else might've been in the running for the role, and then decided that that conversation wasn't interesting enough to me.

I started to thinking of an alternate universe-type thing (not uncommon to a comic book fan) and imagined a world where Batman as a serious movie series had been done years earlier. I tried to think of a good period in history to do this, and eventually settled on the Golden Age of Cinema: the time of studios, a huge roster of A-Listers, and some of the most timeless and impeccable movies ever made. And not just movies, but films. But I'll have to save the discussion of that distinction for another post. For now, Batman.

It's amazing to believe that Batman is a character more than half a century old at this point, having debuted in 1939. Much of his mythology remains unchanged, although writers, artists, actors, directors, and even fans of all eras have added, modified, and enhanced aspects of the character to be more attune to their own lives and messages and as always, to remain relevant to the world around them. When the world needed fun and escapism, and easy entertainment was all the rage, Batman, with Adam West under the cowl, went into silly and delirious camp. And when the world looked to find a grittier realism, uncompromising in its delivery to youth, we got Batman: The Animated Series, which has since influenced every incarnation that followed.

What is presented here is an imagined outline of what took place had the Dark Knight Trilogy as we know it, a world created by Christopher Nolan, populated by the likes of Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Anne Hathaway, and embraced as a truly complete, serious, fully realized incarnation of Batman on film, was instead attempted several decades earlier, by an era that turned in some of cinema's most important work. I'll try and explain my reasoning along the way, but most of it takes place "in-character", as it were. Make sure to read the footnotes though, as they go into further details!

Without further ado:

The Dark Knight Trilogy
The year is 1946. A year into the post-war era, the boys are home, and the families are all looking for some good old family entertainment. The recent rise in popularity of "comic books" heralds the arrival of larger than life characters, superheroes. With a somewhat war-torn world to rebuild, the world is ready to embrace them and it isn't long before the question arises of how long before we start to see these larger than life characters up on the larger than life big screen?

A lack of capabilities hindered getting a certain superpowered Kryptonian to the screen, so they had to settle for what some people considered a rather bland, "oddly costumed", detective, known as The Bat-Man.

The firmly entrenched studio system was still steadily churning out new movies, so no one at the larger four of the "Big Five" studios really had much of an interest in turning a "pulp fiction" into a movie.
But an executive at the most unassuming of the Five, RKO Pictures, was adamant that in a few years, comic book movies would be all the rage, and insisted on trying to get a director on it.
Though the studio wanted it to be a family entertainment, with the studio being known for its more musical films over the years, and the post-war haze still thick with nostalgia and reminiscence, the only director available was a rather stoic British fellow who wasn't particularly keen on making a family film.

His name was Alfred Hitchcock. [1] He was on loan, but he was no stranger to the noir, and that was the tone that this film was going to require. It was exactly because everyone around him seemed to think it was beneath them to do a movie adaptation of a comic book that he decided to do it, and it was exactly because of the studio's want of a family friendly film that Alfie decided to do it his way.

Upon reviewing some of the comics, particularly "The Batman and How He Came To Be", which told of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce's parents, and how this led him to travel abroad and eventually take the law into his own hands, Hitchcock realized how much of a noir anti-hero Bruce Wayne and Batman was. He was quoted as saying, "The Bat-Man is not so unlike [Humphrey] Bogart, whose intentions are good, though his attitudes be cynical."[2]
There was even rumor that Bogart was approached to star as the titular character, but the team-up of Bogart and Hitchcock never happened.[3]

Hitchcock's film, simply titled "Batman", was not thought of highly in the trades, and went into production largely unnoticed. Most assumed Cary Grant would take on the lead role in the latest Hitchcock, but he decided to do a different movie with the director [4] when he decided the role, as written, was too dark for him, and he feared too many roles in a row playing against type.[5]

Batman (1946)
As a young boy, Bruce Wayne witnesses the murders of his parents one evening after the opera. 
After years of boarding school and traveling abroad, he returns, the forgotten son of Gotham City, to take over Wayne Enterprises, his father's company that had made him a millionaire. Unbeknownst to everyone though, Wayne harbors a secret. He is actually The Batman, a masked vigilante who stops criminals who have been thus far aided and abetted by the corrupt police force. They are mostly under the control of one crime lord, Oswald Cobblepot, alias 'The Penguin', who will stop at nothing to keep his grip on the city. It is the first testing grounds of The Batman, and he must understand what is needed of him, in order to be a hero.

[1] - Hitchcock would have had a field day with Batman; possible twist endings to each of the movies, psychological analysis of its tortured main character, scenes of action and violence, plus an uncompromising vision of grit.
[2] - The quote is made up, but Bogart had starred in The Maltese Falcon, in 1941, which many argue was the first successful film in the noir genre. 
[3] - And it probably wouldn't have anyway, not with the studio system in place. Bogart went on to become one of the most important commodities for Warners, and wouldn't have lent him out for a Hitchcock.
[4] - Grant did Notorious around this time. It was a somewhat lighter role, and more in line with the kind of roles he was doing.
[5] - There's no real documented evidence that Grant was afraid of his reputation. That was more of a concern of the studio and of Hitchcock himself. Spellbound, the movie the pair had done previously, featured Grant in rare form as a killer, but Hitchcock made the ending more ambiguous so as not to indict Grant outright. 
[6] - This plot essentially mirrors that of Batman Begins. The major difference is that Ra's al Ghul had not been created yet, so I consolidated his plot with that of Jonathan Crane's Scarecrow. Crane spends the entire movie as Bruce's ally, while Crane, unbeknownst to Bruce, parades around at night as the Scarecrow. The audience doesn't know either, we find out with Bruce, the movie unfolds similarly from there. It's more in keeping with Hitchcock's style, providing a twist ending, while also showing the psychological vulnerability of having it be a trusted ally.

The film was an early success for Hitchcock, with a stellar cast and his penchant for accuracy. Gotham City, while many feared would not be "bought into" by the cinema audience because it was not a real city, evoked enough emotion through its architecture and vague familiarity (Hitchcock recreated a few LA landmarks in warped ways) that audiences were taken in. Praise though, especially went to the stellar performances of the cast.

Batman, whom Hitchcock decided was around his late 20s, early 30s when he returns to Gotham, had decided instead of Grant, to cast a rugged, rough and tumble rogue, whom he had used in the previous year for Spellbound.
Peck's prowess allowed him charm as millionaire Wayne, and menace as the detective Batman.
Gregory Peck "enjoyed immensely, playing such an action-packed role" and performed many of his own stunts. [6] Hitchcock was extremely pleased with the performance of Peck, as he had been nervous of Peck wearing the Bat mask and being unable to connect with the audience. But he admitted to underestimating Peck saying, "The man is a true actor, more than able to make up for half his obscured face, as if he could have done entire films with his back to the camera." [7]

Faithful and British, Hitchcock demanded only one name for the role of Wayne's butler, Alfred Pennyworth, the only other character in the film to know the double identity:

For years, Rathbone was known as Sherlock Holmes, and now was playing Alfred, a father figure to Holmes' spiritual successor.
Basil Rathbone was more than pleased by Hitchcock's offer to "shake the shadow of the Baker Street Detective." It was later theorized that Hitchcock most likely had a hand in Rathbone's retirement from the character. [8] But the irony of Rathbone doling out idioms to a young detective who was more or less in his charge, was not lost on him, and Rathbone took to the part with gusto.

Originally, Hitchcock had wanted Batman to operate alone, despite the presence of the character of Jim Gordon from the beginning. But when cuts of the film were seen by RKO executives, they deemed the corrupt police force "dangerously unsympathetic" and pressured Hitchcock to insert the character. "Only if Tom Joad is available!" Hitchcock was rumored to have yelled, and it turns out he was.

Fonda's demeanor and disposition by himself more than appeased executives as Commissioner Jim Gordon.
Having just returned from the war, Fonda was in no hurry to return to the rigorous filming schedules of a full-time contract and so was taking his time coming back to movies. Executives approached him at a lovely time, as the commitment to play Commissioner Jim Gordon was light. The on-screen partnership of Fonda and Peck was a prime example of the movie's ability to add gravitas to what was seemingly a ridiculous on-screen character like Batman. Fonda's humanity and earnestness made him a critical favorite and there was Oscar buzz for Fonda a second time in his career. [9]

For the villains, Hitchcock wanted some well-known character actors who were capable of what he called "quiet intimidation, an off-putting sense of control over subtle sociopathy." He managed this in spades.

Lorre was delightfully ruthless as The Penguin.
Chaplin brought a nuance to Jonathan Crane.

Hitchcock had long wanted to work with Chaplin and considering Charles' current standing with the public, between his vocal political views, and his questionable moral actions, it was suddenly not above Chaplin to play a villain. Within the movie's framework, Dr. Jonathan Crane is not initially a villain, but begins as Wayne's psychiatrist when he returns from abroad. Using the Batman as his impetus, Crane decides to unleash his own alter ego, that of The Scarecrow, and uses a psychedelic drug to enhance the fears he is able to play upon in his victims, fears brought about by the vigilante Batman and where his allegiance lies. Chaplin proved more than capable: a subtle antagonistic presence throughout the film, preying not only on the insecurities of the citizens of Gotham and of Batman himself, but also of the audiences. [10]

Chaplin would express his distaste later on with the role and with Hitchcock as a director. The two would not work together again. [11]

On the other hand, Peter Lorre as The Penguin was easily the movie's stroke of genius. Lorre, a wonderful character actor in the Hollywood horror days, was becoming a popular mainstay of film for his distinctive look. Hitchcock did not want to compromise Lorre's look too much, and left many of the more "penguin-like" physical traits out of the picture. This led to Lorre taking The Penguin into a more physical place, and giving him what he called a "Napoleon complex," due to his stature. Lorre said of the role that he "imagined 'Penguin' was not unlike a nickname bestowed on him by a bully; a moniker he could not remove, and one that he wanted to prove wrong. A penguin is deceptively sinister." [12]

Hitchcock's trademark cameo is about an hour into the movie, he is one of the police officers, carrying in one of the henchmen, from the previous scene's raid.

* Footnotes
[6] - Peck did perform his own stunts in film, and occasionally accidentally harmed other actors while doing so.
[7] - Hitchcock never said it, but Peck is a truly great actor.
[8] - Rathbone retired from playing Sherlock Holmes in 1946, a role he had begun playing in 1939. In reality, he had grown tired of them, obviously Hitchcock had nothing to do with it, but in this timeline, I'd like to imagine that scoundrel had a hand in it.
[9] - Fonda had been previously nominated for Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
[10] - Chaplin at this time was dealing with critical fallout from his movie The Great Dictator, political troubles because he protested the anti-Communist trials, legal troubles in a paternity suit and an affair, and waning public regard because of his shift away from the iconic Tramp character.
[11] - Chaplin, much like Hitchcock, was very much a perfectionist, and notably difficult to work with. It's obvious when you realize most of the films he starred in he also directed himself. It's unlikely even a first outing would have ever burgeoned between the two.
[12] - Many believe The Penguin to have been inappropriate for the universe of the Nolan trilogy, but I tend to disagree. If it had been done at this time, with someone capable like Lorre, The Penguin could have easily risen to the occasion.

Few believed Batman to receive much success but fans of the comic were particularly enthusiastic, while the rest of the audience, seemingly willing to grasp on to anything new and exciting, kept coming back. The movie was a sleeper hit for RKO and executives, as well as Hitchcock, were ready to capitalize with a sequel. But several obstacles suddenly rose: RKO itself experienced a severe downturn when it was purchased by Howard Hughes, Fonda wanted to continue his semi-retirement, and the rights of the character Batman were being sold to Warner Bros. [13]

But Hitchcock, who had worked with Warner Bros. previously wanted to continue to use Peck, and secured a deal with Paramount for Peck to be "on loan", which was good because Warner wasn't willing to pay extra for him, despite eagerly wanting to capitalize on the popularity of the Batman character. Rathbone was re-signed, as was Fonda, though he had worked out a deal wherein if the picture didn't require him, he wanted to be released from obligation of doing it. Lorre's character had been killed off, and Chaplin's had not, but his name was conspicuously left off the table.

For the second installment, Hitchcock was ready to use an iconic repeating villain who was garnering a lot of attention because of his darker nature; the fact that he had killed dozens of innocents within his first few appearances was intriguing to the director, and he wanted to see if he could bring this character to the screen.

Batman: Rise of the Dark Knight (1952)
With Commissioner Gordon in full control of the police department and Wayne Industries cleaning up Gotham's manufacturing and commerce, it is time for a political poster child to stand out in the ranks. But the forthcoming election may be put in the ground, by the appearance of the Prince of Chaos, known only as The Joker. Gathering the remaining, splintered mob bosses under a single banner, The Joker presents Batman with his first real challenge. Can the Dark Knight Detective rise to the occasion?

[13] - All relatively real. Hughes did drive RKO into the ground a bit; Fonda actually stayed out of movies for eight years after 1947; Warner Bros. and DC Comics actually merged later, in 1969.
[14] - The political race plot of the second movie is somewhat different from the shoe-in plot of Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, Harvey Dent does not appear as a character until the Silver Age of Comics, otherwise I would have used his plot more prominently. My pick would have been Jimmy Stewart to play Dent/Two-Face. Possibly Warren Beatty, but I like the idea of Stewart so much better as Dent. As it is, the plot is very Hitchcock: Batman is still an ordinary person, now dealing with an extraordinary killer in the Joker, who has no regard for human life. Particularly in Cagney's hands though, The Joker fits right in with Hitchcock's own "Rogues Gallery."

The second time's a charm with Rise of the Dark Knight. It garners big attention, being a somewhat political year in 1952, with Truman announcing he would not be seeking reelection, and the campaign between Stevenson and Eisenhower. And its writing and direction are even more honed, plus Warner Bros' bigger budget for the film, allowed the set and costumes "to breath" and "give the audience a true sense of life from these inanimate objects that are so important."

Hitchcock was unsure of who would take on the mantle of the Clown Prince of Crime and it was actually Jack Warner who suggested the actor who had recently played a psychotic in White Heat. [15]

Cagney combined his two opposing types to form an unforgettable performance as The Joker
Cagney had been mostly known for playing gangsters, and was most recently seen as a psychotic killer. Eager to play The Joker, but unwilling to play him similarly to his character from White Heat, Hitchcock suggested "adding some Cohan", referencing another of Cagney's notable roles, a departure from hard-edged gangsters, the sensitive and patriotic composer, George M. Cohan from Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney was intrigued by the idea, and amongst his psychopathic disregard for human life, he would throw in "some clown work, some tap dance, and inappropriate, light laughter" throughout. Cagney was unsettling and disturbing in the role.

Hitchcock's cameo in the second movie takes place at the dinner party, where the Joker interrupts the festivities. The Joker pushes him aside as he exits the elevator and he spills some drinks.

[15] - Warner was always a big fan of Cagney, and Cagney was notorious for being uncompromising in his onscreen roles.

Just a couple short years later, Warner Bros. was ready to commit to a sequel and Hitchcock, whose own stock as a filmmaker was rising, was ready to be done with the Batman, and put a lid on it, as it were. [16]

Hitchcock was drawn back in by the idea that this third film would present both a more physical and a more cerebral challenge to the Batman character. Peck was also intrigued by the prospect. Those around Hitchcock had presented him with the unique character of Dr. Hugo Strange, as well as the shapeshifter Clayface.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1954)
A mysterious figure whose face is unknown, is reeking havoc within Gotham's prison, Blackgate, killing inmates one by one. Batman must enter the forbidden fortress to bring the criminal to justice. Meanwhile, the former boss of Jonathan Crane, Dr. Hugo Strange, through his review of the case study by Crane on Bruce Wayne, deduces that Wayne is in fact Batman, and will stop at nothing to destroy him. It is revealed that through mind control, Strange dictates Clayface to kill prisoners, one for every hour Batman refuses to reveal himself.

[16] - Nolan wanted his trilogy to be a complete story, a complete arc. He ends his sequels out of a  narrative motivation. I'd like to imagine Hitchcock ends his out of artistic motivation.
[17] - The plot of the third movie doesn't bear too much resemblance to The Dark Knight Rises. This is for several reasons: Again, Ra's al Ghul does not exist yet, so a subplot with his daughter Talia cannot exist. Bane also does not exist in the comics yet. I decided instead to go with Dr. Hugo Strange, and much of the plot actually reflects the video game Arkham City, where the main thrust of the plot is Protocol 10, which basically grants Strange the power to destroy Arkham City and all the inhabitants, inmates deemed irredeemable and incurable. The moral dilemma faced by Batman is that no one should die, not even those who have done wrong, but he must sacrifice his secret identity to save them. The end of the movie does this, with Bruce Wayne "dying", actually going into hiding, and the trilogy ends much like it did in our time. I also think the villains present a more interesting parallel to Hitchcock's style of villains. Strange and Batman share a similar distaste for injustice, but Strange is dealing with it, and Batman finds a shred of guilt in himself, questioning whether or not he himself should be killing these criminals.

For the final movie, Hitchcock asked Peck whom he wanted to play Selina Kyle, the Catwoman, in what was essentially Batman's only leading lady for the film series. Peck went with his recent co-star who had recently gained some attention not only for her acting but her beauty.
Hepburn added the needed female sensuality and smarts needed for a proper Catwoman.
Hepburn was relatively new and a Paramount girl now, with Roman Holiday. She did not come at an easy price, but Hitchcock was of course stubborn in his vision for the film. They eventually got her, and she received some of the highest praise for her Catwoman who was both "enamored by Batman, but able to stand on her own two feet as it were, and is in some ways stronger than Batman." It would lead her down a fascinating path of intriguing female characters, known for their abilities and feminine demeanor. [18]

In the role of Doctor Hugo Strange, Hitchcock demanded an actor "capable of standing toe-to-toe with Peck in that black mask and not look ridiculous." Only one man of course could do it.

Price's distinctive voice added back some of that needed horror to the role of Hugo Strange.
Vincent Price described Strange as "not a physical threat to Batman. He knows this. That's why he has Clayface. But mentally, intellectually, he is every bit Bruce Wayne's equal, and most likely his superior. It is only his hubris that gets in the way." Price plus the casting of the other villain were praised as a beautiful throwback to the old-school Hollywood horror genre which both these men had made famous.[19]

Karloff was the only choice for Clayface's alter ego, Basil Karlo.
The comics made specific reference to Karloff as an inspiration for the character of Basil Karlo, an increasingly irrelevant movie actor, driven to kill those in the film industry that was slowly pushing him out. While Karloff very much loved the part and the send-up, he wanted to be clear that "I do not actually feel this way!" Karloff was also aging himself, and occasionally unable to fulfill the physical demands of the role, in which case a body double substituted for him in the suit, but he dubbed in all his lines. Karloff and Price were highly praised for their roles.]20]

Hitchcock's cameo is right at the end of the movie, in the cafe, where Wayne and Selina are sitting, and he is the waiter who brings them their drinks.

A "tag scene" was added to the very end, after a very brief blackout following the cafe scene.
Bruce Wayne is sitting alone on a park bench and a young man approaches him. The dialogue is as follows:

MAN: Mr. Wayne? Mr. Bruce Wayne?
WAYNE: Bruce Wayne is dead.
MAN: I know who you are. I know you were Batman.
WAYNE: And who are you?
MAN: My name is CLARK. I work for a newspaper. I have some questions for you.

The scene was to serve as the launchpad for the Superman film series which was what Warner Bros. wanted to move on to next. A relatively unknown James Dean was cast in the part of Clark Kent for the single scene and three lines. Tragedy struck and delayed the series, with the death of Dean just a year after the movie's release.[21]

[18] - I mean, think about what followed for Hepburn: Breakfast at Tiffany's, Sabrina, My Fair Lady...Also, almost any of the women of the Golden Age could have easily owned Catwoman, but I think Hepburn would have brought a refreshing, more subtle demeanor to it. My other choice was Rita Hayworth.
[19] - I wanted Price in this trilogy, but I at first didn't know where. He didn't fit Penguin or Alfred, and he was too old in my mind for Jim Gordon. Hugo Strange was my favorite possible fit for him.
[20] - The age of the actor aside, it's impossible for me to think of anyone else for Basil Karlo/Clayface in this era. I thought at first of going with a younger star, or maybe even Jack Lemmon, but even with his age at the time, who could deny the power of Karloff?
[21] -  Dean died in 1955, and I had originally picked 1954 for the third movie on a whim. When I saw that it lined up with Dean's death, he was my only pick for the Superman cameo. I'm not sure how he would have actually done as the Big Blue Boyscout, but I guess we'll never know in either timeline, will we?

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A quote from Richard Dawkins

I find Richard Dawkins to be an insufferable human being most of the time. He's obnoxious and arrogant. But I do occasionally love his writing. And this paragraph from one of older books is particularly inspiring:

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here."

And the chapter opens with a quote that Dawkins cites from Mervyn Peake.
"To live at all is miracle enough."
 As with most metaphysical quotes, I find a great deal of burden and liberation within it. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

My Favorite Lyrics, Part 1

Just a quick segment for Musical Mondays, since I didn't have much time to set up a "Fine, Fine Line" or "Six Songs" this week.

The Last 5 Years is, hands down, my favorite musical of all time. It's intimate, intricate, and heartbreaking; unexpected adjectives when describing a musical. But Jason Robert Brown's two-person series of solos manages to be all three.

The songs are beautiful, confessional, and the few times I've gotten to see it in my life, it's always wonderfully acted, by two strong performers.
I have to allow myself time to listen to it, dually meaning that 1) I have to take a break and psyche myself up to listen to the album, because it completely destroys me by the end and 2) I have to listen to the whole album when I do listen to it; I can't listen to one song, I have to experience the complete emotional journey, that's the only peace I find from it all. It's that important to me.
L5Y follows the 5-year relationship of a couple: Jamie and Cathy, as they go from first date, to marriage, and their slow descent to divorce. The two trade off solo songs as we see the relationship progress; the twist is that Jamie's songs move forward in time, while Cathy's move backward.
Honestly, if you haven't listened to it yet, this post is going to make close to no sense for you. If you have heard it or seen it, then please to enjoy!

These are my favorite lyrics from the show:
“I've found my guiding light, I tell the stars each night:
Look at me, look at him!
Son of a bitch, I guess I'm doing something right!
I finally got something right.”
- Cathy, Summer in Ohio
Summer in Ohio's mostly a fun song, lots of jokes about Cathy's summerstock shows, and yet, she manages this little bit of poetry. Arguably, JRB wrote the more poetic songs for Cathy, as you'll see later on in this top 10.

“Jamie is over and where can I turn?
Covered with scars I did nothing to earn."
- Cathy, Still Hurting
Both Cathy's first song (this one) and her last one ("Goodbye Until Tomorrow") are fantastically poetic and full of vivid imagery. I love this two-line entry, though, because it's a great character moment too: Cathy also constantly paints herself the victim throughout the show.

“There are so many lives I want to share with you,
I will never be complete until I do.”
- Jamie, The Next Ten Minutes
Obviously, I love the wording of this lyric, as I do all of them. But just the idea that all our moments in life are lives in and of themselves is fantastic. And it's always said that a joyful experiencing is made twofold when shared. There's also something poignant about this being during the one song the two sing together. There are a couple places where they sing at the same time, but they're singing different songs, this is the only one they share the same melody as well as occupy the same point in time.

“I could never rescue you.
All you ever wanted, but I could never rescue you
No matter how I tried.
All I could do was love you hard, and let you go.
No matter how I tried,
All I could do was love you, God, I loved you so.
So we could fight
Or we could wait
Or I could go...”
- Jamie, I Could Never Rescue You
The talent of JRB is his ability to fit so much character into his lyrics. Everything adds so much. Like I was saying earlier about Cathy's lyric, this one gives some insight into Jamie. I do believe that both characters are being as honest with themselves as they are with us. When Jamie says "I loved you so," I believe him. This isn't a simple musical, it's not easy, and it's not always clear. It's realistic in that sense, and it's moments like these that break your heart.

“Will you share your life with me
For the next ten lifetimes,
(Forever, Jamie…)
For a million summers
’Til the world explodes,
’Til there's no one left
Who has ever known us apart?”
- Jamie & (Cathy), The Next Ten Minutes
It's a fascinating thought, to reach a point where no one remembers you not together. While in the real world, I am an advocate of having your own identity, and maintaining that in a relationship, there is a romantic side to the idea of being so linked to another person that the world around you is not only aware of it, but does not think of you otherwise.

“If I didn't believe in you, we'd never have gotten this far.
If I didn't believe in you, and all of the ten thousand women you are.
If I didn't think you could do anything you ever wanted to,
If I wasn't certain that you'd come through, somehow
The fact of the matter is, Cathy, I wouldn't be standing here now.”
- Jamie, If I Didn’t Believe In You
This lyric comes from my favorite song in the show, which at its heart, is an incredibly complicated feeling that is not easy to convey within a song. It's not something to be sung about. It's this odd mix of pride and shame, of selfless admiration and selfish ego; even now, I find it hard to explain in words, but I am more than aware of having felt it for a person I've loved. I think that's why this song hits a nerve with more than anything else in the show. This song may be the closest anyone gets to explaining it.

“Some people analyze every detail,
Some people stall when they can't see the trail,
Some people freeze out of fear that they'll fail,
But I keep rolling on.
Some people can't get success with their art,
Some people never feel love in their heart,
Some people can't tell the two things apart,
But I keep rolling on.”
- Jamie, Moving Too Fast 
It's all right there, I don't have to explain too much about it. Every line of this is just fantastic, it's ridiculous.

“If I didn't believe in you, then here's where the travelogue ends.
If I didn't believe in you, I couldn't have stood before all of our friends
And said, ‘This is the life I choose.
This is the thing I can't bear to lose.
Trip us or trap us, but we refuse to fall.’
That's what I thought we agreed on.
Cathy, if I hadn't believed in you, I wouldn't have loved you at all.”
- Jamie, If I Didn’t Believe In You
Adding on to #5, this is Jamie driving his point home even more. It's a heartbreaking moment, but romantic all at once. Again, very difficult to explain, but a distinctively human characteristic of a very complex emotion like love.

“I stand on a precipice.
I struggle to keep my balance.
I open myself, I open myself one stitch at a time.”
- Cathy, Goodbye Until Tomorrow
Again, I love Cathy's poetry. Such fantastic imagery here. And there's a multitude of ways to portray the final line: it suggests a painful process to be sure. But is she talking about how guarded she normally is and how she is slowly opening herself up to Jamie? Or is this something she is enjoying, something she is trying to savor, and taking away one awful stitch from an old and healing scar because she is loving the thrill and newfound liberation?

“Take a breath,
Take a step,
Take a chance,
Take your time.
Have I mentioned today how lucky I am to be in love with you?”
- Jamie, The Schmuel Song
In the end, it is childish romance and hopeless optimism that overtakes me, and keeps this simple lyric at the top of my list and the top of my heart. Gifting Cathy with a watch, he urges her to go back to acting, and pursue it with all her heart. Then he ends it with a profession of love, a lyric worthy of all the great musical theatre love songs.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

An Open Dialogue with The Public

In honor of the closing of Love’s Labor’s Lost, and the official end of Shakespeare in the Park, as well as my first summer in New York, I present to you a very special piece I’ve written. I cannot take sole credit for this piece, oh no. This was a collaboration.

The part of “Random Audience Member” will be played by an amalgam of the best theater patrons who approached me this summer to ask one inane question after another. REMEMBER: This person’s dialogue is inspired, if not taken word-for-word, from actual people I talked to over the summer. This is by no means the dumbest crowd I’ve worked with, but the sheer volume of them was staggering.
But also, please keep in mind, this was not a single person. If this had been an actual conversation between me and a single person, I would’ve handed in my resignation by running naked up and down the aisles of the Delacorte as I screamed about there being a lack of a God in the universe.

The part of “Me” will be played by my sarcastic Id, who exists only in my imagination to allow me sweet, sacred stress relief from the dumbest people on the planet, if only in my head, since I cannot say these things to their faces.

And to clear up a couple other things:
- The title of this post is a play on words. Because I work at the Public. (GET IT!?) I, by no means, hate my job. It’s just easier to stomach these interactions with an opportunity to vent.
- I normally would hesitate to lump in the entire theater-going audience into one sweeping generalization such as, “they’re all dumb,” but to those naysayers I say:

Prove me wrong, motherfuckers.

(The following takes place between 7:00 AM and 6:00 PM, during which I would be sitting at Gate 1 or 4, answering questions to passersby.)
Random Audience Member: “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?”

Me: “Just across the path, in that stone building.”

Random Audience Member: (Looks beside him, to the right and left.) “Where?”

Me: “What reality do you live in, where ‘across’ means ‘next to you’?”

Random Audience Member: “Oops, sorry. I’ll be right back.”

(A little later.)
Random Audience Member: “So what is all this, anyway?”

Me: “What do you mean? Like, do you want me to explain architecture to you, or what is that, you’re leaning on? That’s a gate…”

Random Audience Member: “No, I mean this building. Is it a theater or an amphitheater, or a concert bowl…”

Me: “Well, first of all, those first two things are basically the same thing, the third one you just made up out of thin air.”

Random Audience Member: “I assume it’s pretty small inside?”

Me: “Why? Why would you assume that? Did you walk around the building at all? You must have if you came looking for the bathroom. Why would you assume it’s small? Do you think it’s like a reverse sort of TARDIS thing, it’s this big structure out there and inside, like the occupancy of a phone booth?”

Random Audience Member: “How many people does it seat?”

Me: “About 1800.”

Random Audience Member: “Wow, that sounds like a lot of people.”

Me: “No shit.”

Random Audience Member: “Can I take a look inside?” 

Me: “No.”

Random Audience Member: “Really?”

Me: “I was joking before. No one ever asks me, ‘Really?’ to confirm. They just accept that I was serious the first time. But the key to the whole thing is asking, ‘Really?’ and then, like an enchanted Cave of Wonders, I swing open wide, and let in that lucky person who realizes anyone who says no is really just bullshitting you because they like fucking with people.”

Random Audience Member: “But I just want to take a picture.”

Me: “Well, I wouldn’t be able to let you do that anyway.”

Random Audience Member: “Can’t I just take a peek? Me and my family are here all the way from <insert some God-awful, God-forsaken place, or Iowa> and we’ve never seen anything like this.”

Me: “And you never will. Go away please.”

Random Audience Member: “You’re mean. You should probably let more people come inside. You’d probably fill those 1800 seats a lot faster.”

Me: “Sir, it could be a donkey show in here. It’s fucking free, we have no problem filling 1800 seats.”

Random Audience Member: “What’s a donkey?”

Me: “Go away.”

Random Audience Member: “The show’s free?”

Me: “Yes.”

Random Audience Member: “What time’s it at?”

Me: “8:30.”

Random Audience Member: “Tonight?”

Me: “No, in an hour. Nothing like theatre in the morning. It’s called Shakespeare in the Park at Dawn.”

Random Audience Member: “Shakespeare Who?”

Me: “Do you really think his name his Shakespeare something?”

Random Audience Member: “I’m from Iowa!”

Me: “Oh, right.”

Random Audience Member: “So it’s free?”

Me: “Yes, I said!”

Random Audience Member: “So we just line up?”

Me: “Well, people start lining up for tickets…”

Random Audience Member: “I thought you said it was free.”

Me: “I sure did. And now you just did too.”

Random Audience Member: “So why do I need a ticket?”

Me: “Evolutionary advantage?”

Random Audience Member: “I’m from--!”

Me: “— Tennessee! Right. Listen, just because a show is free doesn’t imply that there’s no tickets involved. People have been lining up for tickets since the Park opened at 6 this morning.”

Random Audience Member: “What? That sounds crazy.”

Me: “You’ve never waited in line for anything? Or wanted to do something or see something so badly you did something extreme for it?”

Random Audience Member: “Yeah, but… Only for Call of Duty 3 / Harry Potter 5 / Star Trek Into Darkness / My favorite basketball game / my girlfriend who I’m no longer with / something else stupid.”

Me: “You should really look into this Shakespeare-whoever…”

(A little later, this takes place between 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM, where I’m more or less on duty, at Gate 2, and people are milling about waiting for the show.)
Random Audience Member: “Hey! Hey! You! Guy from earlier!”

Me: “Oh, good. You got a ticket. Wonderful. Hi. I have a name, you know…”

Random Audience Member: “That can’t be true. You’re less than human.”

Me: “…There isn’t a gate preventing me from jumping you, you know…”

Random Audience Member: “So… (Shoving six tickets in my face) …Are these good seats? Be honest with me.”

Me: “I’d LOVE to be honest with you…You have no idea… Yes, they’re good seats. Every seat’s a good seat.”

Random Audience Member: “Really?”

Me: “I hope that’s all you think a scientist is, just someone who sees something, and then goes, “Really?” First of all, you paid no money for that seat. Of course it’s a good seat. It’s fucking free.”

Random Audience Member: “Well, we’ll move around, it’ll be fine.”

Me: “No sir, you have to stay in your assigned seat. Or you’re going to fuck everyone over. Believe me, I’ve been on walkie all summer. Everyone. Fucked. Over.”

Random Audience Member: “I have to sell these other two tickets, though. My two friends got lost in a drunk driving graduation.”

Me: “Please, stop telling me things.”

Random Audience Member: “Is this gate 2?”

Me: “Yes, it is.”

Random Audience Member: “Is that what that number 2 is for?”

Me: “No, it’s my rating.”

Random Audience Member: “Do you guys ever change the order of the gates?”

Me: “What?”

Random Audience Member: “Like, is it always in alphabetical order?”

Me: “I think you mean…numerical…And no…I don’t even want to dignify that question with an answer.”

Random Audience Member: “Is it okay if my wife is coming an hour late?”

Me: “She’ll be held to a late seating cue. Which means I won’t be able to seat her right away.”

Random Audience Member: “Wait, so what does that mean?”

Me: “…Wait, really? I just said, I can’t just let her in whenever she wants. She’s going to be late, which means she’s lost the right to go in whenever she wants.”

Random Audience Member: “So it’s not like, a movie?”

Me: “No. In no way is this like a movie.”

Random Audience Member: “So they won’t hold for her?”

Me: “Remember how I said there’s 1800 people in there? If I wait for your wife, I will have 1798 people absolutely pissed at me. Plus everyone who works here, plus everyone onstage.”

Random Audience Member: “But what about me? The customer’s always right.”

Me: “The customer’s going to get punched, right in the face.”

Random Audience Member: “I heard I can’t take pictures inside. Why not?”

Me: “Basically, it boils down to: it’s copyright infringement.”

Random Audience Member: “But you said it was free!”

Me: “Again, sir, you’re using ‘free’ in ways that it was not meant to be used.”

(It starts to rain.)
Random Audience Member: “Oh no! It’s raining. Does this mean they cancel the show?”

Me: “Not usually, no. We haven’t had to cancel that many shows. They will perform in the rain.”

Random Audience Member: “But how do people see with all the umbrellas up?”

Me: “You’re not allowed to have umbrellas open in the theater…”

Random Audience Member: “What?! That’s barbaric. You can’t just have us sit there like Sodom and Gomorrah…”

Me: “I don’t think you read that Bible story at all…”

Random Audience Member: “Well, how long is this rain supposed to go on for?”

Me: “I’m sorry, do I look like the god of weather?”

Random Audience Member: “Ugh, well, I don’t think you should be making us sit out in the rain for you.”

Me: “First of all, I’m not making you do it. It’s not for me. Second of all, no one is making you do it. You’re free to go. Third of all, there’s hundreds of people who will disagree with you, and will gladly sit in the rain to watch this show.”

(A little later, now during the show. This is approaching a late seat cue, I have people waiting to go inside at my gate, along with some people returning from the bathroom.)
Random Audience Member: “Ugh, I wish you’d told me we’d be held outside. No one said anything to me.”

Me: “Did you hear all those announcements about 10 minutes, please take your seats, and then last and final call for seating?”

Random Audience Member: “I mean, yeah, but I didn’t think they applied to me.”

Me: “Of course you didn’t.”

Random Audience Member: “Well, how long before I can get back in?”

Me: “About 5 minutes.”

Random Audience Member: “But what if I was already in there?”

Me: “It’ll be the same. I’ll let you in soon.”

Random Audience Member: “Okay…” (Starts to try to get around me, even though I’m standing directly in front of the gate, with no clearance)

Me: “What are you doing?”

Random Audience Member: “Oh, I thought you said I could go in.”

Me: “Nope.”

Random Audience Member: “You’re a piece of shit, you know that?”

Me: “That’s weird, to yell that. I’m not holding you hostage or anything.”

And now for some open letters directly to a couple audience members:

To the kid who laughed at the directions of where the gates were, because he thought it was stupid I had to explain where gates 1 and 2 were as opposed to gates 3 and 4:
One of the people I had to explain that to was your father. So I hope you're happy with the same dumb genes he has.

To the guy who got extremely pissy with me because his sister was in the show and now he was missing the first 8 minutes of it:
You can swear under your breath all you want, it doesn't make your dick any bigger, or make you any more of a man.

To the gentlemen who booed me one night during the announcements that we were holding for the rain to let up:
When you get the urge to boo someone and it's a situation they're powerless to do anything about, I suggest you don't follow through on that urge to boo. You don't know if that person's used to dealing with hecklers, and has destroyed multiple idiots like you in the past, for a living.

And finally to the woman who called me a "fucking chink-face":
You are an ugly, racist bitch. I would express what I hope happens to you, but that would then imply that I'm a rape culture apologist. I also would not wish that on a rapist.

Lastly, to all my friends I've made this summer...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Six Songs Is All You Need, Part 2

I took a week off last week for improv camp (which I'm sure I'll get around to talking about at some point) but the new weekly update of Musical Mondays continues again today, with another installment of Six Songs Is All You Need

And today's musical is:

The La Boheme-inspired sung-through 90s musical gathered a legend all its own when its young creator, both writer and composer, Jonathan Larson, died unexpectedly of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. Though not the deadly disease that is the focus of the rock opera, it did call up themes of the fragility and fleetingness of life. I would argue that there really has never been another show quite like Rent since its debut in 1996, though its influence is fairly obvious. I enjoy the harder edged sound to Broadway in general, with more "purist" styles becoming a refreshing, occasional throwback.

The track listing on the original recording is something like 40+. There is a highlights album that exists, and of course the movie soundtrack keeps most of the vital songs. It's gonna be a challenge, but here are the 

Six Songs You Need from Rent

1.) Track #7, Disc #1: "One Song Glory"
First and foremost, we skip straight ahead to the first solo of the show, and "One Song" is a fantastic introduction to Larson's style, while also being one of his most subtle introspective numbers. It's also one of the more accessible (although none of his less accessible ones are in Rent, they're all in tick, tick, Boom!)
I enjoy the solo pieces of Rent (as you'll soon see) because I think they provide the most insight into the characters (as they should) and there's so few of them. We get all manner of combinations singing together, save for a real number between Benny and Mimi, which I would've enjoyed.
ANYway, it's a strong number and gives you enough insight into Roger as a character that it can stand alone.
This is Adam Pascal singing it in '09, I believe, during the touring show. I particularly love his modulation of the fourth "Glory" note. 
(I also didn't like having to type the phrase 'glory note.')

2.) Track #12, Disc #1: "Tango: Maureen"
There's something odd about the Broadway filmed version for me. While it's pretty cool to see a pro recording of its final performance, and the cast is more than game, there's something weird, like the show tempos are weird or something. Or there's this distance between it and the audience, I don't know what it is. But regardless, I do love this version, because I love Tracie Thoms who was amazing and probably the most worthwhile thing of the movie version, while Skylar Astin is a great Mark. He's not neurotic and awkward like Anthony Rapp's, there's a more modern take to him.
Anyway, I like the idea of a musical number dedicated to a character that we haven't seen yet. It's really cool. Plus, the number's just fun.

3.) Track #23, #24, & #25: "La Vie Boheme", "I Should Tell You", "La Vie Boheme B"
I know this is a bit of a cheat, but I have always really considered these to be a single number, but in three movements.
"La Vie Boheme", almost more than "Rent" and "Seasons of Love", represent the show's spirit. "Seasons" is its heart, absolutely. But I think there's something so fun about "La Vie Boheme" and how it represents its youth, rebellion, counter-culture, and artistic expression.
The cast is really game, like I said, in the Filmed Live on Broadway version, so I used that for the first movement.
"I Should Tell You" for me, is the best of the Mimi/Roger numbers, of which there are many. "Out Tonight/Another Day" (which I also treat as a single song) works better onstage than it does as a piece of audio.
With "Tell You" we get character development as well as a breather between the Boheme pieces. I enjoy the vulnerability of both of these stoic characters: Roger hiding behind his grief, Mimi hiding behind the bravado of sexual liberation. I used the Hollywood Bowl version, which I'm a huge fan of, and it's Aaron Tveit and Vanessa Hudgens, who play the parts extremely well, and have some really good chemistry.
Finally, I took the B Boheme from the movie. It's fine, a hair faster than the first part, a summation of its themes. I took the movie version for the hilarious slow-motion pan across the stars of the movie. Everyone's paired up except for Mark, and they look ridiculous in slow-motion, him especially.

4.) Track #5, Disc #2: "Take Me Or Leave Me"
The Bowl performance, if you ever get a chance to take it in, is really worthwhile, as is the Les Miz from the Bowl.
Between "Take Me" and "What You Own", which I think are the two best duets of the show, I had to choose "Take Me" because there's precious few female/female duets in musical theatre. Off the top, I can think of "I Know Him So Well" from Chess and "For Good" from Wicked.
But this one has a wonderfully complex and deep relationship at its core, and the two ladies singing it, whether it's Idina Menzel and Tracie Thoms, or Idina and Fredi Walker, or Thoms and Eden Espinosa, or this one, Thoms and inexplicably good Nicole Scherzinger, the number is infectious.
I argue the opening piano is more iconic and recognizable in a musical theatre sing-along situation than even "Seasons of Love."

5.) Track #10, Disc #2: "I'll Cover You (Reprise)"
Good Lord, Jesse L. Martin. You first captured criminals on Law & Order, and then you captured our hearts.
Martin has pretty much my favorite voice of the male cast of Rent and with good reasons. It's expressive, controlled, rangy, and soulful. And that's all showcased here in this number.
The number just works. In context of the show, it's even more effective because it is the reprise of a more upbeat number, the love duet of Angel and Collins. The reprise takes place at the funeral of Angel, sung solo by Collins. But you don't need to know the backstory to hear the hurt, the loss, and the grief in Martin's voice. Every note is a labor of love. Every beat is a good-bye. I love the movie version, because Martin just goes balls to the wall, and the arrangement is just killer.

6.) Track #11, Disc #2: "Halloween"
Finally, somewhat of an offbeat choice, my final pick, is a brief little number, sung by Mark. Again, I enjoy its insight into characters, particularly Mark, who up to this point, has also hidden behind his own wall, a camera, under the pretense of journalistic objectivity.
Even though he belittles it in-song, I love the line:
"Why are entire years strewn
On the cutting room floor of memory,
While single frames from one magic night
Forever flicker in close-up on the 3-D IMAX of my mind?"
It's not pathetic at all, it's an intriguing summary of the idea that our lives are made up of moments that mean everything. 
It's an easily skipped-over number, but I like the pull-back from the action, a lot has happened up to this point, and the particularly emotional loss of Angel, the show's emotional center, is impactful, and it makes Mark drop his facade, which I love.
I chose the movie version, which is actually a deleted scene, because it cuts out the phone call to Alexi Darling that leads into the song itself.

Missed the Mark:
Rent / Seasons of Love - So to begin, "Rent" for me doesn't serve well as an opening number. It's raucous, it's loud, there's a lot going on, and it doesn't service the characters in my opinion. I usually skip it on my listenings because it's chaotic and jarring. The movie got it right, starting with "Seasons." But on that note, I don't think "Seasons" is representative of Rent's sound as a whole. It's a gospel number, it features the cast singing the same thing, as opposed to parts, and it's not about themselves, it's about bigger themes. I love the song, but a) I feel like everyone's heard it and b) again, I don't think it's representative of the show.
Out Tonight / Light My Candle / Without You - As I mentioned earlier, I find a lot of the Roger/Mimi storyline to be somewhat insufferable. I like "Out Tonight/Another Day" but with the visual element. "Light My Candle" is fine and funny, but I think gets too cute and cavalier ("Like your dead girlfriend?") And "Without You" is just repetitive for me. The movie version saves it though, by having Roger and Mimi sing it but the montage is of Collins and Angel, effectively replacing the number "Contact." 
Will I - I love the song, but it's just a choral round. I love the staging ideas for it. Also, in the movie, Aaron Lohr sings the opening verse. Yes, Aaron Lohr, the second Bash Brother in the Mighty Ducks. And yes, Aaron Lohr, voice of Max in A Goofy Movie.
Santa Fe - It's the closest we get to an I Want song in the show, but it never gets resolved. Collins never does move to Santa Fe, though Roger does later on, but it turns out this subplot fizzles for the most part. I like the number but I think each of the guys has a better number in the show.
I'll Cover You - The original version is a great number, just not my favorite. I much prefer the reprise which I do think works without knowing the original.
Over the Moon - I'm not a fan of this song. Never have been. It's hit or miss with who does the number. I've seen both bad and good girls as Maureen playing it. This is the first time we see her, this is her solo. And for the most part, it's just nuts. I understand that's supposed to be the point, I definitely don't think it works just listening to it, so I left it off the list.
What You Own - I had to choose between this and "Take Me" and the girls' number just edges it out. I think "Goodbye Love" has a better representation of Mark and Roger's relationship. In this number on the other hand, they just happen to be singing at the same time. And the point of a duet for me is to represent the relationship. Mark and Roger are singing together, but not about each other.