Thursday, December 29, 2011


With the New Year soon approaching, I wanted to share a poem I wrote a few years ago that sums up how I feel at the end of every year.  I'm not going to go on and on telling you what the poem is about, so I'm just going to let you read it.

Happy New Year!
Let old acquaintance be forgot
In fact, let it vanish from the minds

As we make our resolutions…
And then break our resolutions,
We celebrate the men with dreams,
And inaugurate the elected (not selected),

After Phil sees a shadow,
Past leaders become a sales weekend,
Hearts become candies and cards,
We kiss the irish (and pinch the non-irish),

Hunt for the eggs and pay the government,
Embrace our mothers and remember the fallen,
Finish school and re-gift our fathers,

Watch the fireworks and complete the vacation,
Celebrate labor (by not laboring) and go back to school,
Become patriots and trick for the treat,

Elect the leaders and remember more soldiers,
Consume the turkey and purchase the gifts,
(Light the menorah, if applicable)
Decorate the tree and visit family,

Then think back on the past year,
Then drink the champagne,
Then kiss at the stroke of 12,
Then make our resolutions and…

Happy New Year!
Let old acquaintance be forgot
And so on…And so on…And so on…


Friday, December 23, 2011

10 FAVORITES (48) - 2011: A Year In Review

Well everyone, Christmastime is upon us and we are almost at the end of 2011.  But what were the most important events that occurred in our culture over the last year?  This week's 10 FAVORITES is a special 2011 review, picking the 10 moments that shaped the entertainment and pop culture world over the last 364 days (give or take a few!).


The Deaths of Bin-Laden, Gaddafi, Kim Jong-Il and the Resignation of Mubarak
The Middle Eastern region was given quite an uproar over the last year.  First, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak resigned in disgrace after over two weeks of riots and demonstrations against his questionable leadership.  Then, after years of hunting him down, President Barack Obama announced at the end of May that justice has been served as a US Seal team had found and assassinated Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama Bin-Laden.  After a long summer, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was killed by rebels after NATO took down his forces.  And if all that wasn't enough, recently from the Far East, North Korea revealed that their "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il had passed away (from unknown causes!).  Could it be that these once troubled nations will live in peace with the rest of the world?  Or are they in a deeper abyss of despair than they once were?  Only time shall tell.

Charlie Sheen's Meltdown
Talk about a method to leave a hit network show!  Former Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen seemed to be on a downward spiral since his very public arrest last year at Christmastime.  But halfway through his firing from the CBS ratings bonanza, he informed us all that he is not like us.  No, he has "tiger-blood" and "adonis DNA," so you cannot apply the same rules to him as you do us mere mortals.  By all accounts (according to Sheeen!), he is clearly "Winning!"  And with those statements, the Charlie Sheen meltdown was off and running.  He, of course, tried to use it to his advantage by launching a critically panned lecture tour and signing on for a new "sitcom" with a cable network (where apparently he doesn't have the "creative" restraints that a broadcast network has!).  If this is "Winning!" Mr. Sheen, then, by all means, have at it.

William and Kate Make It Official
30 years after his parents had their lavish and hard-to-compete-with Royal wedding, Prince William married his longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton.  With this marriage, they are now officially referred to as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  The wedding was watched in almost every country by millions upon millions, and in this 24/7 Internet age the wedding was watched over and over again.  Now, almost 8 months after the wedding, the rumors are flying (marriage in trouble, Kate's baby bump, etc.).  But despite all this, the couple seem happy in their new life together.  Let us hope they can weather the storm that is the media hype and the "Royal fishbowl" together in health and happiness.

Oprah's Farewell
After 25 years of laughs, tears, screams, celebrities, favorite things and A-ha moments, talk show queen Oprah Winfrey aired the final episode of her show at the end of May.  There was a lot of build up to that final hour.  The two days before were devoted to a "Surprise Spectacular" that was held for Ms. Winfrey at Chicago's United Center where every celebrity from Tom Hanks to Will Smith to Madonna to Beyonce to Aretha Franklin paid homage to the woman that has shaped our culture for the last quarter of a century.  On the final day, there was just a chair and Ms. Winfrey speaking to her audience (both in studio and not) about what this journey has meant to her.  She did not say "Goodbye," but she did say "Until we meet again."  And, of course, with her new network OWN, we shall be seeing her again.  But thanks to her daily talk show, our culture was never the same.

Harry Potter Casts His Final Spell
7 books plus 8 movies equals a pop culture phenomenon.  J. K. Rowling's sprawling fantasy series about the boy wizard with a lightning scar has been read by billions.  Her last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was wisely turned into two movies by Warner Brothers (the company that had been producing the other 6 films!).  Part I premiered in November of last year and Part II became one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the last decade.  On July 15, the world watched as the cast (which has been mostly the same since the first film!) played their parts for the eighth and final time.  The movie was a box office smash making almost $400 million in the U.S. and triple that worldwide (cementing the Harry Potter film series as the highest grossing film franchise of all-time!).  The reviews for the film were among the best any of the others within the series.  And thanks to DVD (and countless TV airings), the series shall live on forever.

Kim Kardashian Weds (and Divorces!)
There are just no words people!  This is our culture these days!  And I blame all of you.  Just so you know.

FALL TV 2011
All the Single Ladies!
The ladies certainly made good this Fall TV season.  Several of the new shows centered around women (mostly single!) and each of them had varying degrees of success (and others just flopped!).  FOX sitcom New Girl starring the charming Zooey Deschanel became the surefire hit of the new season garnering praise for its star and its style.  The show received top nominations at the Golden Globes (for Best Comedy Series and Best Actress for Ms. Deschanel).  Other female-centric sitcoms that hit it big were NBC's Up All Night (starring Christina Applegate and SNL alum Maya Rudolph), ABC's Suburgatory, and CBS' 2 Broke Girls (co-created by comedienne Whitney Cummings, whose other sitcom NBC's Whitney received renewal!).  Then there are the female-lead dramas.  The biggest ratings hits were CBS' Unforgettable (starring Without a Trace's Poppy Montgomery) and ABC's Revenge (featuring a deliciously wicked Madeleine Stowe), the latter garnered a Golden Globe nod for Lead Actress (Ms. Stowe).  Other dramas included ABC's Sunday package (alongside their outgoing hit Desperate Housewives!): the fantasy-themed Once Upon a Time and the 60's era stewardess tale Pan Am.  And the CW had a string of female-lead dramas (The Ringer, Hart of Dixie and The Secret Circle), all of which received renewal from the 5th place network.  As for ABC's reboot of Charlie's Angels and NBC's 60's era The Playboy Club (each female-lead!), the axe fell pretty quickly when the ratings were not high.  And unfortunately, NBC also cancelled the high quality American reboot of Prime Suspect, which featured a powerful and nuanced performance from star Maria Bello.  This Fall certainly was all about the Ladies!

The Muppets Make a Comeback
I have said so much about my love for The Muppets.  And this Thanksgiving, I got the wish I had been wishing for for over a decade.  A brand new theatrically-released Muppet movie (simply titled: The Muppets).  The movie was such a nostalgic throwback for me, yet still had enough modern sensibility that it could thrill children today.  All of my favorites were there: from Kermit the Frog to Miss Piggy to Fozzie Bear to The Great Gonzo to The Electric Mayhem!  And each character had their moment to shine.  There were certainly moments when my eyes welled with tears (remembering the happiness with which these colorful characters filled my childhood).  And there, of course, were moments where I laughed so hard that I could cry.  The Muppets are back and I hope it won't be too long before I see them again!

Political Pundits Remain Flummoxed
After a few months of debates between the high-profile Republican party Presidential candidates for next year's election, there still is no clear front-runner as far as the major media outlets are concerned.  Some say that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich leads in the polls.  A lot of the Republican experts still favor former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  And many of the Republicans I know personally have claimed they will vote for Ron Paul.  And with the dropping out of Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and the scandal that forced Herman Cain to suspend his seemingly successful campaign, many Conservatives are concerned they will not find someone who can take on President Obama in the 2012 General Election.  In the next coming months, as we have more debates and several states begin their important primaries, we shall see which one of these people shall emerge as the GOP's candidate for President.

Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Falk, Amy Winehouse, Andy Rooney & Steve Jobs
We lost a lot of great people in 2011.  Among the most notable included 60 Minutes icon Andy Rooney, troubled pop singer Amy Winehouse, TV's Columbo Peter Falk, Apple founding "genius" Steve Jobs and Hollywood's ever-glamorous leading lady Elizabeth Taylor.  They live on for us through their contributions and their impact on the culture.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

10 FAVORITES (47): A 5, 6, 7, 8!

Broadway has been filled with toe-tapping, jazz hand-waving, high-kicking musicals.  Dancing has been a part of Musical Theatre since Day One.  Yet over the course of the previous century, the importance the choreographer played in the creation of a musical changed dramatically.  And there are several men and women responsible for that change.  Today's 10 FAVORITES will discuss the most influential choreographers of the Broadway stage, who they were and how the musicals they staged shaped the landscape of Musical Theatre.


Peter Gennaro
"Nobody's feet were faster than Peter Gennaro's" says Broadway legend Chita Rivera, who had a prominent featured role in the first musical Gennaro choreographed (a flop called Seventh Heaven in 1956).  A year later Rivera worked with Gennaro again in Jerome Robbins' new venture, a modern musical-ballet hybrid of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  Gennaro was hired to be Robbins' lead assistant and co-choreographer.  He was integral in adding authentic Latin dances to several important numbers (namely the "Mambo" and "America").  After that, Gennaro enjoyed a flourishing career as a choreographer of Broadway (Fiorello!, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Annie) and Television (several 1960s variety shows and the Peter Gennaro Dancers!).  You can see the high energy and the fast nature of his choreography style in the 1964 film version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown starring Debbie Reynolds below.

Tommy Tune
Tommy Tune has more Tony Awards than any other choreographer (ironically, his total is 9!).  It also helps that he started as a dynamic performer for other choreographers like Gower Champion, Michael Kidd and Michael Bennett throughout the 1970s (two of his Tony Awards are as a performer!).  In the 1980s and early 1990s, Tune emerged as the most successful and the most innovative director-choreographer.  His musicals ranged from nostalgic-style hits (My One and Only, The Will Rogers Follies) to powerful evocative stories that helped shape the way musicals are created and performed (Nine, Grand Hotel).

Susan Stroman
One of the most popular choreographers of the last 20 years, Susan Stroman first came to prominence with her high-kicking choreography of the early 1990s nostalgic hit Crazy For You.  She followed that up by teaming with legendary director Harold Prince on the re-imagination of the classic Show Boat.  When she stepped out on her own as a director-choreographer, she revitalized Broadway.  First, she wowed critics twice in one year with a charming revival of The Music Man and her collaboration with the Lincoln Center Theatre on the game-changing musical-ballet hybrid Contact.  The following year, she teamed up with comedic icon Mel Brooks on his love-letter parody to Broadway: The Producers.  The show became the most lauded in Broadway history winning 12 Tony Awards (more than any other show!). 

Jack Cole
Of all the choreographers that shaped modern dancing to the way it is today, Jack Cole did it first.  He knew everything and utilized it in his work.  Jack Cole is considered (by many!) to be "the father of American jazz dancing."  Almost every dancer in the Golden Age of Broadway (from Carol Haney to Chita Rivera) worked for Jack Cole (Gwen Verdon was his assistant before she became a star on Broadway!).  Why is this master of American dance not closer to the top of the list?  Well while Cole was hugely influential to many of the dancers and choreographers who worked on Broadway after 1950, his most prominent work was in Hollywood.  Jack Cole worked on several movie musicals in the 1940s and 1950s.  If it starred the likes of Betty Grable or Jane Russell or Marilyn Monroe, Jack Cole was involved in that production.

Michael Kidd
When I think of Michael Kidd choreography, I think of a happy child skipping his way through a candy or toy store.  The key word there is "happiness."  Michael Kidd was a master at high energy and absolutely gleeful choreography.  Take a look at his work on shows like Finian's Rainbow, Where's Charley?, Lil' Abner or Destry Rides Again.  Even the times when he ventured into the seedier nature of human nature (like in Guys and Dolls or Can-Can), his dances still manage to be filled with some kind of happy feeling.  Like Jack Cole, Michael Kidd was lured out to Hollywood.  His most enduring contribution was the choreography of the 1954 classic Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.  For the delightful and acrobatic "Barn Dance" sequence alone, Michael Kidd goes down into choreographic history.

Agnes de Mille
During the Golden Age of Broadway, there were only a few choreographers who did both ballet and Broadway.  Agnes de Mille was one of them.  Her work helped change the American Musical altogether.  In Oklahoma!, de Mille inspired Oscar Hammerstein II to create the idea of the "Dream Ballet."  The ballet helped to show the inner emotions of the musical's leading characters through dance rather through song.  De Mille continued to use this concept in other shows like Carousel and Brigadoon.  It then became the driving concept of the shows in which she served as director as well (Allegro, Juno).  And her amazing American ballet Rodeo (set to Aaron Copeland's sumptuous music!) has been performed all over the world.  

Gower Champion
Like Tommy Tune, Gower Champion started as a famous dancer himself.  His work in many classic musical films (alongside his wife Marge) is extremely well documented.  In the 1960s, Champion became one of the top Broadway director-choreographers (with shows like Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival!, I Do! I Do! and the ever-popular Hello, Dolly!).  After suffering a series of flops (as most legends have) in the 1970s, Champion was on his way back to the top when he took on the task of staging David Merrick's stage production of the classic musical film 42nd Street.  It was a production that would have stressed and taxed anyone (even the likes of Jack Cole or Jerome Robbins!).  It has now gone into the theatrical lore as the most infamous opening night in Broadway history.  When 42nd Street opened to massive applause and rave reviews, producer David Merrick announced that Gower Champion, the man responsible for the brilliance the audience saw on that stage that night, was dead.

Michael Bennett
When it comes to Broadway choreographers, the conversation would not be complete without talking about Michael Bennett.  There is so much that Michael Bennett gave to Broadway.  Just Google "Turkey Lurkey Time" in Promises, Promises if you don't believe me.  He also helped the Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince collaboration by working on their first two musicals together (Company and Follies, both of which have been acclaimed as Sondheim's best scores).  He innovated the way musicals were put together and the method of working a show throughout its run (especially on shows like Ballroom or Dreamgirls).  And the idea of the workshop didn't exist until Michael Bennett created A Chorus Line, quite honestly a musical that exists on every dancer's resume.

Bob Fosse
When it comes to style, there is no one like Bob Fosse.  Everybody knows a Fosse move when they see it.  Fosse, too, started as a performer.  When Jerome Robbins suggested him to George Abbott as a choreographer for The Pajama Game, a new career began its trajectory.  He followed his jazzy work in Pajama Game (see "Steam Heat") with dynamic dances in shows like Damn Yankees, Redhead and Sweet Charity (the latter two he served as director as well!).  All three starred his wife and muse, the glorious Gwen Verdon.  He soon branched out into films with the film version of Sweet Charity (starring Shirley MacLaine) and the film version of Cabaret (starring Liza Minnelli), which as become one of the most popular musical movies among college-age kids.  In 1973, Fosse won the Triple Crown for Entertainment directors winning an Oscar for directing Cabaret, a Tony for directing and choreographing Pippin and an Emmy for directing Liza Minnelli's TV special Liza With a Z.  He followed that with work that has since made him a legend: the Broadway musical Chicago (again starring Verdon), the edgy semi-self-biographical film All That Jazz and the musical-ballet hybrid Dancin'.  While working on a revival of Sweet Charity, Fosse had a heart attack while walking with Gwen Verdon in a Washington D.C. park and died that evening.  His legacy lives on through his recognizable style.

Jerome Robbins
What can I say about Jerome Robbins that I haven't already said?  There truly is no choreographer like Robbins that left such an indelible mark on the stage.  To this day, all of the musicals that he worked on still bare his credit (as in "Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins").  It didn't hhurt that Robbins had one of the fiercest Broadway lawyers in theatrical history, Ms. Floria Lasky.  From On the Town to The King and I or from Gypsy to Fiddler On the Roof, Jerome Robbins was a force to be reckoned with, no matter what show you remember.  And who could forget the masterpiece that is West Side Story?  As hated for his dictatorial metods (and even his personality!) as much as he is loved for his genius, Robbins was the master of the Broadway (and the Ballet!) world.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: Sports Vs. Ethics?

Is it just me or do athletes (and other sports legends) seem to get away with more when it comes to our society's "Moral Code" (that's assuming our culture has a "Moral Code")?  If you don't believe me, let's comb through a few examples in recent memory.  Most recently, Penn State Football coaching legend Joe Paterno was let go from his august position because he allegedly covered up the actions of his assistant Jerry Sandusky, who has been accused of sexually molesting several young boys.  After the decision was made public, several people felt that Paterno should not have been fired and that the Penn State Board of Directors made a huge mistake.  Now, I am not here to decide whether he should or should not have been fired (that is a school's decision) and I am not here to discuss whether he did anything illegal (that is for the law and the courts to hash out).  But, what I am wondering is why (for those people crying foul) Mr. Paterno is ethically "in the clear" when there are several pieces of evidence that point to his deceit and his partaking in a cover-up (something that over 35 years ago forced a U.S. President to resign from office).  It seems that Mr. Paterno's years of service to the world of College Football have bought him a kind of immunity when it comes to some people's version of morality.

If this were the only example in recent years, then I would consider this an anomaly and this article would be extremely short (or even non-existent!).  But the Penn State case is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to athletes seemingly getting special treatment from our culture.  Just look at Kobe Bryant or Ben Roethlisberger.  Both of them well-respected athletes who were accused of sexual assault.  But since both of their respective cases could not be proved, each athlete has since continued to gain fans and have seemingly flourished in their sports.  It seems that some sports fans are willing to overlook dangerous (and even violent) allegations because of their top sports skills.

And then there is the use of steroids in the sport of Baseball.  Several players (including Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa) have had their careers called into question because of their alleged use of enhancement drugs.  But, interestingly enough, most of the speculation and investigations came towards the end of their respective careers and after they had broken or sustained several high-profile Baseball records.  And let's not even get into the Tiger Woods story!

Now, I am sure I am overreaching.  You can point out to me that O. J. Simpson is in jail.  And yes, he is...but not for murder (technically).  He is in prison for armed robbery, assault and a kidnapping charge.  He has the possibility of parole in 6 years.  Now, that seems like a lot for armed robbery and assault (even for Nevada!), but I am sure Simpson's past "brushes" with the law were at least in the back of the minds of the jurors on his trial.  But that first Simpson trial always comes to mind when it comes to a sports celebrity "getting away with it."  It has been said by many that the jury in that notorious trial were not willing to put a celebrity like Simpson in prison for murders that he most likely (but could not be proven) did.

And, of course, you could point out that Pete Rose went to jail for his crimes.  But there are still debates to this day about his banishment from being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, even after he admitted his wrongdoings in his memoirs (though he didn't refer to them as "wrongdoings").  Once again, I am not complaining, I am just pointing out some interesting observations.

And maybe I am just pointlessly pontificating.  When it comes to Celebrities (and that includes Entertainers too!), the degree to which the culture will "forgive" their indiscretions can go either way.  They certainly walk that fine line between being atop the pedestal and being the social pariah.  And oftentimes (as my father has smartly pointed out!), some of these Celebrities get targeted because of their fame.  It can be a very polarizing issue and I am very interested to hear people's thoughts.  Is there a different kind of ethics when the culture is dealing with a sports star (or any kind of star!)?  Is there a line that no Celebrity should cross?  Or are ethics and morality too subjective for a culture to have a collective "code?"  Don't be shy, say what you feel (just no gratuitous language or inflammatory rhetoric!).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

10 FAVORITES (46) - Toys, Toys and MORE Toys!

With Thanksgiving over, the Christmas shopping season has officially begun with "Black Friday" (and the fairly new "Cyber-Monday" as well!).  So now everyone is making their respective Wish Lists for their friends and family and trying to decide what they want or need (or think they want or need!) for the Holidays.  It is a time-honored tradition in our culture and, of course, I was no exception growing up.  Every year at this time, my relatives would descend upon me and question me as to what I wanted for Christmas.  And as a child, the "Go-To" answer was obviously: TOYS!!!!  So many Toys have been popular throughout my lifetime.  But which ones were the best ones?  Which ones have withstood the test of time?  This week's 10 FAVORITES is devoted to the Toys that created a frenzy whenever they were released and how important they have been within the fabric of our culture.


The Easy Bake Oven
How many Toys can make a "delicious" snack for you and your friends?  Young girls everywhere have had hours of enjoyment from the little bulb in a box that can bake you a cupcake!

TOY #10
The Disney Princess Franchise
This one is a bit of a cheat as I am giving a spot on this list to an entire franchise that includes Toys, backpacks, pencil cases, sleepwear, etc.  But the House of Mouse has empowered young girls with a franchise that has made more money in the last decade than any other Toy company in history.

TOY #9
Teddy Bears
The classics are always great!  Every kid has had a Teddy Bear in their lifetime.  They will always be a part of our culture no matter what.

TOY #8
Remote Control Cars
This was one of the first Toys I clearly remember wanting really bad.  All the commercials for them made them seem like they gave the boys who had them magical powers or something.  Now with the popularity of both NASCAR and Disney/PIXAR's Cars, this generation of Remote Control Cars have taken on a new life.

TOY #7
G. I. Joe
G.I. Joe is the ultimate when it comes to masculine Toys.  Combining the classic Army Men Toy with the similar style used when Matel created Barbie, the Great American Hero was the original Action Figure.  Since then, so many movie and cartoon characters have become popular figures but G. I. Joe has remained the pinnacle.

TOY #6
Train Sets
Like the Teddy Bears above, the classics still never go out of style.  Trains are one of the first vehicles little kids enjoy identifying and a Train Set will always be welcome in a child's home.  Plus, the adults get as much enjoyment from them.  This is one of the few Toys where adult collectors can get truly obsessive about (and this goes well beyond the typical Trekkie or Comic Book Guy!).

TOY #5
Tickle Me Elmo
One of the most popular toys of all-time has also become one of the most beloved.  Elmo has become the most popular character on Sesame Street, even passing the irrepressible Big Bird.  And the laughing and moving stuffed doll based on the lovable red monster has caused more stampedes at Toy stores than most other Toys in history.

TOY #4
Cabbage Patch Kids
Cabbage Patch Kids are enjoying a surprising nostalgic resurgence now thanks to the many kids who had them when I was kid now having kids themselves. 

TOY #3
Hot Wheels
This one is a personal favorite of mine.  Both my brother and myself loved collecting the many different kinds of cars the Hot Wheel company released.  We even enjoyed building the tracks and racing them against each other (though the tracks never really lasted!).

TOY #2
Her placement on this list is most definitely due to her longevity.  She has lasted longer than almost any other doll in Toy history.  She has many clothes, many friends, many houses and many boyfriends (including the ever-popular Ken!).  There is truly no one like her in all of the Toy world.

TOY #1
What can I say about this timeless Toy?  Everyone I know has had a set of Legos somewhere in their childhood.  And now with the number of video games devoted to the world of Legos (LEGO Harry Potter, LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.).  They even have their own popular Theme Park: LEGOLand (located in the San Diego, CA area).

Sunday, November 20, 2011


After a week of fighting off the end of a cold and various headaches (both personal and physical!), this was not the best week to have my own blog.  But every time I got stressed or felt like just crawling into bed and never getting up, I thought of the wonderful things in this world.  And half of the things I thought of had to do with the Muppets!  So I took it as a sign that it couldn't have been mere coincidence that their first theatrical feature in over 10 years shall soon be released over the upcoming Holiday weekend.  Therefore during this week of Thanksgiving, I want to be eternally grateful for Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear and every other glorious piece of felt from that enchanting and timeless company.  I may not be able to see it on opening day, but I do plan to see their new cinematic adventure as soon as possible.  And when I do, I shall remember all the good things and good times you have given me over my lifetime.  Thank You Kermit.  Thank You Piggy.  Thank You Muppets.  And most importantly, Thank You Jim!  You remind me every day that IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS that get you through the tough times.

Friday, November 11, 2011

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: For the Glory of 11-11-11

It's all over the Internet so I cannot see how anyone could have missed the coincidental date today, but just in case: November is the 11th month and today (Veteran's day) is the 11th day of November AND it is the year 2011.  Therefore, the date on all the calendars reads: 11/11/11.

In honor of it being Veteran's Day, I am taking a break from pontificating in a long, drawn out column this week.  Instead, I want to dedicate this post to all the Veterans of the United States Military (all branches!) and thank them for their sacrifice and their service.  

For your viewing pleasure, here is a song from the Broadway musical The Civil War (by Frank Wildhorn, Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd) accompanied by photos of what the sacrifice our Veterans have made and what it means to this great nation.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

10 FAVORITES (45) - Play On, America!

Now its time to talk about one of my first loves: the Theatre!  These days, the Broadway stage is illuminated with hit musicals that have been running for years, revivals of past hits that have proven their worth in the theatrical landscape, an uber-expensive musical that seems to have more critics the more money it makes and a smattering of new and revived plays that feature of the brightest stars of stage and screen.  Why are there so many plays where there once was almost nothing but musicals?  Well, three main reasons:

1) Plays are cheap.  In this tough economic crunch, the Theatrical community is really feeling a tightening of the purse-strings.  When it comes to an investor choosing to invest in a new play (with a known star) or a new musical (with an unknown score), the investor is more likely to choose the new play these days.
2) Plays get more critical attention, particularly from the top New York Theatre Critcs.  More good reviews and more attention from the critics means more attention from the several Theatrical Awards groups (i.e. Tonys, Drama Desks, Pulitzer, etc.).  The more awards means the more interest from audiences.
3) Among the stars currently in Broadway plays are Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Langella, Alan Rickman, Kim Cattrall, Marlo Thomas, Hugh Dancy, Stockard Channing and that's just to name a few!  With so many "name" people doing a play or two nowadays, the limited run of a new (or revived) play could net the same amount of profits that a short-lived run of a flop musical that cost twice (or even three-times!) as much to produce could.

Why am I talking about all this?  Well with so many plays popping up on the Great White Way, I thought this would be a good time to look at some of the masters of American plays (both Dramas and Comedies!).  This week's 10 FAVORITES is about the Greatest American Playwrights.


Thornton Wilder
Notable Plays include: Our Town, The Matchmaker, The Skin of Our Teeth
There can be no discussion of American Drama without mentioning his name.  Though I'm not a particular fan of his plays (hence his placement as "Honorable Mention"), they have become some of the most influential work in the American Theatre landscape.  Our Town is still the play that is taught to most first-year acting students and The Matchmaker served as the basis for one of America's most enduring musicals, Hello, Dolly!.

Sam Shepard
Notable Plays include: True West, Buried Child, Fool For Love
This Academy-Award nominated actor is first and foremost one of the most prolific and "out-of-the-box" playwrights of the last 30-40 years.  With a subversive edge and an unmistakable style, Shepard's plays revolutionized Off-Broadway and Regional Theatres.  Most notably, the landmark Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of his True West made stars out of Shepard and actors Gary Sinise and John Malkovich when it won several Obies and was filmed for PBS (Available on YouTube for viewing in 10 parts with Part 1 below!).

Terrence McNally
Notable Plays include: Master Class, The Ritz, Love! Valour! Compassion!
Trailblazing, controversial and a constant surprise are all adjectives that can be applied to McNally's long career.  He balances quite well between farcical comedies (The Ritz) to romantic dramedies (Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune) to full-on character studies (Master Class).  Occasionally, he will throw in a bit of controversy just to stir the pot (Corpus Christi).  He is also one of the few playwrights who has had successes writing the book (re: script) for hit musicals (Kiss of the Spider Woman - The Musical, Ragtime, The Full Monty).

Wendy Wasserstein
Notable Plays include: The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter
She had the wit of Neil Simon and the style of Tom Stoppard.  Wendy Wasserstein could do it as well as the boys and had the humor to boot.  Her masterpiece comedy-drama The Heidi Chronicles changed the way female characters were perceived on Broadway.  She championed the Regional Theatre and even wrote children's books.  When we lost her to her battle with lymphoma in 2006, the Shiksa Goddess was mourned by many as the lights dimmed on Broadway in her honor.

David Mamet
Notable Plays include: Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow
Though censors and parent groups may redact every other word in most of his plays, David Mamet changed the way characters relate to each other in most dramas.  Characters like Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross (played perfectly by Al Pacino in the 1992 film version below) or Bobby Gould in Speed-the-Plow were willing to play both sides of any moral dilemma and were not afraid to curse up a storm doing it (ironically, both Gould and Roma were originally played on Broadway by Joe Mantegna!).

August Wilson
Notable Plays include: Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Fences, The Piano Lesson
Very few playwrights were able to connect their works together like links in a chain.  August Wilson was the most groundbreaking.  His "Century Cycle" of ten plays covered the African-American experience in America over the 20th Century.  Plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson (both plays won him Pulitzer Prizes) gave us characters that are transformed by the same things that transform any other person.  Wilson saw it as his mission to "humanize" African-American people for the audiences who normally would "look right through them."

Arthur Miller
Notable Plays include: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, The Price
He was accused of being a Communist, he won countless of Theatre and Arts Awards AND he was married to Marilyn Monroe!  In his over 70-year career, Arthur Miller shaped what true American drama is.  He was controversial with plays like A View From the Bridge and The Crucible (which cleverly compared the HUAC hearings to the Salem Witch Trials!).  He was the first playwright to win what was considered New York Theatres triumvirate of Awards for his landmark work Death of a Salesman in 1949 (winning the Tony, the Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards).

Edward Albee
Notable Plays include: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, Seascape, The Zoo Story, The Goat Or: Who is Sylvia?
When it comes to biting dialogue and true theatricality in American drama, there is no one better than Edward Albee.  He is a master at what is known as the Americanization of the Theatre of the Absurd where much of his work can be compared to the likes of Samuel Beckett or Tom Stoppard.  Just take a look at his brilliant masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which gets better with each viewing.

Tennessee Williams
Notable Plays include: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Glass Menagerie, The Night of the Iguana
No playwright's style is more memorable than Tennessee Williams'.  Taking cues from those around him as he was growing up in Mississippi, Williams created some of the most enduring characters in American Theatre history.  Williams was especially adept at creating brilliant female characters.  Just take a look at Blanche DuBois or Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; or Maggie the Cat in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof; or Amanda and Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie; or Alexandra del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth.  Each woman represented a type of beauty that Williams saw in the world, but each woman was tainted with some kind of madness, brutality, addiction or even affliction, which made for great drama.

Neil Simon
Notable Plays include: The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Barefoot In the Park, Lost In Yonkers, Plaza Suite
When it comes to American comedy, Neil Simon is one of the first names that comes to mind.  He started as a staff writer for the great Sid Caesar and his very successful TV variety shows.  But by the end of the 1960's, Simon had hit plays like Barefoot In the Park and The Odd Couple under his belt and had become one of the most praised comedy writers since George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart 30 years earlier.  With shows like Brighton Beach Memoirs and Lost In Yonkers (for which he won a Pulitzer!), Simon personalized the humor and mixed in a good dose of heartwarming drama.  Like McNally above, Simon was also a successful book-writer for many hit musicals (Sweet Charity, Promises, Promises and They're Playing Our Song to name a few!).

Eugene O'Neill
Notable Plays include: Long Day's Journey Into Night, Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh, Mourning Becomes Electra, A Moon For the Misbegotten
This man changed the way American drama is done.  He was one of the first playwrights to have his characters speak in the vernacular.  His characters were often on "the fringes" of society and often involved tragic circumstances.  His use of realism in his techniques were comparable to the likes of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov.  He also explored other theatrical techniques (like Japanese Noh Theatre and ancient Greek themes) to use them in his dramas.  He was one of the first American playwrights to have a Broadway theatre named after him.  He holds the record for winning the most Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (winning four total for Beyond the HorizonAnna ChristieStrange Interlude and his masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night).  His work has become some of the most complex and the most enduring tragedies in American Theatre history.

Friday, November 4, 2011

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: November Movies - First Impressions

Lord how time flies!!!!  The Fall Movie season will soon be coming to an end and Christmas will suddenly be upon us.  After some extremely well-received movies in August and September (The Help, Moneyball and Contagion) and a lackluster October filled with sequels (Paranormal Activity 3), prequels (Puss In Boots), ho-hum star-driven vehicles (In Time and The Rum Diary) and snoozy remakes (Footloose, The Thing and The Three Musketeers); I thought we should take a look at some of the films coming out over the next month as we head into the Holiday seasons and the beginning of the Awards track (Golden Globe nods come out in mid-December!).

So, let's look at some of the trailers of the major studio films (and some of the Award-hopefuls) being released during November and talk about the first impressions based on the trailer (and whatever buzz may be surrounding the movie in question!).  Then, I'll give the verdict on whether I would personally take the time to see the movie.

RELEASE DATE: Friday, November 4, 2011
A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas
Starring: Kal Penn, John Cho, Neil Patrick Harris
First Impressions: The Harold & Kumar franchise has done quite well especially in its key demographic (audience ages 18-35).  Both stars Kal Penn and John Cho have been able to transition within their own careers thanks to the H&K brand, so why wouldn't a third film be in the cards.  However, comedy franchises tend not to do as well as their predecessors (as we learned with the highly-anticipated Hangover II earlier this year!).  Studios tend to expect more out of them than they end up getting.  And when they don't meet those expectations, they are counted as failures.  It's quite possible that the duo's trip to WhiteCastle should have been their one and only.
Would I See It?: Possibly (on TV or DVD though)

Tower Heist
Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck
First Impressions: Alan Alda as a Bernie Madoff-type living in what is obviously Trump Towers!  It's the kind of biting satire that worked back in the 1980s, but today its a little along the too esoteric lines.  Though the rest of the cast is likable in what seems to be their typical roles now (Ben Stiller as fumbling lead, Casey Affleck as sarcastic assistance, Matthew Broderick as nebbish friend, etc.), the only standout even within the trailer is obviously Eddie Murphy.  He seems to be in exactly the type of role that made us love him at the beginning of his career (i.e. Trading Places, 48 Hrs., etc.).  The problem is that right-off you can tell that Murphy in all his comic glory is probably only in about 20-25% of the movie.  Meaning the rest of the film would be kind of a snore when Murphy is not on the screen.
Would I See It?: Possibly (on TV or DVD though)

The Son of No One
Starring: Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Juliette Binoche
First Impressions: I have not heard of this movie at all!  No buzz, no news, no early reviews, no nothing!  And yet there are actual people in this movie!  Like name people, A-Listers!  Is it because Channing Tatum is the first name on the list that I automatically ignored anything about this film?  It looks like it might actually be interesting and provocative with some pretty good performances (except for maybe Katie Holmes, although she could surprise us!).  Why have I heard nothing about this film?
Would I See It?: Maybe

RELEASE DATE: Friday, November 11, 2011
Starring: Henry Cavill, John Hurt, Mickey Rourke
First Impressions: Trying to capture what was captured a few years ago with 300, but probably being more like the horrendous remake of Clash of the Titans last year.
Would I See It?: Never

Jack & Jill
Starring: Adam Sandler, Katie Holmes, Al Pacino
First Impression: Adam Sandler dances on that line of clever parody (The Wedding Singer) to touching lead (Punch-Drunk Love) to trying to be serious (Spanglish) to just plain stupid (Grown Ups).  Unfortunately, this is way passed the latter of those options.
Would I See It?: Never

J. Edgar
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Dame Judi Dench
First Impression: This movie has the most going for it as far as I'm concerned.  Its directed by an accomplished and acclaimed director (Clint Eastwood!).  Its screenplay is by the smart and edgy Oscar-winning writer behind Milk (Dustin Lance Black).  And it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in what quite possibly could be his Oscar-winning performance (if the early critics are to be believed!).  It has the stylish qualities that went into last year's Oscar-winner The King's Speech and the political intrigue (and topical metaphors) that went into the previous Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker.
Would I See It?: Most Likely

RELEASE DATE: Friday, November 18, 2011
The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part I
Starring: Robert Pattison, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner
First Impressions: Just when you think you're rid of these brooding "teenagers" who never seem to smile, they come back doing the exact thing the Harry Potter series did earlier by splitting its "final chapter" into two movies (because Stefanie Meyer can do anything J. K. Rowling can do! NYAH!).  So that just means they'll be boring boyfriends and putting husbands to sleep in two movies instead of one!
Would I See It?: Not even if you held a gun to my head! I would choose death! (Too much with the sarcasm?) 

Happy Feet Two
Starring: Elijah Wood, Pink, Robin Williams
First Impressions: I really liked the first one.  It was touching, funny and surprisingly well-crafted.  But I'm not sure all of that positive reaction the first one got (including an Oscar for Best Animated Film beating Cars!) warrants a sequel.  It seems like it could be cute and funny and maybe even touching.  But it also seems like its over-reaching and re-hashing some of the same jokes and plotlines that fueled the first one.
Would I See It?: On the Fence

The Descendants
Starring: George Clooney, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard
First Impressions: Another potential Awards grabber and George Clooney already had one earlier this fall with The Ides of March.  It may be hard to decipher which George Clooney Oscar-bait movie audiences need to see.
Would I See It?: On the Fence

RELEASE DATE: Friday, November 25, 2011
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Sasha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee
First Impressions: At first look, its family-friendly and filled with a typical mix of fantasy and comic relief (Thank You Borat!).  It seems to have charm and kids and period costumes and....wait a minute...did that say "Directed by Martin Scorcese?!?!"  Martin "Mean Streets-Taxi Driver-Raging Bull-GoodFellas-Gangs of New York-The Departed" Scorcese?!?!  I know he's taking risks now and doing things he wouldn't have done 20 years ago (hence his Emmy-winning work on the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire!), but how opposite from his canon does he have to go in order to prove he's a risk-taker?  Wait, Does he need to prove he's a risk-taker?!?!  Maybe he figures: He has an Oscar and an Emmy, now he needs the children to like him!
Would I See It?: Likely (but probably on TV or DVD)

The Muppets
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper
First Impressions: It has Muppets! It's their first theatrical venture since the somewhat average Muppets From Space over a decade ago.  It has celebrity cameos, self-referential humor...oh, and did I mention: IT HAS MUPPETS!!!!
Would I See It?: Try and stop me!!!

Arthur Christmas
Starring: James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy

First Impressions: Sure, there of course is bound to be a Christmas-themed animated movie this year (we've had The Polar Express and Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol).  This movie seems like it might be charming and sweet with a anything-can-happen and anyone-can-do-anything message.  But on the other hand, everything that makes it so cute and special also could make it so gratingly irritating.  Since PIXAR revolutionized Disney, every studio has to get into the game and do it in some way (see Happy Feet Two above!).  But I just don't know if I can take much more of this.
Would I See It?: Possibly (on TV or DVD though)

A Dangerous Method
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley
First Impressions: The last Viggo Mortensen-David Cronenberg venture (Eastern Promises) resulted in an Oscar nomination for the former Lord of the Rings star.  Plus, Michael Fassbender (who first charmed audiences a few years ago in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds!) is quickly becoming one of the most welcome additions to any movie this year (a well-received version of Jane Eyre and the surprisingly well-done X-Men prequel).  And its been a while since Keira Knightley steamed up the screen in a racy role that could result in some awards attention.  And its about Freud and Jung and their tenuous (re: stressful) work relationship.  The two are the greatest influences on the psycho-analytical world and a dramatic depiction of their (possible) "friendship" would be quite interesting.
Would I See It?: Quite Possibly

My Week With Marilyn
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh

First Impressions: A movie about Marilyn Monroe while she was making the somewhat charming 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier...interesting.  Michelle Williams looks gorgeous as the iconic blonde.  Branagh is the perfect choice to play Lord Larry.  And Tony-winner Eddie Redmayne seems to be in a star-making performance as the man who was Monroe's confidante and friend for that titular "week."  It is definitely an Awards-grabber (especially with Williams' rising Oscar profile receiving nods for Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine).
Would I See It?: Maybe

The Artist
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman
First Impressions: It has already won fans at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival.  It is become so beloved by the early critics that this will certainly not be the last time we will hear this film's name over the next Awards season.
Would I See It?: Maybe