Tuesday, March 22, 2011

10 FAVORITES (26) - Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim!!!

Today is a very special day for those of us who follow musical theatre.  Two very important people in Broadway history share this day as their birthday.  Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of hit musicals The Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Evita, is celebrating his 63rd birthday.  And legendary musical composer Stephen Sondheim is happily going onto his 81st year.  Now, we can devote a list of 10 FAVORITES to Lord Lloyd Webber next year.  I want to focus on Mr. Sondheim.  Last year, the composer was bombarded with a year-long of celebrations worldwide in honor of his 80th birthday.  I feel that was appropriate, but, today, not one mention of his birthday.  And he is 81!  People seem to forget about the year following the milestone.  And Sondheim is such a legend that he should be celebrated every year.  So, this week's 10 FAVORITES, on this Sondheim's birthday, is devoted to the great songs that he wrote throughout his long career in the Broadway theatre.  Now, this list is only dedicated to the songs he wrote both the music and lyrics to, even though he wrote the lyrics to landmark shows like West Side Story and Gypsy (two of my favorite musicals of all-time!).  So, without any further stalling and information, here are: 


SONG #10
A Little Priest
from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
First Heard: Broadway, 1979
When Sondheim was writing his opus Sweeney Todd, he came upon the last line of the first Act of Christopher Bond's gothic play about the murderous barber: "And the two fell into each others arms with laughter."  Sondheim knew this was a moment to musicalize and what resulted was one of the cleverest and most devious duets in Broadway history.  The song is always a showcase for the actors playing Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, as demonstrated below by George Hearn and the great Angela Lansbury (Broadway's original Mrs. Lovett).

Unworthy of Your Love
from Assassins
First Heard: Off-Broadway, 1990
The idea of putting a love ballad into a show about Presidential assassins (and would-be assassins) is only something someone like Sondheim could pull off.  To have John Hinckley (who attempted to assassinate President Reagan) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (who attempted on President Ford's life) sing to the objects of their affection (Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively) while plotting their actions feels like something out of a counterculture novel or a film by Truffaut or Kubrick! Yet, it is one of the most poignant ballads Sondheim has ever written (despite the disturbing imagery even in the regional production shown below).

Everybody Ought to Have a Maid
from A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum
First Heard: Broadway, 1962
This is probably Sondheim's funniest and most delightful song.  The context of the song doesn't really matter (and the farcical story is too complicated to explain anyway!). But the actors performing it (whether it be in a full-fledged production or a concert, like below) seem to have so much fun with the lyrical content and the bright melody, that one doesn't care WHY the song is being performed.  Just that it's being performed!

Every Day a Little Death
from A Little Night Music
First Heard: Broadway, 1973
Within Sondheim's light-hearted musical based on Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, this poignant duet sung by wives struggling to come to terms with their husbands' blatant infidelities blew me away the first time I heard it (in a local regional production).  The melody is haunting but it is Sondheim's lyrics that struck me hardest with the ladies singing about dying every day and suffering the indignities of being lied to and humiliated.  Then, the lyric about men being "stupid and vain" just threw me for a loop and made me really think about the way our society treats women and fidelity.  Below, Carol Burnett and Ruthie Henshall beautifully sing the song in the Sondheim review Putting It Together.

from Sunday In the Park With George
First Heard: Broadway, 1984
This was my mother's favorite Sondheim musical and every time the show (or the soundtrack) got to this song, her eyes would well up with tears.  Not only is it a very moving and powerful song, but it also has a very natural quality to it.  The way it moves and flows musically is such a typical Sondheim "build."  The song is about the people in the Georges Seurat painting noticing the beauty in their every day lives and what it brings to their existence (at least on the metaphorical level!).  It certainly makes me think about the things I notice, especially on Sundays!  Below, Bernadette Peters leads a chorus of singers in the song at a Sondheim concert at Carnegie Hall.

Pretty Women
from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
First Heard: Broadway, 1979
Sondheim is very good at contrasting the images in his shows with the poetic content of his songs (as demonstrated above with "Unworthy of Your Love" from Assassins).  In Sweeney Todd, the most beautiful song comes at a time when the main character (Sweeney) is preparing to murder his customer (the wicked Judge Turpin).  As Todd takes his sweet time with his revenge, he lulls the Judge with a gorgeous tune about the aesthetical pleasures of the opposite sex.  The song is SO beautiful that the audience forgets for a moment what Todd is planning to do with that razor!  See below, in Tim Burton's 2007 film version starring Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman.

Being Alive
from Company
First Heard: Broadway, 1970
Every time I hear this song, I fall in love with it more and more.  Company was a landmark show about several characters who surround the life of a bachelor named Bobby.  Bobby, in typical late '60s-early '70s style, is a cad who cannot commit and flits from relationship to relationship.  In this finale song, Bobby finally states what he really wants out of life and, of course, it is to not be alone.  This powerful song is really a masterful wake-up call for those who strive to find love and companionship in this world (especially when it is sung by the likes of Raul Esparza in the 2006 Broadway revival of the show).

Move On
from Sunday In the Park With George
First Heard: Broadway, 1984
While "Sunday" was the song that made my mother cry, this was the song I always looked forward to because it was the "closure" song (not the finale, mind you, just a song about closure).  What do you do when you feel emotionally spent (whether it be after a break-up or a medical emergency or a world crisis)? You move on to the next thing and that is what Sondheim captured so well in this song.  Plus, the way original Broadway stars Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters sang this song together was so hauntingly beautiful that you couldn't feel anything but hopeful at the end of it.

Children Will Listen
from Into the Woods
First Heard: Broadway, 1987
This, for me, is one of Sondheim's most achingly beautiful songs and one of his most important lessons to the world (because, after all, artists are nothing if they are not teachers!).  In a show about fairy tales and what happens after "happily ever after," the moral of the story is to be careful with what we say to children because they DO listen, watch and behave from example (NO, this is not a PSA, everyone!).  The song, each time I hear it, makes me want to be more responsible and ensure the future by showing a good example for younger generations.  Hey, even older generations could use good examples too!  Below, Bernadette Peters leads the Original Broadway Cast in the song as it builds into the finale of the show.

Broadway Baby
from Follies
First Heard: Broadway, 1971
Look at the title of this Blog!  How could this song NOT be the #1 choice?!?  Sondheim's pastiche song (a pastiche song is a tune that mimics another musical style) about the showbiz hopeful trying to make it on the Great White Way has always felt like an anthem to me and several of my fellow theatre-folk (and has become a standard audition song for many actors!).  But it doesn't just apply to Broadway.  The singer, when you strip away the stardust notions and vernacular terms, is just someone with a dream, and who can't relate to that?  Ultimately, we are all people chasing our dream whether it be in finance, politics, religion, athletics or the entertainment world.  And Sondheim never put it better than in this song, as seen below where several seasoned actresses sing the song honoring the great stage actress Julie Harris at the Kennedy Center.

May you be a "Broadway Baby" forever!

Next week, an April Fools' Day themed 10 FAVORITES!

Friday, March 18, 2011

10 FAVORITES (25) - The Best North American Tour!

As much as I would love to go to Europe someday, practicality (and economics!) are forcing that dream to be on hold (at least for a while!).  In the meantime, I encourage all of you to see the beauty that is North America!  Yes, I love my homeland.  Both the United States of America and Canada offer some of the best cities (and sites) in the world.  Every part of the continent has their little something to offer and it makes us who we are.  Whether it be bright neon lights or tall city buildings or majestic mountains or plains ripe with agriculture, each place is unique.  Last week, I gave you my "Wish List" for a European tour.  This week, I want to give visitors to our continent a kind of "Must List" for North America.

QUICK NOTE: I don't mean to leave out Mexico, but I have only been to a small part of it (near the border!).  So, like Europe, Mexico still is on my travel "Wish List."

So here are:


CITY #10
San Diego has one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen.  Standing on the harbor, the marina or the beach is just amazing with its powerful view of the Pacific Ocean.  In addition to the view, San Diego boasts some of the best sites California's rich history has to offer from Mission San Diego (California's FIRST Mission) to Coronado Island to the world famous San Diego Zoo (always worth a visit!).

The only Canadian city on the list (Sorry Canada!), Vancouver, as most people learned recently from the 2010 Winter Olympics, has so much to offer.  What I love about Vancouver is that it is so urban in its feel (it has one of the best skylines!) with gorgeous gardens to boot.  And yet, you look slightly to the north or to the east and you are blown away by the majestic glory of the North Shore Mountains.  Plus, it is merely a hop, skip and a ferry ride away from the beautiful Victoria Island which features Victoria, British Columbia's capital city.

Each time I have been to the City of Brotherly Love, I have had a good time (and I'm including the great time I had during a lay-over at the Philadelphia International Airport!).  Of course, for me (a history buff), the best part of the city was going to Independence Hall and seeing the site of the Second Continental Congress (where the Declaration of Independence was signed people!).  I also loved stepping outside and viewing the ORIGINAL Liberty Bell (with its crack!).  There are many other great things in Philly including the Philadelphia Museum of Art (whose outside steps were famously featured in the 1976 Oscar winner Rocky).

As a fan of The Wizard of Oz, Seattle is the closest to "the Emerald City" that I will ever get.  From the awe-inspiring view atop the world famous Seattle Space Needle to the hustle and bustle of Pike's Market to the many many many coffee shops, the city always seems to have its finger on the pulse of the generations (maybe thanks to the University of Washington being right there!).  After all, it IS the birthplace of Starbucks, Microsoft and grunge music (three things that helped define MY generation!).

It may not be the most economically sound choice to be on a tourist's "To-Do" list, but the beautiful desert city is worth at least one visit in your lifetime.  If for nothing else, then to go for a walk down Sin City's infamous Strip, which features some of the most amazing and glorious hotels EVER!  My personal favorites include the large MGM Grand, the dynamic Venetian, the delightful Paris, the gorgeous Bellagio (with its dancing fountains!) and, of course, the brilliant New York New York (but we'll get to the why on that one soon!).

This city has always been on my "Love It Or Hate It" list (usually depending on WHO is in the White House or in Congress at the time!).  But despite my "indecision" on the brilliance of the city, my DC experiences have been enjoyable and have made me a better person for them.  In addition to the fantastic National Mall, which features most of the amazing Smithsonian Museums as well as the many monuments and memorials (Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, etc.), the city boasts several sites worth taking a look at.  A few of my favorites include the Arlington National Cemetery, the National Cathedral, Ford's Theatre and the Holocaust Memorial Museum (which is still one of the most powerful and touching experiences I have ever been privileged to have).

I have only been to Chicago once (twice if you count a lay-over at O'Hare!), but I want to go back and go back soon!  I'm sure I didn't see enough of the phenomenal city that one time, but I sure did see a lot.  Union Station and Downtown Chicago (and the glory that is the Sears Tower) was exciting enough for that first moment in the city.  Then there was Grant Park (which I was lucky enough to stay across the street from!).  Going to the Art Institute of Chicago (one of the best Art Museums in the country!) as well as Museum Campus (which features the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium) was one the greatest days in my life and I thank the city of Chicago for that immense pleasure.  And NO, I am not kissing up to Oprah or the President!

I LOVE Boston! No, seriously, Boston is my "go-to" getaway anytime I need a vacation.  There is not one thing I dislike about this city (and I can ONLY say that about 2 other cities!).  The Freedom Trail (which begins at Boston Common and ends at the USS Constitution) is a fantastic way to spend the day.  The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is amazing (especially for me as my parents and grandparents LOVED him!).  And talk about a college town! When you have Harvard and MIT and Boston College and Boston University, what more do you need?  And for all you Baseball fans, you MUST take a tour of Fenway Park and its Green Monster.

As I said, only 2 cities have ever beaten the hold that Boston has over me.  And one of them is the most personal city on this list.  After all, it is home to Ghirardelli chocolates, Sweet sourdough bread and ME!  Okay, so I live in a suburb of the City by the Bay, but every time I get into the city I am enthralled.  I love to walk down Fisherman's Wharf or shop around Union Square.  I also love the beauty of Golden Gate Park and crazy turns of Lombard Street.  And then I just love to stand outside of City Hall in Civic Center Plaza and stare at the beautiful dome (what other City Hall has a dome, really?!?).  There's always something new for me to discover in the city that I love to call my home (whether I really live there or not!).

If you're going to top my Golden City, then you gotta go BIG and there is nothing BIGGER than the Big Apple.  What can I say about New York City that no one else has ever said?  Whether you are enjoying the animals at the Bronx Zoo or strolling through Central Park or delighting in the history of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, the City that Never Sleeps always has something going on (where do you think the name came from?).  What are this Broadway Baby's favorite things in NYC?  My top three would have to be: 3) The artist hangouts in Greenwich Village around NYU; 2) The Museum of Natural History which is a MUST for everyone! and 1) The magnificent glory that is Times Square and the Theatre District (what else?!?).

These are my 10 favorite cities in North America (and believe me the list goes on!).  Next week, I will devote 10 FAVORITES to a very special Birthday boy!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

10 FAVORITES (24) - European Wish List!

Hello, my name is Jeremy and I have something shocking to admit. I am a little over 30 years old and I have never been outside North America. I know, I know that I seem worldly and wise to all of you, my loyal readers. But the United States, Canada and (a small part) of Mexico is as far in the world as I have traveled.  In this time when our wallets are not as bottomless as they once were (were they ever?), it is unlikely I will be doing any world travelling in the next couple of years.  As much as I would love to see the beauty of Asia, explore the cultures of Africa and view the wonder that is Australia, there is one continent that constantly comes to mind when asked about my dream vacation: Europe!  Europe is filled with gorgeous countries and cities that are not only historically relevant but they are personally important to me (and my family).  So, this week's 10 FAVORITES is a kind of "Wish List." These are:


CITY #10
Germany, one of the strongest nations today both economically and politically, has an extremely troubled and rocky past.  So, when you say that Berlin (or Munich or Frankfurt!) are on your travel "Wish List," you get the looks.  But Berlin is on my list for a couple of reasons: the main one being is that I can clearly remember being a young boy and watching on television the couple hundreds of young East and West Germans tearing down the notorious wall that once divided the nation.  It would really mean something to me to stand near the place where the wall once stood. (See, I made it through a talk about Germany without making a single Nazi joke! Progress!)

To some this may seem like an odd choice, but when my brother came back from his European tour, I could not stop looking at the pictures of the beautiful Czech capital.  The architecture is so classic and awe-inspiring that it does not surprise me one bit that several filmmakers and movie studios choose to film period films there.  A lot of the structures take the visitor back to a world that seems long forgotten and would be a thrilling addition to any tour of the continent.

The Austrian capital city may surprise people by making the list but the city as a rich and glorious history.  Yes, Austria has given us Innsbruck (2 separate Winter Olympics!) and Salzburg (The Sound of Music!), but Vienna has the gorgeous palaces, opera house, museums and capitol building.  Plus, to see the same buildings and walk the same roads that Mozart once did would be a profound honor for me.

I have had dreams about the iconic Dutch structures and the Amstel River, which is really strange since I have never been there.  Amsterdam was always a fun European capital to say (since you had to say the word "dam!") and, as I got older, the more fascinating place to visit.  Those of my generation (and older) know to which part of Amsterdam I reefer....I mean, refer!

The only non-capital city on the entire list.  Barcelona has grown in my estimation ever since the 1992 Summer Olympics.  And the more I see films set in Barcelona or hear of a friend or family member's trip to the city, I get envious and I want to hop on a plane to sunny Spain. Hey, I made a rhyme! I hope it doesn't rain. (Okay, let's move on.)

Molto Bene! This is where the Italian in me comes out.  And my Catholic upbringing (and the guilt that goes right along with that!) makes itself known.  But in addition to the Vatican and the beautiful St. Peter's Basillica, Rome is filled with a rich and powerful history.  The Colosseum must be as glorious as a gladiator fight and "funny things" can happen at the forum (or on the way there!). Who could resist the city's Italian charms? So when in Rome, Veni! Vidi! Vici! Wait, that's Latin. Oh well, Ciao baby!

One of the most exciting things during my academic life (in both high school and college) was studying the endless supply of classical Greek mythology.  The gods and goddesses were especially fascinating to me (but that's another list!).  I would love to go to Greece and see its original city-state, the birthplace of democracy.  And there's also the Parthenon, the Temple of Zeus and, of course, the Acropolis.  The ancient structures would be fascinating for Greek Myth Geek like me to visit.

This is the most personal city on the list for me.  Both sides of my family (both grandmothers for that matter) have strong Irish blood in them.  So even though I may be your generic European mutt (Irish, Italian, French, German, etc.), it is the Irish that is most likely the strongest part of me.  To go to Dublin would be what Oprah  calls "a full circle moment."  I would just love to visit the castles, the pubs, the greenery, the pubs, the River Liffey and, oh, did I mention the pubs?  Hey, I am Irish!

This city is pretty much a no-brainer.  Almost everyone I have talked to about this list says that Paris has to be on here, whether I really want to go there or not. But it so happens that I would love to go to Paris.  If for nothing else than to just stand beneath the Eiffel Tower.  But there is also Notre Dame de Paris, the Champs-Élysées, the  Louvre Museum and so on and so forth.  So, yes, Paris is truly a place to be in Europe, but it is not THE place to be (for me at least).

This city has always been a dream of mine since I was a child.  My two favorite cities in the United States are my home base of San Francisco and the bright lights of New York City.  To me (at least based on what I've observed), London seems like both of those cities put together and therefore the European city I would feel most comfortable in.  I could marvel at the glory of the Thames, adore the beauty of Westminster Abbey, see the journalistic bustle of Fleet Street and the political intrigue of Downing Street AND, if I have time, stroll by Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle and give an "'Allo!" wave to "Lizzie" and her regal brood. And of course I must take in a show in the West End!

So that ends my "Wish List" tour of Europe and I hope that it inspired people to add these cities to their lists.  For those who have already been there, don't rub it in! Next week, we'll stay geographical and I will tell you about my favorite cities in North America, since (as I said) is the only continent I've seen!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

10 FAVORITES (23) - Best Music Videos (1980-1995)

With a ho-hum Oscars behind us (where most of the awards were predictable and the hosts were less than adequate), I decided its time to jump right back into 10 FAVORITES!

This week, I am stepping away from the world of Hollywood and into the world of Music. More specifically, the Music that I grew up listening to and enjoying. I've mentioned before that I am a child of the 1980's, which was the decade in which Music Videos became the MUST for an artist to thrive in the business. Lately, the Music Video has fallen off the "Relevancy Radar" meaning that while we still can watch a video by say Eminem or Beyonce or Lady Gaga, the video is not as crucial to the success of said artist (thanks to the Internet and music sharing apps like iTunes and Napster). The move towards the Internet not-so-gradually forced a change in MTV's programming habits. What was once a 24-hour Music Video hub is now a place for Reality shows and the like with rarely a video to be shown in-between (but that is a rant for another day!). So, I thought I would dedicate this week's 10 FAVORITES to the songs and Music Videos from my childhood (basically the 1980's and the early 1990's). I'm not going to say much about each video (like 1 sentence!) because I would like to let the Music Videos speak for themselves (thanks to VEVO on YouTube!). Without further adieu, here are:

(FROM 1980-1995)

VIDEO #10: Jeremy - Pearl Jam (1993)
For obvious reasons, this song must be on the list.

VIDEO #9: Mary Jane's Last Dance - Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (1993)
Gotta love those videos with the celebrity cameos!

VIDEO #8: November Rain - Guns 'N Roses (1992)
Only one word comes to mind when I see this video: EPIC!

VIDEO #7: What's Love Got to Do With It? - Tina Turner (1984)
Aretha is the Queen of Soul and Madonna is the Queen of Pop, but Ms. Tina is the Queen of WOW!

VIDEO #6: Janie's Got a Gun - Aerosmith (1989)
Every video has a story to tell and this one just floored me as a kid.

VIDEO #5: Sledgehammer - Peter Gabriel (1986)
Not necessarily the greatest song of the 1980's, but certainly a groundbreaking video.

VIDEO #4: When Doves Cry - Prince and the Revolution (1984)
A majestic video for an amazing song that just gets better each time I hear it. NOTE: The video below is only a clip because the "Purple One" does not wish his music to be available on YouTube.

VIDEO #3: Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana (1993)
The band that captured a generation with this in-your-face musical movement.

VIDEO #2: Like a Prayer - Madonna (1988)
One of the most controversial music videos in my childhood.

VIDEO #1: Thriller - Michael Jackson (1983)

The Holy Grail of Music Videos Or: The music video by which all other music videos get measured.

Special shout out to VEVO, the YouTube channel from which most of these videos are available!
Next Week: 10 FAVORITES goes to Europe!