Monday, December 14, 2015

making an age-appropriate "gypsy"

Lady Gaga should play Rose in Streisand's "Gypsy"

Arguably, few movie remakes are as good as the originals and, as a general rule, the average film buff is contemptuous of remakes.  But that hasn't stopped any self-respecting buff from indulging in fantasy casting.

Count me in.

Which brings me to "Gypsy" and Barbra Streisand's crusade to film another version, reportedly based on a new script by the estimable Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King," "Beloved" and "The Ref").

As regular readers of this site know by now, "Gypsy" remains my favorite musical - I saw the original production as a kid, my first stage show ever (I'm seriously dating myself here) - as well as my favorite movie musical.

Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 film version, with Rosalind Russell's definitive reading of the role of Rose Hovick, is letter-perfect, even with the few ill-advised cuts that LeRoy made following its first previews.

An unnecessary and unmemorable 1993 TV movie, directed by Emile Ardolino and starring a seemingly well-cast but surprisingly ineffectual Bette Midler, succeeded only in making the LeRoy film look even better.

Much better.

Streisand's plan is to direct the new version and play the role of Rose.

The idea of Streisand singing the "Gypsy" score is irresistible.  She would have made the perfect Rose - would have.  Streisand will be 74 in April and may well be a few years older if Universal decides to back the film.

"Gypsy" spans about 10 years, opening with Rose as the mother of two little girls who, I'm guessing, are about seven and eight.  It ends with the still-young title character becoming a phenomenon in burlesque.

Rose should be 30 at most when the show opens and about 40 when she triumphantly/pathetically sings the searingly biographical "Rose's Turn."

Forty years ago, Streisand undoubtedly would have been a revelation as Rose and apparently LaGravenese thinks she is still right for the role.

Recently, Streisand has aligned herself with Lady Gaga and expressed interest in casting her in "Gypsy."  Great, I thought.  Barbra is going to direct Gaga (né Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) as Rose.

Gaga is 29 and would be a terrific Rose, considering (1) her age, (2) her demeanor and (3) her vocal range.  But I assumed wrong.  Streisand's idea is for Gaga to play Gypsy to Streisand's Rose.

None of this is exactly new. Over the past 50-plus years, there have been only a handful of productions of "Gypsy" and, by extension, a handful of actresses playing Rose, the crown jewel of musical comedy.  But all of them have been examples of ageist casting (yes, ageist, but not in the direction you think). Why has the character of Rose traditionally been cast with an actress well into her 50s (at least)? Imagine how different - and revelatory - it could be with a younger, vibrant performer in the role.

But this has never happened.

Wait. It happened once.  No, twice. In 2004, Andrea McArdle, then 40, played Rose in The Bay Area Houston Ballet and Theatre production of "Gypsy." At 40, McArdle (who has the perfect voice for the role) was a decidedly youthful Rose. It probably also helped that McArdle invariably identified with the material, having started out as a child actress (read: "Annie"). Mary McCarty, who replaced Ethel Merman in the Broadway production in 1961, was 38 at the time. (McCarty played Mother Goose in Disney's "Babes in Toyland," which co-starred Ann Jillian as Bo Peep; Jillian would play Dainty June in the '62 film version of "Gypsy.")

And, in 1964, songstress Gisele MacKenzie played the part in Berkeley at Ben Kaplan's Meadowland Theater.  She was - ta-da! - 37.

MacKenzie is the youngest Rose Hovick to date.

The oldest Rose? That would be Leslie Uggams who was 71 when she played Rose in the 2014 production at the Connecticut Repertory Theater.  Wow!  She is followed, but not too closely by Patti Lupone who was 60 when she undertook the part in the most recent - 2008 - Broadway revival of the show. The talented Lupone was 58 when she also played the role in the 2007 Encores! production and 57 when she tackled it for the first time for the 2006 Ravinia Festival production.

Following Uggams and Lupone, age-wise, are these top-notch actresses, some miscast, some well-cast, but all a tad too old for the role, a trend that I covered in an earlier essay here:

Imelda Stauton, age 59, pictured below (2015 British revival at London's Savoy Theater; see Michael O'Sullivan's coverage here from his excellent site, Mike’s Movie Projector)

Ann Sothern, age 58 (1967 touring Music Fair production)

Ethel Merman, age 57 (original 1959 Broadway production)

Patty Duke, age 57 (2003 Spokane, Washington Civic Theatre production; Duke below with co-stars Danae M. Lowman and Reed McColm)

Bernadette Peters, age 55 (2003 Sam Mendes revival)

Rosalind Russell, age 55 (original 1962 film version)

Tovah Feldshuh, age 55 (2008 Bristol Riverside Theater production)

Linda Lavin, age 52 (succeeded Tyne Daly, below, in the 1989 revival)

Betty Buckley, age 51 (1998 Papermill Playhouse production; Debbie Gibson co-starred as Louise/Gypsy)

Joanne Worley, age 51 (1988 The Civic Light Opera of San Gabriel Valley; Audrey Landers co-starred as Louise/Gypsy)

Angela Lansbury, age 49 (1973 London production, followed immediately by the first Broadway revival in '74)

Bette Midler, age 48 (1993 TV-movie remake)

Vicki Lewis, age 48 (2008 California Musical Theater production)

Betty Buckley, age 45 (1992 Southern Arizona Light Opera Company production)

Tyne Daly, age 43 (1989 Broadway revival)

Betty Hutton, age 41 (1961 National Tour)

But somehow, the role has evaded such powerhouses as Carol Burnett, Liza Minnelli and ...Streisand! And Stockard Channing  would have been an absolutely terrific, atypical choice for the part but a natural.

But back to "a younger, vibrant performer in the role." Well, that would be Gaga, hands-down, who could be easily aged for the later scenes. ("Youthening" someone - is that a word? - is much more difficult and rarely convincing.)  Plus - and this is probably important to Universal - Gaga would bring bodies into the local multiplexes to watch her in action.

While we're at it, let's cast the other roles, all within the right age range.  (It's called fantasy casting, see?)

Herbie:  Adam Levine (he would match up well with Gaga, his personality would fit the part and, of course, he can sing)

Louise/Gypsy: Jennifer Lawrence (she could be a-mazing.)

Tulsa: Zac Efron

Dainty June: Elle Fanning

Miss Cratchet: Allison Janney

Tessie Tura: Tina Fey

Electra: Amy Poehler

Miss Mazeppa: Amy Schumer

Baby June: Alyvia Alyn Lind

Baby Louise: Sophie Pollono

That said, wishing Barbra the best of luck with her dream project.

Below: Audrey Landers (left) and Joanne Worley (center) in The Civic Light Opera of San Gabriel Valley production

Friday, December 11, 2015

cinema obscura: Maddow/Meyers/Strick's "The Savage Eye" (1960)

A major independent film of the early 1960s, "The Savage Eye" had become something of an enigma in the past five decades, forgotten about until the UCLA Film and Television Archive inexplicably but bravely revived it in 2008, jogging my memory. A rush of stirring black-&-white images, courtesy of cinematographers Jack Couffer, Helen Levitt and Haskell Wexler, reminded me of what a vivid experience it was - and still is.

Then the film disappeared again.  Until now.  New York's Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria) has unearthed it for a screening on December 13th, as part of its "Lonely Places: Film Noir and the American Landscape" series.  Good news for serious film aficionados - and fans of its fabulous star, Barbara Baxley.

"The Savage Eye" is very much a celebration of  the invaluable and singular Baxley, too long a neglected actress.

The dual-level film is part narrative, part documentary.  Directed in tandem by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyeres and Joseph Strick (who also produced and edited the film), "The Savage Eye" is ostensibly about a woman named Judith McGuire, who spends the day waiting for her divorce to come through by wandering around Los Angeles.
Baxley, a popular New York stage actress when the film was made who had just appeared and, of course, she would go on to famously play Lady Pearl in Altman's "Nashville" (1975), her defining role.

The year in "The Savage Eye" is 1959. Jaded and now seeing life in a more realistic way, Judith serves as a guide through a city which, seen up close, looks dirty and disreputable - bustling yet empty. The rose-colored glasses are off.

The result is a narrative which works also - largely - as a documentary about the city and its assorted haunts, a narrative whose compelling supporting cast is a vast array of Los Angeleans, most of whom come across as emotionally and culturally impoverished. There's no sense of joy here because priorities have been skewed in favor of relentlessly shallow needs and goals.

Gary Merrill co-stars as a character called The Poet, who gives voice to the city, and Herschel Bernardi is on board, too. Leonard Rosenman wrote the score for this vivid journey through hopelessness.

For its 2008 screening of "The Savage Eye," the UCLA Film and Television Archive utilized The Billy Wilder Theater on its campus. More please.
Note in Passing:  When I originally addressed "The Savage Eye" back in 2010, I heard from a reader named Mark who wrote, "The film was restored by the Academy Film Archive. As a preservationist there, I was asked to present a program in the context of UCLA's 2008 "Out of the Past" series, and I chose to show this film (along with our preservation of Strick's short film Muscle Beach), as we were proud to have worked on it, and, indeed, it is too little known today. It was great evening, and we even had some late 1940s Muscle Beach folks in the audience, a couple of whom show up briefly in the short! UCLA does excellent preservation work and programming, but I wanted to make sure that credit was given where due in this case - at the archive, we were thrilled the Academy supported this restoration. Thanks for writing about the screening!"

Saturday, December 05, 2015

cinema obscura: Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956)

Much has been written about Frank Sinatra's decision to suppress - momentarily, at least - two of the titles in his filmography, Lewis Allen's "Suddenly" (1954) and John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), both considered too politically incendiary by the actor-singer.

But missing from the discussion is another compelling Sinatra film that went missing seemingly decades ago - Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956), a flawed but gripping character-driven Western in which Sinatra skillfully plays a cowardly punk who exploits the notorious reputation of his brother, a ruthless killer.

His Johnny, a pathetic, reprehensible figure, bullies his way through life by referencing his brother's dubious accomplishments.

Sinatra's urban profile works well to disconnect his character from the sagebrush mise-en-scène here. He's clearly out of his element, just as Johnny is alien in this landscape of rough-hewn people. Johnny is a poseur, giving a "performance" based on terror and sadism, and Sinatra nails this aspect in a portrayal impressive for its subtlety.

A definite bonus: Sinatra's leading lady here is the criminally underused Phyllis Kirk.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

my rodgers & hammerstein dilemma

I've something of a love-hate relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein - mostly love, of course. Who couldn't love their melodies?


As is true with most of R&H's shows, the glorious songs are the point, the only point. But are we really expected to forget the deadly dull stretches and arch dialogue that invariably come in between? Some people do.

Most people, unfortunately.

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein collaborated on one original screen musical ("State Fair"), one musical conceived directly for television ("Cinderella") and nine stage musicals, six of which have been filmed. The shows that never made it to the big screen are "Allegro," "Me and Juliet" and "Pipe Dream."

For the record, the two "State Fair" films (1945 and 1962), "Carousel" (1956), "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music" (1965) were all produced by 20th Century-Fox, while the films of "Oklahoma!" (1955) and "South Pacific" (1958) were produced independently by Rodgers and Hammerstein's own Magna Corporation - but released by Fox.

Only "Flower Drum Song" (1961) was made by another studio, Universal, and for me, it's the most durable of the Rodgers and Hammerstein films.


The fact is, as grand as they may seem on the surface, just about every one of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals comes with a nagging sense of déjà vu. This is something that's particularly evident on film because of the camera's relentless knack for picking up every flaw.

I call it The Rodgers & Hammerstein Formula.
"Oklahoma!" successfully introduced this formula, something that Rodgers and Hammerstein would slavishly rework and rehash for the rest of their careers together - namely, the confrontation between an innocent but headstrong young heroine (gingham-clad Laurie, in the case of "Oklahoma!") and an incorrigible sexist (cowboy Curly, in the same piece).

This basic theme would resurface between lovelorn Julie Jordan and petty criminal Billy Bigelow in "Carousel"; between hayseed Nellie Forbush and shady Emil De Becque in "South Pacific," and between the title characters in "The King and I." Even the modern, jazzy "Flower Drum Song" was affected by this by-the-numbers plotting, initially pairing sweet Mei Li with swinging Sammy Fong.

If "The King and I," based on a true story, seems slightly more progressive than the team's musicals that preceded it, it's because at least its heroine, Anna Leonowens, is drawn as a mature, intelligent woman who's as savvy as the King - and knows it. She doesn't take any guff from him; she doesn't back down. The battle of the sexes - something on which Rodgers and Hammerstein commented with some regularity - is much more evenly executed in "The King and I."

As the show was a huge family success, both on stage and film, it's little wonder that, toward the end of their united careers, when they were in desperate need of a hit, the team did something shameless:

They ripped off "The King and I."

"The Sound of Music" may be based on a true story of its own, but it is a virtual clone of "The King and I," what with its story line about a man with a lot of children and the feisty woman who invades his household as the children's teacher. Along the way, she teaches the man something, too.

The similarities are striking, right down to the heroine-sings-with-the-kids novelty numbers - "Getting To Know You" in "The King and I" and "Do-Re-Mi" in "The Sound of Music." Oddly enough, "The Sound of Music," a show not considered top-notch Rodgers and Hammerstein when it opened on Broadway, has managed to surpass its inspiration in terms of popularity. The masses just can't get enough of it.

Just as the use of children in "The King and I" revitalized Rodgers and Hammerstein's schtick, the addition of nuns and Nazis in "The Sound of Music" somehow made their formula even more irresistible to the public.

Nuns!  Nazis!  Kids!


This formula, of course, doesn't stop with their plotting or characters. If their heroes and heroines are interchange-able from show to show, so are the big dramatic numbers - the songs with a message, if you will - that are always belted across by a secondary - and older - female character.

Usually at the top of the second act.

In "Carousel," this big inspirational number is "You'll Never Walk Alone"; in "South Pacific," it's "Bali Hai"; in "The King and I," it's "Something Wonderful"; in "Flower Drum Song," it's "Love Look Away"; and in "The Sound of Music," it's "Climb E'vry Mountain." Not to diminish any of these songs - they're all genuinely beautiful, after all - but there's something gnawingly familiar in the way that they are all utilized.

Still, the assembly line quality of these songs is much less offensive than Rodgers and Hammerstein's penchant for always finding new ways to slip a wildly sexist song - one that denigrates women - into their shows.

At least, "The King and I" avoided this.

We all know about "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" in "South Pacific," but in the same show, Nellie Forbush also gets to sing about what a silly little "Cockeyed Optimist" she is. It's a shrewd conceit about Rodgers and Hammerstein shows - having women sing sexist things about themselves.

In "Flower Drum Song," for example, just about every condescending female stereotype is dragged out for Linda Low's "I Enjoy Being a Girl." In "Oklahoma!" Ado Annie sings that she's just "A Girl Who Can't Say No." During the big wedding scene in "The Sound of Music," the nun chorus does a reprise of "Maria": "How do you solve a problem like Maria?"


Why you marry her off, of course.

And don't get me started on "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."

Even worse is Julie Jordan's "What's the Use of Wondrin'?" in "Carousel," in which all you women out there are advised to put up with grief and abuse from some guy because "he's your man and you love him so."

The topper, however, came in a song that was added to the 1962 remake of "State Fair" for musical veteran Alice Faye (making a comeback) to sing to her screen daughter, Pamela Tiffin. It's called "Never Say No." 

Here's how it goes:

"Never say "no' to a man
Simply avoid saying "yes' to him
That leaves the ultimate guess to him
Darling, don't ever say 'no'!"

How's that for a musical invitation to date rape? (The makers of the constantly touring stage version of "State Fair" have wisely elected to pass on this particular song for its current incarnation. And not to denigrate Hammerstein, Rodgers wrote this one by himself after Oscar passed.)

There were never any equivalent songs for Rodgers and Hammerstein's male characters to address questionable things about themselves. Never.

With the exception of "The Sound of Music," all of Rodgers and Hammerstein's stage musicals have been filmed with some fidelity to the originals (although "Carousel" and "The King and I" both had numbers deleted after their previews). In the case of "The Sound of Music," however, scenarist Ernest Lehman revamped the material with the active cooperation of Richard Rodgers. Hammerstein was deceased by the time this 1965 Oscar-winner (!) was made.
The changes that Lehman made didn't improve "The Sound of Music"; they only Disney-fied it. While the stage play had a certain rumpled maturity about it, the movie is all sun and sugar, moving Pauline Kael to called it "The Sound of Mucous."  Christopher Plummer was also widely quoted with this quip, although lately, he's come around.  He's now a fan of the film.

For the movie, Rodgers was encouraged to drop three of the lesser known stage songs and replace them with new two ones, for which he wrote the music and lyrics - and both new songs proved to be wildly mediocre.

The cynical "There's No Way To Stop It," one of the original songs to be eliminated from the film, is excellent and "How Can Love Survive" is the one (the only) truly adult song in the original score.

And the sturdy "An Ordinary Couple" is a far, far better song than the one that replaced it, the terminally inane "Something Good." Julie Andrews has noted how she and Plummer had a difficult time with "Something Good."

"We kept getting the giggles," she's reminisced.

One can understand why, Julie. The song is ... unsingable.