Stiff Competition: A Hairspray to Defy the West End Elements

Funny thing about prejudice: if you let it take hold, it can deprive you and those around you of a real good time.  That, in a shiny Aqua Net shell, is the message of Hairspray, the musical.  And, boy, did I deprive myself . . . until now.  Sure, others around me still had that good time, but when Hairsprayhit Broadway back in 2002, I was as set as an untamed cowlick.  I would have none of it. My Aqua Net days were long behind me by then, and I was not going to splash out on a rehash of a late-1980s cult comedy about early 1960s culture-clashing teenagers, told in songs that a Porter and Gershwin kind of guy like me is not inclined to hum while wearing a shower cap. Well, Kiss my Kate! Last Friday, I finally woke up and smelled the coiffing.  “Good morning, Baltimore!” Andoh, never mind “beautiful”what a colorful morning it is.

Funny thing, too, that I only had to travel about half a mile to learn that musical lesson; no subway ride down to 42nd Street, no walk through London’s West End via Leicester Square (and TKTS).  Just up the hill, to Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where each summer a musical is staged that, as a tourist attraction, is far more reliable than our windswept seaside.  Over the years, I have seen eight of those summer seasons come and go, from Oliver! to Chess.  Boasting a cast whose list of combined Broadway and West End credits is way longer than I am in the tooth, this year’s production tops them all.

Its readily translatable story of teenage rebellion aside, Hairspray may not be the easiest piece of Americana to transplant to Wales.  Never mind references to Allen Funt, Jackie Gleason, and the Gabors, names not likely to ring for today’s young, British audiences the bells I and Tracy Turnblad can hear.  The Director’s Note in the program about Rosa Parks, whose image flashes on a big screen during one of the numbers, fills in some of the blanks.  This, after all, is American history, no matter how much John Waters it down.

Then again, it may not be the easiest thing, either, to translate the Civil Rights Movement into a musical riot without becoming as crude or politically incorrect as John Waters used to be.  But, whatever your own sense of otherness and experience of xenophobia might be—and “I Know Where I’ve Been”—Hairspray gives you enough of a whiff of those ill winds to make you investigate whence they blow.  “Run and Tell That”: if any production can communicate a shakeup without making anger the primary colour of the emotional rainbow, Unholy Waters! this can can.

You might expect—and forgive, too—any glitches or leftover curlers on opening night; but there were none here: upon pulling the lid, this Hairspraywas as solid as a freshly lacquered beehive.  Andrew Agnew is marvelous as Edna Turnblad, a part I identified so much with the fabulous Divine that I couldn’t face watching John Travolta in a latex mask.  Agnew makes you forget both—and he plays Edna in such an understated way that her big number “(You’re) Timeless to Me” makes you understand what, to someone of my certain age, is the warm heart of this show.  It’s a heart whose Beat you’d can’t stop without making Hairspray lose its maximum hold.

Edna might have missed every boat except the one she pours the gravy from; but she is not too old to kiss—and kick—the past goodbye and say “Welcome to the 60’s.”  This transition requires more than a new do or a swift costume change; and Agnew achieves it by centering Edna in the 1950s, a woman who loves Lucy though she might not like Ike—and who not only loves Tracy from the remove of a generational gap but gets her, too.

Tracy, of course, is her daughter—the embodiment of that new age—and Jenny O’Leary inhabits the role with the confidence and youthful energy for which it calls.  Tracy may not quite grasp just how seismic the event is in which she plays her part, an event—this much she knows—far bigger than “Negro Night” on the Corny Collins Show; but she approaches integration with the I-don’t-get-it naivety that has many of today’s youngsters baffled at their parent’s definition of marriage as a strictly segregated affair.

Hairspray leaves no doubt as to who “The Nicest Kids in Town” are; “nice” simply ain’t.  It is self-serving conventionality, a meanness of spirit that lingers under the neat surface like something you fight with lice shampoo.  How else to approach “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” Velma Von Tussle, a nasty piece of work done justice by Lori Haley Fox—and done in by the sheer force of Motormouth Maybelle, a woman who, like Edna, has seen better days, but whose better days were lived in times much worse.  

Marion Campbell, who plays Maybelle, comes on stage late to belt out her showstopper of a number—and her presence hits you like, say, Mahalia Jackson’s in Imitation of Life: a voice to be reckoned with, especially in a fight for equality.

Though the actress playing Tracy Turnblad receives top billing, it would be wrong to call the rest of the cast “supporting.”  Hairspray demands a great many good voices as it gives most of its characters the chance and challenge to shine, and everyone in this cast is living up to that challenge: Arun Blair Mangat as Seaweed, Samantha Giffard a Penny Pingleton, Morgan Crowley as Wilbur Turnblad, Hugo Harold-Harrison as Corny Collins . . .

The list is longer than that—but I’d be bald by the time I were done honor roll calling.  Besides, if I’m counting anything it’s the days until my next trip to the salon for another hit of Hairspray. Yes, funny thing about prejudice: once confronted, it can yield such eye-opening, ear-popping surprises.

So, toodle-oo to stiff upper lip! Stiff up yer quiff instead.

Letters of a [Class] Betrayed: Opera Without Soap

I am not inclined to manual labor. If I lift a finger, it is likely to come down on what isn’t grammatically up to scratch or else to add a few scrapes to my scalp as I take some rambling bull by the inkhorn. There has been a little more of that going on lately—teaching and editing—and, my furrowed pate notwithstanding, I am heartily glad of it. Yet as much as I relish being back in the game after suffering the indignity of being benched for the better—or, rather, worse—part of the past five seasons, the academy has never felt like a home court to me. It is as if, carved into the trunk of my family tree however rotten, puny and lacking in shelter it might be, are memos more emphatic than the certificates of achievement now gathering dust in the drawer I am so little inclined to tidy. Instead of considering myself invited as I enter places of culture and learning, I still feel at times as if I were crashing a party.

Program and ticket stub for Letters of a Love Betrayed

You see, I was born into that endangered social stratum known as the working class. It is an origin of which I am mindful, though neither proud nor ashamed. At least, I am not ashamed of it now. I used to be as thrilled about it as Ann Blyth’s character in Mildred Pierce, even though my parents bore a closer resemblance to Lana Turner in Imitation of Life—that is, too busy to notice that living up to their aspirations left their offspring in the dust they raised as they tried to shake the dirt clinging to their roots. At any rate, stuck in that cloud of dust was I, an asthmatic kid who couldn’t afford to hold his breath at the off chance of parental attention.

Not to suffocate under the rubble of post-Second World War Germany, my parents had to put their noses far closer to the proverbial grindstone than I ever did. Their generation, aided by American interests, pulled off the Wirtschaftswunder or “economic miracle,” a sleight-of-hands-on approach to the lasting trauma caused by total war and final solution, the coming to terms with which would have required equipment far more difficult to handle than shovel and broom.

I am not so disingenuous as to pass off my staying put as a form of sit-down strike, of giving the clean-and-cover-up efforts of my parents’ generation the spotless finger; but apart from the months I ill served my country working as a hospital orderly or the hours I spent cleaning apartments in New York City to help finance my college education, I remained sedentary for much of my life.

So far, it’s been a life spent lost in thoughts, ensconced in writing, and plunked down for performances that artists work on studiously for our delight and instruction—the kind of delight my father found it difficult to accept as serious work and the instruction he thought less of than the empirical knowledge that, along with calluses, is the badge and perquisite of the experience-hardened laborer.

I suppose it is easier for the worker—not to be equated here with the impecunious—to aspire to material possessions instead of culture and learning, since exposing yourself to something that poses a challenge rather than promising instant gratification requires still more work on the part of those who have little time and less energy to spare.

Now, my comparatively indolent existence permits me to spare that time; yet, as if my conscience and buttocks alike had been shaped by Protestant work ethics, I often feel rather uncomfortable. I’m not one to pooh-pooh the benefits of resting on one’s Popo (as dainty Germans call the posterior); but, there is nothing like wriggling in my seat in hopes of improving my mind to convince me that the calluses—and I—belong elsewhere.

I had that impression sitting through Letters of a Love Betrayed, a new opera by Eleanor Alberga (libretto by Donald Sturrock). Reading about it, I was intrigued by the promised fusion of Latin rhythms and a neo-Gothic romance based on a story by Isabel Allende, but felt let down by a score that to my untrained ear sounded forbidding, unmelodious, and, worse still, forgettable. Perhaps, the perceived cacophony was the result of a clanging together of too many stereotypes. Whatever melo- Letters possesses is all in the drama; derivative and contrived, it is creakier than a chair that has been squirmed out of too often.

I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it. I felt like a tired, vitamin deprived miner lured into a soup kitchen of the arts, the drama being a concession to what is assumed to be his tastes as he is being fed a presumably healthy diet with a none too musical spoon.

As I sat down again to express my thoughts on the matter of what’s the matter with me, I kept wondering whether what I was responding to so angrily was utter musical rubbish, dreck worse than the grime to which I chose not to expose myself, or whether my inability to open my mind was dictated to me by my past, a past unfolding in letters of a class betrayed.

“. . . and all the ships at sea”: A Kind of Homecoming

This is not going to be one of those “the dog ate my homework” sort of posts, which are as much an excuse for not writing as they are a woeful excuse for writing anything at all. Besides, I could hardly blame Montague, our terrier, for keeping me from keeping my journal. Rather, it is the home work that has done the biting, gnawing and tearing at the hours I would otherwise earmark for sinking my incisors into stale pop-tarts—you know, those cultural marginalia with which I am wont to occupy my mind.

While I have rarely been all at sea when it comes to the leisurely pursuit of gathering and examining pop-cultural jetsam, my mind does not take to creative recycling when my limbs are aching after having performed some burdensome chore; and these past three months, my limbs have had quite a workout. We have been readying our late-Victorian house in the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth for its present trio of occupants, only the four-legged one of whom appears to be as blithe and sprightly as of old, albeit saltier.

We have moved in at last; and even though much remains to be done to make and keep the place shipshape, especially now that the house guests are checking in and up on our work, the sofas and easy chairs are in place from which to let out a defiant “Later!” and take off instead in further explorations of the airwaves or some such neglected channel.

The waves! Even though you would have to climb to the top floor of our house to get a glimpse of the bay, the surf and the seagulls are very much part of the enveloping soundscape. I suspect that the sights and sounds of the sea are going to feature prominently in subsequent—and decidedly more frequent—entries. It was not quite so easy for me to work the business of scraping wallpaper into my reflections; but the sea is another kettle of fish altogether.

So, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea,” as famed newscaster and lexicon-artist Walter Winchell used to say—and which greeting I extend to Mr., Mrs., and Ms. Internet surfer the world over—“Let’s go to press . . .”

Related writings (featuring Walter Winchell or an Impersonator)
“Being But Blogmad North-Northwest”
“Amelia Earhart Is Late”
“Old-time Radio Primer: B Stands for broadcastellan

"Milkman" in the Attic

“Look, sonny, we’re up here for work. We’ve put this attic off, and put this attic off. Now that we’re here, let’s make every minute count.” That was the voice of reason Rush Gook—and several million radio listeners besides—heard on the day (18 August 1942, to be precise) that mom Sade decided it was time to tackle that stuffy space under the roof of the “small house half-way up in the next block.”

Our attic, revealing the age of our house

As anyone familiar with Paul Rhymer’s Vic and Sade could guess right off, there was more room for doubt than reason that the task would be accomplished, and that, when the brief visit with the home folks was over, said space would be any more disorganized than it was before the job got underway. You could expect more order, method and sanity sticking your head into Fibber McGee’s closet.

Now, I’m not being etymologically sound here, but it is probably no coincidence that attics are just a single consonant removed from antics—and that is just what you should expect to find while up there, even if it is antiques you’re after.

Our new old house has not one but two attic spaces—and in the smaller of these we found ourselves confronted with some kind of time capsule. Only, it wasn’t quite the right time.

The graffiti on the wall suggests that construction was pretty much completed by September 1896, which was probably the last time the roof space was clutter free. Not that I want it to be barren of memories, mind.

Given the age of the house, I was kind of hoping for a family skeleton. Romantic novels of the Victorian age suggest that the darkest secrets are best kept just below the roof, rather than being crammed into the proverbial closet. Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason comes to mind, and that seminal study on the subject (Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic).

The Benny Hill album

Instead, we were treated to “Benny Hill Sings ‘Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West.’” Not exactly a Victorian treasure—but at least Ernie’s story has the proper romantic ingredients: lust, rivalry, and premature death (a “stale pork pie caught him in the eye and Ernie bit the dust”); there is even revenge from the beyond, as the milkman’s “evil-looking” successor, Two-Ton Ted from Teddington, is denied the pleasures of his wedding night:

Was that the trees a-rustling? Or the hinges of the gate? / Or Ernie’s ghostly gold tops a-rattling in their crate?

The cleanup sure slowed down once I came across that discarded collection of vinyl, the highlight of which, to me, is a curiosity labeled “Memories of Steam.” The locomotives on the cover could not deceive anyone into expecting the tell-all record of an inveterate Lothario; but I was thrilled nonetheless, transported back to the days when, as a boy, I was given an album of collected noises that led me to stage my own audio dramas—signifying nothing to anyone else, but chock-full of sound and fury. Come to think of it, that one record may well have laid the tracks that, long and winding though they were, earned me a doctorate . . . just the kind of certificate to relegate to the space I had just visited.

Another find in the attic

Yep, even a climb up to an attic filled with the leavings of previous inhabitants leads me no further than some dim corners of my own memory. Unlike Sade and Rush, I do not have to wait for crazy Uncle Fletcher to disrupt the tasks at hand with one of his dubious recollections (“Sadie, do you remember Irma Flo Kessy there in Belvidere?” She was a “peevish woman” who “used to have a little habit of slappin’ her husband’s face in public”). I can count on my own past to traipse close behind and creep up on me.

This time, though, the detour into those mental crevices was a welcome and trouble-free one. Down below, rooms hung with ghastly wallpaper were waiting for a hand attached to my aching body . . .

Related recordings
“Cleaning the Attic,” Vic and Sade (18 August 1942)

Related writings
“The Home Folks Are Moving In”
“Home Folks Lose Ground to Plot Developers”

Twenty Men Singing—But Why?

Well, there they stood last night, singing a cappella, performing songs from Schubert to South Pacific, from the 13th-century Middle-English “Sumer Is Icumen In” to Alfred Schnittke’s “Adam Sat Weeping at the Gates of Paradise,” which premiered in 1988. Twenty they were; men of the Welsh National Opera, touring Wales with their aptly titled program Twenty Men Singing. Some of their sonic offerings were tonic, many (and for my taste rather too many) of them somber, reverent, and brooding.

Why were they singing? To amuse themselves, to entertain others, to earn a few quid or to enjoy the applause of an appreciative crowd? Why sing in unison when what you want is to stand out? If, indeed, that is what you want.

According to the program notes, those Twenty Men Singing explore just that: why men raise their voice together in song, whether to celebrate life, to protest or lament. In song, a hoped for unity is being realised in sonic unison. A chorus of disapproval is formed in resistance to voices and actions that may threaten community. Leoš Janáček’s “Sedmdesát tisíc” (1909), for instance (as translated by John Binias), many-voices the pressures inflicted on the national identity of a Czech bordertown by neighboring but less than neighborly Germans and Poles:

70,000 graves they dig for us
Outside Tesin
Beg for help from heaven
Herded like cattle
Like cattle we gaze about
Our own slaughter [ . . .]. 

Let our voices thunder out: [. . .].
Before we are finished [. . .].

This Saturday, performers around the world are singing to bring awareness to what may well be the greatest threat to humanity, regardless how much religion and nationalism, how much faith and terror (and the terror of faith) are being exploited by those who make a fortune keeping us at war with one another. On this day of Live Earth, festivities that coincide with the anniversary of the London suicide bombings of 2005, we are asked to consider the terra we share, not the terror that divides us, to let “our voices thunder out” before we are “finished.” I cannot think of a better reason for joining a chorus.

A Moody Christmas: There’s Life Yet in the Old Scrooge

Eighty-what? Bah, humbug! Age does not deter film, stage, and television actor Ron Moody from going on tour in yet another dramatization of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the Wales Theatre Company production of which I caught at the Aberystwyth Arts Center. In fact, Moody adapted the story as well, in collaboration with director Michael Bogdanov (whose productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Amazing Grace I have reviewed on previous occasions).

What’s more, Moody not only took on the play’s largest role but enlarged it still by taking over as Dickens’s narrator as well.  He resurrected the old miser with wit, humor, and feeling, even though his voice came across rather faintly and his lines were at times mumbled or muddled to an extent that the character’s age and grumpiness could not entire disguise or explain. When Scrooge reminds one of his ghostly guides of being “mortal” and “liable to fall,” Moody’s frame made the line utterly convincing; yet he stepped surprisingly lively after his reformation, cheerfully urging the audience to rise for a standing ovation.

The production was a busy one, meticulously recreating the story’s memorable scenes and characters with numerous set changes performed by stagehands shifting the makeshift props, activities that distracted from the endearing fairytale simplicity of the narrative and very nearly defeated the object of creating a sense of proscenium arch realism. It was all too much for poor Mrs. Fezziwig, who slipped upon entering the scene in which she was introduced to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Past.

All this stagecraft brought to mind the superiority of non-visual storytelling on radio and in public readings. It is in the spoken word, aided at most by music and sound effects, that a ghost story like A Christmas Carol is most likely to thrill and enchant, as it certainly did in many of the productions heard during the 1930s and ‘40s on US radio, including this Campbell Playhouse adaptation broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1939.

There is no use trying to keep the eyes dry; their services are not required for the enjoyment of plays by radio. If tears happen to blur your vision, let them run freely.  They are testimony to the vision and insight of your mind’s eye.

Gormenghast (Dis)played; or, How to Mount a Frame of Mind

The beleaguered sun appeared to have triumphed at last in a narrow victory over the long-reigning clouds, and I, a much deprived heliolater, ventured out with laptop and deckchair to luxuriate in the vernal cool of a brightly colored afternoon, absorbed in thoughts of . . . death, dread, and desolation. It was not the long shadows cast upon the weeds-corrupted lawn, nor the shrieking of the crows nesting in our chimney that evoked such gloomy visions; nor was it the realization that the skies were darkening once more as another curtain of mist was lowering itself upon the formerly glorious outdoors.

No, my mood was not brought on by any one thing I happened to be perceiving at that moment; it was something instead that I took away with me last night as the crowds poured out of the theater on the hill, sending them into the inky, rain-swept night with images of Gormenghast.

Appearing before me, on the stage of my mind, are scenes of last night’s production of Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy, a dark evocation of a world more forbidding, more rotten and miasmic than Hamlet’s Elsinore—a world of stifling traditions, soul-crushing dread, and futile ambitions. To say that John Constable’s adaptation of this world was a recreation in sound and images would be an injustice to this thoroughly engrossing spectacle—a theatrical event that struck me at times as a staging of Jacobean revenge tragedies by Cirque du Soleil. Matthew Bourne, who whipped Edward Scissorhands into such a frothy confection of over-hyped ballet-hoo should take note; as should anyone endeavouring to bring a fantasy like Tolkien’s alive in the “wooden O” of the theater. Under the direction of David Glass, Gormenghast is conceived as an imaginatively choreographed piece of melodramatic shadowcasting, a labyrinthine dreamscape whose grotesque denizens scurry about like frustrated rodents.

As Quentin Crisp suggests in an essay on Peake as author and artist, visualizations often fail in the attempt to capture the imagined. When illustrating or showing, when portraying and rendering concrete the world an imaginative storyteller creates in words, “a certain ludicrous quality is always liable to creep in; the eye begins to vomit sooner than the ear—far sooner than the mind.”

So, the prospect of ghastly gormandizing, on seeing novelistic food for fancy being processed into rancid eye candy was not something I looked forward to without serious misgivings. I had not expected anything quite as bold as this inspired translation, which relied neither on the spoken word nor elaborate props to assist the audience in seeing the castle of Gormenghast rise not so much before their eyes as before their mind’s eye.

There was silent screen horror in the movement of Phillip Pellew (above, as Flay) and in the long corridors suggested by panels and shafts of light; in fact, the production seemed to owe more to silent movies than to western stage melodrama; this Grand Guignol was at times Kafkaesque, at others reminiscent of Brecht’s epic theater, as meek and inconsequential Steerpike (played by Adam Sunderland) attempts to lift himself from squalor to political prominence—a ruthless revolutionary in a stagnant, corroding society insisting on “no change.”

David Glass’s Gormenghast is too bleak to be called brilliant; but it certainly is a memorable achievement in translation, which is the realization that being faithful is not being literal, the radical art of doing away with “no change.”

“Reviewing the Situation”: Catching Up with Fagin in the Way West End

Moving from Manhattan to Mid-Wales was bound to lower my chances of taking in some live theater now and then (not that Broadway ticket prices had allowed me to keep the intervals between “now” and “then” quite as short as I’d like them to be). I expected there’d be the odd staging of Hamlet with an all-chicken cast or a revival of “Hey, That’s My Tractor” (to borrow some St. Olaf stories from The Golden Girls). Luckily, I’m not one to embrace the newfangled and my tastes in theatrical entertainments are, well, conservative. I say luckily because even if you’’re living west of England rather than the West End of its capital, chances are that there’s a touring company coming your way, eventually.

What came my way last night was a well-oiled production of Oliver!, with Peter Karrie in the role of Fagin. It was my second reunion with Oliver Twist this year, having watched playwright/composer Neil Brand at work on a new score for the 1922 silent screen version in his London studio last June. Apparently, the age of political correctness has not yet torn down or effaced all the melodramatic caricatures in the western portrait gallery of villains and scoundrels.

Never mind the play’s eponymous tyke, who wriggled through the miseries of his youth predictably well, in keeping with the plans laid out for him by “Mr. Popular Sentiment” (as Dickens was mockingly called by fellow novelist Anthony Trollope). Aside from Lionel Bart’s eminently hummable tunes, it was Karrie’s con brio portrayal of Fagin that kept this superannuated warhorse of a melodrama from coming across as lame and lumbering.

While often considered sure-fire, revivals are not quite so easy to pull off; too often they are self-conscious about the dateness of the material. Apart from the half-heartedness of uneasy reverence (as achieved by the Old Vic production of The Philadelphia Story I saw earlier this summer), there’s nothing worse than camp, the postmodernist disease of arrogant, willful misreading and flaunted emotional impoverishment. Oliver! was refreshingly, that is unabashedly, old-fashioned, brought to life by force of Karrie’s sense of bathos, at full throttle in the musical number “Reviewing the Situation.”

Well, it was not difficult for me to identify with the situation under review, that is, with Fagin’s assessment of his outsider status and his pondering of the pressure to adjust: “I’m finding it hard to be really as black as they paint,” he sighs, addressing the audience. Twice authored—by the creators of the play and the society they depict—Fagin conforms both to melodramatic conventions and societal expectations (he’s a “bad ‘un” who cannot change) while all along defying such standards (aware of his “situation,” he grapples with it and implicates the class system that stamped him an outcast):

Left without anyone in the world,
And I’m starting from now,
So how to win friends and to influence people?
So how?
I’m reviewing the situation:
I must quickly look up ev’ryone I know [. . .].

So where shall I go—somebody?
Who do I know? Nobody!
All my dearest companions
Have always been villains and thieves.
So at my time of life I should start
Turning over new leaves?

There simply aren’t enough leaves in the book for old Fagin. So, having reviewed the situation, he is very nearly resigned to a condition that a less reflective person would call fated:

I’m a bad ‘un and a bad ‘un I shall stay!
You’ll be seeing no transformation,
But it’s wrong to be a rogue in ev’ry way. 

I don’t want nobody hurt for me,
Or made to do the dirt for me.
This rotten life is not for me.
It’s getting far too hot for me.
Don’t want no one to rob for me.
But who will find a job for me?
There is no in between for me,
But who will change the scene for me?
I think I’d better think it out again!

Between a rock and a hard place, between Scylla and Charybdis, Fagin is forever reviewing a situation he is at a loss to improve; for him, there’s no silver lining (like the one above, which I spotted in the sky this morning). Taking advantage of the anonymity and visibility technology can offer the latter-day rogue with a touch of Hamlet and Werther, he would probably be blogging about it today.