Tag Archives: Broadway musicals

From Curmudgeon Central: The 2012 Curmie Results and “Legally Blonde” Redux

and-the-winner-is

The Curmie votes are in. This is Rick Jones’ annual prize awarded to educators who embarrass their (and his ) profession. Go to his blog, Curmudgeon Central, to see the winner and the vote totals. I don’t want to spoil the suspense.  Check out the nominations here if you haven’t already. A couple of observations, though: Continue reading

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Ethics Hero and Artistic Champion: Stephen Sondheim, Defending “Porgy and Bess”

Steve has your back, George.

I read with horror last week that the Gershwin estate, lured by the temptation of an increased revenue stream from the works of their more talented forebears, have agreed to allow director Diane Paulus and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to mess with ( that is, “improve”) “Porgy and Bess,” the classic 1935 opera that is one of the towering works in the history of American musical theater. This is, of course, vandalism in the name of ego and commerce, and a full-fledged assault on the masterpiece of not one but four great artists: the Gershwins, George and Ira, and the Heywards, Dorothy and DuBose, who wrote the novel and the play the opera was based on.  It is also stunning disrespect and abuse of power, with the living director and adapter wielding the power of celebrity and influence, and the dead artists retaining no power at all (being dead), having unwisely entrusted the protection of their legacies to greedy and tasteless relatives all too willing to sell out their kin for thirty pieces of silver.  Now, as the New York Times reported, the creators of the New Improved Porgy and Bess are readying new scenes, jazzed up dialogue, back-stories for the characters and an upbeat ending.    

This, as you might imagine, struck to the core of my work as an ethicist and in my position as the co-founder and artistic director of a  professional theater devoted to classic 20th Century stage works. I began to prepare a post on the rape of “Porgy and Bess,” but was distracted by other matters, and didn’t get the piece finished.

That was lucky. I should have remembered that Stephen Sondheim, the only musical theater artist alive who can claim the right to be mentioned in the same breath as George Gershwin, had extolled “Porgy and Bess” as the very greatest American musical in his autobiographical work, “Finishing the Hat.”  Needless to say, Sondheim is an authority on these matters, and also an artist who can appreciate what Paulus and Parks are doing to his colleague, peer and fellow geniuses, the Gershwins. On top of that, he has the wit and rhetorical skills to defend the rights of artists and dissect the rationalizations of vandals like few others.

And he did. John Glass of Drama Urge kindly alerted me that Sondheim has written a letter to the New York Times explaining…not arguing, because there is no argument…why the new “Porgy and Bess” is wrong.  Here it is; you just can’t do it better than this: Continue reading

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“Finishing the Hat”: Sondheim, W.S. Gilbert, and Expert Malpractice

Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” is a fascinating reflection on a remarkable career and the craft of making musicals by the greatest living master of the form. In the course of recounting his formative years, triumphs, failures, and duels with producers, authors and composers, Sondheim also critiques the lyrics of his predecessors, contemporaries and role models—as long as they are dead. In a nod to gentility or cowardice, the only living lyricist he subjects to his expert critiques is himself.

Sondheim is a tough judge, as one might expect from a composer/lyricist who meticulously measures each vowel sound and stressed syllable for maximum effect. He is also, by virtue of both his reputation and technical expertise, an influential one. The lyricists he grades highly in the book, such as Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields, are likely to have their reputations burnished by his praise, and those he slams, like Lorenz Hart and Noel Coward, will suffer by comparison. Because of this, Sondheim had an obligation, as a respected expert in his field, to make each case carefully and fairly. To his credit, Sondheim seems to recognize this, and all of his critical discussions of an individual lyricist’s style and quirks include specific examples and careful analysis. We may disagree with Sondheim as a matter of personal taste, but it is difficult to argue with his specific points, because they are backed up by examples, technical theory, and the weight of his authority.

It is therefore surprising and disappointing to see Stephen Sondheim slide into expert malpractice when he undertakes, clearly half-heartedly, a critique of the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Continue reading

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Mailbag: Why Different Ethical Standards for Food and Theater Critics?

“Dear Mr. Marshall: Don’t you find it odd that in one post you condemn theater critics for coming to review a play uninvited, yet slam a restaurant owner who exposes the identity of a restaurant critic trying to review his establishment surreptitiously? Why are consumers served by secret food reviews, but not by secret show reviews? This is why people hate people like you.” Continue reading

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The Ethics of Reviewing “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark” During Previews

John Simon, long the toughest of American theater critics and undeniably the most erudite and eloquent writer among them, has launched a blog. His very first post is on an ethical issue: is it ever appropriate for a critic to review a Broadway show that is still in previews?

The issue has emerged because the much-anticipated and incredibly expensive Spiderman musical, Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, has been engulfed in all kinds of intrigue since the very first preview: falling actors, injuries, malfunctioning sets and special effects, and most recently the surprise withdrawal of the show’s leading lady. A couple of critics, Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News and Linda Winer of Newsday could not resist paying for tickets and coming uninvited to performances, resulting in one diagnostic feature story on the production’s progress (by Winer) and one full, and not very complimentary, review by Gerard. Simon properly calls foul, describing the act of reviewing a show before its official opening as the equivalent “grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked, and then judging the meal by it.”

Exactly. The critics have their rationalizations ready, naturally. The musical is the most expensive in Broadway history. Is that a reason to suspend critical fairness? There is unusual interest in the show and its pre-opening travails. Should the degree of interest suspend long-standing critical standards? The usual excuse, also trotted out in this case, is that preview audiences are paying regular show prices—up to $300 a seat—to see the production right now. Isn’t this a case of “the public has a right to know” if the show is a stinker or not?

No, it isn’t. Broadway audiences know that previews are early glimpses of works in progress, and that is part of their appeal. The audiences for previews are part of the creative process, for how they react to a performance will help decide what stays and what gets cut. The prices they pay for the privilege of being Broadway guinea pigs are fair if they choose to pay them. Continue reading

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Finally, a Backlash Against Lip-syncing

Audiences at Britney Spears’ “Circus” concert are complaining that the singer is lip-syncing all of her songs, and not dancing energetically or well enough to justify it.

Good!

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