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September 28, 2007

CAAF: Elves. Why did it have to be elves?

I mean to respond more fully to OGIC's lovely post about the children's classics you first discover as an adult, occasioned by her reading of The Hobbit. For now, though, I just wanted to share an excerpt from a TLS article I recently came across which describes Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and their writing circle.

Tolkien and Lewis formed the spine of the Inklings, regularly convening to read and discuss one another's work in Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College. There were nineteen members in all, and Glyer excels at depicting their world, with its petty rivalries, joshing honesty ("he is ugly as a chimpanzee", wrote Lewis of fellow Inkling Charles Williams), its wit and learning and championship of scholarship for its own sake. The Inklings were often supportive and sympathetic ("the inexhaustible fertility of the man's imagination amazes me", wrote Lewis in 1949 on receipt of another instalment of The Lord of the Rings), but were capable of ferocious criticism if it was felt that a member had done anything less than his best ("You can do better than that. Better Tolkien, please!"). Tempers must surely have become frayed at times - as Tolkien became unyieldingly critical of Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia ("about as bad as can be") or as the English don Hugo Dyson met the latest bulletin from Middle Earth by (according to Tolkien's son Christopher) "lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, 'Oh God, no more Elves'".

I read The Hobbit for a junior-high English class, but didn't read The Lord of the Rings trilogy until college. It was summertime, and I was visiting my parents in Asheville. I have a vivid memory of finishing the first volume in the middle of the night and sitting in the parking lot outside the Little Professor Bookstore (at a soon-to-be-defunct location) the next morning, waiting for it to open so I could buy the next book in the series.

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CAAF: Room service

For those of us who live in backwater movie markets: Dana Stevens notes that the Wes Anderson short Hotel Chevalier, an accompaniment to the filmmaker's new movie Darjeeling Limited, is available on iTunes. Even better, it's free!

A.O. Scott's review mentions that the 13-minute film is being shown at tonight's New York Film Festival, but won't otherwise appear in theaters. It will, however, be included on the DVD of the film.

Interestingly, the notices for Hotel Chevalier have been far more positive than the mixed reception for Darjeeling Limited, so it's worth checking out.

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TT: The theory of critical relativity

A couple of weeks ago I ran across a hugely interesting essay called "Confessions of a Community Theater Critic." The author, John Barry, covers amateur and semi-pro theater in Baltimore for the Baltimore City Paper, an alternative weekly, and his confessions were both amusing and on the mark:

This is not a gig for the weak of heart. It's for the eternal optimist, the dead-end journalist who doesn't believe in dead ends. It's for the tolerant, the cheerful, the brave and gratuitously creative. It's a job for someone who doesn't have a lot to do on weekends.

Barry's essay inspired me to write a "Sightings" column for tomorrow's Wall Street Journal about the problem of what I call "appropriate standards." How do you judge a low-budget performance, or one given by performers whose ambitions outstrip their skills? Do you let the critical chips fall where they may--or shorten your critical yardstick?

To find out, pick up a copy of the Saturday Journal and turn to the "Weekend Journal" section. I'm there. (Starting on Saturday, subscribers to the Online Journal can read my column by going here.)

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TT: What's in a whole bunch of names?

I've received a lot of responses to my posting inviting you to help me come up with a title for my Louis Armstrong biography. Unfortunately, I also received an unprecedented amount of spam and press releases this week. I'm still doing my best to sort out the good stuff. I'm afraid that for once, too many of you have written (and are still writing) for me to send individual replies. To all of you, my heartfelt thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. I take your input seriously!

At some point in the next couple of weeks, I'll post the results of my informal poll. Watch this space for details....

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TT: Little old serial killers

Who knew? I went to Baltimore last Saturday to review a revival of a mossy old chestnut for today's Wall Street Journal, and it turned out to be as fresh as tomorrow's bread:

What's so funny about mass murder? Nothing--unless you happen to be watching a performance of "Arsenic and Old Lace," whose principal characters have piled up two dozen corpses between them, with No. 25 about to quaff a glass of elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide as the curtain falls.

The phenomenal durability of Joseph Kesselring's only successful play is a matter of record. It opened on Broadway in 1941, ran for 1,444 performances, was filmed by Frank Capra, and has since become God's gift--or, rather, Satan's--to community theaters and amateur actors. But it tends not to get done by first-class companies nowadays, and so CenterStage's crisp, well-cast revival is something of a revelation. I knew "Arsenic and Old Lace" was funny, but I didn't know it was this funny. Anyone who doesn't shatter a rib laughing at CenterStage's production is...well, dead.

Also on my plate was the Keen Company's production of The Dining Room:

Of all A.R. Gurney's studies of life among the WASPs of northeastern America, the best one might just be "The Dining Room," whose Off Broadway premiere put him on the map. "The Dining Room" is celebrating its 25th birthday this season, and the Keen Company has marked the occasion with a very fine Theatre Row revival that makes the strongest possible case for a theatrical craftsman who doesn't get nearly enough respect.

Inspired by Thornton Wilder's "The Long Christmas Dinner," "The Dining Room" takes place, according to Mr. Gurney, in "a dining room--or, rather, many dining rooms." The play consists of a series of cunningly dovetailed dramatic vignettes in which the author explores his preferred theme, the postwar erosion of upper-middle-class self-confidence, with the utmost skill and variety. The six actors in the cast play a total of 57 roles, so many that the "characters" in "The Dining Room" come across not so much as individuals as deftly sketched archetypes. Most of the playlets are comic, but the overall effect is intensely elegiac, in large part because of Mr. Gurney's mixed feelings about the lost world that spawned him. He knows its limitations, but he also appreciates its virtues, and it is this honest ambiguity that makes "The Dining Room" so involving.

No free link, so to read the whole thing, follow the usual drill: either buy today's paper or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will allow you to read my column--and the rest of the Journal's arts section--on the spot. You know it's a good deal. What are you waiting for? (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

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TT: Almanac

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees.

Alfred Tennyson, "Ulysses"

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September 27, 2007

TT: So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
A Chorus Line (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
Grease * (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)

Iphigenia 2.0 (drama, R, adult subject matter and violence, reviewed here, closes Oct. 7)

The Seagull (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

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TT: Almanac

"Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven."

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street

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September 26, 2007

OGIC: Better late than never?

I've been a fickle reader these past months, skipping around from book to book, only occasionally seeing one through. I did finish two by Kate Christensen, The Epicure's Lament and In the Drink, as well as A Buyer's Market (the second installment of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time) and the strictly confectionary Mergers and Acquisitions. I also swallowed a couple of Reginald Hill mysteries practically whole, but that's just par for the course (until I run out of them, an eventuality I prefer not to contemplate). Otherwise, though, it's been a few pages here, a chapter there, until a week or two ago, when I hit on just the thing that suits me just now. But more on that in a minute.

First, a word or two on In the Drink, Christensen's first novel. It superficially resembles a certain kind of book wherein a hapless twenty-something, female, finds her hap. But Claudia, the protagonist of Christensen's book, is less picturesquely hapless than your standard issue Bridget Jones type. Frequently drunk, sought by collection agents, and not above stealing from the dead, she's actively self-destructive. She has a memorable foil in her employer, Jackie, whose socialite detective novels she ghostwrites for peanuts. And Christensen has an eye for a scene:

In the park, I sat on a wet bench. The river lay flat and sullen, a drenched, dark mineral gray-green. The banks of New Jersey hulked, beaten-down; the sky was several shades lighter than the water, but just as dense. The mastodonic roar of trucks along the West Side Highway was pierced by a bicycle bell on the path behind me, and the voices of children playing nearby on the paved walkway.

She's especially good at capturing what things look like seen through a glaze of pain. Speaking of which, check out the unlikely loveliness of this description, from Henry Green, of an unpopular schoolboy's fear of his classmates (I'm still dipping into and out of Green's memoir Pack My Bag):

Until he went up to Cambridge I was sheltered and could always find sanctuary in [my brother's] room which meant I had more time to read and that means literally, in the hunger for reading anything and everything which began about then, I had more time to give to what became a preoccupation. Also I was spared the terror I got to know afterwards when there was that thunder of feet down the corridor and one sat still as a rabbit wondering if they were coming for one. Later at Oxford, where I had rooms over cloisters paved in stone which echoed, they would tear screaming in by either of its entrances drunk like fiends about one in the morning and, unpopular as ever, I had again to face the fact they might be after me as five years previously they had been; different, desperate now, estranged.

As I wrote about this book before, it has an affecting urgency, apparently the result of Green's conviction that World War II would be the end of him, and of his resulting desperation to get down in writing what life had felt like so far. Right now I'm in the middle of his chapter on discovering the opposite sex; on this fraught subject, especially, his candor and his commitment to capturing feeling and fleeting impressions are arresting.

But what I'm really reading at any given time, now that I am a commuter again, is what I'm reading on the train. And lately that's not Green, which has been more of a living-room couch affair, to be picked up when I need a break from the burdens of work or television. Lately what I'm really reading is something most of you read as tykes, or perhaps had read to you: The Hobbit.

Nope, before this month I never read The Hobbit, or anything else by Tolkien. Now I'm about to finish it, and it's held me rapt. More on that experience when I do finish it; in the meantime, what children's classics did you first discover as an adult (Harry Potter doesn't count), and how did it make you feel--old? young again? CAAF and Terry, consider yourselves asked, too.

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TT: Almanac

Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face.

Thomas Dekker, The Pleasant Comedy of Patient Grissell

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September 25, 2007

TT: Entries from an unkept diary

• I see that Mr. Think Denk, about whom I blogged yesterday, has returned the compliment today.

One of the things that interested me about his posting was that he noted the presence on my bookshelves of Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, one of my favorite novels--but that he didn't say anything about it to me at the time! I, too, make an invariable practice of checking out the shelves of the people whose homes I visit and drawing conclusions about them from what I find there, but I usually share those conclusions with my hosts.

It makes me wonder what else he noticed....

• Incidentally, readers of my recent book column about Mary McCarthy may be amused to learn that when you search for Pictures from an Institution at amazon.com, The Groves of Academe comes up on the same screen. That's a good one, too--but Pictures from an Institution is much better, and contains a truly wicked pen portrait of McCarthy to boot.

• Readers who've been keeping up with the ceaseless controversy over the fate of Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation by way of Mr. Modern Art Notes and Ms. CultureGrrl might want to take a look at this 2005 posting in which I reported on my first (and, I suspect, last) visit to that famously eccentric museum's suburban headquarters.

Here's the money quote:

I'm glad I waited so long to go to the Barnes for the first time. It's not a place for the casual museumgoer. That's why it will be a crime to move it elsewhere. I'm not talking about the complex legal and fiscal issues at stake in the planned move--I'm not competent to assess those. I'm talking about purely aesthetic matters. The Barnes isn't perfect, not by a long shot, but it's unique, and that's the point of it....You can't just drop by on the spur of the moment--you have to make a reservation in advance and go well out of your way to get there. That contributes enormously to its special quality. Once the Barnes pulls up stakes and moves downtown, this quality will be lost forever, even if the existing galleries are reproduced exactly in its new quarters (which I'll believe when I see it).

I haven't changed my mind.

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CAAF: Afternoon coffee

Amazing video podcasts of images from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Click on the ones titled "Gallery Explorer: --", hope in vain for Dark Side of the Moon to start up. (Also available on iTunes.)

• Daily dose of tumult on the heath and in the snow: Revisit Vera Pavlova's "Four Poems" from the New Yorker.

From a 2002 interview with Pavlova:

What are the main critical views of your work?
They go from one extreme to another! On the one hand, I'm regarded as a sort of male invention. On the other, I'm an earth mother, concerned with gynaecological matters and not metaphysics. Also there is the psychoanalytical view, which says my poems are a clear case of intersexuality.

What's that?
All I could find in a dictionary was: "Intersex, an organism in which
there are no clear indications of male or female gender."

So, a sexual zero! And what follows from that?
That there's nothing especially female or male about poetry.

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CAAF: Morning coffee

• Ursula K LeGuin's tough yet clear-sighted review of Jeanette Winterson's new sci-fi novel, The Stone God. Of the recent spate of literary writers working in genre, LeGuin writes: "I am bothered, though, by the curious ingratitude of authors who exploit a common fund of imagery while pretending to have nothing to do with the fellow-authors who created it and left it open to all who want to use it. A little return generosity would hardly come amiss."

• The Financial Times' Rosie Blau lunches with Winterson at Alastair Little, in London. Winterson is charming; champagne, prawns, risotto and lost bread with honey roast plums are consumed.* (Via Light Reading.)

• Review of Alastair Little.

* Your link-gatherer is currently on a no-sugar, no-booze diet. Expect a continued bounty of food links, lingering appraisal of other people's meals, etc., until it all goes tits-up with the order of a case of these.

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CAAF: Mother tongue

Edmund White has written a fascinating piece for the NYRB on Henry James' letters. The essay focuses on James' and his brother William's education, including this intriguing linguistic bit:

In 1855 [Henry James Sr.] accordingly bundled the family off to Europe--to Geneva (surely the least sensuous city on the Continent), where little Henry was taught by French-speaking governesses, then sent to the Pensionnat Roediger. When their father's enthusiasm for this institution inevitably waned they all moved to London where tutors were engaged again, though their governess Mlle Cusin was retained and brought over from Geneva to continue teaching them French. It was during these years that the boys acquired their nearly perfect and certainly idiomatic French; the self-critical James could say, "My French astounds me--its goodness is equalled only by its badness. I can be terribly spirituel, but I can't ask for a candlestick."

In later years Henry would be guilty of Gallicisms ("the actual President of the United States") and would scrawl hasty notes to himself in French. His letters in these two volumes are peppered with French phrases, two or three a page. After addressing Thomas Sergeant Perry in French for a full page, Henry (at age twenty-four) switches back to English but deplores the loss of the intimate tu ("How detestable this you seems after using the Gallic toi!"). Some of the strangeness of James's prose in these early letters can surely be explained by his translating back into English from French. For instance, when he writes Perry in 1860 from Paris he describes what he sees out the window of his hotel and refers to "a grasp of warriors" passing by (a phrase which surely began life as une poignée de guerriers). Or when James talks of a Swiss mountain trail that took eighteen years to "pierce," he's obviously translating back from percer. Richardson remarks on similar mistakes in William's English, though in his case the source of the errors was German.

I was thinking a little about this sort of thing -- crossing languages and how speaking one affects the other -- over the weekend. Currently, I speak appalling French and Spanish, and I've been considering adding some hideous Latin or Greek to the stable. Just idle, What Would George Eliot Do-type thoughts before bedtime.

If you've invested a lot of time with flash cards and language labs and still never cleared "appalling," you may look for consolation. And for me, that's come from what the other language, no matter how imperfectly mastered, has revealed or reminded me about English. Etymologies, sentence structures, relationships between word families: All of these get thrown into sharper relief. For instance, reading García Márquez in Spanish, you might come across espuma for shaving lather, and so lather and foam get tossed around in your brain for a while, in a way that is gratifying and/or makes you seem a little high, depending: Lathered waves, espuma, spume!

That's the train of thought that got me to the Latin and Greek. I'm not sure which, if either, I'll try to learn (recommendations are welcome). For now I've been entertaining myself with the various Amazon reviews on the different textbooks (Teach Yourself Pig Latin in a Day!) available.* Here's an excerpt from a review of Introduction to Attic Greek:

I'm not sure how to answer the chap who thinks learning a language ought to be a distractingly entertaining experience. But let me try. Language learning can indeed be accompanied by merriment at times, usually during the immersion phase and often at the expense of the learner. I'm afraid we've missed that boat by a couple millennia. If the pure cerebral rush that comes with the gradual mastery of the inner logic and outer mechanics of your target language is not sufficient stimulation in itself, then the learner might be better advised to stick to Spanish, where he can start pretending to make sentences almost from the outset.

Something to keep in mind.

(Link to White article via Maud.)

* I really love reading Amazon reviews -- I don't know why, possibly because I don't get out much: It's people-watching for agoraphobics. Like sitting on a bus where everybody around you is talking about books (and Harriet Klausner rides every line). For a long time my favorite was one that took Zadie Smith to task for not writing well enough about menopause in On Beauty. It was the abundance of clinical detail that really made the case.

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TT: Almanac

"Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair."

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

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September 24, 2007

TT: Made manifest

I often have occasion to make favorable mention in this space and elsewhere of Think Denk, Jeremy Denk's witty blog about "the glamorous life and thoughts of a concert pianist." Not long ago our mutual friend Anya Grundmann, who helps run the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera, invited the two of us to appear jointly at the next institute to talk about blogging. We live in the same neighborhood but had never met, so I invited Mr. Think Denk to tour the Teachout Museum and have lunch with me at Good Enough to Eat. It took us several weeks to come up with a mutually compatible date--we've both been on the road for much of the summer--but we finally managed to converge on Friday afternoon.

No sooner had I opened the door to my apartment than we started pelting one another with opinions, some of which we shared (four thumbs up for Verdi's Falstaff) and some not (he likes Ives and Schumann a lot more than I do). The talk was more or less nonstop, though we did pause long enough to cram down lunch and listen to four records that came up in the conversation:

• Van Cliburn playing the first movement of the Barber Piano Sonata

• Gérard Souzay's 1946 recording of Fauré's "Clair de lune"

• A 1909 recording of Reynaldo Hahn's "Offrande" sung by the composer to his own piano accompaniment

• A recording of "Quand'ero paggio," an aria from Falstaff, made in 1907 by Victor Maurel, the baritone who created the role fourteen years earlier

Mr. Think Denk is every bit as smart and thoughtful in person as you'd expect from reading his blog. Time was when this might have surprised me, but experience has taught me that such is usually the case with the best bloggers. Alas, I'm afraid I talked his ear off about The Letter--I'd had an unusually productive work session with Paul Moravec the day before and was still booming and zooming as a result--but he was kind enough to act interested and ask leading questions, to which I obligingly responded by hosing him down with superfluous information. (At least I stayed off the subject of Louis Armstrong's embouchure!)

No doubt one of the secondary reasons for my garrulity was that I'd finally managed to lick the case of allergy-heightened, stress-exacerbated sniffles that tore a hole in the past two weeks of my life. As usual I celebrated by revving up my engine: on Saturday I took a train to Baltimore to see CenterStage's production of Arsenic and Old Lace, and the next day I was back in New York for a press preview of Dividing the Estate, Horton Foote's new play. This week I'll be writing three pieces, seeing two more shows, and paying a visit to the Armstrong Archives at Queens College.

Whatever else my life is or isn't, it's definitely not dull. Neither Mr. Think Denk nor I can still quite believe that people actually pay us to do what we do. Yes, I work too damn hard and don't always take proper care of myself, but I suspect that the sheer pleasure of spending my days immersed in art up to the eyebrows offsets no small part of the resulting wear and tear.

It's nice to be myself again.

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TT: Titularly speaking

I just got word that another book tentatively called Hotter Than That will be published around the time that my Louis Armstrong biography of the same name will be coming out from Harcourt. No, it's not an Armstrong biography, but it is about jazz trumpet, which suggests that I may need to come up with another title. The prospect doesn't unnerve me--my Mencken biography was retitled The Skeptic after I turned the manuscript in to HarperCollins--but it's not too soon for me to be thinking about a new name, so I thought I'd share my problem with the readers of this blog.

"Hotter Than That" is, of course, the title of one of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five recordings of 1928, so I went through the Armstrong discography to see if any other title leaped out at me. These caught my eye:

King of the Zulus


That Rhythm Man

You Rascal, You

Laughin' Louie

Song of the Vipers (or, alternatively, "King of the Vipers," which was one of Armstrong's many nicknames)

I'm Shootin' High


Your thoughts?

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TT: Almanac

"Lost Illusion is the undisclosed title of every novel."

André Maurois, The Art of Writing

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September 21, 2007

TT: Just a cockeyed idealist

Today's Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to out-of-town productions of a pair of infrequently revived shows, William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life and Stephen Sondheim's musical version of Merrily We Roll Along:

Few artists have been done dirtier by posterity than William Saroyan. For a time he was one of America's best-known writers, and "The Time of Your Life," his most successful play, won a Pulitzer in 1940. But then America fell out of love with Saroyan, and he had lapsed into half-remembered obscurity long before his death in 1981. Not even "The Time of Your Life" has held the stage, and when the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, one of the best companies in the New York area, announced a revival, I was eager to see what they would do with a play so completely out of favor. The good news is that it has turned out to be far more theatrically potent than I could possibly have imagined.

On paper there's nothing much to "The Time of Your Life," which is set in a seedy San Francisco bar just after the start of World War II. Joe (Andrew Weems) sits and guzzles champagne as a string of variously eccentric drinkers come and go. At play's end he rouses himself from his sozzled torpor, does a good turn for an unhappy whore (Sofia Jean Gomez), and returns at last to the world he had renounced. That's all there is to it, really--except for the goofy good humor with which Saroyan portrays the patrons of Nick's Pacific Street Saloon. From Harry (Blake Hackler), the hapless hoofer who longs to be a comedian but is utterly unfunny, to Kit Carson (Edmond Genest), a half-senile old man who claims to have been a sharpshooting pioneer, Saroyan fills the stage with characters whose cockeyed charm wins you over....

Like the 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play on which it is based, "Merrily We Roll Along" runs in reverse: It starts in the present, showing us the hollow triumph of a songwriter who gave up music to become a Hollywood producer, then turns back the clock so that we can watch him selling out by installments. The score is one of Mr. Sondheim's strongest, but the show's unrelieved pessimism and structural trickery turned off Broadway audiences, and the original 1980 production closed after just 16 performances.

Fortunately, Mr. Sondheim and George Furth (who had previously collaborated on "Company") kept on tinkering with "Merrily." In time they came up with a much-altered version meant to make us care about the fate of Franklin Shepard (Will Gartshore), the Sondheim-like songwriter who, unlike his creator, betrays his art (and friends and lovers) by jettisoning his idealism and going for the gold. In this revised, slimmed-down version, the show's ironic arc--it begins in bitter disillusion and moves "forward" to a happy "ending" full of youthful hope for the future--now makes dramatic and emotional sense.

Eric Schaeffer, who as artistic director of Signature Theatre has earned a well-deserved national reputation for his Sondheim stagings, has opted this time for a bare-bones production similar in feel to a semi-staged concert version. It is, alas, too obviously based on John Doyle's recent Broadway revival of "Company," right down to the big black piano at center stage...

No free link--yet--so buy a paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will allow you to read my column--and the rest of the Journal's arts section--on the spot. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

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TT: Almanac

"Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know."

William Saroyan (quoted in the New York Journal-American, Aug. 23, 1961)

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