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Loveland

November 29, 2013 | by

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“If I had any visual talent, I would have loved to be a filmmaker,” Stephen Sondheim told me in a recent phone interview. “But I didn’t. So this is what I became.” It’s jarring to think that the legendary composer-lyricist of Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods only resorted to musical theater out of an inability to compose a wide shot. In the 1950s Sondheim directed amateur horror movies (“The photography is like a five-year-old’s”) and he later co-wrote the enjoyably chilly mystery film The Last of Sheila, but he has made a relatively piddling contribution to the art form that is deepest in his bones. As he told Frank Rich in 2000, “Movies were, and still are, my basic language.”

It’s the language he used to write Follies, the sumptuous 1971 Broadway musical about middle-aged showgirls gathering for a boozy, confrontational reunion on the eve of their old theater’s destruction. While critics have treated the show as an elegy to the theater, Hollywood seems to have been the headiest influence on Follies’ creative team. Sondheim has said that during the writing process, he “could only imagine the spectacle of a Ziegfeldian ‘Loveland’ in terms of movie musicals,” and co-director Harold Prince’s concept for Follies as a story about “rubble in the daylight” grew out of a  Life magazine photo of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of the Roxy movie palace. Prince insisted that the libretto be rewritten to include cinematic techniques like dissolves, close-ups, and black-and-white flashbacks, and the orchestrations were deliberately rigged with MGM-isms (like the thrilling piano-to-orchestra swell midway through “Beautiful Girls”). Even the casting of old vaudevillians in many of the roles was inspired by Billy Wilder’s casting of silent movie actors in Sunset Boulevard. “We just kept hoovering up people who were close to the story,” Prince explained to me in a phone call. “That’s what Billy Wilder did: he put Swanson in the part so you thought, ‘Hey, she’s playing herself.’ She wasn’t, of course, but you made that connection.”

Was the fabled original production of Follies always pining away to be a movie? I called Sondheim and Prince after learning that they actually had cooked up a scheme to make a film version in the early 1970s, featuring dozens of faded stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age congregating on a studio backlot about to be torn down. It is intoxicating to imagine such a film, with archival footage of the stars sewn into the plot, and each cut functioning like an electric restoration of youth.Read More »

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Nora Ephron’s Potato-Chip Legacy

June 28, 2012 | by

In April The Believer declared Nora Ephron “the original Tina Fey.” This week, an obituary on The Daily Beast said that she was bigger than Twain. Both superlatives gloss over the fact that Ephron’s work was widely reviled (a Village Voice review of Bewitched even argued that “the Ephrons should have to sharecrop, for all the good they've done for the culture”) and that, even for Ephron devotees, part of the charm of seeing her latest flick was wondering whether it’d be typical Burbank dung (Mixed Nuts! Michael!) or a piece of deathless Hollywood legend.

Ephron kept dice in her purse, was willing to “teach almost anyone how to play craps at a moment’s notice,” and her writing had a gambler’s unevenness. The rambling digressiveness, along with the faint datedness, of her worldview only intensified your shock when Ephron arrived, seemingly by accident, at an incisive thought. Here she is in her 1983 roman à clef Heartburn, recounting a speech she often made while preparing Lillian Hellman’s pot roast recipe:

I have no problem with her political persona, or with her insistence on making herself the centerpiece of most of the historical conflicts of the twentieth century; but it seems to me that she invented a romantic fantasy about her involvement with Dashiell Hammett that is every bit as unrealistic as the Doris Day movies feminists prefer to blame for society’s unrealistic notions about romance … it occurred to me as I delivered [the speech] yet another time that I had always zipped through that part of the speech as if I had somehow managed to be invulnerable to the fantasy, as if I had somehow managed to escape from or rise above it simply as a result of having figured it out. I think you often have that sense when you write—that if you can spot something in yourself and set it down on paper, you’re free of it.

As someone who was corn-fed on her movies as a child, the passage seems eerily prophetic. Seeing Ephron gab about “unrealistic notions about romance” in 1983 is rather like hearing those reports that the young L. Ron Hubbard told friends, “If you want to get rich, you start a religion”—and it hints at the nagging contradictions of Nora Ephron’s life.

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Lamb Chop in Search of a Martini

January 9, 2012 | by

When recently asked his opinion of monogamy, John Waters said, “I don’t need another person to make me feel whole. I feel crowded.” The line immediately reminded me of ventriloquist Shari Lewis. Lewis wasn’t crowded, exactly, with only three enduring creations—Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy—but to me her career is emblematic of the simultaneously crowded and lonely nature of puppeteering. By Lewis’s own admission, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, which I grew up watching during its run on PBS from 1992 to 1997, had no educational content. (“My show is not organized to educate,” she said. “Sesame Street does that brilliantly.”) Instead, Play-Along was a serialized sock-puppet soap opera (“At Home with Lamb Chop”) which kept being interrupted by knock-knock jokes, songs, and gags (including an ingenious method of preslicing a banana so that it would tumble to pieces, Jenga-style, when unpeeled). The show was like Borscht Belt boot camp: a toolbox for kids who desperately wanted to be liked, full of little tricks to spruce up their personalities. Even Lamb Chop’s laugh—a hesitant, schmoozy laugh that usually comes in response to jokes she doesn’t quite understand—hints at her desire to fit in.

The show’s emphasis on showmanship stressed me out as a kid, and I preferred the “At Home with Lamb Chop” sequences. They were absorbingly plotted but also had none of the perils of interaction, of trying to woo friends, of trying to follow along at home with your own banana. “At Home with Lamb Chop” offered the comforting suggestion that friends weren’t necessary, that one could simply chop one’s own personality to bits, and, earthworm-style, the pieces would all sprout heads and start bickering.

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