Thursday, March 22, 2012

Being Alive

It was May of 1970. At the time, I was living in Ocean City, New Jersey, and was in New York City for a day trip. I went to see a Broadway musical whose New York Times review had persuaded me that seeing it was a matter of great importance. It had only a semblance of a story, being told in vignettes surrounding a bachelor's birthday party. The revolutionary set used elevators and moving platforms to constantly remake itself into various New York City apartments and suggest their buildings. The leading man had been replaced just after the show opened. There was feeling it might not last.

The show, called "Company", concerned itself with alienation, with one man's loneliness in life, with the nature of friendships, with disillusion and disappointment. It was not your everyday musical comedy. There was one moment in particular, late in the second act, in which one character drunkenly savages her world and realizes that she is herself one of the "Ladies Who Lunch". It was devastating. That was the day I became a fan of Stephen Sondheim, the man who conceived the idea of, and wrote the music and lyrics for that show.

I was still living in Ocean City when a full page black and white ad appeared one Sunday in the New York Times' Arts and Leisure section. In those days, newspapers did not yet print color - it was only used for the Sunday funnies. The ad was relatively simple, yet complex, and made me think of Sondheim. There was something of a modern psychedelic feel about it. I taped it to my living room wall.

I knew immediately that whatever it was, I would be going to New York to see it. It tuned out to be an ad for Stephen Sondheim's new show, a nostalgic anti-nostalgia musical, which only reinforced my desire to go. Seeing it was one of the great experiences of my life. I ended up going to see that show three times. When I first tried to describe the multi-song finale (which consisted of spectacular "follies" styled numbers taking place in the leading character's minds) to friends, I said it was as if Federico Fellini had directed a Broadway musical. I was enormously gratified some years later to read a history of the show in which its producer/director (Hal Prince) described the concept for the staging of the finale in the same words.

Two more shows followed, both brilliant (A Little Night Music, and Pacific Overtures), both of which I was gratified to attend. Then came word that Sondheim's next show would be a bit of Grand Guignol based on an old melodrama.

One afternoon in 1979, my best friend Jerry Campbell and I were hanging out in his apartment in the East 90's. He had just purchased the newly released cast album for that show, which I hadn't seen yet, and insisted that I hear one particular number, "A Little Priest". I made him play it again. And again. It ends the show's first act, and, while composed in a standard musical comedy form, completely subverted the genre. I soon talked my good friend and former roommate, musicologist Keith Lacey into going to see it with me. It was another of the great experiences of my life. I saw it twice, once with the original cast, and once with the replacement cast. Here's the Little Priest number from the First National Tour, which was the Broadway production, with the original Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) and the 2nd Sweeny Todd (George Hearn). Mr. Todd, a barber seeking vengeance for a horrible wrong, has just slit the throat of someone who has recognized him. His landlady, Mrs. Lovett, who has a business making and selling meat pies, helps him think the situation through:

As the years after Sweeny ticked by, I ended up moving to Boston. One of the things which helped me decide to do so was a song from Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize Winning show Sunday in the Park With George. Before I left, an excerpt played on my answering machine.

 I returned to New York City for what turned out to be the last time with the express purpose of seeing Sondheim's Into the Woods as my birthday present to myself. Eventually, I moved here to Brattleboro. I soon found myself working three jobs to get by. One was at the Brattleboro Food Coop. I remember one shift, having just come out of the walk-in freezer, spying one of the meat department's two young female employees standing behind the counter a few feet away. She was having difficulty with a customer. After the customer left, I looked at her, and said something on the order of "Haven't you got poet or something like that?" She replied "The trouble with poet is how do you know it's deceased?" We've been friends ever since. It was Laura, now the proprietress of the blog "Austanspace". Although I'm not sure I've ever said this to her, she's been my best friend for the last decade at least. She's also the person who nicknamed me "Stevil".

At any rate, I wanted to take a moment here to briefly note how much I adore the work of Stephen Sondheim, which has greatly influenced and enriched my life.
Today is his birthday, and I can't believe that he is supposed to be 82 years old.
He's not, it's that simple.
Theater Gods do not age.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

When good people do nothing

Now it's happening in Idaho. A bill has just passed that state's Senate which would force a woman seeking an abortion to undergo and view an ultrasound before proceeding with the operation. Idaho is one of ten states actively working on such legislation. Eight states have already passed such laws. (Click here for a link to the Guttmacher list of states and their requirements) In Virginia, a new law soon to take effect originally called for a "transvaginal" insertion of a 10 inch sonogram device. Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau dubbed it the "Shaming Wand". Alabama and Pennsylvania are currently considering this practice as part of their proposed legislation.

In the United States, abortion has been legal since 1972's Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision. Since that day, there has been a growing and dangerous attempt to divide this country along politically religious lines. Unable to overturn the law, the religious have resorted to everything from outright murder of abortion providers (rather ironic for a group which refers to itself as "pro-life"), bombings of abortion clinics, to insane, belittling and costly laws such as these. The people behind these laws bemoan what they see as government intrusion into their lives (again missing the irony of their advocacy). They are the conservative right. They are Tea Party members. They are candidates for the Presidency of the United States. And they insist on having their way. It does not, and will not, stop at abortion. Their arguments justify laws against gay people, people of other faiths, immigrants, and basically anyone who doesn't believe as they do. They are the mentality that makes up the Taliban.

If that seems like an outrageous statement, let me note a couple of things. Lets take a quick look at Iraq. Remember Iraq? The country we invaded because the no longer loyal to US dictator had allegedly acquired weapons of mass destruction and had some tenuous connection to the events of Sept 11th, 2001? After the US invaded, Iraq saw the rise of extremely conservative religious movements. In the last few weeks, according to news stories which lasted in the public eye for oh, about 15 minutes, it was reported that in Baghdad's conservative Sadr City district, teenagers and young adults who adopted what is labelled the "emo" lifestyle (a form of rebellion which includes having longish hair and wearing black clothes) are being killed at an alarming rate. About 60 dead in the last six weeks. Read that again - 60 - sixty - dead in six weeks. That's just the ones we know about, in one area of one city. There are pictures, but they are too disturbing to publish here. With one exception, the dead "emo" loving youth were perceived as being gay men. Lists appear as warning to the named targeted individuals to change their ways. Here's a typical message:

"We warn in the strongest terms to every male and female debauchee," the Shiite militia hit list says. "If you do not stop this dirty act within four days, then the punishment of God will fall on you at the hands of Mujahideen."

When found, the victim's heads are smashed in with cinder blocks. After they are tortured. Ever so much more effective than a shaming wand. Oh, by the way, seven of the dead were simply shot. No arrests have been made.

The best known modern Mujahideen came into being in Afghanistan in the late 1970's, as guerrilla fighters against the Soviet Occupation. Financed and trained by, among others, the United States, Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, and various Europeans. Ronald Reagan called them "freedom fighters". As the various mujahideen groups fought each other in Afghanistan's civil war, a Pakistani backed mujahideen group headed by mullah Mohammed Omar seized control of that country. They became known as the Taliban.

Of course, you say, such extreme actions and government can't happen here. In that case, you might want to know about the problem of teenage suicides in now withdrawn Presidential contender Congresswoman Michelle Bachman's home state. Nine kids have killed themselves in one school district in two years. Bachman's conservative evangelical supporters passed laws which restricted any discussion of gay issues. The dead teens were gay, or bullied because they were perceived to be gay. There was not one adult at their schools they could turn to. A supportive teacher could, after all, be fired. There is no law protecting them. In these schools, gay-straight alliances were labelled "sex clubs". I'm not making this up. Click here for an article in Mother Jones, and click here for an article in the February 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

I could go on and on, but I won't. How do these people keep getting elected and getting their laws passed? They are not the majority. They have taken over because no one else wants to get involved in the day to day business of government under the media glare and conditions which have been prevalent for quite some time now. No one seems willing to stand up to them - especially when one considers that their demands are often crazily out of kilter with the way Americans live their lives in the here and now. And so they win, because every day good people do nothing.

Meanwhile, in the insanity haven known as Broward County, Florida (home of the last stand of the hanging chad which helped give you George W. Bush president) 14 members of a law firm were fired Friday for wearing orange shirts. They wanted to be identified as a group at their after work happy hour held at a local cocktail lounge. The law firm said that there was a rumor they were protesting something (unspecified at this point). The employees have no legal protection, Florida is a "right to work" state.

It was also in Florida that a black teenager, on the way home  from a store where he bought his younger brother a package of candy, was shot and killed in his gated community by an Hispanic wanna-be cop vigilante who had been told by police to cease pursuing the young man whom he found "suspicious". In his cell phone call, the shooter is heard to refer to "fucking coons". This man has been claiming that he shot the teenager (armed with a pack of Skittles) in self-defense. No arrests have been made. (I've heard that phrase before.) In just a few minutes, the Justice Department is scheduled to announce that they are stepping into the more than 3 week old case.

Rick Santorum, religous conservative candidate for US President, recently announced that he was "sickened" by John F. Kennedy's assertion that as President, he would put his Catholic faith aside when governing. At the time, Kennedy had been accused of potentially taking orders from the Pope. He clarified that he would be the President of all the people, not just Catholics. Rick Santorum may have been sickened at the time, but it would have been because he was two years old and probably choking on his own bile. Yesterday, Santorum noted that unemployment and the economy were not his issues for this campaign. His issue, along with stamping out pornography, is "freedom". The quote: “We need a candidate who's going to be a fighter for freedom." Freedom fighters. I've heard that term before, too.