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Monthly Archives: November 2011

School Spirits

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has publicly broached the subject of higher education costs.  This could be a moment to remember.  If done thoughtfully and strategically, it could change the landscape of our country.  The skyrocketing debt being incurred by students is no secret.  However, those saddled with the debt are only one part of the problem.

There are countless high school students who could/would not even consider such amounts of debt.  They may no even know it is an option, albeit a questionable option.  Currently the admissions and bursar process for most institutions of higher education are not designed to assist lower income families.  Yes, a lot of noise is made about “need blind” admissions, and generous aid packages, but there are loopholes and hurdles.  For every college application there is a fee.  Most high school seniors are encouraged to apply to an average of six schools.  That can be a lot of fee money, yet to receive a waiver a family has to be practically at the national poverty level.  $500 or so is a lot of money to a family of four making $42,000.  And that’s just the beginning.  Visiting colleges to determine the best fit?  That costs money.  Food, housing, books, fees?  Often aid packages do not cover those expenses.  Traveling home for holidays and random school breaks?  Not all that possible on a limited income.  Did you know that when colleges/universities are “closed” for these breaks, their dining plan is often closed as well, leaving students of limited means to fend for themselves?  Taken as a whole, these specifics add up to, “you need not apply.”  At least to my sensibilities.

Demanding colleges/universities lower tuition is fine.  But we could do far more to change things dramatically.  The federal government, a major contributor to higher education (in the form of research grants and projects) is in a position to demand changes.  I am specifically interested in what could be done to protect the consumer.

There is far too much mystique about the admissions process and higher education in general.  It is time to look behind the curtain.  I have outlined many considerable cost savings measures in my previous post Educated Consumers.  In addition we need to share with high school students the actual dollars and cents of higher education.  Not all majors are equal and nor are all degrees.  Not all schools are legitimate are worth what they’re charging.  Colleges and universities should not be allowed to be anything but transparent.  Every cost needs to be listed (in one place!)  Every school knows their job placement outcomes and income levels of alumni (of every major)  This information needs to be shared with potential students.  Truisms such as “we can’t force you to live on campus, we just prefer you do” need to be stated.  Let’s eliminate some of the smoke and mirrors.  Minors are the consumers of higher education and they need more protection than we are currently offering.  The government, for better or worse, is in a position to do just that.  Remember, before the F.D.A., snake oil was available on practically every corner.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2011 in Education

 

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Shot Out Of A Cannon

The first person who dropped an olive into a martini or mixed chocolate with peanut butter?  They got nothing on Jim Caruso, who dreamed up the musical partnering of Aaron Weinstein and Christine Ebersole.  Birdland was packet to the rafters last night for this musically stunning, and very funny, cabaret of standards and bebop.

The premise of the show is Mr. Weinstein’s assertion that the violin is the instrument closest to the human voice.  The evening was ostensibly an array of duets featuring Mr. Weinstein’s violin (and electric mandolin!) and Ms. Ebersole’s voice.  The melding was such that on three separate occasions, I searched for Ms. Ebersole’s back-up singers.  Suffice it to say, Mr. Weinstein was right.

Perhaps upon first glance, one might be inclined to see more differences than similarities in this pairing.  Ms. Ebersol (Grey Gardens, 42nd Street) is a Tony award winning Broadway, film and television actress. She has some very impressive experience under her fashionable belt.   Mr. Weinstein (b.1985) is somewhat new to the scene.  Often compared to Groucho Marx, his stage presence and banter belie his age. The genius in this pairing is both musical and personal.  Never have any two people had such fun performing together!  They are both some of the best in their musical class and possess a delightful dry wit.  But oh, it’s their music.

Each time I have seen Mr. Weinstein perform, I am bowled over.  Perhaps jazz violin has been played like this before, but not in my recollection.   Ms. Ebersole is in ridiculously splendid voice.  She growled, purred, soared and even did a little Borscht Belt ditty.  Looking gorgeous and at ease, she confessed that after only two days of rehearsal, she felt shot out of a cannon.  Nothing about this show felt rushed or thrown together.  The evening was a lovely balance of (very funny) repartee and a gorgeous collection of incredibly interpreted music.  A great deal of care was taken to steer clear of any hint of a star solo act.  Ms. Ebersole seemed tickled to share the stage and spotlight and it payed off wonderfully.

As much as their beautiful music is still playing in my mind, its the beauty of the collaboration itself which will stay with me.  How wonderfully creative to pair these two, and what spectacular results!  Producing a creative show which artistically takes a chance will always get a standing ovation from me.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Who Wants To Be A Producer?

When they offered tickets to Hugh Jackman’s staged concert at $250, I was concerned.  When they raised the price to $350 I felt a spell coming on.  I cast no dispersions on Mr. Jackman.  I have seen him perform live (at the Tony awards) and he is a gem.  I am also a believer in a free economy and can often be spotted muttering; “people will buy whatever you sell them.”  Yet, there is something about the pricing of these tickets that is disturbing me beyond all reason.

I am not an economist (to such an extent, I hear only white noise when people discuss long-term investments,) but I feel in my bones, that there is something “off” about a $350 ticket to a performance of anything.  I will defend Mr. Jackman’s producers’ right to charge whatever people will pay, but I have trepidation.  I’m worried about what this will (continue to) lead to.

For decades, people have paid extraordinary sums to attend concerts.  Even un-scalped tickets have been in the triple digits for quite some time.  I’ve long suspected it is due to the rarity of seeing what you’ve been hearing.  In that vein, Mr. Jackman’s ticket pricing is almost normative, however I’m willing to wager that his audience is thinking; “Broadway show” not “Concert.”  Therein lies the concern.  If in fact we are creating/supporting a theatre audience who will pay $350 for a concert, is this helping or hurting Broadway?

How do we support a rich creative process for producing new theatrical works of art in a world in which a producer can charge $350 for a concert on Broadway?  In 1961 a ticket to see Judy Garland concert (a comparison, no doubt The Boy From Oz would appreciate) was $7.00.  In 1961 the average Broadway theatre ticket was between $5.00 and $9.00.  I don’t pretend that this 1:1 ratio does or should still exist.  I would however, urge us to detect a trend in the amount of offerings (and pricing) of 1961 Broadway and that of 2011.

When jukebox, comic book and made-from-t.v.-or-film musicals, are bringing in millions, is there still room for new book musicals?  Do they even belong on the main-stage any longer?  Every couple of years we are graced with an inspiring wonderful new musical.  The Light In The Piazza (2005,) Spring Awakening (2006) and Passing Strange (2008) come to mind as shocking in their originality and magic.  These shows bubbled up like a tree growing in Brooklyn; defying all odds.  If you are a producer how much are you willing to risk?  A million dollars invested in a Hugh Jackman show or a jukebox musical cast with contest winners will guarantee a healthy return and perhaps a step onto the stage at the Tony awards.  Isn’t that prospect a little more enticing than ponying up a million dollars for something which artistically makes one’s heart sing, but comes with no prospect of a $350 ticket?  Where does this leave/lead us?

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2011 in Theatre

 

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We Gather Together

It’s almost time.  The turkey is defrosting, the wine has been purchased and we’ve unearthed the tablecloth.  We are poised for that magical holiday: when our family gathers around the groaning table for the annual telling of the “Time We Left Brenda At The Parade (and blithely journeyed on to Thanksgiving dinner without her)” story.  As the first words are uttered, eager faces turn upwards and the chattering ceases.  We settle into a quaint familial posture, reveling in this heartwarming tradition.  The story never alters.  The ending always the same.  The mother invokes her; “I knew she didn’t do it on purpose” line.  (Dear reader, I implore you not to spend too much time wondering how a child leaves herself at the parade on purpose.)  The father shamefaced, swears he has reformed his communicating ways.  And then we eat.

The variety of food is more or less the same regardless of who hosts.  The turkey has the most variation from year to year.  Butterball, free range, organic, kosher, we’ve had them all.  Under-cooked and over-cooked, we’ve lived to celebrate another year.  Sweet potatoes have been canned, candied, mashed and stewed.  I’m here to tell you, it makes no difference whatsoever.  Change recipes if you’re bored, knock yourself out if you love to cook.  But whatever you do, don’t worry about it.  No one cares.  This is not the time to channel Billie Burke in Dinner At Eight.  No one gives a hoot about the aspic.  You are not preparing for a gourmet magazine photo shoot (which is a good thing considering what they do to the food to have it photograph well!)  People are coming to your home because they want to be with you.  They are delighted to not be cooking AND to be fed.  They don’t care what state your home is in (as long as you have the necessities in the loo.)  They are not measuring the viscosity of your gravy or the moisture level of your bird.  There’s no such thing as a flaky crust in a pumpkin pie, and no one cares if you made all or none of it yourself.  Being knackered is no way to enjoy a holiday.  Buy what you can, prepare ahead of time and above all else, delegate.  People like to feel needed.

Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays we have that’s sole intent is gratitude.  There are no cards, gifts, tips or parties.  The only societal expectation is that we gather with family and/or friends, eat and drink in excess and give thanks for the opportunity to do so.  This year, just like every year, after the last bit of pie has been scraped out of the dish, and the top buttons have been opened, one of us will chime; “remember that year we all had the flu and the ones who could keep food down had turkey t.v. dinners?”  That, dear reader is what great Thanksgiving memories are made of.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2011 in Cultural Critique, Holiday

 

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On A Clear Day You Can See Forever – Review

A new Broadway Baby has been born, and delivered to an unstable home.  Jessie Mueller is making a show-stopping debut in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever in what used to be the starring role of Daisy/Melinda.  This revival, starring Harry Connick Jr. (Dr. Mark Bruckner) has been “re-conceived” within an inch of its life.  (On the heels of the “new” Porgy and Bess, this phenomenon really begs the question; “If you don’t care for the original show, why are you reviving it?”)

The basic premise of all former productions including the film is; a wonderfully talented woman (Daisy/Melinda) with low self-esteem seeks out a psychiatrist to assist her in quitting smoking.  Through clinical hypnosis sessions, her past life (in the 19th century) is revealed.  After a few sessions, the psychiatrist falls in love with the recovered memory.  With music by Burton Lane, and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, it was a kicky addition to the 1960s musical genre.  The songs aren’t terribly memorable (save for the title song) but there is a certain charm about the show.

Today, with approximately 20 producers (including Mr. Lerner’s daughter) and a new book by Peter Parnell, the show is almost unrecognizable.  The character of Daisy, is now a gay man (David Turner) when awake in present day.  The time period (of present day) is now 1974 and the flashbacks are 1943.  Mr. Turner’s character, David, has none of the charm and talents of the original character Daisy.  He is a milquetoast slight child/man who is hesitant to move in with his boyfriend on their one-year anniversary.  The boyfriend, Warren (Drew Gehling) makes many musical and non-musical references to their one day getting married.  Because that is what homosexual men in 1974 evidently talked about.  Changing the gender and sexual orientation of the lead serves no purpose except self-indulgent ones (whatever they may be.)  It adds nothing to the story, if anything it takes away any believability and creates awkward moments.  Is my world view to be challenged by accepting it is not offensive to suggest a homosexual man is no more than a repressed woman inside?  And while we’re at it, am I not to be offended by a (presumably) all white cast?  The biggest of all the crimes of this “re-conception” is that it diminishes Jessie Mueller’s role to that of a walk-on.  Her voice and demeanor are reminiscent of a young Liza Minnelli.  She is funny and poignant, has incredible stage presence and possesses a voice that is not to be believed.  She stopped the show with her number Ev’ry Night At Seven.  That second act number and a ballroom dance number (in Act I with David, Melinda and Dr.Bruckner) are the true gems of the show.

Directed and “re-conceived” by Michael Mayer, the show has very little dancing, which really is just as well, as the ensemble includes not one dancer.  The two requisite chorus song and dance numbers are dull and give the impression of fulfilling a requisite.  But the ballroom dance number (Joann M. Hunter, choreographer) is wonderfully conceived and executed.

The set (Christine Jones) is simple and streamlined and a bit noisy.  The costumes (Catherine Zuber) are somewhat schizophrenic.  The 1943 costumes are simply lovely, they are appropriately costume-y, to portray a waitress, band singer, etc.  The 1974 ensemble of the show is dressed as H.R. Puffentstuff extras.  They are color coordinated cartoon-y interpretations of how students (in their 30s) dressed.  Mr. Connick is dressed in a 2011 suit and tie.  His long suffering colleague Sharone (the lovely Kerry O’Malley) is dressed for a Cosmopolitan photo layout.  She has more costume changes than anyone else, and each wrap dress is stunning.  There is nothing about her character to suggest she is a fashionista, but I enjoyed the clothes.

Clumsy, self-serving revisions aside, it can not go without mention, that a director needs to work very very hard to strip Harry Connick Jr. of all charm and humor.  Granted, Dr. Bruckner is not the most scintillating character ever conceived, but in this production he is on thorazine.  Luckily, Dr. Bruckner has many songs, and oh to listen to Harry Connick Jr. sing from just a few feet away!  But if you have ever seen Mr. Connick Jr. live, even having just a casual conversation, you will not recognize him in this fugue state.  Meanwhile, much exuberance and stage time is given to the character of Muriel (Sarah Stiles,) David’s roommate.  She is a non- traditionally attractive quasi ethnic looking friend to all gay men (get it?)  I’m sure she’s a talented woman, but this role is a caricature and employs one of those novelty voices that I don’t enjoy (think Kristin Chenoweth as a muppet.)  Giving this character more stage time than Jessie Mueller, is a poor but fixable choice.

And some fixing they will do.  I saw this production one week into previews and on the night the second act was entirely re-worked (and ran 20 minutes over.)  Removing the misguided attempts at laugh lines (Cher and Barbra Streisand cringe inducing “jokes”) is an easy cut.  There is time to fix the sound and give Harry Connick Jr. more to work with, but the re-conceived conceit is not going anywhere.  I am not a stolid traditionalist, I like new things.  I loved Mr. Mayer’s Spring Awakening.  But I am not a fan of changing something just to say it’s new.  I am not buying that something is improved just because it’s changed either.  And I will never ever support squandering talent.  Ms. Mueller deserves a better debut and Mr. Connick Jr. deserves a better role.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2011 in Theatre

 

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