Monday, July 21, 2008

My Personal Hat

Today had the potential to be a big day for my family (see my post of a few days ago). Luckily, or unluckily, it wasn't. Dad did not suddenly retire, as his old friend was indeed named interim provost. This doesn't mean that he will stay forever; I don't know how long the interim lasts, and he may still leave after it ends. Mom still may also retire if/when he does. But the change has been postponed, at least for a while.

Instead of earth-shaking life alterations, today has been filled the basement and buying new pants. Small changes. Actually, cleaning the basement is a larger change than you might think; I thought my mom was going to weep when I moved the mattress we store down there from one room to another. Somehow that shook her earth, a reaction I had not anticipated.

Tomorrow I'm off to NYC to see various folks. If you're there, call me! Posting will probably slow down over the next week, as I begin yet another round of travel from LI to NY to Boston and back.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

My Professional Hat, Part 2

Cross-posted at Musicology/Matters!

When I tell people over a certain age that I study musicals, they seem to feel obliged to do one of two things. Either they ask me what my favorite musical is (I don't have an answer to that one; sorry), or they tell me, conspiratorially, that they know all the words to West Side Story.

I'm not kidding; all Americans who were aware in 1957 know every last word of West Side Story. This odd tidbit is often used to begin a tiresome conversation about how musicals after WSS have really not lived up to its gold standard, an attitude common even among scholars of the musical theatre (British spelling specially added for extra pretension!). "Why have musicals fallen out of the public consciousness," my despondent yet articulate interlocutors ask; "why are they no longer a part of our collective knowledge?"

Here I can finally respond, "they still are." Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog represents the culmination, for many show fans, of a trend that has been building for over a decade, the parody musical. From The Bitter Suite episode of Xena: Warrior Princess (1998) and Joss' own Once More, With Feeling (2001), to Broadway productions like Urinetown (also 2001), Avenue Q (2003) and the aptly named [title of show] (this past Thursday), there have been upwards of a dozen musicals about being musicals in recent history.

Such a commercially and critically successful phenomenon can only exist when the idea of the musical still has a firm grip on the hearts and minds of at least a significant percentage of the populace. The jokes aren't funny once we've forgotten the language they employ, the language of the musical. Luckily, despite the insistent nostalgia of the over-fifty crowd, we haven't forgotten it. We've just let it grow and develop, as languages will if not policed. Musicals, much to the chagrin of certain older scholars, didn't stop changing when Dick Rodgers finally croaked.

Now to the matter at hand: Dr. Horrible. Unlike most of the other musicals listed above, Dr. Horrible does not explicitly acknowledge its parody status, except in its title. Nevertheless, it clearly plays on commonly recognized tropes of the musical comedy, intertwining them hilariously with those of comics and television. The result is something that cannot truly be slotted into any of the three media, a parodic hybrid that has become characteristic of...The Internet (dramatic thunderclap). Joss has always been a master of the ironic tribute, a form that affectionately satirizes its source material, and Dr. Horrible is no exception.

An example: The Act I finale ("A Man's Gotta Do") recalls, among many other classic musical theater numbers, the opening of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, "Now Later Soon." Each character presents his/her point of view in a solo, then the solos overlap into a trio texture for an exciting finish. Despite the overlap, every word is distinctly audible, and the contrasting personalities show clearly through. Consummate musico-lyrical craftsmanship, demonstrating a knowledge of the traditions of the genre, but capped with Dr. Horrible's exasperated "Balls!," in case the viewers accidentally started taking it too seriously.

This comedic-but-knowledgeable attitude is maintained throughout the musical numbers, with only a few breaks: the opening duet of Act II ("Any dolt with half a brain"), Penny's solo "Here's a story of a girl," the verse of Dr. Horrible's "Look at these people," and much of the final song, "Here Lies Everything." In fact, all of the songs sung by or about Penny are serious, musically foreshadowing her tragic fate and its consequences. Nevertheless, even these somber moments are leavened with...levity, one might say, by the visual accompaniment. The musical comedy is, after all, a comedy.

Or is it? Dr. Horrible is hilarious, of course. But Dr. Horrible isn't a comedy. An English teacher once told me that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that a comedy ends with everyone getting married, while a tragedy ends with a stage full of bodies. While this definition is facile, it does provide a way to view Dr. Horrible as a tragedy--Penny ends up dead, Captain Hammer weeping on a therapist's couch, and Dr. Horrible an emotionless shell. Not exactly a happy ending.

Which brings me back to my first anecdote. West Side Story has been hailed as the elevation of the musical comedy to an art form by the replacement of "comedy" with "tragedy." Frivolity is banished, in the end, by tragic death, no matter how defiantly we recall "I Feel Pretty" and forget the gang rivalry that has been tamed into finger-snapping dance routines. Fifty years later, another musical has dared to end without the rousing choral finale, with a lead struck down in the prime of life. Is Dr. Horrible the postmodern West Side Story for the internet age?

I submit that, yes, it does fulfill the same function. For those who grew up on self-aware musicals, television, and comic books; for a generation of pop culture consumers; for any participant in fandom, however tentative, Dr. Horrible can be that touchstone, that pinnacle of cultural evolution. In only 42 minutes. When our grandchildren confess to us that they are getting PhDs in internet memology, we can shake our heads and sigh at the downfall of memes after Dr. Horrible.

Is this paean ridiculous? Am I overstating the importance of an internet meme? Quite possibly. Nevertheless, that's the reaction this sort of thing demands. Either it is dismissed as just another meme among thousands, or it is worshiped as our Savior by thousands. I'm a fan of it, certainly. Just think about how many article possibilities are lurking beneath its smooth, polished surface, a surface that I have not yet begun to scratch!

Scratch away, readers.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

My Professional Hat

OK, folks. My job is to talk/write about musicals, so here's my mental regurgitation of Spring Awakening, which I saw this afternoon with my grandmother. A more nuanced paper may eventually include some of these ruminations, but this is my gut reaction, for what it's worth. I must note, in passing, that we chose an unfortunately highly understudied performance to attend; both male leads and one of the supporting males were understudies.

First of all, I did enjoy the show, though not as much as I hoped to. The music was good--not great--but seemed to have very little to do with the show; it felt like a concept album, not a theatrical performance. This could, perhaps, have something to do with the rock concert conceit the whole show toyed with throughout. I don't object to the conceit at all, if it works. It didn't, at least not for me. Part of that may have come from the fact that all of the actors directed their energy and attention toward the orchestra-level audience, ignoring us poor saps in the balcony. (Coincidentally, as I type this, I am listening to Ella singing "Things are Looking Up." This afternoon, they certainly weren't.)

Energy issues aside, the show had some other, more serious problems. Set in 1890s Germany, it deals with the sexual and moral awakening of several teenagers. Two actors play all of the adult characters (listed as "The Adult Women" and "The Adult Men" in the Playbill), putting the focus squarely on the teens and slimming down the cast. This works well, but the adult actors' attempts to differentiate their many roles led to one of the most unfortunate aspects of the show: when they played teachers, they played them as Nazis. Half a century off, folks. Not all Germans are Nazis, especially not the ones who had been dead for decades when Hitler came to power. This characterization was cheap, easy, and inappropriate (Like a Weimar prostitute? No, that was me being equally cheap and easy.). If the point of the show is the repressive nature of parents and teachers, playing them as Nazis bludgeons this point home unnecessarily.

Next big problem: the song "The Word of Your Body." In the first act, the song is a romantic/sexy duet between Melchior and Wendla, two of the three (all heterosexual) leads. In the second act, it reprises as a duet between Ernst and Hanschen, the gays. No problem so far, until one is made aware that the gay duet is purely comic. What was a moment of heightened sexual awareness and tension, a peak of the show, becomes a ridiculous seduction of (ha ha!) one boy by another! What a joke! Not to mention the relative importance of the straight couple, both leads, versus the gay couple, who have only this song. Also not mentioning the fact that the straights actually simulate having sex on stage, while the gays merely, briefly, kiss.

All in all, disappointing. I intended to write a great deal more about the show, hoping to fit it into some trends in modern musicals and popular culture, but I am exhausted. Stay tuned for My Professional Hat Part 2, coming soon, in which I discuss Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and other glorious things.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Parental insanity

Tonight I arrived back in glorious Huntington, NY. Unlike on pretty much all of my previous visits, my parents had some very interesting news:

My father may be retiring on Monday.

This is a big friggin' deal. My dad has been working at the same place since before my older sister was born. I can't imagine him not working there. Much more than that, I can't imagine him not working. What would he do? There really aren't that many baseball games on non-cable TV. Our dog's been dead for years, and the garden even longer. My sister and I don't live there anymore. He's just given away all of his history books to scholars who haven't spent the last eight years in administration. What in Bob's name will he do all day!?

Here's the sitch, as far as I know it. He's an associate provost. That means that he and two (or possibly now three; I am fuzzy on the recent numbers) other associate provosts report to the capital-P Provost. Actually, I think Associate Provost is also capital-P, but Dad's never been one for that sort of thing. The Provost has been inexplicably fired by the President. Also capital-P. He's definitely one for that sort of thing. Dad loves this Provost; she's been his boss for seven years, and he respects her enormously. If what he said tonight is accurate, then unless the President appoints one of Dad's old friends as interim provost (lower-case p, I'm pretty sure), he'll retire in protest. If one of his old friends gets appointed, he's too loyal to walk out on him/her. (That's not an attempt at gender neutrality; there are two old friends of his in rumored contention, one male and one female.)

My mind is a little blown. If he retires, my mom will definitely consider it also, even though she's never really thought about it before now. She says she can't imagine going into work every day while he stays home. For those of you who know my parents, you must know that this is all crazy. Neither one of them has changed employers in my lifetime. Dad's changed jobs once, going from professor to administrator; Mom has never changed jobs.

I've been trying to get them out of what I see as a rut for a while, and maybe this is the event that'll do it. Who knows. I'm excited and a little worried and generally just stunned. If you know my parents in real life, please don't mention any of this to them. It's probably not something they want repeated yet. I'll keep you updated if you're curious.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


It is difficult to tell if I am really doing better, or just going through my traditional pendulum that starts a depression. Regardless of future prospects, I feel much better today, largely thanks to a handful of friends who took the time to call/post/write/watch Angel. It is possible that the depression has been headed off at the pass, and for that I am (conditionally) grateful.

To continue the depressing trend of things, I would like to explore a problem I have with personal interactions. It is rare for me to be comfortable acting as a peer. I either need to be in charge, being a teacher and therefore not a peer, no matter the age of my student(s), or I need to be a follower, told what to do. I am awkward about simply interacting with social equals. This is a problem mainly when it comes to romantic prospects--neither persona attracts guys. Hypothetically, there are guys attracted to both of those personae, but (A) I have never met any and (B) I wouldn't want to.

I think this problem leads to my...fraught interactions with the constitutionally arrogant. Men (occasionally women, but mostly men) who assume that they are entitled to the center of attention because they are (MIMS logic), try my patience instantly and often permanently. The few people I came out of college despising are the men who fit this description. They have adherents and detractors, but rarely peers. Certain famous musicologists also fit this profile. I don't really consider this rush to judgment to be a character flaw of mine, but I do see it as too harsh. Arrogant people are people too, and if I'm willing to forgive pretty much any other character flaw in my friends, I should be willing to forgive that one too. And yet, my snort propagates rapidly, while my sympathetic look withers and dies.

I think I just don't have time for worship. If the various and sundry gods aren't worth my adoration, fallible humans certainly aren't. Deal with it.

Today's Cat and Girl makes me very happy and you should all read it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Back in black

It's been a while, but I fear crippling depression is once more rearing its ugly head. I am doing my best to stave it off, and that may be working, but may not be. I haven't had the motivation to exercise in weeks, which speeds up the downward spiral. I spent a great deal of time this weekend doing rather unpleasant things with extremely attractive people who habitually look down on me in an indulgently patronizing way. I spent more money than I can possibly justify on this less-than-satisfying activity. Oy.

What am I doing to change this dangerous trajectory? I'm writing about it, for one. That usually helps me wrap my mind around it and perhaps conquer. I'm making sure I don't try to cure it with sugar, a very bad idea to which I have subscribed in the past. I'm sleeping enough but not too much. Today I plan to try exercising again.

These things may not be enough to keep me in the pink. I won't apologize, as I usually do for being unhappy. I'm sick to death of feeling like I must be blandly happy at all times, the Dworkin family creed. If I spend much of today crying for no real reason (or for no reason that I'm willing to write in this public forum), it's okay; I have that right. You can deal with it or not, but if the answer is "not," then don't approach me.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Geographic uncertainty

Huntington has moved. Not far, I'm sure, but it has definitely moved.

As far back as I remember, Huntington has been 66 minutes from the city by train. Now, it is 76 minutes. The only conclusion I can draw is that Huntington has moved a few miles east.

"Don't be silly," I hear you saying, "the train is just slower, or there's an extra stop, or perhaps the LIRR is having problems." How little you know of life in the quintessential suburb!

Long Island is an excrescence of New York City. The City. Everything that happens on LI is measured by the yardstick of the city. One of the more noticeable effects of this dependent existence is the use of time measurements for east-west travel. Huntington is one hour from the city, not 39.5 miles. Honestly, I had to look up the distance on Google Maps; it's that irrelevant. I know LI is about 15 miles north-south, and about 2.5 hours east-west.

This is why Huntington has moved. Regardless of its geographic position, it is now ten minutes farther from the city. Ten minutes farther from its heartbeat, with limbs beginning to tingle and fall asleep. Rush hour probably begins ten minutes earlier now, and lasts until ten minutes later. Unless the peak trains still run at the old speed. That would be an interesting comment on who needs to be closer to the heartbeat.

Maybe Huntington is going to benefit from this. It could become more of its own center, relying less on the city. In some ways, this is certainly already happening. Huntington has the oldest and largest Pride parade on LI, the best independent movie theater on LI, one of the most racially and economically diverse communities on LI. It has something of an existence of its own. Nevertheless, the trains to the city are always packed at commuting times, and even on weekends.

Clearly, I am overstating the impact of ten more minutes. I believe, though, that I am not doing so as much as you might think. Life on LI really does hinge that much on distance from the city.

I somehow never really noticed the deeper similarities between LI and LA. While LA purportedly has no center, instead relying on Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards as extended linear downtowns (Mysterious X, who said that? I have forgotten.), LI has a defined center, but it is located due west of the entire island. Therefore, we have our downtowns called 25, 25A, 27, Northern & Southern State Parkways, and the LIE. Strip malls, strip malls everywhere, and all the towns did shrink.

I'm not sure where these ruminations are heading; being in Huntington always makes me grow ponderous. Yes, I mean that. I will remain in Huntington until Sunday morning, continuing to grow and ponder. Any thoughts on sprawl and geography and transport are welcome.