Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The times, they are a-changin'

Hello, internet friends! It has been ten days since last I posted, and so very many things have happened! I turned 27, which feels much like 26, 25, and 24. I deleted my Facebook account, which feels much like 22, 21, 20, and all those other ages before there was Facebook. I contracted a horrible disease that I guess one might call a cold, but which seems like a milder version of death.

And, of course, I moved to New York.

I now live at the southern end of the neighborhood in Manhattan known as Washington Heights. Being who you are, dear readers, you may know it best from the musical set here, Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights. My exploratory urges having been tamped down by my coughing, sneezing, nose-like-a-faucet cold, I have yet to discover anything of the neighborhood's character, but I do know that there are several hardware stores nearby, none of which have paint chips and only one of which exhorts its customers to turn to Jesus.

I am living with some friends from college who really should get new code names, since I haven't given them any in about 2 years. I will take suggestions from those who know them (including the gentlemen themselves), hopefully settling on permanent ones within a few days. Thus far the Roommates to be Named Later and I have had quite an enjoyable time throwing a party, rearranging the kitchen, and planning things like painting, furniture arranging, and possibly eventually having beds. Living with them feels much like 23, the one age I missed in my earlier paragraph. Why? Well, because when I was 23 I lived with them. It's not much of a simile.

I already miss, of course, the Mysterious X, my previous cohabitant. This apartment will have far, far fewer donuts (refried or otherwise), giant ridiculous foods, and facts about that country to the north of this one whose name I have already forgotten without her expert tutelage. And less musicology, but perhaps that will be a welcome vacation? We shall see. I will attempt to reinstate, once I am healthy and settled, something approaching our immortal Bad Sci Fi evenings, if only to tempt her, the She God of Shark Reef, Z2, Gris, and our various guests to visit me in New York. Perhaps we will begin with a repeat viewing of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

I will also be rejoined here shortly by my previous cohabitant, the hedgehog known as Nikolai Funkhovzrovich Rostropovich. He has been on a six-month retreat living with the parents, but has worn out his welcome there and will therefore be once again living in my bedroom. Let me tell you, you don't appreciate hardwood floors enough until you've lived with a hedgehog on carpets.

Already I have done a little of each of the two things that necessitated my move to New York: taking care of my parents and going to see musicals. My parents remain in a bad state; that is a subject for another post on another day. The musicals I have seen were part of the West Village Musical Theater Festival, a series of short ("fifteen-minute," but in name only) musicals created by young composers/lyricists/book writers who included my friend and colleague from LA, the pseudonymous RPL. I'm certain she won't want that as her code name, since it comes directly from the short musical of hers that she wrote for this festival, but it'll do for now. Let me break down the shows just a bit.

1. Between the Bricks. A dystopian sequel to The Wizard of Oz featuring the theme song "Ding dong, the Wizard of Oz is dead." Couldn't hear the lyrics because the main singer (I believe his character was the scarecrow, known as Scare? Or possibly the character just called L, presumably for L. Frank Baum?) needed to be in a much higher register both for his own voice and to be heard above the chorus. Also, has the book writer read a book called Wicked? I hear they made a musical out of that already.

2. Hapless Romance. BEST. SHOW. EVER. A musical about Dungeons and Dragons that quoted both the famous Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflöte (Check out two of my favorite performances at those links. If you get sucked into watching all of the vegetable ocarina videos at the first one, don't blame me) and "A Little Fall of Rain" from Les Misérables to great comic effect! It started out by seeming like a deleted scene from I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (awkward people are blind-dating each other; how novel!), but once the couple arrives at their date and the audience discovers that it's a D&D game, everything is FABULOUS. The Dungeon Mistress, played by the truly outstanding Sarah Stevens (I'm just guessing that the Sarah Stevens at that link is the same one), runs a tight and deadly game, with the standard dice rolling replaced for the theater by games of rock-paper-scissors. Also, Dungeon Mistress instead of Dungeon Master? Excellent decision. The idea of fantasy gaming dorks who are also women is still novel to some people, for some reason, and it was pleasantly normalized here (though "normal" is not a word to describe much of this show). I could actually go on for a very long time about the things I loved in this tiny little musical, but instead let me just say that all of the women involved (composer/lyricist, book writer, director, and most of the cast, which is already an awesome thing!) were truly fantastic, and the two men were not too shabby either, particularly the very funny leading man.

3. Galileo the Musical. I have stated often my heartfelt belief that if you need to add "the musical" to the end of your title, it's probably not worth doing, Cannibal! and Urinetown excepted. This did not challenge my theory. 'Nuff said.

4. Rat Poison Love. My friend's show! (I'll bet you thought Hapless Romance was hers, didn't you?) In the spirit of fairness, let me say that it was uneven. I really enjoyed the premise, and (for the most part) the performances. Above all, I enjoyed the music; the title song remains stuck in my head even now. The book and lyrics, though, were just not my favorite. They often seemed not to match the music's tone. Also, the show seemed very Next-to-Normal-inspired, which is not a bad thing of course, but can feel derivative if not handled carefully.

5. Annabel. NOT A MUSICAL. Somehow this won the Best Musical award from the set of shows I saw (there was another set of six more playing on another night), but it was, in fact, a ballet-pantomime in the best 19th-century tradition. Costumes were lovely, dancing was great, music was forgettable but functioned wonderfully with the choreography, and not one word was spoken or sung. Also, the plot seemed, to my not-so-dance-oriented eyes, to be "Boy meets girl. Boy sleeps with girl. Girl dies because she has lost her virginity so really what else is there for her to do." There's even a moment, in the concluding funeral scene, where the girl's father looks disapprovingly at the boy who killed his daughter, while everyone else looks at her corpse. Notice how not once does the title character, Annabel, function as anything other than the object of the boy's actions. The boy who is, inexplicably, named Humbert. Shades of Lolita for some reason? Also, the idea of Annabel's untimely death as somehow necessitating, at the dramatic climax of the story (though not the sexual climax), an interaction between her father and her lover? Patriarchy much?

Had I to rank the musicals, they would be as follows:

1. Hapless Romance
2. Rat Poison Love
3. Galileo
4. Between the Bricks
5. (disqualified; not a musical)

Okay, time to return to unpacking while fretting about my boxes (did I tell you the post office seems to have lost two of them again? Joy!). I hope you've enjoyed this visit to the depths of my mind, and that if you've found this entry by googling the name of your show, my somewhat uninformed reactions have not hurt your feelings.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

On Golden Girls

So, The Golden Girls. For six years probably the best show on television.

For the seventh year...well...the explosion that made Dorothy's hair look like that must have knocked the funny right out of the writers.

There are many reasons why the Golden Girls were and are awesome. Gay characters throughout the series, none of whom were dying of AIDS. Women whose main relationships were with other women and that was OK. Celebration, time and time again, of non-traditional family models. Elderly people having sex lives. Guest stars from the firmament of the American musical. Shoulder pads. But the one that, I think, made the show stick for me the most, is the fact that each of the show's stars had both a deep, underlying insecurity and a firm moral core.

Allow me to explain. The firm moral core is easier--all four stars were staunch animal rights and quieter gay rights activists. While most of their animal rights work was for the ill-advised PETA, an organization whose strategies I usually find repugnant, that didn't matter. They all deeply believed in the moral necessity of caring for and about living creatures. Sitcom stars don't usually take such stances. The pro-gay stance, of course, moves me on a more personal level. It is lovely to see women who are being venerated by gay audiences—both men and women—return the favor. Bea now has a homeless shelter for LGBT youth named in her honor, funded by her estate.

The deep insecurity, though, is where the power of the show comes from. It's a hackneyed observation that great comedy often comes from a place of near-pathological need for approval, but that's not the kind of insecurity the Golden Girls showed. Bea Arthur did partake of the typical comic's need to be adored by everyone, but she wore closer to the surface her crippling belief that nobody really did. Listen to her solo show on Broadway, a decade after the Girls ended their seven-year run, and you'll hear a carefully constructed, brittle persona claiming to "just be myself." She couldn't be herself; nobody would like that self.

Estelle Getty, untrained as an actor compared to her co-stars, had to write lines inside props on the set, since she could never remember them. Her stage fright was legendary, often causing her to freeze on camera, and her comedic talent, though prodigious, was simply not suited to creating a believable character or to delivering those hastily memorized lines as dialogue. She felt out of her depth on the show, a fourth wheel on the tricycle both on-screen and off.

And then there's Rue. I didn't know about her insecurity until I listened to commentary she'd done for one of the episodes in, I believe, season five. She talked about her costumes, and how she got to keep them all after the show (though she took out the shoulder pads). She talked about how she needed Blanche's brazen assertions of physical perfection to be able to have any kind of positive outlook toward her own body. Those costumes, that character, they allowed her access to a confidence she didn't have in life. The heartbreaking part of that is, of course, that Blanche was deeply, deeply unsure about both her looks and her worth as a human being apart from those looks. And Rue thought of her as the character she had played that was closest to herself, but a model for being more confident. Like Bea, who needed Dorothy's aggression and unlikability to mask her own perceived unlikability (and non-femininity), and who needed her costumes to conceal the fat body she imagined and despised, Rue found herself in her character, in the endless hyperperformance of herself that was so much easier than simply living.

Betty White was always the most confident. I love Betty White, of course, and I thought of her as unquestionably the best actor on the show, but she lacks that need. Perhaps it is my hubris as a devoted fan, but the other Golden Girls seemed so much to rely on their characters and those characters' fans. Betty White was able to move on to other roles when none of the other girls really could. She knows that she's funny, talented, awesome; they survived on applause. Maybe that's what made it possible for her, the oldest of the four, to outlive her co-stars.

Applause is a poor substitute for nourishment, whether it be physical or emotional nourishment you seek. Bea, in her old age, would watch reruns of Golden GIrls at 5 AM and talk happily about how much weight she'd lost since the '80s, reveling in both the omnipresent laughter and the body that she had since shed. Estelle, sadly, succumbed very early to Lewy Body Dementia, her terror-inducing difficulty with memory now taken to the nth degree. Rue took to the Broadway stage in The Women and in Wicked to get an IV drip of laudatory sustenance; it kept her going for a few more years.

This overlong rumination on the emotional frailty of the Girls is not intended as a slight. They were, and in my mind still are, towers of strength for everyone who saw her- or himself in them. They took their insecurities, draped them in various shoulder-padded, floral-printed, and sadly pin-striped numbers, and paraded them about for all to see, conquering them, at least for seven years. They did wonderful things for people, animals, and not least themselves. Rue's passing is an occasion to mourn, of course, but also to recognize the work these four middle-aged and elderly women did for us all. From the bottom of my heart, Ms. McClanahan, thank you for being a friend.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

There is ample room in the world for the patently ridiculous.

That is all.