And All That Buzz

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were special talents.  He is still the only artist to win the Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards all in one year (1973) and she was the first musical theatre actress to win four Tony Awards.

More to the point, it’s not every estranged married couple who kept working with each other years after their estrangement that has an eight part miniseries aired about their lives decades after their deaths.

When you watch Fosse/Verdon on FX, and everyone should, it’s difficult not to marvel at the sheer breadth of their work that will forever live on long after all of our deaths.  Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Damn Yankees, Chicago and All That Jazz, to drop a handful of legendary landmarks, are only a few highlights.

Both director/choreographer Fosse, and Broadway star, muse and behind-the-scenes facilitator Verdon did all kinds of work in a wide variety of genres.  But what unites them, more than anything, is their dedication to a disciplined, single-minded type of artistry that seems to have disappeared from the cultural zeitgeist these days.

Let’s not get it wrong; there are contemporary artists with the type of discipline that both Verdon and Fosse shared with us all through their lives.  But in both their cases they left far more than that, as the miniseries shows us.

OK yes, him (and he’s producing Fosse/Verdon… go figure)

In a sense, Fosse/Verdon, and their lives, gives us a timeless roadmap to the world pre #MeToo.  It was an existence where men consistently had the upper hand, the best opportunities AND usually got sole credit for ALL of the work even when that wasn’t necessarily the case.

When females actually managed to shine in their own spotlight far brighter than their male counterparts, it was in the midst of the age-old expectation that they would eventually dim their bulbs and take time off from doing their own thing in order to help the guy’s light to shine just as bright (and often brighter) on a project of their own without basking in the glory.

Who is holding up whom? (hint: It’s Gwen)

It was either that or turn the other cheek when the man brooded and strayed into the arms of many other women because, well, how could HE not when SHE wasn’t around.   For those women choosing to go solo, well they might make it alone for a bit but much sooner than later they’d mostly age out and be left alone – a fate few would be able to happily survive when left to their own devices in the real world.

We’ve come a long way from those times, though likely not as far as we think we have, one suspects.  As one watches Ms. Verdon endure her husband’s serial infidelities as she bails him out in too many ways to count on Cabaret, it occurs to us, hmmm, and why didn’t I ever know that, how come she never got any credit?   As she continues to serve as his creative sounding board on so many other future projects and successes (Note: And notably doesn’t on several of the failures) we become clear of the extent of their partnership, and just how much we DON’T know about who did what and just how much on any uber successful project of any artist or in any artistic collaboration.

Truly a singular sensation  #yesiknowthatfsromChorusLine

None of this is to take anything away from the miraculous creative vision and accomplishments a talent of the caliber of a Bob Fosse leaves us.  It’s one thing for a chorus boy/dancer to turn expert choreographer and then director of Broadway musicals.  It’s another to then become a sophisticated movie director who not only reinvented the onscreen musical with the movie Cabaret  (Note: Beating out Francis Coppola’s work on The Godfather to win the best director Oscar that year) but then two years later go on make the critically acclaimed, black and white non-musical, biopic of Lenny Bruce, Lenny, and use a non-linear narrative from which to tell it.

Not to mention the release of the autobiographical biopic All That Jazz five years later, a thoroughly original multi-Oscar nominated film success he co-wrote and directed that pretty much presaged the reasons behind his own death (Note: 12 years later) for all the world to see in glorious living color on movie screens all across the world.

JAZZ. HANDS.

Gwen Verdon was at Fosse’s side in various ways all through those artistic leaps and bounds and together they define a certain type of show business special that today too often feels sorely lacking.

Though the special is still there.  In fact, you see it every day, all around.  But the show business special – hmmm, that’s another story.

I, for one, am soooo tired of hearing young talent is not what it used to be, not special, not on the level of a Fosse or a Verdon anymore.

Well, of course ability like theirs was, indeed, rare, as were their complex sensibilities and intellect for telling a sophisticated yet human story.  But there are many people who are special in all kinds of different ways now, some of them even similar to a Fosse or a Verdon, whose work has little chance of gaining recognition.  Even when it does, it almost never gets that same kind of mainstream acceptance.

This EXACTLY

For one, there is not the mass attendance for a single form of media that we once had.  There was a time when Broadway theatre was IT and it tackled primarily new and exciting subjects, or at least fresh and entertaining/thought-provoking ones that often broke into the cultural zeitgeist.

Movies also told primarily real life human stories sans gaping plot holes, and for decades later it was not unusual for the biggest successes to say something about our lives as we knew them (Note: Or didn’t know them) that year.  Sure, there were disaster films, spectacles, horror, sci-fi and mindless comedies, but they were not the overwhelming majority of the work.  Yes, they had special effects but to have a really SPECIAL affect on the world you had to do a lot more than simply launch a starship into an infinite universe or create a colorful costumed villain whose one goal in life was an unmotivated ambition to blow up the universe.

I mean.. is it really even the end?

Right, right, we can hear the hiss and boos about this type of grousing from this computer screen already.  Well, no one is saying these shows and films shouldn’t exist.  Or that it’s a shame that television has expanded to the point where there is so much programming that no one show ever seems to be particularly special to most of us.

But the facts are that in an age when media is so diffuse and so plentiful there is almost no young person that can create the level and sheer amount of narrative work or performance with the same amount of staying power, depth of story and cultural intensity of a Fosse or a Verdon.  There isn’t the mass popular audience for that kind of sophisticated worldview, that type of show biz special.  It’s just not how the industry is set up these days.

We have international stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and, dare I say it, Jordan Peele??   But can they do the kind of deep or stylized work of Fosse or Verdon and break through? Schindler’s List was 25 years agoRaging Bull came out FOUR DECADES ago.

I’m…. I’m… OLD

Star Wars is not Cabaret, or even The Godfather – it can’t be and wasn’t meant to be.  Because the truth is there is no longer a mass-market avenue for the latter two projects.  But even fluffier Broadway shows that catapulted Ms. Verdon to stardom like Sweet Charity and Damn Yankees would doubtless be made into theatrical films in the 2000/10s.  Chicago, her final starring vehicle finally was, but decades after the original closed on Broadway and barely broke even.  It was only when a stripped down, TV/movie star driven revival was launched and kept afloat with a rotating name cast that Hollywood came calling and a film was produced that was safe enough to appeal to mass acceptance.

To look at that film in light of Fosse/Verdon one realizes that despite its Oscar win it’s the anti-Cabaret.  Rather than move forward the medium or the film’s story it merely waters it down with an eye towards the present as it pastiches various Fosse-like moves from the past.  And it was released a full 17 years agoGet Out, for all its cultural significance, (Note: And add on Us) is nowhere near the class of storytelling of any of Fosse’s best work, or that of a Scorsese or a Spielberg.  #PlotHoleCity

For these reasons and many more, one can’t help but mourn a bit for the past during the Fosse/Verdon miniseries.  It gives us so much show biz special in an age when it’s not the thought behind the show, but the delivery system by which it comes to us, that feels the most special to us.

Liza Minnelli – “Maybe This Time” (from Cabaret)

Advertisements

Diary of a Chair: Escape from Chicago

Sure, it looks good now, but just wait…

Saturday, Aug. 11, 10pm –  Our last night at the Chicago hotel that hosted this year’s tribute to Harry Potter-obsessed teenagers – Leaky Con.  This means that upon arriving into town three days earlier there were more than 1000 (mostly) teenage girls dressed as characters from all the books and movies in the lobby. When I asked the bell captain what was up he snidely smiled as he told me – “there are 4000 of them staying here to attend the conference.”  Yuk. Yuk.

As it turns out – 98% of the crowd are sweet and lively.  About 25% were young men.  And 5% were parents and adults of questionable character. Think — the cast of “Glee” but instead of musicals they all like young people’s English literature for their own particular reasons.

a sampling of attendees

Note:  Costumes were all homemade and one girl insisted I do a secret handshake with her, which turned out to be fun.  Of all those under 21, all were polite except for the two 18 year olds in the early check out line who happened to be staying in the hotel – but instead of being into all things Potter were mostly into oblivious texting on their sleek, black phones.  I can’t help but think this observation is significant.

Saturday, Aug. 11, 7pm – Earlier that evening, we’re at the finale banquet dinner of a 3-day academic conference held at the Adler Planetarium.  The views outside are  spectacular and it’s a fine choice for a finale.  But I do miss the Potter gals.

love her.

Also, I discover Planetarium light shows have not changed much since I was in fourth grade.  Why do we go out of our way to remind children of how insignificant humans are in the existential scheme of planetary existence??

Sunday, Aug. 12, 1:00 am – I can’t sleep thinking about the 5 am wakeup time to get to the airport for the 8:30 am flight back to Los Angeles.  It could be partly due to the root canal awaiting me this week and my dentist’s parting words:  “and then hopefully we can save the tooth.”  No one cared about such things in Potter world, I think.  In fact, I know that to be more of a contemporary American thing and consider picking up one of the books myself prior to flying.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 7:30am – I’m at the super cool Virgin America terminal awaiting to board our hipper-than-hip plane that allowed me to listen to Amy Winehouse on the departure flight while I was watching “Jeff Who Lives At Home” on the screen of the young girl next to me without the sound.  I am not stalking young females.  No.  Really.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 10:00 am – Mechanical problem on the plane that they’re working on.  Meanwhile, we talk to three sisters in their 70s going to visit a fourth sister for a “sister’s reunion” on Catalina Island.  I realize they’re way funnier than anything in the movie as they talk of ducking outside for “smokes,” the fact that one of their sons is wasting his life “shoving chicken out a window” at the neighborhood KFC and should go back to college, and question if the logo on one of a competing airlines is actually Lucifer or just looks like him.  I couldn’t make this stuff up.  Really.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 11am – A pilot who looks like the younger brother of Capt. Sully of Hudson River fame, explains to us they’re still working on the plane and there’s no word but that he will keep us informed and, yeah, it stinks to be so inconvenienced.  He’s sorry.  Aside from liking his manner and the fact that he’s central casting for a trustworthy airman, his name is Steve – as is mine and my partner in travel (and life).  I take this as a sign that everything will be okay.  Really.

Our pilot, in about 20 years

Addendum: Virgin gate attendants give out a game with 15 jumbles of airline-related words.  The two Steves have five college degrees between them and smile as snidely as the hotel bell captain, convinced we will be among the first five winners to unscramble them all and get free food and drink vouchers.  We don’t even come close.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 12:30 pm – Virgin scrubs our flight.  Since we’ve all been awake since 4am and waiting, no one is happy.

Bad news:  No other airline at O’Hare has empty seats at this late date on a Sunday.

Great news!  Snappy and “with it” Virgin Air will provide a special plane for any of us who want it that will get us out on a flight to L.A. that leaves at 11:00 that night.  We can hang out or just come back to the gate at our convenience an hour ahead of time.  As the Barefoot Contessa says on the Food Channel, “How Easy Is That?”

“SO easy,” says Ina.

In “I’m cool” news:  I manage to be the first to give my name the Virgin Air personnel so I don’t have to wait on line with the other 100 plus people reserving space for 11:00 pm.   And a few minutes later the sisters are even snuck a Virgin gift certificate to free meals at the Olive Garden!  It’s true – seriously!

Sunday, Aug. 12, 2:30 pm – We finish a not-so-good lunch at another terminal and, in an airport walkway, a passenger from our plane tells us our special 11:00 flight was cancelled and it’s a good thing he saw us cause we need to get back to the gate asap.  Not sure what this means for the sisters at the Olive Garden but we skedaddle to selfishly take care of ourselves.

Gee thanks, Ina

Sunday, Aug. 12, 4:00 pm – We are sent downstairs for ticketing and spend 90 mins. waiting on line trying to get rebooked for any later flights at all but everything’s sold out.  A lady from Iran starts to yell, fearing she’ll lose her job if she doesn’t get home.  She later tells me later that she “expects this in my country because everything is like that – but this is America.”  I’m not quite sure what to say right then and there.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 4:30pm After two hours waiting, Virgin Air promises swears they will provide a plane at 9am for us since their other flights TOMORROW are booked.  They give us a voucher to the Double Tree Inn,  a 10-15 minute tram ride away and send us half a mile to the baggage claim area to pick up our bags once checked.  Then they instruct us to return to this airport no later than 6 or 7am the next morning – three hours prior to the take off of this flight.  My tooth finally starts to hurt.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 6:30 pm – The tram driver was Third Reichish , it’s starting to rain and we listen as a fellow passenger – a 20something guy with long-hair and a very cool affect – tell his odd relationship history with women to a female traveler from Hong Kong in the next seat who he flirts with.  I realize once again in my life that looks aren’t everything.  I hope to God she realizes this and I’m not even religious.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 9:00 pm – The long-haired guy is still bending the ear of the young woman in the Double Tree Inn Restaurant but they’re both in new outfits.  Uh, oh.  Also, a bartender with a deep voice who claims to have known Ryan Seacrest when he was working in Chicago radio (as the Olympics plays on TV behind him), plies two women with drinks on opposite ends of the bar.  One eventually starts to cry and he steps out from behind his post and rubs her back.  The other later orders another drink and he drops that he’ll “be here till 11.” Then she hints she might return.  As my grandmother used to say, “oy vey.”  I, however, admit to being equally repulsed and intrigued.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 10:39 pm – After watching snippets of the closing ceremony of the Olympics we leave the TV on NBC because the hotel room’s remote control won’t change channels and we need a diversion.  We miss several musical acts but get to see the pilot of something called “Animal Practice” and the Sunday night Chicago news, whose weather forecaster promises big morning thunderstorms.   When The Who show up to close the Olympics post newscast and I can’t help but wonder what happened in London as we were staring at a TV pilot, the local news and the threat of a Midwest electrical disaster that could down our plane.  A voice answers: NBC hubris.  But at this point I’m too tired to really fight.

WHO even saw this?

Sunday, Aug. 12, 10:53 pm – My cell rings and it’s a local number.  But not one I recognize.  It’s our same favorite corporate Virgin Air reps telling us the 9am aircraft for tomorrow has mechanical difficulties too.  They can squeeze us on something that leaves Monday night but that there are only a few seats left and that, really, there is no guarantee with them or anyone else if we don’t book now.  The other Steve (my partner – not the pilot) starts to uncharacteristically fling nasty, non-Harry Potter insults at the Virgins in the background as I ask if we can count on this flight actually happening.  I’m told that “nothing is ever 100%.” Duh as if I didn’t already know that.  And truthfully, I wouldn’t write that anywhere.  Well, except here.

Monday, Aug. 13, 12:30 am –I think I see lightning. It is now raining.  Since I don’t like flying even in nice weather, this concerns me.  As do my teeth because due to stress and the fact they upset my stomach, I missed the last 6 hours of antibiotics meant to keep an almost dead tooth from becoming infected.  The other online-intrepid Steve meanwhile scours the web and eventually sneaks us on a 7:55 am United flight (take that, Virgins!) so we can get back in the nick of time for our jobs and my tooth.  To ensure this and to accommodate the machinations of weather and dictatorial tram drivers, we pony up another $800 as my finger shakily sets the hotel room wakeup call for…4 ayem.  I’m convinced I don’t need to sleep because not being alert to everything around you is obviously much too dangerous.

How I imagine this flight.. or the beginning of Lost

Monday, Aug. 13, 5:00 am – A new tram driver misses our stop at United completely even though we and another couple told him three times of our destination.  Note:  This couple bears no resemblance to any couple mentioned thus far and is not recognizable from the airport, bar or hotel.  I’m not sure if this is significant but think even the smallest detail could be at this very crucial and very early time.

Monday, Aug. 13, 8:15 am – We are seated on our new United plane, convinced we’ve gamed the system (somewhat) and mentally composing our letter (email?)/phone conversation with the hideous Virgin Air to reimburse us. (Unless I can persuade a powerful friend who has met Richard Branson to give me his email address and his vacation home).  That is, until the pilot announces there is a bad smell in the baggage/engine area in this new United airplane that they need to investigate.

Monday, Aug. 13, 8:17 am – We are told we can deplane if we like and walk around while they tinker or we can stay put until there is news.  I begin to worry about the other Steve next to me, reassured somewhat by the airline rule against passengers carrying guns onboard a plane and thrilled no Steves I know (or live with) actually have a permit to carry one.  Remembering the advice of a former writing teacher from many years ago, I quickly decide to listen to Earth, Wind and Fire’s greatest hits to calm me down..

Monday, Aug. 13, 10:15 am – We are ordered to take our seats again, passengers are ordered back inside, the engines rev and we are told we will be taking off.  No one seems to know what the smell was or if it’s affected the engine.  It’s as if it never happened, though suddenly I detect a distinct gasoline odor and become very concerned.  The other Steve threatens to behead me with his iPhone if I dare utter one word about it.  I shrink down in my seat, the stench of fumes all around me, and cover myself with a thin blue United Airlines blanket with a disinfectant chemical odor all of its own.  For many reasons, I don’t want to die this way.  I am not really happy.

Roughly how I spent the flight.

Monday, Aug. 13, five hours later, 1:30 pm – We land safely at LAX, 36 hours after our initial return trip began.   But I begin to wonder what Orville and Wilbur Wright would think about both the popularity and reality of air travel today.  And consider that more can happen since we haven’t deplaned.

A few minutes later, I think of the fine Lichtenstein exhibit we snuck off to at Chicago’s spectacular Art Institute and wonder if I’m too much of a complainer who hasn’t yet caught on to the fact that we’re all living in our own version of one of his comic book paintings.  I also ponder if me asking this very question is what Lichtenstein had intended all along.

I give in.

As we walk through the airport to L.A. baggage claim, I think of JK Rowling and consider if when she sat in her apartment conceiving Harry and Hogwarts if she ever dreamed of what the ripple effect would be of her mass invention (or if it would be).  And also, if she’s even aware of this obscure Midwest convention of Potterites called Leaky Con that, its brochures clearly note, have nothing at all to do with her or any of WB’s “Harry” films.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  Not even close.  The only thing I do know is that – strangely – I do miss the Potter kids at the hotel.  Though I have no plans in the near or distant future to ever travel back on an airplane to see them.

Then I have one last thought –  that perhaps I can invent another way – one that doesn’t involve the corruption of a really neat invention – by either mere neglect, inconsideration or some other sort of corporate malfeasance.

In a Potter-like land of make believe, I find myself, once again, hopeful.