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)

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Sage Advice

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-2-39-48-pm

Every year I take my students to see a panel of people who wrote the most acclaimed films of the previous year. This time they included the writers of:

La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures, Arrival, Hell or High Water, and yes, Deadpool.

Lil Deady (Pooly?) getting some love.

Lil Deady (Pooly?) getting some love.

These people are all among the current nominees for this year’s Writers Guild of America awards and at the point they speak on the “Beyond Words” panel they are ending an intense series of talks, interviews and other generalized discussions about their process, their work, their careers and their futures.

But what everyone seems to really want from the possible valedictorians of their class is:

THE ANSWER.

How DID you do it? How DO you do it? What can I DO to also do it? And am I FOOLING MYSELF by even thinking that I can do it?

Getting my listening face on! #readysetgo

Getting my listening face on! #readysetgo

The panel consists of writers (or writer-directors) but you can substitute the same questions for anything, really – actors, producers, directors, cinematographers, editors and script supervisors.

WHAT IS THE KEY?

Well, it’s exactly what you think it is. You work at it. And you do it harder and more consistently and with as much abandon as you have ever done anything in your life. In fact, more so.   And chances are, you will GET THERE.

Yes, this is quite encouraging. But then — oh my. You should see the series of scared, young and old DISAPPOINTED faces in the audience.

For here is the real answer they begin to realize minutes, hours, weeks or months later if they do follow that sage advice (Note: If you prefer to stay away from harsh truths stop reading now):

You will definitely get somewhere, certainly a better place artistically. But not necessarily on a future panel that’s before you.

Maybe not in your future... and that's OK!

Maybe not in your future… and that’s OK!

And I would add this nugget of information that perhaps never crosses one’s mind. Certainly it didn’t cross mine years ago.

Perhaps that (panel) is not exactly where you belong or where you would even want to be given the compromises, sacrifices and cost of the single-mindedness it takes to achieve what you think (or may even know) are your dreams. Perhaps the work you do will be honored in some different way entirely.

This is not meant to be any more discouraging or encouraging than anything those writers told the audience of movie fans, aspiring writers or curious industry-ites who had nothing better to do on a Thursday evening than look for hope, information or just plain intellectual entertainment. But I guarantee you it is also the same truth spoken by any one of those same artists, as well as many others, on that night or on any other night on any other year.

You can take away all kinds of things when people tell you to work really hard at what you do, follow some of the rules and break others, and to listen to your inner voice and then dig in deeper.

Inspiration can come in all forms. #sarcasmworkstoo

Inspiration can come in all forms. #sarcasmworkstoo

You can be encouraged and enlightened, buoyed by the brave soldiers that came before you and succeeded.

Or you can become depressed because you know you’re already doing all of that and more and haven’t gotten anywhere close to that result.

And, in some cases, you might even become frozen with fear when you run your entire life around your brain because suddenly you realize you’ve been doing all this and MORE for years (or perhaps decades) and are so much farther away from that place on that stage than you would ever care to admit to anyone out loud, most particularly yourself.

everyone's path is a little bit different

everyone’s path is a little bit different

Well, that’s fine. All of it is fine. Except, it doesn’t mean anything. At all.

There are numerous X factors in life. And in show business, in particular, we all measure art and practicality and talent and then divide it by happenstance. For instance, did you know:

— Damien Chazelle, all of 32 now, wrote La La Land six years prior. At which point it sat around, landed briefly at a studio, was put in turnaround, and then sat around for many years more. Which prompted him to then write and direct Whiplash out of his anger to the system. Which in turn forged La La Land.

Mr. Chazelle... or one of my students? #hardtotell #stillinspirational

Mr. Chazelle… or one of my students? #hardtotell #stillinspirational

— Taylor Sheridan quit work as an actor on a lucrative TV show as he approached his 40th birthday to write what became Hell or High Water, but not before he ran out of money and moved him and his wife and 10 month old kid into a small one bedroom apartment on Sunset and Laurel. (Note: He voluntarily gave the location).

— Kenneth Lonergan got raked over the Hollywood coals when the movie he made in 2000, Margaret, languished in legal battles, was recut and even then barely released eleven years later. And didn’t direct another film until Manchester by the Sea. In fact, his friend Matt Damon said that that he brought him the kernel of the idea for the film to get him out of his funk just so his creative voice could be heard again.

And so on and so forth.

You and I and certainly few of the rest of us are likely reach the successes above with our own projects. For there is always a certain amount of timing, luck, talent, karma and cosmic grace (Note: Not to be confused with Karma) that comes into play with these things.

Sometimes timing is everything

Sometimes timing is everything

But surely if we all don’t bear down and focus in on our work, and continue to dream big – despite our experience, age, economic circumstances or emotional places we currently occupy in our lives, we will never get there.

And if we do – who knows? We could possibly surpass them.

Why does this stuff always seem so trite and cliché?

Because the very nature of clichés is that they are references and expressions of stuff we have heard time and time again that offer nothing new to our view of the world.

Which doesn’t mean they’re incorrect.

What I’ve found to be the key is exactly what WE – you and I – DO with all of this advice. Not the advice itself.

Resist the eyeroll! Stay with me

Resist the eyeroll! Stay with me

It’s the actions we take, the people we engage with and disagree with and love and scream and yell with and the art we make – based on our own reactions and experiences – that comprise the sum of our output.   Which in turn shows up on the page, in the film, on the screen, in the machine and before the next doorkeeper determined to slam that door in all of our collective faces, that can and will make the difference.

I know this because I’ve seen this and lived this. Just look around you and you’ll see it too. And then look within and start working. And let the chips fall where they may.

But if this still sounds a bit too new agey, self-helpish and yes, cliché, don’t take my word for it.

This week I also went to see 84-year-old Broadway legend Chita Rivera do her one-woman show in Los Angeles. She recalled the time half a century ago in the 1960s when another Broadway legend, Gwen Verdon, and her then husband, director Bob Fossse, still another Broadway AND soon-to-be movie legend, asked her to star in the touring company of Sweet Charity in a role created to smashing success by Ms. Verdon herself.

The Unsinkable Ms. Rivera

The Unsinkable Ms. Rivera

Ms. Rivera confesses to at first being thrilled with the offer, which soon turned to total terror knowing she couldn’t possibly fill her predecessor’s shoes. Or even come close. Until finally, she shared with us, it occurred to her:

Chita, just bring your own shoes.

I tell that to all the kids, she added. Just bring your own shoes. And it’ll be fine.