Friday, March 30, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar (musical)

John Legend (2018)
The summer 1979 production of Jesus Christ Superstar at Huntington Playhouse in Bay Village may have been the greatest theatrical event of the 20th century. I couldn’t say for sure. I was ten, going on eleven. But as far as I was concerned, it was beyond compare.

We had albums for musicals in our house. My father really liked Godspell. That one’s a poppy, upbeat revue of parables and lessons without any real narrative structure except for some reason one of them gets murdered.

Superstar tells the story of Holy Week with a few loud guitars which has led some to call it a “rock opera” and it is, in the way Rent is a “rock musical,” which is to say it’s really not.

We had a copy of the original, pre-production concept album version, which we did not get as much play in our house as the Godspell record, and for good reason. Every track sounds like a first take, and for rock music they chose a lot of guys who aren’t very good at hitting the high notes.

I mean, Murray Head can’t sing. Am I the first person to notice that? The guys from ABBA figured this out when they gave him “One Night In Bangkok” from Chess and had him rap. I mean, Murray Head can’t rap, either. I digress.

In performance, it’s really Judas’s play. If there were another character in musical history who could be compared it’s Burr in Hamilton. He’s the narrator, we get to hear his version of events, he feels entirely justified in his actions, and he makes a terrible mistake that he immediately regrets.

In addition to making Judas into an anti-hero, Superstar pisses off some of the devout because it ends with Jesus’s burial (spoilers alert) and no resurrection. Judas is the one who gets to come from the dead for a reprise with newfound cosmic awareness of future events, to ridicule and snark. Good ol’ Judas.

I have rediscovered my turntable.
My brother was about to start his sophomore year in high school, and he was in the pit band situated in the wings of our community theater; a grand, old, moldy barn located right across the street from the lake. He was playing vibes, and I had literally nothing to do those summer evening’s but play or watch TV. It was summer!

He’d shown me how to sneak into the loft next next to the tech booth. There were couches and pillows and you could lounge and view, high above and just behind the audience. Must have been a make-out paradise, but I could not tell you.

So I went up there to watch. And I was compelled. I had been raised protestant, I was familiar with the gospels the way most Americans are -- vaguely. I knew the characters and the plot. And this way the late 70s, so sympathizing with a hip, charismatic Jesus with complexities and even hypocrisces was not a stretch, not even for the pre-adolescent mind.

I cannot remember who played Jesus, however. No one ever does. Judas, however, was performed by the late Tom Castro, a beloved educator from Lakewood. I already knew him from when he played Ogg the Leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, the same show in which my brother played Sunny, the mute sharecropper’s child … and we should leave it right there.

Unlike the recording with which I was marginally familiar, Castro was an indelible presence as Judas, a powerful singer, occasionally followed by a shadow, a female dancer dressed from toe to crown in a black leotard (SATAN?) I can see him now, and I will never forget him. I wanted to be him.

A couple of nights I watched the how from the loft. Then I asked my brother if I could sit backstage to watch the show. Just sit next to him, in the “pit” band in the wings (there was no actual pit.) It was a community theater production, there was no one around to say, no, that’s dangerous. Or no, that’s foolhardy. Or just plain, no.

So, I sat in a chair by the band one night, and for the first time, I saw how it was all done.

I saw the characters become actors once they crossed into the wings. I saw the tasty-looking food on trays and in baskets were fake. I saw the stage hands and I saw them moving the set around. I saw actors slipping into and out of costume pieces -- nothing risque, but it was suggestive enough that I thought I was seeing something I should not have been.

These things I also remember; the band was tight. High school students and adults, and they were good. One thing I love about the score of Superstar is how creepy it is, not just haunting but spooky. Atmospheric with lurking evil. It’s thrilling!

NBC's version of the last supper (2018)
By my second night backstage I was on my feet. Walking around, staying out of the way, I understood the traffic pattern. I would hide in the wings, getting as close to the action as possible. I was a kid, but not much younger than some of the other players. I could do this. I wanted someone to invite me onstage. I had a fantasy of some company member saying, here! Put this on and join us!

This did not happen, of course. My mom and dad came for closing night, and got me a ticket. We sat in the third row. I had not yet sat in a seat in the audience. It wasn’t as good.

Sunday night, NBC will present Jesus Christ Superstar as one of their live musical events. I don’t understand the appeal of these productions, most likely because I’m not really that much into either musicals or broadcast television. The thrill is in seeing them pull off a stunt like a multi-set, large cast musical production, on the night with millions of people watching.

I have heard such terrible things about them, too. They must make for tremendous ratings, because the abuse on social media is astronomical.

However, when they announced this one, I got excited. Because I do love Superstar. And I don’t like anything else Andrew Lloyd Weber has ever written. Nothing. Hate Dreamcoat, hate Phantom, despise Cats. And yet I have never been inspired to see a production again because my memories of that first are so indelible. Besides, most professional touring companies feature desiccated prog rock stars who are well-more than twice the age of Christ when he died.

The thing is, unlike A Christmas Story Live, or Hairspray Live or Grease Live, there’s no book to ruin in Superstar, there’s no acting. It is a sung through piece (inviting the comparison to opera, sure) and unless they find some way to pad it out interminably, all they need to do is to sing, but sing very, very well.

They announced the cast one at a time over the course of weeks. Alice Cooper as Herod is a stunt, they always get someone like him for that one scene, that one song. But then they said John Legend is playing Jesus! Not some fly-by-night pop star, they got John Legend! Well, okay!

Brandon Victor Dixon (2016)
And Sara Bareilles! I’ve heard of her!

But who was going to play Judas? That’s the role, right? Surely they’d get someone famous from one of NBC’s past sit-coms or procedural dramas. Someone with character, but no chops. Because that's what they do for these modern, televised musicals.

No. They got Aaron Burr.

They tapped Brandon Victor Dixon, who assumed that role in Hamilton after Leslie Odom Jr. stepped down. A name as-yet unfamiliar to the ear (he’s not even mentioned in the promos) yet with high credentials in playing another of the greatest, knowing, conflicted anti-heroes ever conceived for the musical stage.

He also lectured the Vice President, you remember that, right?

I’ll be watching. Have a good Friday.

NBC presents "Jesus Christ Superstar" Live In Concert, Sunday April 1 at 8:00 PM

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Way I Danced With You (process)

Michael Johnson & Sarah Blubaugh
(Blank Canvas Theatre, 2018)
Several of my plays have been commissions. There is a need, a proposal, I satisfy certain criteria, the play gets produced, we move on. Then there are the plays I write because I want to write them, I need to. But where do they go? And how do you know if they are even any good?

The Way I Danced With You has followed a process, it keeps moving forward. We read it at music stands in Valdez, Alaska following a two-hour rehearsal. We took three days to rehearse and stage it with scripts in hand, no tech, no set or costumes in Waterloo. And now we have taken three weeks to fully memorize the piece, dress up the actors, and see what it actually looks like or could look like in some future, premiere production.

It makes a difference, hearing the script aloud. A big difference in this case. At the first read-through a few weeks back, Sarah (playing Dani at Blank Canvas) observed that the second scene or act is entirely different when read out loud, looking at the person you’re speaking to you, about the person you're speaking to.You really have to do that to understand what is happening and the emotions involved.

It is still a script in progress, but not by much. The first two scenes are pretty much right where I want them. The first was almost completely set in stone after Alaska, I remember cutting an entire page during our brief rehearsal. Tyler and Chloe read it and I was like, wow, we don’t need that at all! It was liberating.

But that third scene … my lead adjudicator at Last Frontier was Kevin Armento (Balls, Devil With the Blue Dress) and one of the most significant questions he asked was; whose play is it? I said I wanted the play to be about both of them. He said that’s fine, but that it was currently Charles’s play, the man’s play. And that this was largely due to the third scene or act.

Chloe Cotton & Tyler Browning
(Last Frontier Theatre Conference, 2016)
Significant revisions were made, for Playwrights’ Local, and then for Blank Canvas. My wife says the play is now about Dani, the woman, that it’s her play. And I am all right with that. But even now, listening to Michael (Charles) in the third scene, playing it all out, I am in sitting in the house constantly thinking about every line -- this could be different, that is unnecessary... Hearing it, seeing it, and seeing her (Dani’s) reaction to everything … it’s important. It’s necessary. I’m seeing and hearing things I’ve never heard in the previous workshops, when scripts were in the way. Reactions are as important as the words themselves.

Having said that, the performances this weekend have been tremendous. And during that scene, that final scene, you could hear a pin drop in the house. No one in the audience moves, they’re all hanging on every word. It’s thrilling. They want to know.

Interestingly, while I leave the ending with a question, Lara, the director, has pretty much made up her mind her mind as to what happens next, after the curtain, and I think it’s pretty clear. Another director might handle that differently, and that’s okay, too.

So there are a few minor edits still to be made on that last scene. But it’s ready to go, this script is ready for a full production.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Way I Danced With You (glossary)

Sarah Blubaugh & Cody Kilpatrick Steele
"The Way I Danced With You"
(Ensemble Theatre, 2019)

Perhaps you are planning to catch The Way I Danced With You  this weekend. I hope you are. But perhaps you were born after the year 1980, one of those "Millennials" people keep talking about.

Maybe when you hear the name "George Michael" you immediately think of Michael Cera. Maybe you've never been to Chicago. Maybe you don't even know where you are.

Here is a brief list of pop culture references which may help you appreciate and enjoy the performance.

All entries sourced from Wikipedia.

Geena Davis & Jeff Goldblum
(The Fly)
Deerfield is a village in Lake County, Illinois, approximately 25 miles north of Chicago. Deerfield High School is consistently one of the top high schools in the state. It is said Deerfield was a major inspiration for Shermer, Illinois, the fictional setting for several of John Hughes’ 1980s teen films.

"A Different Corner" is a 1986 song written and performed by George Michael. The song reached number 7 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

The Fly is a 1986 American science-fiction horror film directed and co-written by David Cronenberg. Starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, the film tells of an eccentric scientist who, after one of his experiments goes wrong, slowly turns into a fly-hybrid creature.

Footloose is a 1984 American musical drama. It tells the story of Ren McCormack, an upbeat Chicago teen who moves to a small town in which, as a result of the efforts of a local minister, dancing and rock music have been banned.

Glencoe is an affluent suburb of Chicago, located on the shore of Lake Michigan. This village is also the setting for the 1983 film Risky Business.

Harold Washington College is a community college part of the City Colleges of Chicago system of the City of Chicago, in Illinois. Founded in 1962 as Loop College, the college was renamed for the first African American to be elected Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, after his sudden death in office in November 1987.

"Love on the Rocks" is a song written by Neil Diamond and Gilbert Bécaud that appeared in the 1980 movie The Jazz Singer. The single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in January 1981.

Midland is a city Michigan. In 2010, Midland was named No. 4 "Best Small City to Raise a Family" by Forbes magazine.

The Palmer House, Chicago
Mel Gibson was People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” in the year 1985.

Navy Pier is a boardwalk entertainment district on Lake Michigan in Chicago, which in 2018 encompasses more than fifty acres of parks, gardens, shops, restaurants, family attractions and exhibition facilities. Established in 1916, and not yet extensively renovated until the early 21st Century, by the 1980s it was a destination in decline.

A Night at the Opera is a 1935 American comedy film starring the Marx Brothers, A smash hit at the box office, A Night at the Opera was selected in 1993 for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Older is the third solo studio album by George Michael, released in 1996. It was his first album since 1990's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 – the six-year gap was due to the legal battle that Michael experienced with his record company. "Older" is also the title of a single from this album, released in 1997. The single peaked at number 3 on the UK Singles Chart. It did not chart in the United States.

The Palmer House (now the Palmer House Hilton) is a historic hotel in Chicago in the city's Loop area. It is a Historic Hotel of America member, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is one of the longest continuously operating hotel in North America.

“The Queen and the Soldier” is a song from Suzanne Vega’s eponymous, 1985 debut album.

The South Side of Chicago has a varied ethnic composition. It has great disparity in income and other demographic measures. Although it has a reputation for high levels of crime, the reality is much more varied. The South Side ranges from affluent to middle class to poor, just like other sections of large cities.

Wham ft. George Michael
("The Edge of Heaven")
Top Gun is a 1986 American romantic military action drama film directed by Tony Scott, Despite its initial mixed critical reaction, the film was a huge commercial hit. Additionally, the film won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Take My Breath Away" performed by Berlin.

“The Way I Danced With You” is a lyric from “Careless Whisper” (1984) by English singer-songwriter George Michael. It was released as a single and became a huge commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic and on both sides of the Pacific. It reached number one in nearly 25 countries, selling about 6 million copies worldwide.

Winelight is a 1980 album by jazz musician Grover Washington Jr. It received the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Fusion Performance in 1982. It is also the title of the first track of the album.

Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," opening March 21, 2019.

This post was updated on 3/20/2019

Sunday, March 18, 2018


"I won't try to stop you when you speak of the past ..."
- Everything But the Girl, "Fascination"
We were so fucking suave.

Teenagers for time immemorial have aspired to adulthood. In the mid 1980s this was reflected in the clothes we wore, the way we stood, the music we listened to. For men the clothes were rumpled, structureless suits. We wore ties to school. We posed and smoked, drank wine coolers and listened to the music inspired by our elders.

Wine coolers. Music inspired by. Ten years later we would be doing the real thing, drinking the actual cocktails our grandfathers drank, and listening to Sinatra. But not in the 80s. We were kids. We had soda pop alcohol, and we had soda pop jazz.

Arabica, the only coffeehouse in Cleveland, was a distant oasis of cool, somewhere far on the east side. We heard there were two. But a third opened in Rocky River in 1982, and I would spend weekend nights there, getting smokes from the machine (seventy-five cents a pack) a fourteen year-old getting jittery on black coffee, talking philosophy with community college twenty year-olds whose lameness should have been evident from their hanging out with fourteen year-olds.

The soundtrack was smooth, it was stylish, it must have a saxophone. Roxy Music’s swan song Avalon was the epitome of the genre which has in recent years come to be known as Sophisti-pop, a bizarre combination of pop, blues, and jazz, with period keyboard stylings, and wistful lyrics of longing, regret, and instant nostalgia.

It is not arbitrary that the Bill Murray character sings “More Than This” for the karaoke scene in Lost In Translation.

So styling, and not yet eighteen.
Some singles were big hits on the American pop charts, including Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years.” George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” certainly falls into this category. Lesser known acts like Prefab Sprout, Everything But the Girl and The Blue Nile, never played on commercial radio, would find their way into our cassette players thanks to recommendations of other pop stars in music magazines, through college stations, and late-night MTV. And we heard them at the west side Arabica.

This was the soundtrack in my head as I wrote The Way I Danced With You, an exploration of this pretense of maturity, faced with the reality of inexperience.
CHARLES: Then I drove her back to her house and we kissed listening to "Winelight."
This music, invoking images of sun-drenched, exotic locations, smoky nightclubs, shimmering, wet city streets. Nameless, faceless lovers, hungover expressions, overcoats, eyeliner and lipstick. It’s an age-old question, and one that won’t stop being asked any time soon. Why do we want to grow up so fast?

The answer is simple, because being a teenager sucks. I’ve lost interest in childish things but am not permitted to do adult things. “There’s nothing to do,” teenagers exclaim, and they are as correct today as we were back then. There really isn’t.

So we painted a picture of Reagan/Thatcher-era wealth and sophistication (or thrift-store chic and rebellion) and put ourselves squarely in the middle.

Wouldn't it be nice if we were older?

Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," opening March 21, 2019.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Queer Eye (TV show)

"If you can't change the world, change yourself.
And if you can't change yourself, change your world."
- The The, "Lonely Planet"
Footloose (1984) was the original makeover show for men.

Through the travails of Ren MacCormack, boys all over America learned the importance of grooming, fashion, attitude and most of all, dancing. Kevin Bacon gave the straight guy permission to dance.

The first incarnation of the reality-show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy premiered on Bravo in July 2003. My daughter was not yet six months old, I was turning thirty-five, and precisely the right age dynamic for this new makeover show for men.

I was a big fan of that first season. I found it mildly subversive, though even at the time I, like a lot of people, thought it played into some unhappy stereotypes about gay men (and female queer eyes need not apply.)

But as a maturing Gen Xer I had fallen into a lot of comfortable habits and this was a playful guide to gentle self-improvement. I watched the show, I bought the album, I got the book for Christmas.

Even today, there are tips each of the original “Fab Five” had given me which I still employ.
  • Food & Drink: Ted taught me to reheat pizza on a skillet, and to always serve in glass.
  • Style: Carson gave permission to mix patterns.
  • Design: Thom showed me how to clear and own the home space.
  • Grooming: Kyan taught me how to keep my scalp clean.
  • Culture: Jai showed us all how to easily get the wrapper off a CD case.
Okay, the “culture” guy has always been a problem. Four dudes guide us through an adventure of self-discovery, and Jai is there with tickets for a play.

By the second season I started to lose interest, and the main culprit was branding. This show has been scorned -- then and now -- for the suggestion that if a guy buys enough things, he’ll be happy. And that is a legitimate reason for criticism. But what about me? The show did not make me go out and purchase a load of skin care products, I learned how to properly use the products that are already in my house!

But the show had become popular enough that more time was spent showing off logos than providing helpful advice. It truly did become a show that was all about buying stuff.

When Netflix announced a reboot I was skeptical. Fifteen years ago, it felt cheeky. Yes, the idea that gay men are neat and clean and stylish and bitchy are long-held stereotypes -- but 2003 was also the year before Ohio voters decided to approve an amendment banning “gay marriage.” The pros of seeing these men making life better for heterosexual men outweighed the cons of reinforcing relatively innocuous impressions of the homosexual lifestyle.

But this 2018. In the intervening time, so many more of our friends and family have come out to us, and have shown themselves to be just like us, or us like them, or really, are there us and them anymore? Most of the gay men I know are like me; middle-aged, unshaven, soft around the middle, average taste in music, with an unfortunate tendency to make stupid jokes.

You know. Normal.

For this Millennial version of Queer Eye they dropped the “Straight Guy” from the title, because one of the eight episodes is actually about cleaning up a gay man and encouraging him to come out to his step-mom.

However this is still a show all about guys. Frankly, I am surprised they did not include any women on the team. Surely, if we are playing with gender stereotypes they could have at least included a lesbian as the designer or something, right? They did, thankfully, tilt the percentage of people of color. How is it that there were no African-American men in the original Fab Five?

Karamo makes up for Jai’s meager contributions to the previous series by not only providing theater tickets (he actually does this is in one episode) and how to walk tall and look a person in the eye, yadda yadda, but also curating one’s professional online persona, how to fund-raise, and even opening a dialogue on race with the police.

Much has already been said about the unfair distribution of labor on the program with Bobby (design) re-imagining people’s entire houses while Antoni (food & drink) teaches you how to pit an avocado.

I was concerned Jonathan (grooming) was trying too hard to be the Carson of the group, with an over-the-top sassiness which felt a bit put on. The difference is Carson Kressley is a cutting quip-machine where Jonathan mostly says, “Yaas, queen.” He says it a lot. I think I was also prejudiced against his man-bun. However, by the end of the second episode I had accepted that he is adorable, that this is really him, and isn’t acceptance what they tell us right off the bat is what this show is all about?

In fact, it’s Jonathan’s grooming aesthetic that won me over. Whereas Kyan had a one-size-fits all approach to men’s hair -- clean shaven, no beard, no way -- Jonathan knows it’s the 21st century. Guys have beards. Your beard can be better, though. And though product is still the thing, he describes what it is, what it’s for, how to use it, and I didn’t see a single brand name. Because this is Netflix, I hope it stays that way.

Finally, the walkaway star of the program is Tan (style) not only because of his early 80s pop star British accent and his supernaturally styled salt-and-pepper hair. He’s the most self-confident of the team, he owns himself and every room he steps into, and the recommendations he makes for his charges are always spot-on and impeccable.

The questions linger; does this program continue to perpetuate the stereotype that gay men have superficial interests, that it’s all about being neat and clean and coiffed and organized and also catty?

The proof may be in that last, as this version has far-less mockery that its predecessor. Yes, there is still that part of the show where the guys invade their subject’s home, comment on its state and try on all his clothes. But they used to be downright mean, even making cruel asides to the camera. The cruelty is gone and with it comes this desire to form a connection.

I don’t remember learning anything at all about the original team’s personal lives. Off the top of my head I can think of Bobby’s religious upbringing, that Tan is married, and that Antoni has a thing about smelling everybody's stuff. I was impressed by the original Fab Five. But I like these guys more.

Most of all, in an era of divisiveness, to watch a so-called "reality" show where the goal is to bring people together and to love each other is a breath of fresh air. And when things seem entirely out of control, where do you start to reassert control but with yourself?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

On Royalties

(Pay for the) Work!
One high school in Indonesia did what every high school in America is waiting patiently to do until rights are available, they mounted a fully-realized production of Hamilton.

It might be easy to throw up your hands and say, what are ya gonna do? The creators of Hamilton have made their nut many times over, and anyway it can be challenging to enforce copyright in a foreign land and besides, it's done.

Dismissing an outright crime aside, this happens all the time to the less-know writers of less-known works, all across this country. I am constantly amazed by drama directors in American schools who believe they can cut corners from their admittedly meager budgets by cheating the playwright -- either by not paying royalties at all, or lying about how many performances are being produced.

Perhaps they believe they are cheating a non-person, like a faceless publishing company, unaware of the fact that with many rights management agencies the performance fee goes in large part to the playwright. The person who is being cheated is the writer whose name is on the script.

Perhaps they believe if they do not charge admission, they shouldn't have to pay royalties. That's like saying because I'm giving away the cookies, I can just steal the ingredients.

For the non-Lin-Manuel Mirandas of the world, the royalties from every performance are important. That's our income. I support the arts in schools, it's my life's work. But everyone must be paid.

Secure the rights. Pay the royalties. All the royalties.

An Indonesian School Produced 'Hamilton' Last Year and No One Noticed Until Now, by Chris Peterson, OnStage Blog (3/7/2018)

Thursday, March 8, 2018

On Technology

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

- Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)
The X-Files revolutionized the procedural drama by introducing the use of cellphones, utilizing them as a necessary tool of communication. That two detectives could be in two different places but still be in touch, it changed the game.

“Mulder, it’s me,” was catchphrase, a device for pushing the boundaries of storytelling, and an touching suggestion of intimacy.

The existence of technology has always had an effect on the way we tell stories. Baz Luhrman’s film Romeo + Juliet (1996) with its contemporary Miami Beach as a stand-in for Verona is dated in a manner in which Franco Zeffirelli’s Renaissance-era Romeo and Juliet (1968) is not. A 15th century R&J just makes sense, presented as it was more or less intended. But watching a “modern” version is no longer modern without cellphones, the internet and all the rest.

I didn’t even have a smartphone yet when I directed Henry VIII six years ago, but I understood their ubiquity, and creating a contemporary governmental regime, I thought they should be present. So every character had a phone and we played with them throughout rehearsal to figure out how they could be incorporated. They were used for music, to take and share photos, and in one amazing circumstance dictated by Shakespeare's actual plot, to send the wrong email to the right guy.

Today, it is far too easy to look up someone you knew so long ago, perhaps briefly, get their contact info and, you know, contact them. Of course, just because you can do this doesn’t mean you should, Depending how you knew them, and how briefly, perhaps you shouldn’t.

I actually wrote a play about doing just that. And, as you might expect, it's short. Screen Play is a ten-minute play, available for reading at New Play Exchange, and it will make you uncomfortable. A little learning is, indeed, a dangerous thing.

In the past, we just lost people. They went away, they were gone. And we didn’t think there was anything strange about it, because that’s the way things were. It might hurt, might make you wistful, might even make you sad, but that was life. That’s one reason people actually showed up to high school reunions, to see, meet, and speak with those with whom you’d shared so much when you were a younger person.

With the advent of social media, it hardly seems necessary. You don’t need to bring pictures of the kids, they’ve already watched your kids grow up on Facebook from their homes in Texas, Nepal, or Bay Village.

Yes, I know one person from my graduating class who lives in Texas, one in Nepal, and the rest still live in Bay Village.

Back in the day, in order to find someone you needed to do some actual detective work. I recently read Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere, which takes place in the mid-late-90s. Old-fashioned legwork is a major element of the story; a character must make phone calls and travel real physical distances to find the information she seeks.

This is also the case in my new play The Way I Danced With You, which will be performed one weekend as part of the Blank Canvas Factory Series. It is a strange thing for a young man going through an emotional low-point to drive past an exit on the highway day after day and think, “All of my answers lie right over there.”

But that’s the thing, right? You have to take that exit.

Blank Canvas Theatre presents “The Way I Danced With You” at 78th Street Studios, March 22 - 24, 2018.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Pretty In Pink (film)

Last fall my mother and I traveled to England together for my niece’s graduation. Flying east is never an issue, but flying west for any significant duration can give me a terrible migraine. One technique I have is that if I watch movies, one after another, then I have something focus on and am less affected by the buffeting headwinds, and also by the time.

These days, thankfully, most long-range airlines provide in-flight entertainment of your choice for no additional charge. It’s probably best to keep all the passengers distracted as it keeps the rage to a minimum. Choosing what to watch, however, can be a trial. There are so many choices! But not enough choices!

I decided to view the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty In Pink. You may be surprised to learn I have never actually watched Pretty In Pink. Not one second of it. Yes, I am a devoted fan of the 1980s. Yes, I have seen most of John Hughes films (at least from Vacation through Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and like many my age, straight, gay, or other, I have a thing for Molly Ringwald.

When the soundtrack was released early that year, I noticed at the time that it was the first record I purchased which had a "1986" copyright notice. This was significant to me because I was to graduate that spring, the number 1986 was magical, the two digits, 8 and 6, that I had on my sleeve since getting my “Bay jacket” in junior high. The future was finally now.

So I had the soundtrack, but never saw the movie. And it is an amazing soundtrack, solidifying my love for New Order and The Smiths (which I had only recently discovered) and introducing me to Suzanne Vega and Echo and the Bunnymen. It also had a track from INXS which my friend Scott was quick to dismiss as sounding like something they had decided not to include on Listen Like Thieves, and a rather tepid cover of the previous year’s hit single “Wouldn’t It Be Good.”

I have this on cassette. It is useless.
I knew the basics about the story, Molly Ringwald’s character, who lives on “the wrong side of the tracks,” is being courted by a rich kid (Andrew McCarthy) and this dweeb named Duckie. What I also knew was that the original ending, which takes place during Prom, because so many teen films end at Prom (did that start with Valley Girl?) in which she chooses Duckie, did not go over well with test audiences. In the final cut she chooses the Andrew McCarthy character.

Blaine. His name is Blaine.

Anyway, flash forward to fall 2017, and I’m finally watching this movie in a plane for the very first time. I learned several things:
  • Molly Ringwald is hands-down adorable in every single frame of this movie and if she were my daughter I would be so proud of her for being smart, artistic, resilient, good-hearted, and quick-witted. To put it another way, she is exactly like my actual daughter. 
  • Harry Dean Stanton as her depressed father is also adorable, and I was particularly touched by his performance because the actor had only recently passed away. I was also happy for him because it was obvious they shot all of his scenes in one day on two sets, so he probably got a fat check for very little work.
  • Duckie (Jon Cryer) is not the adorable, pompadoured dweeb I was led to believe him to be, but an aggressively toxic young man, one of those assholes who in common parlance use terms like “friendzone,” believing women should surrender to him by virtue of merely existing and being omnipresent.
  • Andrew McCarthy, whom I really enjoyed as a shell-shocked, morphine-addicted World War One veteran in Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, employed the same vacant, thousand-mile stare eight years earlier in this film. I kept asking myself if Blaine was supposed to be high all of the time, or if that’s just that thing McCarthy does.
In general, I was disappointed and underwhelmed. I don’t think Hughes’s work has weathered well, and that future generations may not understand their appeal at all. His films are not merely lily-white, but in the case of Ferris Bueller and Sixteen Candles blatantly racist.

His masterpiece, The Breakfast Club, remains a sincere, downright eloquent expression of teen angst, with a far more nuanced attitude toward gender relations, and the entire screenplay is packed with memorable turns of phrase. I cannot for the life of me recall a single thing anyone in Pretty In Pink says. In fact, I was stunned by how nothing anyone said made any sense at all.

This was written to be a cutting rejoinder.
The one exception was James Spader, who cannot create a forgettable performance. He has a keen ability to say things, even horrible dialogue, like he is the smartest fucking person to draw breath. Spader and Stanley Tucci need to make a heist movie, where all they steal is scenes from each other.

Heading out from seeing Lady Bird last night (the wife is on a tear to watch all of the Oscar-nominated films over the course of this weekend) she observed the obvious nods to Pretty In Pink in that film. They even toy with the phrase “wrong side of the tracks” in literal, devastating fashion.

The difference between these two movies, as I saw it, was that unlike so many Hollywood films, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird has a roster of well-developed female characters, and a trio of one-dimensional male tropes (the closeted love interest, the hipster douchebag love interest, the pathetic, depressed father) as obstacles in the protagonist’s journey toward adulthood. Unlike Ringwald’s Andie, who seems to have entirely bought into the idea that she must end up with somebody at the end of the film, Saoirse Ronan’s Christine realizes friends are more important than boys, and that the most important person to end up with is yourself.

The past week, we began rehearsals for one weekend of performances of my new play script The Way I Danced With You, which will be presented at Blank Canvas Theatre on the near west side later this month. Lara Mielcarek directs, and the piece features Sarah Blubaugh and Michael Johnson as Dani and Charles.

I am not crying. It is you who is crying.
Writing this piece, I tried very hard to put myself back in that place in the mid-80s, a time when we tried a little too hard to play dress-up and pretend we were adults. Like James Spader's Steff, sitting at his father’s desk in his father’s home office, in his father’s bathrobe, smoking cigarettes and, doing what? Working? He’s a rich, hungover high school student, putting on his daddy’s armor and pretending to be a Master of the Universe (the Bonfire of the Vanities kind, not the action figure.)

While my character Charles is nowhere near as hot and self-possessed as Steff, he does try in his own way to be that thing. And without all the whining, he reflects a slight degree of Duckie’s self-righteous insistence that staying power justifies deserts.

That may have been the most disturbing part of watching Pretty In Pink for the first time ever, at this point in my life. It was like stepping through a time machine into a moment I know and feel so well and so deeply, and I was surprised and even moved by what I found there.

UPDATE: Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," opening March 21, 2019, directed by Tyler Whidden, and featuring Sarah Blubaugh and Cody Steele as Dani and Charles.