The Hottest Ticket in Town

The Divine Sarah Bernhardt playing Cleopatra, the original transformational theater experience

Transformational! G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)! You’ve never experienced anything like it!

Gobblyedook? Hyperbole? No, as you might guess, these were some of the Facebook comments about Hamilton, which we enjoyed seeing in San Francisco last week, despite the exaggeration and hoopla surrounding its existence. This is not a review of the show, about which you most likely already have an opinion, but it got me to thinking about the other It Performances and Artistic Experiences that also left long shadows from say fifty, a hundred, or even longer ago.

Contrary to some recently held beliefs, Hamilton is not the only theater experience that has ever been deemed life-changing. It was only about fifty years ago that musicals themselves were transformed by the introduction of contemporary music, young people, and irreverent ideas, in the first true rock musical, Hair. A century ago, there was a single person–and her rival–who changed all of theater. Still further back, there was a guy who changed how people wrote, what people read, and even how people think about Christmas. There are all sorts of ways to influence the arts.

When the Moon is in the Seventh House…

The musical Hair premiered off-Broadway in 1967, before moving to Broadway for a very popular, if critically tepid, run. When it migrated to London’s West End in 1968, the start was delayed until changes were made to the Theatres Act in order to allow for the nudity and profanity. Then, it ran in London for nearly 2000 performances.

Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who also appeared in the show, the musical explored the controversial themes that exploded across headlines the late Sixties: the youth counterculture, opposition to the war, air pollution, racism, free love, and bureaucratic oppression. The songs are joyous and sarcastic, hummable tunes of subversion. We had the album at home when I was nine, and I loved it. Of course, there was no place to actually look up the words to the lyrics, so imagine my dismay at 23, when I finally realized some of the words I was singing in the tune “Sodomyyyyyy…..”

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Queasy Endings, Happy Endings in Shakespeare

As You Like It , 2019, an excellent musical version, free in the park by SF Shakespeare

Shakespeare is my jam, which is why I particularly like summer with its Shakespeare Festivals popping up in every district park and on every street corner. I also just finished a class, which knocked me on my ass, filled my head with iambic pentameter, and turned a lot of my bardic understanding upside down. Isn’t that just like a comedy?

There’s nothing like a good lusty Elizabethan comedy – boy falls in love with girl at first sight, girl dresses up as a man, twins get mistaken for each other, bears and donkeys gambol in the forests, and they all get married in the end. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s 38 plays had the comedy label slapped on them by the playwright’s buddies who helpfully subdivided his plays the early folios. We all learned about those divisions in school: comedies end in marriages and no (usually) deaths; tragedies center around a protagonist whose flaw causes mayhem and his own death; and histories were about the kings.

Yet comedies aren’t so easy to categorize. In fact, the last five chronologically are often recategorized by modern scholars as “romances” because they contained tragic elements. But, then, there are the three middle comedies, written before the romances, which have also been called “problem plays.” They are problematic indeed.

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Cleopatra & Godzilla: With or Without Backstory?

Most decidedly epic.

Cleopatra arrives in Rome, photo from 1963’s Cleopatra, 20th Century fox

I had the opportunity to watch both the 1963 Cleopatra and 2019 Godzilla, King of the Monsters this month and found myself loving them both. They share eerie parallels. Both are expensive movies, which also were wildly popular despite getting horrid reviews. Both reflect on the past and are engrossing films, even if you bring no prior knowledge to the viewing. But both really pay off if you know the history outside the story and let that backstory clothe your experience, almost like an extra dimension. Trashy pinnacles of cinema; perfect for summer watching.

History shows again and again
How nature points out the folly of men…

Blue Oyster cult

The 26th Most Expensive Movie Ever Made

By the time Cleopatra premiered in 1963, the film had overspent its $5 million budget by somewhere between $20 and $39 million. The lavish Roman epics that were popularized in the 1950s were driving up costs, but films like Ben Hur, which were costly and well-received, paved the way for Cleo. Variety puts the ultimate cost of the 1963 Fox epic at $44 million, so even before it came to the screen, it was rumored to be a disaster. Cleopatra was a huge box office success, the highest-grossing film of the year at $57 million, but was considered to have lost money. As you watch the scene where Cleopatra enters Rome on a giant barge, flanked by hundreds of costumed dancers, you can’t help but hear *ca-ching* with every painted golden trumpet.

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J.S. Bach: Sewing Machine or New Age Streamer?

Salomo, stop playing that [Bach]! You sound like a sewing machine!

CCH Pounder in the movie Bagdad Cafe

Does Bach sound like a sewing machine? Does The Art of the Fugue sound like it was dictated by a blind man? Was Bach so good at counterpoint because he heard arguments in his head all the time, given that he was apparently always arguing with somebody? Does the emotional content reflected in St. Matthew’s Passion or the Prelude from the Cello Suite in D Minor denote the kappelmeister’s relationship to his faith or the fact that half his children died before reaching adulthood?

Argumentative, industrious, myopic Herr Bach, photo at BachonBach.com

Sunday was Bach’s 334th birthday. In 1685, when he was born, Louis the Fourteenth was dominating Europe, William & Mary were wresting the crown away from the Stuarts in England, and Protestants were fleeing to the colonies to exchange war and religious persecution for malaria. Music at the time was focused primarily on the rise of the new public art form known as opera. Bach had no interest in opera. Luckily for us.

The Industriousness of Bach

Perhaps he would be surprised to know that all these years later his influence has lasted so long and extended to so many different styles. He wrote over 1000 musical compositions. While many argue that Mozart’s 600 works are more impressive because Mozart only lived to age 32, the precocious Amadeus also started composing ate age five. Bach didn’t really get going until he was in his mid-30s, plus he had a few other things going on, between being court musician here and choir-master there. And then there were all the children.

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Heartland III: Not My Mama’s Shakespeare

It’s astounding
Time is fleeting
Madness takes its toll
So listen closely
Not for very much longer
I’m going to lose control

Quick–what’s the next line?

Stratford Festival Theater
Shakespearean Festival Theater in Stratford Ontario, originally built in 1953. Photo by kajmeister.

Forty-two years ago, I saw the legendary Canadian actor Brian Bedford play three roles at the Stratford Canadian Shakespearean festival in repertory: Angelo in Measure for Measure, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, and Richard III. The breadth of his performances changed my idea of what actors could do.

Forty years ago, as a freshman in college at Berkeley, I watched a science-fiction movie about a transvestite where people shouted at the screen and threw toast and rice. It changed my idea about how a movie can connect with an audience.

Who would have thought that, getting old, we would wax nostalgic about doing the time warp?

Stratford Festival program, Rocky Horror
Stratford Festival’s Rocky Horror, starring Dan Chameroy. Program photo by Stratford staff, uncredited.

Gimme That Ol’ Time Theater

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