Monday Morning, Mr. Wonderful, as Sammy Davis’s character in his first Broadway play was called.
If Sammy Davis were only a dancer he would be known as one of the greatest tap dancers of the 20th century.
If he were only a singer he would be known as one of the greatest male vocalists of the 20th century.
He was both.
Here he is with a song from his second musical, Golden Boy, from 1964, about an African-American boxer who falls in love with a white woman.
Paula Wayne who played Sammy’s lover, Lorna, in the show, said that when the time came during rehearsals for Sammy to kiss her, Sammy was very reluctant to do so. It was the first time an interracial kiss had happened on the Broadway stage; but Paula insisted that there would be no problem. She was soon to find out otherwise—the day after the show opened there were pickets in front of the theatre from white supremacists groups denouncing the show.
But the show ran for 500+ performances and had a great, under-appreciated score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams—probably the best score they ever created.
Here’s a remarkable 4 minute clip from a 1932 film, Uncle Moses, in Yiddish with English subtitles. The plot of the film is quite convoluted, but its depiction of class relations and militant immigrant workers is far more advanced than just about anything you’d see in a theatrical release today.
And is that Edward G. Robinson I thought I saw entering the room at about 3:23?
For Halloween, something special, an homage to the old-time 1940s suspense radio series Lights Out. I wrote and produced a modern update of the Lights Out episode called “Revolt of The Worms” for the Arts Express radio program, broadcast today over WBAI FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
“We caution you. This story is definitely not for the timid soul. So we tell you, calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now. And now if you haven’t already done so, turn off your… lights now… and listen to… Revolt of the Worms.”
Starring Mary Murphy, Josh Miccio and Reggie Johnson.
To listen, click on the triangle or image to play.
Another of the great, but lesser known, film dance stars, Tommy Rall, who died this month. As a youngster, he was in a group of dancing teens called the “Jivin’ Jacks and Jills” at Universal Studios, which included Donald O’Connor. He was trained in ballet, and his amazing high jumps, pirouettes, and flips rival anything else seen on the screen. He appeared in movie musicals almost every year in the 50s, but somehow he never made it into super-stardom. O’Connor thought Rall was one of the greatest dancers living, a better dancer than either Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.
Here he is with Ann Miller in “Why Can’t You Behave?” from Kiss Me Kate, where he mixes dance with some practical jokes in a fun character piece.
The amazing African-American tap dancer, Lois Bright. She was married to Dan Miller one of the two tap-dancing Miller Brothers that you see in the clip above. Unfortunately, Lois Bright Miller never got her full recognition in show business, as the act was called simply, The Miller Brothers and Lois. But as you can see, she did everything that the brothers did and more.
Clearly, if you’re talking about the great female tap dancers of the last century such as Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell, then Lois Bright Miller is right up there.
In this installment, we’ll be getting into more specialized and advanced books, yet I think the information in each of them is valuable no matter what area of magic most intrigues you.
TheDai Vernon Book of Magic by Lewis Ganson: Some of the classic close-up routines of magic, including The Chinese Coins, that should be in every magician’s repertoire.
Restaurant and Bar Magicby Jonathan Kamm: Kamm is a bar magician, and in this slim book of effects he explains some wonderful mainstays of the bar magician. If you’re not a drinker, don’t let the appellation of bar magic worry you. Bar magic is close-up magic that requires little in the way of props, but it has a very clear plot, is visual, often modular, and has high impact. There’s a great repeat card under deck routine here as well as seven other routines which, as they say, are workers.
Marked for Life by Kirk Charles: This is a slim paperback on how to create your own deck of marked cards and tricks to do with same. There’s a hilarious trick done with a rubber stamp imprint of a cat’s paw that I used to have a lot of fun with. But the real winner here is the system for marking cards that Bob Farmer came up with that requires only a red Sharpie on a red Bicycle deck which produces marks that can be seen from a good distance.
Expert Card Technique by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue: This one may sit on the shelf until you’re ready for it, but once you are, you will be amazed at the gems of advanced card magic sleights and effects it contains: passes, glimpses, transpositions. Though written before Royal Road to Magic and Card College, this is the post-graduate course.
Taschen Magic Posters: I’ve written about this book before, and I continue to feel that it’s one of my favorite magic books of all time. This multi-lingual large-size edition pictured above is out of print and hard to find now, but there’s a smaller sized abridged version available at very reasonable cost, which is still quite wonderful. It’s beautifully put together with glorious reproductions of hundreds of years of magic posters interspersed with essays from the likes of Jim Steinmeyer. It’s big, heavy, and an absolute pleasure to pull out on a rainy day.
An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski: while this volume was meant for theater actors performing in a scripted play, there is much here to be learned here about communicating with an audience. The Spanish magician Juan Tamariz summarized some of this information in The Five Ways of Magic, but An Actor Prepares goes more deeply into some important aspects of performing and getting ready to perform. Pay special attention to the sections on Relaxation, Concentration, Units and Objectives, Faith and a Sense of Truth, The Super-Objective, and Communion.
Act Two by Barrie Richardson: There’s more great mental magic in this sequel to Theater of the Mind. If you’ve always wanted to learn a memdeck, but don’t think you’re quite up to it now, there’s an easy to memorize half memdeck here that’s very useful. In particular, it’s used in a easy-to-do stage ACAAN that plays big. There are many other mental effects and techniques here that are worth exploring as well.
Card College, Volumes 2, 3, and 4: by Roberto Giobbi: Card College is a massive achievement but I think Royal Road substitutes well for Volume 1 and has better tricks, and Volume 5 is largely a book of pleasant but unessential card tricks. For me, the real stars of the CC series are Volumes 2, 3 and 4, which form an excellent detailed reference for learning and executing the most common card sleights one might come across in other sources.
Magic is My Weed and How to Make Love the Steve Spill Way both by Steve Spill. I put these two books together because frankly it is hard to decide between them. Simply, read them both. They are not cheap, but if you are planning to set foot onstage before a large audience in a regular professional capacity, these books would be a very wise investment. I did detailed reviews of the two books here (Weed) and here (Love). If you want to be a performer and not just a guy or gal doing tricks, these books are a goldmine of information. Wonderful effects, jokes, scripts, but even more wonderful advice about how to construct an act and entertain an audience.
With the madness of the last week it’s nice to just relax and give oneself up to an artist who is totally in control of her talent.
Lady Gaga sings a jazz/pop version of the Rodgers and Hart standard that promises a lot and delivers a lot.
She sang this often on her 2015 tour, and if you look on YouTube, you can see that in every performance the vocal arrangement is different, she’s clothed in a different costume and wig, and yet every performance is right on the money. Really a rare talent.
Diana Rigg died this week. A fine actress, the clip above shows her in a few of her famous roles.
But my favorite thing that Diana Rigg ever did as an artist was to write a book called No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews. Stung by unkind reviews that she had received over the years, to cheer herself up, Rigg compiled a book of horrendous reviews that other celebrated actors had received over the years. If you can get a hold of a copy, it’s a fun read.
Here’s the audio version of my commentary on Shakespeare’s King John, which I recorded for Arts Express on WBAI NY radio and Pacifica affiliates across the country..
It’s one of the least known of Shakespeare’s plays, but no less a writer than George Orwell said about it, “When I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and double crossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date.”
To listen, click on the triangle or mp3 link above.
“If I Loved You,” from Carousel, one of the greatest ballads of the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue, has been covered easily over 150 times. It’s a great song, but not easy to sing. YouTuber Beatrice Powell has put together this terrific compilation of thirteen different versions. To me, they range from poor to great. I watched the video once, and had one set of opinions, and then closed my eyes and had a different set. Who’s version is your favorite?
Recently, NPR broadcast their audio production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I‘d like to discuss a less often performed play of Shakespeare’s about another failed English king, Shakespeare’s King John. It resonates as an absolutely modern play in the sense that Machiavelli is modern: with penetrating insights into the hypocrisies and double-dealings of the ruling elites.
The Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro likes to say that in Shakespeare’s plays, the kings are brought down because they don’t understand that the pressures of the time are going to be far more intense than anything they had previously imagined. They don’t grow into their roles to meet the time; instead they are crushed by their inadequacies. They don’t recognize that the old order has lost all legitimacy and the new world is struggling to be born. It’s always a time of great anxiety for both the elites and the underlings. Feel free to draw comparisons to our own time—as you should.
As King John opens, John, the English King, is readying for war with France, with the French declaring their legitimate right over several disputed territories. But King John will have none of it and vociferously defends England’s claim: “Here have we war for war and blood for blood/ Controlment for controlment: so answer France.”
And John is not just defending the legitimacy of England’s ownership of territory—John is also defending the legitimacy of his personal claim to the throne. It’s not a given that John is the legitimate heir. John’s dead older brother, Geoffrey, still has a living heir, a young boy named Arthur, and though John has declared himself King of England (he of the Magna Carta) with the backing of the newly risen landowner class of nobles, there are those pushing the line of the young Arthur, and they ally themselves with the French to stake their own claim to legitimacy.
And Shakespeare really likes to play with this notion of legitimacy and illegitimacy. One character, a military adventurer named Philip, is literally illegitimate, having been secretly fathered by Richard The Lion-Hearted during an adulterous rendezvous. Phillip would rather be known as an illegitimate son, and give up his ancestral rights to his family property, than to disavow his real father. Rather than run from illegitimacy, he embraces it with the title “The Bastard.”
So it’s off to war. The poor citizens of a disputed walled town have to decide which of the bellowing forces, the French or the English, they would rather surrender to. One citizen of the town agreeably says that they would gladly be ruled by the King of England—if they only knew who that legitimately was. So when you decide, let us know. And in an attempt to forestall what they know will be a coming war, the town’s citizens propose a compromise—why not have the son of the French King and the daughter of the English King marry and form a happy alliance between the two forces and establish legitimacy that way?
But not so fast…
Constance, the mother of young Arthur, the Mother of All Tiger Moms, who has aligned with the French forces, bitterly refuses such a compromise—she wants to see her son Arthur on the throne: “War! War! No peace. Peace to me is a war!” So Constance along with the French get their war.
And how ineptly the English King John handles it! John bumbles from one misstep to another. The English, under the military direction of The Bastard, do manage to capture the young Arthur, and take him prisoner. But King John fumbles the ball. Because even King John’s advisors recognize that young Arthur must be treated well in captivity or the public will turn against the King. In a duplicitous world where no one can be trusted, Arthur’s purity and naivete stand out. He is the one totally sympathetic character in the play. But the narcissistic King John, against the advice of his counselors, secretly orders his henchman, Hubert, to murder the beloved boy. And in an excruciatingly horrific and tender scene, the boy pleads with Hubert to spare his life:
Arthur: Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
Hubert: Young boy, I must.
Arthur: And will you?
Hubert: And I will.
Arthur: Have you the heart? When your head but did ache,
I knit my handkercher about your brows—-
The best I had, a princess wrought it me—
And I never did ask it you again
And with my hand at midnight held your head,[….]
Saying, “What lack you?” and “Where lies your grief?”
Or “What good love may I perform for you?” […]
If heaven please that you must use me ill,
Why then you must.
This is all too much for Hubert to bear. He relents and lets Arthur escape. Meanwhile, King John realizes he’s made a terrible public relations mistake. He fears the public will turn against him for killing the boy. Hubert comes back to John, ready to lie about Arthur’s execution, but before Hubert can get a word out, the King turns on Hubert, outrageously blaming him for Arthur’s death. When Hubert protests that John had ordered him to kill Arthur, John with audacious bluster, disavows all personal blame and accuses Hubert instead. John says to him:
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death
And thou, to be endeared to a king
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince.
Hubert can’t stand the accusations anymore, so he admits to John that Arthur is actually still alive. John is elated, and with scarcely an apology to Hubert, he’s ready to make war once more. With the beloved Arthur alive but safely imprisoned, John feels he can win the public relations battle and the war.
But in an amazing piece of plotting by Shakespeare, as Arthur escapes from the prison, the boy falls from a high wall and actually dies for real this time. It’s an extraordinary moment. After having been spared—Shakespeare kills him off!
It brings to mind the infamous scene in Hitchcock’s movie, Sabotage. There, a young schoolboy unknowingly boards a bus with a parcel that contains a time bomb. Of course, the audience knows the bomb won’t go off with the boy holding it, because legitimate suspense movies don’t have bombs go off in the arms of little schoolboys. But it does go off, and it’s absolutely shocking. Hitchcock later said that he regretted that scene—it wasn’t a legitimate use of the suspense genre. Well, Shakespeare’s scene is every bit as shocking, but he gets away with it because the whole play is about the fraying of old expectations. Shakespeare is saying that the world is that messed up.
Was Shakespeare grieving about his own little boy Hamnet, who had died sometime around the estimated time of composition of the play? Were the laments of the play’s Constance, Arthur’s mother, the bitter words that Will faced when he came back from London to his wife Anne in Stratford on hearing the earth-shattering news?
The news of Arthur’s death is so awful, even to the English, that two of John’s noble advisors defect to the French side. John is clearly overwhelmed by events: The French seem to be winning battle after battle.
By rights, here we are in Act V, there should be no hope for the English. But we know the history doesn’t end that way; and in one more piece of somersault plotting, the two English advisors who had previously defected to the French side find out the true French policy towards defectors: make nice with them now, but kill them later. So the defectors make a run for it and head back home to join King John. But John meanwhile has been poisoned, which is perhaps a blessing for the English. For now, the new order can take over. The young Prince Henry, son of John, is installed as King, a kind of mirror image of the young dead Arthur; The English under the Bastard’s military direction start winning more battles, and by some miracle, a peace treaty between the French and English has been arranged by the Church. Prince Henry forgives the defector Lords and he prepares to attend his father’s funeral as the play ends.
It’s a decidedly precarious ending. Onstage there is an unspoken pall of anxiety about the future. The new king’s legitimacy is as questionable as his father’s was. The Bastard bravely tries to reassure them that the new time calls for a unity of all English factions including the forgiven wealthy Lords–that’s the only way they can proceed forward safely. But as the play ends, the audience understands that it is not clear whether this new arrangement is really going to work.
Shakespeare himself lived on the cusp of the old and the new, in the transition from a dying feudal order to the rise of the bourgeois capitalist class. The power of kings was being chipped away as rich merchants and landowners bought themselves royal titles with the profits they made from world trade and financial speculation. King John stands at the beginning of that period, and while The Bastard recognizes the inevitability of the capitalist transition, he despises it as well. It’s a system where every person is a commodity, and thus capable of having their honor being bought and corrupted. But even The Bastard doesn’t know whether he can resist the new world’s monetary temptations with its commodities. In an earlier part of the play The Bastard says:
And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
Your old road is rapidly aging. You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone. Shakespeare’s King John captures the time when the old legitimate has become illegitimate and no one knows what happens next.
What do Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Laura Linney, and Patti LuPone have in common? They all were students of Moni Yakim, the legendary acting teacher at the Julliard Drama Division, who is the subject of a recently released film documentary, Creating A Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy.
You can hear my review of the film as broadcast today on WBAI 99.5FM NYC, WBAI.org and Pacifica affiliates around the country, by clicking on the triangle or mp3 link above.
If you are at all interested in acting or teaching, I highly recommend this film.
When an arts center depends on its community, how do you deal with lockdown conditions? Ellen Kodadek, artistic and executive director of Flushing Town Hall, talks with us on Arts Express about some of the strategies they have implemented at her institution, including virtual hangouts and virtual jazz jams.
Click on the triangle or mp3 link above to hear the interview as broadcast today on Arts Express on WBAI NY radio and Pacifica affiliates across the country.
Eagle-eyed readers of this blog may have noticed that recently I put up a new website link at the top of the blogroll over there on the lower left hand side of the page.
That’s a link to the shiny new Arts Express Newsletters archive. As you may be aware, every month we’ve been putting out a full color newsletter filled with interviews, scripts, essays, photos, and more. It’s a kind of companion to the Arts Express radio program. We offer a continuing subscription to the newsletter for free as an email attachment to those who drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and put the word “subscribe” in the subject line (Try it and see!)
Recently, we were requested to create an archive of past newsletters which we’re glad to do. By clicking on this link or the picture above, you’ll be taken to the archive of past newsletters, where you can access any of the individual issues.
A post on the Genii Forum by expert children’s magician and puppeteer Quentin Reynolds led me to start viewing dozens of Punch and Judy videos.
While the scripts differ in their particulars and added topical jokes, there are some basic puppets and plotlines: Punch, always with his distinctive voice and his slapstick; Judy, his wife, and their baby; a crocodile; a policeman; often a monkey or clown. Today’s offerings are much tamer than those you can see in black and white videos of the 1950s, but they all depend on gross physical humor to get the children viewing it shouting, clapping , and cheering.
The delightful Mary Murphy as interviewer Merri Boast grills The Devil, played by me, in our original “Sympathy For The Devil” radio satire, broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program over WBAI 99.5FM, WBAI.org ,and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
Click on the triangle or the mp3 file link above to listen.