Monday, December 13, 2010

From The King's Speech To The Queens' Vernacular

The picture of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall sitting in a 33-year-old Rolls-Royce Phantom VI on their way to a performance at the London Palladium as an angry mob surrounded them, chanting "Off with their heads," offered a sharp contrast to the quiet death, 100 years prior, of England's King Edward VII. A heavy smoker who puffed his way through 20 cigarettes and 12 cigars a day, Edward VII's final words on May 6, 1910 (upon hearing that his horse had won the race at the Kempton Park racecourse that afternoon) were "I am very glad."

Horse racing has always been a popular form of entertainment for the British royal family. If you've ever seen the look of excitement/panic/terror in a race horse's eyes, you'll notice it recreated by actor Colin Firth as he agonizingly captures the inner panic of a horribly insecure young man with a crushing speech impediment who is being forced to speak in public.

King George VI (Colin Firth) and his wife,
Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter)

There's an interesting back story to The King's Speech that some people may not know. Originally conceived as a stage drama by David Seidler, it was written by a man who (like his protagonist) suffered from a terrible stammer in childhood. Seidler looked up to England's King George VI as a hero, a role model, and a source of inspiration. Although development of the screen adaptation of The King's Speech got fast tracked, the stage version (directed by Adrian Noble) is slated to open on Broadway in April of 2011.

Early in The King's Speech, the audience watches the young Prince Albert attempting to speak into a radio microphone at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. The frenzied flashes of fright that fairly flicker across the frustrated, frozen face of Firth almost run as deep as the phantom fathoms frequently found in the fittingly famous Firth of Forth.

The King's Speech is not a story of political empire or of might making right. Instead, it is the poignant study of one man's struggle to overcome a disability. The fact that the stammerer's dilemma is enriched by his need to become a skilled public speaker (as well as the notable differences in social class between a commoner from Australia and a future king) adds multiple layers of subtext to Firth's portrait.

Colin Firth as King George VI

Directed by Tom Hooper, the film boasts a top-notch supporting cast with Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mother)Derek Jacobi as Cosmo Lang (Archbishop of Canterbury), Eve Best as Wallis Simpson, and Timothy Spall delivering a deliciously bloated portrayal of Winston Churchill. Opera fans may be slightly unnerved by the way Guy Pearce's portrayal of King Edward VIII bears a striking resemblance to the way San Francisco Opera's General Director, David Gockley, looked some 25 years ago.

Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue

While Geoffrey Rush has some wonderful moments as the actor/speech therapist Lionel Logue (who helped King George VI triumph over his speech impediment), the film is a tour de force for Colin Firth, whose character's personal anguish is eventually tamed so that he might reign as an effective monarch. Audiences will be touched by the scenes in which he is trying to be a good father to his two young daughters, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth. Jennifer Ehle also has some wonderful moments as Myrtle Logue.

There's no question that Colin Firth will once again be nominated for an Academy Award (he received a 2010 Academy Award nomination and won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his magnificent performance in A Single Man). The real surprise is that The King's Speech is very much a film about family values, building trust, true friendship, and the fact that credentials can only do so much to solve a personal problem. Here's the trailer:

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In 1972, San Francisco's Straight Arrow Books published what was considered to be the first dictionary of gay slang in English. Drawn largely from the lingo used by gay men prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, The Queen's Vernacular, A Gay Lexicon, was republished in 1979 by Paragon Books/G.P. Putnam as Gay Talk: A (Sometimes Outrageous) Dictionary of Gay Slang. Although much of the book now seems quite dated, I doubt that its author, Bruce Rodgers, ever imagined it would eventually become a collector's item.

Poster art for Dirty Little Showtunes

In 1997, Tom Orr and some friends got together to produce a musical revue entitled Dirty Little Showtunes. A cunning linguist, Orr took great joy in rewriting the lyrics to popular Broadway songs to create parodies that used the vernacular of San Francisco's hedonistic gay culture. Suddenly, Castro clones, drag queens, and leathermen were belting out the numbers they cherished with a decidedly gay twist. Here's a video clip of Orr singing "I Love Men" (a spoof of "I Hate Men" from Cole Porter's 1948 hit musical, Kiss Me, Kate).

A new edition of Dirty Little Showtunes is currently being performed by New Conservatory Theatre Center, whose artistic director, Ed Decker, writes:
"My first experience with this homegrown musical theatre parody, conceived by F. Allen Sawyer and the inimitable lyricist Tom Orr, was over 13 years ago. At that time, New Conservatory Theatre Center was still in the theatre rental game and we booked the show after it had concluded successful runs in a few other venues. True to its pedigree of popularity, Dirty Little Showtunes kept audiences coming back for more.
The cast of Dirty Little Showtunes (Photo by: Lois Tema)

This production incorporates both original and new cast members. They weave a spell of irreverence that is absolutely irresistible.  Listen closely because between the laughs there are lessons to be learned, affairs of the heart left yearning, and pulsating political satire cutting the chill in the winter air. If you came for the naughty bits and/or to hear a collection of your favorite showtunes turned inside out, then you won't be disappointed. However, if you came for high drama, you'd better head for the bar and get a cocktail."

Many numbers from the original show remain intact. David Bicha still scores strongly with "I Am The Very Model of a Modern Homosexual." Orr is back in form singing "I Love Men." The following video clip from the original production clearly demonstrates that Orr's lyrics have lost none of their punch.

Some new musical numbers reflect a change in the gay community as well as a growing awareness of the demographics of New Conservatory Theatre Center's audience. Joe Wicht has a grand time delivering "Gay, Grey, and Glorious." Replacing the bodybuilder in the original production, burly Cameron Cummings has a field day with Orr's parody of the title song from "Hair" (appropriately retitled "Bear"). Others in the cast include Eric Brizee and Alpha Mulugeta,

The cast of Dirty Little Showtunes (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Toward the end of Act I, Orr asks the audience to supply him with a show tune, an object, and a location that he can use to compose a new parody during intermission. Dirty Little Showtunes continues through January 16, 2011 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (you can order tickets here).

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