Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Timing Is Everything

Mark Twain once claimed that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." That statement was roundly reinforced during the recent uprising in Egypt when, during an Internet and media blackout, it was hard to tell what was happening at any given moment.

I was having my own problem keeping up with the news. A hard drive crash (combined with having cancelled my cable subscription several months ago) meant that whatever bits and pieces of news I heard were completely outdated by the time they reached my ears. Being stuck in a media vacuum only made Arianna Huffington's description of Rupert Murdoch's new iPad news app, "The Daily," even more insightful. "The whole point of the Internet is that it's not daily, it's immediacy," stressed Huffington.

* * * * * * * * *
Many of us take the speed of our daily communications for granted. However, as part of its annual winter event last Saturday, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a screening of a 1928 silent film by Marcel L'Herbier that offered a sharp contrast between how financial transactions within stock exchanges were once enacted and the lightning speed at which computers now drive global transactions.

Written by Emile Zola in 1891, L'Argent (Money)  had been inspired by the 1862 collapse of France's Union Générale (whose stock had risen 600% over three years without sufficient capital to match even a third of its value). L'Herbier's film adaptation of Zola's novel was updated to take place during the late 1920s, when stock exchanges were operating in a state of semi-euphoria and the first passenger airplane (a 12-seat Ford Trimotor) was making news.

Obsessed with the cost of the film, L'Herbier had no way of knowing that a mere 10 months after L'Argent's public debut in January of 1929, Wall Street would crash and the industrialized world's economy would be shattered by the Great Depression.

Poster art for 1928's silent film, L'Argent

L'Argent is basically a story about greed -- the kind of greed that is only magnified by one's ability to participate in financial speculation. Saccard (Pierre Alcover) and Gunderman (Alfred Abel) are rival bankers determined to conquer the market at any cost. Their speculative power plays are on a level unimaginable to ordinary investors like La Méchain (Yvette Guilbert), old woman who likes to buy distressed stocks when they are almost worthless. Caught in Saccard's web of greedy speculation are:
  • Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor), an aviator determined to break the world's record by flying nonstop from Paris to Guyana in the West Indies.
  • Line Hamelin (Mary Glory), the aviator's naive wife, whom Saccard lusts after and easily manipulates.
  • Baroness Sandorf (Brigitte Helm), Saccard's ex-lover who is now working as a spy on behalf of Saccard's rival, Gunderman.
In order to make his film as realistic as possible, L'Herbier rented the Paris Stock Exchange over a three-day holiday and filled it with nearly 2,000 extras. The scene in which Jacques Hamelin's plane took off was filmed at Le Bourget airport. According to Wikipedia:
"For his principal cameraman L'Herbier chose Jules Kruger, who had devised the elaborate camerawork of Abel Gance's Napoléon. Within the huge spaces of the sets they employed unusually active movements for the camera whose virtuosity makes them highly visible to the spectator. At Saccard's party the camera glides back and forth above the guests; in the bank scenes it moves alongside and among the crowds. Most strikingly of all, in the scenes at the Bourse, a vertical shot from the high ceiling down to the "corbeille" (dealers' enclosure) makes the scene resemble the teeming activity of ants; and an automatic camera then creates a dizzying effect as it spirals down towards the floor. The result is a sense of dynamic exploration of the spaces contrasting with the monumental appearance of the sets."
Although today's DVD releases often include documentary footage about the making of the film, L'Argent holds the distinction of being the first feature to have had its production process documented on film. In the following video from Jean Dréville's 40-minute Autour de L'Argent, you can see how L'Herbier was experimenting with ways to get his camera as mobile as possible:

Although L'Argent clocks in at 165 minutes, it offers audiences a visual feast. Many of the larger sets have wonderful touches of Art Deco. Some of the costumes worn by 18-year-old Brigitte Helm are classics from the 1920s.

Saturday's screening at the Castro Theatre was introduced by San Francisco's new Consul General of France, Romain Serman. The film was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which did some of their finest work to date. I was especially impressed with their use of two salad spinners (filled with various objects) to simulate the sound of a single-engine aircraft's motor and propeller.

Frank Rich recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled "At Last, Bernie Madoff Gives Back," in which he stated that the current moment couldn't be better for another person to get into the game on Wall Street. The final moments of L'Herbier's film make a similar statement, showing how predictably cyclic financial speculation has become. The following video clip contains some wonderful moments from the film (which is available on DVD).

* * * * * * * * * *
Marshall McLuhan famously claimed that "The medium is the message." Witnessing how unscripted references to a new medium can spin  theatrical gold out of old material, one gets a rare lesson in how a talented stage director can update a 30-year-old musical revue while changing much of its dramatic subtext.  When Craig Lucas was in the original cast of 1979's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim mentioned that he had some unperformed songs that had either been cut from his previous shows during their out-of-town tryouts or simply never made it to the stage.

Like Gioachino Rossini, who often threw away material that didn't fit into an upcoming operatic premiere (or recycled it later in his career), the second-tier songs hidden away in Sondheim's musical trunk may be a whole lot better than many finished pieces by lesser talents. In 1980, when The Production Company commissioned Lucas to create a musical revue, he got Sondheim's blessing to use 17 of the songwriter's unperformed pieces (a previous revue entitled Side By Side By Sondheim had opened on Broadway on April 18, 1977 and run for 384 performances).

Stephen Sondheim

Working with director Norman René, Lucas fashioned a script about two people (male and female) who found themselves alone on a Saturday night. Some songs -- "Saturday Night" and "So Many People" (from 1954's Saturday Night) and "Your Eyes Are Blue" (from 1962's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum) as well as the "There Won't Be Trumpets" (from 1964's Anyone Can Whistle) are already familiar from recordings. Others, especially from 1971's Follies ("Little White House," "Who Could Be Blue," "Uptown, Downtown," "It Wasn't Meant to Happen," and the achingly romantic "All Things Bright and Beautiful") are welcome treats.

The show received its San Francisco premiere in 1989. A decade later, actor Steve Gideon proposed a version of the show to be sung by two men. With Sondheim's approval, Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles premiered an all-male version of Marry Me A Little in October of 1999. As Gideon told The New York Times: "The concept of romantic love is so much a part of gay culture, I thought, why not put two men in it? I never thought Sondheim would allow us to do it."

Caleb Haven Draper and Bill Fahrner in Marry Me A Little
Photo by: Kent Taylor

Fast forward through another decade and John Fisher (whose career has been marked by great moments of wretched excess) has used his over-fertile imagination to smashing effect in restaging Marry Me A Little for Theatre Rhinoceros. Always an astute observer of the gay culture in which he lives and thrives, Fisher has layered a myriad of nuances into the body language of each character.

Whether such moments involve dressing to go out on a date, reacting to someone else's promises of a rosy future, or one man noticing his boyfriend cruising a passerby while supposedly engaged in an intimate conversation in a restaurant or cafe, Fisher has hit a home run with this production. With Caleb Haven Draper as Ben and Bill Fahrner as Mark, he has two naturally engaging leads.

Fahrner (a familiar figure from 42nd Street Moon productions) finally gets to show off the upper range of his healthy tenor voice. And, having seen Yvonne DeCarlo's understated delivery of "Boy, Can That Boy Foxtrot!" in the early days of the Boston tryout of Follies at the Colonial Theatre, I can tell you that Fisher's highly sexualized staging of the song (including an athletically enthusiastic under-the-bedcovers blowjob) is a helluva lot more fun.

Caleb Haven Draper and Bill Fahrner in Marry Me A Little
Photo by:  Kent Taylor

Placing the action in San Francisco from 2000-2008, Fisher uses video to provide political context, with footage of Harvey Milk appearing as Fahrner belts "There Won't Be Trumpets." Later in the show, a video stream of shots from demonstrations against Proposition 8 adds a strong cultural and political charge to the expectations of gay men trying to find and maintain a relationship.

Back when Lucas first crafted Marry Me A Little I doubt he could have imagined the impact today's technology -- especially an app like Grindr -- could have on gay lifestyles. More than anything, Fisher has brilliantly made use of our newfound ability to communicate electronically through instant text messaging and chat room flirts (as well as one's ability to suffer humiliating interruptions from a cell phone or beeper).

Several numbers that were dropped from 1973's A Little Night Music ("Two Fairy Tales" and "Silly People") continue to charm, although "BANG!" (originally written as a duet for Desirée and the Count) was a wise omission from the final version of the show. A charming song which I had never heard ("The Girls of Summer") had apparently been written for a promotional ad for a 1956 play by N. Richard Nash). It is a  magnificent piece of lyrical writing. Also written in 1956 is a grand comedy duet entitled "Pour Le Sport."

Last summer, the Williamstown Theatre Festival staged an all-male production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (the first Broadway musical for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics). The following slide show from that production looks like it was a lot of fun and something that Fisher might want to consider for a future staging at Theatre Rhinoceros.

If there is one Sondheim song (not included in Marry Me A Little) that is ripe for reinterpretation at a gay fundraiser, it would be the show's comic duet "Impossible." I'm convinced that this number could bring down the house if sung in the context of two men involved a daddy/son relationship who catch each other flirting with some hunk who shows great potential for a three-way!

No comments: