Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lost Treasures

Once upon a time, back before digital technology, it was difficult for people to get their art to the masses. There were no Twitter feeds, MySpace pages, or Facebook fan groups that could connect potential audiences with their art. Nor could they make a short film by using their cell phone as a camera.

Back in those days, raw talent often remained on the furthest fringes of the entertainment world. While aspiring poets and stand-up comedians may still vie for a spot at an open mike night, our culture has become so dazzled by shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance that we often forget just how crude and clueless aspiring artists can be. In her review of a new dramedy on HBO,'s television critic, Heather Havrilesky, wrote:
"How to Make It in America may have set out to create a humbler, more down-to-earth version of Entourage, but it mostly succeeds at reminding us that not having fame or money doesn't necessarily make you more down to earth. From world-famous pop stars like John Mayer to that kid who made fun of your shoes in the fifth grade, douche bags are born, not made.
Of course, most of us aren't preoccupied with our legacy so much as disturbed by the pointlessness of most other options. Let's see, I can create something meaningful and expressive, or I can help some company that creates a disposable product trick the world into buying it. What no one tells you, of course, is that the former inevitably turns into the latter. No sooner have you put the finishing touches on your masterpiece than a phalanx of professionally smooth humans gathers to discuss how to peddle your brand to the appropriate demographic.
'Who is your demographic, do you think?' they'll ask you.

'I don't know,' you'll answer. 'Crazy people? Angry people? People who just want to create something lasting but end up pissing away their prime in extended Twitter exchanges and tedious teleconferencing calls?'

Too many sullen artists and brilliant recluses have made that mistake before you, and they have a laundry room filled with glorious unsold paintings or brilliant unsold manuscripts to show for it."
This past Saturday was filled with the oddest kinds of artistic expression. My afternoon was devoted to the world premiere of Access Denied, a presentation culled from videotaped archives of public access television by Fantastic Fest programmer and Twitch film critic Rodney Perkins as part of a program put together by the Bay Area Video Coalition. In the evening, I had a chance to revisit the work of one of America's most promising songwriting talents whose premature death was a tragic loss for his friends, family, and the American musical theatre.

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Every now and then, the San Francisco Indie Film Fest puts on a program that can leave audiences dropping their jaws in disbelief. In its desire to show some of the stranger moments found on public access television, Access Denied went further than most circus freak shows. Archival footage captured a variety of whack-job preachers and paranoid nutcases including such programs as The Great Satan Show, Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and the early post-apocalypse show Survival (in which host Guy Maddin warned viewers about the effects of radiation and how mutants would try to steal their food).

Talent shows offered people like Darrell Bluett (referred to on the Internet as the one of the world's worst comedians) a chance to demonstrate what they thought stand-up comedy should be. New York's Stairway To Stardom featured aspiring performers such as Lola Perazzo.

And here's Precious Taft in 1983, doing a monologue about, well, something.....

Access Denied offered plenty of footage of aspiring rock bands. There were clips from Burn My Eye that showcased the Lo-Fi Neisans performing at Kimo's, as well as an early clip of Butthole Surfers. My favorite part of the film, however, was my introduction to a peculiar talent from Seattle named Jerkbeast, who describes himself as follows:
"I'm 8 feet tall....
I was found in a bowl of brownie mix...
I play drums in Steaming Wolf Penis....
Here you can see Jerkbeast doing a promotional with a local disk jockey at a radio station:

In this clip, you can see Jerkbeast playing the drums in a number that would never have made it onto The Lawrence Welk Show:

As Anna Russell used to tell audiences during her brilliant synopsis of Richard Wagner's 19-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen, "I'm not making this up, you know!"

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Russell, who died in 2006 in Australia, was the last of a dying breed: the concert lecturer/comedian. Like Victor Borge (who died in 2000), she had a devoted following of classical music fans who loved to watch her perform (and had often memorized her routines). Here she is, during her first farewell tour in 1984, explaining how to become an opera singer:

When I had the good fortune to interview Russell in the early 1980s, she merrily described how she got started making fun of grand opera after a a most unfortunate performance in Pietro Mascagni's one-act Cavalleria Rusticana:
"I always thought I was going to be marvelous, but each time I tried to do something melodramatic it just didn't work. I had to stand in for a Santuzza who was suddenly taken to the hospital with appendicitis. I had been the opera coach for all this, so I was the only one who knew the part.

I was quite young at the time and thought I'd just electrify everybody with my marvelous voice. Well, I tripped over Mamma Lucia's foot, shot across the stage, and knocked over the church. It was frightful onstage, but I figured: Let's go along with it. They're having fun, so what the hell.

As verismo opera, the performance was a fiasco. But as a comedy show, it was a knockout. The orchestra blew their notes because the wind section got the giggles. Well, of course, I didn't think I was funny at all. A would-be singer has no sense of humor, and I took myself very seriously in those days. I was such an uptight little twit, a really constipated brat.

Once, just after my first record came out, I was staying with this friend of mine in Los Angeles who was a very good baritone, but an amateur singer. One afternoon he said 'Anna, my dear, I shall have to leave you on Tuesday when I go up to Santa Barbara for Lotte Lehmann's master class.'

When I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, I would have done anything to hear Lotte Lehmann. I would have spent my last dime! So I said to him, 'You rotten, miserable, amateur funeral parlor baritone, you make me so mad! Here I've been Lotte's fan for a thousand years and you get to go to her master class. I'm so furious with you."
Russell's host wasted no time in telephoning Lehmann (who was a personal friend) and asked if he could invite his house guest to sit in on the master class. "Is that Miss 'Schlumpf ist Mein Gesetzenbaum' Russell?" inquired the legendary diva.
"I thought, oh, God, how marvelous, Wow! Lotte has heard my record. So we went up there and I was sitting in the back of the room wrapped up in all this teaching of lovely lieder when, all of a sudden, Lotte said 'And now, Miss Russell, we shall interpret Schlumpf Ist Mein Gesetzenbaum.'

Lotte and Gwen Goldovsky had worked out the accompaniment off of my record, so she told the people in the room that for those who didn't understand German, it means 'Dumb Is My Sitting Tree.' Then she got me up in front of the class. Everyone started to shriek and giggle until Lotte said 'I don't want any laughing.'

She went through all the phrasing and picked it to pieces. It was the funniest thing because everyone was trying so hard not to laugh that they were almost dying. We became great friends and she later presented me to Santa Barbara society. I also established a scholarship in my name for her master class at the Music Academy of the West. The first person to have my scholarship was Grace Bumbry -- Miss Abigaille, herself!"
Luckily, a video version of Russell dissecting Wagner's Ring is available on YouTube. For those who miss it (as well as those who never had a chance to experience Russell performing live), here she is at the top of her game:

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Having left its former on 16th Street, Theatre Rhinoceros has been moving around town. In December, it offered theatergoers a performance of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory at Theatre Artaud that was followed, two weeks later, by Marga Gomez's New Year's Eve Spectacular at the Victoria Theatre.

On Saturday, the company made its debut at the Eureka Theatre with an intimate production of Jonathan Larson's disarming musical, tick tick... Boom! Both the show and Rhino's audience seem to have found a venue that fits like a glove.

As most people know, Larson died of an aortic dissection resulting from Marfan syndrome in the early morning hours of January 25, 1996. That night, Rent opened at The New York Theatre Workshop. After transferring to the Nederlander Theatre, Larson's updated version of La Boheme went on to become the seventh longest-running musical in Broadway history.

Although he received posthumous Tony awards for Best Musical and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Larson never lived to enjoy his biggest success. One of his smallest shows, however, is much more impressive to me than Rent.

tick, tick...Boom! began as a one-man, autobiographical rock monologue in September 1990 (when Larson first performed it at New York's Second Stage Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, and the following year at The Village Gate). Following Larson's untimely death, playwright David Auburn restructured the piece from a solo show into a drama for three actors. The revised edition of tick, tick....Boom! premiered on May 23, 2001 and has been since been performed in productions around the world.

Scott Gessford, Holly Nugent, and Brian Yates Sharber
(Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Directed by Chris Herold, the Rhino's production stars Scott Gessford as Jonathan, an aspiring songwriter who also works as a part-time waiter on weekends. Despite the best wishes of:
  • His parents (whose other children's accomplishments continue to dwarf Jonathan's),
  • Jonathan's girlfriend (Susan), and
  • His best friend since he was nine years old (Michael),
it seems as if Jonathan just can't get a break.

Scott Gessford and Holly Nugent (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Eventually, Susan decides to take a job teaching dance in Northampton, Massachusetts and Michael develops AIDS. The workshop of Jonathan's new science fiction musical, Superbia, fails to deliver any financial backers and, as he celebrates his 30th birthday with the wind knocked out of his sails, Jonathan realizes that he's already doing what he loves the most.

With Dave Dobrusky on piano, Hiroshi Hara on electric guitar, and Alexander Szotak on drums, tick, tick...BOOM! turned out to be one of the Rhino's better efforts in recent years. Although he occasionally had some pitch problems on opening night, Scott Gessford was extremely appealing in the lead role. As his girlfriend (as well as his agent, his mother, a cast member of the Superbia workshop, and a series of dizzy marketing executives) Holly Nugent was able to switch from sweet to sassy on a moment's notice. Brian Yates Sharber provided musical muscle as Larson's best friend Michael, Larson's father, and several other minor characters.

In addition to its musical score (which leaves one aching for what might have been), tick, tick...BOOM! is an extremely economical show to produce. The vocal arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Orenus make this score much easier to enjoy than the ear-splitting decibel levels at which Rent is often performed. Among the musical numbers in Larson's score, I particularly liked "Green, Green Dress," "Sunday," "Therapy," and "Sugar."

The Rhino's production of tick, tick...BOOM! runs through February 28th at the Eureka Theatre. You can order tickets here.

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