Back in the 1960s, Jerry Herman enjoyed great success building three of his hit musicals around female stars such as Carol Channing (Hello, Dolly!) and Angela Lansbury (Mame, Dear World). When A Chorus Line debuted in 1975, its final number paid tribute to the type of production number that features an anonymous chorus extolling the virtues of a show's female protagonist. Edward Kleban's lyric for "One" reads as follows:
"One singular sensation, every little step she takes.
One thrilling combination, every move that she makes.
One smile and suddenly nobody else will do.
You know you'll never be lonely with you-know-who!
One moment in her presence and you can forget the rest
For the girl is second best to none, son.
Oooh! Sigh! Give her your attention
Do I really have to mention? She's the one!
She walks into a room and you know
She's uncommonly rare, very unique,
Peripatetic, poetic, and chic.
She walks into a room and you know
From her maddening poise, effortless whirl,
She's a special girl, strolling.
Can't help all of her qualities extolling
Loaded with charisma is my
Jauntily, sauntering, ambling, shambling
One, and you know you must
Shuffle along, join the parade
She's the quintessence of making the grade
This is what you call traveling!
Oh strut your stuff!
Can't get enough!
Ooh! Sigh! Give her your attention.
Do I really have to mention?
She's the one!"
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Having long been a fan of Paul Rudnick's writing, I was naturally predisposed to enjoy the West Coast premiere of The New Century at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Rudnick, who often pushes the comic envelope further than most writers, insists that if he fails to offend someone then he's not doing his job. (Listen to this audio track in which the playwright describes what inspired the characters in The New Century and how his love for the characters made him want to bring them together in the second act).
What sets Rudnick apart is his ability to make a subject like scatology seem absolutely hilarious -- "You didn't play with shit in our home, we got you Mattel!" -- without sacrificing a character's innate charm.
The New Century focuses on three "singular sensations" who could each be called "a real piece of work." In the first act, two women perform monologues depicting characters who couldn't be more different. In Pride and Joy, we meet Helene Nadler (Marie O'Donnell), a Jewish matron from Long Island with a tart tongue (a role that could fit Harriet Harris like a glove). Helene's competitive instincts soon become obvious as she delivers a speech to the Massapequa branch of the P.L.G.B.T.Q.C.C.C.O. (Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned and Others).
The indefatigable Mrs. Nadler is determined to let everyone know that she is the bestest and proudest mother of gay children EVER! ANYWHERE! Just consider what she's already been through:
- Her first child turned out to be a lesbian (as if Helene didn't already know). "She and her lover look like Dennis the Menace and Opie!"
- Her second child went from being a six foot tall man named Ronnie to becoming a transgendered woman named Veronica. After Veronica's postsurgical announcement that she now identifies as a lesbian ("Wasn't that taking the long way around?"), she and her lesbian lover have decided to have a baby.
- Helene's third child, a brilliant lawyer named David, recently told his mother all about his fetishistic passion for bondage, discipline, sadomasochism, and scatology. Ever the optimist, this archetypal Jewish mother has found creative new ways to make the best of the situation, especially once she realized that, in his new role as a submissive, she could get her son to do absolutely anything. "Here's a picture of David in diapers," Helene boasts to a friend. "That was taken last year!"
In Crafty, we meet Barbara Ellen Diggs (Debora Rucker) who, if anything, is the polar opposite of Helene. A simple woman from Decatur, Illinois (whose gay son, Hank, died of AIDS), Barbara has become so obsessed with crafting that she jokes about having an interactive website named "GlueTube." A bit on the naive side, her initial reaction to the events of 9/11 was to wonder why "muslin" terrorists would attack the World Trade Center. After all, what could they do to such big buildings with cotton?
When Barbara criticizes a fellow crafter who has designed a two piece bikini swimsuit for his cat, he asks her why she thinks her pet needs a strapless satin gown. "Evening wear," she replies (as if the word "duh" couldn't possibly offer a sufficient explanation).
Sandwiched between these two monologues is Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, which introduces us to the kind of flaming queen who makes Paul Lynde seem offensively butch. After a vote was taken, Mr. Charles was asked to leave New York because he was simply too gay!
Now hosting a late night cable show in Florida -- in which he is assisted by his sweet but dimwitted boy toy, Shane (Seth Michael Anderson) -- Mr. Charles, who cherishes his frequent and spontaneous "nelly moments," proudly and patriotically puts all three S's in the word "sissy" with an appropriate level of stressed sibilance. Walt Disney may be the dominant influence in central Florida, but it is Mr. Charles who delivers the swishiest show on Earth.
In Act II, Helene, Barbara, Mr. Charles, and Shane -- along with Joann Milderry (Amelia Mulkey) -- end up visiting the nursery at a hospital where Helene has just become a grandmother. Mr. Charles is in town to spread as much fairy dust as it takes to fertilize a new crop of gay babies. As it turns out, this is the same hospital where Barbara's son, Hank, died years ago.
Under George Maguire's direction, NCTC's ensemble has a field day delivering Rudnick's zingers. What's interesting to watch is how three completely different styles of delivery are used to make the various points for the playwright. The skeptical sarcasm that shapes Helene's wisecracks, the wide-eyed softness that cradles Barbara's delivery, and Mr. Charles just being fabulous beyond belief (without doubt, this is Patrick Michael Dukeman's best performance in years) afford an opportunity to set up each line for maximum impact.
Hats off to Jeffrey LaLonde for his costume designs (especially those worn by the men). The New Century delivers solid laughs emanating from the mouths of an extremely lovable set of characters. Come for Rudnick's one-liners. Stay for the tenderness at the heart of the show. The New Century continues in the Decker Theatre at New Conservatory Theatre Center through July 11 (you can order tickets here).
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Many an LGBT documentary has traced the ongoing history of the fight for gay rights in communities across America. While New York and San Francisco have often claimed to be the birthplaces of the gay rights movement, a new documentary slated to receive its world premiere at the Roxie Theatre on Saturday, June 26th (as part of the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) proves that gay men in New Orleans beat those coastal cities to the punch nearly ten years prior to the Stonewall Riots in June of 1969.
The Sons of Tennessee Williams covers a great deal of Louisiana history as aging members of various gay Krewes look back on the days when police would raid the gay bars in the French Quarter. However, this documentary is a must-see for anyone with the slightest interest in costume design. Simply stated, the archival footage in this film makes the costumes for San Francisco's long-running Beach Blanket Babylon look like miniature rag dolls.
Much of The Sons of Tennessee Williams is devoted to telling the story of how gay Mardi Gras participants learned to organize themselves into private social groups like the Krewe of Petronius, the Krewe of Armeinius, and the Krewe of Amon Ra. With some of the men interviewed in the film having attended 40 years of drag balls, there's a lot of local history crammed into this documentary. Did you know that:
- In 1958, three students from Tulane University went down to the French Quarter to "roll a queer." After luring Fernando Rios out of a gay bar, they mercilessly beat the 25-year-old tour guide to death in a back alley. All three men were acquitted of the Rios murder on the excuse that the victim had "an eggshell cranium."
- In February of 1959, a group of gay men decided to have a Mardi Gras drag ball of their own. A decade before Stonewall, they founded the Krewe of Yuga (known as KY).
- In 1962, the Krewe of Yuga rented a nursery school in conservative Jefferson Parrish for its drag ball. The police raided the event at the moment when the King and Queen were about to be crowned and many of the Krewe's members were taken down to the police station in full drag. Their names were later published in the local newspaper.
- Gay lawyers realized that the best protection from the police was to be legally chartered as a Krewe by the State of Louisiana. By 1969, there were four gay Krewes in operation. New Orleans became the the first American metropolis where gay and straight people peacefully celebrated gay culture together.
- In 1972, Harry Connick, Sr. became the first Louisiana politician to seek out the support of the local gay community prior to an election.
- At one point, even the Mayor of New Orleans was unable to procure an invitation to one of the elaborate gay Mardi Gras balls.
The AIDS epidemic took a tremendous toll on the gay community in New Orleans and several Krewes did not survive. A good deal of The Sons of Tennessee Williams documents the preparation for the 40th anniversary drag ball held by the Krewe of Armeinius. The following clip contains nearly 10 minutes of footage from the film:
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Few documentaries about celebrities capture what drives a workaholic quite as well as Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (which was screened at the Castro Theatre on the closing night of the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival). Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg got total cooperation from the famous comedian, who often jokes that when the filming finished, she missed having them around. However, it wasn't always easy. As the filmmakers recall:
"Joan’s dog had been put to sleep the night before our very first day filming. She met us at the door in tears. She wanted a new dog that day. So we all walked down to the nearest pet store and Joan got her new dog, Sammy. Just walking from Joan’s apartment to the pet store and back provided enough funny and intimate moments that we were hooked.When Joan was scheduled for 24 hours in a Northern Wisconsin casino, we looked at it as small gig in the dead of winter in a remote town that required three flights just to get there. At the last minute we decided to send Charles Miller (DP) to cover the trip with Joan. We figured it wasn't a big show (and probably not important), but you never know. That's where we got the raw and unexpected footage of an audience member heckling Joan. It turned out to be integral moment in the final film."
As Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens, it's easy to imagine that you are watching a trailer for a slasher film. What the audience is really seeing is a brutal closeup of Rivers without any makeup. As the film traces Joan's career as one of the earliest (and most brazen) female comics, one can't help but be awed by the woman's chutzpah, nervous energy, and need to keep working. At 76, she is equally horrified by seeing blank pages on her calendar and hearing her daughter, Melissa, tell her that she turned down a job because she thought the compensation was too low.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work contains lots of archival footage that will keep the audience in stitches. There are also plenty of private moments that capture the woman the public rarely sees:
- The Joan Rivers who takes her grandson with her to deliver Thanksgiving meals to the needy.
- The Joan Rivers who is nervous about her opening night of her new play in London.
- The Joan Rivers who is heartbroken that she has no one left with whom she can easily reminisce about times gone by.
Many years ago, I watched Rivers perform at a casino in Reno. To this day, I have never seen anyone tear into an audience with such fierce intelligence and frightened fury, scoring one home run after another while barely coming up for breath.
Work keeps Rivers busy. She lives for the adrenaline that accompanies a live performance. To really savor the razor-sharp intelligence that lies within this comedian, read Joan Rivers Always New She Was Funny (It's The Rest of the World That Sometimes Forgot) by her long-time friend, Jonathan Van Meter.
While following Rivers around the country to film their documentary, the film crew faced the task of keeping up with a woman nearly twice their age. As the filmmakers explain:
"Joan’s sheer workload was an additional challenge (it's hard to believe she's 76). The following is a typical two-day shoot with Joan:Fly at night with Joan to Palm Beach. Meet her the next morning in her hotel room at 6:00 a.m. for hair and makeup, followed by local interviews at 7:00 a.m. and then a breakfast lecture and book signing. Next, pile into an SUV with Joan and her assistant, Jocelyn. Drive four hours to Key West for another two-hour book signing. With 15 minutes to spare, drive past Ernest Hemingway’s house, spend some time looking for the best gay scene in town, and then land at a theater where Joan warms up the band, changes clothing, and does an hour-long stand up set.Then, drive to Miami and arrive at an airport hotel at 2:00 a.m. Four hours later, fly off to Los Angeles, where Joan is booked at 1:00 p.m. on a talk show. After the show, take the red eye back to New York with Joan. Land on Sunday morning, after which she drives to her country home to entertain friends for the night."
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is the rare celebrity documentary that makes no attempt to soften the blows for its subject. In addition to all the gags, there are some raw moments (such as when her daughter Melissa analyzes her mother's tendency toward self-destructive behavior in certain tense situations). By the end of the film, there can be no doubt that Rivers is not just a piece of work. At an age far beyond when most people would have retired, she is still hungry for work. Here's the trailer: