Friday, June 10, 2011

Change Is The Only Constant

It's hard to believe that nearly 45 years have passed since I first developed a passion for opera. I don't really count the student matinee of The Barber of Seville I attended at the old Metropolitan Opera House with Janis Martin singing the role of Rosina.  Or the time some high school friends and I purchased standing room tickets for the March 14, 1964 matinee of La Boheme starring Renata Tebaldi and Sandor Konya.

The interior of the old Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street

When the Met moved to Lincoln Center in September 1966, my theatregoing partner at Brooklyn College, Mark Topkin, informed me that he wanted to start going to the opera. Since I was the one in charge of getting tickets, I ended up standing online and acquiring a very expensive habit.

Several people had told me that Mozart's music would provide the easiest introduction to opera, but Mozart's operas left me cold. Although I was getting tremendous enjoyment being exposed to the works of Verdi, Donizetti, Gounod, and Puccini, it wasn't until February 20, 1968, when I attended a performance of Elektra (with Thomas Schippers conducting a cast headed by Birgit Nilsson, Ina Del Campo, Jean Madeira, and William Dooley) that I had an intense visceral reaction to opera.

That night Richard Strauss's music rocked my world. Six weeks later (and less than two decades after the composer's death in 1949), the release of Stanley Kubrick's science fiction hit, 2001: A Space Odyssey, introduced millions to Strauss's magnificent tone poemAlso Sprach Zarathustra, which had first been performed on November 27, 1896.

By February of 1969, when I attended my first performance of Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten (with Karl Bohm conducting a cast headed by Leonie Rysanek, James King, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, and Irene Dalis), I was hooked on the man's music. But it wasn't until after I had moved to Providence, Rhode Island, when I was driving down Route 95 late one night, that I first heard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration. I was so transported by his music that, when I finally arrived home, I was surprised I hadn't driven off the road.

As we age, we learn how to cope with all kinds of loss. We suffer the deaths of people we love as well as the deaths of dreams we held dear. 

While death may be irreversible, the processes of rebirth and rehabilitation contain fascinating physical, emotional, and spiritual opportunities. A man whose life was tragically cut short can give new meaning to the lives of others. A popular performer who seemed to have vanished into thin air can take her first steps toward making a comeback.

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In just three months the world will observe the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2011. On Saturday, June 18 at 4:30 p.m., Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival will offer a "sneak preview screening" of With You, a documentary celebrating the life of Mark Bingham, the Bay area native and popular member of the San Francisco Fog rugby team who is credited with having prevented the hijacked United Airlines Flight #93 from reaching its final target in Washington, D.C.

As a young man, Bingham took to recording his personal life with a video camera the way a duck takes to water. Directed by Scott Gracheff, a great deal of archival footage helps With You portray Mark as an athletic teenager who developed into an aggressive rugby player and a gregarious gay man who tried to live life as fully as possible.

The film's tag line, "She raised a hero, he inspired her to become one," refers to Bingham's mother, Alice Hoagland, who has devoted herself to helping the causes her son believed in since the day Mark Bingham met an early death.

One of the saddest ironies of Mark's death is that his mother and aunt were both flight attendants for United Airlines. While Alice can now laugh as she recalls many of Mark's youthful misadventures, Gracheff's documentary is as much a tribute to the impact Mark had on the people whose lives he touched as it is about how Alice coped with Mark's death and used it to find a new meaning and new direction in her own life.

While there are many moments in the film that provide some hearty laughs, Mark's deep love and protective attitude toward his mother is revealed in the numerous recollections about how his friends were never allowed to tell Alice about a new sports injury until Mark had healed -- and how a sign hung in Mark's New York office that said "Alice Hoagland is a Goddess."

If you're fortunate enough to be in the audience for the sneak preview screening (which Alice is expected to attend), be sure to bring several handkerchiefs. The segment in which she describes what she heard while listening to the cockpit recordings from the doomed airliner's black box will bring many viewers to tears. Here's the trailer:

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On Wednesday night I headed over to The Rrazz Room to watch Pia Zadora make her first appearance on a stage in 15 years. A child actor who was born in Hoboken, New Jersey on May 4, 1954, I first saw Zadora  perform in the original Broadway productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Henry, Sweet Henry. Looking back on those years, she recalls that:
"I was this little Polish girl from Queens. My mother was this tough stage mother and she just pushed me through. I mean, I was on the unemployment line when I was seven years old. I remember she used to push me to the front of the line and tell everybody, ‘She’s got to be in school, so she’s got to go to the front of the line.’"
Zadora subsequently replaced Bernadette Peters in the original off-Broadway production of Dames at Sea and appeared in San Jose in a production of Applause during the 1970s. During the 1980s, she opened for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas and, after Liza Minnelli dropped out of an upcoming tour with Sinatra and Don Rickles, was invited to fill in. In 1988, Zadora appeared as a beatnik in a new film by John Waters entitled Hairspray (she became famous for her line "Let's get naked and smoke!").

Although she made several recordings which sold well in European markets, the last I heard of Zadora was when she starred as Fanny Brice opposite Adrian Zmed's portrayal of Nicky Arnstein in March of 1991 at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera. In 1995 (when she was pregnant with her third child), she replaced Michelle Pawk in the original Broadway production of Crazy For You. In 2000, Zadora appeared in one of those "Whatever happened to...." news segments:

That was then. She is now enjoying her third marriage (to a member of the Las Vegas police force). And, with her youngest child in his mid teens, Zadora is testing the waters to see if she can revive her singing career. Most of the songs in her program, Pia Zadora: Back Again and Standing Tall, are musical numbers she performed when appearing with Sinatra (whose former pianist and music director, Vincent Falcone, led the eight-piece ensemble at The Rrazz Room) as well as songs from her 1990 album entitled Pia and Phil.

Listening to Zadora tackle old standards like "Where or When," "C'est Si Bon," "Young At Heart," "Get Me To The Church On Time," and "The Party's Over" makes one recall popular female vocalists like Eydie Gormé. However, once Zadora launches into "Maybe This Time," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and "The Man That Got Away," there's no doubt that, at 57, she has the vocal power and maturity to make a comeback as a torch singer.

Although Zadora's got a powerful set of pipes and years of experience behind her, Wednesday night's performance was very much a family affair. Her first and third husbands were in the audience and Zadora used her new show as an opportunity to let her daughter, Kady, join her onstage (as well as perform "Over The Rainbow"). It was a moment that brought back memories of watching Judy Garland introduce Liza Minnelli to television audiences (as well as this video clip from her 1963 show at the London Palladium).

Pia Zadora at The Rrazz Room (Photo by: Pat Johnson)

Returning to the stage in a gown Bob Mackie created for her many years ago, Zadora (who was clearly happy to be performing again), frequently acknowledged the musicians accompanying her with the words "Always the best." Having listened to singers like Alice Ripley after they've done substantial harm to their vocal cords, it's refreshing to hear an old-fashioned belter who remains in good vocal health and can still deliver the goods.

While Zadora's performance could benefit from being a little less scripted, she should have no trouble resurrecting her singing career with appearances on cruise ships, at Symphony Pops concerts, or in venues like Feinstein's at the Regency. I would recommend two numbers Zadora might consider adding to her act. One would be "The Music That Makes Me Dance" (which she sang in Funny Girl) and the other a comedy song from 1959's Pulitzer Prize-winning hit musical, Fiorello! entitled "I Love A Cop."

1 comment: said...

I went to see her on Sunday night and had an amazing time. She was so good and loved how she worked the crowd, making everyone feel a part of the show. Afterwards she had pictures made with everyone! If you have a chance to see her, too will have a great time. Thank You Pia...Nathan