|President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the ground-breaking|
ceremony for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Cities don't embark on creating major cultural hubs without some idea of what kind of culture is available to fill them. By themselves, some of New York's cultural institutions at the time were struggling with aging facilities that could not accommodate much growth.
- The original idea was for the New York Philharmonic to leave its 70-year-old home at Carnegie Hall and move into a brand new venue.
- A new theatre (the Vivian Beaumont) would serve as the home for a new drama company.
- The New York City Ballet and New York City Opera would leave their home at West 55th Street's New York City Center and take up residence at the New York State Theatre.
- The Metropolitan Opera would leave the beloved "golden horseshoe" of its 80-year-old home at Broadway and West 39th Street and move into a new, state-of-the art facility.
|The interior of the old Metropolitan Opera House|
Following World War II, a new American Renaissance in opera, dance, and musical theatre began to blossom as more and more Broadway and movie musicals, operas, and ballets were set in American locations with American composers and lyricists telling distinctly American stories. Consider the seminal period from 1950-1962:
- 1950: Based on the characters created by Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls premiered with a score by Frank Loesser. That same year, Ethel Merman starred in a new Irving Berlin musical (Call Me Madam) inspired by the Democratic Party's "hostess with the mostess," Perle Mesta. Basing his one-act opera on a short story written by Mark Twain, composer Lukas Foss premiered The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. MGM released Annie Get Your Gun and Summer Stock. Doris Day and Gordon MacRae starred in Tea For Two (an updated version of 1925's No, No, Nanette).
- 1951: Shirley Booth starred in a musical adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn while Lerner & Loewe's new musical, Paint Your Wagon, was set during the California gold rush. Douglas Moore's new opera, Giants in the Earth, took its inspiration from the popular novel by Ole Edvart Rølvaag and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. MGM released a new Technicolor version of Show Boat as well as An American In Paris (with a score by George Gershwin). Other movie musicals released that year include Lullaby of Broadway, Two Tickets to Broadway, Painting The Clouds With Sunshine, and On Moonlight Bay.
- 1952: MGM released Singin' in the Rain, Million Dollar Mermaid, and Lovely To Look At. Warner Brothers premiered an updated version of The Jazz Singer while 20th-Century Fox released its biography of John Philip Sousa entitled Stars and Stripes Forever.
- 1953: Betty Comden and Adolph Green teamed up with Leonard Bernstein for a musical adaptation of My Sister Eileen. Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams starred in Wonderful Town (set in Greenwich Village) while William Schuman's new opera, The Might Casey, was based on Ernest Thayer's poem, Casey at the Bat. MGM released film versions of Kiss Me, Kate and The Band Wagon. Doris Day starred in Calamity Jane and By The Light of the Silvery Moon.
- 1954: The Pajama Game combined romance with labor relations while Gian-Carlo Menotti's new opera, The Saint of Bleecker Street, debuted at the Broadway Theatre. Using music by Hershy Kay, George Balanchine created Western Symphony for the New York City Ballet. MGM released Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. Judy Garland headlined an updated version of A Star Is Born. Other movie musicals from 1954 include There's No Business Like Show Business and White Christmas,
- 1955: Plain and Fancy (in which Barbara Cook played a young Amish woman) was set in the Pennsylvania Dutch country while Carlisle Floyd's opera, Susannah, took place in the tiny town of New Hope Valley, Tennessee. Marc Blitzstein's opera, Reuben, Reuben, had its world premiere in Boston while Damn Yankees became a big hit on Broadway. A new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (Pipe Dream) was based on a John Steinback novel set on Cannery Row in Monterey, California while Aaron Copland's opera, The Tender Land, received its world premiere. MGM released Hit The Deck and Love Me Or Leave Me while Disney charmed audiences with Lady and the Tramp. Other musical films include Daddy Long Legs, The Seven Little Foys, and the film version of Oklahoma!
- 1956: Frank Loesser's three-act musical, The Most Happy Fella, was set in California's Napa Valley. Broadway welcomed L'il Abner (based on Al Capp's popular comic strip), Bells Are Ringing, and Mr. Wonderful. MGM premiered High Society and Meet Me In Las Vegas. Elvis Presley lit up the screen in Love Me Tender, Hollywood released Rock Around The Clock, Shake, Rattle, & Rock! as well as film versions of Anything Goes and Carousel. Douglas Moore's new opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, starred a young soprano named Beverly Sills.
- 1957: Two landmarks of American musical theatre -- West Side Story and The Music Man -- opened on Broadway. George Balanchine created Square Dance for the New York City Ballet. MGM released Les Girls and featured Elvis in Jailhouse Rock.
- 1958: Rodgers & Hammerstein's latest musical, Flower Drum Song, was set in San Francisco's Chinatown and featured a largely Asian-American cast. George Balanchine created Stars and Stripes for the New York City Ballet and the Ford Foundation awarded New York City Opera funding for three full spring seasons devoted entirely to American opera. Hollywood released the film version of South Pacific while St. Louis Blues chronicled the life of blues composer, W.C. Handy.
- 1959: Destry Rides Again brought a chorus of singing cowboys to Broadway while Jackie Gleason starred in Take Me Along (a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play, Ah, Wilderness). Little Mary Sunshine spoofed old-fashioned operettas while Ethel Merman starred in Gypsy: A Musical Fable. Based on the early career of New York's Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, Bock & Harnick's Fiorello! won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama while Subways Are For Sleeping attempted to glamorize homelessness. Hollywood released film versions of Porgy & Bess and L'il Abner.
- 1960: New musicals included Bye Bye Birdie, Tenderloin, Lucille Ball starring in Wildcat, and Phil Silvers headlining Do Re Mi. Another piece of Americana from Meredith Willson starred Tammy Grimes as The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
- 1961: How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama while Robert Ward's new opera, The Crucible (based on Arthur Miller's award-winning play about the Salem witch trials) received the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
- 1962: Ray Bolger starred in All American (whose book was written by Mel Brooks) while Irving Berlin's last musical, Mr. President, had Nanette Fabray riding astride a fake elephant.
* * * * * * * * *Ballet fans will want to get their hands on a copy of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, a thrilling new documentary by Bob Hercules that chronicles the history of the Joffrey Ballet since its founding in 1956 by two gay men who, at the time, were lovers. This powerful film explains how the company that so dramatically redefined the landscape of American ballet managed to resuscitate itself from being hit with one fiscal crisis after another.
Narrated by Mandy Patinkin, the film features interviews with such legendary dancers from the Joffrey’s past as Dermot Burke, Gary Christ, Helgi Tomasson, Christian Holder, Trinette Singleton, and Kevin Mackenzie (as well as choreographer Lar Lubovitch and dance critic Anna Kisselgoff). Paul Sutherland and Brunilda Ruiz recall what it was like to be performing in the Soviet Union in November 1963 (a month after the Joffrey became the first dance company to perform at the White House) when news reached the company that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
Whether through its choreography or its bookings, the Joffrey was constantly breaking new ground. According to Wikipedia:
"The Joffrey was the first dance company to appear on American television, the first classical dance company to use multimedia, the first to create a ballet set to rock music, the first American company to perform a rock ballet in Russia (bringing with it the first American rock band ever to perform in Russia), the first and only dance company to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and the first company to have had a major motion picture based on it (Robert Altman’s 2003 film, The Company)."The company's co-founders were brilliant choreographers with a brilliant sense of theatricality. Robert Joffrey broke new ground with Astarte, which used rock music and multimedia to stunning effect. The sheer brilliance of Gerald Arpino can be seen in these clips from The Clowns, Trinity, and Light Rain.
Because I spent many nights watching the Joffrey deliver thrilling performances of exciting new works by Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and other great American choreographers, I was thrilled to see video clips from such exciting works as Deuce Coupe and Suite Saint-Saens. The only thing missing was any mention of Robert Blankshine, who can be seen in the following clip of Viva Vivaldi (recorded during the company's May 1, 1966 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show).
In 1980, when the San Francisco Symphony moved into its new home in Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, the company was able to expand its performing schedule. The San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet quickly grabbed the vacant time slots left on the War Memorial Opera House's calendar. The sad result is that beloved dance companies like American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet no longer perform in San Francisco. Their absence is a great, great loss.
Watching Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance offers a stiff reminder of what we've been missing. Here's the trailer:
* * * * * * * * *My grandmother, Ida Schreibman, approached life with a simple philosophy: "If I'm going to be miserable, the whole world can be miserable!" Written by John Logan and beautifully directed by Les Waters, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new production of Red proves that all it takes is one bitter old Jew with a monstrous ego to light up a stage.
David Chandler stars as Mark Rothko, the famous abstract expressionist who, in 1958, received a $35,000 commission from architect Philip Johnson to create a set of murals that would be displayed in the famous Four Seasons Restaurant inside Manhattan's new Seagram Building. For any artist, this would have been a golden opportunity.
However, while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Rothko confessed a desire to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t. People can stand anything these days."
Upon returning from their trip to Europe, Rothko and his wife visited the Four Seasons and found it to be insufferably pretentious. The artist's decision to return the cash advance for his paintings (an act of sheer chutzpah which incensed the art world) provides the inspiration for Logan's play. However, instead of Rothko's wife providing the voice of conscience which prompts the artist to return his commission, it is the passion and perceptions of his young assistant, Ken (John Brummer), that spur Rothko to action.
|Ken (John Brummer) and Mark Rothko (David Chandler) examine a|
painting in Red (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
While Chandler does a beautiful job of capturing Rothko’s cantankerous egomania, it is Brummer who triumphs by infusing some genuine humanity and a sense of decency into their working relationship. Although Ken measures his words carefully, when he explodes with accusations that Rothko can’t stand the fact that younger artists are pushing him out of the spotlight -- the same way Rothko did to the cubists and other artists who were popular when he was on his way up -- he pierces Rothko’s carefully calculated suit of intellectual armor with stunning accuracy.
|Marc Brummer and David Chandler paint a large canvas in Red|
Photo by: Kevin Berne
I have great admiration for John Logan's writing (he recently wrote the screenplay for the Ralph Fiennes film of Coriolanus). The production sits nicely in the Berkeley Rep's thrust stage auditorium (where, minus the usual elevated platform, the audience feels as if it is actually sitting inside Rothko's studio). Performances of Red continue through April 29 (click here to order tickets).