Saturday, September 28, 2013

Let Them Entertain You

Communication lies at the core of any live performance. The famous bond that develops between performers and their audience is often palpable. Yet, as much as they might love to be onstage, many a performer has made it clear that the reason they pursue an active private life is because "you can't take an audience home with you after the show."

In 1950, Bette Davis scored a major hit with her portrayal of Margo Channing in All About Eve. The film won six Academy Awards, including the award for Best Picture of the Year.

In 1970, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Lee Adams, and Charles Strouse adapted All About Eve for the musical stage.  The result was Applause, with Lauren Bacall taking on the role of Margo Channing and Penny Fuller stepping into Eve Harrington's ambitious shoes. However, the show's title song, led by Bonnie Franklin, was an anthem to Broadway's "gypsies" who make so many sacrifices for the sake of their careers. Here's Franklin leading the original Broadway cast in "Applause" at the 1970 Tony Awards.

Earlier this year, Lady Gaga released a music video which was also entitled "Applause" but featured a totally different song. Her bizarre costumes and makeup were ripe for parody, as the following video amply demonstrates.

Whether a performer lusts for adoration or will accept nothing less than hardcore adulation, it takes guts to get up onstage and demand an audience's undivided attention. Many an aspiring performer who failed to achieve their dreams has spent years tending to a wounded ego. No better summation of this phenomenon has ever been created than "Rose's Turn" (from 1959's Gypsy: A Musical Fable). In the following two clips, Patti LuPone and Bette Midler have at it:

Among Stephen Sondheim's great lyrics for Gypsy was Rose's claim that "Some people got it and make it pay, some people can't even give it away!  You either have it -- or you've had it!" By an odd coincidence two men appeared on San Francisco stages this month that were separated by two city blocks, tons of money, and decades of performing experience. One was a veteran song and dance man who had just realized that he was celebrating 55 years in show business. The other was a neophyte with a questionable future as an entertainer.

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Down at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, Jeff England was attempting to entertain audiences in the EXIT Theatre with his one-man show entitled Tale Me Another. England became interested in improvisational work in 2004 and decided to use his skills as a writer, guitar player, singer, and beat box artist to help bring a smile to people's faces. Sometimes his work hits its mark, often it does not.

While teaching English to Chinese schoolchildren in Taipei, Jeff learned the hard way that certain symbols can have different meanings in different cultures (a simple gesture which might mean one thing in America translates into "that person is dead" in Taiwan). His description of what it felt like to learn that, on his first day at work, many of the children's parents were watching on closed circuit television from another room at the school is as amusing as his explanation of finding a way to keep the class's attention with an extremely morbid "Puppy Song."

Eventually, Jeff started getting more and more private gigs as the children's parents booked him for parties. However, the basic problem with Tale Me Another is that although Mr. English has a certain kind of nebbishy appeal, he rarely generates the kind of electricity that crosses over the footlights. Whether he lacks confidence as a performer or is too focused on his sound equipment, finding enough material to fill 60 minutes proved to be a real challenge for him.

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Closer to Union Square, Tommy Tune brought his amiable "Taps, Tunes, and Tall Tales" nightclub act to Feinstein's at the Nikko with his musical director of 37 years, Michael Biagi, at the piano and Carol Channing in the opening night audience.

At 74, the native of Wichita Falls, Texas, has achieved what most performers can only dream about: a career marked by its versatility and longevity. Working as a singer, dancer, stage director, and choreographer, Tune has won nine Tony Awards as well as the National Medal of Arts. I first saw him perform in 1965's Baker Street. followed by his appearances in 1967's How Now, Dow Jones and 1983's My One and Only.

In addition to appearing with John Raitt in 1966's A Joyful Noise and Michelle Lee in 1973's Seesaw, Tune diversified his artistic portfolio by choreographing and/or directing The Club (1976), Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978), A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (1980), Cloud Nine (1981), Nine (1982), Stepping Out (1987), Grand Hotel (1989), The Will Rogers Follies (1991), The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public (1994), Busker Alley (1994), Dr. Doolittle (2006), and Turn of the Century (2008).

Guest appearances on The Dean Martin Show, The Golddiggers, and Arrested Development add to his film credits for Hello, Dolly! (1969) and The Boy Friend (1971). Tune has toured with Ann Reinking in Bye Bye Birdie and starred in EFX at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. His memoir, Footnotes, could probably give some stiff competition to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

During his show at Feinstein's, Tune did a superb job of using the lyrics of familiar songs ("I’m Leavin’ Texas," "You Gotta Have Heart," "September Song," "Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye") to highlight key moments in his career. Describing the pain of ending a long-term relationship with another man, he gave new meaning to "I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

Whether reminiscing about touring with Ann Reinking ("Rosie"), or performing with the great Charles "Honi" Coles in My One and Only ("Very Soft Shoes"), Tune's delight in sharing his talent with the audience was as disarming as his renditions of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," "Up on the Roof," and "Won't You Charleston With Me?" A Gershwin medley included "They All Laughed," "They Cant Take That Away From Me," "I Got Rhythm," and "I'll Build A Stairway to Paradise."

With a long and impressive career behind him, Tune described what it was like to rise above the loss of so many treasured mementos after Hurricane Sandy flooded his storage cellar in 2012.  In the following video, he gives sound advice to the 2011 graduating class of The Boston Conservatory.

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