Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Devil Is In The Details

"Well, you know me," said Mrs. Lovett. "Bright ideas just pop into my head and I keep thinking..." Combine Nellie Lovett's amoral pragmatism with a famous quote from Salvador Dali ("I don't do drugs -- I am drugs") and one may have unlocked a key to creativity.

With today's frequent abuses of grammar, it's easy for people to slip up and publish a statement with ridiculous implications. Consider this recent blooper:
"WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (KRON) – According to a federal report, a Florida zookeeper was killed on April, 15, 2016 by a tiger who did not follow established safety procedures."
During its heyday, MADtv ran a series of sketches which introduced viewers to Clyde and Judith (an extremely obnoxious couple from Los Angeles who couldn't stop using the word "literally"). Literally!

The problem for many people is that they don't understand the proper use of the words "literally" (an adverb which means "actually") and "figuratively" (an adverb which is used to describe something in a more symbolic sense). This often causes problems for people who hear someone utter a nonsensical colloquialism and try to understand its meaning through a literal interpretation of what they have just heard. Flula Borg (a German-born entertainer now living in Los Angeles) frequently posts his thoughts about casual remarks he has found difficult to understand.

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Many situations seem to defy description. Lately, there have been reports of sinkholes opening up and swallowing cars in San Francisco and other cities. In a recent dream, I found myself jaywalking across Divisadero Street near Pacific Heights. As I neared the opposite curb, I looked to my right and saw a police car slowly approaching from about a half a block away. My first thought was "Oh, shit, I'm going to get a ticket!"

To my amazement, the police car slowed down, moved closer to the sidewalk, and then disappeared vertically through some grating into a storm drain. Having always been a heavy dreamer, I've grown used to the idea that dreams can defy the laws of physics in a most magical (and often surrealistic) way. The closest we come to realizing those dreams in our waking hours is often seen through the kind of animation in Chenglin Xie's short film entitled Life Smartphone (which was screened at the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival).

Two other animation features shown during the festival did a splendid job of tickling my fancy. Written and directed by Australia's Mikey Hill (with co-writer Jennifer Smith), The Orchestra is a 15-minute short wondrously enhanced by a delicious and very silly musical score composed by Jamie Messenger. Its protagonist is an elderly man named Vernon who is followed around by a tiny band of musicians playing the soundtrack of his life.

While their music captures Vernon's emotions and insecurities with ease, it also communicates his crippling shyness by playing instruments are always out of tune. When an elderly lady (who is accompanied by a tiny ensemble of classical musicians) moves in next door, the two groups of musicians find a way to bridge the lonely gap between Vernon and Doreen. Here's the trailer:

Due for release later this year, Phantom Boy is a magnificent full-length animated feature from the people who created A Cat in Paris. In their new film, Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli focus their creative talents on a highly-stylized vision of New York City. As they relate the story of an 11-year-old hospital patient who uses his superpower to help a crippled policeman eliminate an archvillain, they deliver a breathtaking tour of Manhattan.

The megalomaniacal villain of Phantom Boy

From the  crass chaos of Times Square to the Art Deco exterior of the Chrysler Building, from the sterility of a hospital ward and the majesty of the RMS Queen Mary 2 sailing across the harbor to a grotesque gangster whose face looks like a Mondrian painting gone bad, the film's artwork is as spectacular (and often as funny) as its story. Here's the trailer:

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In recent years, San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon has held a series of musical salons hosted by the company's founding artistic director, Greg MacKellan. These evenings have honored such famed composers and lyricists as Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner, John Kander, Jerome Kern, Ira Gershwin, Jerry Herman, Frank Loesser, and the team of Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart. This month, the company paid tribute to Jule Styne, the legendary Broadway and Hollywood composer who was so prolific that some people described him as a 20th-century Rossini.

Like the famous operatic composer, Styne had no problem recycling his trunk songs (a Tin Pan Alley term once applied to unused tunes that songwriters tossed into a trunk). Consider how "Call Me Savage" (originally written for Carol Burnett to sing in 1964's Fade Out-Fade In) was recycled into Witches' Brew (for 1967's Hallelujah, Baby!).

Born in London on December 31, 1905 as Julius Stein, he moved to Chicago with his family. A child prodigy, he had performed as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra by the time he was ten. Styne's prodigious output included such shows as:

While Styne suffered a fair amount of flops (1961's Subways Are For Sleeping, 1968's Darling of the Day, 1970's Look To The Lilies, 1971's Prettybelle, 1978's Bar Mitzvah Boy, 1980's One Night Stand, 1985's Pieces of Eight, and 1993's adaptation of The Red Shoes), among the stars who introduced his songs to audiences are Frank Sinatra, Judy GarlandNanette Fabray, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Doris Day, Judy Holliday, Ethel Merman, Nancy Dussault, Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett, Leslie Uggams, and Angela Lansbury. During the course of a long career -- in which the composer estimated that he had written 200 certifiable hits and published 1,500 out of approximately 2,000 songs (even more than Irving Berlin) -- Styne worked with lyricists such as Sammy Cahn, Bob Merrill, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, and Leo Robin.

Styne won the 1954 Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Three Coins in a Fountain" and, in 1990, became a Kennedy Center Honoree. In the following clip, two of his frequent collaborators (Betty Comden and Adolph Green) reminisce about what it was like to work with a man who was known for his compulsive gambling as well as his formidable musical talent.

Coming Up Roses! was narrated by MacKellan and featured a last-minute cast change. Although Nancy Dussault and Emily Skinner were scheduled to headline the evening, Skinner had to cancel due to illness. Her replacement was company favorite Jason Graae, who flew up from Palm Springs (along with his oboe) and added some lovingly comedic moments to the proceedings.

The cast of 42nd Moon's Jule Styne salon, Coming Up Roses!
Because Graae insisted that he would only appear if he could sing a duet with MacKellan, the two men sang "Penniless Bums" from Sugar. Although MacKellan's original plan had been for Emily Skinner and Heather Orth to tag team songs sung by Mama Rose, Graae ended up singing "Some People" before Orth launched into "Everything's Coming Up Roses" (which she had sung in Broadway by the Bay's 2011 production of Gypsy).

One thing I've always loved about MacKellan's musical salons is the chance to near songs from very early in a composer's career. Among the forgotten delights performed on this occasion were "Why Must There Be an Opening Song?" (from 1944's Step Lively), "Poor Little Rhode Island" (from 1944's Carolina Blues),"Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" (from 1944's Glad To See You), "It’s the Same Old Dream" (from 1947's It Happened in Brooklyn), and "Put 'Em In A Box" (from 1948's Romance on the High Seas).

  • Nancy Dussault charmed the audience with her renditions of "Papa, Won't You Dance With Me?" Time After Time," "Never Never Land, "Just In Time," "Long Before I Knew You," "You’ll Never Get Away from Me," and the song she introduced on Broadway ("Make Someone Happy").
  • Stephanie Rhoads captured some of Styne's more lyrical moments with "I Don't Want To Walk Without You," "People," and "My Own Morning."
  • Allison F. Rich lit into "Comes Once In A Lifetime," "Don't Rain On My Parade," and scored comic points with a novelty song entitled "10,423 Sheep"
  • Heather Orth captured the poignancy of "When I'm Drunk I'm Beautiful," and "The Party's Over."
  • C. J. Blankenship brought a sense of romanticism to "Bye, Bye, Baby" and "Watch My Dust."
  • John-Elliott Kirk lent his rich baritone to "Saturday Night Is The Loneliest Night," "I Met A Girl" and "How Do You Speak To An Angel?"
With such a huge catalog of songs to sift through, it's no surprise that MacKellan couldn't include everything. Here are five wonderful (and largely forgotten) songs that Jule Styne wrote for Funny Girl, Fade Out-Fade In, and Hallelujah, Baby!

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