Saturday, August 27, 2016

In Hot Pursuit

The tagline is familiar to fans of pulp fiction and a wide variety film genres. A dangerous prowler is on the loose and could attack at any moment. Is it:
There's a reason why such warnings need to be more specific. What if the mild-mannered old man who just got off the bus is one of the world's most wanted serial killers? It helps to know these things.

* * * * * * * * *
I'm old enough to remember newspaper headlines announcing that on May 11, 1960, the former Nazi mastermind, Adolf Eichmann, had been captured. But at 13 years of age, I really didn't understand the significance of the event. Nor did I have any idea why a team of Mossad agents found Eichmann about 12 miles outside of Buenos Aires and smuggled him out of Argentina on a secret flight to Tel Aviv.

From the time of his capture until Eichmann was hanged on June 1, 1962, his name remained in the news. However, by 1968, when Robert Shaw's stage adaptation of his novel entitled The Man in the Glass Booth opened on Broadway with Donald Pleasance heading a cast that included Abe Vigoda, F. Murray Abraham, and Ronnie Gilbert (from The Weavers), I had become too infatuated with opera and musical theatre to show any interest in Shaw's drama. What did I care about a play that confronted audiences with "a complex and morally ambiguous tale of a man who, at various times in the story, is either a Jewish businessman pretending to be a Nazi war criminal or a Nazi war criminal pretending to be a Jewish businessman"?

Playbill for Robert Shaw's The Man in the Glass Booth

Over the years, as I learned more about the Holocaust, about my Uncle Irving's role in running the Landsberg facility (one of the largest displaced persons camps for European Jews in Europe immediately after World War II), and began to understand the horrors inflicted by the Third Reich, I came to realize why the couple who quietly ran the grocery store around the corner had numbers tattooed on their arms.

As history later revealed, Eichmann was the man who engineered much of the Nazi killing machine (from the trains that would evacuate Jews and other "undesirables" from urban areas to the death factories which rendered "the final solution" in concentration camps like Auschwitz). In 1945, he insisted that "I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction."

Starting with Martin Sherman's 1979 drama, Bent, and continuing through my exposure to films like 2005's A Love To Hide and 2008's The Clown and the Fuhrer, I continued to learn about the horrors of Hitler's genocide. The 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival included a stunning suspense film written and directed by Lars Kraume (with the help of co-writer Olivier Guez) that focused on one man's quest to track Eichmann down and bring him to justice.

Filmmaker Lars Kraume (Photo by: Swaantje Hehmann)

The People vs. Fritz Bauer dramatizes Bauer's obsession with finding Eichmann and bringing him back to Frankfurt so he could be put on trial for the murders at Auschwitz. As the attorney general in for Hessen, Bauer's hope was that, as part of the discovery process, he could get Hans Globke to reveal the identities of previous Nazis who were still employed within West Germany's government. The film’s director became interested in Bauer’s story after reading Guez’s book, Return of the Unwanted - A History of the Jews in Germany After 1945. As Kraume recalls:
“The book deals with the question of how Jewish life in the land of the murderers after the Holocaust could continue at all. One chapter has to do with Fritz Bauer and the Auschwitz trials. When Olivier presented the German translation about four years ago in Berlin, I approached him and told him it would also be an interesting subject for a film. When we considered together what one could make out of it we were soon stuck on Fritz Bauer, because he's such a singular figure: He doesn't behave at all like most of the victims who don't want to talk about the Holocaust anymore. Although he runs into overwhelming and tremendous resistance, he wants to indict the former Nazis -- not out of revenge, but rather because he is driven by a humanistic ethos and the drive to educate people. We tell the redemption story of a man who returns to Germany after the Second World War as a broken pessimist and discovers his calling in the fight against collective forgetting. He is an iridescent personality who virtually lends himself to becoming the lead character in a film.”
Burghart Klaussner stars in The People vs. Fritz Bauer

Bauer’s character offers numerous dramatic challenges. Frequently regarded by his professional colleagues as "an angry Jew,” Bauer had been living in exile in Denmark from 1935-1943 when he was apprehended one night by the police in the company of male prostitutes. As the film begins, he comes close to drowning in his bathtub from an overdose of painkillers, but is rescued by his devoted chauffeur. When one of his associate attorneys, Karl Angermann, requests his help defending a man brought up on morals charges, Bauer points him to an obscure and controversial defense strategy.

Burghart Klaussner and Ronald Zehrfeld
in a scene from The People vs. Fritz Bauer

“Almost all of the characters really existed, except for Karl Angermann, our representative of ♠a generation of young, idealistic public prosecutors who fought together with Fritz Bauer out of conviction. We fictionalized him by fusing various real persons in order to put an attachment figure at Bauer's side (and in order to bring the subject of homosexuality into play),” explains Kraume. “Homosexuality was important to us in two ways: First, for the dramatic development of the story, (at that time Paragraph 175 of the Civil Code was in effect, which made ‘lewd activities’ between males punishable by law), because it gives the antagonists the chance to bring about Fritz Bauer's downfall. And second, in order to show the ongoing tyranny of the Adenauer era: This 'homo paragraph' (which had been made even stricter when the Nazis were in power) wasn't abolished in Germany until 1994!”

Ronald Zehrfeld co-stars as assistant attorney
Karl Angermann in The People vs. Fritz Bauer

A married man, Angermann's introduction to (and growing fascination with) a transsexual entertainer leaves him vulnerable to blackmail unless he turns against Bauer. When the Israelis bring Eichmann to Tel Aviv instead of Frankfurt, Bauer finds himself deprived of his ultimate goal, yet saved by a legal technicality.

Burghart Klaussner stars in The People vs. Fritz Bauer

Traume's film benefits immensely from Burghart Klaussner's powerful performance as the cunning yet methodical Bauer, with Ronald Zehrfeld (who looks like an older version of Brendan Fraser) lending a dark dignity to Angermann. Lilith Stangenberg is cagily seductive as the mysterious Victoria while Cornelia Groschel portrays Angermann's neglected wife. In supporting roles, Michael Schenk appears as Adolf Eichmann, with Sebastian Blomberg as the villainous Ulrich Kreidler.

The People vs. Fritz Bauer is beautifully written, resulting in a keen thriller which touches on the reasons why both the CIA and Konrad Adenauer's administration were in no rush for Eichmann to be brought to justice. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Not only did 2016 witness far too many unnecessary gun deaths and incidents of domestic terrorism, it also offered Americans a sorry confirmation that, for many police officers, their gut instinct is to shoot first and ask questions later. As a result, it's important to remember that, in other cultures, law enforcement officials are trained to defuse dangerous situations rather than aggravate them.

Anyone who has traveled to Australia (which has very strict gun control regulations) knows that there are ways to address petty crime without using bullets. That contrast was brought into sharp focus earlier this year when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Yasujiro Ozu's 16th film with live musical accompaniment by Maud Nelissen.

A noir-style shot from Yasujiro Ozu's
1930 crime film, That Night's Wife

That Night's Wife (1930) focuses on Shuji Hashizume (Tokihiko Okada) a desperate young father whose sick daughter, Michiko (Mitsuko Ichimura), is in need of medicine. Lacking the money to pay for it, Hashizume robs an office. Following a chase through darkened neighborhoods, the crime leads to his capture by Kagawa (Togo Yamamoto), a detective whose empathy far outweighs any professional pressure to prove his masculinity.

Placing the needs of an innocent child over those of the local police department, Ozu's film stands in sharp contrast to the action and gunfire found in Japan's yakuza films. As Imogen Sara Smith writes in her program note:
"The film soon becomes a family drama in a hushed, intimate key. Aside from the noirish opening sequence, That Night’s Wife confines itself almost entirely to the small apartment where Shuji Hashizume lives with his wife and child. Ozu cross-cuts between Hashizume’s escape from the office he has robbed and his wife at home taking care of their sick child. A detective, Kagawa tracks the robber home but agrees to let him stay through the night because his daughter is in critical condition. It’s a suspenseful setup, but the texture of everyday life, of mundane objects and activities, is crucial to the story’s emotional power. Guns are important (early on, we see one in close-up pointed directly at the camera), but so is the ice pack that soothes the feverish child, a telephone receiver, a flower in a water glass, a child’s drawings."
Tokihiko Okada,  Mitsuko Ichimura, and Emiko Yagumo in
a scene from 1930's Japanese crime film, That Night's Wife

Ozu was fascinated by Western culture and the films coming out of Hollywood. Adapted from a story by Oscar Schisgall, That Night's Wife is filled with references to American cinema. Much of the film involves a tense, night-long standoff between the detective and the young couple as the three adults wait for the child's fever to break.

Emiko Yagumo in a scene from Yasujiro Ozu's
1930 crime film, That Night's Wife
Tokihiko Okada and Emiko Yagumo in a scene from 
1930's Japanese crime film, That Night's Wife

"A long circular pan introduces the apartment, taking in the vertical lines of hanging laundry, dangling ropes, a ladder, the railings of the bed, and the crazy collage of posters and blackboards papering the walls. The snippets of English on these posters form a surreal background commentary throughout the drama: 'Broadway Scandals,' 'Walter Huston,' and the slyly fitting 'Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd,'" notes Smith. "There is a single overtly Japanese note in the film’s visual vocabulary, the kimono worn by Hashizume’s wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo). When we first see her, bowing to a doctor and presenting a bowl of water for him to wash his hands, she is an image of classic Japanese femininity, nurturing and self-effacing. But when the detective comes to arrest her husband, she picks up a gun (which she has hidden in her child’s bed) and calmly trains it on him."

Directed with a beautiful sense of subtlety, That Night's Wife offers a stunning example of how crime might be handled in a culture whose ethos differs dramatically from America's. By the time morning arrives, Hashizume is willing to surrender to Kagawa and face the consequences of his crime. No one has been killed. He can go to jail with the full expectation that his wife and child will be waiting for him in two years, when he is eventually released from prison. Just try to imagine that happening in today's America!

Emiko Yagumo and Tokihiko Okada in a scene from
1930's Japanese crime film, That Night's Wife

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Second Time Around

The term "opening night" usually conjures up images of audience excitement, red carpet glamour, backstage stress, and post-review exhilaration. Whether the final curtain signals a project's success or failure, an opening night typically produces more buzz than most other performances. But not always.
  • In 1951 Walter Kerr wrote a three-word review of John Van Druten's play, I Am A Camera, which stated "Me No Leica." I Am A Camera later became the inspiration for 1966's hit musical, Cabaret (which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary with a national tour).
  • On April 23, 1963, when She Loves Me had its Broadway premiere at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, a scrim got stuck during the opening number ("Good Morning, Good Day"). Kerr (who, by then, had become the drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune and was notoriously not fond of musicals) was purportedly in a less than charitable mood that night after having had a disappointing dinner. His review of the show was sufficiently negative to dampen box office sales. Indeed, some people remain convinced that Kerr's review killed the show's hopes for a long run, even though She Loves Me went on to develop a cult following and was recently live-streamed from Studio 54.

One of the risks of live theatre is that accidents can and do happen. A piece of scenery can get stuck, an actor can experience a wardrobe malfunction, etc. Sometimes, tragedy can strike in the most unexpected and bizarre way. On January 23, 1988, a despondent Bulgarian-born opera fan named Bantcho Bantchevsky committed suicide during the intermission of a Saturday afternoon live broadcast of Verdi's Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center. After ushers were unable to talk him down from his position sitting on a balcony railing, Bantchevsky fell to his death, landing on the main floor of the auditorium.

The American Theatre Wing has a wealth of superb videos on its You Tube channel designed to educate theater lovers about every aspect of putting on a show. From interviews with the artists who build set models to costumer designers, lighting designers, and the milliners who make hats; from orchestrators, music directors, and choreographers to puppet designers, projection designers and scenic change artists, these videos demonstrate how and why it takes a small village to make the magic happen at each performance.

Many of these videos explain how producers maintain a sense of quality control over their artistic product so that the creative team's original vision remains intact over the course of a long run. While critics often stick to covering a show's opening night, there are times when a change of cast (or an important anniversary) can lure a critic back into the theatre to see how well a particular production is holding up.

These followup experiences allow someone to see if the audience is getting an experience worthy of the initial round of reviews or if a show needs tightening. They also allow critics to judge how a show plays with different audiences than the opening night one, which had high expectations and might have been well lubricated by the time the curtain rose.

Over decades of theatregoing, it's easy for those who attend opera and ballet to become accustomed to cancellations by artists who have taken ill or cast changes in a production. Unlike a long-running Broadway show (which performs eight times a week), some opera and ballet companies often perform in repertory as opposed to the more economically viable stagione system. As a result, change is the only constant.

In his recent article in The New York Times entitled In Praise of Repertory Theater: Macbeth at the Matinee, Miller at Night, Charles Isherwood stressed that:
"Seeing plays in repertory sparks conversations in the mind between shows, between periods. And it’s also distinctly satisfying (sometimes even astonishing) to watch an actor you’ve seen in, say, a Shakespeare tragedy performing a day or so later in a classic American musical. While, for the audience, seeing plays in repertory can be a distinctly stimulating experience, for the actors it can also be revelatory, as they get to stretch muscles they didn’t know they had."
The interior of Canada's Stratford Festival Theatre

Isherwood took care to emphasize how the theatrical community that develops in the shadow of a repertory theatre company creates an environment where older actors can mentor younger ones while local audiences have the opportunity to watch an artist develop through a wide range of repertoire. He pointed to the work of Lucy Peacock (an actress who has appeared at Canada's Stratford Festival for nearly three decades) as a prime example of the type of artistic growth a repertory actor can experience over many years of steady employment. As Peacock noted:
“I come from a long line of classical repertory actors. I recognize it in my DNA. I am a repertory girl. I’ve always found the sheer demands to be one of the exciting aspects of being a repertory actor. The thrill of a double-show day that can stretch to 14 hours. But I love the athleticism. After doing repertory for so many years, my body knows exactly what to do, physically (as well as mentally) and sometimes you come out positively feeling like an Olympian.”

* * * * * * * * *
To celebrate the 25th anniversary season of the Shotgun Players, artistic director Patrick Dooley decided to switch the small, Berkeley-based company over to a repertory format. Over the past few seasons he had tested the waters by running running Tom Stoppard's daunting trilogy entitled The Coast of Utopia (Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage) as well as Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy entitled The Norman Conquests (Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden) in repertory.

Mark Jackson's ambitious, provocative, and remarkably fulfilling production of Hamlet, however, poses a much steeper artistic challenge. The cast includes seven performers who are familiar faces to Bay area audiences (El Beh, Kevin Clarke, Nick Medina, Cathleen Riddley, Megan Trout, David Sinaiko, and Beth Wilmurt).

El Beh as Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han)

Billed as a game of "Hamlet roulette," Jackson uses a skull filled with name tags for each actor to determine the cast list for each performance. Members of the audience is asked to pick one name tag at a time out of poor Yorick's skull as Jackson announces the roles they will play at that performance. Once the cast list has been finalized, the actors hustle backstage to prepare for the show.

Jackson's gimmick allows for 5,040 casting permutations. Not only does that go a long way toward proving the universality of Hamlet's dramatic potential, it means that no two performances will be alike. On any given night, Hamlet might be young, old, male, female, Caucasian, African American, queer, or come from a mixed-race family.

Horatio (Cathleen Riddley) watches as Hamlet (El Beh)
addresses Yorick's skull in Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han)

In order to streamline the text (and eliminate any extra weight), certain cuts have been made (most notably Hamlet's monologue in which he gives advice to the troupe of players). The only critical character omitted in this version is Fortinbras, the King of Norway whose speech traditionally ends Shakespeare's play.

Christine Crook's costume design is simple, yet remarkably effective. In addition to Heather Basarab's lighting design, special praise should be given to the talented sound designer (Matt Stines) who transforms Act II's extended swordplay (fought with imaginary swords) into a brilliant and thrilling duel. But, as Jackson notes, "During our October 2015 workshop for this production, actor Kevin Clarke nutshelled something about the cast's task that also captured the underlying spirit of the production: We're not here to play any one role. We're here to do the play." In the following video clip, Jackson explains his concept in greater detail.

To suggest that Jackson's approach to Hamlet is ambitious would be a YUGE understatement. When I first saw Shotgun's production in April, Beth Wilmurt (whose work I have long admired) was chosen to play Hamlet. She delivered an athletic and deeply impressive portrayal of the melancholy Dane. Nick Medina was cast as Laertes, with the multitalented El Beh tackling the roles of Horatio and Ophelia (a particularly fascinating interpretation). Kevin Clarke appeared as Claudius and Rosencrantz, with David Sinaiko hilariously portraying Gertrude and Guildenstern. Cathleen Riddley doubled as the Ghost of Hamlet's father and a Gravedigger while Megan Trout appeared as Polonius and a Priest.

In mid-August, when I returned to catch another performance, El Beh was a fierce and furious Hamlet who captured the volatile personality and indignant rage of a petulant and rebellious teenager more thoroughly than any other actor I can remember. While Cathleen Riddley's portrayal of Horatio was steadfast and true, Ophelia's mad scene was wildly demented and truly alarming.

Catherine Riddley as the demented Ophelia in Hamlet
(Photo by: Pak Han)

This time around, Beth Wilmurt was cast as Laertes with Kevin Clarke once again appearing as Claudius and Rosencrantz. Nick Medina doubled as a more subdued Gertrude and Guildenstern with David Sinaiko appearing as an ass-kissing Polonius, a Priest, and Osric. As always, Megan Trout demonstrated what can happen when a hugely talented actor makes a triumph out of small roles. Her Gravedigger revealed a stunning sense of timing and irony; her portrayal of the Ghost of Hamlet's father as an angry spirit seeking revenge was enough to send chills down one's spine.

El Beh as Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han)

With the company already jumping back and forth between productions of Hamlet, The Village Bike, and Grand Concourse, it will be fascinating to see what happens after Christopher Chen's new play (Caught) and Edward Albee's classic (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) are added to the mix. In December, Shotgun Players will perform all five plays in repertory while the seven actors continue to play "Hamlet Roulette."

I came away from this second viewing with an even deeper admiration of Jackson's skill as a director and much more empathy for the discipline required of his ensemble. I also found it interesting to note that, with more performances under their belt, there were fewer requests from the actors for help with a line. One reason might have been that El Beh's dramatic fury was keeping everyone on their toes.

Horatio (Cathleen Riddley) comforts the dying Hamlet (El Beh)
(Photo by: Pak Han)

* * * * * * * * *
Meanwhile, close to Union Square, San Francisco Playhouse has been delighting audiences with its stylish production of City of Angels. When this loving send-up of Hollywood noir culture opened on Broadway on December 11, 1989, it quickly became obvious that the show was a labor of love for its creative team (composer Cy Coleman, lyricist David Zippel, librettist Larry Gelbart, director Michael Blakemore, set designer Robin Wagner, and costume designer Florence Klotz).

With 40 scenes and 36 characters, it's easy to wonder if the musical's plot may be too intricate for some people to follow -- or if the gags come in such rapid succession that the audience can barely take it all in. However, because theatre technology has evolved tremendously over the past 25 years, it's easier to stage City of Angels with much more fluidity than it was 25 years ago.

Munoz (Rudy Guerrero) arrests Stone (Brandon Dahlquist)
in a scene from City of Angels (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In many ways, City of Angels resembles a three-dimensional crossword puzzle. Keeping track of every plot development requires an alert audience capable of paying close attention to detail. Coleman's brilliant jazz score, which (like Sondheim's A Little Night Music) utilizes a small vocal ensemble working in tandem with the orchestra, is nowhere near as accessible as a jukebox musical. But its musical wit and considerable craft are hard to ignore. As Katisha would say, it is "an acquired taste."

The San Francisco Playhouse production benefits immensely from Bill English's intricate unit set (which features a revolving ring that can bring actors and scenery out from beneath an elevated playing platform) and his astute stage direction. A great deal of credit for the strength of the evening goes to music director Dave Dobrusky and Mary Chun for her superb reduction of the original orchestral score.

Jeffrey Brian Adams as Stine in a scene from City of Angels
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

One of the reasons I was eager to revisit this production is that it's so easy to miss a lot of clues and jokes as the show unravels in two different dimensions (several of the characters appearing in Stine's script for a noir film are played by actors who also appear in roles set in real life). In the original production, much of this was handled by keeping the film scenes largely in shades of black, white, and grey while the real life scenes had sets and costumes in color.

A segment of 35mm film

What English has cleverly done is to frame the upper playing platform with two vertical panels that resemble a strip of 35-mm film, thus making sure the audience is conscious of the fact that scenes on the upper level are taking place on the screen (or in the screenwriter's mind). Scenes that play out on the stage's main floor represent real life in Hollywood and New York (or, as real as it can get in either city).

Problems become increasingly complex as the film's producer and various actors try to meddle with Stine's script. The screenwriter runs into increasing difficulty when his characters start talking back to him, telling Stine how to handle the situations plaguing him in real life.

Caitlan Taylor as Stone's romantic interest, Bobbi, in a
scene from City of Angels (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

What quickly becomes evident is how much sarcasm and wit Larry Gelbart (whose credits include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Sly Fox, and Oh, God!) injected into the script. Gelbart is fondly remembered as the man who once said "If Hitler is alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical!"

His skill with a gag line is neatly matched by David Zippel, who subsequently contributed lyrics to 1993's The Goodbye Girl (with music by Marvin Hamlisch) and 1994's The Swan Princess as well as two of Disney's animated feature films (1997's Hercules and 1998's Mulan).

Because the original creative team was having such a good time mocking the culture that produced noir films, their love for the style and vocabulary of that era shines through in the script. I tip my hat to Ryan Drummond, who was having a blast doubling as the megalomaniacal Hollywood film producer, Buddy Fidler, and his screen counterpart, Irwin. Nancy Zoppi scored some major laughs onscreen as the scheming Alaura and offscreen as Buddy's wife, Carla.

San Francisco Playhouse cast its leads nicely, with Jeffrey Brian Adams as the screenwriter (Stine) and Brandon Dahlquist as his fictional detective (Stone). Doubling as their love interests were Monique Hafen was a sadder-but-wiser Donna/Oolie and Caitlan Taylor as Gabby/Bobbi.

Monique Hafen as Donna in a scene from City of Angels
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

In supporting roles, Samantha Rose Cardenas shone as Mallory/Avril while Rudy Guerrero doubled as Lieutenant Munoz and Pancho (the actor who portrays him). John Paul Gonzalez was appropriately narcissistic as the sleazy crooner, Jimmy Powers. Ken Brill, William Giammona, Monique Hafen, and Caitlan Taylor offered some snazzy ensemble work as the Angel City Four.

Doing double duty designing sound and projections, Theodore J.H. Hulsker hit the ball out of the park with his work on this production. Credit also goes to Michael Oesch for his lighting design, Melissa Torchia for her costumes, Morgan Dayley for her choreography, and Mike “Miguel” Martinez for his fight choreography.

Brandon Dahlquist as Stone in a scene from City of Angels
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

How did the production hold up on a weeknight performance halfway through its run? Remarkably well. Though the house was not fully sold, the audience had themselves a good time and I was able to catch up on a lot of jokes I had missed on opening night because so many people were doubled over with laughter.

Curiously enough, in his recent article on the Playbill website entitled 9 (More) Shows Overdue for a Revival, Features Manager Michael Gioia placed City of Angels in the #1 position. Performances of City of Angels continue through September 17 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets).

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Seeking Solace in Song

Many people think of music merely as entertainment: an art form that can inspire them or the part of any religious service that is most likely to lift their spirits. A smaller number of people think of music as an anchor: a gift that keeps on giving, the sound which gets them dancing, or the force which can be relied upon to keep them afloat during the stormier chapters of their lives.

For some people, music is an integral part of their professional lives. Whether as producers, accompanists, curators, or performers, they take their music very seriously. Thankfully, they also know how to have fun with it. I've always enjoyed this video clip of cast members Ryan Jack, Logan Keslar, Manuel Santos, and Billy Fagen (from the 50th anniversary tour of West Side Story) lip-synching two numbers from Dreamgirls at a party celebrating the tour's final performance.

In 1963, Judy Garland and Dirk Bogarde headlined a new movie entitled I Could Go On Singing. For Garland's fans, the film's release marked the first time since 1954's A Star Is Born that their idol (who had starred in some of MGM's most beloved movie musicals) had sung on film. As it turned out, I Could Go On Singing also marked the last film role in Garland's stormy career.

Two years later, when John Kander and Fred Ebb made their Broadway debuts with 1965's Flora The Red Menace, they wrote a wonderful torch song for their 19-year-old leading lady, Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli.

The 1970s witnessed the birth of a new musical phenomenon in the LGBT community. In June 1978, music teacher Jon Sims founded the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps. Mindful of how many LGBT people had performed in their high school marching bands, his hunch that they still had their instruments (but no excuse to play them) proved true. Later that year, Sims launched the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, which held its first rehearsal in October.

While these two musical groups were offering a new place for gay men to socialize, their growth and importance soon changed due to two horrifying events: the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978 and the onset of the AIDS epidemic three years later.

The SFGMC toured to nine cities in 1981 before returning to perform at San Francisco's Louise M.Davies Symphony Hall (where they received the key to the city from Mayor Dianne Feinstein). On June 26, 2013 (the same day the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Section 3 of 1996's Defense of Marriage Act and that 2008's California ballot initiative known as Proposition 8 were unconstitutional), the SFGMC performed the world premiere of Andrew Lippa's powerful oratorio entitled I Am Harvey Milk (which had been co-commissioned by seven gay men's choruses).

* * * * * * * * *
As more and more gay choruses formed in cities with large gay populations, their performances began to offer a new sense of acceptance, community, and extended family to those who may have only received conditional love from their families, religions, and false friends. As the AIDS epidemic spread and millions succumbed to HIV, it became an inside joke that some men joined these choruses for an opportunity to go husband hunting (as well as for their desire to sing).

The London Gay Men's Chorus plays a pivotal role
in Saar Maoz's life in Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

The London Gay Men's Chorus plays a crucial role in the life of Saar Maoz, the protagonist of a new documentary (written, directed, and produced by Tomer and Barak Heymann) that was screened at the 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Although he grew up in the Orthodox environment of the Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu and served as a paratrooper in the Israeli Air Force, Saar (the eldest of seven children) spent 18 years living in London as an openly gay man. As he recalls:
“At age 14, I realized that I was not attracted to members of the fairer sex. This understanding rocked every value my parents and teachers had instilled in me. I discovered that I could not be a part of the biblical stories about Adam and Eve, Zipporah and Moses, or Boaz and Ruth. When I looked for the parts of the Bible that applied to my situation, it was written that my judgment, as a member of the religion I belong to and for which my forefathers arose and fell, is the divine punishment of being cut off from my people (Karet). These moments of discovery were terrible and particularly lonely. I tried to find some air to breathe in the days that followed, seeking some sort of Halakhic leniency, a quiet corner in which I could speak to God. Because I lived in a house filled with younger siblings, I found God in the bathroom and burst out crying." 
Saar Maoz is the protagonist of Who's Gonna Love Me Now?
"At age 15, I remember begging God to change me, to explain what was happening to me. But my God kept silent and only answered me through the different weekly Torah readings from thousands of years ago, which did not deal with what I was experiencing here and now. I began to think that maybe it was worth talking to someone about it, and started examining my surroundings: Two parents who love me and trust me, but are also fervent in their faith, and a grandmother and grandfather in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, whom I could very well lose forever with one sentence (‘I’m not attracted to girls, I’m gay’). This thought was so unbearable that I filed it away with the same speed that it was born.”
Saar Maoz stands behind two Orthodox Jews as they
pray in a scene from Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

After arriving in London and falling in love, Saar thought that his first relationship would last forever. It ended after three years. His second relationship involved a lot of partying and promiscuity which led to his being rudely informed that he should get tested for HIV. Rather than turning to his family in Israel for support and love, the 39-year-old man found the strength he needed to cope with his diagnosis after joining the LGMC (where he instantly acquired an alternative family). Because he was active on the group's membership committee, the people in the chorus knew him and cared about him. Some even loved Saar enough to call bullshit on the way he handled some of his interactions with other men.

In Who's Gonna Love Me Now? the LGMC (seen during rehearsals and performances) offers a strong musical backdrop to Saar's personal drama as he struggles to resolve whether it will ever be possible to reconcile with his family. He misses them and misses life in Israel, but doubts he can visit them on their kibbutz without being lectured about the shame his illness and lifestyle have brought upon a family of religious conservatives (including some who are so blinded by what they've learned in Torah classes that they can barely see Saar as a human being).

Saar's mother comes to visit him in London
in a scene from Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

At the time filming began, Saar's paternal grandfather had Alzheimer's disease; his homophobic father had a rigid military mentality and was disgusted by Saar's lifestyle. His mother worried about how HIV might shorten Saar's life expectancy and the remaining time for their family to be together. One of his younger brothers was a pompous ass who didn't think he could feel safe letting Saar interact with his nieces and nephews in case any accidental contact with a drop of Saar's infected blood might contaminate the children.

During a visit to Israel to attend a nephew's bar mitzvah, several relatives accuse Saar of having abandoned the family when he moved to London. He, in turn, confronts the stubborn brother who has clung to a willful ignorance about AIDS. Saar doesn't mince any words as he explains that when he needed to talk to someone after being diagnosed with HIV, no one in his family bothered to call to see how he was doing or offer their support. Nor does he hold back when explaining how much it hurts to know that his own brother wouldn't even make the effort to learn about HIV and understand what Saar was going through.

Poster art for Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

Slowly, and with no small amount of heartache, Saar's family starts to come around. His mother visits him in London (his father makes a subsequent trip by himself). One of his younger brothers tells the family that if Saar becomes ill, he will be there to help take care of him because he genuinely loves Saar as his brother.

When news reaches Saar that his grandfather has died, the fact that he can't attend the funeral hurts badly. But, after realizing that the tug of war between life in London and life in Israel can't easily be resolved, he reaches a turning point. After reading an online ad for a position with the Israel AIDS Task Force, he applies for the job. Following a successful interview while visiting his family, Saar is offered the position and moves back to Israel to embark on a new chapter in life which will take advantage of his experiences building membership for the London Gay Men's Chorus.

Saar gets a kiss from filmmaker Tomer Heymann

Earlier this year, Saar wrote an Op-Ed piece in Haaretz following the release of Who's Gonna Love Me Now? in which he stated:
“Recently, while I was flipping through the newspaper, a surprising item caught my eye: Orthodox rabbis are calling to integrate gays into their community, saying ‘there is nothing wrong with same-sex couples.’ The rabbis of the community I once belonged to are saying for the first time that my sexual preference is not a sin (and to avoid confusion, they continue and draw the distinction between the predilection and the act, which according to them is something else). I wanted to stop the car, join hands with all the passengers and dance as if I’ve been granted independence. At the exact same moment, I felt a great anger and sadness. I wanted to hug that confused and lonely young man [I was] and tell him: You see? Sometimes it takes 30 years, but in the end it gets better.”
Saar Maoz is the protagonist of Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

Who's Gonna Love Me Now? has many poignant moments along Saar's journey toward acceptance from his family and return to life on the kibbutz. Most touching is the confrontation during which he delivers an ultimatum to his siblings, telling them that they must decide whether or not they want him to remain in their family. Here's the trailer:

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In 2007, a two-character, one-act song cycle received its world premiere in Seattle with baritone Morgan Smith singing the lead, and baritone Julian Patrick in a non-singing role. Composed by Jake Heggie with lyrics by Gene Scheer, For A Look Or A Touch was commissioned with a very specific purpose: to create a work that spoke for the German homosexual population's experiences under Nazism (both their oppression as well as their resistance to it). As Mina Miller explains:
“For many years Music of Remembrance had envisioned commissioning a work which would address this tragedy. Our challenge was to find a composer who could communicate its moral and historical importance, and do so in a way that would be intimate rather than didactic. When I came to know Jake Heggie's music (Dead Man Walking, The End of the Affair), I knew immediately that we had found the perfect composer for this work. I am so impressed by the emotional honesty of his writing, and by how expressively his music captures complicated human relationships.”
Mina Miller, Founder of Music of Remembrance

Heggie's experience writing contemporary operas (At the Statue of Venus, To Hell and Back, Three Decembers, Moby-Dick, The Radio Hour, and Great Scott), as well as numerous songs and song cycles has made him beloved by singers such as Frederica von Stade and Joyce DiDonato. As the San Francisco-based composer recalls:
“When Mina called and asked me to create a new chamber music composition on this subject, I was deeply moved -- and hugely challenged. How on earth could we do honor and justice to this subject? As an opera composer -- a theater man -- I told Mina I'd want to include a singer and find a narrative of some kind. But when I looked for poetry or stories from the era, I was deeply upset to discover a vast silence. Because homosexuality was against the law in Germany until 1970 (even after the camps were closed, the war over) gays stayed in hiding or got married, fled or tried to blend in. Not until the late 1970s did the literary and art world break the silence (e.g., Martin Sherman's 1979 play, Bent). Even in 2005, when the European Union's Parliament drafted a resolution regarding the Holocaust, any mention of the persecution of gays was removed.”
Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer
(Photo by: Robert Hart)
“After visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and reading book after book, I came across Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's extraordinary documentary film, Paragraph 175. It provides testimony from several gay men, survivors of the camps in their 70s, 80s and 90s, telling stories they never thought they'd be able to tell. Surprising, tragic, funny, hateful, shocking stories. Then Mina Miller sent me a link to the journal of Manfred Lewin, a gay Jew murdered at Auschwitz with his entire family. I had all the elements, just not the story. I needed a librettist. I had just worked with the tremendously gifted Gene Scheer (a songwriter as well as a librettist and lyricist) on a new song cycle, with plans to write an opera together, so I asked him. I shared the research I'd done with him; he found books I didn't know about. When Gene came across Manfred Lewin's journal, excited by the beauty of Manfred's poetry, he called me right away.”

Unlike most contemporary operas (which rarely survive past their original production), For A Look Or A Touch has evolved over the years in a most curious way.  An adaptation as a staged work for chorus and soloists was co-commissioned by the Seattle Men's Chorus and the Boston Gay Men's Chorus. The choral version was subsequently performed by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus as well as the Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC) in Kansas City.

A scene from the Seattle Chorus's world premiere of Jake Heggie's
choral version of For A Look Or A Touch (Photo by: John Pai)

Surprisingly, there was yet another step to come. Commissioned by Music of Remembrance, 2012's Another Sunrise was a 30-minute scene written for soprano and chamber ensemble. 2013's Farewell, Auschwitz featured Scheer's translations of the lyrics created by Krystyna Zywulska while she was imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau. 2016's Out of Darkness: An Opera of Survival reshaped the music from the previous three works into a two-act opera. The first act was devoted to Krystyna Zywulska (whose defiant poems became anthems among her fellow prisoners). The second act was devoted to the relationship between Gad Back and Manfred Lewin.

My friend, Bob Orth (who portrayed Gad Beck in the world premiere production of Out of Darkness in Seattle) invited me to attend a performance of the opera at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. While it was a deeply moving experience, there was no doubt in my mind that the structure, text, and music in Act II were dramatically much stronger than Act I. As Heggie notes:
“Manfred wrote his journal for his lover Gad Beck (one of the storytellers in Paragraph 175 (Gad has also written an autobiography). The two teenagers were lovers in Berlin until Manfred and his family were taken. In their love affair, we found our story: an actor would play Gad in the present day, while the baritone would sing the role of Manfred, appearing one night to Gad as a ghost. Through the two of them, we'd be able to share Manfred's poetry and the stories from Paragraph 175. Manfred's question, 'Do you remember?' established the work's tone.”
Gad Beck as a young man (left) and later in life (right)
died on June 24, 2012, six days before his 89th birthday
“In our story, Gad wants only to forget the horrors he lived through; Manfred's ghost wants only to be remembered, for Gad to treasure their powerful, timeless love. The play between past and present was, musically, filled with rich possibilities. The tune for 'Do you remember?' serves as the anchor of the piece; most of the other material in the piece is connected to it. I chose the instruments in the ensemble for a variety of color (so I could include elements of jazz and swing), for a lyrical as well as gritty instrumentation, and for the percussive possibilities of the piano, including using the inside of the piano.”
David Pichette (Gad) and Morgan Smith (Manfred) in a scene
from the 2011 world premiere of the choral version
of Jake Heggie's For A Look or a Touch in Seattle

Both the song cycle version of For A Look Or A Touch and the world premiere recording of Out of Darkness are now available on Here's a video of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus performing the choral version of For A Look Or A Touch.