Saturday, November 12, 2016

Echoes From The Past

Not every piece of art survives the test of time. Some creations are only meant to enjoy a short life span while others hope for longevity but fail to build a loyal following. Although the argument about art versus commerce may be as old as the hills, new technologies have begun to phase out skills and formats that held sway for many years.

Riding the mechanical horses at Steeplechase Park in Coney Island

San Franciscans swimming in the indoor pools at Sutro Baths

Vintage photo of a child in his toy car

Many of today's hipsters are thrilled to find new appeal in old lifestyles (some turn to websites like The Vintage News to glimpse moments of inspiration and chuckle at oddities from the past). Among the many memes that float across the Internet are some that ask viewers if they remember using a certain object and can identify what it was used for.

An old-fashioned tray for making ice cubes

And old-fashioned meat grinder

While George Santayana famously claimed that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," William Clay Ford had a different take on history.
"The further and faster the human race goes, the more difficult it becomes to remember its receding and ever-expanding past. To neglect that heritage is to risk a future in which young people find themselves without a means of building on the firm and reassuring foundation of the past."
An 1896 Ford Quadricycle on display at the Henry Ford Museum

Had it not been for the zeal with which Ford's grandfather, Henry Ford, collected traces of America's Industrial Revolution, there might be little left to remind us of our not too distant history. Their pattern of display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is vastly different from that seen in most other science museums. In Dearborn, visitors can observe minute changes in technology and design. The evolution of dictating equipment proves fascinating when compared to the technology of today's electronic office.

An indicator of the breadth of Henry Ford's collection is to note that, during the first few years of the museum's life, nearly 80% of its visitors could recognize and identify most of the objects on display from their personal experience. At best, less than 5% of today's visitors can readily identify the same objects.

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One of the documentaries screened during 2016's San Francisco International South Asian (3rd i) Film Festival shows how technology and economics are driving an Indian art form into extinction. Set in Mumbai, Original Copy focuses on a handful of men who still design and hand paint the colorful posters for Bollywood films.

Sheik Rehman and his crew changing billboards in front of the
Alfred Talkies movie theatre in a scene from Original Copy

The film's protagonist is Sheikh Rehman who, for many years, has been hand painting massive billboards filled with images of action heroes and lovesick women. As the camera moves between the audience at a decrepit old Hindi movie house and the office where the theater's owner (Rehman's sister) is crunching numbers, it becomes obvious that they are facing a losing battle. Slowly but surely, other cultural factors enter the documentary's narrative.

Sheik Rehman painting a billboard for a
movie in a scene from Original Copy
  • Rehman was initially discouraged from following in his father's artistic footsteps because his father felt that if all of his sons went into the same line of work, they would have no one left to support the family if something forced them out of the movie business. Today, Rehman wishes that his sons had chosen to carry on his own artistic tradition.
  • Rehman's sister, Najma (the owner of the movie house), is faced with a steadily diminishing return on investment. Even though she values history and heritage over profits, with audiences flocking to more modern cinema multiplexes, she can no longer afford to commission fresh artwork for each film. Najma explains how, as a child, she would never have been entrusted with managing the theater because she was a girl. When their father was hospitalized, he announced that she would immediately be put in charge of the theater but, the next day (when he felt better), he quickly rescinded his decision.
Poster art for Original Copy

Written and directed by a father/son team of German filmmakers (Georg Heinzen and Florian Heinzen-Ziob), Original Copy faced an unusual challenge before its creative team could embark on filming their documentary -- Najma consulted an astrologist about their birth dates before granting her consent. The inspiration for the film came as George (who was living in Mumbai at the time) was walking through the city in 2011. One day, he stumbled across the Alfred Talkies -- an old-fashioned movie house built in 1880 that showed four screenings a day, 365 days a year. A man in paint-spattered trousers offered him a cigarette during a break between screenings. Even though George had long ago given up smoking, as soon as he entered Sheikh Rehman’s workshop he knew he had found a story waiting to be filmed.

Sheikh Rehman discusses painting with one of
his assistants in a scene from Original Copy

As soon as one film ends its run at the Alfred Talkies, Rehman and his crew must take down the billboard and paint over it so that he can start work on another. Why? Because his posters are essentially ads created for B-movies rather than blockbusters or art house films. As a result, his art is considered disposable. With the neighborhood undergoing rapid modernization, Rehman's workshop is threatened with demolition by its new owner. In describing his visit to the Alfred Talkies, Mrigank Warrier wrote:
“I walk eastwards, down Grant Road’s Frere Bridge, along Maulana Shaukat Ali road. The footpath has been borrowed by shacks festooned with lurid poster collages of films on no-one’s must-watch list. Each houses a desktop computer that is a vault of B-grade Hindi movies and Bhojpuri blockbusters transferable to my cellphone for a pittance. It is a fitting approach to the city’s oldest entertainment hub: Play House. Alfred Talkies stands apart. Its distinctly European architecture occupies pride of place at a busy intersection, painted in what hopeless artists call ‘skin colour.’

Constructed in 1880 as the Ripon, it was amongst the first to stage plays in local languages. Reborn in the Hollywood-crazy ’30s as the Alfred, it retains its original architecture, complete with brown balustrades and wrought iron framework supporting stained glass murals above the entrance. A sign in Hindi and Urdu clarifies that if the show stops due to a power cut, the ticket money will not be refunded. The national anthem begins. Everyone stands, no one at attention. When the flag appears on screen, people cheer. At the interval, people thrust their hands through the locked gates to buy omelette pao from vendors in the street.  The projectionist skips the scenes he considers unimportant to the plot.”
The interior of the Alfred Talkies between screenings

Despite their dedication, Rehman and Najma know that their time is running out. While Original Copy may not be the most optimistic or inspirational of documentaries, its story shines a new and valuable light on the continued struggle between art, commerce, and emerging technologies. Here's the trailer:

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As one of the choices for his final season as artistic director of 42nd Street Moon, Greg MacKellan chose 1965's Baker Street as one of the "lost musicals" to be revisited by the company. With its book by Jerome Coopersmith (as well as music and lyrics by Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel), the original production had a notably troubled pre-Broadway tryout. Produced by Alexander H. Cohen and directed by Harold Prince, Coopersmith's book revolved around Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of the famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Taking its inspiration from A Scandal in Bohemia and two other Holmes adventures, the narrative focused on the evil Professor James Moriarty's plot to enact a scandalous jewelry heist during the celebration of Queen Victoria's jubilee on June 20, 1887.

Michael Monagle as Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street
(Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

With a cast headed by Fritz Weaver as Holmes, Peter Sallis as Watson, Martin Gabel as Professor Moriarty, and Inga Swenson as an American actress named Irene Adler (who falls in love with Holmes although he has absolutely no romantic interest in her), the show finally arrived in New York amidst plenty of buzz (not all of it good). While out of town, Prince called upon his songwriting team from 1964's Fiddler on the Roof, 1963's She Loves Me, and 1959's Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello! (Jerome Bock and Sheldon Harnick) for help. As noted on Wikipedia:
"Producer Alexander H. Cohen felt the show was such an event that he announced, prior to the opening, men would not be admitted unless they were clad in jackets and ties, and women would be allowed in only if they wore dresses. This policy quickly changed once the mixed reviews were in and Cohen realized he needed all the business he could get, no matter how it was attired."
Michael Barrett Austin as the evil Professor James Moriarty
in a scene from Baker Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

Today, Baker Street (which lasted for 311 performances on Broadway) is primarily remembered as the show in which Tommy Tune and Christopher Walken made their Broadway debuts as two of the three killers. When I  saw the original production, I was charmed by the use of Bil Baird's specially designed marionettes during the highly publicized Diamond Jubilee parade. Despite the solid craftsmanship of Don Walker's orchestrations, I was hugely disappointed by the show's insipid songs and left the theatre whistling the scenery.

In 2001, as part of its Musicals in Mufti series, the York Theatre Company presented five performances of Baker Street in concert form. The show has never been revived on Broadway and I doubt that it ever will (Baker Street is rarely staged in regional theatres).

Part of the problem with the show's score was the creative team's decision to have Fritz Weaver deliver his songs in the same kind of sprechgesang that worked so well for Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Although Oliver Smith's sets were meant to dazzle the audience (and Lee Becker Theodore's choreography included trapdoors on either side of the stage which allowed the Baker Street Irregulars to simulate a journey through London's underworld), much of Baker Street underwhelmed its audience.

The Baker Street Irregulars in a scene from Baker Street
(Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

Directed and choreographed by Cindy Goldfield with Dave Dobrusky as musical director, 42nd Street Moon's production of Baker Street benefited immensely from modern stage technology. Using a screen designed to represent an open book written by Dr. Watson (through which characters could make their entrances and exits), Amy O'Hanlon's handsome illustrations combined with Kevin August Landesman's projections gave the production a much more fluid sense of momentum than depending on bulky sets like those seen in the original production. I hope the company embraces this technology with a vengeance -- it will definitely help to improve the quality of their physical productions.

Michael Monagle (Sherlock Holmes) and Dan Seda (Watson)
in a tense scene from Baker Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

42nd Moon's strong cast featured Michael Monagle as Sherlock Holmes, Dan Seda as the loyal Dr. Watson (through whose writing the story is told), Abby Haug as Irene Adler) and Michael Barrett Austin as the conniving Professor Moriarty. Supporting roles were taken by Scott Maraj (Inspector Lestrade), Stephanie Prentice (Mrs. Hudson), Stephen Vaught (Chauncey Weatherbee Perkins III), Kalon Thibodeaux (Captain Gregg), Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer (Daisy), Andrew Mondello (Wiggins), Alison Quin (Nipper), and Tobiah Richkind (Duckbellows).

Michael Monagle (Sherlock Holmes) and Abby Haug (Irene Adler)
in a scene from Baker Street (Photo by: Ben Krantz) 

There's an energetic new executive team heading up 42nd Street Moon (Daren A. C. Carollo and Daniel Thomas) with high hopes for the future. The rest of the 2016-2017 season (previously planned by Greg MacKellan) includes a revival of Scrooge in Love as well as productions of 1957's New Girl in Town and 1925's No, No, Nanette. The company's 2017-2018 season will include stagings of 1978's Ain't Misbehavin', 1937's Me and My Girl, and 1955's Saturday Night.

With new artistic leadership helming the company, this is a good time for 42nd Street Moon to investigate some of the "lost musicals" that have much stronger scores than Baker Street. Among those I'd recommend are:
Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley in a scene from 1962's
No Strings (music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers)
Tommy Steele leads the ensemble in "If The Rain's Got to Fall"
in 1965's Half A Sixpence (music and lyrics by David Heneker)
Pamela Issacs and Lillias White in a scene from 1997's The Life
(with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Ira Gasman)

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