Archive for the 'from the deep archives' Category

From the deep archives: Bob Fosse’s DANCIN’

March 16, 2023

I could have sworn that I wrote a feature article about the lighting for Bob Fosse’s 1978 show Dancin’ (now in revival on Broadway) at the time of the first national tour. My memory of the show is that it was mildly entertaining with a sizzling show-stopping act three number set to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” I looked high and low among my far-flung archives, and the only thing I found was my review of the pre-Broadway tryout for the Phoenix, which was…well, the headline was “Throwin’ the night away,” and the subhed was “Fosse shoulda known better.”

DANCIN’, a musical entertainment directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Music and lyrics by various artists. Scenery by Peter Larkin. Costumes by Willa Kim. Lighting by Jules Fisher. At the Colonial Theater through March 11.

Almost every musical Bob Fosse has directed since Sweet Charity has been praised for its staging and criticized for its book. But the script to Dancin’ is no more than a pamphlet; the only “book” involved is the one that should be thrown at Fosse for turning a potentially spectacular, all-dance Broadway show into a lame-brained revue studded with sleazy sex-skits — Hellzapoppin’ with humpin’.

Everything about Dancin’ sounds great. Sixteen top dancers in a celebration of show biz set to the music of composers ranging from J. S. Bach to Edgard Varèse to Cat Stevens, with choreography from Bob Fosse’s famous grab-bag of styles? One imagines — with considerable excitement — some combination of A Chorus Line‘s shameless high-stepping, Twyla Tharp’s fractured boogie, the Joffrey’s hybrid of classical technique and pop ballet, and Pippin‘s non-stop theatricality. And at its very best, Dancin’ lives up to such feverish expectations. “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which kicks off the last of three short acts and is set to the swing era classic, is a show-stopping blaze of precision ensemble dancing punctuated by an audaciously delicate tap duet; a loose-limbed, slump-shouldered trio; and the obligatory electrifying solo by Ann Reinking, who has several leaps during which she seems to hover in mid-air and then lurch to the stage as if from Mars. “Sing, Sing, Sing” is the kind of dance number that keeps you on the edge of your seat, completely enthralled.

Unfortunately, I spent much of the rest of Dancin’ cringing into the Colonial’s plush cushions. Apparently, Fosse got nervous about presenting an entire evening of dance and felt obliged to tell some stories. So he wrote some. They include “Welcome to the Big City,” in which a middle-aged rube visiting New York for the first time is harassed by hookers, masturbated by masseuses, groped by salesgirls, and mesmerized by strippers before being mugged and left lying in the street; “The Dream Barre,” in which a homely ballet student fantasizes that he is fucking the female student next to him as the dancer instructor counts time; and “Joint Endeavor,” in which three men and three women smoke pot and trade partners in a series of solemn, semi-pornographic pas de deux while several leather-coated figures stand around singing sinister versions of Melissa Manchester songs. I wish I could shrug off these sketches as outtakes from an as-yet-unfinished Fosse vehicle called Let My Danskins Come (or, You Gotta Have a Hard-on), but I can’t — they’re really offensive. Atrociously written, they have nothing to do with dancing and are appallingly sexist. (Thanks to Fosse’s surprisingly limited sexual imagination, several of Broadway’s finest female dancers spend endless stage time flat on their backs; thanks to Fosse’s dishonesty, this is a show about dancers that refuses to acknowledge some of them are gay.)

Then there is the show’s finale, in which Fosse abruptly takes his hand out of his pants and places it over his heart for an astonishing salute to America called “Yankee Doodle.” The cast members sing and dance to a medley of patriotic songs and some of them have lines to say, such as “American women — boy, they are really something!” and “It might be corny and unsophisticated, but I’m proud to say that I’m an American.” This segment is not convincing (it is pseudo-patriotic in the same way that “Welcome to the Big City” is pseudo-cynical), nor is it satirical — or meant to be. Perhaps scene designer Peter Larkin simply wanted to create a huge eagle to fly in and flap its wings. Or perhaps Fosse really has deceived himself into thinking this is what a Broadway audience wants at the end of the show. How sad.

There is surprisingly little in Dancin’ that falls between the very good (the opening of each act) and the very bad. The show’s flaws could be eliminated by a few drastic measures: 1) cut out any and all dialogue; 2) delete all of the imitation Oh! Calcutta! sequences and 3) replace the raggedly performed live music with recordings. That would leave a short but stunning two-act musical, instead of a blot on the career of a choreographer with more talent than brains.

Oddly enough, the choreography in Dancin’ very rarely draws on the slinky, turned-in style most associated with Fosse; there is plenty of crotch-bumping and ass-shaking, but it is more rhythmic and less menacing, partly because of the different musical styles. Some of the songs could be better chosen. Edgard Varèse is just not very interesting to dance to, and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” is too obvious. Predictably, Fosse seems happier with the jazzy material; “Big Noise from Winettka” inspires a nifty trio, and the previously mentioned “Sing, Sing, Sing” is the show’s highlight. The dancers are invariably superb, though Ann Reinking is deservedly the unspoken star. It does, however, seem a little unfair that she gets all but one of the female solos; René Ceballos, who projects all the best qualities of a circus showgirl, deserves to be seen more. Wayne Cilento is outstanding, and Blane Savage and Charles Ward, both unusually large and athletic dancers, work together often and splendidly.

From the Deep Archives/Performance Diary: Nico in concert, Boston, 1979

September 8, 2022

4.17.79 12:20 am

Earlier I’d been to the Paradise Theater to see Nico, which was hilarious, wonderful & absurd. She had long, dark hair, with bangs down to her eyelashes, loose flowing clothes, & a heavily-accented slow voice.  “I’m so happy that you remember me,” she said first. Sat down at the harmonium & announced she would play some new songs. The first she said was “Genghis Kahn – or is it Jenghis Khan?” (“I have come to lie with you/to die with you”) The next one was something about “Do you dare to be insane?” Between those two someone brought her a tissue & a glass of wine – she said, “excuse me, I have something in my eye,” dabbed at her eye a little bit, then whispered “thank you.” For the 3rd song, which she introduced as “Henry Hudson,” she was joined by a man with beautiful long blond hair and a guitar. When he started playing, we decided it sounded like “Both Sides Now.” (I was sitting with Liz Ireland and Bill Tupper [Boston-based rock critics].) Then she said she would do some Lou Reed songs & did “Femme Fatale” (with the guitar, I thought it sounded like a George Harrison song; Tupper suggested Melanie) and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Then the guitarist went away. Nico thanked Lou Reed, and when someone asked, “Where’s Lou?” she said “He’s probably on his farm. He is always on his farm a lot these days.” At some point she mentioned “I have never done a concert so sober as I am tonight.”

photo by Ebet Roberts

Then she did a smattering of songs from her albums – she did a song from The End LP dedicated to Baader & Meinhof, it went something like “His sweat is my innocence/must they kill my fate/can’t I betray my hate?” which made me ponder “the right to hate.” Then she did a song in German from (she said) The Marble Index but it was actually from Desertshore – but she couldn’t finish the song. She just stopped for a moment, then said “I don’t know where the notes are.” A fan brought up a trinket to her, & she said “Is it black magic?” The woman assured her it was not. Oh, before that, just after the Lou Reed songs, she had said, “Are there any special requests?” People had yelled various of her songs. The only thing I could think of was “The Hissing of Summer Lawns.”

Anyway, after the song she didn’t finish, she said “I’m supposed to make mistakes. Andy Warhol said that.” A fan said, “Your mistakes are perfect.” She said, “I don’t think so.” Then she launched into a song I thought was called “You Will Know Me.” Maybe it’s “You Forgot to Answer.” It began, “If I could remember what to say…” but she didn’t finish that song either, forgot how it went. She seemed upset, & for a minute it was like Ronee Blakely in Nashville. Then she sang “No One Is There,” & everything went smoothly. Another couple of songs – “Frozen Borderline,” “Secret Side,” one about vestal virgins, then she introduced her  last song — & it was “The End” [long lugubrious song from the Doors’ first album]. We all groaned. It is pretty dumb. But she came back for an encore – I asked who was on the button she was wearing and she said, “oh – Sid Vicious.” And, finally asserting herself, she said, “whether you like it or not, I’m going to do another German song. That doesn’t mean I’m a fascist.” It was “Deutschland Uber Alles.” & it was over.

The harmonium is an odd instrument, very monotonous, but intriguing to watch her pumping the pedals & hearing the  repetitive wheeze. Soho News said her CBGB’s gig was eerie like a wake, and this was spooky, too, but more like watching an eccentric woman who makes old-time radio shows. Her enunciation is painfully precise, her pitch often painfully uneven. But I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.


July 7, 2022

Seeing God’s Fool, Martha Clarke’s exquisite music-theater piece about St. Francis of Assisi, which finished up its three-week run at La Mama ETC on July 2, reminded me of another Martha Clarke piece, Endangered Species, that opened (and quickly closed) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1990, which I wrote about for the Village Voice.

This is how my article began:

“The show opens on Sunday, the reviews appear Tuesday morning – another pan from Frank Rich! – and boom, the producer announces that the show’s closing at the end of the week. An all-too-familiar Broadway scenario, right? Except that this time the location is Brooklyn, the producer is Harvey Lichtenstein, and the show is Martha Clarke’s Endangered Species, which opened BAM’s Next Wave Festival and then closed October 14, two weeks into a scheduled five-week run. With typical journalistic sensitivity, I checked in with Clarke, her longtime producer Lyn Austin (whose Music Theatre Group developed endangered Species for the Next Wave Festival), and Lichtenstein to see how everyone was feeling.”

You can check out the rest of the piece here.

You can see pictures from the production on BAM’s online archive here.

R.I.P./From the Deep Archives: WILLIAM HURT

March 15, 2022

The great stage and film actor William Hurt died March 13, 2022, at the age of 71. He was the cover boy for CAUGHT IN THE ACT: New York Actors Face to Face, the 1986 book I did with photographer Susan Shacter. He was the only actor that Susan felt needed three images to capture, and they worked beautifully for the cover. Having admired him tremendously onstage in HAMLET and HURLYBURLY as well as on film in BODY HEAT, ALTERED STATES, and the others, I very much enjoyed talking to him. “The mask is everything.” Click here to read my interview from the book.

From the Deep Archives: performance diary 1979

November 6, 2021


saw carla bley tonight. she’s bizarre. she conducts like a witch casting a spell, with crooked fingers. very funny, too. nice stuff, melodic – both raucous & lyrical, swinging & abstract. weird. her husband michael mantler is a hunk. steve swallow*, d. sharpe** & don preston*** also played. she had 4 little boys announce the players’ names at the beginning of the show – she consulted with one 3 times before he stated into the mike, “the sousaphone player is seldom present.”

*one of the all-time great jazz bass players

**formerly the drummer for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and alter played on Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”

***formerly keyboard player with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

%d bloggers like this: