Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Sunday, March 11, 2012
From UT San Diego:
"Witty writing, appealing actors, a gorgeous and well-orchestrated score: “A Room With a View” has just about the full monty (and that’s not even counting the naked dudes who plunge into a pool onstage)."
"Many of the novel's best lines and scenes have made it into the script and score, with each well-developed character given a moment to shine. Schwartz finds comic and poetic ways to emphasize the story's clashes of culture, class, faith and generation. And Judtih Dolan's gorgeous period costumes reflect the restrictiveness and freedom the characters taste at different points of the story."
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Monday, February 27, 2012
So I have to put in a brief plug for my friend Jeff Whiting's new iPad app Stage Write.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
As Amy Engelhardt was ending her set at The Duplex (the first half of a show she was sharing with Bob Malone), a cabaret performer sitting next to me grabbed my pen and scribbled on my notepad, “She’s amazing!,” with a very large exclamation point for emphasis. She wasn’t influencing my review because I had already come to that conclusion a few songs before. Later, as Malone was banging out yet another awesome piano riff during his set, I leaned over to my cabaret friend and whispered, “This guy’s terrific,” with a very large exclamation point in my voice.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Written by James Hebert
On the NBC-TV show "Smash," a new musical seems to go from the germ of an idea to a full-fledged production in the blink of a Broadway producer's eye.
In real life, "musicals can be in development for five years, 10 years sometimes," points out Scott Schwartz, a seasoned stage director who has worked frequently at the Old Globe.
One exception: "A Room With a View," the musical adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel that Schwartz is directing at the Globe right now...
Monday, February 13, 2012
Why bother writing?
I learned in Keynote Speechifying 101 that one should commence a commencement speech by thanking the distinguished faculty, who are distinguished primarily by the fact they are wearing silly hats and dresses. Speaking of, is it just me or does this gown make me look fat? Because I think it makes a little hippy.
Next I’m supposed to acknowledge you, the students – of Hogwarts, all of the people on the board, all of the bored people, honorable guests, dishonorable guests, and all creatures big and small that crawl upon the earth.
Like all of you, I’m a storyteller. So I’m going to tell you a story. A true story, except for some of the facts, which I made up – because I write fiction – otherwise known as lies. Like Wikipedia and Fox News, I don’t have to verify my facts. Or, as my Italian ancestors would say, “Si non e vero, e ben trovato.” Which essentially means “If ain’t true, it should be.”
This is a story about storytelling: where it came from, where it went and where it’s going.
In the beginning, there was the word, and the word was with God. That’s the first lie. In the beginning, the word was more likely “Ow!” or “ “Look out for that wooly mammoth.” Or perhaps “Who farted?” or “Is it all the way in?”
Then a lot of stuff and things happened. Storytelling was mostly oral, except when it wasn’t. Because somebody said, “Y’know, Sophocles, that thing about Oedipus and his mother – that’s hilarious – you ought to write that down.” Or, “I hate to tell you Matthew, but Mark, Luke and John beat you to it.”
More stuff and things happened and then Gutenberg invented the printing press, which changed the world and left him bankrupt, which is true. Gutenberg’s invention began the first Information Age, and prevented a lot of Bible-scribing monks from getting carpal tunnel. So that was good, right?
On the one hand, the easy dissemination of information accelerated major social change. For instance, Martin Luther was able to canvas the doors of churches with his 95 Theses, giving rise to the Protestant Reformation and, as you know, forever ridding the Catholic Church of corruption. The printing press allowed Thomas Paine to help bring democracy to the world with Common Sense, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, the latter causing him to be shunned and ostracized. Only six people came to his funeral, but because of the printing press, we have this account:
Even those who loved their enemies hated him…with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head – and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude – constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.
Another downside to democracy and revolution was that it hastened the end to noble patronage of the arts. Because it’s hard to patronize the arts when your head’s been cut off. The system of artists being supported by royalty gave way to a new system of artists being supported by royalties. But it took a century for that new system to take hold, particularly in the young United States, which was notorious for copyright infringement.
By way of example, as late as 1878 Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore scored such a sensation that more than fifty unauthorized productions of the operetta were produced across the US, with eight versions playing simultaneously within five blocks of one another in New York City alone.
From these pirated productions, Gilbert and Sullivan received exactly bupkus, inspiring them to write their next operetta, The Pirates of Penzance. That’s totally true, and I can verify it because I wrote an article about it for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
But with the advent of 20th century, copyright law straightened things out more or less and thus began a golden period of American literature: a time of editors who sat at their writers’ elbows and actually edited, of leisurely three-martini lunches, of novelists being culturally relevant (well, white male novelists) and of short stories being published in magazines that ordinary people actually read. Everyone and their Uncle Harry didn’t seem to think they could write or publish a book, so it was largely left to the pros.
Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?
It didn’t last.
You see, another revolution was also happening, begun by perhaps the most culturally influential novelist of the 20th, century – anyone want to guess – here’s a hint – she’s not a dead white male – woman by the name of Ayn Rand, whose cinder-block sized book Atlas Shrugged has become the manifesto of the right-wing, despite reading like an interminable three-way between Nietzsche, L. Ron Hubbard and Judith Krantz. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Rand’s theories, let me give you the Twitter version: She also wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. ‘Nuff said.
So Atlas Shrugged gave rise to an economic philosophy of profit-by-any-cost, which gave us Ronald Reagan and the world in which we now live, where the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are now considered people. I would say that Tom Paine is rolling over in his grave, but his remains were exhumed and then lost. What it does mean is that the term Supreme Court Justice is an oxymoron. Or just plain moron.
It also means that writer Paddy Chayevsky nailed it. In the 1976 movie Network, he not only predicted the birth of reality television, he laid out the rise of the corporatocracy. “There is no America,” he wrote. “There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.”
So books became big business. Corporate chain stores gobbled up independent booksellers while corporate media empires gobbled up imprints. Luckily, nobody knew what they were doing, so some fledgling writers received absurd six-figure advances for ideas scrawled on cocktail napkins. It’s always been hard for writers to make a living, but here was a brief, shining moment when they could make a killing.
And then came the internet, or, as I like to call it, the blabosphere. So now everyone including your Uncle Harry is a publisher competing for attention, if only with a photo essay on his gall bladder operation. We are living not so much in an Information Age—as an Age of Too Much Information. And we writers now find ourselves at a time not unlike the 18th century, when writers got stuck between royalty and royalties. Like the writers of that period, we find ourselves with one business model disappearing while the other one is still being created.
No one’s quite sure how to make money right now, or even what it means to publish. And anyone who says they do is guessing.
Consider this—25 years ago I had a personal computer the size of a dorm fridge, with either amber or green letters, with a dot matrix printer that churned like the old mill down at the crik. When I studied abroad I communicated on tissue-thin air mail stationary to keep the cost down with the occasional phone call from an American Express office.
Today, I could reach into my pocket right now and see live streaming video of naked people all over the world. Twenty-five years from now I’ll probably be able to summon their life-size holograms right next to me.
The model for traditional publishing was that a handful of huge bestsellers were able to offset the losses of newer or more niche material. That entire business model hangs in the balance, particularly as J.K. Rowling prepares to start her own media content company. If big-name authors follow her example and cut out their publishers entirely, the industry as we know it is over.
But that is not necessarily a bad thing for writers. The internet has also democratized content, making it possible for independent content providers to eliminate all those pesky middle men.
So far, success with independent publishing has been about speed and volume. The best-selling e-books tend to be genre books, particularly romance, thriller and erotica and, to a lesser degree, sci-if, fantasy and YA. Stand-alone literary fiction is lagging, but that was true of traditional publishing, as well.
The readers downloading e-books read one and want another right away. The books are cheap – sometimes as little as 99 cents – so readers are willing to take a risk in a way they won’t for a book printed on paper. As a result, quality can definitely suffer. Take for instance the work of John Locke—not the philosopher—but the John Locke who is the first self-published author to sell a million downloads on Kindle and only the eighth author in history to do so. His writing is so insufferably juvenile it makes Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series look like The Illiad.
Currently, independent books do not qualify for awards, nor will they be reviewed by the traditional media. Even if they do a print-on-demand print run, bricks and mortar bookstores will not carry them. Of course, with the demise of Borders, the future of the bricks and mortar bookstore is an open question, as is the future of the traditional media.
Moreover, without a publisher you will need to do the work of a publisher yourself, hustling your book through social networking relentlessly without seeming like you’re hustling because that’s considered bad online manners. In addition to being your own PR department, you’ll also need to oversee the creation of an eye-catching cover, which must look fantastic the size of a postage stamp.
If this all sounds like an incredible amount of work it’s because it is. So what’s the upside?
For starters, you cut out the agony of waiting to get published and the soul-killing rejection that comes with it. You’re empowered, in the driver’s seat of your own destiny. The endeavor can be satisfyingly entrepreneurial. I say can because I have yet to try it myself, though I am considering it.
The publishing of my two books were two distinct experiences. Some of you may know the Cinderella story of how I got my start—how Chuck Palahniuk recommended me to his agent who recommended me to his editor, who bought my book in two days. Two weeks later I had a six-figure movie deal. This almost never happens, but it happened to me. When the book came out, I had my picture in People Magazine the week of my 20th high school reunion.
My sophomore effort, which I think is a better book, was like a tree falling in the forest. I guess since it was printed on paper, it was several trees.
As a result, the third book in my series got orphaned during the downsizing of the aptly named Random House. I still haven’t decided what route I personally want to follow. I’m not interested in getting on the hamster wheel of cranking out low-quality novels. And neither I nor the marketplace have yet figured out how to sell thoughtful, well-written fiction. So I don’t have an answer for you on how to navigate this not-so-brave new world. All I can say is that I advise to do as I’m doing and stay up-to-date on the trends and innovations in the publishing industry, which is changing monthly.
Personally, I’ve turned to writing for the theater, but not because I’ve grown disenchanted with publishing, but because I had a midlife crisis and decided to reinvent myself. After being a writer of books about musicals, I seem to be finding a place as a book writer of musicals.
If there’s anything you remember from this speech, I’d like you to remember what I’m about to tell you. That as you attempt to monetize your educational investment, as you seek an audience for your work, ask yourselves some simple but profound questions:
- What matters most to you? What gets you up in the morning and keeps you awake at night?
- What would you do if you won the lottery?
- What would you do if you knew you had a year to live?
- What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Now write about that. Don’t just write what you know, write what you really know. Write what you want to know. Write what you want others to know.
I’d like to explain why I’m saying this by doing a little math. You see, one of the many advantages of the Too Much Information Age is you can research such arcane trivia as the bestseller lists of the last 110 years.
So I know that of the 95 novels that made the top ten list between the years of 1900 and 1910 (because 5 of them repeated), I recognized just seven titles. They are:The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Virginian, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Clansman, The House of Mirth, The Jungle and something called Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, which I only knew because it was made into a W.C. Fields movie. I’ll mention here that I only recognized the names of three of the authors—Conan Doyle, Edith Wharton and Upton Sinclair, a point that’ll be clear in a moment.
Let’s compare those figures with the 94 books on the Top 10 Bestseller list a hundred years later between 2000 and 2010 (because six repeated). Of those 94 books, I recognized 13 titles. Nearly twice as many as a hundred years later, but still a surprisingly small percentage. That’s because on the bestseller list, the author is the brand. Remember what Bill Dietrich said last night about his name being bigger than the title? Those 94 books were written by just 32 authors, of whom I’d heard of 28. By comparison, of the 66 authors on the bestseller list between 1900 and 1910, I’d only heard of the three I mentioned earlier, plus four more, one of whom didn’t count because it was Winston Churchill. Which just goes to show you you never know where your writing career may lead.
Okay, being literary types, math isn’t probably your strong suit, but let’s compare these bestseller lists to the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels of the 20th century. According to the Modern Library, the Top Ten are: Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lolita, Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury, Catch-22, Darkness at Noon, Sons and Loversand The Grapes of Wrath.
Now here’s the thing – of those ten, only one made the bestseller list in their day—The Grapes of Wrath.
My point—if it isn’t self-evident—is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between what sells and what lasts. And one of the beauties of the internet is that a book can never go out of print if it was never in print to begin with. So personally, I look at those numbers and I say to myself, “Self, write for posterity. Write everything like it’s the last thing you’ll ever write. Then work like mad to get someone to read it.”
I’ll be honest, my writing career pretty much died with the recession, my income dropping to 25% of what I’d been averaging, and much of that from teaching. But I never saw my career as completely dead—rather I envisioned my career as passed out on the bathroom floor, resting its head awhile on the cool porcelain before summoning the fortitude to rise again.
Since then, I’ve been pleased to say there have been some encouraging signs of life. This year I moved to New York and prepared a presentation of a musical adaptation ofA Room with View. In attendance was theatre legend Hal Prince, who directed many of Stephen Sondheim’s original musicals, as well as Phantom of the Opera. And in a moment I will never forget—and which felt very similar to the moment I met Chuck Palahniuk—he took me in both hands and told the work was superb.
That very afternoon, the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, one of the major incubators of Broadway musicals, committed on the spot to a million dollar mainstage production this coming season of a show that’s not even done yet. This almost never happens, but it happened to me. And it restored my belief in what’s possible—with persistence.
And now I will say the most cherished words of any graduation speech: In conclusion…
Let me tell you one last story. It occurred the first time I came up to Whidbey. I was on the ferry. Being summer, the day was cold and gray, Puget Sound was unsound, cresting silver and rocking the boat. So I was the only idiot outside on deck enjoying the rough, temperamental beauty that is the Pacific Northwest.
As the ferry lurched, I turned and saw I’d been joined by a kid of about sixteen–all floppy hair and skinny limbs–his face alive with wonder as he gazed into the wind.
“Pretty astonishing,” I said, gesturing to the elements.
“This your first crossing?” I asked.
“No, I do it all the time,” he said. “I live on Whidbey.”
In an instant, I liked this kid, because I saw that he was the kind of person who takes the time to notice something spectacular on a routine journey. I glanced down and noted that he was carrying a copy of The Great Gatsby in his arms. Which, I hasten to remind you, did not make the bestseller list in its day.
“How are you liking Gatsby?” I asked.
“I love it,” he said, smiling. Sincere.
“Why?” I asked, being pedagogical. “What do you love about it?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Fitzgerald’s descriptions are so vivid. There’s this scene where two windows are open and a breeze blows through and he describes the women on the couch as being buoyed up. It’s amazing.”
Later that night, I found the passage online and read it. Here it is:
We walked through a high hallway into a bright rose-coloured space, fragiley bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up towards the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-coloured rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
The only stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
The kid was right. It is amazing.
He and I talked of books for a few minutes more–about Huck Finn, Holden Caufield and Lenny and the rabbits. “After reading Of Mice and Men,” he said, “I can’t look at a single soft thing without
thinking of poor Lenny. “ He said he loved The Old Man and the Sea and tried to read Ulysses.
Ulysses! This kid is a junior in high school. On an island in Puget Sound. In what has been described to me as a substandard school system.
We parted as the boat continued to, in the words of Fitzgerald, “beat ceaselessly against the current.” And whenever I feel discouraged because I’m afraid I’m misunderstood or inadequate or, worst of all,
irrelevant – I remember this island and that kid.
And I write for him.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Can't get enough of SMASH? Check out my other total guilty geeky musical theater pleasure from the delightfully warped minds of Kate Weatherhead and Andrew Keenan Bolger - SUBMISSIONS ONLY.
SUBMISSIONS ONLY is to SMASH what an understudy is to a star - every bit as good and really bitter about it.
Favorite moments are the reading of an insipid new musical - which is, sadly, no exaggeration of many navel-gazing shows about nothing. Check out "A Trip to D'Agostino's" in Episode 3, Season 1, starting at 14:00:
and the brilliant Michael Urie and Kristen Johnson at the start of Episode 5, Season Two: