Living With What Lies Between Us

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

Living With What Lies Between Us

Published in the Maryland Daily Record August 2, 2018

It seems that you and I have a problem communicating, my friend. You have been inspired by a man I and most of my associates regard as a demagogue, a racist, a religious bigot, and an enemy of treasured national institutions and of international order itself. And when I try to tell you why your hero and his policies are horrible, I find you and your friends are like the Terminator: You can’t be bargained with. You can’t be reasoned with. You cannot be brought to acknowledge obvious facts or relinquish obvious lies. When it comes to people your leader treats as the Other, you don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And when it comes to trying to persuade me that I am wrong, you absolutely will not stop… ever.

So, my Terminator friend, we have a problem. Unlike the Terminator of the movies, who is sent from the future, you are sent from the past. You are the classmate I went to high school with, my long-term colleague at the office, my fellow parishioner, a member of my social club, my cousin, my barber for a decade. We have a history, you and I, ties that bind us. And yet there is this … thing … between us now.

It does not help at all that your hero models such pride in offensive behavior. Based on his example, you are learning to be unapologetic for rhetoric that decent people had spent generations learning to be ashamed of. Despite the fact that your group’s current political preeminence comes from gerrymandering, voter suppression, non-majoritarian provisions of the constitution and foreign interference, you strut and gloat as if you truly represented the majority, going right back to the lies your leader told about the crowds at his inauguration. Your policies frequently seem to be motivated mostly by nothing more complicated than the desire to evoke “liberal tears,” whatever the predictable damage to our economy or our environment. Your gibes at those among us we regard as most desperately in need of empathy may be the worst of it. It makes talking with you quite difficult.

Yes, I know that you and your friends look on me and my friends as misguided and in need of correction. Your view of us evidently mirrors somehow our view of you. And so you should know that you have no chance of convincing us, either. Our view is we are the proponents of logic and reason, mental habits you seem to us to have abandoned, and of compassion, which your rhetoric seems to make manifest you do not possess. We shall not be convinced by people like you. We enrage each other, and our minds are not destined to meet. That is the thing that has come between us.

Staying civil

But the assurance we should each have by now that we are not going to convert each other should also be key to our coexistence. If only because of our shared past, I do not want to lose our connection to each other, and I sense that you do not want to lose it either, no matter how angry we make each other.

To that end, my plan is to go on being civil with you, even when you are not doing the same. This is not for your benefit but for mine. Incivil exchanges between us would do further damage, and to no good end. Frequently, to maintain civility, I shall not engage when you try to draw me out on the things that divide us; as I’ve said, we know we can’t convince each other. But you will also find that civility does not always mean passivity; when your talk “displaces the mirth” (as Lady Macbeth put it) of a social gathering , I shall say what needs to be said to protect the party from your incivility. I may even engage you briefly on the issues, where I judge it to be safe, not in the hope of convincing you, but just to make sure my side is represented. Mostly, though, I shall focus on the common things: the lives and deaths of our friends; our children’s accomplishments; our work; our travels, our businesses; our sports teams. And I would beg you to do the same.

I am not naive or patient enough to think that what we refrain from saying face-to-face will go away. In the public sphere, in the press, in social media, where we speak with our keyboards rather than our tongues, we can all be somewhat freer. And in our current straits, I am relieved to be able to outsource much of my anger to late-night comedians, who can articulate better than I the way I feel and the reasons for those feelings. But my resort to those comforts will remain a matter between me and my TV screen.

If there is to be a victory of my side over you and yours, I know it will not come from winning you over; we shall have to beat you, that is all, with what tools our faulty political system still affords us. Never doubt that my dollars and my votes and my pen will be at the service of my side. But I pledge that for my part, our struggle with you and yours will still skirt fratricidal tactics or rancor. I shall try to manage my actions so that at the angriest moments, you and I can still shake hands.

In time, perhaps common political ground will reappear; I cannot predict how that will go. But I am determined not to lose you, and I hope you will match my determination. As angry as we make each other, we must remain larger and more connected than our tribalisms would have us be. As long as we retain some connection, a vital hope will remain. So I intend to try to preserve it, and I hope you will as well.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column


Recalled for the Right Reasons

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

Recalled for the Right Reasons

Published in the Maryland Daily Record online July 5, 2018 and in print July 9, 2018

California voters’ recent recall of Judge Aaron Persky has provoked a lot of distress among those worrying about judicial independence and the possible politicization of the judiciary. California voters are not often moved to remove their judges; the last successful popular judicial recall in California had occurred 80 years ago. Judge Persky had, however, given a shockingly mild sentence (six months, with only three actually served) to the so-called Stanford rapist. This drew the wrath of many concerned about sexual assault itself (the state dropped the rape charges because it could only prove digital penetration, although most non-lawyers would consider what happened rape and I shall continue to refer to it as such).[1] There was also an obvious concern as to the issues around it, including the credibility many judicial and administrative decision-makers give to men accused of rape, the burdens and standards of proof victims have to surmount, and the concern shown for offenders, as opposed to care for the victims, in assessing sanctions.[2]

Are We Really at a Point?

It would be a mistake to denigrate the sincerity or understanding of those horrified by the recall, who may well simultaneously share the recall proponents’ dismay about rape and the surrounding issues. The politicization of the judiciary is always a legitimate concern, and particularly in times like these, where judicial independence is under direct attack from the highest places. And Judge Persky’s defenders have pointed out that the choices he made in determining the sentence imposed on the Stanford rapist were within his statutory discretion.[3] Are we really at a point, they ask, where a judge operating within the proper bounds of his discretion is to be removed for doing so?

I would argue, however, that it is precisely the fact that the judge was operating within his discretion that made this particular recall appropriate. It is often within the margins of discretion that the most important decisions of a judge fall. And there exist few mechanisms to correct such decisions when they are wrong. Trial court decisions as to the law, if incorrect, may be reversed by an appellate court. But most laws authorizing sanctions set minima and maxima, and so long as a judge stays within those guidelines, appellate courts generally will not review the judge’s choices, on the basis that the decision rested within the sanctioner’s so-called “sound discretion.”[4]

Now it is of course possible to argue that as a result acts of “sound discretion” cannot meaningfully be characterized as wrong, and hence any such decision must be accepted as correct. But this is nonsense, and the Stanford rapist’s sentence proves it. Beyond any reasonable doubt the decision betrayed Judge Persky’s faulty understanding of the seriousness of the life-long trauma rape typically inflicts upon victims,[5] not to mention his excessive solicitude for the impact of sanctions on the life and career of the defendant.

No Other Sanction

No, “sound discretion” is not the absence of error, only the protection of a category of potential error from appellate reversal – and unfortunately in a context where no other reversal or review or sanction usually exists – as here, where Judge Persky had withstood complaints to the California Commision on Judicial Performance to censure him, the legislature had failed to impeach, and he had just won a retention election. In other words, without recall, Judge Persky would “get away with it.”[6]

The solution is not to broaden the scope of appellate review. Appellate courts should not be second-guessing such judgments because of (in the oft-used phrase) “an absence of judicially manageable standards” for them to apply. The concept may best be understood by observing its opposite: a clearly-worded statute which establishes the law in ways both trial and appellate courts can easily apply. Perhaps an intermediate point of comparison would be existing common law rulings; they may not be precisely on-point with the new issue a trial judge must confront, but they are close enough so that both the judge and the appeals courts above the judge can extrapolate from them, and the appeals courts can still intelligently determine if the judge was wrong in conducting that process.

But errors like Judge Persky’s, issuing a sentence that fell between statutory minima and maxima, lie more in the category of political choice. Appellate judges can’t manageably evaluate it, but the public can, and should. Most of the time, the ways in which the judge sentences will reflect the consensus of the community on questions that are inherently political, for example the extent to which drug consumption is a punishable criminal act as opposed to being a treatment-worthy manifestation of “drug abuse syndrome.” Frequent application of such inherently political community consensus is unavoidable, particularly at the trial court level.

The People’s Sound Discretion

Political choices in our society are generally effectuated by elected public officials and political appointees of those officials. But the legitimacy of those choices depends finally upon the public will, as expressed at the ballot box through the initial elevation of and later potentially forcible retirement of the officials and their appointees who make those choices. Such electoral accountability is attenuated or absent for most judges. But when judges make political choices that are out of step with the community, choices for which other sanctions are nonexistent or impracticable, is electoral accountability such a bad idea?

It could well be objected that the cure of a recall election is potentially worse than the disease. Voters at a recall election are not required to give their reasons; they could be voting to protest the law a judge applies, or because the judge is a nasty person or belongs to the wrong party or ethnic group. That may all be true, but where, as here, recall is already lawful, and the reason for the recall is obvious, namely a judge’s complete, and worse, apparently oblivious revolt against the political consensus of the electorate on the culpability of rape, it is hard to characterize the recall as an attack on judicial independence. The voters removed Judge Persky as was their right, where the system left it to their sound discretion, which at least in this instance seems to have been soundly exercised.


[1]. See the analysis in Michael Vitiello, Brock Turner: Sorting Through the Noise, 49 U. Pac. L. Rev 631, 636–37 (2018).

[2]. See, for example, many of the comments in the Voices section of the website for the Recall Judge Aaron Persky campaign,, viewed June 16, 2018.

[3]. See California Penal Code § 1203.065, noted by the California Commission on Judicial Performance.

[4]. See, e.g. People v. Surplice, 203 Cal. App. 2d 784, 791, 21 Cal. Rptr. 826, 831 (Ct. App. 1962).

[5]. In the statement made by the victim in the Stanford case, the lasting impact is well-stated. Judge Persky cited and quoted that statement in his summary of the reasons for his sentence, but seemed unable to grasp its importance.

[6]. Michael Vitiello, in the article cited above at 650, citing Wilbank J. Roche, Judicial Discipline in California: A Critical Re-Evaluation, 10 LOY. L.A. L. REV. 192, 193-95 (1976) notes that California’s constitution contemplates impeachment of judges, as well as judicial removal in periodic retention elections. But only two state judges have ever been impeached, and Judge Persky had just won a retention election.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column


Handing it to the Devil: Stillpointe Presents HAND TO GOD

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Handing it to the Devil: Stillpointe Presents HAND TO GOD

Michael Paradiso

Posted on March 3, 2018

The play Hand to God, being presented for three weekends by Stillpointe Theatre, is a violent, obscene, sacrilegious attack on everything that reportedly formed playwright Robert Askins. Southern fundamentalist Lutheranism – check! Didactic sock puppets – check! A mom who runs the sock puppet program – check! Deceased dad – check! And – one assumes, untidy libidinous impulses that could not be squared with the conventional morality, leading to contempt for the conventional morality, leading to contempt for the kind of theology that, at least in southwest Texas, undergirds it.

It is a truism among Christians of all stripes that we are all sinners, and, though Askins might have a problem with using the word “sin” to describe anything worse than conduct that makes us unwelcome around the communal campfire, we certainly see a lot of sin (however defined) in the approximate hour that it takes for Askins’ fable to play out. There is teacher Margery (Valarie Perez-Schere), who, in the wake of losing an (admittedly uninspiring) husband, is also losing her grip on her son, although she is all too ready to come to physical grips with her son’s classmate – and her student – Timmy (Parker Damm), a readiness Timmy shares. There is Pastor Greg (David Iden), who also clearly lusts after widow Margery, and is not above a little sexual harassment, not to mention overbearing conduct in the matter of scheduling a puppet performance. There is young puppeteer Jessica (Liz Galuardi), who may be a bit young for the hyper-sexualized proceedings that seem to be par for the course in Cypress, Texas, where the show is set, but is ready for her sock puppet to engage in all manner of erotic expression. And most of all there is Jason, or should one say Tyrone, Jason’s sock-puppet alter ego who may also be the Devil (Michael Paradiso), guilty of telling hurtful truths – and mayhem (the nature of which I shall not give away, except to suggest that spectators in St. Mark’s Church basement, where the show is presented, might wish not to sit too close to the floral lamp).

As far as Askins is concerned, then, a religious congregation is no less and no more sinful than any other group. The point seems to be the same as was made at the end of Candide: “We’re neither pure nor wise nor good” and the best we can aspire to is to “make some sense of life.” And part of the sense Askins thinks we should make is that what we call Jesus and what we call the Devil are but two atavars of identical human impulses.

It helps that this attack on sanctimonious pretensions is put across by such a spirited ensemble, game with lascivious behavior, violence, f-bombs and sock-puppets, and blessed with considerable talent, including the manual dexterity to bring socks to life. It also helps that the show is presented in the round, in the intimate space of a church basement (at one dialectically critical point, Tyrone makes the circuit establishing whatever in the sock-puppet world corresponds to eye-contact with each spectator). And finally, it must be said, it helps that in this environment (i.e. not Texas) Askins is probably preaching to the converted; the catchment demographic for Stillpointe here in Baltimore is probably not heavily stocked with evangelicals, prudes, or the easily offended. If you’re none of the above, this show will probably make you laugh through the winces. If you are some of the above, come all the same, and see how the other half thinks.

In short, this is good, dirty, thought-provoking fun. And it won’t be here long. So make plans to go right now.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Rob Clatterbuck.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Wrestling with Authentic Inauthenticity: CHAD DEITY at Cohesion Theatre

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Wrestling with Authentic Inauthenticity: CHAD DEITY at Cohesion Theatre

Christian Gonzalez and Jehan Sterling Silva

Posted on BroadwayWorld June 2, 2018

Is pro wrestling a form of theater? That is one question Kristoffer Diaz‘s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, now being presented by Cohesion Theatre, uh – wrestles with. As the show chronicles, a wrestling ring, like a theater, is a place of infinite artifice, where nonetheless, if an audience is lucky, something real happens, or at least something real can be learned. That is the pitch the play makes for the “sport.” (It has to be in quotes because there is no actual competition; that is the genius of the artifice.) I, knowing too little of wrestling, and perhaps too dazzled by the hall of mirrors the play provides, left neither convinced nor unconvinced. But I certainly left both provoked and entertained.

Artifice first: on the evidence of the play, marshaled by narrator and participant Macedonio Guerra (aka “The Mace”) (Christian Gonzalez), the ritual wrestling enacts is one of pre-designated heroes and villains, excessively and absurdly delineated, and the “sport’s” audience knows this full well. The outcome of each match, as the audience also knows, is fixed, and while there may be a series of matches over a period giving shape to a story arc, at the end of the arc, the hero will beat the villain. It is a ritual of scapegoating, of the bullfight, in which the anxieties and sins of the community are concentrated in a character who is first hated and then defeated.

The Mace is one of those fake villains, and his soliloquies, like those of bona fide villain Richard III, are mini-lectures which inspire much appreciation of the art and craft of villainy. We learn that in pro wrestling the villain, the one who sets up and takes the falls, is actually doing most of the work, and must be much better at what he does than the hero. Case in point, the eponymous Chad Deity (Tim German), a handsome devil with a great smile, but not actually much of an athlete despite the ornate belt he wears to enter the ring, not to mention the also eponymous elaborate entrance by which he arrives there, an honor denied The Mace.

What is the reality underlying this artifice? At least in this play, that the spectacle is enacted by a crew of young journeymen with deep roots in urban ethnic communities located in places like the outer boroughs of New York, where a sort of patois, part hiphop, part Spanglish, part god-knows-what, reigns. The Mace, of Puerto Rican extraction but designated to wrestle under a Cuban/Mexican identity (see photo above), leaves his home in the Bronx to visit a baskeball court in Brooklyn and there meets Indian-American Vigneshwar Paduar, V.P. for short (Jehan Sterling Silva), who will in due course be presented as The Fundamentalist, a turbaned Muslim villain (also in photo above) of an indeterminate Mideastern nationality. Intrigued by V.P.’s social fluency, highlighted by his effortless ability to flirt with young women in six languages, The Mace sells the unctuous Everett K. Olson, impresario of THE Wrestling (based apparently on WWE) (Jason Hentrich), on working V.P. into the lineup.

And the reality that this artifice is supposed to teach? Here a reviewer must tread lightly to avoid giving too much away. But it starts with the manner in which the mythos of pro wrestling is designed to hold a mirror up to its audience. The bad guy is supposed to proclaim how much he despises American values, and to be himself despicable for that very reason. But when we boo him, what are we booing? The foreign, the unknown, the threatening, the challenge to our self-righteousness. We don our Make America Great Again hats. But in a world where more and more of us are from the Outer Boroughs in one way or another, can the viewpoint hold? That is the question we are left with at the end.

I called the play a hall of mirrors, and it is, because in one way or another, every character is thoroughly coopted by the joint enterprise of selling this hokum, as is the ringside audience, whose participation is equally vital to the final product. When everyone is both deceiver and deceived, though, what moral responsibility can reasonably be assessed for an only nominally deceptive spectacle, and, if so, against whom? Where so much hard work is required to stage that spectacle, should we in the theatrical audience admire or be appalled merely because of the ugliness of the bigotries and shoddy thinking to which the spectacle caters, or should we still give credit to the workmanlike and even loving way the spectacle’s surface is curated? If we condemn it, are we being righteous critics or effete snobs? You can get dizzy thinking about these issues.

There will be no confusion at all, however, in assessing the vitality and interest of this show. In its four years in our midst, Cohesion has been remarkable for the scope and ambition of its programming, especially on what are evidently shoestring budgets. Almost every show, whether it entirely works or not, seems to bring us something we haven’t seen before. (Graphic novels brought to life! Romantic absurdism! Dadaistic storytelling! Shakespearean history, Appalachian style! Anorexia contests! All in a day’s work.)

This play is no exception. Presented mostly in an apparently realistic ring with apparently authentic wrestling moves (authentic inauthenticity, if you will), this is a drama whose physical setting is no more unconventional than its social setting or the questions it (sorry!) grapples with. And, while this play enjoyed considerable esteem in Chicago, where it originated in 2009, and Off-Broadway, where it appeared in 2010 (winning, among other things, the Lucille Lortel Outstanding Play award), and in numerous productions around the country, I had never heard of it, and I’ll bet most of Cohesion’s fans hadn’t either.

And this production does it all in style. Devoid of the questionable casting decisions that have weakened some recent Cohesion productions, in this show, where ethnicity matters, the representation is believable, and the performances are spot on. In particular, Christian Gonzalez as Mace seems to explore the full limits of his part, reflecting each ambivalence the play raises. (In his Nuyorican-ness, both less and more typical of the nation in this demographic era. Cynical about wrestling’s phoniness but exultant in its artistry. Pining for an elaborate entrance of his own but proud of his importance in the real work of the wrestling industry.) For all the fractured quality of his passions and his allegiances, Mace always comes across as a real, tortured person, not a mere cobbled-together narrative construct, as he might in the hands of a lesser actor. And the direction by Daniel Douek, lighting by Serafina Donahue, costumes by Helenmary Ball, and especially fight choreography by Jonathan Ezra Rubin, are all outstanding.

Only here through June 17, so hurry!

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Jaelyn Shae Photography.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Children Will Listen

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Children Will Listen


Jackie Burns in Wicked

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 11.2, Spring 2018

In recent Broadway forays, I have observed lobbies well-populated with excited children, mostly but not exclusively girls, typically dressed up a little, under the charge of parents and grandparents. It is interesting to consider the kind of show that draws this demographic.

Not Children’s Theater

Let me distinguish what I’m not speaking of here. Somewhat older children, tourists in the world of more adult theater, may come in self-organized packs or be brought by teachers, and might worry about being thought immature if they came to the shows under consideration.

Nor is this kind of show which goes under the label “children’s theater,” a repertoire filled with bowdlerized versions of adult shows, and/or shows written or adapted for juvenile performers as well as audiences. (Most grownups attend these only because their children require supervision or an audience.)

The shows I’m addressing now, however, are ones that adults might well attend without their kids, but which they enjoy experiencing en famille. In terms of what’s playing on Broadway as I write, this would certainly include the Disney musicals The Lion King and Aladdin, and Wicked and Anastasia.

Powerful Information

Until I read Changed for Good, Stacy Wood’s interesting feminist take on Broadway musicals and in particular Wicked, I had not seriously considered what it means to take a child to a show and share the experience—let alone what it means in today’s connected world where young people can then ruminate on the experience among one another. After reading that book, I realized there was a lot to think about.

When you walk into a theater with a child, whatever else occurs, you are telling the child that the world depicted in the play or musical encompasses possibilities, if not in literal reality, then at least in someone’s imagination. Continuing with Wicked for a moment, no child is going to be confused about whether Oz exists or ever did—but the child will know, without anyone explicitly saying it, that the human transactions depicted there (ostracism of unusual children, racism, hypocrisy, caste systems in the schoolyard, but also countervailing forces like the love between friends, the transcending of social barriers, and rebellion) are potentially real. Children will inevitably realize in consequence, if they had not done so before, that these things are up for discussion.

This can be powerful information for a child. My own parents, who threw me in the deep end of the theatrical pool before I was 10, made me aware that there were such things as madness and straitjackets (Strindberg’s The Father), alcoholism and self-defeating tendencies (Odets’s The Country Girl), and countries where priests were shot (Greene’s The Power and the Glory)—not to mention all the myriad things that one could witness in Shakespeare or could infer of the Victorian world by reverse-engineering the parody in Gilbert and Sullivan. It wasn’t that I understood all the context or depth of these works at eight or nine, but whatever I could make out of their contents was open for consideration and discussion. And I certainly did consider and often discussed.

As Stephen Sondheim emphasized in his key song in Into the Woods, “Children will listen.”

Mythoi of Spring and Summer

So what are we usually welcoming them to listen to? The key element, I think, is what Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism called mythos, the reduction to story form of socially agreed insights into the processes of life. Mythos is seldom presented pure in any art form, but these days the shows to which children are taken tend to mash together several of them to what I would consider an unprecedented extent, precisely because we are increasingly torn about what we impart to our children.

Frye supplies the nomenclature for two of them prevalent in these shows, what he called “the mythos of spring” and “the mythos of summer.” The spring mythos, as Frye describes it, runs like this:

What normally happens is that a young man wants a young woman, that his desire is resisted by some opposition, usually paternal, and that near the end of the play some twist in the plot enables the hero to have his will. . . . At the beginning of the play the obstructing characters are in charge of the play’s society, and the audience recognizes that they are usurpers. At the end of the play the device in the plot that brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystallize around the hero. . . . The appearance of this new society is frequently signalized by some kind of party or festive ritual. . . . Weddings are most common.

The summer mythos, also known as the romance, Northrop sums up this way:

The complete form of the romance is clearly the successful quest, and such a completed form has three main stages: the stage of the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die; and the exaltation of the hero.

Traditionally, either male or female characters could be the heroes of spring stories, but only males could be the heroes of summer ones. This is no longer a socially-approved division of labor, and today’s musicals consequently struggle over what gender message to embody when touching on this sort of material.

The taxonomy of another pair of mythoi, intertwined with the spring and summer ones but distinct from them, owes more to psychology than to literary theory.

Mythoi of Separation and Maturity

One mythos, I would contend, is separation anxiety, too important to be considered a mere plot element. The encounter with that fear, and the process of calibrating the closeness but also the distance one should maintain with parents and community, tends to spark the extremely fraught encounters with parents, step-parents, and substitute parents through which the heroes of these shows must often go. Bruno Bettelheim’s influential if now somewhat discredited book, The Uses of Enchantment, brought Freudian concepts to bear on the world of fairy tales. (Fairy tale being such a predominant component of so much of the theater under consideration, it is hardly surprising that mythoi from fairy tale literature loom large there.) I would resist some of the hoary Freudian categories in which Bettelheim frames his analysis of these stories, but his attention to separation anxiety is spot on. And I have no hesitation in pronouncing the process of encountering it a mythos.

It is of course quite common in drama for a character to develop knowledge, skills, and insight, but such development is not usually the heart of adult drama; rather, the knowledge, skills, and insight that come to the hero in such shows do so as incidents or consequences of the heroes’ participation in deeper and more elemental transactions. In the specialized kind of show under consideration, on the other hand, the growth of insight may be the fundamental activity, to which everything else is secondary. Call this mythos Bildungsroman.

When you recognize spring, summer, separation anxiety, and Bildungsroman, you have, I would contend, the keys to what is being imparted to children in these shows.

Aladdin: Discomfort on the Other Foot

Aladdin’s plot places it within the mythoi of spring and summer. But at the outset it should be acknowledged there is much to its appeal that has little to do with a plot. A major reason to attend is the sheer verbal dexterity of the script, and in particular the delivery of the same by the Genie, James Monroe Iglehart being a worthy, Cab Calloway-esque successor to Robin Williams in the movie on which the show is based. The Genie provides what amounts to a running standup act full of topical humor, terrible puns, and shameless musical quotes from earlier Disney musicals. This is topped off with copious quantities of slapstick and spectacle from the Genie and everyone else in the large cast. Because neither that dexterity, that slapstick, nor that spectacle is my subject here, I shall simply acknowledge them, and say further that one could be unmoved by the mythos and have a wonderful time at this show nonetheless—and pass on. But we are on the quest for mythos.

It might be argued that Aladdin is a spring story, since it certainly centers on the courtship of a young man and a woman, and their union at the end reconstitutes the society of the mythical Arabian land of Agrabah where the show is set.

But if Aladdin is a love-and-marriage story, it is also a romance as Frye uses the term, since the marriage is, from the perspective of the hero, the only possible route to the object of his quest, status and respectability. Of course the eventual marriage is also based on love, but there is no denying the self-aggrandizing nature of Aladdin’s quest. He is introduced to us as a street rat, surviving by shoplifting, his amorality qualified by his stealing only what he “can’t afford,” a qualification itself immediately qualified by the admission “and that’s everything!” He is an orphan, without parents (though he recalls his mother), and he yearns to make these imagined parents “proud of your boy,” a yearning eventually transmogrified into a yearning for the regard of his inamorata, Princess Jasmine, as well as that of his companion the Genie, when the reprise of the song Proud of Your Boy becomes about them. Up to that point, however, Aladdin has been using the Genie’s powers to achieve a faux royalty, parading immense, Genie-conjured wealth and the imposture of a Prince Ali as a way to impress her and her father the Sultan. And indeed he does not deal with the truth of the matter until after he is involuntarily exposed. Then and only then does Aladdin address the flaws in his integrity. And even then, his objective largely remains marriage, which by no coincidence will lead to his becoming the sultan in due course.

This is likely to be problematical for all those adults sitting in the theater, whose own aspirations for their offspring in the adjacent seats will doubtless include some status, but will probably be weighted a lot more toward integrity. To the parents, given the reluctance in the hero’s embrace of character and its lack of depth, Aladdin will therefore probably remain a lovable scoundrel. What he may be to the kids is not so clear.

Might the female lead, Jasmine, ameliorate that problem? Alas, she comes equipped with one of her own, the problem Stacy Wood points to: what achievements are the female characters modeling? In traditional musicals of the time of Rodgers and Hammerstein, as the world knows and as Wood documents, younger female characters’ quests were heterosexual love and marriage; that is, in Frye’s terminology, spring and summer fused. Where happy union with a man was not the objective, it bespoke, at least potentially, something seriously wrong with the woman’s personality. (Think Mama Rose in Gypsy.) Men, meanwhile, got to have their own non-marital quests.

But feminism has altered the perspectives of the generation who are now the parents and grandparents in the audience. Now the discomfort is, so to speak, on the other foot. The generation that buys today’s tickets is, by and large, not opposed to love and marriage. But at the same time it is not desirous of seeing its daughters subsumed into and consumed by those institutions, and wishes young women to have their quests parallel to its sons’. The Disney Company understands this; the movies Mulan, Frozen, and Brave certainly cater to this perspective. But while a Frozen musical is headed for Broadway at this writing, it is not there yet. And in Aladdin the princess’s quest fundamentally remains marriage. Her independence and spunk are organized around this quest; she demonstrates her independence by refusing to be dictated to by her father in the choice of a spouse, not by, say, becoming the mistress of her own lamp and genie. And Aladdin wins her heart with razzle-dazzle, fraudulently presented at that, when he takes her on a magic carpet ride as if it were his own magic carpet rather than the Genie’s.

Anastasia and Parental Esteem

Anya, the heroine of Anastasia, has a newer-style female quest: to be recognized as the long-lost and supposedly deceased tsarina Anastasia Romanova. The musical in which she appears is stated in the program to be “inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox motion pictures,” to wit, the 1956 live-action film with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, and the 1997 animated Disney-style film musical with some songs that made it into the musical. One can easily take this attribution of influence too far. The plot-points and the characterizations differ quite a lot between either movie and the stage musical, yet on one crucial point all three works agree: Anya actually is Anastasia. We in the audience may well know that the remains of the historical Anastasia have been found under circumstances that conclusively negate her survival much past the date of the assassination of the rest of her family. But within the realm of the musical, she is what she purports to be. That means that, diametrically opposite to Aladdin, she is pressing a bona fide claim to status.

Despite this difference, the mythical materials in the two shows converge a bit.

Some background for this claim. In all three renderings of the Anastasia story, the pretender (albeit one who is actually the real item, as pretenders sometimes are) is on the verge of acceptance into the status that was the object of her quest—and turns aside from that long-sought acceptance to pursue a private life as the lover and presumably wife of a con man who had assisted her under the mistaken belief she was a fraud.

There are two ways of taking this. One could view it as a self-blunting of a woman’s quest for status and wealth, turning towards the conventional happy ending for a female character: marriage and domesticity—a betrayal of feminist hopes for portrayals of a heroine willing to seize the kind of brass ring formerly reserved for male heroes. Alternatively, one could view it as a morally sensible rejection of worldly things for more important ones. And significantly, in each case the former con man she wanders into the sunset with has also rejected these vain things first, before Anya does. I suspect that the creators of the musical (book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, direction by Darko Tresnjak) hope we view it in the second light.

And maybe we should. The impediment is, the musical positively drips with glamorization of the life Anya ends up rejecting. It is hard to overstate the effect of the lavish staging which stunningly conveys the dreamlike glitter of the ancien regime in St. Petersburg as seen through a child’s eyes, and then goes even further with the glamor of 1920s Paris. For instance, there is the moment Anya comes over a rise and sees Paris, projected on the rear scrim with near-photographic realism with lights ablaze, a visual quote from the animated film that just about takes the spectator’s breath away. And while Anya’s social target, the circle of White Russian aristocrats huddling together in Paris, is clearly shown as being a little pretentious and a little too unwilling to accept the reality that Russia is permanently outside their grasp, even they are given an opportunity to shine, in a scene punctuated by energetic folk dancing and more glittery clothes.

The things that might serve as dramatic justification for Anya’s rejection of the world of moneyed aristocratic exile—the blindness that six centuries of privilege enabled within the Romanovs and the Russian aristocracy, or the well-documented shortcomings in the Tsar himself, like virulent anti-Semitism and a dotty adherence to the doctrine of rule by divine right—are not presented. Instead, we have the magnificent, ballroom-centered vanities. Even the interesting character of Gleb, the Red Army’s assassin who seems to be a true believer in the Revolution and makes it attractive, to a point, fails to make much of a dent in the overall picture in which the Revolution is bad and the world of the aristocracy is good.

So there is no denying that the dramatic arc of Anya’s story, which seems to be taking her to princess-dom, instead settles at the last moment for making her a happy wife, the mythos of spring charging up from behind to edge out the mythos of summer. This would be the contrapositive of Aladdin’s story, which does end with him (a true fraud) becoming a prince, though that arrivisme is tempered with a dollop of true love.

There is another mythos at work here, however. Anastasia is a separation anxiety story par excellence. In both the animated movie and the musical, we see not one but two difficult separations from parental figures: the first and surprisingly more consequential being from the grandmother, the Dowager Empress, who promises a reunion in Paris, and the second the assassination of the family, though that event is more suggested than shown. With the parents gone, the Dowager Empress is the only parent left—and her acceptance and protection means everything to memory-impaired Anya, raised in an orphanage and working as a street sweeper. It means an identity, and memories, and love—and money too. And the entire action, up until nearly the final scene, is structured around a scheme to win that acceptance against the staunch resistance of the Dowager Empress herself. Winning a parent’s esteem can sometimes be terribly hard, a juvenile struggle Anastasia plays excruciatingly well. And, by no accident at all, the exact dramatic climax of the show is the moment the Empress’s icy demeanor melts after Anya sings a song whose significance only Anastasia would know, and the Empress responds, simply: “Anastasia.” Their embrace seals that moment.

The reunion with her grandmother is the real object of Anya’s quest. And, speaking in terms of the Bildungsroman, Anya has integrated her psyche, reclaimed her memories, and firmed up her moral world-view, as have her partners in would-be crime, the con men Dmitry and Vlad. And there is more: she faces down Gleb and his pistol; her sheer moral force (and Gleb’s waning self-assurance, somewhat like Javert’s at the end) saves her. Given all these achievements, Anya’s rejection of royal status and wealth cannot reasonably be seen as such a capitulation to theatrical conventionality, after all. They are the reasonable choices of a mature and fulfilled woman.

Outgrowing One’s Teenage Friends: The Lion King

Bildungsroman is the heart of The Lion King, the tale of yet another monarchical pretender on a quest to reclaim a throne that is rightfully his. The rightfulness—and much else—is established by perhaps the greatest opening number in the history of musicals, The Circle of Life, simultaneously a dazzling display of animal puppetry, a stirring blend of South African choral music and Western balladry, a philosophical statement, and an iconic enactment of the young hero’s consecration to leadership and of the community’s commitment to nurturing him. Simba, the princeling lion cub, the stand-in for every child in the audience, is told that, though he is still small, great things await, that there are adults standing around who acknowledge those things, and that it is right, naturally ordained, that the child will attain them, eventually replacing his or her parents in the process—because that is the way of the Circle. In fact, not just the parents but all the deceased ancestors, are extended parts of that community (They Live In You).

Of course, the development of every child is bound to be rocky at times, and every child will have his or her jejeune moments; that is the point of the Michael Jackson-style number, Simba’s first musical outing, I Just Can’t Wait To Be King. He views the prospect of kingship as a delightful exercise of ego assertion, without any understanding yet of the more difficult demands monarchy will make.

I’m gonna be the mane event

Like no king was before

I’m brushing up on looking down

I’m working on my ROAR!

This is delivered in counterpoint with steady interpolations of censorious commentary by Simba’s father’s hornbill servant Zasu.

If this is where the monarchy is headed

Count me out!

Out of service, out of Africa

I wouldn’t hang about

This child is getting wildly out of wing

Naturally, Simba’s lack of judgment lands him in serious trouble. First, his penchant for exploring takes him into the territory of hyenas, and his tactlessness provokes a potentially deadly situation with them, from which his father must rescue him. Then he makes the mistake of trusting his evil uncle Scar. To Simba’s shame his father this time dies defending him. Then, Simba takes Scar’s advice to flee his ignominy, leaving the throne open for Scar to usurp.

The second act traces Simba’s process of maturing and readying himself for true kingship. A way station is his coming under the unlikely protection of Timon, a meerkat, and Pumbaa, a warthog, roughly analogous to a youngster’s teenaged friends, who teach him the philosophy of Hakuna Matata (no worries), a kind of anesthetization which helps Simba cope for a time with the traumas we have seen him undergo, but which will not properly prepare him for the things he must face to reach full development or succeed in his quest.

This of course is also a separation anxiety story, so Simba must also deal with the loss of his father, accomplished in a reprise of They Live in You focused now on his father in particular. There is a tradeoff in Simba’s recognizing that he is now, in effect, his father; on the one hand, it forces him to face an irredeemable diminution, but on the other it connects him to the power in his heritage. Then Nala, Simba’s childhood friend and love interest, confronts him on the limits of Hakuna Matata, forcing him to accept the pain from which he has been running.

This sets up an ending in which Simba returns and rescues the land from Scar, becomes the rightful king, and marries Nala, a trifecta of accomplishments that shows us that he has grown and developed. He has become what the children in the audience will hopefully want to be.

The Potency of Wicked

One more show, Wicked, remains to discuss, and it is the outlier in this group, in many ways. Let me start with the quality that most intrigues Stacy Wood: what she takes to be its “queerness.” I take issue with the terminology, because the show is not about homosexuality nor about non-gender-conforming characters, unless one views strong friendships and alliances between female characters as themselves non-gender-conforming (I do not). Wood is correct that the corpus of musicals in which the central story concerns a strong affinity between two women is indeed thin. Wood is also correct that the presentation of the development of the relationship, and the sequencing of the songs surrounding it, echo the way heterosexual romances have traditionally been presented in musicals. But all this nonconformity has to do with the conventions of musicals, not those of gender or sexuality. And in the world of this musical, the character of Fiero, a heterosexual love interest for both leads, comes between them for a time. His character may be secondary, but his role is neither perfunctory nor pro forma.

Moreover, the twin heroines, Elphaba (who will become the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda, are engaged in quests which resemble those of the heroes we have been considering. Both, starting out as schoolgirls, are striving for positions of power in Oz—not perhaps the paramount power which comes from the title of monarch, the Wizard being the closest thing to a ruler—but great power. For Elphaba, the quest is multiple. She wants to “be with the Wizard,” which is incidentally also a quest to be reunited with her actual father (though she has no idea he is her father, and he does not learn of it until late in the action). She seeks the ability to work magic. And she seeks simple acceptance, since her green skin sets her apart from her peers. She will attain wizardry, but the acceptance she seeks will elude her, though it does come for her disabled and wheelchair-bound younger sister, initially marginalized. Glinda at first pursues a softer form of power, the power that popular and good-looking girls have in their peer group. But with time she seeks, and achieves, the Wizard’s power, with the explicit aim of doing good with it. At the end she is the ruler of Oz, though secretly broken-hearted by the loss of Elphaba’s company.

From these summaries, it is clear that they are on different trajectories. One of the great lessons of the show is that though this is sad, because it will ultimately drive their life courses so far apart they will not be able to maintain contact, the survival of their unity remains the deeper reality for them both. And they will have achieved something concrete: the uprooting of the Wizard’s regime, under whose auspices genocide against speaking animals turns out to have been conducted. And Glinda, who started out as mostly a pretty face, ends up a woman of substance, not unacquainted with grief, vested with political powers, while Elphaba continues a wild original course that the young audience-member who witnesses the exuberant and high-flying spectacle of her flight in the first-act closer “Defying Gravity” can only imagine.

This turns out to be quite potent stuff for the young women who flock to the show year after year. Wood’s study includes a chapter largely concerned with the fan websites devoted to the show in its earlier years (it came to Broadway in 2003). The sites she cites are now apparently shuttered, but in her description it seems that the essence of the show’s appeal to the website-posting audience was what she speaks of as the performance of diva-dom, the assertion by young women of the right to an audience’s attention and admiration, deemed revolutionary and revelatory. That assertion, enacted and sung, partakes of each of the mythoi considered here except that of spring.

Whatever the name for it, when parents take their youngsters to shows such as these on today’s Broadway, the mix of images and messages the children will be exposed to will be different from what might have prevailed in earlier times. As always, children are learning about what it takes to grow and become fully developed, and as is frequently the case, that struggle will be framed in terms of succession to a monarchy of some sort. But today, there is a definite movement, for female characters especially, away from the mythos of spring and onward, in a greater spirit of gender egalitarianism, to quests, Bildungsromans, and assumptions of adult distance vis-a-vis one’s elders. It does not hurt, either, that these tales are embodied in some unusually splendid shows which tend to stick around long enough that they can entertain more than one generation for at least a generation.

This, in sum, is what I take to be much of the explanation for those excited young people in Broadway theater lobbies, lucky enough to have grownups with the means to take them there. Whether these youngsters have come for the laughs, the spectacle, or the myths, by the time they are finished, they will have been exposed to all of them.

And, as we know, children will listen.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Joan Marcus. Source:

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

With SOUL, Stax Lives Again at Center Stage

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

With SOUL, Stax Lives Again at Center Stage

Posted on BroadwayWorld May 12, 2018

Soul: The Stax Musical, the world premiere of which is the final offering of Center Stage’s 2017-18 season, follows closely the major historical facts about the regrettably short life of Stax Records, the influential R&B label. For a company that abruptly disappeared into bankruptcy in 1975, its oeuvre and the history have been surprisingly thoroughly curated, and no visit to Memphis, the label’s home, is complete without a pilgrimage to the intersection of College and McLemore, the site of the converted movie theater that was the label’s headquarters over its entire trajectory, and is now a museum, bookstore, and anchor for a music-oriented college prep school adjacent to the site.

In light of the completeness of the musical and documentary history, simply retelling the history was the obvious choice in crafting this show. Every jukebox musical must choose one of three basic strategies: tell the history of the music and musicians (Motown), recreate or imagine a performance (Rain), or make up a new story using the songs (Rock of Ages). The actual story here has the virtues of availability (thanks to the curators of the Stax heritage), compactness (the company went womb to tomb in only 18 years), unexpected characters (white folks who founded a black label), conflict (mostly on the business side, less on the creative), great singers and musicians (lovingly recreated), and wonderful music for them to perform (by artists like Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, the Staples Singers, and Carla Thomas). What would be the benefit of taking any other route to bringing all this to the musical stage?

Actually, there is another answer, although I think it would come in a distant second: in the hundreds of tracks Stax recorded, there are all sorts of songs, particularly about love, that could have been strung together to frame a story. (For instance, consider the possibilities in two of the late-period numbers, The Soul Children’s I’ll Be the Other Woman (1973) and Shirley Brown‘s imagined address by a rightful wife to that other woman, Woman to Woman (1974).) Maybe someone else will do that.

But if we’re impatient – and what audience isn’t? – when decent simulacra are obtainable, we don’t want to experience songs revamped to fit imaginary characters. No, if we’re honest, we want the same songs we (or our parents or grandparents, as the case may be) grew up with, every note of the horn arrangements, and the original singer’s voice, imparting each smidgen of intonation and pacing that the original singer added to the song. We want impersonation. And in this production, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, we get nearly that.

The historical frame is perfect for catering to that simple but demanding taste: You want to see Otis Redding singing (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay? Fine, we’ve reached 1967 in the story, so here he is! And damn, doesn’t he sound good?

Given these permissive parameters, the book, by Matthew Benjamin, is free to amble amiably from one hit to the next in chronological order, and to give us such hits as Soul ManTry a Little TendernessWalking The DogWalk On By (the Isaac Hayes, not the Dionne Warwick, rendering), Mr. Big StuffRespect Yourself, and Hold On, I’m Comin’. And the performers are simply amazing in recreating the sound, and often the look, of their historical originals.

For instance, if there was much daylight between Ricky Fante’s intonations of Dock of the Bay and those of Otis Redding, I didn’t sense it. And while Boise Holmes‘ voice might be a bit more tenor-ish than Isaac Hayes‘ glorious bass-baritone, the impersonation is still startling, particularly given the physical similarities.

And when we get to appearance, the startling-ness continues. With proper makeup and costuming, Robert Lenzi‘s resemblance to co-founder Jim StewartWarner Miller‘s to part-owner Al Bell, and Rick Fante’s to Redding, are all ringer-worthy.

This is not to say that everything is strictly historical. For instance, the opening number of the show, Sweet Soul Music, is an ensemble rendering of Arthur Conley and Otis Redding‘s reworking of a Sam Cooke song that was not recorded at Stax’s Memphis Studio and Conley did not release on Stax. But hey, when you’re instantly plunged by it into the wonder that was Stax, who’s counting?

I would be remiss not to mention the outstanding performances by Harrison White and Allison Semmes as father-and-daughter performers Rufus and Carla Thomas. Which is not to slight the rest of the cast, too numerous to acknowledge individually, or the half-glimpsed members of the eight-piece band, nor the period-inflected choreography of Chase Brock.

In short, as John Lennon sang on the other side of the water the same year Sweet Soul Music was a hit: “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”

For Baltimore audiences, this show is more than an entry into the jukebox musical stakes, to be shelved with Motown and Memphis or Director Kwei-Armah’s own Marley(which premiered here three years ago); this is the local swan song, at least for the moment, of Kwei-Armah, who is returning to his native England. Local audiences know full well how much we owe him for his seven years as Artistic Director at Center Stage. His arrival was a shot of Naloxone for a Center Stage that seemed to be slipping into a coma. Everything seemed brighter and more vivid under his directorship, even the shows that didn’t completely work. His emphasis, as well, on including non-white and gay playwrights, performers and audiences, changed the tone of the enterprise to a joyful cacophony. He leaves gargantuan shoes to fill.

Copyright Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Bill Geenen.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Uncategorizable, Brilliant, and Profound: Bernstein’s CANDIDE at the Washington National Opera

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Uncategorizable, Brilliant, and Profound: Bernstein’s CANDIDE at the Washington National Opera

Posted on BroadwayWorld May 6, 2018

It’s hard to know how to categorize composer Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide, now in a Washington National Opera revival (based on a 2015 Glimmerglass Festival production) at the Kennedy Center.

Musically, Candide is half-light opera, half-musical. Some of the numbers require classical voice training, while some could and probably should be sung by Broadway-style performers. The chorus needs Broadway-style dancing abilities but has to back up the operatic numbers vocally.

Dramatically, the label “light opera,” while appropriate enough for the music, seems way off when applied to the subject matter or the treatment. When you hear the first few notes of the rollicking overture, you know Bernstein is genuflecting hard to Johann Strauss. Yet this is a story in which the principal characters are bayoneted, hanged, maimed, raped, prostituted, ravaged by disease, and enslaved, among other things, a story which, thematically, takes the characters and us right to the edge of the Nietzschean abyss and gives us a good long sobering look into it – not the sort of thing Strauss or Gilbert and Sullivan ever did. As in the song Auto-da-fe (“What a day, what a day, for an auto-da-fe!”), the juxtaposition of cheery music and grim subject-matter is deliberate.

Complicating matters still further is that there is not one Candide but multitudes. The original work, which premiered on Broadway in 1956, had Broadway orchestration and a book by Lillian Hellman and lyrics by Richard WilburJohn Latouche and Dorothy Parker(and others). Bernstein went on to craft (and then revise) a score for symphony-sized ensembles (like the near-symphony-sized Washington National Opera Orchestra). Independently, there have been lots of other sets of books and lyrics. Hellman’s book is no longer performed today; instead the foundation is generally a 1973 book by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim, with the additional twist that there are at least two versions of that – and that the current production is a 1999 revision of those revisions by John Caird. Are we confused yet?

No one tinkers this way with shows that started out perfect to begin with. Clearly Candide has its problems. Yet the brilliance of the piece from first (as witnessed by the original original-cast album) to last (as witnessed by today’s rendering) frequently takes one’s breath away. With only the oft-performed operetta-like Overture, the coloratura aria Glitter and Be Gay, and the magnificent finale Make Our Garden Grow and no fixes whatsoever, the work would still be assured immortality, problems be damned. And to me, the most important of these is the finale.

One reviewer of an earlier production commented that he never heard the finale without tears. I am the same way, and was that way even with my official reviewer’s notebook clutched in my hand. Why? The answer takes you to the heart of the show, to the heart of what makes the show most different from the 1759 fable by Voltaire upon which it was based.

Voltaire’s principal stimulus was the desire to lampoon what he saw as the inaccuracy and pointlessness of the philosophical and religious outlooks that (in his view) plagued European and European-colonial society. With an unnecessary heavy-handedness brought on by his reflexive anti-clericalism and his genteel anti-Semitism, he (in his mind) dispensed with any claims to philosophical truth in either Christian or Jewish doctrine by depicting churchmen who are venal and voluptuary and a Jewish banker who is cruel – and voluptuary. With more wit and subtlety Voltaire skewered Leibnizian optimism with his portrait of Dr. Pangloss, who teaches his students that ours is the best possible universe; Voltaire’s refutation was to show in an over-the-top way how cruel, arbitrary, and distressing life can be, including all the previously-mentioned violence inflicted on his principal characters. His protagonist, young student Candide, originally an adherent of Pangloss’s philosophy, comes to regard all philosophizing as a waste of time, and turns his life over to farming, to making his garden grow.

Bernstein and his collaborators, especially after Hellman was dropped, were after something deeper. Candide (sung here by tenor Alek Shrader) is on a quest for the meaning of life. He and his close associates Cunegonde (Emily Pogoreic), the Old Lady (Denyce Graves), Maximilian (Edward Nelson), Martin (Matthew Scollin), and Cacambo (Frederick Ballentine), are in addition to Candide’s personal quest, collectively striving to achieve a good life, which (it turns out) necessarily implies that one’s life be both free of illusion and fulfilling. Dr. Pangloss (Wynn Harmon) promises to provide the key to succeeding in both quests, and of course is humiliated in the process because his optimism is utterly inadequate juxtaposed with the horrors of which both man and nature are capable. In light of this inadequacy and in the absence of other viable ways of establishing that life has meaning, Candide chooses an existential course of forging his own meaning in the dignity of farming and hard work. In other words, Candide’s ultimate choices are close to religious ones, and if we were in any doubt about that, Bernstein’s music for the finale would tell us. As contrasted with Voltaire’s somewhat superficial cynicism, communicated with chilly humor, Bernstein’s finale is profoundly disillusioned, profoundly sad, profoundly determined, and yet in the strangest way hopeful too. That is why we cry when we hear it. (This production’s finale is captured in the photo above.)

This is not to say that it is easy to get to that point. A personal story: I and my family were introduced to the music by some friends of my parents who had us over for brunch one Sunday a year or two after the original cast album came out. They played part of it for us. I believe it was two months later that the wife of that couple hanged herself. I’m not suggesting that Bernstein’s music drove her to it, of course, but I would not be shocked if part of what did was her own look into the Nietzschean void that this work also evokes. This show could plausibly have provided theme music, as it were, to that look and to her ultimate choices. It is not either weak stuff or tame; it will affect your mood.

Afficionados of Bernstein (whose hundredth birthday celebrations this year have occasioned this revival) will know that the religious quest of Candide and his companions is part and parcel of Bernstein’s own religious quest, one he returned to repeatedly through much of his most important work, whether we’re talking about JeremiahKaddish, the Chichester Psalms, or Mass. Continually, we see how man’s inhumanity to man leads Bernstein to question how there could be a God, and how Bernstein nevertheless cannot really let go of faith, or of a belief that life has meaning and norms that are outside ourselves. In connection with another project years ago, I interviewed conductor Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protégée, and asked her if she thought Bernstein had ever resolved this conflict in his own mind, and she opined he had come down on the side of faith. I do not have my own answer to this question.

I was interested, however, to see in the composer’s daughter Jamie Bernstein’s program notes, the following: “…[T]he music is telling us something more: the soaring chorus seems to be telling us that growing our garden is a metaphor for the flowering of mankind itself!” And she adds that well-known cynic Lillian Hellman did “sign off on the musical’s finale, … and that makes me think that … Hellman … would ultimately be in agreement with the composer’s expression of purest optimism.”

As a drama critic, I lack the tools to critique the operatic end of the performance. To my ears, the singing all seemed splendid, and the large orchestra, conducted by Nicole Paiement, did well too (a couple of what sounded like trumpet fluffs aside). As a dramatic performance, it was – how to say this? – a full exploitation of the opportunities the book provided. I am not the first to observe that the second act has its longeurs, and that the catalogue of horrors goes on too long and becomes repetitious. But I thought Wynn Harmon‘s turn as Pangloss and also Pangloss’s creator Voltaire was wonderful. Denyce Graves kept me laughing with bits of accent and funny business as the Old Lady. Emily Pogoreic’s singing blew me away. And Alek Shrader was moving and amusing as the lead. I loved Jennifer Moeller‘s costumes, particularly the feathery and sparkly gold Las Vegas-y things the inhabitants of Eldorado wear. So I was quite ready to forgive the overlength problem.

In sum, highly recommended.

Copyright Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Scott Suchman.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Leaves a Trail of Stardust at The Hippodrome

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Leaves a Trail of Stardust at The Hippodrome

McGee Maddox and Allison Walsh

Posted on BroadwayWorld May 2, 2018

Of course director Vincente Minelli’s 1951 movie musical An American in Paris is a landmark of popular culture, perhaps the apogee of the MGM musicals. But one suspects that director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book author Craig Lucas, the creative minds behind the stage updating of that movie, now perched through Sunday at Baltimore’s Hippodrome, weren’t totally feeling it. And going back and watching the movie, neither was I. I was surprised at all the things that looked wrong on the screen, and it was clear to me, when I first saw the stage adaptation, that Wheeldon and Lucas had fixed many of those very things I spotted.

Clearly, Minelli and his collaborators had set out to capture some of the exuberance that infected Americans in postwar Europe, and I think that those who love the movie are partly responding to that sense of glamour. As it happens, I myself enjoyed a bit of the privileged life of postwar Americans in Europe, albeit as a small child, in 1952 and 1953. And yes, there certainly was a glamour to it. But that experience also gave me enough insight to state that what the movie presents is more false than true. The moviemakers missed the way Europe was still reeling, trying to clear away rubble, restart industry, and resettle various diasporas, all amid massive poverty. Americans living there were uneasy beneficiaries of the ruin their military might had partly inflicted. In France, as Mary Louise Roberts has revealed in her book What Soldiers Do, Americans during what amounted to an occupation had drawn much resentment for their debaucheries and their rapes of Frenchwomen. The Third Man, with its profiteering, corruption, and strong suggestions of prostitution, is a much more accurate cinematic snapshot of the mood of that period than An American in Paris. The Americans were still overlords, economic and military. There might have been a few penniless bohemians among them, like Jerry, the character Gene Kelly portrayed in the movie (one of my father’s childhood friends, most likely gay, had run away to Paris to live like that), but it would have been hard to disassociate most of the Americans in Europe from the spoils of victory.

Thus the notion one would get from the movie, that to be American in that Europe was to be adored and easily accepted, was an oversimplification. The movie did not do well in France (to MGM’s surprise), largely, I suspect, because to the French that oversimplification was not appreciated. Wheeldon and Lucas have intelligently darkened things, by emphasizing the horrors of the war and the German occupation (barely touched on in the movie), by depicting post-war reprisals against collaborators, and by explicitly making the character of Lise (the war orphan gamine heroine, portrayed in the movie by Leslie Caron) a Jew who had survived the war because she had been sheltered by the gentile family of Henri, her now-betrothed. (In the original’s script, Lise’s parents had only “worked with the Resistance.”)

Another thing just wrong with the movie which no one seems to comment upon, but which seems just as obvious to me, was the palpable age difference between Kelly and Caron. The day the movie was released, Kelly was and looked 39, and Caron was and looked only 20. Kelly had lost none of his athleticism, but his was no longer a young man’s profile. The notion of him romancing a very youthful woman half his age was putting a good face indeed on Kelly’s appeal. Meanwhile, the supposedly too-old-for-Jerry rich woman, Milo, played by Nina Foch, twelve years Kelly’s junior, looks far more age-appropriate for him than he for Caron. In the current musical, there is no such gap between McGee Maddox, today’s Jerry, and Allison Walsh, today’s Lise, pictured together above. Each looks youthful and in the contemporary argot, hot. As the picture shows, they belong in the same frame. (Nearly the same can be said of Kristen Scott, who looks only a touch older as Milo, the rich woman.)

Likewise, in the movie, the supposed wrongness of the projected match between Lise and Henri, here portrayed by Ben Michael) has no obvious explanation (even if you discount an age discrepancy between Caron and Georges Guétary not much smaller than that between Caron and Kelly), nor does the fact that Henri ultimately yields and lets her go to Jerry. The musical strongly suggests, however, that Henri is gay, although the script does not quite resolve the point. But that suggestion makes Henri’s decision to release Lise from their engagement much more explicable.

The most celebrated part of the movie is the 17-minute ballet sequence at the end, in which Jerry chases Lise though scenes suggested by artists Dufy, Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec. It reportedly cost MGM half a million 1951 dollars to make. I know we are all supposed to admire it for various reasons, but to me the artwork and design combine to make that quarter-hour an endless evocation of the feeling also induced by kitschy Ferrante-and-Teicher album covers of the era. It’s about as exotically foreign as French vanilla ice cream. As that ballet is reimagined on today’s stage, there is still borrowing from French artwork, but it seems more postwar by far; especially one can see the influence of Mondrian. The effect may be a trifle more austere, but the kitschiness is banished.

In sum, then, Wheeldon and Lucas have dodged a lot of the bullets that damaged the 1951 production, for all the acclaim the original may have received. But the modern recasting of the work salvages almost everything that worked well. The sturdy keel of both productions was George Gershwin‘s music and the songbook he created with his brother Ira Gershwin, although they have made somewhat dissimilar selections; only four numbers from the movie, including the two balletic George Gershwin pieces An American in Paris and Concerto in F, and the nightclub show number, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, make it into the musical. And where the choices differ, I prefer Wheeldon and Lucas’s, especially I Got Rhythm, which is shown being recrafted from a moody piece into a lively one, much as Jersey Boys uses a song to show the creative process that led to the Four Seasons’ distinctive sound, or in the biopic Delovely, we watch while Cole Porter instructs a singer how to remake Night and Day from a hard-to-sing trifle into the haunting thing it is.

The handling of I Got Rhythm, successful as it is, does nonetheless highlight about the only disimprovement I could spot in the adaptation, the loss of Oscar Levant. Afficionados of the movie will no doubt count Gershwin friend and proponent Levant’s performance as one of the things they loved best. Playing a composer named Adam who was to all intents and purposes Levant himself, Levant exhibited a rapport with Kelly that was utterly magical, and most particularly in the very song, Tra-La-La (This Time It’s Really Love) which most corresponded to I Got Rhythm in the stage musical. The rapport was not merely the tight integration of Levant’s piano-playing with Kelly’s tap-dancing; it was the effortless-seeming way in which Kelly’s part of the act sometimes impinged on Levant’s (Kelly, for instance, lying atop the grand piano, hitting some of the higher notes from above while Levant was tickling the lower ivories), or vice versa (Levant getting pushed momentarily from his piano stool to do a song-and-dance riff with Kelly). Maddox and Matthew Scott (today’s Adam) share the stage well together, but they don’t even try for such elevated schtick.

The musical might best be described as a contemporarily idealized version of the film, a rendering of what the film might have looked like in an era more inclined to be honest about the American role in postwar Europe, the toll of anti-Semitism in France, and homosexuality. Also it is more an artifact of this era’s norm in which musicals aspire to be integrated narratives that resemble plays more than variety shows. The story works a lot better as a real story.

And so, what is moral of the story? It seems to be that life is a ballet, and that true love is the unmistakable chemistry of two souls as right for each other as a prima ballerina and her male counterpart. And the corollary is that, if you’re not one of that blessed pairing, as Milo, Henri, and Adam are not, you need to recognize it and just get out of the way. You’ll at least be able to breathe in the trail of stardust the lovers leave behind.

And what a trail of stardust the whole musical leaves, both for the characters and the audience! There are the sets and lighting, already mentioned, which dazzle in their nimble evocation of the wonders of Paris, with a side-step into a fantasy nightclub that seems to be Radio City Music Hall, complete with spangled leggy chorines and dudes in top hats and tails. There is the dancing of the athletic Maddox and the graceful Walsh. (How many performers out there can claim true balletic chops, skill at acting and singing – and the aforementioned hotness?) And the word “dazzling” seems to have been coined for Gershwin’s music, generously ladled over the entire enterprise, and beautifully performed.

Only here through Sunday. So dance on over.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

The Catonsville Nine: Deserved Honor

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

The Catonsville Nine: Deserved Honor

To be published in the Daily Record May 11, 2018

There were two pieces in a recent Baltimore Sunday Sun about the “Catonsville Nine,” a group of Catholic anti-war demonstrators who seized and burned draft records in Catonsville in 1968, fifty years ago this month, and went to prison for it. One story told how the Nine were recently acknowledged with a state historical plaque near the site of their demonstration. In the other, an op-ed piece, Stephen H. Sachs, former U.S. Attorney for Maryland, later Maryland Attorney General, the man who supervised the prosecution of the Nine, though he credited their courage and conviction, faulted their behavior and called them “self-righteous.”

Sachs is a colleague most Maryland lawyers, including myself, hold in great esteem. However, he does that esteem no favors with these remarks.

Attacking the Draft

In 1968, the Vietnam War was being prosecuted by a government that already secretly knew to a near-certainty it could not be won. Popular support had been maintained only by the government’s lies about the prospects for victory, and slipped irreversibly below 50% shortly after the Nine’s demonstration. It is now well known that the only reason President Johnson kept it going was to avoid the nation’s losing face. And it was costing, on average, over a thousand American lives and countless Vietnamese ones each month. An undeclared war carried on simply to save face is unforgivably immoral and arguably illegal. And there was no way the war could have been waged without the draft. It followed that an attack on the draft was a direct attack on a clearly immoral and possibly illegal war.

Of course, a war’s immorality does not justify all possible responses. But Sachs finds the Nine’s legal theories dangerous and their characters wanting. And on both counts he is wrong, and, worse than wrong, blind to the dangers in his own approach, then and now.

The Dangers of Nullifying Nullification

The Nine hoped to be acquitted by a jury, in the teeth of both the evidence and law. Jurors have the power and the right to do this, a practice known as nullification. Nullification has been a part of American jurisprudence at least since the 1735 sedition trial of New York journalist John Peter Zenger, in which his lawyer was permitted to argue to the jurors that they had the right to acquit him, even though the prosecution had proved its case. The jury did acquit, much to the annoyance of the Crown, and thereby speeded the eventual and welcome demise of sedition laws in the republic which succeeded the colonial government that had tried Zenger.

Nullification is an important social safety valve where prosecutorial discretion is questionable, for instance when it might violate a community’s conscience to penalize illegal behavior, and the prosecution insists on trying to penalize it anyway. Despite nullification’s value, courts and prosecutors hate it. By 1968, many courts had sought to curtail it by forbidding defense lawyers to inform juries that they had that power.  Obviously, a jury not informed about nullification may not know it can nullify, and for that reason alone may fail to do so, disabling the safety valve, to society’s detriment. Sachs and his team unfortunately prevailed on the Fourth Circuit to bless this unwise interference with the jurors’ right to know a legal principle vital to their deliberations.

Sachs has a point that jury nullification has occurred in defense of bad causes as well as good ones. But that has not happened, one suspects, nearly as often as laws that have lost their legitimacy have continued to be enforced, nor as often as legitimate laws are enforced in ways that nonetheless violate the conscience of the community. Misguided prosecutorial discretion is a much greater menace to us all than jury nullification.

Civil Disobedience: Legal Standing Is No Prerequisite

In the background of the Catonsville case was the problem of standing, the power of the protestors, who were not personally being subjected to the draft or sent to war, to raise the possible illegality and the clear immorality of the Vietnam War as a defense. The biggest justification for a standing requirement is that a person not directly involved in a dispute may not have the motivation or facts to litigate it. But that only makes sense where someone else with a closer involvement is able to maintain the action. This was not the case with attempts to litigate the legitimacy of Vietnam; draftees who fought attempts to induct them personally were always prevented from litigating that point.[1] In this context, attacks on draft boards, which violated other laws, as a way both to make a point and get into court, seemed like a reasonable alternative, even if the attacks were carried out by non-draftees.

In any case, the absence of legal standing does not deprive an action of the status of civil disobedience, which is effectively what Sachs would make of it. (Sachs seems to consider himself qualified to say what was and was not civil disobedience, while exhibiting no awareness of the complex technical debates around the term.) He says the Nine did not engage in civil disobedience, by contrast with Thoreau, Gandhi, and King because, in part, the Nine did not face a “personal choice between the demands of government and the demands of conscience.” This is not completely accurate. To make their point, King and Gandhi broke laws they could have sidestepped, just as the Nine did.[2]

Sachs also writes that “no law of doubtful validity was being applied to” the Nine – though it seems that the laws protecting the property of the Catonsville draft board were, formally speaking, no more nor less valid than the tax law Thoreau violated, the public safety laws King violated, or the sedition laws Gandhi violated. Anyway, formal sufficiency aside, the validity of the laws was indeed doubtful – to the extent they were being used to support the Vietnam carnage.

Most especially, Sachs faults as both reprehensible and inconsistent with civil disobedience the Nine’s choice to seek exoneration via jury nullification. This criticism is the hardest to fathom. If in 1968 judges were not going to address the War’s validity, it made good sense to turn to juries. The effort would have been pointless without the Nine’s seeking acquittal, because it could only be through jury nullification and hence acquittal that they could push aside the judicial roadblock to consideration of the basic question they wanted adjudicated. Seeking exoneration by a jury was an intelligent, if ultimately unsuccessful, tactic to bypass judicial intransigence.


Finally, as a stick to beat the Nine, Mr. Sachs trumpets the virtues of “self-doubt,” which he says the Nine lacked. If Mr. Sachs thinks self-doubt is so important, one wonders why none is displayed in his op-ed, even at a moment when the verdict of history seems to call into question how he exercised his prosecutorial discretion. Or is self-doubt only for defendants, and moral certainty reserved for prosecutors?

A U.S. Attorney entertaining self-doubt might have considered legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s thoughts on civil disobedience published in June 1968, prompted precisely by draft protests: “A prosecutor may properly decide not to press charges … for dozens of … reasons…. One is the obvious reason that [draft protestors] act out of better motives than those who break the law out of greed or a desire to subvert government. Another is the practical reason that our society suffers a loss if it punishes a group that includes—as the group of draft dissenters does—some of its most thoughtful and loyal citizens.”

The Nine were thoughtful and loyal citizens (two were veterans, four were present or former clergy). Knowing that they would probably land in federal prison, they took concrete steps to halt a war machine that needed halting, and to enlist juries in the effort. For this, they deserve our respect.


[1]. See, e.g., U.S. v. Hogans, 369 F.2d 359 (2d Cir. 1966); Ashton v. U.S., 404 F.2d 95 (8th Cir. 1969), cert. denied (relating to case decided in 1968 or earlier).

[2]. It is true that Thoreau was arrested for passively violating a “governmental demand” to pay taxes, but Gandhi and King repeatedly did things to get themselves arrested. King defied orders not to hold protests, and violated laws against obstruction of sidewalks. Gandhi was often arrested, but his first conviction was for sedition, for taking the affirmative step of advocating that others engage in civil disobedience against the British Raj.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for photograph. Credit: William L. LaForce, Baltimore Sun. Source: .

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column


A Different Sort of Heroics

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

A Different Sort of Heroics

Published in the Daily Record online edition April 12, 2018, in print April 13, 2018

Lawyers blessed with intelligence, integrity and an enterprising spirit can usually make significant money. And lawyers who eschew the bigger financial rewards to pursue public service can still reasonably aspire to prominence if not wealth. Both kinds of careers are enviable. But there is a special kind of felicity in being able to combine these paths, doing well while also doing good, especially the kind of good that embodies some kind of conviction personal to the lawyer.

A Special Kind of Felicity

Such a practitioner was Lawyer Hugh Clarke, about whom I wrote in these pages a couple of years ago, a rural attorney who became a leading practitioner in and legislator for Heywood County, Tennessee, but who always represented the African American poor for whatever they could pay, one of whom, blues singer Sleepy John Estes, memorialized him in a song that survives to this day. And such was Gilbert Roe (1864-1929), a successful Manhattan lawyer who advocated for a wide variety of free-thinking luminaries in the first three decades of the previous century. I’m talking about clients like Emma Goldman, Lincoln Steffens, Margaret Sanger, Upton Sinclair, John Reed and Eugene Debs, some of the leading lights of journalism, social reform, and radicalism in that era.

Roe, the subject of Defending the Masses, a new biography by University of Baltimore law professor Eric Easton, was no radical, even though the names of these well-known clients might suggest as much. Instead, Roe was a progressive Republican (not such a contradiction in terms then), a disciple and friend of Robert La Follette, Wisconsin governor and senator and presidential candidate. He developed a sophisticated New York business litigation practice, representing victims of insurance fraud and swindled investors. The radical clients like Emma Goldman apparently came Roe’s way for the simple reason that he had a modern conception of the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment in an era before that conception had achieved any currency.

Roe was a passionate adherent of the right to advocate peacefully against the existing social order, and willing to help out those who engaged in such advocacy. This kept him quite busy, because the foes of such advocacy were legion: Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock was on the lookout for smut (a category that extended to birth control education and discussion of abortion); Red-baiting prosecutors sought to protect the prerogatives, wealth and untouchability of the capitalist class, by going after that class’s critics for sedition (not to mention deploying armies of goons to suppress unionism); and warmongers, led by the Wilson White House, treated as treasonous any challenge to the waging of the First World War or the conscription required to make that war possible. Judicial and popular acceptance of impunity for any kind of speech which did not pose a “clear and present danger” as we now understand the phrase still lay in the future while Roe was at work.

A Dismal Win/Loss Record

It must be said that Roe was singularly unsuccessful in his efforts to protect the free speakers he defended. His client the socialist publication The Masses was driven out of business because its access to the mails was cut off despite Roe’s efforts. Socialist and presidential candidate Eugene Debs, in whose appeal from a sedition conviction Roe filed an amicus brief, went to prison for denouncing the draft. Teacher Benjamin Glassberg, a public school teacher who had taught his students that Bolshevism might not be an unimitigated evil, lost his job and Roe could not get it back for him. And so forth. This dismal win/loss record stands as testimony, not to Roe’s lack of skill, but to the temper of the times. Twenty years later, with the same clients and the same issues, his win/loss record would have been much better. In the years between, Justice Holmes’ “clear and present danger” test, originally deployed as a sword against dissent (articulated in the affirmance of the conviction of a socialist for circulating antiwar literature in wartime), began to be transformed into a shield for dissent.

Roe never put himself personally in harm’s way. He was not so much an advocate of left-wing causes as an advocate for the freedom of others to espouse those causes. The muck-raking journalists, the birth control educators, the draft resisters Roe represented: these might well engage in civil disobedience and be ready to face imprisonment, unemployment and/or disgrace for their views. Roe was content to mount what defenses the law and the times permitted, and to work with a network of network of similarly-minded colleagues to develop theories and best practices in defense of free speech.

Division of Labor

So there was a clear division of labor; the clients alone would take the risks, exposing themselves to the possible consequences, and Roe, win or lose, would try to protect the clients from those consequences if he could. Many of the clients were passionate about their causes, temperamental and irritable. Yet if Easton’s book is to be believed, none of the clients objected that Roe should have flown closer to the flames himself.  Roe seems to have been loved by the majority of the clients he took on for such reasons, and he certainly got personally close to many of them. Emma Goldman was a guest at his house; he marched in suffragette parades; he received affectionate thank-yous from school teachers drummed out of their jobs for being “un-American.” Yet in his personal life he remained a comfortably bourgeois Republican lawyer enjoying comfortable domesticity.

Lawyers cannot soar too close to the flames themselves, because doing so may jeopardize their ability to protect others who do so.

It would be a false comparison to pit the career paths of the brilliant protestors Roe represented against Roe’s more sheltered and more conventional one. There are different sorts of heroics. Posterity benefits equally from access to birth control, the opening of horizons accomplished by socialist thinking, and the Progressive heritage of good government on the one hand, and from the practical laying of the legal groundwork for free speech doctrine on the other, without which the other things may not come about at all. Though it may not have been apparent at the time, few lawyers are as fortunate as was Roe to have the times and their inclinations come together so productively.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column