Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Unmasking Alexander Hamilton in the (Living) Room Where It Happens

 It’s an ill wind, they say, that blows no one any good. As we all live through the enforced boredom of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is making a mighty comeback in living rooms everywhere. Would-be theatregoers like me had our expensive tickets refunded at the start of quarantine. But in a great trade-off, we can now see the original cast in the filmed version of the stage production, by committing to a month of Disney+.

Normally a filmed play is not something to get excited about. The thrill of live theatre lies in its spontaneity: the fact that drama blossoms right before your eyes. The audience, fundamentally, is part of the show. Some productions capitalize on this fact by staging the action in such a way that the onlookers are personally drawn in. Back in the 1930s, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which culminates in a labor uprising, planted strikers in the audience, the better to shake up the crowd. In 1967, Hair sealed its connection with the young people in their theatre seats by inviting them on stage to dance with the cast, while their parents awkwardly stayed put. The stage version of The Lion King mesmerizes audience members by opening with a animal parade up the theatre aisles.

Hamilton is not the kind of show that relies on such (let’s face it) gimmickry: the actors stay on the stage and the audience stays in its seats. Still, this very pointed re-telling of the birth of the U.S.A. uses such innovations as rap music and the Founding Fathers played by actors of color, all to drive home a point about the revolutionary nature of the great American experiment. Individual performances have generated electric excitement, particularly just after the 2016 election when Vice-President-elect Mike Pence was in the house. Since then, Hamilton has continued to be a hot ticket, particularly among those new to the theatre-going experience. The show’s reach has been so great that when John Bolton, former National Security Advisor in the Trump administration, put forth his tell-all book, he apparently borrowed its title, The Room Where It Happened, from Hamilton’s jazziest tune.

Because Hamilton, in its Broadway staging, has become such a cultural phenomenon, the always shrewd Disney company saw fit to back the filming of the play, planning to release it at cineplexes next year. COVID changed those plans: with all of us currently addicted to TV viewing, it made sense to release the film NOW, as a splashy way to kick off Disney’s new subscription service.

Years ago I graduated from (really!) Alexander Hamilton High School. There was a statue of Alex in our main building, but few of us had much interest in the man himself. In his knee britches and pigtail, he looked singularly boring: all we knew is that he was Secretary of the Treasury (big whoop!) and had the bad taste to die in a duel. Too bad, we all thought, he wasn’t someone exciting, like, say, Thomas Jefferson. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rendition, Jefferson is a real sparkplug, though not perhaps someone worth admiring. Hamilton, by contrast is a bastard, an orphan, and an immigrant—who knew? Also brilliant and occasionally very much mistaken.

I saw a road company of Hamilton in Chicago, in the third balcony of an enormous old theatre. I enjoyed it, but felt I was missing the nuances enjoyed by those in orchestra seats. Thanks to a film version artfully photographed (with ten cameras) and edited, I could finally truly see what the historic hoo-ha was all about.

Friday, July 3, 2020

“Apollo 13”– Boldly Going Where No Film Crew Had Gone Before

With the  4th of July coming up fast, there can be no better moment to contemplate Ron Howard’s 1995 epic, Apollo 13. At a time of angry partisan divide, it’s encouraging to look back at a point in recent history where the entire country—in fact, the entire world—was on the same page. And when, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re all despairing about the American way of life, it’s heartening to remember a crisis that turned into a triumph.

You may recall that in April of 1970, three astronauts blasted off from Cape Canaveral, headed for the moon. Unlike the Apollo 11 mission the previous year, this one occasioned no great amount of press coverage. When Neil Armstrong and his two-man crew departed for the lunar surface in July of 1969, the whole world was watching. Armstrong’s slow-motion steps on the moon—the first by any human being—were cheered by virtually everyone in range of a TV set. The Apollo 12 mission in November 1969 was blissfully uneventful, which meant that by the time James Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert strapped into their seats in April 1970, few members of the public were paying much attention. Journalists who interviewed the men before their departure questioned whether they were nervous about the number thirteen. True to their training as tough-minded men of science, they all expressed total confidence in their mission and in each other. Little did they know that an on-board explosion would cripple their spacecraft, leading to the very real possibility that they’d never return to earth.

I thought a great deal about Apollo 13 while writing Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond. Howard’s film, which I consider a highlight of his long career, points up the many bad omens for those in search of them. Lovell and his crew had been scheduled for Apollo 14, but fairly late in the game were shifted to the earlier mission when astronaut Alan Shepard, returning from medical leave, needed additional training time. Then, three days before the launch, astronaut Ken Mattingly was booted from the crew, over the objections of his teammates, because of exposure to measles. So Swigert was a last-minute replacement, and the film nicely captures the awkwardness between three men (played by Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon) who were not entirely comfortable with one another.

 The script also makes room for the feelings of those on the ground. Marilyn Lovell, wife of Jim, is sympathetically portrayed by Oscar-nominated Kathleen Quinlan as a supportive but anxious helpmeet, trying to juggling her own fears and her responsibilities toward those left behind. Ed Harris was nominated for playing Gene Kranz, who as director of Mission Operations must somehow keep his cool while leading the mission-impossible effort to bring back the stranded astronauts safely.

Some of the film’s strong sense of authenticity comes from the fact that NASA was an integral partner in its production. The space agency, figuring that Americans would not return to the moon for many decades to come, reasoned that this film (based on Lovell’s own memoir, Lost Moon) could be used as an historic record of the near-disaster. NASA therefore provided full access to its documents and facilities, even giving Howard and his three astronauts the unique opportunity to film in brief spurts in the K-135 aircraft (nicknamed the Vomit Comet), used by generations of astronauts to experience weightlessness. I’ll close with high praise for James Horner’s stirring score, and for the film’s poignant reminder that there’s no place like home.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

“The King of Staten Island”: More Than Skin Deep

Unlike many New York City residents, I’ve actually spent time on Staten Island. Though the island constitutes one of the city’s five boroughs, residents of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan rarely set foot in what is primarily an urban bedroom community, best reached by the picturesque Staten Island Ferry. But the island has its own patois, its own zoo, its own beaches, and even its own (minor league) baseball team, the Staten Island Yankees.

The mixed sense of pride and embarrassment felt by the residents is conveyed in a raucous but sweet new Judd Apatow comedy, The King of Staten Island. It begins with a clutch of layabout buddies not far into adulthood. Their natural topics of conversation include their chances of scoring good dope and the fact they consider their locale a dead end. Says one, “Why can’t we be cool, like Brooklyn?” Gripes another, “We’re the only place New Jersey looks down on.”

Central to this conversation is Scott, whose dream is to open a combination tattoo parlor and restaurant, to be named Ruby Tattoosday. Like the rest of his life, this dream isn’t going anywhere. At age 24, he doesn’t have a real job and lives at home with his widowed mom. Among his friends he riffs about his neuroses and physical issues (ADD, Crohn’s Disease, you name it) and seems to make light of the fact that his father, a local firefighter, died during a rescue mission in a hotel fire when Scott was seven. It’s clear, though, that having a Hero Dad has made his own life seem insignificant by comparison.

Apatow wrote this film along with comedians Dave Sirus and Pete Davidson. Davidson plays the leading role, one that reflects the broad strokes of his own life. He too was raised on Staten Island, has a host of physical and mental issues, and lost a firefighter-dad in the rubble of the World Trade Center. That’s probably why he seems so wholly credible as Scott, a slacker who is both foul-mouthed and funny, both bone-headed and soft-hearted, dumb enough to get involved in a criminal enterprise and yet smart enough to have the potential to move forward. I don’t think it’s an accident that the film’s final scene finds him on that Staten Island Ferry, heading for Manhattan. This isn’t Saturday Night Fever, but still there’s a sense that, given enough love and guidance, he has the potential to move into a healthy adult life.

A first-rate cast handles with gusto the profanity-laced script. It’s good to see Marisa Tomei, once the Brooklyn bombshell of My Cousin Vinny, as Scott’s plucky mother, who finds love in the most unexpected place. When Tomei won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her Vinny role critics scoffed, unwilling to recognize the brilliance of her comic performance. Years later she nabbed additional nominations for heavily dramatic roles in The Wrestler and In the Bedroom, but I’m glad the current film makes room for her blue-collar spunk as well as her tender heart. There’s also a wonderfully credible sense of blunt camaraderie among the firemen with whom Scott eventually finds a home away from home. I can think of no better compliment than to say that they all feel very real indeed. And such wry throwaway dialogue as (at an emotional moment), “We don’t have to get all Oprah” helps keep the film’s potential sentimentality at bay.

Anyway, there’s not much place for the sentimental in a film that climaxes in a bizarre tattooing session. Personally, I loathe tattoos, but I loved The King of Staten Island. 

A fond farewell to the talented Milton Glaser, to the irreplaceable Carl Reiner, and to the enigmatic Charles Webb, who wrote the novel that became the film The Graduate. More to come!