Friday, May 24, 2024

A Helluva Town: How New York Takes Over

I’m just back from New York City, the self-proclaimed capital of American culture. Though I love visiting, I have a bit of a grudge against the Big Apple, for the way that it scoops up talents developed elsewhere. Film critic Justin Chang, an Angeleno with a Southern California education, started honing his craft on Variety, and then served with distinction as the #1 movie commentator at the Los Angeles Times. His work on the Times has just won him this year’s Pulitzer Prize for criticism, but by the time it was announced he had recently decamped from the Times to take a post at The New Yorker.  

 Chang’s eastward move matches that of other esteemed L.A. Times writers, like film reviewer Manohla Dargis, who became the chief critic of the New York Times and is a five-time Pulitzer finalist. In an adjacent field of criticism, Ruth Reichl spent nine years at the L.A. Times before moving to New York in 1993 as the New York Times’ top restaurant reviewer. Today she is an esteemed food writer, who stays busy publishing food-related memoirs, magazines, and cookbooks.

 Then there’s the field of music. As an Angeleno native, I remember  the local dismay when Zubin Mehta, the brilliant young conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978, was suddenly announced as the new leader of the venerable New York Philharmonic, a post he retained until 1991. Currently history seems to be repeating itself. It seemed like quite a novelty in 2007 when a talented but mostly unknown young Venezuelan named Gustavo Dudamel was announced as the upcoming leader of the L.A. Phil. The orchestra, under his enthusiastic direction, was constantly making headlines and being welcomed into concert halls the world over. Now, though, he’s looking forward to a five-year contract with (yup!) the New York Phil, starting in 2026. What’s next for L.A.? I’m guessing another gifted no-name whom New York will eventually poach.

 SoCal gets a bit of its own back, I guess, when it comes to on-stage musical entertainment. There was a time, of course, when the big shows first appeared on Broadway (think West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Fiddler on the Roof), and were then transferred to the screen with much hoopla. Many popular stage musicals became big Oscar winners, though the very last (an anomaly at the time) was the film version of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago in 2002.  In recent years the trend has been totally reversed, with popular films trying to make it big as stage musicals, often with mediocre results. I remember Broadway introducing stage versions of such hugely popular films as An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which the big takeaway was that a Broadway actor can’t step into the shoes of a genuine movie star and expect the same outpouring of affection from the audience. 

Films that didn’t start out as musicals may do slightly better: I recall watching on the Tony Awards broadcast a really imaginative number from a musicalized stage version of Catch Me if You Can. And composer/lyricist Adam Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rodgers, has made something of a career of adapting small, serious films for the musical stage. His The Light in the Piazza won awards in the early days of this century, and in 2023 Days of Wine and Roses garnered respect, if not big box office. Alas, it closed on Broadway in March. One of my remaining choices was a musical translation of Back to the Future.   

 Dedicated to the members of BIO, the Biographers International Organization, whose New York City conferences are always so enlightening and so much fun.


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