Archive for April, 2015

On Pete La Farge and His Illustrious Family

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Music, Native American Interest, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late Oliver Albee “Pete” La Farge (1931-1965). With protest roiling all around it seems timely to contemplate folksinger/ songwriter La Farge’s life and works. But before I get there, I feel compelled to take a roundabout route. There’s no way for someone like me to talk about him without mentioning his lineage, for he was a member of what you might call America’s cultural aristocracy, with deep roots not only in my home state, but in my home town.

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La Farge was the great-great-great grandson of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1818), one of America’s first notable military figures, hero of the War of 1812, and also America’s quasi-war with the French, and the naval battles with Barbary pirates. He is famous for the slogan on his battle flag: “Don’t Give Up the Ship” and for uttering the immortal phrase “We have met the enemy and they are ours…” (later parodied in the comic strip Pogo as “We have met the enemy and they are us.”) Perry was born and raised in my hometown South Kingstown, Rhode Island, so I’ve known his name since I was a school child. (It turns out that I am distantly related to him as well, through our common ancestors the Wilbores).

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“Girl in Grass Dress (Seated Samoan Girl)”, John La Farge, 1890

In 1860, Perry’s granddaughter Margaret Mason Perry married John La Farge (1835-1910), an influential painter, illustrator, and stained-glass artist. Of French parentage, the wealthy La Farge was born in New York and studied painting with William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island. He traveled widely in Asia with Henry Adams (whom I recently learned I’m related to) and brought back influences of Japan and the South Seas which he expressed through his famous work, which you can read about here. 

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Of John La Farge’s eight children (all born at Newport), several were distinguished. Christopher Grant La Farge (1862-1938), the oldest, became a noted Beaux-Arts architect, whose best known work includes the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and several buildings at the Bronx Zoo. There’s a good article about la Farge’s firm here. His younger brother Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge (the first) was also a notable architect, writer and real estate developer. John’s youngest son John La Farge Jr., a Jesuit priest, became a famous and influential crusader against racism and anti-semitism.

Of the next generation, several more La Farges were equally famous.

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The best known is Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge (the second), Christopher’s son, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and anthropologist. His main field of study was Native American culture, which he wrote about in several books, both fiction and non-fiction. Laughing Boy (1929) was the one that won the Pulitzer, and remains his best known work. (This Oliver was Pete’s dad).

Oliver’s older brother Christopher La Farge, was also a distinguished and prolific novelist, poet and playwright, known for writing verse novels about life in Rhode Island. Remarkably, he also worked as an architect at McKim, Mead and White. I am one degree of separation from this La Farge! For when I was in high school, his son the poet W.E.R. La Farge came to my high school class and did a writing work shop. Not for nothin’, but he actually singled out a poem of mine and showed it to the class! (In retrospect, we behaved like, well, teenagers, and didn’t give this special opportunity the respect it deserved. If only I could turn back the clock -!) W.E.R.’s daughter Annik maintains a loving web site in his honor, and has also taken up the family business of writing and love of architecture, penning an excellent book and blog about New York’s High LineLearn all about it here.

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Now we come to Pete. Pete was the son of the Pulitzer prize winning OHP. Born in NYC, but raised largely in New Mexico and Colorado, when he was still a boy he met the legendary Josh White, who inspired him to become a folk singer.  In the late ’50s, he moved to Greenwich Village and became one of the key players in the scene I wrote about here. His western upbringing imbued him a love of both cowboy culture and the culture of Native Americans. It gave him an interesting authenticity that set him apart from many of the folk musicians of his generation, and in reality he was kind of a bridge between that older (30s and 40s) generation of folk and blues players and his contemporaries (Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, etc).

He became most famous for penning a song called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” — a true story about one of the guys who raised the flag at Iwo Jim in that famous WWII photo. Hayes was a Pima Indian from Arizona. After all the heroism hoopa he went back home, where there was no opportunity and he drank himself to death. Johnny Cash had a hit record with the song in 1964, and Bob Dylan did a version on his 1973 Dylan LP, although the version I know best is Patrick Sky’s, recorded on his eponymous debut album in 1965. I’ve been listening to Sky’s record quite a bit over the past year…it was exposure to that version that led me on the journey to this blogpost.

La Farge also co-wrote a song with Dylan called “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”. He made several records during the folk boom of the early 1960s, and died by accidental overdose (there are conflicting reports) in 1965.

Just learned there is a Pete La Farge web site (Peterlafarge.com) and a book and a documentary about him are out. Here’s about the doc, which came out in 2010:

Ranty Rant, Part Three

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , on April 28, 2015 by travsd

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To follow up some on the rant that began here and continued here…because we just can’t let go.

First I realize I need to apologize to the nice lady who invited me to see the show in the first place. I know she felt sucker-punched and I’m sure I got her in trouble with her boss. She is just an innocent by-stander in this drive-by. She was a friend, and now we’ll be dead-eyeing each other at events, and that sucks.  I guess she didn’t realize that that’s what I do , and hence this introduction to me. I’m a critic; I have very little interest in hanging out at parties.

She got it wrong when she accused me of jealousy though. I just had a couple of successful (sold out in fact) shows at some pretty prestigious venues, so it’s not quite that. And I’m smart enough to know that things go much better when you make nice-nice. And yet I GRATUITOUSLY, flagrantly did not do that.

Why would I do that? Why would someone do that? Recklessly damage relationships. For fun? For the heck of it? Ya think so?

Look at this post from yesterday. It’s because I CARE about these people. I care about protecting and promoting their art, their lives and their legacies. I don’t want to see them disrespected or treated lightly or shat upon. And — WOW — if you invoke the Holy Name of ZIEGFELD on 42nd Street — for God’s sake! — what you’re doing had better goddamn well be WORTHY of that name. And if you are presenting someone who is supposed to be EDDIE CANTOR in a BROADWAY HOUSE, hadn’t that person BETTER be the BEST Eddie Cantor impersonator in the country? Hadn’t he at least BETTER be doing an Eddie Cantor impression? And shouldn’t the music be period appropriate? These are, like, fundamental. This is before tying your shoes and brushing your teeth in the morning kind of stuff. Yet the caliber of the almost uniformly positive reviews the show is getting are like this one from Theatremania, which says off-handedly, “Fink eschews Cantor’s eye-rolling routine in favor of….” Something else. That’s okay?! That’s NOT okay! What sort of “reviewer” are you? You don’t get to just blow it off! The actor doesn’t get to blow off his role! That’s not a choice! It’s either what it’s supposed to be or it’s not.

So this thing is slipshod, amateurish, unresearched, uninformed, and unworthy of the Deuce. This venue happens to be a showplace in the heart of Times Square, the cocoon and the pinnacle of the Best in American Theatre. So take this amateur dinner theatre thing to Epcot Center or Las Vegas or someplace where people don’t know the difference! Oh, I forgot. You’re next door to Applebees, so it looks like you’re already there.

Charlie Chaplin IS “Caught in a Cabaret”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2015 by travsd
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Chaplin with Chester Conklin. Hank Mann’s in the eye patch. The rest of ’em are somebody too

Today is the anniversary of the release of the great Keystone ensemble comedy Caught in a Cabaret (1914), directed by Mabel Normand, written by and co-starring herself and Charlie Chaplin. The film has two locations, a low-down cabaret and a posh society party: because of this anyone who was anyone in the Keystone company is in the film too, and it’s fun to pick them all out.

The film is also seminal for being the first of many “stolen identity” plots Charlie would star in. Based on the earlier Biograph comedy The Baron (1911), it casts Charlie as a waiter who rescues society girl Mabel from a robbery attempt. She invites him to her house. When he shows up (on a break from his work as a waiter in a cafe) he claims to be the “Ambassador to Greece” (a slight joke; he works in a greasy spoon). Charlie the comedian pulls out the stops at the party, introducing a lot of funny business that would become part of his standard repertoire: dabbing booze behind the ears as though it were perfume; pretending to pour some in his ear and then spitting it out his mouth. And predictably he gets drink.

Like Cinderella, he must go back to work and the real world, where his boss (Edgar Kennedy) brow beats him for lateness. Then even this is too good. Mabel and her friends come to the cabaret on a slumming party and thus he is “caught”, as it says in the title. Both sides are up in arms about the situation, Kennedy literally so as he chases everyone out by shooting a gun off, which is a bit excessive if you ask me! But Mabel gives Charlie a good beating too.

While Mabel directed this picture, it seems to me that Charlie had to have been driving the scenario, or at the very least “owning” it. He returned to this predicament so many times: A Jitney Elopement, The Count, The Idle Class, City Lights, and I’m probably missing a few more. See-sawing between two lives. Chaplin, who’d been among the poorest of the earth, was now suddenly already living a dream life. (“Really? I get paid a lot of money? For this? My dream? Surely I’m an imposter. ) He must have been pinching himself daily.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Stars of Woodlawn Cemetery, Pt. 1

Posted in Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on April 27, 2015 by travsd

Through the good graces of a Twitter friend we know only as BronxDawn, a volunteer at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, we got a grand tour of the grounds yesterday, with a special concentration on folks with a vaudeville connection (although we couldn’t resist certain other distinguished personages as well.

It was a beautiful spring day, everything was in bloom (especially the cherry blossoms), the only sounds the wind and the distant rattle of woodpeckers, and except for a couple of old ladies looking for Duke Ellington’s marker, the only other visitor we encountered was a wild turkey (and I don’t mean an empty whiskey bottle left by vandals). It was a moving experience being in such proximity to so many of my heroes, separated only by time and whatever the mysterious thing is that continues to animate me, and has ceased to animate them. To one degree or another I have written about all these folks, just click on the links below to learn more about them.

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Much like eating desert as your first course, we had the thrill of visiting Bert Williams‘s monument not far from the entrance to the park. Forced to endure segregation in life, we are glad to see Williams did not suffer it in death. Not only that, he was a proud Freemason!

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We stumbled onto Smith and Dale  on the way to the next gentleman.  I am only one degree of separation from this team, since several friends had visited Joe Smith at the old folks home during his last years. How moving (and funny) that they are buried together! And the quip under Smith’s name is legendary.

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Bobby Clark‘s resting place is oddly anonymous and subdued for such a cut-up and ham, sharing equal billing with his wife of 40 years, and I guess his mother-in-law?

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One of the best straight men in the business, Jay Brennan of Savoy and Brennan. He is buried just a few feet from his legendary partner…

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The great drag artist Bert Savoy. An old newspaper article says that his real last name was Walker and this marker seems to confirm it, though I’ve also seen that his real last name was Mackenzie. Also touching is this mother’s public demonstration of her love for her openly gay son.

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We go off topic briefly because we could not resist. This one is for fellow Titanic buffs. It is the large Straus family monument (department store money), including among other family members Isadore and Ida Straus, the old couple who stayed together to die on the Titanic. I’ve always been moved by the wife’s refusal to be separated from her husband, and the unselfish way these two wealthy people didn’t seek to buy their way ahead of other people (as others certainly did).

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This small castle was erected to entomb silent movie director Herbert Brenon, director of such important films as Neptune’s Daughter with Annette Kellerman (1914), War Brides with Alla Nazimova (1916), Peter Pan (1924), The Great Gatsby (1926), Laugh Clown Laugh (1928), and dozens of others

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We are aghast to see the tiny marker for the towering American giant Irving Berlin, although it is characteristic of him to request something so simple and modest. Alongside him rest his wife and the son who died in infancy.

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Pay no attention to the skis sticking out in the bottom of the frame. These two markers are for the great Ned Harrigan of Harrigan and Hart, father of so much we hold dear in the American theatre and someone whose name ought to at least be known to every Irish American, but is somehow inexplicably forgotten. Learn his name! He was hugely important!

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This is Harrigan’s wife Annie Braham, daughter of his musical collaborator David Braham.

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Markers for the great songwriter and producer of kiddie acts Gus Edwards, who seems to have discovered half the big acts that came out of vaudeville:

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These two charming details of a boy and a girl on the monument seem to allude to Edwards’ most famous song “School Days”. At any rate they are children. He must have worked with hundreds of them during his career:

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Sadly obscure today but a giant his own time, F.F. Proctor was one of the founders and builders of vaudeville as a corporate industry, a rich and important man when he died. Not bad for someone who began his career as a humble acrobat!

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Above and below are monuments to another great Irish American hero Chauncey Olcott, performer and composer of “My Wild Irish Rose.”

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The Four Cohans, Jerry, Helen, Josie and George are all buried in this medieval looking tomb.

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“Niblo” is for Josie, who was married to vaudeville performer, actor and later film director Fred Niblo. (he himself is buried at Forest lawn in L.A.

And just next door to the Cohans is George M. Cohan’s old business partner, the producer Sam Harris:

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Not irrelevant! I actually mention F.W. Woolworth in No Applause because chain stores so clearly provided a corporate model for vaudeville…and some of Woolworth’s stores actually had a vaudeville theatre in them!

The above hike was the work of two and a half hours. We are going back for at least one other trip so we can pay our respects to Herman Melville, Nora Bayes, Olive Thomas, Oscar Hammerstein (and sons), Joseph Pulitzer, the Herrmann Family, Black Herrmann, Florence Mills, King Oliver, Vernon and Irene Castle, Harold Nicholas, Dave Montgomery, Lotta Crabtree, Pigmeat Markham, Victor Herbert, Nat M. Wills, Jack Osterman, Ricardo Cortez, C.F. Zittel of the vaudeville paper Zit’s Weekly, and numerous jazz greats.

You can see a lot of this stuff yourself! On May 31, author Eve Golden will be giving a guided tour called “Stars of the Stage” featuring many of these vaudeville greats. Get your tickets to that here.  

Please support the good work of the Woodlawn Conservancy here.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Harry Langdon in “Remember When”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on April 26, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Harry Langdon comedy short Remember When (1925), directed by Harry Edwards.

It starts out at an orphanage where Harry and a girl (Natalie Kingston) are sweethearts. When his sweetheart moves away he leaves the orphanage and becomes a tramp. 15 years pass. Harry is stealing chickens from a farm — a hilarious but where he is trying to hide them in his coat from the sheriff. When nabbed, an impossible number of chickens come out of his coat, like a clown car. Then he accidentally gets a bee’s best on his bindlestiff rather than a bundle. Bees down his pants cause him to crazy gymnastics. A scout from a nearby circus witnesses this and hires Harry to be an acrobat.  Little known to Harry his old sweetheart also works at this circus, as a bearded lady. They have a reunion, although Harry is not crazy about the beard. Later lets in a couple of dozen orphans from his old orphanage into the circus for free, and gets fired. The girl takes her beard off (it’s fake) and they have a proper reunion.

And now a clip:

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Slapstick #207: Dorothy Dwan

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Dorothy Dwan (Dorothy Ilgenfritz, 1906-1981).  Today she is best known (when she is known at all) as the leading lady and wife of Larry Semon, although the majority of her films were without him — most of them westerns.

Originally from Missouri, she moved to the Hollywood area with her single mom who became a movie publicist. Through her influence, the gorgeous teenager began to get parts at Vitagraph starting in 1922. (Her screen name was taken from director Allan Dwan). Semon began to cast her in 1924, when she was still only 18. Her films with him include Her Boy Friend (1924), Kid Speed (1924), The Wizard of Oz (1925, as Dorothy!), The Dome Doctor (1925), The Cloudhopper (1925), The Perfect Clown (1925), My Best Girl (1925), Stop Look and Listen (1926), and Spuds (1927). She was married to Semon from 1925 through his death in 1928.

Fortunately, she had a movie career of her own to cushion the blow. She’d been appearing in westerns, mysteries and other kinds of films right along, in fact many more of them than comedies she made with Semon. She appeared opposite the top western stars of the day, guys like Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Tim McCoy. Her career lasted until the early days of the talking era. Her last film was The Fighting Legion (1930). She retired in 1931 to raise a family.

Now here she is one of her first roles, Her Boyfriend, with Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy:

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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An Introduction to ME, or Don’t Invite Me to Your Shows

Posted in ME with tags on April 25, 2015 by travsd
My review of the scenery around Los Alamos, New Mexico

My review of the scenery around Los Alamos, New Mexico

An adverse reaction to a review I posted here a couple of days ago convinces me of the necessity of this public declaration that I hope will make one thing abundantly clear: unless you have some unmistakable reason to suspect otherwise I would be more than ecstatic never to be invited to your shows ever again. This means YOU.

I don’t mean that I don’t wish to buy tickets to your shows. I don’t even wish to be COMPED to your shows. The most valuable thing to me in my life is my time, and spending that time in activities which I know will either be productive or that I will enjoy. And the odds that your show will rate that description (unless you already know that I am a friend or a fan) are infinitesimal. So much do I value my time that I can’t put a dollar amount on it. Would it be worth $10,000 to me to devote four hours of my life (two hours in travel time, two hours for the performance) to watching your shitty show? I should say not. Not when I could be walking in the woods, writing, reading a book, having a conversation with my brilliant girl friend, or watching far superior entertainment on that machine across from my sofa in the comfort of my own home. I have already said as much here. You got that? Not only don’t I want to attend for free, I WOULDN’T TAKE $10,000. Well, I’d take it but I wouldn’t like it.

This isn’t to say that I don’t go to the theatre or that I won’t ever go to the theatre. In fact I often love the theatre. Just look at this and this. But it is to say that whatever theatre I do so see struggles against an innate handicap. It begins in the red and it will have much to do to break even, let alone get ahead. Don’t ever suffer any misapprehension that you are doing me a favor by letting me attend your performance. I don’t care if it’s a hit, I don’t care if Ben Brantley called it the greatest invention since Wonder Bread, if I don’t want to be there (I almost always don’t) you are STEALING SOME OF MY SHORT TIME ON THIS EARTH. Instrinsically. I don’t attend theatre to socialize, I don’t give a shit about keeping up with the Joneses, and if you’re “hot”, then so much the worse for you as far I’m concerned, because all that means to me is that you swindled a lot of lemmings into walking off your cliff. If there’s one thing I pride myself on it’s seeing with my own eyes and forming my own opinions.

I remember a couple of years ago a friend, stung by a bad review asked the evergreen question, “What good are critics anyway? One guy wrote a good review, and one guy wrote a bad one, so what good are they?” The answer in 2015 (the era of democracy, the internet and a woeful lack of education even among “educated” people), is that a large percentage of them — almost all of them — are worthless. It is my considered opinion that even most contemporary PROFESSIONAL critics are unequal to the task they purportedly undertake, never mind the vast army of citizen journalists who throw in their two cents, both of which are counterfeit. Almost all of them are worthless, that is, except….

I won’t say my own opinion is unerring, but I will say that I am uncommonly well informed about the theatre. I began taking courses in theatre history when I was 13 years old, I had read every extant Greek and Roman play (including the fragments of Menander) by the age of 19, and subsequently every play of Shakespeare’s and most of the other Elizabethans, all the classics of the Restoration and the French classicists, every significant American play (including every single available play by O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Odets, Maxwell Anderson etc etc), scores and scores of 19th century melodramas and comedies by people you never heard of, everything by Shaw, Wilde, and many of their contemporaries, everything by Gilbert and Sullivan, Noel Coward, all the Absurdists, everything by Brecht, the American musical theatre canon, and I’m sure I’m still leaving out hundreds of others.

Reading plays is one thing; from the time I was a teenager I’ve also seen hundreds upon hundreds of productions, most of them in the course of reviewing for publication: I wrote nearly 100 pieces for Time Out New York, 30 for the Village Voice, numerous ones for American Theatre during my fellowship there, a monthly column for The Villager for four years, and pieces for The New York Times, The New York Sun, Reason and others (including this blog). To learn to write reviews I read widely in the criticism of Shaw, Wilde, Max Beerbohm, George Jean Nathan, Dorothy Parker, Harold Clurman, John Mason Brown, Walter Kerr, John Lahr, and many others. By “read widely”, I mean hundreds and hundreds of essays. I also studied criticism at NYU, and am a trained and experienced actor, playwright, director and producer. And of course there have been all those years researching vaudeville, burlesque and theatre history in general, resulting in things like books.

I left a lot out because I don’t want to brag. Consequently when I take a black eye from reviewers and critics myself in reaction to my own productions, it’s rarely from a place of “Why, that pompous, superior ass!” it’s generally more like “How dare they send that retarded teenager to judge my masterpiece? The orangutan they sent as a reviewer is not qualified to evaluate my farts!” And I can generally be fairly certain that I’m correct.

How do you do? This is an introduction to me. You may have known me for several years without knowing THIS. Invite me to your show, I will be only too glad to tear out your jugular vein in revenge for depriving me of my walk in the woods. I might well love your show. The odds are fairly certain, for example, that I will love what I’m seeing tonight. But I generally have a pretty good instinct for seeking out and finding what I think I will like and not resent on my own. I make no pretense of ever being “fair” about this highly subjective undertaking. But I will say that if you don’t badger me to see your fuckin’ show, you’re on safe and solid ground.

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