Monsters for My Birthday

I have always counted myself lucky that my birthday comes as a sort of tent pole between Halloween and Thanksgiving, helping maintain a holiday momentum that encompasses the entire butt end of the year. Depending on the weather and the vibrations of fate and zeitgeist, sometimes it comes as an extension of Halloween, other times as an early foreshadowing for Thanksgiving. This year, very much the former, all thanks to the Mad Marchioness, who, I must say, has excelled in giving me birthdays of unbelievable happiness, including trips to Ireland and New Orleans, and the world premiere of a 100 year old movie by Bert Williams (not all the same year).

As you can see, I attended with my wife, the Bride of Frankenstein

This year I did not have a monster birthday bash, but I did have a birthday of monsters. I began the day by writing this piece on Bram Stoker,  with whom I share a natal day. And naturally, since it was the birthday of the guy who wrote Dracula, we observed it by seeing an exhibition about Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein!

It’s called It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200, and it’s at the Morgan Library through January 27. We had just watched the excellent new French documentary The Strange Life of Dr. Frankenstein (2018) on TCM a couple of weeks ago, and binge-watched The Frankenstein Chronicles a few months back, in addition to our pre-existing Frankenstein predilection, so we were well-primed to be receptive to this bicentennial look at this pivotal Gothic horror classic.

Not only were we not disappointed in this exhibition, we went through the whole thing twice and both walked away inspired, heads full of dangerous new ideas!

Just a handful of some of the cool stuff we saw:

  • Possible fragments of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skull and a poem that washed up onshore from his boat wreck. As to the former, in the Barnum tradition I prefer not to know the truth of it; I prefer to wonder and believe.
  • pages of the original Frankenstein manuscript, written in Mary’s clear, legible hand
  • for context: period surgical tools, and equipment for early electrical experiments
  • an original first edition copy of Frankenstein with Shelley’s notes in it for a revised second edition
  • memorabilia from the many 19th century stage productions
  • a copy of the screenplay for the 1931 Universal movie
  • film clips from various screen versions and sequels beginning with the first 1910 Edison version
  • comic book adaptations
  • posters from many a film version….and much, much more.

Also while we there, curators were installing another mini-exhibition to tie in with the Centennial of the World War One Armistice (which is this Sunday), featuring sheet music from songs like George M. Cohan’s “Over There” and Irving Berlin’s “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”.

Then we grabbed an early dinner at La Bonne Soup, and took a nice stroll through Rockefeller Center, like the tourists we have become, watching the ice skaters, and the workmen assembling the base for the Christmas tree. Naturally, we walked by Radio City Music Hall, which was unwittingly appropriate, for that is where the 1933 world premiere of King Kong was held, and the film also has a scene set inside that theatre — it’s where Kong breaks his chains and goes berserk! Which brings us to the climax of the day:

We attended opening night of the new King Kong musical at the Broadway Theatre. As a critic, I couldn’t help taking notes, even at my own birthday present. But the bottom line is we were predictably tickled. As you can imagine, the strongest elements are by far the staging, design, puppetry and animatronics. The creature is not disappointing; his first appearance was one of the most thrilling moments I have ever had in the theatre. And the creative team found ways to keep that feeling alive, right up to the moment when Kong takes his curtain call. Through the use of video effects, we travel from New York Harbor to Skull Island by tramp steamer, and run with Kong through the jungle and through the streets of New York. Kong even fights another giant monster, an albino king cobra of roughly his size. Personally I might have preferred not to see the puppeteers working Kong’s limbs, but the present solution is probably preferable to having the creature be completely animatronic. For the puppeteers are able to “act” Kong in real time, to have him literally interact with the other performers.

As for the other elements? I liked the incidental music and the melodramatic underscoring, but the songs were mediocre, the usual (ironically) unimaginative gibberish about  “wonder” and “magic” and so forth. The dancing was hokey, rote, and not infrequently anachronistic. And the book was probably the worst element, a clear-cut example of America’s downward slide into total cultural illiteracy. Was it written by an 11th grader? Seemed that way.

Compared to most people I know, I have attended very few Broadway shows in my life, perhaps a dozen or twenty, for reasons both economic and aesthetic. Yet I must say, this was very near the top of my favorite experiences at a Broadway theatre, one of the times when Broadway seemed to be what it has a reputation for being and in reality once was (about a century ago) — ACTUAL populist entertainment. I for one LOVE that this show is more of a theme park ride than a musical. I’m a Coney Island guy!  I fuckin’ hate most modern musicals (and by that I mean most of the ones written after 1940)! I’m for cutting every damn song and dance number from the show and making this strictly an experience where you pays your ticket and you sees your giant ape! I’m usually bored to tears at a musical, looking at my watch, reading the program, dreaming about the exits. This time, I watched the stage, and the show flew by.

I haven’t read the other reviews yet today, but I hear through the grapevine that the word is largely negative, mostly for reasons having to do with what I said about about the book and the musical elements. But I would not be shocked if this show still turned out to be a hit anyway. Kids and many grown people are going to want to see this ape. Think outside the crate, producers!