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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 23, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


1000 Moments in Pop Culture, Company

When People magazine comes out with a special issue called 1000 Greatest Moments in Pop Culture: 1974-2011, it's like they're creating a high school yearbook for the entire country.

You're supposed to glance through it and say, "I remember that!" "Was it that long ago?" "Whatever happened to him!" "Can you believe she wore that out in public?"

And you know what? It totally works.

I have rarely read People, but then, I never really engaged with high school life, either. I had my own projects, but I didn't care about who was dating whom, or who was feuding, or who was popular, or even what "popular" meant.

The items in the book are numbered, but I'm not sure the system means anything. Since the items are grouped by decade, maybe they're supposed to be in time order.

The juxtapositions can be amusing. Dr. Ruth, the tiny sex guru, is number 250, just above "The numbers all go to 11" from Spinal Tap, "Cowabunga" from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, "I'll be back" from Terminator, Robin Leach's Life Styles of the Rich and Famous, and Kevin Bacon's dance moves from Footloose.

But how can any of those be considered as great as the invention of the game Trivial Pursuit, which comes right after them?

For that matter, is it even possible for anything labeled "pop culture" to be great? Not that this book doesn't chronicle some great things -- but as soon as something seems genuinely "great," it feels demeaning to call it "pop culture."

Was Mary Lou Retton's achievement as a gymnast in the Los Angeles Olympics merely "pop culture," or was it genuine athletic greatness? Being on this list elevates Robin Leach, but it diminishes Retton, not because Leach wasn't good at what he did, but because Retton wasn't doing it for the audience, she was doing it for the excellence.

The murder of John Lennon doesn't really seem to me to be the 173rd "greatest moment" in pop culture. It seems to me to have been a senseless crime, exactly as tragic as any other senseless murder, but not at all the sort of thing that deserves to be called "pop culture."

Lennon might have made his living from entertainment; he might have done publicity stunts that definitely put his career in the "pop culture" category; But dying wasn't a stunt, and it wasn't done for our entertainment.

Then again, it's certainly an event that everybody who was alive at the time remembers. So I guess it depends on how you define "pop culture."

Frankly, I would simply remove the word pop from it. Lennon's death is part of our shared culture. Nothing "pop" about it.

Pop is an abbreviation of "popular," but it also suggests soda pop -- something fizzy and insubstantial. Bubbles of CO2 that get up your nose and turn to gas in your alimentary system when you swallow them.

It's our culture. For good or ill, everything that we experience as a people is our culture.

But the word culture, by itself, has been coopted by elitists to mean the culture that they admire. I prefer the anthropological sense of the word: the folkways, ethos, customs, strictures, and shared knowledge of a people who are aware of themselves as a community.

"Wax on, wax off," "You had me at hello," and "Where's the beef?" are part of our culture, just like Oprah Winfrey, Crocodile Dundee, camcorders, and Dan Quayle's criticism of the TV show Murphy Brown for showing fatherless child-bearing as a cool thing to do.

All of these are certainly more a part of our culture than your average snob-hit book or art film.

The trouble is that we have more than one culture. People who love to read have an entire culture that never comes to the attention of the country at large. There are transformative books that readers all know about, but People magazine never deigned to notice.

It wasn't until HBO came out with a pornographic series based on George R.R. Martin's The Game of Thrones that People noticed the book existed -- but we readers knew it was a great work from the start.

There are lots of people who really don't connect with the culture of celebrity worship that is what People is really about. Over and over again, I have to ask a People reader what somebody on a talk show or in the news is talking about -- I'm just not part of the celebrity worship culture, any more than I ever know any of the gossip in my local community.

People draws its subject matter from our culture, but it deals with transitory fame, not the things that actually shape and change us.

That's why there are deeply stupid entries like Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton wearing vials of each other's blood on necklaces. Why would such narcissistic boneheadery be considered a "great moment" in anything except the chronicle of public embarrassment?

Robert Blake's arrest for murdering his wife, Winona Ryder's arrest for shoplifting, the U.S.S. Vincennes shooting down an Iranian civilian aircraft by mistake, the death of the fictional Dr. Green on ER, Rosie O'Donnell coming out as gay, Halle Berry getting the first Best-Actress Oscar given to a black woman, and the abduction of Elizabeth Smart are not parallel events. But they were all famous events, and they get equivalent treatment in this book.

You have to think they were getting desperate when they included Russell Crowe throwing a phone and hitting a hotel clerk, and all the desperate-to-sell-magazines non-events, like who has broken up with Jennifer Anniston and who is dating Ben Affleck, and all the cutesy couple nicknames like Bennifer, Brangelina, and TomKat.

Maybe they make it into this book of "greatest moments" because People's standard is: If we spent pages and pages talking about it over the years, then it's a great moment, dagnabbit!

So really, this is the People magazine editorial staff's high school yearbook, and they're charging us money to look in on what they think of as their greatest moments.

And why not? They were the ones running around covering these stories; they feel proprietary about them.

Sometimes they even get confused and think they make these people famous.

Some of them they do. Most of them, though, became famous because they actually did something or had something happen to them which we would have heard about whether high-class tabloids like People wrote about them or not.

But come on, couldn't they even do fact-checking? When Billy Crystal said "you look mahvelous" on Saturday Night Live, he wasn't doing a send-up of Ricardo Montalban, as this book claims on page 48. He was doing Fernando Lamas.

Tom Cruise didn't sing "Old Time Rock and Roll" in Risky Business (p. 41) -- he lip-synched it to the Bob Seger recording.

Then there's the bad editing. When George Bush said "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," he wasn't underestimating the quality and quantity of help reaching New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he was overestimating it (p. 122).

And I have nothing but contempt for the decision to end the brief mention of Cary Grant with a reminder that a therapist got Grant to take LSD more than a hundred times. Really? That's the main point they want to make about one of our most beloved actors?

But I actually read every entry in the book. What does that say about me?

I don't read People magazine -- I just read the Cliff Notes version every 37 years.

*

On Tuesday night I actually figured out how to get to the Carmike 18 and saw the limited-engagement movie of a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim's and George Furth's great musical Company.

The original Broadway production back in 1970 was a watershed moment on Broadway. Sondheim's songs were brilliant, a new kind of show music. And writer George Furth, who originally created many of the vignettes between songs as one-act plays for Kim Stanley to perform, gave Sondheim's songs the best script ever.

Sondheim musicals are notorious for having no second act, after the first number. Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods disintegrate completely in the second act, even though the music is consistently good throughout.

Only A Little Night Music -- based on a Bergman movie -- and Company hold up to the end.

But I didn't see Company when it first came out. I only listened to the original cast album, and not till four years later, when my friend and frequent collaborator, Robert Stoddard, insisted that I listen to it.

The songs blew me away. Yes, there were astonishingly clever lines, but that's not what took my breath away. It was the deep truth in the lyrics. The words mattered, they revealed and explored character. They were among the best songs ever written for the stage.

Not long afterward, in a musical revue several of my college-student friends put on, Robert Stoddard gave a live performance of the show-ending anthem "Being Alive." I have only seen a couple of live performances that match it -- none of them on Broadway, where performances are often phoned in.

It's hard to keep the life in a song when you do it over and over again.

The only performance that sticks in my mind and heart like Robert Stoddard's performance of "Being Alive" was my friend Doug Voet's singing of Bacharach-and-David's "A House Is Not A Home" at a party once.

It was performances like Robert's and Doug's that taught me that Broadway has no monopoly on excellence. In fact, while Broadway choruses are head-and-shoulders above school and community theatre standards, I've actually been disappointed as often as not by the performances of Broadway actors.

Bernadette Peters was a real disappointment in Annie Get Your Gun -- I wish I had gone later and seen Reba McEntire's version. Almost every Broadway (or West End) production I've seen has had one or two shockingly bad performers in them -- this was really the best they could do?

Like Catherine Zeta-Jones's bad bad bad rendition of "Send in the Clowns" on the Tonys last year -- and she won for it!

I remember one New York production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, with Eric Stoltz and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, that was so bad that I couldn't believe the director got paid for misunderstanding everything about Chekhov.

All of this is by way of telling you how low my expectations were for the filmed version of a short-run concert performance of Company. But I had never seen a production of the musical -- in fact, I had no idea how the songs fit together in the show, because I had never read the script -- so when friends invited us, I had to go.

Company is about Robert, a single guy, age 35, who hangs out with four married couples. At various times, the husbands seem to want to live the swinging bachelor life through Robert, the women seem to regard him as something between a virtual lover and a pet, and it becomes clear that Robert is experiencing marriage through them.

They don't exactly do a good job of selling the institution -- and yet Robert is deeply disappointed in the swinging bachelor life. Without quite knowing why, he wants commitment -- but hasn't met the woman who makes him want to marry.

Or, rather, he has, more than once -- but he never says so at a time when it might lead to anything. And when he sees his friends' weird marriages (hilarious but mostly believable), he can congratulate himself for not having taken the plunge.

The first act ends with a song that I don't remember ever hearing before: "I'm Ready," an ironically delusional song Robert sings about how he's absolutely ready for marriage -- as long as it's a marriage that doesn't actually make him change, or sacrifice, or lose any part of his freedom.

It's the opposite of "Being Alive," and the two songs give shape and meaning to a play that otherwise seems to have little of a through line. But the through line is there. By the time Robert gets to "Being Alive," every word of the song, every aspect of his transition, has been earned.

The transition from not-really-ready to absolutely-ready for marriage is real, and I've never seen another play that expresses it so well. I've lived through it, and Company gets it right.

I remember being in my mid-twenties, dating this or that person, falling in "love" in that adolescent thrill-of-the-chase pining way that fades as soon as the other person loves you back. Then one girlfriendless summer day I was thinking, Whom do I want to ask out now? and I realized I didn't want to ask out anybody.

I didn't want to date. I was done with dating. I wanted to do something real. I wanted to get on with my life. I wanted to marry and make a family.

And in that moment, I knew what I had known for years -- that the only person I actually wanted to make a family with was Kristine Allen. The trouble is that we had dated -- even talked about marriage -- but had broken up twice, and the last time was a doozy.

No way was she going to start dating me again. So I did the obvious thing and, in the garage of her family's house, I proposed marriage to her.

There was no way she was going to go out with me unless she knew that I was serious.

She made me wait four and a half months for an answer. I deserved the delay. And, because I was ready, I could wait. Commitment wasn't just another tactic in the dating game.

This marriage thing has worked out pretty well for us -- and I think we're not even as crazy as the couples in Company. My point is that I know exactly what that moment of transition is, and Company nails it.

I credit writer George Furth with that moment -- it's his play. Sondheim made brilliant songs, but the story that works so well is Furth's.

Most of Furth's work was as a character actor -- you've seen him in movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Cannonball Run. He died in 2008, so he'll never see this review.

Sondheim gets all the fame and credit. But since Sondheim's musicals often have terrible scripts, and his music can't save them, when the script is brilliant, as with Company, then we have to give credit to the person who did what Sondheim can't do without help: tell a powerful, coherent story.

I'm sure that eventually this limited theatrical run will end, and this concert production of Company will come out on DVD.

Then, even if you missed this production in the theaters, you can see an absolutely astonishing performance -- the best Broadway show I've ever seen.

"Concert performance" usually means that the actors stand on the stage with the orchestra and sing the songs and recite the dialogue. Maybe there's some limited action, but it's not a real production.

Nobody told director/producer Lonny Price (Master Harold ... and the Boys). Yes, the actors stand in front of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. But in fact this is a full production.

Every number is fully choreographed, and the dancing is excellent. You don't have dancing in concert productions. But you do in this one.

The "set" consists of various couches and chairs on wheels, which the chorus members push around like dodge 'em cars. It's just enough, in this deliberately disjointed musical, to suggest all the various apartments, parties, clubs, and parks where scenes take place.

In fact, this is exactly the kind of staging I do whenever I can. I like open stages that merely hint at location. Then the eye remains focused on the actors.

And that's the glory of this production. A lot of actors were available who might not have been able to commit to a long run. Some of them you've seen on television, and some of them are Broadway favorites. But they are all, without exception, excellent.

It's the best thing I've ever seen Martha Plimpton do. And Jon Cryer gets to show acting strength that never shows up in Two-and-a-Half Men. Who knew Stephen Colbert could act, sing (well enough), and dance?

Christine Hendricks has won a following on Mad Men, but I always think of her as the unforgettable Saffron from two episodes of Firefly. Here she plays April, the seemingly airheaded stewardess who sings "Barcelona" with Robert, and she is excellent.

Anika Noni Rose, whom I recognized from her role as Lorrell Robinson in Dreamgirls (she was also the voice of Tiana in The Princess and the Frog), plays the "whimsical young girl" even better than Sarah Jessica Parker did as SanDeE* it in L.A. Story.

I had only seen Aaron Lazar once before, in a White Collar episode, but as Paul he has the best male singing voice in the cast, and I want to see him and hear him again.

I've seen Chryssie Whitehead in guest spots on Castle and The Mentalist, but she stole the show as Kathy, the girl that Robert should have married. She also did a great job as the lead dancer.

Everybody's good, OK? But there's a reason why Patti LuPone is one of the most beloved grand dames of Broadway, and she shows it off as Joanne, the rich and cynical lush who sings "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch," the song originated by Elaine Stritch in 1970.

That original performance was so brilliant, so spot-on, that I never thought anybody could ever match it. Streisand didn't, when she sang it on her Broadway album.

But LuPone made the song completely her own. Completely. I wanted to give her a standing ovation for a reinvention that was, if anything, truer to the song than Stritch's brilliant take on it.

Perhaps you've noticed that I haven't mentioned the actor playing Robert: Neil Patrick Harris. Best for last, that's what I'm doing here.

The part of Robert is extremely hard to play. Yes, he has many great musical numbers -- but in scene after scene, he's the observer. The straight man, while all the other actors get to be the clowns.

Harris takes the stage with the easy confidence of a star. He never, never steals from the other actors. But he's always alive in the scenes, his responses are always real and interesting. We are seeing everything through his eyes, and his deep honesty as an actor makes everything these crazy married people do matter.

Would we ever know he had so much acting talent from his longterm stint as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother?

Not that he's not terrific in that sitcom. But he's like Lisa Kudrow's character on Friends -- the ditzy one who's doing her own thing and never quite lives in the same world as the more realistic characters.

Barney Stinson is like a parody of not-ready-for-marriage Robert. Who knew the same actor could go from over-the-top to fully grounded and real? Well, now we know. Neil Patrick Harris is ready for, and deserves, great parts and leading-man roles.

Can someone please get him away from Smurfs and Muppets and Harold & Kumar movies and give him the kind of parts he deserves?

(No, Harris isn't a great singer. He's apparently untrained -- he sings on his throat and doesn't get the vocal size that he's reaching for. But his singing is sweet and strong all the same, and because he's well-miked, we get every word and every note in a way that would never have come across without amplification. "Being Alive" and "I'm Ready" worked well. Nuff said.)

Quite apart from its wisdom as a play about marriage and its brilliance as musical comedy entertainment, this production of Company is also a textbook in clarity. I want to make young actors watch it to see how you can make every word completely intelligible without losing any of the honesty and reality.

Katie Finneran sings "Not Getting Married Today," one of the most difficult patter songs ever written, so clearly that you don't miss a word. Not a word. Which cannot be said of any of the other performances of the song I've heard. And she isn't just playing the breathlessness of the song -- every phrase means something, and we can see her thoughts change.

One reason you'll never see a Broadway show this good on Broadway is that the camera work is so good. It's as if you were sitting ten feet from the actors -- yet when you need to see the whole stage, there it is.

It's as if the camera is always looking just where I wanted to look, only it's always close enough that I can see every feature of the performances. Nothing is ever out of frame when I want to see it.

The word I'm reaching for here is "perfect." This is a perfect production.

And because it's on film, it can stand as a monument. Eventually, we'll be able to own it and watch it over and over.

Sorry if you missed it. Watch for the DVD, and invite musical-loving friends to watch it with you. You'll be blown away.


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