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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 26, 2014

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


Beautiful, Eggs, Quotations

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie Jersey Boys, precisely because it's a "jukebox musical" -- a Broadway show that strings together a bunch of songs recorded by one group, linking them with a story that is more or less based on the performers' lives.

Last Thursday we had a chance, passing through New York, to perch in the mezzanine of the Stephen Sondheim Theater and watch Beautiful, a jukebox musical built around the story and the music of Carole King.

I had first heard about the musical when I watched Theater Talk on UNC-TV a few weeks ago. This is a delightful program that originates with CUNY, the City University of New York. The May 10th episode focused on Beautiful.

They began with Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the songwriting team who in real life were best friends of and competitors with Carole King and her husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin. The musical Beautiful, while it is definitely about Carole King, includes actors portraying Weil and Mann in most scenes, and their hit songs from the 1960s are featured in the show right along with Carole King's.

Which is actually part of the fun of the musical, because in our era of the singer-songwriter, it's easy to forget that until the British invasion and the ascendance of folk music, most popular songs came out of songwriting "factories" in New York City.

Aspiring songwriters migrated to New York because that's where their music might be sold to publishers -- or, as record sales rather than sheet music began to drive the industry, the songs might be picked up and recorded by popular groups and soloists.

Getting your song recorded by a popular singer who might take it to the top of the charts was the quickest and surest way to make a living as a songwriter -- but they couldn't record a song that they never heard. So the songwriters came to work for publishers, inhabiting tiny cells that contained, as Weil and Mann explained, "a piano, a couple of chairs, and an ashtray."

All four of them auditioned for Don Kirshner, the "man with the golden ear," who managed groups and soloists, published music, and maintained a collection of songwriters and songwriting teams. He would go from office to office, telling the teams, "I need a song for the Drifters," or "I've got to have a girl song for the Shirelles."

In the meantime, the songwriters were coming up with their own tunes on speculation, and they'd play the songs for Kirshner or record demos so that singers could imagine what the song would sound like with their own spin on it. So even though few of the songwriters thought of themselves as singers, they all sang -- because if they didn't, nobody would know what their song sounded like.

Kirshner's songwriters included Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Phil Spector, and many others. When The Monkees was launched on television, each episode had to have a new song, and if the songs on the show didn't sound like hits, the show would flop. So the producers turned to a proven hit-maker, Kirshner, who turned to his songwriters to fill the need.

The result was that the fictional "Monkees" had genuine hit songs in the real world. The first year, the actors sang the songs but others did the instrumentals, for the practical reason that the shooting schedule didn't allow time for them to learn and record the instrumentals for a new song every week.

Besides, Micky Dolenz, the "drummer," was only just starting to learn how to play. In later years, they did play the instruments and asserted more control over the music, even writing some of their own songs. But without Kirshner's teams, that first year might not have gone well enough for there to be later seasons.

This is the background to the story of Beautiful, which chronicles the marriage and songwriting partnership of Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Were they successful? "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (The Shirelles) was a number one hit, as was "Take Good Care of My Baby" (Bobby Vee). "Some Kind of Wonderful" (The Drifters) never rose higher than number 32 on the Billboard list -- but I think we can agree that the song had staying power.

When they wrote "The Loco-Motion," a catchy dance tune, they got it recorded by their babysitter, Little Eva, so that when it became a hit and she went on tour, they had to scramble to find daycare for their children.

I think we can agree that times have changed, when you realize that one song they wrote was "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)." No, it didn't.

Other songs, though, were recorded again and again. "Go Away Little Girl" charted at number one for Steve Lawrence in the 1960s -- and then became a number one song again for Donny Osmond in the early 1970s.

They wrote pop songs, but they also reached into rock and roll: "Don't Bring Me Down" was recorded by The Animals in 1965 -- and then by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1986. And Aretha Franklin made sure that "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" had complete credibility as a woman's soul song in 1967, even though the songwriters were white, and the lyricist was a man.

Songwriters were the ones who get paid royalties every time their songs were played on the radio, so that a hit single that got a lot of airplay could earn songwriters a very nice income. But the songs could mean much more than that. "One Fine Day" (The Chiffons) transcended the spitefulness of the premise to become more of a triumph song.

And "Up on the Roof" captured the romantic loneliness of adolescence more than any other song; my generation sang along with fervor -- even if we lived in suburbia and the back lawn or the car was our place to be alone.

In the musical Beautiful, the Goffin-King songs are joined by a few of Mann's and Weil's mega-hits, most notably the Righteous Brothers end-of-love hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," reputed to be the most-played song in radio history, and "On Broadway," which has become the anthem of the Broadway stage and has been recorded by practically everybody, including a memorable part in the musical All That Jazz.

Let's just say that Beautiful was able to draw on a deep and wide selection of beloved, powerful, memorable songs.

But looming over the entire show is one fact: Carole King's first album as a singer, Tapestry, whose creation marks the end of the play, was for many years the top-selling album in history, and it became the epitome of the singer/songwriter solo album.

There in the Stephen Sondheim Theater, the vast majority of the packed audience was people my age ... or older. White hair prevailed (where there was hair at all), and more than once we heard voices singing along, softly, because ... because we all memorized these songs, playing the album over and over and over again.

For my wife, Tapestry is tied with her memories of a semester in Paris. For me, it's tied with my missionary service in Brazil. So my wife's beloved "Paris album" is linked in my mind with Brazilian singers like Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Chico Buarque.

As a result, nobody in the theater minded that the book was thin and obvious -- the show existed to string together the songs.

Besides, even with an understudy playing Gerry Goffin, the cast was brilliant. Jessie Mueller, who plays Carole King, resembles her a little -- but what matters is that she was utterly convincing as an actress and she performed the songs brilliantly. She was not singing imitations of Carole King -- she's got more voice, a wider range, a great deal more power, and she used it all.

In fact, that's one of the glories of Beautiful -- the arrangements and performances of the songs are respectful to the originals, but they are reinvented to suit the way they're used in the story, and to fit the needs of the live Broadway stage.

When you consider that the show begins with Carole King in her mid-teens and carries her forward into wifehood, motherhood, and maturity as a creative and performing artist, the demands on Jessie Mueller are considerable. I only hope that if someone's going to make a movie of this musical, they'll do it while Jessie Mueller is still young enough to play the role.

Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector also gave powerful performances -- including first-rate singing -- as Weil and Mann. Jeb Brown was excellent as Kirshner, and the whole ensemble is effective at slipping in and out of roles as the various singers and groups who originally recorded the songs.

The set design was a delight, as items of furniture roll in and out and rotate without anyone touching them; as walls move into place, and platforms slide in from the wings to be various different settings. The result is a seamless, continuous performance, with set changes going on in the midst of scenes. It's theatre in its unrealistic but vibrant glory.

If you're going to New York, you can buy tickets in advance at http://www.BeautifulOnBroadway.com/ . Broadway tickets are not cheap -- but keep in mind that, unlike a movie, with a play all the actors and crew have to show up every time an audience is assembled, and of course they all need to be paid each time.

It's worth remembering that just because a show is on Broadway doesn't mean it's good, and just because you've heard of an actor doesn't mean his or her performance will be worth seeing. I remember watching Bernadette Peters phone in a truly wretched performance in the title role of Annie Get Your Gun, and it often happens that the chorus is the best part of the show, as the weary leading actors are outperformed by the eager young singers and dancers.

But with Beautiful, you get a show that's a pleasure from beginning to end, with no slackers among the very talented cast.

*

I've been eating eggs all my life. I even wrote a novel that began with a little kid gathering eggs from the chicken coop her family kept. I thought I knew how the whole chicken-and-egg thing worked.

So I'm talking to my brother-in-law, who started raising chickens in their back yard here in Greensboro a few years ago, and I realize that until this moment I didn't know anything about chickens and eggs.

Maybe you all knew it and I'm the only ignoramus. But just in case there are others as naive as I: Did you know that hens live by the feminist slogan, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"? That's because hens can lay eggs quite regularly even if they've never met a rooster in their lives.

The eggs they lay are infertile -- they can't develop into baby chicks no matter what -- but when we're eating the eggs, the less baby chick we find inside the shell, the happier we are likely to be.

I also didn't realize that egg shells are somewhat porous -- but until you wash them, they are covered with an invisible protective membrane that keeps bacteria from getting inside. This is vital for the survival of the chicken species, because when a hen "gets broody" she doesn't lay six or eight or ten eggs at once -- she lays one a day, as always.

As long as she doesn't sit on the eggs, any embryo that might be present won't start developing. An egg can sit there in the open, uncovered, unheated, and nothing happens -- it doesn't develop, and because of the protective layer, it doesn't rot.

Then, when the hen has assembled all the eggs she wants in this clutch, she settles in to get keep their temperature high enough that the embryos will start developing into chicks. Hens will sometimes pluck out enough front feathers that there's no insulating barrier between their warm skin and the surface of the eggs, so their body heat is more efficiently transferred.

Of course, my brother-in-law is obeying the law and not keeping a rooster inside city limits. So when one of his hens gets broody, there's no point to it -- the eggs aren't fertile. Besides, the family isn't in the chicken-hatching business. They're keeping chickens in order to get eggs, not baby chicks.

However, this one broody hen is tempting them to buy fertilized eggs from somewhere else, and then swap them for the infertile eggs the hen is brooding on. The eggs she sits on won't be hers, but chickens aren't famous for their perceptiveness, and she'll no doubt cluck proudly over "her" little chicks.

What surprised me most was how long unwashed eggs can last without refrigeration. In fact, my brother-in-law lived in England for a time, and when he first arrived, he was shocked that eggs were not refrigerated in English grocery stores. They were displayed and sold at room temperature.

Likewise, smalltime egg farmers will often gather, keep, and use their eggs without any kind of refrigeration. They keep them unwashed, allowing that protective layer to keep the eggs fresh inside the shell. Only when the eggs are washed, exposing the porous shells to the unfriendly world of eager bacteria, do they start to need refrigeration.

As my brother-in-law explained this to me, I felt as ignorant and yet delighted-to-learn as George H.W. Bush must have felt when, during a presidential campaign, he saw grocery-store barcode scanners in use for the first time. Of course, the leftist media had a field day ridiculing him for how "out of touch" he was with the common people, but at that time barcodes had only been in use for a few years, and when, exactly, was he going to go out and do his own grocery shopping?

So if you think it's absurd that I could reach 62 years of age without ever knowing that eggs in their natural state don't need refrigeration, and that hens don't need roosters in order to produce eggs ... well, I'm a suburban boy and so I only know the things that suburban kids learn.

But that certainly won't be the case for my brother-in-law's kids. All of them help with the chickens, but their four-year-old has never known a life without chickens in the yard. She goes out and gathers eggs quite handily, reminding her parents of the fact that we're only a few generations away from an era when children performed important household tasks from the moment they were old enough to learn them.

And it's not just egg-gathering. The four-year-old is perfectly able to open the gate and let the chickens out into the yard to scratch for bugs and seeds and all the other things free range chickens are wont to do. Then, when it's time to bring them back inside the chicken run, she claps her hands and the chickens all swarm back into the run in order to receive the treat of scratch grain (ground corn).

Later, the chickens will be ushered inside the secure coop, which will be locked. This became part of the routine after raccoons wiped out all but one of their first chicken flock; it's just one of the joys of living in the woods, as all Greensboro residents do, since our yards are regularly inspected for dining opportunities during the nighttime rounds of coons and possums.

It's not the same as living on a full-fledged farm. I had cousins who kept a vineyard and orchard in southeastern Washington, and while we loved to visit them, I never envied them the farming life. I much preferred curling up with a book to going out and working the farm. The human race is evolving toward laziness, and I am in the vanguard of that behavioral transformation, the sloth-man.

That sounds like a superhero title -- Sloth-Man! -- except that if Sloth-Man has superpowers, nobody will ever know. He's just too lazy to use them.

*

After reviewing the British trivia game show QI, I ordered many of the trivia books that were recommended on their website. One such book was Advanced Banter: The QI Book of Quotations, edited by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson.

Books of quotations are great fun to read; they might not be quite so much fun for anyone in the same room as a person reading one, because the temptation to read them aloud becomes irresistible.

Even though I'm not a Second-Amendment activist, I did enjoy this quote from Benjamin Franklin: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote."

But imagine my surprise to find that the very next quote was: "If pigs could vote, the man with the slop bucket would be elected swineherd every time, no matter how much slaughtering he did on the side." It sounded familiar to me for an excellent reason: I wrote it.

I had no idea that something I wrote had popped up in a book of quotations.

Nor could I tell you exactly where the quotation appeared. I have a vague idea that it was something I had one of my fictional characters say. This seems likely because my fictional characters are often much cleverer than I am, and therefore are more prone to say quotable things.

The very next day, someone mentioned "small talk" and I remembered having read somewhere a comment about how somebody stopped seeing certain friends because "the talk just got too small."

I said aloud that I wondered where I had read that, and my daughter looked it up ... on her phone, of course. (Remember when phones just sat there, stupid and plastic, waiting for us to tell them what number to connect us with?)

At first she didn't find it, because she looked up "the talk got too small." I told her to insert "just" before "got," and then the quote came right up.

Do you know who said it? Me. It was in one of my best stories, "Feed the Baby of Love." And as soon as she found it, I remembered exactly the context in which it appeared, and which character said it.

But I have to say, a writer must be getting old when he remembers a line but doesn't remember that he wrote it himself.

George Bernard Shaw embraced this quirk and proclaimed, "I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation."

I don't have quite the same attitude, though, for several reasons. First, I plainly don't notice when I'm quoting myself. Second, I don't memorize my own lines so I couldn't quote myself on purpose if I tried. Third, I'm not as good a writer as George Bernard Shaw, so I have far fewer lines worth quoting. Fourth, I'm also not as vain as George Bernard Shaw, and therefore don't think my lines are worth quoting, or that, by quoting them, I'm "adding spice to the conversation."

I have the opposite problem. Because I write this column, my opinions on everything are already published. I don't ask my friends which of them, if any, read what I write here. But I run the serious risk of having exhausted all my dinner conversation before I get to the dinner.

My friends have learned that if they interrupt me quickly with, "Oh, I know -- I read your column on that," it stops my pontification at once. They don't even have to have read my column, nor do I have to have actually written about the topic. They know I won't remember when or whether I wrote about any subject, and so they're perfectly safe to shut me up by claiming to already know what I wrote.

Thus, other people at the table have a chance to talk, even though my natural tendency is to talk constantly, rather like Winston Churchill did, only he was worth listening to. (He was also impervious to interruption.)

But in case I should get vain about being in a book of quotations, I'm not the only Card in the book. My grandfather, Orson Rega Card -- a wise, good man, but not famous and not often published -- is quoted: "Amongst my most prized possessions are the words that I have never spoken."

I haven't left enough words unspoken to know what he means.

Let me add just one more quotation, this time from Ambrose Bierce: "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography."

He wrote this back when geography was still taught in the schools, so apparently the failure to learn about the rest of the world (or even the rest of the country) is a longlasting American habit.

I'm not sure if that should make me feel better about the current state of education, because we were never very good at learning geography, or feel even worse, because now about half the population goes to college and yet we're still as ignorant as when most Americans lived on the farm, quit school after eighth grade, and never traveled more than ten miles from home.


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