Monday, May 16, 2022

Paradise Square: Ten Tony Nominations Well Deserved

If the name Joaquina Kalukango isn't familiar to you, as it wasn't to me until a few days ago when she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, be assured that if you're even mildly interested in Broadway, or theater in general, it will be. In Paradise Square, nominated for Best Musical, she plays Nelly O'Brien, Black wife of Irish immigrant Willie O'Brien (Matt Bogart). Willie and Nelly are owners of a saloon called Paradise Square, situated in what was in the mid nineteenth century a notorious Manhattan slum called Five Points.

When the show begins, Willie has left and joined the Fighting 69th, a U.S. Army regiment formed during the Civil War and made up entirely of Irish immigrants. While Willie is away fighting, Nelly is left to run the saloon. Its customers are a mixture of Black and Irish people, reflecting the neighborhood as as a whole. Their nights at Paradise Square are a joyous outpouring of music and dance, combining Irish and African styles in which all participate, for which Bill T. Jones has been nominated for the Best Choreography Tony. 

As the story goes on, dark clouds begin to gather over this pleasant landscape. "Lucky" Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis) returns from the war missing his right arm, a fate for which he blames his adopted country. Then President Lincoln orders a draft of able bodied White men, non-citizen immigrants included, for which exclusion can be bought for $300, a very large sum at the time. This seems especially unfair to young Irish men, including Willie's newly arrived nephew Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively; nominated, along with Sidney DuPont (see below) for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical), who sings "Why must I die in springtime?" to save Blacks from slavery. This sets up a conflict involving his aunt, Willie's sister Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), wife of Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley), a Black minister who serves as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. Reverend Lewis takes in Washington "Wash" Henry (Sidney DuPont; nominated, along with A.J. Shively, for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical) and his beloved Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton), fugitive slaves who are doubly endangered because they are accused of the murder of their slave master in Tennessee. Both Owen and Wash are in desperate need of money; Owen to escape the draft and Wash to finance his and Angelina's escape to Canada and to establish a new life there.

The Draft Riots brought an end to Paradise Square and to the Five Points as it was, but Nelly retains her faith that the harmony that existed there can be restored. Her rendition of "Let it Burn" evoked a standing ovation. Here's an interview with Joaqina Kalukango in which she tells what she learned about history from preparing for her role in Paradise Square:

I was drawn to see Paradise Square because my old friend Larry Kirwan is credited with conceiving the story, and is nominated, along with Christina Anderson and Craig Lucas, for Best Book of a Musical. I got to know Larry in 1978 when he and Pierce Turner, as Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, were the house band at the Bells of Hell. I'll confess that the last time I saw him was in 2011 when, at his invitation, I attended a Bloomsday event and, sufficiently lubricated by Guinness, gave a reading that was videoed by his wife, who also was my daughter's dance teacher at P.S. 150.

Paradise Square is now scheduled to run at the Barrymore Theater through November 27.

Monday, May 09, 2022

The Mets are 20-10; should I be worried?

My wife is a Red Sox fan. I've dealt with this by declaring them my favorite American League team (I can no longer call it the "Phony Baseball League" now that the National League has adopted the execrable Designated Hitter Rule). For my Tampa friends: my excuse is that the Rays didn't exist when I lived there. I root for the Rays when they play anyone except the Mets or -- well, when they play the Red Sox I keep very quiet.

Anyway, Martha believes that when the lads from Fenway get off to a hot start, they are doomed to a late season collapse. Last year at this time I posted that the Mets were first in the NL East. They managed to cling to that position until early August, largely because they were in a weak division. I recall some pundit writing, while the Mets were still cruising, something like "until the inevitable implosion." He was right; they finished third in the division, with a 77-85 record.

This year I again decided to wait until a month had passed since the season opener before trying to get a sense of how good the team is and what its weaknesses might be. As it stands, things are looking good. Two months from now I may regret these words; after all, these are the Mets, a team I once described as having the "ability to rouse hopes, then smash them like cheap china."

I had some trepidation as the Mets opened their season on the road against Washington. Ace starter Jacob deGrom was recovering from surgery and unlikely to pitch until June. New manager Buck Showalter called on Tylor Megill (photo), who began his career in the majors with the Mets last year when he was called up on June 21. He pitched eighteen games in 2021 and had a season record of four wins to six losses, with an earned run average of 4.52, and 99 strikeouts over 89 2/3 innings pitched. Not stellar stats, but he did pitch six scoreless innings in a game against the Blue Jays. Showalter's decision proved good when Megill pitched five scoreless innings in a 5-1 Mets win over the Nationals in the 2022 opener. On April 29, at Citi, Megill would pitch five hitless innings against the Phillies, and the bullpen would continue for a combined no hitter and a 3-0 Mets win.

Looking at the Mets' record to date several things stand out. They have yet to lose a series, although they were tied in a four game series with Atlanta at Citi. They have also not yet swept a series. Their longest winning streaks, of which they have had three, were for three games. They have only once lost two in a row; that was the final game of their season opening series at Washington followed by the opener of their series at Philadelphia. 

Statistically, they look good on all fronts. Mets pitchers have an average ERA of 3.24, second best in the National League. Their starters so far look very good with the exception of Taijuan Walker, whose 4.91 ERA is the result of six earned runs allowed over four innings in a game against the Phils at Citizens Bank Park that the Mets, trailing 7-1 going into the ninth, won 8-7. 

Their team batting average of .255 is also second in the NL. Of their regular starters, second baseman Jeff McNeil has the best average, .323, with ten RBIs and one homer. First baseman Pete Alonso has a .276 average and seven homers. The Mets' total of 25 homers is seventh in the NL, but they're second overall in runs scored, with 136. They haven't been overly reliant on the long ball.

The Mets' stats on defense aren't as reassuring as those for pitching and for offense, but still aren't bad. Twelve errors, four charged to shortstop Lindor, puts them fourth in the NL, but their fielding percentage of .989 ranks third. 

On the upside, we look forward to the return of deGrom to what is already a very effective starting rotation. What's not to like? There is some stiff competition. In the Mets' division there are the defending world champions, the Atlanta Braves, who at present have a 14-16 record and are six games behind the Mets. However, things were similar at this time last year. Then the Braves got hot and the Mets collapsed. On the West Coast are all the pundits' favorites to win the NL crown and perhaps the World Series, the Dodgers. Their 19-8 record is better than the Mets'. Then we can't forget the crosstown rivalry. The Yankees today sport the best record in the majors, 20-8. The Mets have two two game series against the Yanks: at Citi on July 26 and 27, and at Yankee Stadium on August 22 and 23. For some of us Mets fans -- maybe for most -- having a winning record against the Yanks is almost as important as the overall season record. Then there's the prospect, not entirely unlikely, of another Subway Series, in which victory for the Mets would assuage the lingering pain of 2000, but a loss would be unspeakably depressing.

The big question mark hanging over any Mets season is what the pundits call the "injury bug." I once speculated as to why the Mets seemed, season after season, to be plagued by injuries. At the close of my post, I asked if it could be shown statistically that they are more injury prone than most teams. In 2019 a writer for the Lineups website claimed that it's true, but cited anecdotal rather than statistical evidence. In any event, I can only hope it's not a factor this year.

Friday, April 01, 2022

Does time show the wiser? Fairport Convention from 1967 and 2017

Fairport Convention recorded their version of Emitt Rhodes' "Time Will Show the Wiser" in November of 1967, and it was included in the band's self titled debut album. The musicians on the song were Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol on guitar, Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings on bass. Shaun Frater, who left the band shortly after, on drums, Ian MacDonald, later known as Iain Matthews, on lead vocal, and Thompson and Judy Dyble on harmony vocals. Thanks to an earlier blog post Judy and I became connected on line; in time this evolved into a warm and lively trans-Atlantic virtual friendship. In July of 2020 I was devastated by her untimely death at 71

Remarkably, almost the same lineup of musicians -- Thompson, Nicol, Hutchings, Dyble, and Iain Matthews (the former Ian MacDonald), joined by long time Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks -- performed "Time Will Show the Wiser" fifty years later, at the 2017 Cropredy Festival. There's a video; unfortunately it's only available by taking this link to YouTube. Please do, and compare it to the 1967 version. I find the instrumental work in 2017, unsurprisingly, more mellow, but still stirring. What surprised me is that, in the battle of the personae, I found Matthews (2017) more interesting than MacDonald (1967). In his youth -- he was 21 when the song was first recorded -- he was earnest and straightforward, reflecting the plaintiveness of his longing for a friend's girlfriend or wife. At age 71, the earnestness and plaintiveness are still there, but his delivery also evinced some perspective and even -- especially in his ad lib at 2:20 -- a bit of humor.

Let me know what you think.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Happy 337th, Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on this date -- the calendar in effect at the time of his birth gave the date as March 31, but by today's calendar it was March 21 -- in 1685.

The clip above is of one of my favorite Bach pieces, the first movement, allegro, of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047, by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The musicians are identified on the video.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Pete Hamill and the Clancy Brothers -- a St. Patrick's Day reflection.

I first met Pete Hamill in 1994, at a Barnes & Noble bookstore on Fifth Avenue in Midtown. He was there signing copies of his newly published autobiography, A Drinking Life. I handed him my copy and said I had started drinking at the Lion's Head, a Greenwich Village saloon Pete had loved, about a year after he had quit drinking, and had gotten to know his brothers Denis and John there. He signed my book, "For Claude, who keeps the flame alive." There was a line behind me, so our conversation was necessarily brief. 

I next saw him several years later, when he was in a panel discussion at Brooklyn Borough Hall on a topic I can't recall. When the talk ended, I went up to him, sure I would have to re-introduce myself. Before I could, he extended a hand and said, "Hello Claude, how are you?" I've mentioned this to several people who knew Pete well; the response was always to the effect of, "Yep, that's Pete."

Two years after our encounter at Barnes & Noble, the Lion's Head closed. Pete noted the occasion with a column in the New York Times, "A Whisky-Golden Time." He declined the opportunity to go there for the Head's final night farewell party, "because I didn't want to spend a night carousing with ghosts."
They would all be there, moving among the living, as if it were just another packed, dense night in the late 1960's. They would reach past shoulders for fresh drinks or curse some politician or wander to the big table in the back room where Tommy Clancy of the Clancy Brothers was singing, ''Castles are sacked in war, chieftains are scattered far/truth is a fixed star, Eileen Aroon . . .''

Pete, his brother John, and the Clancys are all gone now. I'm blessed to have known Pete and John, and cherish the memory of having, at the bar of the Lion's Head, sung a duet with Paddy Clancy without knowing who he was until I was told later. So I pass on to you, my reader, beannachtaí na féile Pádraig, "blessings of St. Patrick."

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Loudmouth by Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan's Loudmouth was published in October of 2020, and I've had my copy for just over a year. Various things have delayed my reading, and thus this late review, for which I offer Rob an apology. You should know that I consider Rob a friend, more than just of the Facebook variety (although that's been our sole means of communication in recent years) and I'm confident that he returns the favor.

I got to know Rob near the tail end of the 1970s when we were both regulars at the Bells of Hell. We shared a love of rock music, and enjoyed the company of some of the other regulars, two of whom, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs and "The Village Legend" to whom Rob gives the pseudonym Eddie Neil, appear as important characters in Loudmouth. I was invited to Rob's birthday party, held in a Village apartment much spiffier than the Gum Joy Tower flat occupied by Thomas Ransom, protagonist of Loudmouth. When I got there, I saw a long black limo, its engine idling, parked in front. At the party a woman with black hair, wearing a black dress, broke into an upward mezzo soprano glissando. Someone standing next to me said, "That's Liza Minnelli." He then said he understood she and Rob had been in high school together. 

But enough about me; what did I think of the book? First, it's bracketed by rivers. The brief "Chapter 0" at the beginning has the title "Cuyahoga," that being the river that flows through Cleveland and is notorious for having once caught fire. It concerns a tour arranged by Tom Ransom for "Bruce," identified only as such but obviously The Boss, and guided by Charlie, a Cleveland native and friend of Tom's. Charlie shows them a series of dive bars, a record store, and the radio studio where Allen Freed held forth back in the day. At this point I can't resist another personal anecdote. One afternoon in 1970 I was in a law school friend's room when he tried to return a call from his brother, a writer for Cleveland After Dark. When there was no answer at home he called information for Cleveland (remember those days?) and got an operator who, asked for the number of Cleveland After Dark, said something like, "You've got to be kidding." Anyway, at the end of the tour, Charlie takes three 45 caliber bullets, gives one each to Bruce and Tom, then holding his says, "This is how we'll remember."

At the book's end comes "Chapter 00," even shorter than "0," with the title "Hudson." In it, Tom removes the bullet from his Rolodex, in which it's rested for some time. He worries that the gunpowder might be deteriorating in a way that will cause it to discharge spontaneously, with possible fatal consequences. He takes it to a nearby pier and throws it into the Hudson.

Why rivers? One of my teachers, probably my late, beloved twelfth grade English teacher Eleanor Blalock, asserted that rivers, in literature, always signify Life. Loudmouth is a "life," in the sense in which the British use that word where Americans use "biography." Consider W.H. Auden's "A Shilling Life Will Give You All the Facts." in which the poet observes that "all the facts" don't tell the reader what was really important to its subject. Loudmouth is biography. It is a fictional autobiography of Thomas Ransom. Unlike the book mentioned in Auden's "Shilling Life" it lays bare Tom's secret longings, failures, and disappointments, along with his accomplishments.

After I had gotten into Loudmouth, I began to wonder how much of it is fictional. I was led to compare Loudmouth's description of Tom Ransom's life with Rob's, as given in the brief "About the Author" squib at the back of the book. Southern mother; check. Writer for Creem magazine; check. Author of a book about Kiss; check. Singer and songwriter; check. And, as I've mentioned above, hanger out at the Bells; friend of Lester and of The Village Legend. So, is Loudmouth just disguised autobiography? Rob answered that question when he was interviewed by Deborah Kalb:
"Like most debut novels, there's a lot of non- in Loudmouth's fiction. But it's still not an autobiography or memoir. And if only a part of it is fact, all of it is the truth -- perhaps the deeper truth, arrived at by reimagining a life at slightly different times and places, in a slightly different order, with slightly different characters, blurring the physical reality to bring the metaphysical into slightly sharper focus."
I know that when I contemplated writing a novel, I started with my present situation, then tried to imagine how things might be if, at certain junctures, I had - taking a cue from Robert Frost - chosen a different path, or if I were to set off on a different one. Unlike Frost, I took what was, I'm sure, the path more travelled, seeking success in a conventional, bourgeois way. Still, there was that part of me that wanted to be a writer, as well as a corporate lawyer. This had a bad effect on my career in two ways. First, I got into a pattern of missing deadlines because I wanted my memos not only to be legally airtight but also stylistically worthy of consideration for a Pulitzer. Second, as I noted here, the amount of time I was spending in the "Village demimonde," meaning the Bells, and after it closed, the Lion's Head,  contributed to my work woes. The Head had a reputation as a writers' hangout. A woman once came in and said to those assembled at the bar, "I hear this is a place for writers with drinking problems." Village Voice scribe Ace Gillen replied, "No, it's for drinkers with writing problems."

My writing problem was that I never got started, except for a few short pieces in professional journals, at least until I started this blog. Loudmouth gave me a view of what life was like for a music writer in the 1970s. More than that, it gave me a sense of what my life might have been like had I decided to jettison my desire for conventional respectability and indulge that for artistic renown. It wouldn't necessarily have turned out badly; things didn't turn out badly for Rob.

Returning to Rob's interview, Ms. Kalb asked him, "What do you want readers to take away from the novel?" His answer:
"I hope that readers think it's funny, sad, surprising and maybe, in parts, lovely. I hope they enjoy the words, sentences, and paragraphs, the rhythms and music, as much as the characters and scenes. I hope they pick up on what's going on between the lines and among the lines, the wordplay, inside jokes, compulsive allusions to songs, bands and pop culture."

I found it funny, sad, surprising, and, yes, lovely.  I can't say I caught all the inside jokes and allusions, but did get enough to give myself a figurative pat on the back. Then there's this:

"Ultimately, I hope it gives the reader a fresh glimpse of the wonderous/disastrous complexity of life."

That it gave to this reader. I commend Loudmouth without reservation.

Monday, January 17, 2022

How best do we honor Dr. King today?

On May 15, 1957, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech to a group assembled for a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. The theme of that speech was "Give Us the Ballot". Eight years later Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned practices concerning eligibility or ability to vote that disproportionately affected racial or linguistic minorities. 

However, in two decisions the Supreme Court has drastically limited the Act's effectiveness. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S.529 (2013) declared the Act's section 4, which determined which jurisdictions should be subject to the Act's section 5 empowering the federal government to pre-clear any proposed changes to voting regulations in jurisdictions that historically practiced discrimination, unconstitutional on the grounds that the conditions that justified it in 1965 had been eliminated and that it therefore constituted an infringement on the states' power to regulate elections under the Tenth Amendment. There were strong arguments that the Court's decision lacked a factual basis.

Last year the Court delivered an even stronger impediment to the efficacy of the 1965 Act in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, 594 U.S. __, 141 S. Ct. 2321 (2021). This decision held that Arizona's statute prohibiting third party collection of ballots and out-of-precinct voting, despite having disparate impact on minority voters, could not be invalidated under the Act's section 2 or the Fifteenth Amendment. In its decision the Court proposed "guidelines" for evaluating voting restrictions that would allow those having disparate impact where the burden imposed is seen as small in comparison to the state's interest in imposing the restriction. The Court's analysis of section 2 has been characterized as "ahistorical and atextual"

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, now combined with the Freedom to Vote Act, would effectively overturn Shelby and Brnovich, as well as providing new protections for access to the polls and governing the redistricting process. However, the likelihood of passage is now close to zero, given Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's opposition to changing the filibuster rule. Meanwhile, many states have been busy enacting legislation to restrict access to the polls. As of last July eighteen states had enacted some such legislation. Texas has since enacted its omnibus bill that places many restrictions on voting.

What can be done, given the almost certain unavailability of legislative relief and the Supreme Court's (and many lower courts') hostility to challenges of state voting restrictions? Given the new landscape, the best we can manage - and it will be a challenge - is to do all we can to assure that all prospective voters, minority or not, get whatever assistance they need to jump through whatever hoops are raised between them and access to the ballot, and to get their votes counted accurately. By doing so, we will be honoring Dr. King's legacy.

Monday, January 03, 2022

Remembrances and appreciations, 2021

A year ago I did a separate post to show 2020 the door. I'm sure we can all agree that 2021 has, on balance, been less than delightful. There were many good things that happened, including in our neighborhood. Still, the emergence of Omicron, some severe weather disasters, and inflation driven by, in my view, a combination of manufacturers' misestimation of demand, supply chain problems largely caused by COVID, and concentration of economic power in some important industries, have made it a trying year indeed.

There are plenty of remembrances. Those most personal to me include Ron Jones, who was a valued mentor during my early years of law practice and a friend for years after; Wally Brewer, friend and fellow Grace Church parishioner; friend Leonard Ryan; and Martha's cousin and our friend Alice McFarlane.

2021 saw the passing of many people prominent in matters of government and statecraft; local, national and international. I remembered Colin Powell and Desmond Tutu on this blog. They were joined by F.W. de KlerkBob DoleFrances "Sissy" FarentholdVernon JordanWalter MondaleHarry ReidGeorge Shultz, and John Warner. Special mention goes to Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who, at the age of 26, successfully argued for appellant "Jane Roe" before the U.S. Supreme Court, and who went on to serve as a Texas legislator and, later, advisor to President Jimmy Carter, in which roles she continued to be an effective advocate for women's rights. There are others I've failed to mention, for which I trust you'll forgive me.

Music suffered many losses. Those most keenly felt by me are Don Everly, who joined younger brother Phil among the departed; Maestro James LevineMary Wilson of the Supremes; Nanci GriffithPaddy Moloney of the Chieftains; Stones drummer Charlie WattsMichael Nesmith, best known for having been one of the Monkees but who had a fruitful solo career as a singer and songwriter; and Chick Corea. One musician we lost whom I wish I had known better is the rapper DMX

Straddling the worlds of music and the stage was the magnificent Stephen Sondheim. The worlds of stage and screen lost, among many, Ed AsnerNed BeattyOlympia DukakisHal HolbrookCloris LeachmanChristopher PlummerCicely TysonMelvin Van Peebles, and Michael K. Williams. I wasn't a Betty White fan, not because I disliked her (who could?), but because I rarely watched the TV sitcoms and game shows on which she made many of her appearances. If anything, I associated her with commercials. I'm now delighted to learn that in 1954 she defied demands from Southern viewers that she remove Arthur Duncan, a Black dancer from her variety show. 

The literary world had its share of losses. Those the impact of which I feel most are novelist, essayist, and social critic Joan Didion, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whom I once saw, bent over his manual typewriter, during a visit to his City Lights bookstore in San Francisco), and Larry McMurtry, realistic chronicler of the old and contemporary West.

Space exploration lost Michael Collins. As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module, "Iron Mike" remained aboard while crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the Lunar Excursion Module to the moon's surface and back.

Among baseball's losses were Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth's long standing career home run record in 1974 and held it for thirty years; Jim "Mudcat" Grant, the first Black twenty game winning pitcher who enjoyed a post-baseball career as an R&B singer; and Tommy Lasorda, who began as a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and went on to manage the L.A. Dodgers for twenty years, winning four league championships and two World Series. 

True to form in recent years, the Mets started hot but soon cooled off, again largely thanks to their injury proneness.  Owner Steve Cohen, looking for a quick turnaround next season, said "Fie to you, luxury tax; I'll pay" and opened his wallet to acquire ace pitcher Max Scherzer. The Mets also have a new manager, veteran Buck Showalter, three time American League Manager of the Year: once with the Yankees (1994); once with the Rangers (2004), and once with the Orioles (2014). The best I can say now is, I'm cautiously optimistic.

As always, I must begin my list of appreciations with my wife, Martha Foley, now not just for her encouragement of and suggestions for my blogging, but also for her self sacrificing help as I recover, slowly but surely, from my ankle injury. I also thank our daughter, Liz, and her boyfriend, Drew Rodke, for summoning help to deal with my injury, caring for me for two days - including a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner - and driving me home to Brooklyn. Thanks to the physicians and nurses at Riddle Hospital in Media, Pennsylvania for stabilizing my fractures, and to the physicians, nurses, and physical therapists at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital for surgery, post operative care, and therapy. Finally, thanks to all my friends, too numerous to mention individually, who have provided support and encouragement, either in person, on the phone, or in writing.