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Our Post Pandemic Life Must Embrace All the Ways We Experience Culture
By Elyse Sommer
Sure, there's something special, and at times thrilling, about seeing a show while seated in a theater. But if the pandemic we've lived through for a seemingly forever two years (going on three) has taught us anything, seeing a story unfold on one's home screen is more than a temporary substitute and time filler. Wonderful as live theater is — as it's been throughout my life — books, movies TV, concerts and dance have also been integral to my experiencing life's pleasures, and developing a genre-spanning appreciation for creatitvity. Many of my own enjoyable interpersonal encounters happened during afternoons at museums and galleries.
So what's my point here?
For starters, things are never going to go back to the old normal. Marquees on and off Broadway will continue to light up again. However, the people who create and produce plays and musicals must continue to navigate the crossroads where demands to make casting and content reflect the universal outcry against racism and sexism. While relevant changes have been very much part of the reopened theater offerings so far, there's also the not-to-be-ignored reckoning with the takeaway that people who are coming back expect — which the venues' operators need to satisfy even as they deal with the theater's always fragile, and now deeply wounded finances.
My point In a nutshell: Let the injustice collectors and correctors keep pushing socially relevant work and fight to bring it to prestige theaters previously closed to them. But let them be less narrow-minded about insisting that live theater is the only type of entertainment that's truly special — and admit that actually sitting in a theater has its downside.
To illustrate the points made above, some comments on three outstanding current entertainments: The Broadway revival of The Music Man, the new West Side Story movie and HBO's series adaptation of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels.
The Music Man
Meredith Wilson's oh so happy and hokey The Music Man has been a popular family show since its 1957 premiere. Countless seasoned actors have followed the original Professor Hill (Robert Preston) and Marian the Librarian (Barbara Cook) to Broadway and other stages. Packed as it is with tuneful songs and lively dances. and plenty of parts for ensemble players, it became a junior and high school drama club favorite. In one way or another, it provides a feel good sense of fun.
Since I'm continuing my armchair coverage of the entertainment world, I didn't see the current revival but Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster and the designers featured certainly give viewers the star power and glitz that's been missing from their lives. Its takeaway — a forget-your-troubles good time.
That said, there's still no way to shut out the pandemic's continuing effect. My friend and colleague Lauren Yarger told me that she felt pushed to the limits of her endurance by being masked for two and a half hours. While the masking mandate will end soon, her discomfort will nevertheless always be part of of this production The terrible behavior of the audience she witnessed will also linger as an alarming uptick in people taking pictures and talking during a performance.
The New West Side Story Movie
There isn't anyone whose work is as regularly staged as Shakespeare — often newly interpreted to be more relatable to current times. In 1957, Romeo and Juliet morphed into a ground-breaking musical romance. It was conceived by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. The title referred to the updated setting — the tenement neighborhood in which the doomed young lovers in the musical were caught between two rival gangs instead of their parents.
Despite controversy over the inauthentic casting, both the stage show and the movie adaptation have endured as part of the golden era of musical theater. The dazzling, ear-hugging songs are familiar even to those who have seen neither the stage or screen version.
We've already had several productions to address the casting problems that have dogged the show. In 2009, Arthur Laurents added fresh vitality by including lyrics sung in Spanish; in 2019, Ivo Van Hove drastically revamped and cut it.
Since the movie based on the original is still much watched and loved, especially by golden oldie film fans, a more up-to-date movie might not be something to compete with newer, less dated works. But Steven Spielberg always demands attention, and this is his debut directing a musical. As it turns out, he's managed to please both most critics and viewers. Thanks to a superb collaborative team — playwright Tony Kushner, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, choreographer Justin Peck — this West Side Story is completely of the moment, yet faithful to both the original stage show and movie. Spielberg and company beautifully captures the pointless battle of the Jets and the Sharkss over streets that would give way to luxury high rises and one of New York's jewels, the Lincoln Center Complex.
By staying true to the overwrought source romance no amount of smart modernizing can avoid a certain dated quality. But then a lot of the old Hollywood movie musicals played and replayed by Turner Movie Classics are dated. Thus Spielberg's first movie musical is as much a tribute to a golden era in Hollywood as well as on Broadway.
And so, though I was impressed with the effectiveness and impact of this reboot, a stage-to-screen adaptation, especially if it features a large ensemble and lots of dancing, somehow loses the magic of in person viewing. On the other hand, a straight play can at times be better, even when watching it on a laptop or Ipad rather than a giant TV. Case in point: I very much enjoyed seeing Helen Mirren in Peter Morgan's The Queen on Broadway, but I found watching it on HBO even better. Mirren has a face that demands the sort of close-up even people sitting in the front section of the orchestra don't get. Fans of The Crown (Streaming at Netflix) series could do a lot worse than watching or even re-watching this until the next season becomes available.
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante's Quartet Of Novels As a Mini Series
Novels are a prime inspirational source for playwrights. But even a long play with a large cast can't do full justice to Elena Ferrante's epic quartet of novels. HBO's series makes a strong case for that format's continuing future as a compelling and accessible addition to our cultural landscape.
The series, like its source, follows the life long friendship of Elena and Lina, two bright girls whose lives take different turns but are forever linked to each other — as well as the working class neighborhood to which even the one who is able to leave for brighter pastures never really leaves.
Familiarity with the text is not necessary to follow the many plot elements since the film has captured the complex yin-yang of the friendship, as well as the dynamics of the neighborhood that makes this a societal history as well an an absorbing personal narrative.
The cast is huge. Without the a film's ability to take readers right in, each of the books begins with a recap of all the characters and details about the families into which they were born
The key characters, in the series as in the books, are of course Lina, the titular brilliant friend, and the more pragmatic Elena. The four actors who play them are remarkable — Elisa Del Genio as young Elena, Ludovica Nasti as young Lila. Margherita Mazzucco the older Elena, and Gaia Girace as the older Lila. All four are first-time actors, thus adding a bit of "four-stars-are-born" excitement. The transition to the older Elena and Lila is so natural that the actresses could actually be sisters.
I did read the books when they were first published, and since HBO is following it's practice of posting the series on a weekly basis, seeing Lina and Elena and all the people in their lives come to life on screen sent me back to the books. With the actors seeming to spring from the page, reading Ferrante's full text is more exciting than ever.
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