Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Theater Review: Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, at Theater Latte Da

Program cover for Assassins at Theater Latte Da, 2018.

Last weekend I saw Theater Latte Da’s excellent production of the musical Assassins, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by John Weidman. Assassins is a fascinating look at the four successful Presidential assassins, and five others who failed in their assassination attempts. The assassins depicted in the musical are: John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, Charles Guiteau, assassin of James A. Garfield, Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley, Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of John F. Kennedy (Assassins presents Oswald as acting alone, and not part of any larger conspiracy) Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to shoot Franklin Roosevelt, but missed and instead killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, Samuel Byck, who planned to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House in order to kill Richard Nixon, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who each tried to kill Gerald Ford in California three weeks apart from each other in September of 1975, and John Hinckley, who wounded Ronald Reagan in 1981 in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster. (Zangara presents perhaps the most intriguing “what if,” as his attempt on FDR’s life occurred after Roosevelt was elected, but before he was sworn inwhat would the future of the Republic have been if FDR had not been there to lead us through the Great Depression and World War II?)

The cast of Assassins is superbstandouts include Dieter Bierbrauer, whose John Wilkes Booth becomes the engine for much of the play’s action, Sara Ochs, who offers us a portrait of Sara Jane Moore as a bizarrely incompetent housewife, Shinah Brashears, whose seeming sweetness as Squeaky Fromme is quickly offset by her unwavering belief in Charles Manson’s prophecies, the always excellent Tyler Michaels as Lee Harvey Oswald, and Benjamin Dutcher as the unflappably optimistic Charles Guiteau, who seems all too happy to ascend the gallows. Assassins is ably directed by Peter Rothstein, who has directed 71 shows for Latte Da, and who created All is Calm, about the 1914 Christmas truce, which I reviewed here. There’s a funny moment as James Detmar’s unhinged Samuel Byck is dictating a tape to Leonard Bernstein and starts singing “Tonight” and “America,” which Sondheim wrote the lyrics for. (You can read more about Charles Guiteau here, in my review of Candace Millard’s book about Garfield’s assassination, Destiny of the Republic.

Assassins might seem like an odd idea for a musicalI’m sure the idea didn’t send financial backers running for their checkbooksbut it works. Sondheim wrote an excellent score, and he had already written a successful musical about a mass murdererSweeney Toddso why not a show about Presidential assassins?

I thought about Assassins a lot, both before the show, and afterwards. I’m a history buff and a musical theater fan, so I’m probably the ideal audience member for Assassins. Historically, I think the show does a very good job of summarizing these characters. Of course, for most of the assassins, I can’t say I know much more than what’s presented in the show. How pathetic they all seem to me, these lonely souls, unable to connect with anyone else, thinking that assassination would be their ticket to fame and fortune. A recurring joke is that the assassin, or would be assassin, is telling the audience their troubles and someone else on stage says, “Well, why don’t you shoot the President?” As though that will solve all of their problems. The characters all want what they cannot have: Squeaky Fromme, pining after Charles Manson, John Hinckley, pining after Jodie Foster, John Wilkes Booth, pining for the fame and reputation of his brother Edwin, Charles Guiteau, hopelessly seeking the ambassadorship to France, Lee Harvey Oswald, craving the spotlight that had evaded him ever since he defected to Russia. As Sondheim said in a 2014 interview, “These are all people who feel they’ve been cheated of their happiness, each one in a different way.” Sondheim gives these people their moment in the sun, so to speak, so they can explain their actions, even if their reasons remain vague and opaque to rational people. I thought one of the most memorable songs was “Unworthy of Your Love,” a beautiful ballad sung by Hinckley and Fromme, all about their respective obsessions with Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. 

Does the show glorify the assassins too much? Possibly, although it certainly doesn’t cast them in a positive light. I would argue that any artistic depiction of “bad” people runs the risk of glorifying them too much. Whether it’s a play, film, or novel, we’re so strongly taught as audience members to empathize with the main character that any depiction could be taken as glorification, even if it’s not meant to be. I suppose that’s the problem with artit asks you to step inside someone else’s mind for a while, and while you’re there, you might find them a little more human. Martin Scorsese wasn’t endorsing the behavior of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, but the twisted mind of John Hinckley transformed Travis into a figure worth emulating.

Assassins is a superb show that takes a hard look at America, and it asks the audience difficult questions about violence in America, questions that are sadly all too relevant in 2018. If you’re interested in pondering those questions, go see Assassins.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Concert Review: Peter Asher-"A Musical Memoir of the 60's and Beyond" at the Dakota Jazz Club

Peter Asher and Gordon Waller in the 1960's.

Me with Peter Asher at the Dakota, December 12, 2017.
In December, I saw Peter Asher perform at the Dakota Jazz Club. Asher’s show is titled “A Musical Memoir of the 60’s and Beyond,” and it tells the story of his life and career. I saw the show with my wife and my Mom, and even though we saw Asher perform the show back in 2012, we all really enjoyed it again.

To give a brief recap of Peter Asher’s remarkable career, he was half of the British Invasion duo Peter & Gordon, comprised of him and his schoolmate Gordon Waller. When Peter & Gordon were signed to a record deal, a family connection of Asher’s proved fortuitous in his musical career. Peter’s sister is Jane Asher, an actress who also happened to date Paul McCartney from 1963 to 1968. Paul also lived at the Asher family home during part of this time, which meant that Peter had access to songs Paul had written that weren’t quite right for the Beatles. Peter & Gordon’s first three singles, “A World Without Love,” “Nobody I Know,” and “I Don’t Want to See You Again,” were all Lennon-McCartney songs, and provided Peter & Gordon with worldwide hits. 

After Peter & Gordon went their separate ways in 1968, Asher was asked by McCartney to become the A&R man for the Beatles’ new record label, Apple. Asher accepted the job, and one of the demo tapes he discovered was by a young American singer-songwriter named James Taylor. Apple issued Taylor’s debut album in December 1968 in the UK and February 1969 in the US, but it didn’t make much of a dent in the charts. Asher then quit Apple Records and became Taylor’s manager and producer, embarking on a highly successful career as a record producer. 

Asher’s show is packed with a lot more talking than singing, which was fine with me, as I soaked up stories about the Beatles. In addition to his pop stardom during the Swinging Sixties, Asher was also involved with Paul McCartney in running the Indica Bookshop and Gallery, where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono in 1966. 

Asher is full of good-natured charm, and he even riffed about how Austin Powers’ glasses and haircut may have been based on Asher’s appearance during the 1960’s. (I’ve long thought the same thing.)
After the show, Asher stuck around to sign autographs for fans, although he warned us that he was losing his voice and couldn’t really talk. I told him that I was a big Peter & Gordon fan, especially their later albums like In London for Tea and Hot, Cold & Custard. Asher said “Wow!” Like I did the first time I met him, I also told him how much I enjoyed Peter & Gordon’s version of “The Flower Lady,” written by the great Phil Ochs. For any fan of the Beatles or the British Invasion, Asher’s show is a superb trip down memory lane.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Vic Damone, 1928-2018

Vic Damone, 1928-2018.

Singer Vic Damone died on February 11th at the age of 89. The sweet-voiced crooner was one of the many Italian-American pop singers who flourished in the 1940’s and 1950’s, like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Al Martino, Jerry Vale, and Bobby Darin. Damone’s hallmark as a singer was his beautiful, pure tone. I’ve always felt that Damone was somewhat underrated compared to the other great pop singers of his era, as he made a number of excellent recordings. 

Damone was probably the first male singer to be strongly influenced by Frank Sinatra. After leaving Tommy Dorsey in 1942 to begin a solo career, Sinatra popularized a strikingly intimate way of singing and phrasing in his recordings for the Columbia label. Damone was just 19 years old when he made his first record in 1947, “I Have but One Heart,” and his vocal sound was very similar to Sinatra’s. Frank famously said that Damone “has the best pipes in the business.” What’s also remarkable about “I Have but One Heart” is how good Damone was, even at such a young age. He brings a pure yearning to this love song. The song peaked at number 7 on the charts. Damone had numerous other hits during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Most of them are very good, although there are some clunkers“Cincinnati Dancing Pig” is just as silly a song as you would think. 

In 1956, the year of Elvis Presley’s ascendance, Damone scored his last Top Ten pop hit, a beautiful version of “On the Street Where You Live,” from Lerner and Loewe’s then-recent hit Broadway show, My Fair Lady. “On the Street Where You Live” is probably the song most associated with Damone now. The arrangement of the song is unusual—it begins with the orchestra building to a crescendo, and then Damone starts singing, “Oh, the towering feeling, just to know somehow you are near,” which is from the middle of the song, before going into the beginning of the song, “I have often walked on this street before.” It’s a bold choice, and it works. Damone’s control of his vocal dynamics throughout the song is amazing. Damone goes from almost a whisper as he sings, “People stop and stare, they don’t bother me,” to full throated belting at the end. It’s a wonderful performance.

After his commercial peak came to an end, Damone continued to record excellent albums like Linger Awhile, and Stay with Me, his bossa nova album from 1966. While he had something of a stormy personal life and was married five times, Damone’s legacy as a great pop singer is what will be remembered by his fans.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Thoughts on the 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame Election

Jim Thome, crushing a dinger for the Twins in 2010.

Vladimir Guerrero smoking a line drive with the Montreal Expos.
On Wednesday, it was announced that the BBWWA elected four new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame: Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, and Trevor Hoffman. Jones and Thome were elected on their first ballot, while Guerrero and Hoffman made it in on their second try.
All four of the players selected were excellent selections. Jones was one of the best hitting third basemen ever, and one of the best switch-hitters of all time. Thome was one of the most feared sluggers of his era, slamming 612 home runs in a career untainted by any connection to PEDs. As a Twins fan, Thome was the player I hated to see come to bat when he was with the Indians. You knew that every single at bat he was a threat to homer. I always liked Thome, so I was glad when he went to the Phillies, because then I could cheer for him. And then he went to the White Sox, and beat the Twins in a one game playoff in 2008. But then he came to the Twins in 2010, and all was right with the world. It was pretty great watching Thome tear it up during that season, which was also the first year at Target Field. My Dad works as an usher for the University of Minnesota, and he took Jim Thome and Michael Cuddyer’s tickets when they attended a U2 concert at TCF Bank Stadium in 2011. My Dad recognized Thome, talked to him a bit, and somehow touched Jim Thome’s bicep. I wish I could have seen that interaction. 

Guerrero was a dynamic player-at the beginning a true five-tool athlete, with a cannon for an arm. Hoffman was the all-time saves leader late in his career, and his 601 are second all-time. In a position that seems to chew up players quickly, Hoffman was one of the most consistent closers of the 1990’s and 2000’s. 

Among players remaining on the ballot, Edgar Martinez moved up to 70.4% of the vote. Next year will be his last year on the ballot, and with the usual bump in the voting that provides, it seems pretty likely he’ll be elected. Martinez is one of those players that I just don’t have strong feelings about one way or the other. If he gets in next year, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t be outraged if he wasn’t in the Hall of Fame. I appreciate how good he was as a player, but I’m just not passionate about advocating for him.

In his 5th year on the ballot, Mike Mussina moved up to 63.4%, so he’ll probably be elected in 2019 or 2020. I’m very glad to see Mussina moving up so much, as I think he deserves to be elected. 

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens continue to be right next to each other in the voting. They both moved up a couple of percentage points, but Bonds’ vote total stayed the same at 238, and Clemens only gained 3 votes, moving from 239 to 242. With four more years left on the ballot, it will be very interesting to see if these two players, such symbols of the steroid era, are elected or not. 

In the “he was such a great player, but SUCH a jerk category,” Curt Schilling went back over 50% of the vote, after dropping to 45% last year. 

Omar Vizquel made a very strong debut on the ballot with 37%, which could bode well for him on future ballots. Vizquel’s a really interesting player. He was a defensive whiz at shortstop, but not much of a threat with the bat, with an OPS+ of just 82 for his career. However, Vizquel did collect 2,877 hits, putting him very close to the magic 3,000 mark. 

Larry Walker got the most support he’s ever received this year, moving up to 34.1%. Walker is basically the Canadian Edgar Martinez for me. I can appreciate that he was really good, but I just don’t feel strongly about him.

Fred McGriff continues to languish in the low 20% region, meaning it’s pretty unlikely he will gain the more than 50% he needs to be elected next year, which will be his last year on the ballot. As I’ve written before, I really like Fred McGriff. He was one of the most consistent players of the 1990’s, and he just seems like a really nice guy. I mean, his nickname was “Crime Dog.” Just that alone should get him into Cooperstown!

Jeff Kent continues to languish near the bottom of the ballot, despite being one of the best-hitting second basemen of his day. I wonder what voters don’t like about him? He never got great press coverage, but that can’t be the only reason why his vote totals are so low. 

Andruw Jones debuted with 7.3% of the vote, so he at least gets to come back again next year. Jones is a fascinating player who seemed to be well on his way to Cooperstown before his career suddenly imploded, seemingly overnight. Jones definitely has the peak one would expect for a Hall of Famer, but he didn’t even play long enough to get 2,000 hits, ending up with 1,933. 

One of my favorite players, Jamie Moyer, sadly did not get enough votes to remain on the ballot. Moyer only got 10 votes, or 2.4%, short of the 5% needed to remain on the ballot. I always enjoyed following Moyer’s improbable career, as he kept fooling hitters with slow pitches well into his 40’s. Oh well, Moyer’s awesomeness will live on, just not with a plaque in Cooperstown.

Johan Santana also got 2.4% of the vote. As a Twins fan, Santana was one of my favorites during our run of great baseball during the 2000’s. Santana had several great seasons, and while I know he’s not really good enough to be in the Hall of Fame, he was pretty fantastic. I vividly remember watching his 17 strikeout game on TV in 2007. I really thought he was going to pitch a perfect game. It’s one of the most dominant pitching performances I’ve seen. 

Johnny Damon got just 1.9% of the vote, despite having some really great career numbers. Damon collected 2,769 hits, scored 1,668 runs, hit 235 home runs, and stole 408 bases. I don’t know if Damon’s really a Hall of Famer, but I think he deserved to stay on the ballot. I think Damon is one of those players who just doesn’t pass the “smell test” for most people. Sure, Damon was a really good player, but he doesn’t FEEL like a Hall of Famer. 

Carlos Lee got just one vote, but I’ve always liked him, even though he played for the hated White Sox. I remember going to a game at the Metrodome in 2003 or 2004, and someone had a sign in the outfield that said, “Carlos Lee isn’t very good.” The sign itself was really funny, as though it was proof that Minnesotans are too polite to trash talk. Lee laughed at the sign, which made me appreciate his sense of humor.