Monday, August 8, 2022



 Q: Reviewing the world of show albums in one book? Isn’t that too much for one person? 

A: Yes, so I left out a lot. For example, I included Oklahoma!’s original cast—but not the Nelson Eddy Columbia studio cast, simply because Eddy, the rowdy Lochinvar of the Jeanette MacDonald MGMs of the 1930s had become fat and happy by his Columbia years. Dull. 

Q: So, you skipped the dull CDs? 

A: I skipped what I didn’t care about. The book is five hundred pages, but if you take time with some titles—Porgy and Bess, for instance, or On the Town—you just won’t have room for everything. How complete is complete, really? It’s a bigger field than you might imagine.  

Many years ago, I knew an ex-military guy who was so masculine and commanding that, whenever he came over, the Vienna Fingers would atomize in their wrapping in fear. Once, he was talking about being in a firefight, and I asked if he had ever killed anyone. He said, “I killed everyone.”  

And he meant it, but only metaphorically. You can't kill everyone, and you can’t be complete. There’s too much world, too much content. And this isn’t a reference work, while we’re at it. It’s a chat, impulsive and friendly. 

Q: And the reviews are on the long side? 

A: Only some. When you’re doing the various versions of Candide, you need space just to tell what numbers are in what recording, because that is one overstuffed score. What other musical has two songs about syphilis? 

Q: How short do the reviews get? 

A: Some of them are just a sentence or two. With Here’s Love, what do you say beyond “Run and hide”? Then, too, how much do you have to impart about something as basic to this field as the original cast of Company? Would anyone interested in a discography of the musical not already know about that show and its strangely distinctive original cast album?  

Because Hal Prince was one of the great casting directors—in show after show, his first people can’t ever be bettered. And in Company’s case, he wanted not musical-comedy types but New Yorkers you might nod to in the elevator of your apartment building. The performers who opened that show looked and moved and sounded like somebody's neighbors. Isn’t that what “company” means? Not magical creatures in a Tolkien epic but the kind of folks you could have gone to high school with. (True, Elaine Stritch was, unlike the others, wildly colorful. But can there be Sondheim without Stritch?) 

Anyway, sometime during the run, one of the replacements was George Wallace—formerly one of the great Broadway baritones, as you can hear on Pipe Dream and New Girl in Town. He had started in a ghastly B movie called Radar Men from the Moon, and now he looked like one. But he had still had that wonderful voice. Prince dropped in to check on the show and gave Wallace a note: “George, you’re singing too well.” 

Q: How would you characterize the tone of your criticism? 

A: It’s not criticism. It’s enthusiasm. I look for things to praise, because my readers love musicals and I love musicals. That’s where we meet. If you get into burning things down, it’s a bad date. 

Q: So, you love everything? 

A: Well, I called one disc “a disgrace.” But I’m not tactful. You don’t want to be so restrained that you have to ask your audience to “Please clap.” I don’t respect restraint. Some people think it’s praise, but if you believe strongly in the power of the arts to enlighten and inspire us, you have to talk up, not down. One of the great celebs of Western Civ, Goethe, ended his masterpiece, Faust, with the words—this is a very rough translation, now—”fucking ennobles us.” 


Wednesday, December 15, 2021

You Can't Be Too Young Or Too Pretty

This is the title of my latest novel, made, most incongruously, by combining the Smiling Face Killings with my long bygone experience working at DC Comics, in the romance division. 

The Smiling Face murders are either a wild conspiracy theory or one of the worst governmental cover-ups of all time: some fifty young college men across the Midwest have been found dead in bodies of water, sometimes accompanied by a graffito of a yellow emoji. The grin. Some observers—including two retired police detectives—believe the dead are victims of serial murder by a group or individual and that the authorities (who insist the victims simply got drunk or high and, tragically, fell into water and drowned) deny there is any foul play because they are too lazy and incompetent to solve these murder cases. 

As any mystery fan can tell you, serial killers are all but impossible to stop because their prey is chosen randomly, leaving no telltale connections to detect and convict on. Generally, murders are solved when the victim is a spouse, a lover, a business partner, a relative with a will of imposing bandwidth. The kill is for money, passion, revenge. Only when the serial killer gets braggy and sloppy can he be caught. So the Smiley Face operation, if it is indeed plotted murder, would naturally confound police detectives. 

You Can’t Be Too Young Or Too Pretty is set in a college town, with the school separated from the urban center by an eerie forest. A road runs through it, and students often walk to the campus from the apartments, stores, and bars in the town (and vice versa). But the road is largely deserted at night: a perfect pick-up spot for a homicidal gang.  

Further, the Smiley Face victims are all attractive young men, for murder is power, and power loves quality in all things. Thus, there is the air of a religious rite, a sacrifice of a community’s favorite members, suggesting that an arcane cult is operating in the neighborhood, perhaps one reaching back into the very birth of recorded history. It relates to the many vampire novels and films that explain that the re-dead have been with us forever, waiting for the opportunity to come forth and assert citizens’ rights, in the True Blood manner. Or, as one of the worst of them tells the titular hero of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter just before he chops his head off, “We won’t stop till the whole country’s ours.” 

It’s an alarming proposition for law enforcement, as the adherents of such a cult would have the experience of millennia’s worth of practice in subterfuge and evasion. They would be champions at killing, which explains why the authorities—who are all too often feckless foodledoos—can't keep up with them.  

As for romance comics: all seven of our monthly titles created a world in which everyone except the grownups was, as my novel’s title suggests, young and pretty, and happy endings were the rule. Our readers were young girls still ahead of full-blown love; they had been earning small change selling lemonade from roadside stands only two or three years before, and their “lovers” were boys with a paper route.  

By law, comic books had to include at least one page of solid text to take advantage of a shipping discount (which explains why the old Classics Illustrateds had those back-of-the-book essays that nobody read). Ours were advice columns, attributed to phantoms with generic names such as Carol Andrews and Ann Martin, who was billed as “Counselor-At-Love.” 

Well, I was all of them, Carol, Ann, and five others, cobbling the letters we received from readers into simple tween “love” problems—Does the cute boy in the store like me? and so on—though the girls writing in didn't give me much to go on. How do I know if he likes you? Still, a theme emerged: everything starts with looks, but then personality comes into play, and one’s insides don’t necessarily comport with one’s appearance. 

So my novel’s characters are all wonderful to look at...but what happens then? For example, my hero, Connor, is every girl’s dreamboat, and he does have personal charm—but no staying power. Giving is not his style, and the “real” Connor underneath the devastating smile and wide shoulders is so impenetrable that his girlfriends (he amasses them by the flock) keep coming back to try to collect him: to figure him out. They’re like the girls who wrote to Carol Andrews: does he like me? 

Or take young Baker, who shoots into fame with an advice column filled with outspoken recommendations—”Cut your father out of your life!,” he’ll urge—captivating a national readership. Baker hooks up with a vast gym hunk, a veteran called simply Marine, who speaks in a mixture of military jargon and rural idioms. (“You gonna get up on me again like so?”) Marine looks hot and dumb, a celebrated type. Yet his rap takes in odd cultural points. He even knows all about Oz—the magic land, not the prison. 

Marine is bi and Baker a self-destructive gay, and I can imagine the letter the two of them might have sent to a romance advice column, a “he said, he said” of gnarly complaints about everything. It’s ghastly when two are in love yet can’t get along. What good is young and cute then? And this despite Marine’s fail-safe recipe for effective romance, made of equal parts of (in his wording) fuck and trust. The former is easy; again, it’s all about liking looks. But trust is hard, because you can’t just ask for it. When someone wants something from you and you resist, if he then says, “Don’t you trust me?,” it’s a giveaway: you can’t. Trustworthy people never ask that question. 

I find eccentric characters very enjoyable to write about, because “screwy” makes good reading while “normal” lies dull on the page. My lesbians are eccentrics, too (one’s a cop, which is pretty wild in any context), and even Connor’s four-year-old nephew is one, as an imp who runs around in exotic headgear and speaks a language all his own. Every time he says something, everyone will turn to his older sister, who translates. 

It’s fun life, yet there are still those vicious killers to deal with. And I remember, back at DC Comics, how some of the letters we got were from young girls in the south asking for help because their mother's boyfriend had seduced them. This was an appalling situation, way beyond the expertise of a Carol Andrews, and my boss drew up a form answer to be sent privately to these girls, urging them to take the problem to the minister of their church. 

Hopeless, I thought. What good is he going to do? It cast a dreadful shadow over our land of the romance of young and pretty. Is it religion that explains where the shadows come from, or fiction?  





Sunday, December 6, 2020


 Two things first: 

1) There are spoilers in this piece as sure as there are fairies at the bottom of my garden, and  

(2) My publisher will kill me if I don’t plug my latest, Pick a Pocket Or Two: A History Of the British Musical.

(Actually, there are three things, because Word insists on retaining the red and blue suggestion lines in my draft, and I've given up battling them. This never happened before, but when you turn your back, some computer know-it-all cranks everything up and nothing works right after that. Just ask anyone stuck with New Microsoft Edge.)

Now for the piece itself. So: however you feel about the royals, The Crown has been impeccably written, cast, and produced. This is really quite some epic. Nevertheless, one cannot miss a scornful view of the Windsors and their associates that crept in bit by bit till it became scathing by the fourth season. Elizabeth is cold and unfeeling, her mother is a manipulative bitch, Prime Minister Edward Heath is a supercilious elitist jackass (he doesn’t even like dogs), Princess Margaret is reckless, supremely selfish, and (I think worst of all) rude to the help, and so on. 


True, Princess Anne is smart and individualistic and the younger Duke of Edinburgh (the show gives us several versions of these people as they age rather than simply calling on the Acme Powder Company, in the old Hollywood style) has a nice breezy manner. But the only character I really liked was his valet, played by Chris Gordon, handsome beyond belief and wasted in an under five. They should cast him in a new series: Beauties of Buckingham Palace: The Exposé. 

Further in that line we should mention a crucial principal in the palace espionage, Tommy Lascelles. I never got straight exactly what his job was, but he kept turning up at fizzy moments, just like La Gioconda. Tall and trim with dark hair and a full mustache but above all with an icily authoritative manner, he suggested a seventies leather clone in a tailcoat.  

Again: the acting per se is excellent—it's the characters themselves that come off badly. And there were certain longueurs. I skipped all the diplomatic speeches and the subplot involving someone called Porchy who had to do with horses. I think horses should all be relaxing in a pasture and not being raced or bred or whatever it was that was happening to them. Leave the animals alone. 

I skipped also through much of the episode about the loon who broke into Buckingham Palace (twice) and ended up in the queen’s bedroom. Again: good actor, but what a stupid character, the kind of loser who makes chip-on-shoulder trouble everywhere he goes because he’s mad at the world. What good does that do in your life, man?  He sees his ex-wife with their kids in the playground—and with a new boy friend in tow. So the loser views this as a splendid opportunity to try to push his way back in and has to get a beating before running away. 

The earlier seasons seemed more fun, not least because many of the most beguiling actors dwell within: Claire Foy as a charming monarch, much more agreeable than Olivia Colman—these two Queen Elizabeths don’t match. And John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill is the prize of the show. I always feel I own part of Lithgow, as he was a guest in Lehman Engel’s BMI workshop on the day Ed Kleban auditioned A Chorus Line for us and I predicted the show would close in a week. 

The element I was most interested in was the bolter, Edward VIII, the one who abdicated the throne. All the royals are parasites, but he was a traitor parasite, actively plotting with the Nazis to aid their war effort against his own countrymen—and the show, to my surprise, was very open about that bit of history. We got a lot of this dreadful character, coming and going and demanding a raise in his allowance and incessantly speaking of “the woman I love,” as if anybody cared. At one point, during an interview in the Windsors’ Paris exile, he brought up their constant entertaining. “The duchess is so very good at it, you see,” he told the interviewer in that lofty-slimy leisure-class purr they all have.  

Oh, she’s so very good at entertaining? What the fuck does one do besides order the food and the booze and open the door and say, “How good of you to come”? The series presented the duchess as a loving consort when in fact she appears to have been a black-hearted adventuress who lived in a state of rage because she was stuck with an even bigger loser than the Buckingham Palace intruder.