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I go to the theater as often as possible. There’s a lot of live theater in the L.A. Basin, from the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, the Hollywood Bowl and the Pantages to little experimental theaters that do experimental productions to university theater to civic light opera. I’ve seen productions by a lot of touring companies, too. Some of my favorites have been Into the Woods, Les Miserables, My Fair Lady, Wicked, The Drowsy Chaperone (which I've seen three times, the first time in London), and Rent (which I've seen five times). I’ve also seen some very strange productions. One that comes immediately to mind is a local production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, in which one of the handsome young gondoliers was a fat, bald, middle-aged tenor. I also saw a production of Cabaret in which Herr Schultz was played by a young Vietnamese actor. And a 1776 on a stage that wasn't big enough to hold all the actors. That’s all right, though—I got to hear the music.
When I’m done working for the day and finished watching the news (mostly the local Eyewitless News, MSNBC, and PBS), instead of watching TV reality shows, I watch movies on DVD, most of them movies in which people sing and dance. Fred and Ginger. Nelson and Jeanette. Mickey and Judy. Wallace and Gromit. (Are you paying attention??) I love operettas and musicals. Offenbach, Friml, Lehar. Gilbert and Sullivan. Rodgers and Hart; Lorenz Hart had a pitch-perfect sense of ironic rhyme. Stephen Sondheim, splendiferous words and music. Kurt Weill, the Gershwins. Leonard Bernstein. I have two versions of Candide. I also have a small collection of restored Broadway musicals that were broadcast in the 1950s-- Naughty Marietta and Kiss Me, Kate starring Alfred Drake, The Desert Songstarring Nelson Eddy (in which he is as old as the actor playing his father), and Peter Pan with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard. I saw the new production of Peter Pan that traveled around in a really big tent a couple years ago. It was splendid, but I missed the songs.
Most nights, I’ll pull a double bill off my shelves. A couple of the Broadway Melodies. Enchanted and Annie. The movie and Broadway versions of Victor/Victoria. The Taming of the Shrew (the 1976 San Francisco production with Marc Singer, not the travesty starring Dick and Liz) followed by Kiss Me, Kate with Brent Barrett. Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe followed by A Midsummer Night's Dream. Funny thing--all those fairies are as tall as human beings. A few weeks ago, I watched a Roger Daltrey trilogy: The Wizard of Oz in Concert (in which he sang the Tin Man), Mack the Knife (a movie version of The Threepenny Opera in which he played the Street Singer), and the BBC Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (in which he played the Dromios). I’ve never been much of a fan of the Who, however. They’re loud, and I find the idea of destroying musical instruments abhorrent.
I don't like every musical ever written. I’m probably one of six people on the planet who find Phantom of the Opera overwrought and silly. I once came upon a Sondheim web site that called Lloyd Webber the antichrist. It made me laugh out loud. I do like some of Lloyd Webber's rock 'n' roll Puccini, though: Evita and Sunset Boulevard. And I don't like most of the MGM versions of Broadway musicals. That's because Mr. Mayer made significant changes in them. Like leaving out most of the good songs and rewriting the plots.
I guess I’ve been this way all my life. By the time I was eight or nine, I knew all the words to all the songs in The Desert Song. A couple years ago, I read straight through The Oxford Companion to the American Musical, and then I read The Cambridge Companion, too. On holidays when I'm home, I like to watch Gilbert and Sullivan operettas all day, five or six in a row. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a song from some show or other going through my head. It can take me half the day to figure out where it came from. I also listen to musicals when I walk in the morning. This week it’s The Boys from Syracuse; next week, it’s likely to be anything from Movin’ Out to Once Upon a Mattress to Hairspray.
No, my mind is not warped. Not much. Yes, musical theater makes me un-in-one-breath-utterably happy. (I stole that nice compound adverb from Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, 1598.)
Speaking of 1598, I also (of course) watch a lot of plays by Jonson’s friend and rival, Will Shakespeare. I've read Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare. I majored in Shakespeare for two graduate degrees. I've read a lot of Shakespeare criticism, too, but most of that's best forgotten. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed by living actors, and that's why I prefer live productions, like those by Shakespeare by the Sea, a local company. But I also have a whole shelf of Shakespeare DVDs. And I regularly thank the Goddess for Netflix and the BBC Shakespeare productions from the early 1980s. On the same shelf with my Shakespeare DVDs are Shakespeare in Love, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Angels in America, and The Red Violin. (Don't laugh. I also have Sondheim and Gilbert and Sullivan on the same shelf, with O Brother, Where Art Thou? right in between them. This made my son just shake his head.)
I like traditional productions like the BBC series from the early '80s, but I have no objection to modernized versions, like Shakespeare Retold and Kenneth Branagh’s movies. I’m also a big fan of both RSCs—the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The first time I went to a Renaissance faire, I was a newly-hatched Ph.D. "Oh," I kept saying, "this isn't right. That's not right." I thought I knew everything about Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Hah! I'm a lot mellower now. Othello as a London policeman bothers me not at all anymore, nor does an As You Like It set in Japan. I even like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. And I recently saw an amazing production-- Fleetwood Macbeth. Yes, the Scottish play and music by Fleetwood Mac. It was burlesque, standup comedy, and parody--but they also followed Shakespeare's plot. At the end, when they chop off Macbeth's head? In this production, they put the head on a platter on a table ... and the actor started telling more jokes. Very strange. Loud applause.
I like to watch something Shakespearean every week or so. It’s fun, for example, to watch two versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost—Branagh’s musical version and a BBC version set in the late 18th century—on the same night. Or two of my favorite Shakespeare plays, The Winter’s Tale (the RSC production) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the 1999 movie set in Italy). Once I watched all the history plays in a row. That took nearly a week. I had my Riverside Shakespeare open in my lap so I could read the footnotes and was thus reminded that Shakespeare was pretty much reinventing history for the propaganda machine of the Tudor police state.