going for the gold

As some of you may be aware, this Tuesday is the announcement of the nominees for the Academy Awards. As you must know by now, Oscar Night is the night of the year that I anticipate more eagerly than any other. Last year, S. and I competed to guess who would win Oscars in every category -- and we tied.

This year, to raise the stakes, we've decided to bet on the nominations in the major categories as well. The following are my predictions for who will get nominated on Tues. Jan. 23. Let the games begin!

The Departed
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Adriana Barraza, Babel
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earl Haley, Little Children
Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Jack Nicholson, The Departed

Bill Condon, Dreamgirls
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel
Martin Scorsese, The Departed

Little Miss Sunshine
Pan's Labyrinth
The Queen
United 93

Children of Men
The Departed
The Devil Wears Prada
Little Children

OK, if you want to see how accurate I was, click here.


a life in the theater

Irving Berlin wrote that "there's no business like show business," but I'm afraid I have to take issue with that. In very many ways, show business is a business just like any other.

Before the New Year, S. and I went to a couple of theatrical performances during which the economic realities behind the art we were watching hovered around the show (at least for me) and colored my responses to what we were seeing on stage.

The first was the Broadway revival of A Chours Line, which we went to see for our one-year anniversary (thank you very much). Having introduced S. to Cabaret over the summer, I was excited to expose him to another musical that I suspected he would really enjoy (in fact, getting tickets to the show was his idea). I felt like a grown-up, going out to a fancy Italian restaurant and ordering a bottle of wine, going to see the show, then walking through the streets of Broadway as the other theaters were emptying themselves of their elegantly-dressed patrons. It was a very romantic, exuberant night and S. really enjoyed the performance. To quote Jessica Tandy's Oscar acceptance speech for Driving Miss Daisy (as well as Caryl Churchill), we were "on Cloud Nine."

Such an evening is a common experience for the regular class of New York theater-goers, yet for us it was a treat. It was also a significant expenditure. Because the show is popular and is pretty much selling out each night, the cheapest tickets were $111 each. It was, in short, not the kind of experience we could afford to have all that often. And, I would argue, it was the expenditure of it, the luxury, that made the evening so memorable. This was the first time that I've ever, on my own, paid full price to see a Broadway show. It felt spend-thrift, a little bit foolish, but was more than justified by the occasion.

In fact, it was the experience of "going to a Broadway show" that I enjoyed much more than the production itself. As has been widely reported, this revival of A Chorus Line (except for some nods in the direction f multi-racial casting) has not been re-imagined in any way. It is set firmly in the 70's and was directed by Michael Bennett's original co-choreographer in an attempt to duplicate, step-for-step, the original landmark production. Because of that, the production feels a bit airless. Few of the fresh-faced young performers really seem to own their roles or numbers, they haven't been able to make them their own, which is disappointing in what was in 1976 the first real show on Broadway that was all about the ensemble, all about the quirky individuality of the performers onstage. It was the first big musical to be developed through an "experimental" workshop process. The original Chorus Line must have been, I assume, a uniquely visceral experience, with young performers playing roles that had been developed specifically for them. By applauding the show that's currently playing at the Schoenfeld Theater, the audience was celebrating the ghost of the original, a show that had thrived on freshness and youth and seeming spontaneity, rather than what they were actually seeing, which didn't really feel fresh, young, or spontaneous anymore.

A Chorus Line is arguably the ultimate "show biz musical." It's nothing more than a group of dancers singing and talking about why they're in this business, why they keep going despite the obstacles, about "what they did for love." It's ultimately as romanticized as every other musical about people putting on a show, glorifying the "magic" of the theater and the desperate hunger to perform. But more than other musicals, A Chorus Line emphasizes the notes of desperation. I was struck in the part where the young Puerto Rican kid, Paul, sprains his ankle by how immediately all of the other dancers react to his plight. They know that an accident like that means much more than damaged ligaments: it might steal from him the one thing he can do, the thing that he's been staking his life and his livelihood on, his dancing. As they rush him off to the doctor I thought about actor friends of mine who have no health care, people who take all kinds of economic risks to pursue their dream. It's a crazy decision and in a country like this one, which exists with a minimal social safety net, it's a decision that comes with very real economic risks.

I think one of the reasons that S. responded so strongly to the show was because he saw something of me in the characters. As we waited for the Q train in Times Square, he said something like, "Now I understand you better." Well, that's not exactly true. I'm not like the kids in A Chorus Line because I'm not a dancer, I don't have to present myself continually in judgment in rounds and rounds of auditions. There are certainly parallels to my life as a director and playwright, trying (and so far succeeding) to be able to support myself and to find the time and energy to keep creating my art. But as much as I enjoyed the experience of going to the show (and I really, really did -- primarily I think because S. was there with me), I came out of there with a profound awareness that projects like A Chorus Line are as different from what I do as night and day. That difference was undescored by the airlessness of the current production. In order to make it into a well-oiled, money-making machine, the producers had eliminated any risk-taking decisions, they were following the tried and true formula of what people expected (or remembered) A Chorus Line to be and people were paying them back for that. An article in the Times before the show opened revealed that the dancers who participated in the original workshops, the real people on whose lives the authors had based the stories and songs (many of whom acted in the original show), were receiving no money from this revival. Michael Bennett, when he was still alive, had looked out for them financially but the new prodcuers had decided not to. Again reminding us that the business of show business is business.

I don't begrudge Broadway its profits. There's nothing wrong with actors and playwrights making money. But we must always remember that when we're talking about a profit-making Broadway show, we're talking more and more about shows that are artistically compromised, unadventurous, unspontaneous. It's an entriely different enterprise from the kind of work that attempts to challenge people's perceptions of the artform and of society. Broadway is no longer the pinnacle of the theater in America, it's a commercial offshoot, a business venture. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Several weeks after our Broadway experience, S. and I went to see Pina Bausch's dance company perform their piece Nefes in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. Nefes was the hot ticket of the festival, the one for which there was no special discount available, because Bausch is one of those avant-garde now-superstars, a cross-over artist whose work has won favor with the sophisticated classes and been featured in maistream work like Almodovar's Talk to Her (which is where, I must admit, I first learned about her). The tickets were not as expensive as A Chorus Line but they weren't cheap either. And the theater was packed with a totally different crowd -- dance afficianados, wealth bourgeois liberals, young sophisticates. Again it was a pleasure to be among them, to survey the crowd during intermission and to feel oneself comfortably ensconced with artsy gay men in thick black designer glasses and willowy women in pashminas.

The show was really enjoyable. The piece has a joking casual quality that frequently prompted knowing chuckles from the audience. Nefes (which, apparently, is Turkish for "breath") is part of a series of works in which Bausch's company was invited by a different cities to set up residence there and then create a piece about that city. This time is was Istanbul: the music had a Turkish flavor and several of the early sections dealt (amusingly) with a hammam. But it wasn't a Turk-fest by any means. If the program notes hadn't told us of the connection, I'm not sure I would have picked up on it. Bausch's company of dancers is young, international, multi-racial, graceful, witty, and ironic. They had a lovely, casual rapport with the audience and the audience loved them right back. During the intermission, I overheard a fiftysomething gay man say, "I don't think it's about anything, but I love it!"

I enjoyed the piece a lot, too, though I thought it was far too long and repetitive. Couldn't Bausch have pruned the three-hour running time a bit, especially when so many of the dances and mini-skits (while enjoyable) seemed to recall bits that we'd seen earlier in the piece? What I think that man I overheard, and most of the crowd, liked about the show was this casual pace and attitude. It was, in short (from the opening hammam section to the part in the middle where the dancers just came out and had a picnic onstage) a glorification of leisure. We were approaching the piece like a fine glass of wine that we and the artists were going to take our sweet time with and really savor. Again, there's nothing wrong with that. And yet, I could detect underneath the enjoyment a tinge of jealousy, the kind of jealousy that American liberals often feel in relation to Europe, with its subsidized arts and generous vacation time. We long to be able to go on extended vacations, to sit around cafes digesting great food and pondering artistic and philosophical questions.

Bausch's company was, in fact, performing that life-style for us on the stage at BAM. Her residency in various cities all over the world is a kind of vacation. "We'll pay you to come experience our city and then make a dance about it!" What artist would turn that down? I was struck by how different that situation is from the desperate dancers of A Chorus Line, who must struggle for each paycheck, who are never assured of their livelihood from job to job. American liberals, and especially American artists, have a romanticized view of the glory of European socialism. We love their nationalized health care, their social safety net, their state subsidies for the arts. How often have you heard young artists complaining about the lack of government funding, or cutbacks to the NEA, or the appalling fact that the United States has no "national theater"? And yet having those subsidies can be a double-edged sword, at least artistically. Might I play devil's advocate here and argue that arts subsidies breed complacency? That difficult as it may be to get work put on in our competitive marketplace environment, it also results in work that people are at least committed to, that they have some stake in. Because they're choosing to give up material comfort in order to get it made.

I've been reading the biography of Joe Papp, founder of the Public Theater (where A Chorus Line was originally developed) and I am totally charmed by his personality. A young, working-class Jewish kid, a 1930's communist, an idealist with a dream of bringing free Shakespeare to the masses -- he's my kind of artist. And yet, I must admit that as his life enters the 1960s and 70s I have increasingly less sympathy as he pleads with the city government to fund his theater which he allows to spiral into collosal debt. If he's not going to run a theater responsibly, why should the tax payers fund him?

These are just some undigested thoughts. I think there is room for subsidization of art, even in the American marketplace. Unrestrained capitalism would result in a theater scene composed of nothing but jukebox musicals and revivals starring Hollywood stars. But there is value in the struggle, value in the difficulty of mounting a play in America and making it work. That struggle can often make us better, and more committed, artists.