Tuesday, February 12, 2013

TTPMO: Memphis, the musical

If you're going to understand this post, you have to understand that I like musicals. I mean, really like them. I willingly spend money on tickets to musicals. I have a large collection of original Broadway cast recordings. I have strong opinions about Sondheim.

So when I say that Memphis is the worst musical ever, it's not because I dislike musicals or because I don't "get" the genre or whatever.

It's because Memphis is the worst damn musical ever.

Don't believe me? Allow me to explain:

The musical takes place in Memphis (duh) in the 1950s. The plot (such as it is) revolves around Huey Calhoun, a loser white guy who likes "race music." He falls in love with 
Felicia, a singer who is black. Through a series of laughably implausible schemes (more on those in a moment), and on the strength of Felicia's singing and his own...er...well, something positive about his personality that's never fully explained or illustrated, Huey gets a job as a radio DJ and eventually as a TV personality. But then his star fades and Felicia breaks up with him and he ends up back as a DJ.

You may have noticed that this description lacks any sort of dramatic arc or character development. That's because there isn't anyThere's a longer plot summary on Wikipedia, but trust me, it doesn't make any more sense than the one I just gave.

It gets worse.

Writers are often advised to "show, don't tell," which is a pretty solid general principle. A good way to get an audience to understand that a character has a certain trait is to put the character in a situation where that trait can be demonstrated, not merely to have someone state that the character has that trait. If the writers of Memphis ever heard that advice, they either disregarded it entirely or got it backwards, since the majority of the dialogue in the show involves characters telling the audience things about themselves or each other.

To illustrate: 
Felicia's brother runs a nightclub and tends to disapprove of anyone who wants to date his sister. How do I know this? Because he announces it to the audience as soon as he steps onstage in the first scene. Felicia would really rather that her brother weren't so controlling, but overall, she's happy. And how do I know this? Because she announces it to the audience immediately after her brother makes his announcement. 

Making matters worse is the fact that this "tell, don't show" attitude applies not only to introducing the characters, but also to important moments of transition. The best example of this is Huey's mother. When Huey and 
Felicia start to date, Huey's mother does not approve of Huey seeing "that colored girl." As an audience member, I'm thinking, "Great! Here's a chance for the development of some interesting dramatic tension!" Except that nothing more is made of this issue until the beginning of Act Two, when Huey's mother turns to the audience and announces that she's had a change of heart, interracial dating is A-OK, and here's a chipper little song to prove it.

This is far from the only occasion where this sort of inexplicable reversal happens. To cite two more examples: Huey, in Act One, begs 
Felicia to go to New York City with him so that they can get married. But then Huey, in Act Two, refuses to go to New York City with Felicia when she's offered a job there because he couldn't possibly leave Memphis. Wha??? Also, at the end of the show, Felicia visits Huey at his radio station and asks him to come see her perform. Huey categorically refuses. Ten seconds later, Felicia is performing and Huey is right there with her. Nonsensical doesn't even begin to describe it.

As if this kind of whiplash-inducing about-face isn't bad enough, the musical loses whatever credibility it may have had left by completely undermining its main character. Allow me to explain: When the show opens, Huey is a total loser, a good-for-nothing who can't hold a job. (How do I know this? Because a variety of characters announce it directly to the audience. Are you sensing a theme here?)

But what we actually see onstage is Huey succeeding with crazy scheme after crazy scheme. He's left temporarily in charge of the music counter of the department store where he works, and sells a huge number of records by playing "race music" over the store's speaker system --- because the kind of white suburban folks who frequented department stores in the South in the 1950s would suddenly demand an immediate repeal of Jim Crow drop everything to buy a slew of rock'n'roll records featuring black artists based on a single exposure, don't you know. He does precisely the same thing, with precisely the same effect, on a radio show that he guest-hosts. (The accompanying upbeat musical number is titled, without perceptible irony, "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night." Unfortunately, the subtitle was not "Except for All the People who are Actually Black and Who Continue to be Disenfranchised and Victimized by a Racist Populace," which makes me think I should be giving more money to the NAACP.) He pulls this kind of inane, credibility-defying stunt about four times in the first act, all to great effect.

Let's take a moment to sum up what's happening here. First, the show insists, loudly and repeatedly, that Huey is a loser. Then, the show illustrates that Huey has some kind of magical talent for success. Further, the way in which this magical talent manifests itself is utterly unrealistic. This is the very opposite of "show, don't tell." Not only have the writers failed to give me any plausible reason to believe that Huey is a loser, they've spent considerable time and energy in undermining the very character trait that they were so insistent that I believe in. In the process, they've created a world where total losers can actually get rich quick with their ludicrous get-rich-quick schemes. But if that's how this world works, why wasn't Huey able to put said schemes into effect before, hence failing to become a loser in the first place? This situation doesn't ask me to suspend disbelief so much as to take disbelief and hang it unceremoniously from a gallows.

Wait, it gets worse.

As you might imagine, this kind of storytelling makes it really hard for the audience to care about the characters, all of whom are basically one-dimensional caricatures. This point is driven home rather forcefully at the end of Act One, when a gang beats up
Felicia because of her relationship with Huey. Given that nothing interesting has happened in Act One until this point, I took this as a very good sign. (Note to writers: When one of your main characters is brutally beaten and the audience's reaction to this event is "terrific!", you're in trouble.) As the curtain fell on the first act, I headed into intermission with high hopes about a dramatic second-act opener at Felicia's bedside. Huey could be feeling miserable and guilty; Felicia's brother could be simultaneously furious at Huey for being the cause of his sister's injuries and touched by his devotion to her; Huey's mother could wrestle with a similar set of conflicted feelings...

But it was not to be. Act Two opens with a splashy, cheery musical number. It's six months later and Huey and 
Felicia are still together, but she's unable to have children because of the attack. How do I know this? Because Huey announces it to the audience in pretty much those exact words about 30 seconds after the splashy, cheery musical number ends. Then the rest of Act Two wanders along in basically the same vein as before. I should have known that setup was too good to last.

You might not believe it, but yes, it gets worse.

Probably the most frustrating thing about Memphis is its handling of racial issues. Basically, it makes Hairspray (which preaches a similar message of interracial tolerance) look worthy of a Pulitzer. 
I've already given some of the more egregious examples of this, but I've just got to share one more:

One of the men who work's in 
Felicia's brother's nightclub is mute. He witnessed his father being lynched and was so traumatized by it that he's refused to speak since then. (It should not surprise you to learn that this story is told to the audience in pretty much the same words as I've just used.) This would be nothing more than overly dramatic blather if it weren't for the way in which this story is put to use in the show. When Huey enters the club following the afore-mentioned gang beating, carrying a wounded Felicia, the club patrons  blame him for what's happened and threaten to attack him. Then, in a plot twist worthy of an underachieving fifth-grader, the mute character suddenly regains his ability to speak and begs everyone to come together and get along. And they do. Curtain on Act One.

This is the sort of thing that made me want to run out and apologize to every black person I could find. The trouble was that I would have had to run pretty far, since aside from the actors doing their best to breathe some life into this abominable material, there weren't any black people in the theater. That should tell you everything you need to know about Memphis's contribution to interracial dialogue.

To add insult to injury, the music wasn't even catchy. Good music can go a long way towards redeeming some of the sins enumerated here. Alas, no such luck; the soundtrack consisted of an indistinguishable series of peppy songs failing to capture any of the excitement and drive of a genuine '50s beat.

Could it possibly get worse? Oh yes, it could.

Because this steaming pile of pigshit won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Do you know what that means? That means that it's enshrined in musical theater history with the likes of A Chorus Line and Cabaret. That people whose job it is to judge musicals --- people who should know better! --- sat through this hodgepodge of hokey plot devices, wooden characters, and insipid music, and pronounced it good. In all fairness, I didn't see the rest of the nominees that year, so perhaps they were worse. But it's hard to imagine how that's possible.

Because Memphis is the worst musical ever.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Reflections on 2012

The previous two years have not been good ones. So it wouldn't have been difficult for 2012 to have been better, just by default.

I count myself incredibly fortunate that I can say for certain that 2012 was better --- and not just by default.

I found out that I was pregnant on my birthday, and my son Brandon was born in November. Volumes have been written about the awe-inspiring joy and sense of enormousness that children bring to one's life, so for this humble blog it will suffice to say that suddenly, everything has been better. Different, yes, in ways expected and unexpected, but undoubtedly better. 2012 was the year of better.

It was the year that I finally got a job as an independent researcher, vindicating too many years of struggle with a bad job market and uncooperative circumstances. It was the year that my husband graduated his first Ph.D. student, published his first book, and got a lovely raise. It was the year that my brother got married and I gained a wonderful sister. It was the year my father was re-employed after a long and stressful job search in a poor economy. It was the year that gave me back my faith that a year could be better than the one before.

Hello, 2013. Let's do it again.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dispatch from the Blue Mountains

Things look much better from this side of January 1.

There's nothing like fresh air to clear one's thinking, so Michael and I booked some time for ourselves in a cabin up in the mountains, to try to find a little peace before the start of a very difficult semester. It's an amazing spot, tucked into the side of a granite hill just a few minutes' walk from the Appalachian Trail, and it's everything one could hope for in a mountain retreat: cozy bedroom, working fireplace, fully stocked kitchen, a zillion Legos in the loft. Just a few hours here and the cares of the world fade away. Like ice on a burn, their sting isn't gone, just numbed and made distant and stripped of its power to affect what's really important in my life.

We took a long walk this morning on the freshly fallen snow, bundled up to our eyes in winter gear, the first creatures to leave any footprints. It was incredibly cold but clear with a bright, thin sun overhead and a freezing wind creaking through the bare branches. We collected kindling and built up a blazing fire when we got back, which we've kept burning all afternoon and into the night. Looking into the white-hot glow of the charcoal we've built up, I suddenly appreciate how humankind was able to melt iron --- and feel a great upswelling of sympathy for sand about to be fused into glass.

As bleak as the world is, as unforgivably cold and lonesome as things are up here and as fraught with difficult choices as my life are back at home, an overwhelming sense of peace pervades me whenever I'm in front of that fire. We've watched it for hours now, occasionally adding a log, occasionally stirring to take the other's hand, all without saying a word, without needing to. In that silence, the difficult choices resolve themselves into oblivion; the cold and loneliness melt away. I can focus on what I have, not what I lack. There's no shortage of wood, or warmth, or wine. I can cook good food, and eat good chocolate, and read Sherlock Holmes and Lord of the Rings with my feet propped up on the hearth. I have wool socks, a roof over my head, steady and meaningful work, and the ability to discern a sparrow from a mockingbird. I have the respect of good friends, the support of a good family, the love of a good man. And no matter what happens, no matter what goes right or what goes wrong, these are things that I cannot and will not lose.

I don't ask for the path to be easy. I just ask for a way to know what's truly important before I set off on my way.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on 2011

And I thought 2010 was a bad year.

Well, it was, in a number of ways that I've documented elsewhere. But this year was worse. I certainly won't be sorry to turn over a new leaf and have the opportunity to start fresh, because, in the words of my dear departed grandmother, this year was a bitch. I've spent too much time in hospitals. I've attended too many funerals. I've been forced a few too many times to confront the bleakness of the world situation, to question my self-worth, to doubt my life choices. I suppose my grandmother would add that such things make one stronger, but let me tell you, if I have been made stronger, it's been no great pleasure getting here.

And so I end this year with a great sense of loss. It's not fair, I suppose, to let that color the many happy things that happened this year, but it does. What's more, that makes it difficult to look to the future with hope. But I'm going to try to hope anyway, because what other choice do I have? I don't want to let that sense of loss define me or to deny me the ability to meet the future with resolve --- and so I won't. In the words of the balladeer: "All you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow / With smilin’ bastards lyin’ to you everywhere you go / Turn to and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain / And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again."

Happy new year, and may 2012 be the year in which we all can rise again.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Let the annual extravaganza begin!

This year, we got fancy with the tableware and bought ourselves a set of honest-to-goodness French onion soup crocks, complete with lions' heads on the sides.

Of course, this is only a fraction of the china needed to plate this no-turkey feast:

Note the miniature onion soup crocks in front of their big brothers. We used these to serve our amuse-bouche, which was a modern twist on that quintessentially American food, popcorn:

What's the twist, you ask? We dressed the popcorn with butternut squash seed oil from The Filling Station. It's the most amazing stuff; tastes a little like roasted squash and a little like peanut butter. No joke.

From here, we transitioned to a classic first course: a salad of endives, walnuts, and Roquefort.

Salade d’Endive
walnuts, vernières frères roquefort

Yeah so we were thinking about going vegan, but, you know, Roquefort!

Our second course was inspired by the very first meal that we were served on our honeymoon in Beaune, France. (Awww.) Frankly, I think the chef didn't quite know what to do with a couple of vegetarians, so he made us what would be called in English "scrambled eggs." But, this being France, these weren't just any scrambled eggs --- they were oeufs brouillés, stirred for a long time over very low heat and incorporating what tasted like a pound of cream. The result was an astonishingly rich pile of tiny egg curds, dressed with perfectly cooked vegetables and drizzled with truffle oil.

We didn't want to make eggs for our dinner, since timing is everything in getting the right consistency, and that's a little difficult to pull off in the face of 12 hungry people. We also wanted to honor the produce that was fresh and in season. So we replaced the eggs with parsnips.

Parsnips are one of those vegetables that often get short shrift, lumped in with carrots and turnips and relegated to a secondary role in stews and soups. This is a real shame, since fresh parsnips can have quite a complex flavor, with notes of earthiness and vanilla, and a texture that can only be described as velvety. The truly amazing thing is how easy it is to get them to taste good: Boiling in water, straining, and then puréeing in a blender pretty much does the trick. No cream or butter required. Sometimes, it's the simplest things that are the best.

But since this is Thanksgiving, and we didn't want to make things too simple, we layered the parsnips with four different kinds of sautéed mushrooms.

Parsnip Brouillé
chanterelle, lobster, trompette du mort, and cremini mushrooms

Again in the sprit of expressing the best of the season, our next course featured delicata squash. We got this in our CSA box once and it's been a fall staple ever since. It's incredibly easy to prepare, since unlike other winter squashes, its skin is soft enough to eat. And it looks a bit like an overgrown yellow zucchini, so it makes beautiful crescent-moon shaped slices once it's scooped out.

Taking this as our base, we dressed it with a beet coulis (which, let's face it, is just a fancy term for "sauce"). As a bonus, the rich red of the beets made an awesome color contrast with the squash.

Because this dish is made of just vegetables, which don't bring much if any fat to the table, we wanted to dress it with some delectable nut oil, which would add both flavor and mouthfeel. We quickly settled on pistachio oil, since we were using hazelnuts elsewhere and since walnut oil is boring. It turns out that pistachio oil is the biggest pain in the ass to find. We looked everywhere in Philly with no success. Finally, we had to resort to getting Michael's parents to import it for us from the small-country-sized Whole Foods near where they live. It was worth it, though, since the oil was a delicate shade of green and complemented the squash perfectly.

Delicata Squash Moons
beet coulis, roasted pistachio oil, fleur de sel

For our main course, we decided to honor the American heritage of the holiday, so we turned to a classic Mexican sauce, pipian. The main ingredient in this sauce is roasted pumpkin seeds, which again fit well with our seasonal theme.

The mise en place:

The seeds are mixed with freshly ground spices, including cinnamon and epazote (Mexican oregano); sauteed onion; and dried and reconstituted chiles.

Then the whole mess is whizzed in the blender to the consistency of peanut butter and slowly simmered with some broth to make the right texture.

Normally, of course, pipian is served over some sort of meat dish; we used marinated seitan (wheat gluten) instead.

A lightly pickled onion relish (escabeche) rounded out the dish, providing a sharp bite to cut through the richness of the pipian.

Seitán en Pipián con Escabeche de Cebolla

After that heavy course, we included a salad as a palate cleanser. Asian pears are a favorite around here for salads, since they have a pleasant, fresh crunch and don't turn brown after being cut as apples and pears do. We tossed them with toasted hazelnuts and a dressing made with Asian plum wine.

Asian Pear & Hazelnut Salad
plum wine vinaigrette

[camera shy]

Finally, it was time for our traditional piece de resistance: French onion soup with homemade baguette croutons and Gruyere cheese.
Yes, that is over three liters of caramelized onions.
Yes, that is over a gallon of soup.
Yes, that is over five pounds of cheese.
Yes, we made those ourselves. (No, we don't mess around.)

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

Never ones to stop at that when dessert can be had, we took on a new challenge this year: chocolate truffles. Turns out that they're insanely easy to make, and a ton of fun, since shaping them allows you to literally get your hands dirty in chocolate. We rolled half in cocoa power and half in coconut. What's not to love?

Hand-rolled Truffles

Never ones to stop at that when even more dessert can be had, we supplemented the truffles with two different kinds of cupcakes from our beyond-awesome local bakery, Betty's Speakeasy: apple cider and pumpkin chocolate. We rounded things out with a traditional English farmhouse Cheddar from Neal's Yard Dairy and a Cardo from Sleight Farm.

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling kinda hungry now.