News of long-time Daily New theatre critic Howard Kissel's death is all over the internet today- the Daily News, Times, Playbill, WQXR, etc. I was not a friend of his, but I knew him from the time that I worked at the Theatre Development Fund, where he was on the Board of Directors. Howard had read a play of mine for a workshop slot (I think it was the Vassar summer program); I didn't get the slot. But he liked the play and told me so. After I left TDF, I would run into him once in awhile at the Strand (no chance mistaking him for someone else). So maybe he wasn't the greatest prose stylist in print. But Howard Kissel was an unpretentious, approachable mensch, and he really loved the theatre. It's sad that he's gone.
I am trying to get things cleaned up before I start teaching on Sunday, and I have just finished reading the Norton Critical edition of David Copperfield. For nearly $30, it's pretty scanty on the notes. It does reproduce all of Phiz's illustrations, which I liked. The first David Copperfield I read was the Classic Comics edition; I can still see the panel in my head where Dora dies. And some time after that I saw the MGM movie, so W.C. Fields will always be Micawber, and Edna Mae Oliver will always be Aunt Betsy to me. I hadn't read the book in so long, I was kind of amazed at how, particularly in the first half, accessible and fast-moving it is. The second half bogs down in Emily's story, which particularly if you already know what happens to her, takes a great deal of patience to wade through. The preface (by Jerome Buckley, the editor) zeroes in on Dickens' seeming inexhaustible ability for "negative capability," which I think is the most winning thing about his writing, and something that I have tried to emulate in my work. I had forgotten about Brooks of Sheffield, which is the handle of Vanishing New York (I could never place the reference, though I knew I ought to know it). And the "Take care of him. He bites." sign that David is forced to wear at Mr. Creakle's school. At first, poor David reads the sign and is looking around for the dog. And the way that just when you think you're free of the Murdstones, they pop back up like corks in a tub. Or the scene where Jip (a rather annoying dog, in many of his appearances) dies in front of David, at the same time that Dora does. And were there ever friends in real life so loyal as Mr. Dick and Tommy Traddles? A lady's companion so malevolent as Rosa Dartle? Or such as noble reference to a pachyderm as Mr. Micawber makes: "Gentlemen ... do with me as you will! I am straw upon the surface of the deep, and am tossed in all directions by the elephants". Heep's put-down of David, just before the former's fall: "You were always a puppy with a proud stomach" (I can think of a few people I'd like to say that to). But the novel is mostly concerned with, as its author states, "the undisciplined heart."
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Sunday night I went to see the Encores! presentation of "Merrily We Roll Along" at City Center, along with my composer pal John Prestianni, and some people from the Chelsea Rep Lab. (Link to City Center's website above- it's running until the 19th). I felt like I'd waited my entire adult life (and longer) to see this show. I know all the lyrics from the original cast album. I could tell where lyrics had been changed, like 90% of the first (last) party scene, and one word in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack" ("cream" became "beige," and I like "cream" better for the character). I really enjoyed Colin Donnell and Celia Keenan-Bolger (though the more I think about it, the more thankless the role of Mary seems to me. I'm not sure why she's there). Lin-Manuel Miranda's acting was fine, and his singing was okay. But I heard him making up harmonies (egregiously), and sliding up to notes when he was flat. Adam Grupper and Betsy Wolfe were fine as Joe and Gussie. It really helped to clarify the relationships once I could see the characters on a stage, rather than in my head. John mentioned at intermission (and I mentioned this in my City Center survey the next day) that the orchestra sounded like it was in Long Island City, instead of just behind the actors. We didn't have that experience when we saw "Lost in the Stars," and these were slightly nearer seats. It really took away from the immediacy of the experience. I pushed one of my students, Greg Cohan, into coming. (He's mentioned that he'd seen some real musicals like "Memphis," and I felt compelled). He loved "Merrily" so much that I kissed him afterwards. Now he knows what a good score is supposed to be.
I think I spend more time thinking about tigers than most people. I've been working on a play for the past year which has a Bengal tiger as one of the leading characters. And in my tiger ruminations, I've often wondered what I, a poor New York City playwright, can do to help tigers. And last month, I found out in an article in WWF Focus. The Sumatran tiger is under siege from a paper company, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP). They are clear-cutting forests in Sumatra that are tigers' habitat. There are two brands of toilet paper sold in the US that utilize Asia Pulp & Paper: Paseo and LIVI. Help a tiger- don't buy Paseo or LIVI toilet paper.
Today is Charles Dickens 200th birthday. I have been a big Dickens fan for years, though I know people who aren't. I have read all of his work except Sketches by Boz and Master Humphrey's Clock, some of them multiple times. I love Great Expectations; I see more of myself in Pip than I feel comfortable admitting. To me, Bleak House taps into a well of anxiety and fear of the future, and our inability to control it. The only contemporary author who can do that as well is Peter Carey. Just thinking about Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, or Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House, makes me want to pop a Klonopin. On Sunday, there was a notice in our church bulletin from the rector suggesting that should we feel so moved, we should choose a Dickens novel to read in celebration of his anniversary. I have not read David Copperfield in many years. I'm about a hundred pages into it, and it's even better than I remember. The wicked Mr. Murdstone sends David off to school. David finds the sign that says: Beware of him. He bites. And there's David looking around for a dog, not realizing the sign is for him!