I’ve been a lover of the theater all my life and performed in community theater in both Chicago and Minneapolis. There’s nothing like the organic energy and communication that space provides.
When I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the Chicago Tour of Rent in 1997 and heard the power and beauty of the song “Seasons of Love“, hairs stood up all over my body and hit me with such a force I found it hard to stop crying, The song affirms what I believe, the concept that one should measure life “in Love”. Since I was a child I’ve always imagined a world where Love is the dominant force, overtaking the hate which unfortunately continues to live in the world.
Take a listen and see if you agree … we should measure life “in Love”.
RENT is a rock musical with music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson, loosely based on Giacomo Puccini‘s operaLa Bohème. It tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in Lower Manhattan’s East Village in the thriving days of bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.
I remember hearing the word about Jonathan Larson having died. No!!! right before the1996 off-Broadway opening. I was rehearsing for a benefit show for HIV/AIDS and the number we were singing was “La Vie Boheme” from Rent. We all just sat down and reflected on how important and revolutionary Rent was. Instead of treating those who unfortunately contracted the virus as lepers, give them the dignity and compassion they deserve as a fellow human being – measure life “in Love”.
(Rent sweeping the Tony Awards 1996)
The musical was first seen in a workshop production at New York Theatre Workshop in 1993. This same Off-Broadway theatre was also the musical’s initial home following its official 1996 opening. The show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, the night before the Off-Broadway premiere. The musical moved to Broadway’s larger Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996.
On Broadway, Rent gained critical acclaim and won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical. The Broadway production closed on September 7, 2008, after 12 years, making it one of the longest-running shows on Broadway. The production grossed over $280 million.
The success of the show led to several national tours and numerous foreign productions. In 2005, it was adapted into a motion picture featuring most of the original cast members.
As we #StayTogetherHome, let’s remember to love one another by #Social Distancing, washing our hands, and as in the impactful words of Jonathan Larson – “measure life “in Love”.
“Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did not. The Grinch hated Christmas — the whole Christmas season. Oh, please don’t ask why no one quite knows the reason. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. But I think that the most likely reason of all May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”
On December 18, 1966 “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” premiered as a television special and has continued to entertain and touch my life and the lives of countless children both young and old. It relates the tale of the Christmas plot of the mean ole Mr. Grinch to steal the joy of celebration from the residents of Whoville; it’s Seuss’ spiritual lesson for the true meaning of Christmas.
Print ad of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! 1966
Narrated by the legendary Boris Karloff – also the voice of The Grinch – we are introduced to the world of Whoville and that nasty wasty Grinch.
Boris Karloff and The Grinch
You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch. You’re a nasty, wasty skunk. Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk. Mr. Grinch! [spoken] The three words that best describe you are as follows and I quote: [sung] “Stink! Stank! Stunk!”
In this version of the story, we don’t really know why The Grinch hates Christmas and the residents of Whoville. Just that his heart is 2 sizes too small. However in the Jim Carrey movie version of Dr. Seuss “How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “we see the flashback of The Grinch as a child and how because he looks different: green and hairy as an eight-year-old he is taunted and teased by his classmates.
For his crush, he makes a Christmas present and tries to shave his face but ends up with toilet paper stuck all over. Everyone laughs at him – including his crush – so he storms out the room climbing up to his mountain exile. Not seen for years, he becomes an urban legend. Flashing forward to The Grinch and his now adult classmates it isn’t hard to understand why Whoville isn’t his favorite town and therefore the Whos love of Christmas has become a thorn in his side.
So, The Grinch gets this inspired idea after seeing his dog Max get snow on his face that sort of looks like a beard. The plan becomes to dress up as Santa, sneak into Whoville and rip off all the houses of presents, toys and even a piece of cheese from a mouse. So low down. Hence “stink, stank, stunk!”
Poor Max wasn’t really down with the plan but was forced to play his part as a reindeer.
Enter my favorite resident of Whoville, Cindy Lou Who. I’ve loved her all my life. Her innocence and open heart is a testament to – as John Lennon once wrote: “All you need is love.”
Ah, but not even the innocence of Cindy Lou could discourage The Grinch from following thru with his wicked plan.
However, The Grinch would come to realize that Whoville is no ordinary town. Even without presents, toys or roast beast, Christmas would still come.
This timeless message of appreciating what you have in friends and family is a gift often lost in this world of envy and greed. Matthew 16:26 “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” Let’s remember the true meaning of Christmas not only during the holidays but every day of the year.
We share a birthday – May 21st. His last recording session was in Detroit, Michigan – home of my birth. I guess it was destiny that his music and spirit would come to bring me such joy!
What excites me about Fats?
When I was a kid and first saw the groundbreaking musical Stormy Weather (1943) I was familiar with its star Lena Horne because my father loved him some Miss Lena. But for me, the wonderful surprise of the film was Fats Waller.
Fats Waller and Lena Horne
When you see him you’re totally invested. His personality jumps off the screen. People talk about presence. Fats created “presence!”
Fats is credited with advancing the musical style – stride piano. Although known for his two most famous compositions: “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, he penned many more uncredited hits such as “I Can’t Give You Anything but love, Baby” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street”.
Waller copyrighted over 400 songs and began his professional career as a pianist at the age of 15, working in cabarets and theaters.
His life and artistry became the Broadway musical revue “Ain’t Misbehavin‘ produced in 1978. (The show and star Nell Carter won Tony Awards.)
Recordings of Fats Waller were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame which is a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have “qualitative or historical significance”.
Here ’tis, a tribute to Fats’ brilliance and charm:
This collection of the works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers is the only one of its kind. Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades.
Spencer Williams (July 14, 1893 – December 13, 1969) was an American actor and filmmaker. He was best known for playing Andy in the Amos ‘n Andy television show and for directing the 1941 race film “The Blood of Jesus”. Williams was a pioneer African-American film producer and director. (Wikipedia)
This clip is a scene from Richard Maurice’s ELEVEN P.M. (circa 1928). It is regarded by historian Henry T. Sampson as one of the most outstanding black films of the silent era and is Maurice’s second and only surviving film.
Eleven P. M is one of more than a dozen feature films showcased in Kino Lorber’s five-disc collection PIONEERS OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA, now available at KinoLorber.com and Amazon.com. Music is by Rob Gal. Mastered from 35mm film elements preserved by the Library of Congress.
Oscar Devereaux Micheaux(January 2, 1884 – March 25, 1951) was an African American author, film director and independent producer of more than 44 films. Although the short-lived Micheaux Book & Film Company produced some films, he is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker, the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century and the most prominent producer of race films. He produced both silent films and sound films when the industry changed to incorporate speaking actors. (Wikipedia)
These films and filmmakers deserve to be remembered, honored and explored. Their contributions play a significant role in the development of the American cinema.
For more on the history of African-American Cinema:
The film, Jesus Christ Superstar opened on August 15, 1973, and was just as controversial as the stage production in October 1971. Even though some thought it to be sacrilegious, I found the experience to be both moving and thought-provoking for a whole new generation.
In the 1970’s generations were challenged to reimagine religious and cultural themes. Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar productions were revolutionary ideas but they opened the eyes of a whole new audience and have stood the test of time.
As an 18-year-old, these films spoke to me as refreshing, breaking down barriers; bringing Jesus out from the pages of the Bible to visualize him as a real man who walked the streets and felt all the pain and emotions we can all relate to. In that way, I thought the film was immensely powerful!
Jesus Christ Superstar brought Jesus to life in a way I’d never seen. And, it emphasized the fact that the story of Christ was just as relevant as ever.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, far right: Ted Neeley, third from right: Carl Anderson, 1973.
Judas, Jesus, Mary
Neeley and Anderson were nominated for two Golden Globe Awards in 1974 for their portrayals of Jesus and Judas, respectively. Although it attracted criticism from some religious groups, reviews for the film were positive.
I’m looking forward to the NBC live production with John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper Easter Sunday night.
Wonder what the reaction will be to this updated version.
A Charlie Brown Christmas will always have a special place in my heart for its honesty, faith, humor, and appreciation of a child’s intelligence. I’ve watched every year since its premiere in 1965. I fell in love with Charlie and the Peanuts gang, relating to the familial relationships we all had as children.
Charlie’s sad little Christmas Tree
Charlie Brown is the quintessential “nice guy.” Sweet, awkward and sincere. All the traits that guarantee a life of hell for an 8-year-old boy on the playground. In this musical special, Charlie is depressed about the commercialism of Christmas and seeks ways to enjoy the true meaning of the season; the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Charlie confides his feelings to his best friend Linus who’s also sweet, but also philosophical.
After Linus tells him to stop being so ” Charlie Brownie,” Chuck seeks the advice of his nemesis Lucy (aka Dr. Lucy). We’ve all had a Lucy in our lives. The kid who takes tremendous pleasure in the humiliation and torture of the sweet, awkward and sincere kid on the block. You know – Charlie Brown.
Charlie takes Lucy’s advice to become involved in a Christmas project and becomes the play’s director. However, his vision is the complete opposite of Lucy’s vision of becoming the Christmas Queen. (hey, don’t judge; what’s your fantasy?) The result, my favorite scene:
OMG!! The dance scene is hilarious. Everybody who’s ever seen this has their favorite dancer. I see myself as one of the twin girls with their head and individual hair strands swinging side to side. They look so happy and diggin’ the groove. I love it! My other fave is the little boy doing what I call the Frankenstein. His arms are out in front of him and he’s doing some sort of “running man” dance move. Go ahead baby, get your dance on!
For Charlie, the play’s a disaster. His decision for a Christmas tree being even worse; failing to bring any of the holiday spirit to Charlie Brown.
What a great tree!
I’ve killed it!
But ever faithful, his best friend Linus tells him what Christmas is all about and gives the most memorable soliloquy of my young life. (the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8 through 14 from the Authorized King James Version)
I was raised in the church and heard this passage before but never in the context of a cartoon or animation. Quoting the bible in this realm was a bold move but is one of the reasons why I have such respect for the creator, Charles Schultz, and this project.
It reminds me, to this day, don’t forget the reason we celebrate Christmas; it’s the birth of Christ.
Even though Charlie’s day started with doom, gloom, and humiliation (including his dog Snoopy laughing in his face); in the end, he finds joy and empathy from his friends.
Let the choir sing:
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
I raised my children on this timeless classic and they continue the tradition. A Charlie Brown Christmas touches my heart in so many ways. The innocence of childhood, the unbridled excess of commercialism on what is a holy holiday. But also the friendships, experiences, and faith that shapes our lives forever.
A Christmas Miracle – The Making of a Charlie Brown Christmas
The Wizard of Oz (1939) – “There’s No Place Like Home”
Yes, it’s that time of year again with Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and everyone running around like crazy, gearing up for the big day – Christmas! But, it seems every year when I read about shoppers nearly killing each other over a 12-pack of socks or the last $10 cashmere sweater; my heart sinks with the realization that too many of us forget what the holidays should be about; Gratitude.
To quote author Melody Beattie:
“Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
A classic film I think represents gratitude and appreciation for what we already have is, “The Wizard of Oz”; it’s overflowing with gratitude! Dorothy (Judy Garland) accompanied by her little dog Toto, leaves home seeking a better place, but her journey becomes a revelation of what home really means.
Dorothy and her compatriots – The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and The Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) wishing to be more than they perceive themselves to be, learn to appreciate their unique gifts. The Great and Powerful Oz (Frank Morgan) realizes the blessing and value of truth and in this case, the truth truly does set him free.
It all starts with a wish to be “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and results in unexpected consequences – the terror of being caught up in a twister, inadvertently dropping a house on the sister of the Wicked Witch of the West (oops) and inheriting both the wrath of said Witch (Margaret Hamilton) and a pair of coveted ruby slippers.
Sadly, “Over the Rainbow” doesn’t materialize into the idyllic place of which Dorothy sings, her personal vision quest. Dorothy’s longing for home dovetails with the desires of The Scarecrow, Tin man, and The Cowardly Lion. These three, also wishing for what they believe they don’t have – a brain, a heart, and courage – join the quest to the Emerald City to finally have their dreams realized through the power of the omnificent Wizard of Oz.
The trio’s perilous journey to get Dorothy home leads to the self-realization that they possessed the traits they sought all along and didn’t really need the wizard to bestow these attributes upon them.
Dorothy also learns a valuable lesson we all tend to forget, “there’s no place like home” and if we can’t find what we’re looking for there, then we won’t be able to find it anywhere. Home exists within us and it’s our outlook and attitude that dictates whether it’s a black and white existence filled with worries and that ole Gulch “heifer” or a technicolor world filled with musical munchkins and the love of three very special friends.
With Gratitude, we can appreciate and give thanks for the joys and blessings in our lives because the truth is we could be far worse off. My spiritual goal every day is to be mindful and thankful for the bounty which I’ve already received.
Business is bad at Mushnick’s Flower shop. Shy Seymour and brave Audrey will soon be unemployed. That is until Seymour pricks his finger and a sickly little exotic plant gets its first taste of human blood. The plant spurts ten feet tall. As horticultural interest in “Audrey II” sprouts, Mushnick’s business takes off. But fresh blood must be found—and people start disappearing. Love and business bloom at a hilarious yet bloody cost. (Fathom Events)
I’m so excited to see one of my Halloween favorites back on the big screen. And, fascinated to see Frank Oz’s restored original dark ending, staying true to the play.
“It will be very interesting to see if, in this new political and cultural climate, if there will be any association with that, with the plant. Let’s just say that,” says Oz. The original ending, he acknowledges, “may still be too dark for people, and I accept that.
It may not be as satisfying emotionally, and I accept that. But on the other hand, the reason screenwriter Howard Ashman and I wanted it was that it is the Faustian legend. Seymour does have consequences for his actions. We needed to omit those consequences to keep the audience happy, which I agreed with, by the way. I think we had to do it. But now it will be very interesting to see.” (Yahoo Entertainment)
Fans will not want to miss Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut, which features the rarely-seen original ending and an exclusive introduction from Frank Oz.
The 1986 Frank Oz film is a remake of the hit Broadway stage production which was a remake of the 1960 movie.
The original 1960 film was a black comedy horror film directed by Detroit-born (my hometown) and celebrated B-movie legend, Roger Corman and written by Charles B. Griffith. The film is a farce about an inadequate florist’s assistant (Jonathan Haze) who cultivates a plant that feeds on human flesh and blood.
The film stars Jonathan Haze (Seymour), Jackie Joseph (Audrey), Mel Welles (Mr. Mushnick), and Dick Miller, all of whom had worked for Corman on previous films. Produced under the title “The Passionate People Eater”. It was a lot creepier and darker than either the 1986 film or Broadway production.
For a true Halloween treat, I highly recommend screening the original! Check out Jack Nicholson in one of his first film roles.
Check out this previous post for background and trivia on the Broadway stage production and the original 1960 film.
Spencer Williams was an American actor, writer, director, and producer whose early pioneering work in African-American or “race” films was eclipsed in fame by his role as one of the title characters in the equally pioneering and also controversial 1950s sitcom The Amos ‘n Andy Show (1951). (IMDb)
Directed by Arvid E. Gillstrom, the plot of “The Melancholy Dame” involves a nightclub owner’s wife (Evelyn Preer), jealous of his attentions to his star singer, scheming to get her fired. The look on the wife’s face from the opening frame says it all!
I can’t believe I found a copy of the film (20 min.) on YouTube.
The first two full-length films with all black casts were “Hearts in Dixie” (1929) starring Daniel Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, and Victoria Spivey and “Hallelujah” (1929) which starred Clarence Muse, Stepin’ Fetchit, and Mildred Washington. “Hearts in Dixie” was also the first all black-oriented all-talking film from a major company. (The Chronical History of the Negro in America)
“Hearts in Dixie” celebrates African-American music and dance and was released by Fox Film Corporation just months before Hallelujah,produced by competitor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The director of Hearts in Dixie was Paul Sloane. Walter Weems wrote the screenplay, and William Fox was the producer. (Wikipedia)
“Hearts in Dixie” unfolds as a series of sketches of life among American blacks. It featured characters with dignity, who took action on their own, and who were not slaves. The plot focuses on Grandfather Nappus (Clarence Muse), his daughter, Chloe (Bernice Pilot), her young son, Chinaquapin (Eugene Jackson), and her husband, Gummy (Stepin Fetchit).
To make certain his grandson Chinaquapin does not end up like his father or become tainted by the superstitions that dominate the community, the grandfather decides to send the boy away.
“Hallelujah”(1929), was the first all black musical and was directed by King Vidor and produced by MGM studios. It was intended for a general audience and was considered so risky a venture by MGM that they required King Vidor to invest his own salary in the production.
Vidor expressed an interest in “showing the Southern Negro as he is”(whatever that means) and attempted to present a relatively non-stereotyped view of African-American life.
“Hallelujah!” was King Vidor’s first sound film, and combined sound recorded on location and sound recorded post-production in Hollywood. King Vidor was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the film.
It was the first major studio musical and the first of its kind in Hollywood history. In 2008, “Hallelujah!” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Vidor thought the time was right to test the waters of racial tolerance with a tale of sex, murder, religion, and music enacted by a black cast. He also wanted to take advantage of the emerging sound technology that was revolutionizing the film industry.
These 3 films were some of the first race talkies ever and despite the stereotypes, these films are important as they were made with black actors for black audiences (thus ‘race films’).
African Americans produced films for black audiences as early as 1905, but most race films were produced after 1915. As many as 500 race films were produced in the United States between 1915 and 1952. As happened later with the early black sitcoms on television, race movies were most often financed by white-owned companies, such as Leo Popkin, and scripted and directed by whites, although one producer, Alfred N. Sack, made some films written and directed by black talent such as Spencer Williams (actor).
Many race films were produced by white-owned film companies outside the Hollywood-centered American film industry such as Million Dollar Productions in the 1930s and Toddy Pictures in the 1940s. One of the earliest surviving examples of a black cast film aimed at a black audience is A Fool and His Money (1912), directed by French emigree Alice Guy for the Solax Film Company. The Ebony Film Company of Chicago, created specifically to produce black-cast films, was also headed by a white production team.
Race films vanished during the early 1950s after African-American participation in World War II contributed to black actors in leading roles in several Hollywood major productions, which focussed on the serious problems of integration and racism, such as Pinky with Ethel Waters; Home of the Brave with James Edwards; and Intruder in the Dust, all in 1949; and No Way Out (1950), which was the debut of the notable actor Sidney Poitier. The last known race film appears to have been an obscure adventure film of 1954 called Carib Gold. (Wikipedia)
Thanks to my original error, I ended up learning so much more about the history of black ‘race’ films and the long, rich history of African American artists.
Produced in 1943 at MGM by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincent Minnelli, “Cabin in the Sky” is the 1st all Black film produced by a major studio in Hollywood. “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and sung by the film’s star, Ethel Waters.
This musical take on Faust pits Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) against Luther Jr. (Lucifer’s baby boy). Enter temptress Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). Does Little Joe’s wife, Petunia (Ethel Waters) even stand a chance or will Joe be condemned to Hell?
“Cabin in the Sky” in featuring an all-African American cast was an unusual production for its time. In the 1940s, movie theaters in many cities, particularly in the southern United States, refused to show films with prominent black performers, so MGM took a considerable financial risk by approving the film. (Wikipedia)
Some remember “Cabin in the Sky” for its intelligent and witty script, which some claimed treated its characters and their race with a dignity rare in American films of the time. Others described Cabin in the Sky’s racial politics as the same “old stereotypes of Negro caricatures”.
Ethel Waters, Kenneth Spencer, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Rex Ingram
According to liner notes in the CD reissue of the film’s soundtrack, Freed and Minnelli sought input from black leaders before production began on the film.
When I first saw this film as a kid in the 60’s I was absolutely floored. This was during the civil rights era and I had no idea that in the 1940’s a major production company had taken on the issue of the lack of black representation in film. I understand the point about the stereotypical characterizations – Lena Horne, the aggressive, hypersexual black woman. Ethel Waters, the dutiful, prayerful housewife and “Rochester”, the buffoonish and no account lazy black man.
My feelings of the film are mixed because to some extent, it feeds into the political narrative that some black folks aren’t worthy of equality because they wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it. But on the other hand, there was finally a film with all black faces, the most gifted entertainers of all-time – Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and their stories. These characters weren’t just sprinkled in, they were integral to the plot and couldn’t be cut out in racist southern theaters.
As a black woman, it both breaks my heart and angers me that we even needed to have this conversation, not only in the ’40’s but as an ongoing fight for all aspects of African-American representation on-screen.
After years of unavailability, Warner Home Video and Turner Entertainment released “Cabin in the Sky” on DVD on January 10, 2006. I recommend checking it out with this backstory in mind. These legendary artists deserved to have worldwide exposure the same as their white counterparts of the day.
We’ve come along way, but the truth is we still have a long way to go.
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