Friday, September 25, 2009

Goodnight, Moon

Autobiography time: in my High School days, I dabbled in acting. I enjoyed it, and think I was reasonably good at it, considering I was an amateur in every sense of the word. My High School did two plays a year; in the Fall, a 'straight' play, and in the Spring a musical. My stage debut was a female version of The Odd Couple the fall of my Sophomore year, with all the genders of the characters being switched (transsexual Odd Couple may have been more accurate), so the bit roles of two British sisters were changed to two Hispanic brothers (I know, me in that role isn't a stretch of the imagination at all). I ran amuck with the role --- what else could one do with a part so patently ridiculous, that I so clearly didn't fit? I knew no one would buy me as a 'real' Hispanic, or even a cartoon Hispanic ala Al Pacino in Scarface, so I had fun with the role. My second play, also my Sophomore year, was a production of the musical The Pajama Game. Most of the cast didn't like the play because of how dated it was, but I loved the anachronistic quality of it all --- doing the play was almost stepping into a time machine. Plus, the film version is one of Stanley Donen's best musicals (Godard called it the 'first socialist operetta' in his review of it). The Pajama Game is the kind of good, cheap fun that Broadway was known for before it became a bourgeois Disneyland; catchy numbers, memorable dances (the original had choreography by Bob Fosse), and light-hearted comedy and romance. I played the nasty capitalist head of the Pajama factory that refused to give the workers a 7 and a half cent raise, prompting a labor strike. It's probably the best play I was in during High School.

Rolling around to Fall of my Junior year, I was one of the handful of reasonably talented males left auditioning for shows. I was thrilled to have nabbed my first lead in a play, Moon Over Buffalo --- until I actually read the script, that is. My God, it was awful --- a farce without the comedy. The first act is full of one-liners that fall flat more often than not, and the second act is pretty generic farce material; slamming doors, people screaming, mistaken identity, and so on. My theater director was a big Neil Simon fan, and this play, by Ken Ludwig (Lend me a Tenor, Crazy for You) was poor man's Neil Simon; smug, elitist, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. The play, in Ludwig's words, is about "A couple --- a theatrical couple --- in the early 1950s. They're sort of the second-rate Luntz's of the American stage who, after learning that Frank Capra is coming to their play to maybe cast them in his new movie, goes crazy with their own greed and ambition"; that's not quite the synopsis I would have given, but hey, it's his play.

So, due to the fact that I had performed in Moon Over Buffalo, D.A. Pennebaker's film Moon Over Broadway has always been on my radar. Pennebaker is one of the great documentarians on the planet; he uses brilliant fly-on-the-wall camerawork to give us a kind of insider's look at his subjects (which range from legendary musicians, political campaigns, and Broadway shows) , and the way he forges narrative from documentary footage is fascinating --- he creates complete dramatic arks in his films, but the difference of course is that in his films they're carved out of real life. I've never seen Pennebaker use interviews in his documentaries; rather he uses documentary footage to tell a complete story, without interviewees explaining the significance of the events to us. Also, the way he gets his subjects comfortable with having a camera following them around constantly is remarkable; it allows us an all-access, insider's look at the events he captures. And Pennebaker has been given intimate access to some of the more noteworthy events and figures of the 20th Century --- from Bob Dylan to David Bowie to Bill Clinton's campaign staff.

Here, he and his wife and partner Chris Hegedus turn their perceptive eye on the backstage escapades of a Broadway show, from casting announcements to opening night. While it is specifically about the production of Moon Over Buffalo, I'm sure the backstage goings-on --- the trash talking, the drama, the politics, the fact that anything that can go wrong does go wrong --- isn't exactly unique to the production of Moon Over Buffalo. This play was noteworthy, though, for being Carol Burnett's highly-touted return to Broadway after a 30 year excursion with television and movies, which was probably the hook for Pennebaker and Hegedus. I don't think either of them could have guessed that the playwright, Ken Ludwig, would ultimately steal the show. You can think of him almost as a Salieri-type, forever confined to banality while living in the shadow of people more talented than he, and resenting it deeply.

The problems begin early on at a table reading. The play's stars, Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco, request that they be allowed to improvise, and the director Tom Moore and Ken Ludwig both shoot down that notion. This sequence is remarkable, because the two of them sum up my problems with the play perfectly --- the comedic rhythm of the play is simply off. The word selection is awkward, the punch line's have no punch to them; the jokes simply do not work. "Don't you not want our experience, our sense of comedy?", Phillip Bosco asks the director, not in a Primadonna manner but in a completely straightforward, reasonable tone. "I am not taking about improvisation, I'm talking about the actors' input in the creative process. If you consider that improvisaiton, I'll just do what is written and not contribute anything at all." The director and writer foolishly opt for that, suffocating the actors' comedic instincts because they take the mediocre text as a kind of gospel (the director of the play honest to God calls Ludwig a "modern day Faydeau"). Ludwig, behind Burnett's back, insults Burnett's background in television --- as though this mere TV actress is beneath his mighty play (and as though all the Broadway work she did before her television show somehow doesn't count). "This is the pact you make with the devil in the modern theater: you need a star to sell tickets", he whines after a preview of the play in Boston "it'll never be the play I wrote", he continues, as though that's such a tragedy.

In spite of his somewhat prickly nature, it's difficult not to feel bad for Ludwig. This is a man who, day by day, feels his work slipping away from him. He's forced to constantly re-write his play to appease his producers, and still his jokes fall-flat. He dismisses himself from a cast and crew meeting in one scene to "go home and write", "Are you writing a new play?", Carol Burnett quips, "Apparently" is his reply. In one sequence, the producers discuss "the joke problem" and note that Ludwig has had this sort of issue before, to the point that he actually had to hire an outside joke writer. Then, to add insult to injury, it's revealed that this joke writer is a dentist from Long Island! One particularly uncomfortable sequence shows him going around the theater the night of the premiere, meekishly introducing himself to the celebrities in attendance, trying desperately to appear calm, cool, and collected and falling short of the mark. He knows his ass is on the line with a 2 million dollar Broadway production that, in spite of its star power, hinges on the success or failure of his script. "Everyone else will rebound and go on to other things if the play fails," one crew member remarks "but Ken's life is really on the line".

Most of the issues he seems to be having throughout the film arise from the fact that he deeply resents being upstaged by anyone. This is hammered home during one of the play's previews when the winch that controls the curtain breaks, stranding Carol Burnett on the stage (I've been in a similar situation, though not because of a broken winch --- because the person controlling the curtain queues wasn't paying attention). Burnett, being the cool-headed professional she is, does all anyone can do in that situation --- she has fun with the audience. She knows they all paid to see her anyway, so she answers their questions and tells jokes until the winch is fixed and the play can continue. Let's just say that Burnett, doing shtick completely off the cuff, gets more laughs --- genuine, uproarious laughs --- than anything in the play. The lack of audience response is part of what prompts Ludwig to further re-write the play, causing more frustration amongst the actors and leading to greater discord between he and the cast.

But, at the end of the day, the play was a success; perhaps not a smash hit, but it was one of very few non-musicals to finish its season on Broadway that year. It received mixed reviews from critics ("The bad reviews aren't good, but they're not mean-bad", a crew member remarks), but virtually no one faulted Bosco or Burnett --- simply the play itself. "Burnett and Bosco are impeccable performers, and do their best with this stuff... Act two is a little like beating a dead horse, the jokes are worn out before we ever get to them. Surprisingly enough, Act one is much better, holding as it were the promise of things never to come." Granted, this is slightly mean spirited criticism, but surely this is the result of the director and playwright stifling the actors' comedic instincts and forcing them to do material that they knew in their hearts simply did not work. It's worth noting, however, that the film ends with a long list of revival productions of Moon Over Buffalo, performed all over the country and all over the world; after all is said and done, Ken Ludwig is the only one still making money from the play. He who laughs last laughs longest.

Yours truly at the age of 16, chewing the scenery in the aforementioned High School production of Moon Over Buffalo.


Homiebrain said...

It's a crime that you weren't able to be the Manolo to my Jesus for the full run of The Odd Couple. The comedic payoff of having two Koreans play Hispanic brothers wasn't nearly as effective.

I remember Moon Over Buffalo being a pretty trying experience for many reasons, but we certainly had our laughs as well. Your post inspired me to dig up my copy of the script (which I use to dry my tears whenever I think of the glory days) and it was much worse than I remembered. Perhaps the memory of us landing in the most compromising of positions (sans pants) made me more forgiving of the rest of the show than I should have been.

It was a privilege and a pleasure to share the stage with you for all those years, Mr. Kelly. You've always been-and always will be-the only man that I would ever dry hump on that glorious stage.

Adam Zanzie said...

Sadly, I admit failure of familiarity with either Moon Over Buffalo or the work of Ludwig- although your post assures me that I'm not missing out on much.

It does assure me, however, that I'm totally missing out by having seen none of Pennebaker's films. I'll need to catch up on that, it seems! I had no idea he had also done documentaries on Bowie and Clinton, nor did I know that he made a film which followed Carroll Burnett backstage. I'll bet she's proud because she can claim to have worked with at least two filmmaking legends: Pennebaker and John Huston.

So... you and Homiebrain performed onstage together, eh? Wish I coulda been in the audience back then! But you guys were up in Jersey while I was stranded in the heartland.

This was one of your best posts, Ryan. You were able to use your own personal experiences to help you appreciate the work of a master dealing with similar material.

Like you, I've had experience with Neil Simon on the high school stage; I was the assistant director for a production of Lost in Yonkers. You can see me being interviewed about the production in this short clip:

Ryan Kelly said...

Yes, that was a real shame. But also, I don't think anyone really expected us to have such perfect chemistry. But man, we really nailed that scene! Now, if you had been the Charlotte to my George, that would have been something.

Yeah, my overriding memories of Moon Over Buffalo are that of the drama, which isn't to say I didn't have fun. Yeah, that play isn't very well written, honestly --- but then our director wasn't known for picking great plays! Remember when we did Spoon River Anthology?

But Philip Bosco, who played George in the OBC, brings up a great point in the documentary. The character is all highs --- pitched at the same bombastic frequency --- and that makes it less humorous because he's just always over the top. There's no nuance to the part.

Yes, you were my favorite acting companion throughout High School. Being the catcher to your pitcher was a true honor.

"What happened to George?"
"He just came out of the closet."


Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, yes, that's how I met my pal Brian here, in out old theater days. Of course, that started one of the 21st century's greatest love affairs.

Yes, I strongly recommend the films of Pennebaker. Don't Look Back is, of course, seminal, and for damn good reason. My favorite of his, though and one of my favorite movies period is his documentary about the Clinton campaign The War Room, which focuses specifically on James Carville and George Stephenopolous (I hope I didn't butcher that...), and the way they navigate the waters of political campaigning. I know it's a documentary, and he's just being himself, but James Carville deserves a freaking Oscar for his performance in that movie! There are no words for entertaining that man is.

Patricia Perry said...

Ryan -

From one former amatuer thespian to another - great post! I'm so relieved to find that someone else is underwhelmed by Ken Ludwig. Years ago when I was in Indianapolis, a local production of "Lend Me a Tenor" was a big hit and I never could understand why. Felt the same about "Moon Over Buffalo" when I finally saw it. Ludwig's farces seem like they should be laugh-out-loud, side-splitting hilarious, but they never quite manage to make me laugh.

I've heard of this documentary, but never got around to seeing it. Thanks for putting back on my radar, it sounds fascinating.

Patricia Perry said...

Oh, and I would loved to have seen you in that produciton of "The Odd Couple"! That had to be fun.

Miranda Wilding said...

With all this extreme yakking that you and I have done over the past few months...

You told me about your artistic aspirations. But you NEVER told me that you did any acting.

For shame, little baby...

I'm with Pat. (Well, aren't I always?)

I enjoyed your post immensely. Your perspective is a rare and beautiful thing in this odd amd precious universe we inhabit, Ryan.

And is that really you...?

You're so cute!!!

Ryan Kelly said...

Pat, that's exactly right, there's just something missing from his comedy. The elements are there, they just don't gel. Combine that with the fact that he's clearly a chicken-shit when it comes to differentiating from the script in any way, and it's no wonder his material just falls flat.

I would highly recommend this documentary, especially if you have an interest in theater. It details the back-stage politics more thoroughly than any other movie I've ever seen on the subject.

Ryan Kelly said...

Miranda, I can't believe I never mentioned my brief acting stints to you, especially knowing about your passion for acting! That was bubble-headed of me. When I was younger, it was something I thought I wanted to do, because I knew I loved movies but I didn't know what the hell a director did. The only thing you really notice watching movies as a young person is the actors.

And thank you so much for the praise, Miranda. You are surely my most enthusiastic fan!

And yes, that's really me. I realized this gave me an excuse to post a picture of myself, so my readers could attach a face to the blog. Though I was freaking out for a bit, because I couldn't find a digital copy of that picture --- but thankfully I dug it up in an old photobucket account I had from that time, including other pictures from mu junior/senior year of High School. Guessing my old password was a hell of time!

Greg said...

That one still is all I need to pronounce you the finest actor of your generation. My God, you're brilliant!

Ryan Kelly said...

I was definitely a standard-setter in the field