Friday, May 07, 2004

Remember the Christian Coalition?

Does anyone still remember the Christian Coalition, which succeeded Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority" as the religious-right lobby group from the mid-'80s to roughly the mid-'90s? It lost its tax-exempt status a few years back for engaging in blatantly partisan political activity.

One wonders if something similar will happen to the Catholic Church in the US. It should. Catholic leaders are currently engaged in a debate over whether to deny communion to Democratic politicians, or just denounce them from the pulpit. So far, America's dim-bulb bishops have inclined toward a bit of both. Yet they've initiated no action against Catholic Republicans -- even when they flout Church doctrine on the Iraq war, the death penalty, and laissez-faire capitalism -- all of which the Church officially opposes, and all of which the GOP officially supports.

There's only one possible conclusion to draw here: Mother Church has followed the Christian Coalition, becoming a de facto adjunct of the Republican Party. It's time for her to start rendering unto Caesar.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Sondheim: Bounce

I was one of a lucky few theatergoers to see the newest Stephen Sondheim musical, Bounce, at the Kennedy Center, last October. I loved the show -- or rather, I loved the score -- so I've been looking forward to the OCR for the past several months. The score is one of Sondheim's most seductive and original works, and features some truly astonishing music. Even on first hearing I noticed how marvelously tuneful it was, and how the lyrics possessed the devastating directness of Passion without that show's moments of triteness.

With the OCR of Bounce just released on Nonesuch Records, this score can be heard in all its glory -- and it's even better than I thought. Bounce evokes classic 1950s Broadway, albeit with Sondheim's trademark mixture of spikiness and sentiment. The title tune, reprised several times throughout the show, is pure baggy-pants vaudeville, a perfect proscenium number from a Frank Loesser show. Ballads like "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" could (and will) make terrific cabaret numbers; "You," Sondheim's first man-to-man love song, could conceivably replace Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" as an anthem for same-sex weddings. Other memorable, hummable numbers include "Talent" (a great audition piece for young baritones), "The Game," "Isn't He Something?" and "Addison's Trip." These numbers connect to each other in unexpected ways: A seductress's siren song in Act I ("What's Your Rush?") forms the basis for a sales pitch in Act II ("Boca Raton"); a dying father's admonition becomes a primary musical motif; the gentle rhythms of "Bounce" find a more frantic echo in "Talent." Like the lyrics, these tunes offer unexpected twists, but never seem gratuitously clever: Every word choice is hard-won, every modulation feels true.

The OCR is very different from the show itself: Performances for the recording are less outsized, more scaled-back. Since the show is heavy on music and vocally demanding, perhaps the principals relished a chance to play things down a bit. The result is a mixed bag. Richard Kind is perfect as Boca Raton architect Addison Mizner; he's like Nathan Lane without all the mugging. Onstage, Howard McGillin sparkled as Addison's con-man brother Wilson, but little of his charm or charisma comes through on this recording. As Mama Mizner, former MGM starlet Jane Powell seemed miscast and musically out of her depth in the show itself, but she acquits herself very well here. Michelle Pawk gives a torchy turn playing Nellie, the show's female lead; her role in the show was larger and more memorable, but listeners will get a good indication of her formidable stage presence.

The needlessly thick booklet accompanying this CD doesn't include so much as a photo from the Kennedy Center or Goodman Theatre productions -- a shame, since most people who purchase this CD will never see the show. (The book also omits biographies for all the show's participants, another inexplicable omission given its considerable heft.) Yet on some level this might be for the best. At the Kennedy Center, Hal Prince's direction was too dry and respectful for Sondheim's brassy, bluesy score, let alone for the borderline-vulgar material surrounding it. The set, with its liberal use of architect's blueprints, was constructed to look like the Flaherty/Ahrens musical Ragtime; unfortunately, the monochromatic design made Act II seem icy and off-putting, when it was anything but that. I can't help feeling that Prince should have taken a cue from Sondheim's unpretentious, deliberately retro score, which suggests a colorful, comic chamber musical instead of an NPR-serious evening of High Art.

A better show could have withstood a few miscast actors, misguided direction, and problematic set design. But Bounce has a deeper problem, one not so easily fixed. These four words ought to tell you everything you need to know: "Book by John Weidman."
Sondheim's three musicals with Weidman contain some of his best music to date, but none of them are especially good shows.

The fault, I suspect, rests largely with Weidman. In the mid-'80s he found what was for him the perfect gig, writing sketches for Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and the rest of the gang on Sesame Street. And like a good children's-theater writer, he tries to teach his audiences Something Important. Unfortunately, Weidman is more adept with pieties and platitudes than characters or plots. His respective books for Pacific Overtures and Assassins are revue-like evenings that lack a story or a strong central character. (The recent Broadway revival of Assassins attempts to rectify this problem with ingenious double-casting, but from what I've heard the gimmick doesn't quite work.) This makes Bounce the first character-based, plot-driven show Weidman and Sondheim have written together.

All these shows have their share of great moments, but the moments don't add up. A real theater critic, Terry Teachout, has this to say about Assassins:

That's the message of "Assassins," such as it is: if only there were ice cream for everyone, Camelot would still be with us! Instead, we preach the American dream, and some of those born losers who find it hollow seek to even the score with a gun .... Aside from being sophomoric, this rigidly reductive thesis clashes with the core of "Assassins," a series of sharply drawn sketches of [nine] successful and would-be presidential assassins. Not surprisingly, this is the part of the show where Mr. Sondheim finds his footing, since his other musicals are exclusively concerned not with ideas but feelings (or the inability to feel).

This same criticism holds true for Bounce: Sondheim seems interested in the two Mizner brothers themselves, especially their lives and loves. His lyrics offer some fascinating insights on love (familial and sexual), success and mortality. Weidman, on the other hand, believes these two hucksters have something important to tell us about the American Dream, though he seems unsure of what that might be. What's more, Weidman doesn't have a firm grasp on his characters, while Sondheim seems to know them inside and out: Though Sondheim knows how to make these characters sing, Weidman doesn't know how to make us care. Worst of all, his one-line resolution to the brothers' decades-long sibling rivalry (featured on the OCR) may be the most facile, unconvincing wrap-up I've ever seen. It stops the show ... stone cold dead. With nothing left to do, Bounce ends.

As with the other Sondheim/Weidman collaborations, the ratio of excellence to mediocrity is roughly the ratio of Sondheim to Weidman. Though the ratio happens to be much higher in Bounce than in Pacific or Assassins, it's still not good enough. This show will prove perfectly adequate, even ideal, for regional theater, but I'm afraid it will never be worthy of Broadway. Perhaps in the end, it simply had too many disparate elements to hold together. (In that respect, the show's logo, which featured a man suspended in mid-air, was strangely prophetic.) Still, Sondheim's music and lyrics are breathtaking, on par with his best work. It looks like the score will live on, as a fond, misty memory for theater buffs of what might have been.

Note: Bounce featured a brief same-sex kiss in Act II which elicited an audible gasp from Kennedy Center audiences. It was perfectly appropriate to the action, yet seemed out of place. You don't expect an artistically conservative, even reactionary, 1950s-style musical (let alone one set in the 1920s) to feature out-and-proud Gay content.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Sympathy for the Devil: Defending Rene Gonzalez

I'm about to do something extremely unpopular: I'm going to defend Rene Gonzalez, sort of.

As you may already know, Gonzalez is a University of Massachusetts graduate student who wrote a scathing editorial last week against Pat Tillman, the former football player who left a multi-million-dollar professional career to join the US military. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 23, and his death has prompted an outpouring of sympathy from a grieving nation.

Gonzalez wrote his editorial to protest that outpouring sympathy, and in doing so found himself tilting at the windmills of public opinion. He saw no use in wasting so much tears and flapdoodle over some mere grunt, even if (or perhaps especially if) the man used to be a wealthy football player. In fact, Gonzalez seems to keep a special term in reserve, just for people like Tillman:

... in my neighborhood in Puerto Rico, Tillman would have been called a "pendejo," an idiot. Tillman, in the absurd belief that he was defending or serving his all-powerful country from a seventh-rate, Third World nation devastated by the previous conflicts it had endured, decided to give up a comfortable life to place himself in a combat situation that cost him his life. This was not "Ramon or Tyrone," who joined the military out of financial necessity, or to have a chance at education. This was a "G.I. Joe" guy who got what was coming to him. That was not heroism, it was prophetic idiocy.

I happen to disagree with every word in Gonzalez's editorial, except for one choice adjective in the final sentence. And yet for the most part I think he's in control of his tone. There's a bluntness in his choice of words -- "idiot," "absurd," "got what was coming to him" -- which reinforces his basic point, and moves past mere outrage into a deadened, burned-out cynicism. Gonzalez portrays Tillman as a dumb jock whose unreflective patriotism suckered him into a futile sacrifice, and the jock's stupidity makes him unworthy of sympathy.

According to Gonzalez, Tillman is irredeemably stupid because he joined the military not for personal advantage, but for a general principle: He felt that his country was under threat yet worth defending, and he didn't think he was too good or too wealthy to do the job himself. For that principle he would die. Still, as thousands of al Qaeda, Ba'athist and Taliban operatives have learned over the past few years, just because one dies for a principle doesn't necessarily mean the principle is true, or even worthwhile. Values and beliefs must be based on something more substantive than the blood of their defenders.

The Greek leader Pericles knew that in times of conflict, a public funeral oration offered the people a chance to examine and discuss common values and beliefs. He believed it was altogether fitting and proper to find a hermeneutics in common grief, to discuss the deeper meaning that lay behind such widespread sacrifice and loss. Thus also with Gonzalez: Whether he realizes it or not, his editorial lies within the ancient tradition of the Greek funeral oration, and as befits that genre he finds a larger reality in the simple fact of a soldier's untimely death.

Yet unlike Pericles, who saw in the Athenians' conflict with Sparta a powerful affirmation of democratic ideals, Gonzalez's vision is basically nihilistic. He believes that our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have no real business there. So where someone like Tillman (or for that matter, Pericles) perceives ideals worth fighting and dying for, Gonzalez sees ... nothing, nothing at all. It's only logical for him to conclude that Tillman died without reason, and that his fellow soldiers have made equally stupid sacrifices. Tillman's significance is insignificance, his value is worthlessness, and his purpose is futility:

It's hard to say I have any sympathy for his death because I don't feel like his "service" was necessary. He wasn't defending me, nor was he defending the Afghani people. He was acting out his macho, patriotic crap and I guess someone with a bigger gun did him in.

Gonzalez has come to bury Tillman, not to praise him. Note the harsh turn of phrase, like a playground retort in its simplistic brutality -- "I guess someone with a bigger gun did him in." This writing may lack nuance, as they say, but it doesn't aspire to nuance: It is meant to hit us squarely in the gut, and for the most part it does precisely that. Pericles, of course, aimed for something a bit higher than the gut; compared to the great Athenian orator Gonzalez seems cold, petty and vindictive. Yet both have a similar aim in view; they wish to establish what these soldiers are dying for, so that we, the audience, can assess the true worth of their sacrifice.

Gonzalez's analysis of what Tillman died for is not reassuring, nor is it meant to reassure:

Tillman got himself killed in a country other than his own without having been forced to go over to that country to kill its people. After all, whether we like them or not, the Taliban is more Afghani than we are. Their resistance is more legitimate than our invasion, regardless of the fact that our social values are probably more enlightened than theirs. For that, he shouldn't be hailed as a hero, he should be used as a poster boy for the dangerous consequences of too much "America is #1," frat boy, propaganda bull. It might just make a regular man irrationally drop $3.6 million to go fight in a conflict that was anything but "self-defense." ... One must indeed stand in awe of the amazing success of the American propaganda machine. It works wonders.

The "$3.6 million" refers to Tillman's NFL salary, and it's one of several borderline-incoherent moments in the essay. But it's not especially important, since the real target is not Tillman or his salary per se. Gonzalez indicts what he sees as the "propaganda machine," the "bull" (one suspects a missing syllable here) which, in his view, has deluded Tillman and his comrades-in-arms into fighting for nonexistent interests abroad, and hoodwinked "self-critical incapable" Americans into supporting their efforts. The piece ends, appropriately, on a note of bitter regret which rings both true and false: "[Tillman] did die in vain, because in the years to come, we will realize the irrationality of the War on Terror and the American reaction to Sept. 11. The sad part is that we won't realize it before we send more people like Pat Tillman over to their deaths."

In case you're wondering, "sad" is the only word in this editorial that I agree with, though I'll shortly employ it in a different context. Yet I'll add that beneath the obvious schadenfreude, Gonzalez appears genuinely sorrowful, if only because so many Americans -- and yet, not so very many -- die every day in global conflicts which he has deemed ridiculous. Gonzalez's white-hot rhetoric may betray a certain exuberance, even joy, at having been proven (he believes) right, but at least he acknowledges that the knowledge has come at an admittedly terrible price. This final admission gives him, to my mind, a shred of decency, or at least a fig leaf of the stuff. To be fair, we Americans possess the intrinsic right to make such claims in large part because alleged "pendejos" like Tillman have died to protect our freedom of speech.

Although Gonzalez would later apologize for what he wrote, claiming it was "unworthy of publication," I don't think this article gives him much cause for contrition. He meant precisely what he said, picked the right time to say it, and said it about as well as it could be said. If this piece was unworthy of publication, then the entire anti-war Left is also unworthy. (I'll admit the previous sentence begs the question.)

Still, Tillman's death should lead Americans to ask what we're fighting, why, and to what end. The anti-war left has had its chance to tell us what this sad event means to them, and in Gonzalez they have a articulate, shockingly honest spokesman for their own bleak point of view. Now the rest of us must show these people why they are wrong -- and why Tillman was right.

Update (5/3, 6:00 p.m.): Left-wing cartoonist Ted Rall weighs in on Pat Tillman's death -- and in what must surely be the year's biggest non-surprise, he's lifted his talking points directly from the Gonzalez editorial. (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.)

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