Thursday, September 11, 2014

I've Heard It All Before

As I listened to President Obama last night, I kept thinking, "I've heard it all before." We began the Vietnam War, our longest at the time, by sending in advisors, the first arriving in Saigon by helicopter in 1961. How easy it is to start a war, how hard it is to end one!

Then it was the Domino Theory, the notion that if Vietnam fell, China would have hegemony over all of Southeast Asia. In the case of Iraq, it was Weapons of Mass Destruction. Today it is the threat of ISIL. There's always a threat, sometimes real, often magnified by the hawks or the neocons or, as President Eisenhower had it, the military-industrial complex. There's never a lack of threats, because we live in an imperfect world, and there's never a lack of appetite for violence - unless you are one of the victims.

Although I disagree with President Obama on most issues, I am grateful today that he is our President, and not John McCain, who would surely have us at war with Iran, ISIL, and possibly Russia. Thank God for small favors.

If you missed it, scroll back a couple of blogs and read the lyrics for "I've Heard It All Before," from the musical Shenandoah. It's very timely.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Ministry of Truth



In George Orwell’s world. The Ministry of Truth was the government’s propaganda agency, the unit whose job was to rewrite history according to the government’s wishes. We need a Ministry of Truth in Washington. Or maybe we already have one. Consider the following:

You don’t have to be an archivist to find quotations from Washington in which Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq was hailed as just the kind of leader his country needed, a trustworthy ally of the United States who could be counted on to deliver, whatever the provocations.  The Ministry of Truth is today rewriting history to delete all those quotations.

In similar vein, the United States promoted itself as the world’s leading advocate for democracy, the principle that the people of a nation should be entitled to vote for their leaders. The vote, we said, was the ultimate guarantor of the peoples’ liberties. In Egypt, Ukraine, Syria, and now Iraq, the Ministry of Truth is rewriting history along the following lines: The leaders who are elected can be thrown out when the people show, by mass protests or by polls, that they want someone else.

President Obama lashes out at rich Wall Streeters by telling them they “can keep their homes in the Hamptons.” The President could have said “in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard,” but the Ministry of Truth wouldn’t hear of it.

A terrific Front Line report on PBS recently revealed some of the falsehoods our government tells us in the name of security. It was called “The United States of Secrets.” I thought it was one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I’ve ever seen, and it was fair, affording the NSA chiefs ample opportunities to express their positions. But the take-away was that George Orwell's fantasy was increasingly realistic.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Shenandoah


In 1975, Jill and I took my parents to Boston’s Colonial Theater to see John Cullum in Shenandoah.  It was a very good production of an excellent show, which ran on Broadway for over 1000 performances.  Later, I bought the original-cast LP, which has been sitting unplayed in my basement, along with many other OC LPs, for many years – until now.  A friend told me that he had transferred his LP collection to CDs, and, intrigued, I bought a similar device and have started the long transferral process.

So far, I have burned CDs of many musicals, some brilliant, some not. But Shenandoah made me sit up and take notice. Based on the 1965 movie, it was an anti-war musical about a Virginia family’s Civil War hardships, and it was in sync with the public’s distaste for Vietnam.  Here are the lyrics for one of the memorable songs, sung by Cullum:



Stand and show your colors. Let's all go to war. The Lord will surely bless us.
I've heard it all before. I've heard it all a hundred times. I've heard it all before.

They always have a holy cause to march you off to war.
Tyranny or justice, anarchy or law. We must defend our honor.
I've heard it all before. I've heard it all a hundred times. I've heard it all before.

They always have a holy cause that's worth the dyin' for.
Someone writes a slogan, raises up a flag. Someone finds an enemy to blame.
The trumpet sounds the call to arms to leave the cities and the farms.
And always the ending is the same, the same, the same, the same.

The dream has turned to ashes, the wheat has turned to straw.
And someone asks the question: "What's the dyin' for?"
The living can't remember, the dead no longer care. But next time it won't happen. 
Upon my soul I swear I've heard it all a hundred times. I've heard it all before.

Don't tell me "It's different now." I've heard it all, I've heard it all, I've heard it all before.



The music was by Gary Geld, the lyrics by Peter Udell. 

Shenandoah's Civil War story had two sides, one of which was told by the play. But there is never a shortage of people to tell the other side. These days, with the hawks urging a “more muscular” foreign policy over Ukraine, Syria, Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Gaza, and God knows where else, we could use a play like Shenandoah today.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bombs Bursting in Air? Not.


What this country needs – oh, does it need – is an issue on which liberals and conservatives can unite and on which the country can voice its approval, loudly and enthusiastically.  Here is such an issue.

It is time we should change our national anthem.  The Star Spangled Banner is hard to sing and is out of step with the national mood, which is less militaristic than it used to be.  The country, according to most polls, is tired of “bombs bursting in air” and is ready for “amber waves of grain” or “the oceans white with foam.”

You like bombs bursting in air? Then the present anthem fails on musical grounds. How many of us, hearing O, Canada sung at the hockey playoffs or the Russian national anthem sung at Sochi, sighed, “I wish we had an anthem like that.” (How many singers have had the same thought?)

If it were put to a popular vote, two candidates would probably emerge: America the Beautiful and God Bless America.  Either one, in my opinion, is better than The Star Spangled Banner.  They are both stirring melodies.  America the Beautiful was written by Samuel Ward, a choirmaster, and Katherine Lee Bates, in 1910.  God Bless America, as everyone knows, was written by Irving Berlin in 1918 and revised by him (for Kate Smith) in 1938.  Both are well known and sung often; in fact, God Bless America has become a surrogate national anthem, sung at the home half of the seventh inning at many major-league baseball games.

For more than 150 years, the United States had no national anthem.  Then, in 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed an act making The Star Spangled Banner the national anthem. It has had a long and distinguished life, but now it is time for a new national anthem, easier to sing and having more inspired lyrics. It is time to move on.  Is there a political leader around who will take up the cause?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Buy Stocks in What You Know?

 
A long time ago, Peter Lynch, the Manager of Fidelity’s Magellan Fund, became a hero of investors by popularizing the idea of buying stocks in companies with which one is personally familiar, either as a customer or as an employee. Enough successful examples of that strategy were around to promote Magellan and Lynch to well deserved cult status, and investors began asking their wives and children which stores and which products they liked – and why.

All that was true then. But does it make sense today? Yes, if one doesn’t confuse notoriety with knowledge. Take, for example, Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce colossus that is about to go public in what may well be the biggest IPO in history. People are angling to buy stock in Alibaba or in Yahoo, which owns a big stake in the Chinese Company.  Other people are buying “momentum” stocks – stocks such as Tesla or Facebook or Twitter or Netflix. Some of these will make money for their buyers, but many are plunging on the basis, not of personal knowledge, but of hype. There’s a difference.

Look, with any of these momentum stocks, no matter how much you think you know, hundreds of Wall Street’s best and brightest know a thousand times more. They know more and they trade faster. You don’t have to believe the market is rigged, as one author plugged his book by charging. It’s just a fact of life, much more so now than in the golden age of Peter Lynch.

Publicity attracts crowds; that’s the idea, after all. In my stock trading, I scour the table of contents in the Journal and Barron’s, and if I find a company listed in which I am interested in trading, I cross it off my list. It is hard enough making a buck in the market without competing with the sharks. There are plenty of companies, even NYSE-listed companies, that never appear on those tables of contents.

I’m not saying that investing in what you know is a bad idea. I am saying that trading in hyped stocks is a loser. I bought some Apple several years ago because I believed in the Company, and I still own those shares. Score one for Lynch. But I trade other stocks, and those are the stocks where publicity is the kiss of death. Which ones? I’m not going to tell you, because that would be dumb.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Triangular Diplomacy



Politicians, mostly but not entirely Republicans, urge President Obama to adopt a more “muscular” foreign policy. There are headlines to be won with hawkish talk, and members of Congress, especially those who are considered Presidential hopefuls, are not averse to headlines. So there are those who chide the Administration for taking a “wimpish” stance on Syria and Ukraine. At times the President and his Secretary of State seem to be bending with the wind and threatening tougher sanctions against our presumed enemies.

Who are these enemies? Russia heads the list, and seldom a day passes without Obama or Kerry delivering a volley of threats against Putin and his associates. China is not far behind. The President’s trip to Asia this week is designed to reassure Japan and the Philippines that we will back up their territorial disputes with China with our muscle.

It is time for a reality check. There are three major powers in the world: the United States, Russia, and China.  We can out-muscle Russia or China, but we can’t take on both of them. If we threaten both, we will simply drive them to join forces in an attempt to defeat us. In a new Cold War, not just against Russia but against Russia and China combined, we would either (a) lose or (b) win at a cost that would leave the world in shambles.

Henry Kissinger, in his excellent book Diplomacy, outlines the background of Nixon’s “opening to China” in 1969:

Nixon decided to concentrate on the broader issue of China’s attitude toward a dialogue with the United States. Priority was given to determining the scope of the looming Sino-Soviet-American triangle. If we could determine what we suspected – that the Soviet Union and China were more afraid of each other than they were of the United States – an unprecedented opportunity for American diplomacy would come into being.

So it’s time, hawks, to decide whether to make nice with Russia or China.  Threatening both just doesn’t make sense. It’s idiotic. Decide whether some islands in the East China Sea are more important to the United States than Crimea, whether North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are more important than NATO’s interest in extending its reach.

Of course, best of all would be a world in which the United States is friendly with both Russia and China, but that seems highly improbable.

Whatever else one might think of Nixon, his trip to China was a master stroke. In these turbulent times we need more negotiations, less bluster, more give-and-take, less "you do this, or else."  We need triangular diplomacy.

  
 
W

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fade-Out


A few days ago I talked about the demalling of America.  Today I heard a rebuttal on TV from a booster of shopping malls. She said that on-line shopping is not replacing trips to the mall; it is replacing catalogs.  I am not convinced.

Another transformation that’s happening before our eyes is the slow but inevitable disappearance of the movie multiplexes that, like shopping malls, were overbuilt at the end of the 20th century.  The last few times I went to a movie theater, there were an average of about six people scattered in a space that held about 200. All right, they were afternoon trips, but still…..

Why go to the theater?  Home TVs are getting bigger, while the multiplex screens are getting smaller. At home, you control the environment; at the multiplex, your neighbors may talk, rattle their popcorn bags, or use their cell phones. Then there are the interminable previews and the inane pre-movie quizzes and commercials.  I have it on good authority (my children) that some showings of some movies are packed, but it seems to me that there is a shrinking cohort of people who absolutely, positively, definitely must see the latest Matt Damon or Johnnie Depp movie NOW. 

Then there is the fact that the hours spent on the iPad and the smart phone and the electronic games have to come from somewhere, since no one has figured out how to squeeze more than 24 hours into a day.

Finally, there is the cost of converting the film projectors to digital format, a substantial sum. I read that many theater owners just can’t afford it, but the trend is clear: celluloid is on the way out – and so are movie theaters.

Actually, I think the fade-out of the movie theater is sad.  I remember warmly the nights I used to accompany my parents to the Codman Square Theater (“the Coddy”) to see a Fred Astaire musical, a “B” picture, previews of coming attractions, Movietone News, and a cartoon. They are great memories. But, as they used to say in the movies, “Time Marches On.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Entertainment Wars

Netflix did two things the other day: It officially opposed Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable, and it announced its decision to hike fees on new subscribers by a dollar or two a month.  Netflix stock soared (up more than 27 dollars a share) on the announcements – and on the fact that Netflix earnings and new-subscriber count both exceeded the market’s expectations.

All of which causes one to consider whether, in the three-way competition among the cable owners (the pipes), the movie studios (the content owners), and, increasingly, companies like Netflix and Amazon (the streamers), who holds the strongest hand.

The truth is, all three need each other. Without content, the pipe owners are helpless. Without pipes, the studios can’t reach our homes.  And the streamers need both content and pipes.  Wireless technology may eventually replace coaxial pipes, but that’s a long way off, and anyway, the new pipe owners would be wireless companies.

Still, certain facts cannot be ignored. The first is that content, unlike the installed base of hardware, is mobile and will flow to where the money is.  Kevin Spacey was drawn to Netflix’s House of Cards by money and is free to leave Netflix when someone offers more money. So content is king, in a way that pipes are not. However, viewers (especially people in the cherished 20-to-35 age group) are a fickle and unpredictable bunch, as Hollywood and the TV networks find out every week.  Certain talent is bankable until it is not; and while content is a crapshoot, the pipes are not. A length of coaxial cable is a length of coaxial cable, and it can be depended on to deliver both quality content and garbage.  So the owner of the pipe is king.

On the other hand, there is no question that the trends favor streaming. Netflix has about 50 million subscribers in 40 counties, and it adds more every day.  The market values Netflix at over $22B, which means that it can afford pricey talent. So Netflix is king, which exactly is what the Netflix bulls are betting on.

In other words, I don’t know how the contest will play out. I don’t know whether Comcast’s takeover of TWC will be approved. I don’t know whether Netflix’s next show will be as successful as House of Cards or a turkey.  In short, any bet on any of these stocks is a pure gamble.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Robo-calls

 
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now have some idea of how awesome the NSA’s power is. The spooks there and at the CIA can monitor every phone call we make, every e-mail we write.  If we “like” something on Facebook, or buy something on Amazon, or search for something on Google, chances are that someone somewhere will know it.

So why can’t our government, which certainly has the technology, protect us from robo-calls?

Today I received about four or five of these calls, from, according to my caller ID, “Out of Area,” “Anonymous,” “800 Service” and other aliases.  I didn’t answer any of these calls, but sometimes I search the calling number on-line and read angry reports from dozens of people, some of whom took the trouble to identify the callers, many of whom are political parties.  Therein lies the tale.

When politicians authorized the FCC to give us the Do Not Call Registry, which presumably shields us from such garbage, they exempted certain classes of callers from the DNC embargo. Among these are charities and (surprise, surprise) politicians and political parties.  The Do Not Call Registry is aimed at telemarketers, not politicians – which happen to comprise most of the calls we get these days.

Thus we are protected from the private sector, but not from the public sector. Hmmm. The Do Not Call Registry offers no protection whatsoever from the Democratic or Republican National Committee, individual office-seekers, Citizens United, and advocates who just want to talk to you about ObamaCare.  

Some people answer these calls, bent on chewing out the callers. Others leave the phone off-hook until the caller realizes he or she is being had.  Best bet is simply not to answer.  Picking up the phone simply verifies that your phone number is good. Moreover, some calls, which may be from overseas, initiate a scam designed to extract money from your bank account.

Some phone services offer blocking programs that allegedly intercept designated calls and serve as your private do-not-call list.  But robo-callers are sneaky, changing their numbers periodically, so any list of blocked numbers could prove a moving target.

If you want to rid your life of these nuisance telephone calls, your first step should be to demand that your congressman eliminate the exemption that politicians, political parties, PACs, etc. enjoy in the law that authorizes the Do Not Call Registry.

Good luck with that.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Demalling of America

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Once upon a time, not so long ago, when you shopped for non-food items, you went to a mall. Malls were everywhere, often just a few miles apart, and your basic shopping decision was which mall to go to.  Now, if you haven’t noticed, things are different.  You buy things on-line – not everything, because that would trigger panic in the retail community, and there are no signs of panic.  But the trend is clear.

In Biddeford, a small city near here, a new mall opened a few years ago. It was the worst possible time to open a new mall, compounded by the fact that the mall was hopelessly misdesigned, with traffic patterns that defy motorists to choose the correct lanes to drive in.

So, in a breathtakingly short time, stores began failing. Lowe’s and a Best Buy, both large stores, were among the first to fold, but they were not the only casualties. Several restaurants closed or were sold to new franchisees.  A Market Basket supermarket replaced Lowe’s, undaunted by the existence of three supermarkets nearby – including a Super Wal-Mart and a Shaw’s within a half mile. A Target store still stands hopefully in the mall, next to the vacant Best Buy, but few people expect it to become a mecca for shoppers.

I’m not picking on Biddeford Crossing. The same thing is happening across America.
There is a sea change underway in consumer shopping patterns. The old, brick-and-mortar stores are under siege, and it’s hard to see anything that can change the trend.  Those stores that have successfully added an on-line shopping option will do better, but the question remains: What will become of all that brick and mortar?

The effects of the demalling of America will be felt in many quarters, including employment (that new Market Basket, it is reported, employs 450 workers!) and investment. Best Buy and Target, notwithstanding recent bounces, sell for about 15 times earnings, while Amazon stock sells for 75 times 2015 earnings estimates! 

What will become of all that brick and mortar? Stores will fail, and malls will disappear. The process will be painful for many employees and investors, but it is inevitable. Technological change is often painful, but those who play it wisely will do well.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Final Cut

The Final Cut, a compilation of blogs about the arts - books, movies, plays, music, etc. - has just been published. It's a 205-page paperback containing 64 mini-essays dating back to 2006. No politics, no memories of growing up in Dorchester, no travelogues, no sports talk, no discourses on the passing scene in Maine - just commentary on the arts, as watched, read, and listened to over a long lifetime. If this sounds like your thing, you might enjoy sharing the journey with me.  The book is available at www.lulu.com.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Sound of (Live) Music



It has been four days since NBC presented a live performance of The Sound of Music, time enough for all the critics to lambast Carrie Underwood because she isn’t Julie Andrews and to lament the play’s cloying sentimentality.  Enough, already.  Someone should speak up for the production, which, despite a few shortcomings, was a high-quality rendition of a high-quality musical.  And Carrie Underwood should hold her head high; she was an excellent Maria.  As a matter of fact, hearing that the network was planning to air a live performance, I sensed a disaster in the wings, but I needn’t have worried. NBC pulled it off with flying colors.

First, the material:  This Sound of Music was not based on the movie, which everybody has seen, but on the Broadway musical, which relatively few people now alive have seen. That play opened on November 16, 1959, ran for 1433 performances, and won mostly rave reviews, especially for Mary Martin, its star. (Theodore Bikel was the baron.) At least two of the songs were not used in the 1965 blockbuster movie: but were fortunately resurrected for the NBC production: “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive?”  For the broadcast, the producers also decided to use one song written specially for the movie:  the lovely “Something  Good.”  

As I said, most critics loved the play. Frank Aston of the World-Telegram called it “The loveliest musical imaginable,” and Richard Watts of the Post wrote that the “show has a warm-hearted, unashamedly sentimental, and strangely gentle charm that is wonderfully endearing.” The raves are worth noting, because the movie, so beloved by the public, has become a favorite piñata of the critics, who routinely savage its sentimentality (The Sound of Mucus).

The cast:  It was up to Carrie Underwood to carry the production, just as it was up to Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, and Ms Underwood did far better than one could reasonably expect, given her limited dramatic experience. She looked right, and that alone put her on second base. Add a fine voice, and that put her on third.  There was not a flat note (none that I could detect, anyway) and not a jarring  line or reaction. No, she’s not Julie Andrews (who is?), but remember that if Julie flubbed a line or didn’t hit a note right, why, they simply shot it over, as many times as necessary, until it was perfect.  As for Mary Martin, she was 46 (!) when she played Maria, and she had decades of stage experience behind her.

The supporting cast was excellent, notably including Laura Benanti as Elsa Schrader.  Laura is a real singer and played the role with warmth and wit. (Eleanor Parker, the movie’s Frau Schrader, was edgier and did no singing.) Christian Borle was a fine Max Detweiler (the impresario), particularly when singing with Laura Benanti, and the children were adorable – and good singers, to boot. If there was a weak link it was the baron. Stephen Moyer was stiff and sang poorly. He looked the part, and that must have landed him the job.  But that only got him to second base, where, alas, he died.  Audra McDonald, as the Mother Superior, was formidable, as she always is.

The interior sets were well executed.  As for the exteriors (the Austrian Alps), they were embarrassingly bad, although I don’t know how they could have finessed that except by bringing in video of the real Alps or resorting to computer graphics – both of which would have brought howls from viewers who were promised a live production.  In 1959, faux mountains probably didn’t matter, but expectations have been inflated since then.

Carrie Underwood is 30 now – the same age Julie Andrews was when she made The Movie. Let’s hope Carrie’s career has the same kind of arc that Julie’s had. And let’s hope that NBC doesn’t let the naysayers keep it from televising more live musicals.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Company


This week PBS brought us a concert version of Sondheim’s Company.  While I am always glad to see Broadway musicals on television, I am afraid that this one was a misfire.  Not that the audience at Avery Fisher Hall didn’t enjoy it; they lapped it up. The play is a favorite of high schools, colleges, and community theaters, partly because it is easy to stage, partly because the material has a gloss of sophistication that is appealing to many.

Company has never been one of my Sondheim favorites. The problem is the book, by George Furth.  The story line, if you don’t know, is bookended between two scenes of a surprise birthday party for Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor surrounded by married couples who are (1) trapped in a state of marital warfare and (2) preoccupied with Bobby’s singleness.  Bobby also has a few girlfriends who float in and out of the play.  The problem with the book is its shallowness, disguised by a lot of snappy one-liners, some funny, some not.  Sample: One of Bobby’s girlfriends says, “He’s from New York; he’s not interested in anything.”  The audience, made up of people presumably from New York, roared with laughter. 

The music is brittle and the lyrics are very clever, both characteristics typical of Sondheim’s work. One can imagine that the composer/lyricist was right at home with Furth’s book, for Sondheim is the master of nihilism, and nihilism is overflowing in Company. The orchestra, a slimmed down New York Philharmonic conducted by Broadway old-hand Paul Gemignani, was fine. It was highly visible on stage, as is the custom in concert productions. 

Bobby, in Furth’s book, is essentially a straight man for the husbands and wives and girlfriends who surround him.  A successful performance, therefore, depends entirely on the ability of Bobby to be a sympathetic character whom one cares about.  That brings me to the second weakness of the PBS production: the cast.  Bobby was played by Neil Patrick Harris, a television actor who has some talent (on display when he emceed the Tony Awards) but not the presence that makes you really care – or understand why his married friends care two hoots if he gets married or not.

The supporting cast was also made up of people who owe their celebrity mostly to television - Stephen Colbert from the Comedy Channel, Christina Hendricks  from Mad Men, etc. The only one with Broadway bona fides was Patti LuPone.  It’s not that television is inherently inferior to the legitimate stage, but someone who has acted on Broadway for years has a way of moving and talking that sets him or her apart – as Patti LuPone amply demonstrated in this production. Colbert was solid, and Hendricks was very good, but neither they nor others had to demonstrate the talents usually associated with musical theater.  And Neil Patrick Harris lacked the voice that might have offset his lack of personal magnetism. Harris’s voice was especially inadequate in Bobby’s closing song of redemption, “Being Alive.”

But, all that notwithstanding, we should rejoice that any Broadway musical – even a weak one like this – makes it into our living rooms. Now we can wait, with great anticipation, for Oklahoma!, starring a young Hugh Jackman,  which will be shown on Great Performances on November 15.  This one, probably inspired by the fact that it has been 70 years since the landmark musical opened on Broadway, is not to be missed.



Saturday, August 17, 2013

Hobson's Choice (The Ballet)



Hobson’s Choice is chiefly remembered today as a very good old (1954) movie starring Charles Laughton.  But there is also a ballet based on the same turn-of the-century play, and if you like ballet – if even if you don’t – you might seek it out.  It will open your eyes and ears.

The ballet is by David Bintley, and the music was composed by Paul Reade. The only performance that was recorded, as far as I know, is by the Birmingham Royal Ballet Company in 1992, and I believe it is available. (I taped it when it was broadcast on Bravo a long time ago.)

The story: Hobson, a bootmaker, has three daughters who run the shop under their father’s iron hand. Hobson is irresponsible and an alcoholic, and the shop survives only through the hard work of the bootmaker Will Mossop, who labors unseen and unrewarded.  Hobson dominates his daughters, for whom marriage is out of the question. But the oldest daughter, Maggie, has an independent streak, as well as an eye for Will Mossop. I will reveal no more, other than to say that the story ends happily.

The principal dancers are Michael O’Hare (Will Mossop) and Karen Donovan (Maggie), and they are excellent. Hobson is played by Desmond Kelly, a veteran dancer who is also the production’s ballet master. 

The music is beautiful. Composer Reade has chosen to interpolate an old song, Lily of Laguna, which adds greatly to a pivotal scene. The orchestrations make full use of the large Royal Ballet Orchestra; in fact, the audio quality of the recording exceeds the video quality – a reflection of the state of technology in 1992.

I know next to nothing about ballet, but I know what I like, and I like David Bintley’s ballet very much.  If you’re interested, you can sample a bit of it by searching YouTube. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Billionaire's Apprentice


 
The subtitle of this book gives away the content: “The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund”.  The author is Anita Raghavan, a Malaysian woman who spent 18 years with the Wall Street Journal, then became the London Bureau Chief for Forbes.  Ms. Raghavan knows her subject, and her long book smothers you with facts, mostly about the bright but opportunity-starved youths from India who, after graduating from IIT (the India Institute of Technology), trekked to the Harvard Business School or Wharton and thence to Wall Street. Now, as the book shows, they are everywhere: investment banks, hedge funds, consultants and the SEC. They are the bad guys, but they are also the good guys who catch the bad guys.

The plot centers on Raj Rajaratnam (the billionaire), a securities analyst and the founder and leader of the Galleon Fund, a hugely successful hedge fund based in New York.  The Feds, suspecting that Galleon's traders are using inside information to give them an “edge” in stock trading, slowly but methodically built their case, using “willing cooperators” (tippers and tippees who traded information for softer sentences) and court-approved telephone wire taps. Eventually the net was closed, and Raj is now in jail. 

This should have been a great summer read, with cops, robbers, sex, money, etc. There are colorful characters, a Gatsbyesque milieu with lavish parties and international travel, an obsessive chief investigator (Indian, of course), and ambitious young women who feed Raj market-moving information. Unfortunately, though Ms Raghavan is probably a great reporter, she is not a skilled writer. A good editor might have helped. As it is, the story of the chase is interrupted too often by chapters about life in India. It is a sociological tract at war with a suspense story, and the suspense story loses.

So, unless you have a voyeur’s interest in watching Raj crash and burn or a lawyer’s interest in the construction of an insider-information case, you can skip the 425-page text (plus about 70 pages of notes) and open the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh, as I just did.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Page Eight


David Hare, who has been writing screenplays for a long time, has polished off a corker of a spy story, called Page Eight.  And it is timely, in the light of recent revelations that the American spooks at the NSA have been eavesdropping on the British spooks.  The movie, which was directed as well as written by Hare, benefits from a first-class cast, headed by Bill Nighy, who plays MI-5 analyst Johnny Worricker with his usual laconic persona – a perfect fit for this character.  Also in the cast are Michael Gambon, who plays MI-5’s Director General and Worricker’s mentor, and Ralph Fiennes, who plays the British Prime Minister. It will not spoil things if I tell you that the plot pivots on whether the PM knew about the Americans’ rendition of prisoners to countries known to tolerate torture.

Most of the male characters, especially Worricker and his boss, are decent human beings, while most of the baddies are female – particularly  Judy Davis, who is terrific as Jill Tankard, a colleague of Worricker’s at MI-5.  The dialog is crisp, a Hare staple, and the production values are good. In fact, one wonders why more wasn’t made of the film when it was released in 2011. Maybe Nighy wasn’t big enough a star to warrant major promotion; if Johnny Depp or George Clooney had played the lead there might have been more – but it wouldn’t have been nearly as good a movie.

As mentioned, there are several references to the sharing or nonsharing of intelligence between the American and British intelligence agencies, and Hare makes no bones about the realities of the situation. Intelligence people lie – that’s what they do, even to each other – and to think otherwise if plain foolish.  If Barack Obama summons the head of the CIA or NSA and asks him a straight question, will he get a truthful answer? Maybe, but one would be foolish to bet one’s life on it. The same is true the world over.

Sharing top billing with Nighy, for reasons unknown to me, is Rachel Weisz, who plays Nancy Pierpan, a neighbor of Worricker’s. She is the nearest thing to a romantic element the film offers, and her character adds little to the plot.  In fact, the pace quickens in the scenes at the offices of MI-5 and reaches a crescendo in the scene between Worricker and the Prime Minister.

Good spy dramas don’t need shootings or stabbings to keep you on the edge of your seat. What they need is believable characters who talk intelligently about subjects that  matter.  It helps if the central character is sympathetic and perceived to be in mortal danger.   Page Eight delivers on all counts.




Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Little Tin Box

Here's how to make a quick million. Of course, you have to be a U.S. Senator, but if you qualify, the rest is easy. Here's what you do:

On May 21, a senate subcommittee on which you serve is scheduled to grill Apple CEO Tim Cook about his Company's avoidance of income taxes. You, as a member of the subcommittee, have the opportunity to accuse Apple of shirking its moral duty to pay taxes on income derived overseas through the use of "loopholes." You will thus be able to act the patriot by beating up on "big business." Even before the hearing begins, it's clear that Apple stock is going to take a drubbing. The New York Times, in its front-page lead, headlines "BILLIONS IN TAXES AVOIDED BY APPLE, U.S. INQUIRY FINDS." Apple stock will take a drubbing. How can you translate that knowledge into profit?

Well, you could short the stock, but there's a better way to leverage a small amount of money into a huge profit. You buy puts - options to sell the stock at a higher price. It's important to cover your tracks here, so you have some relative buy them. Then, when the stock falls and the value of the puts rises, you close out your position and assume the role of a hero for having the nerve to attack a giant corporation.

In the first hour of trading on May 21, Apple stock falls 7-3/4 points. The puts soar, and you sell them at a handsome profit. As a United States senator, your conscience may not allow you to profit from the hearings. But can you say the same of all the members of your staff, your speechwriters, your researchers?

To my knowledge there has been no instance where a political leader or other government employee has been found guilty of using insider information. The Justice Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the SEC, and many other agencies employ thousands of people with privileged access to market-moving information - information on mergers or the approval or nonapproval of a drug, etc. But "insider information" cases all seem to be leveled at hedge-fund managers or other Wall Street types.

Maybe I'm being too hard of the pols. Maybe most of them are wealthy because they collected bottles and saved the deposits in a little tin box, as a song in an old musical suggested. But I wonder.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Carousel for the Ages



Late in April, PBS broadcast a concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel.  I have seen several productions of Carousel and, like many, I regard it as Rodgers’s finest score and Hammerstein’s most soaring poetry. But I have never heard a Carousel so musically rich or so well sung as this one. For those who treasure music rather than stagecraft it will stand as the definitive Carousel for a long time.

First, the leads.  Nathan Gunn was Billy Bigelow, the rough-edged carousel barker. Gunn has one of the strongest, truest voices in the world of opera, and he is equally at home in musical theater. (He also sings in the definitive CD of another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Allegro.)  His Soliloquy is on a par with John Raitt’s, which is saying a lot, and his duet with Julie, If I Loved You, is riveting.

Julie is played by Kelli O’Hara, who is perfection as Julie Jordan. Whenever I think of Carousel in the future, I will conjure up a mental picture of Kelli O’Hara.  The make-up crew and wigmaker deserve a special award, so absolutely right does she look – and act, with beautifully expressive eyes revealing a deep love for the caddish Billy. Musically, she is terrific. In fact, I have never heard Kelli O’Hara sing as well as she does here.

Since in this play the music is the thing, it must be stated here and now that Carousel deserves nothing less than the New York Philharmonic. To play that overture with a pit orchestra should be a mortal sin.  This orchestra, with Rob Fisher conducting, is heaven to listen to.

The supporting cast is fine. Opera’s Stephanie Blythe as cousin Netty sings June is Busting Out All Over with gusto and is thrilling in everybody's favorite anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone.  Enoch Snow and Carrie Pipperidge are played by Jason Danieley and Jessie Mueller, and, while the comedic touches one associates with these characters are missing, both are in fine voice.  Kate Burton makes the most of her small but key role as carousel owner Mrs. Mullen, and special mention must be made of Shuler Hensley, who plays the role of Jigger, Billy’s partner in crime. It’s not easy to play a bad guy and a comic character simultaneously, but Shuler pulls it off – and sings well, too.  And John Cullum must be just the kind of star-keeper Oscar Hammerstein had in mind when he wrote the final scenes.

As you probably know, the plot of Carousel is derived from Molnar’s Liliom.  Rodgers and Hammerstein made major plot alterations, principally to move the story to New England and to brighten the ending, but Molnar deserves credit; without his approval, we would be deprived of what Time called the greatest musical of the twentieth century.

The staging is arranged so that the ensemble comes and goes through the same space that the orchestra inhabits, a device that somehow forces you to remain aware of the wonderful Don Walker arrangements and the artistry of the Philharmonic. 

All told, this is the finest production in the Live at Lincoln Center series I have ever seen, and we are indebted to those who made it possible..

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Next Cold War



The so-called “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union was a triumph, maybe of diplomacy, maybe of luck, but whatever it was, it was historic. Never before had two mighty powers armed to the teeth without eventually going to war. When my wife and I were first married and looking for our first house, we saw more than a few with bomb shelters.  Nike batteries were underground in the Boston suburbs, ready to fire. (At the time, the comic novel Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys spoofed a missile battery in suburban Connecticut, with the climax of the send-up describing an accidental firing on the Fourth of July while the crowds of locals went “oooh” at the explosions overhead.)  The Cuban missile crisis sent thousands scurrying to hardware stores to stock up on whatever they thought they’d need when the nukes hit.  There was real tension in the air in those days, but the nuclear weapons stayed safely in the caves in the USA and the USSR until, unbelievably, there was no more USSR, and the Cold War was over.

Today, there is no military power that threatens another Cold War. China? No. There will be tensions from time to time, but the USA and China are too interdependent We need each other. Globalization is here, whether we like it or not. (Did you know that 61 percent of Apple’s revenues come from outside the U.S.?)

The emerging threat to our safety comes, not from countries, but from small groups of ideologues who learn how to make bombs on websites.  The Boston Marathon disaster was really too easy to pull off.  Two brothers taking out their grievances by setting off two homemade bombs on a bright sunny day at Copley Square.  No TSA guards to inspect their shoes, no “no-fly” lists to navigate around. In an open society like ours, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We can find out who did it after the fact; cameras are everywhere. But we can’t stop it.

The answer, I’m afraid, is that we’re going to become a less open society.  And when critics complain, the answer will be two words: “Homeland Security.”  It’s unfortunate, but the genie is out of the bottle. There are lots of people with grievances they feel passionate about. Some are on the right politically, some are on the left, some are angry over joblessness or high taxes or immigration reform or moral decay or whatever. But here's the thing: Too many people are too angry. I get forwarded emails and robocalls, maybe half a dozen a day, every day, and most are really angry. It's time for someone in authority to shout

                                                             COOL IT!!!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Cloudstreet



It has been over 30 years since I first saw the Granada miniseries Brideshead Revisited, and ever since then I have considered it the finest drama ever produced for television. I still do. The writing (much of it lifted directly from Evelyn Waugh’s novel), the acting, the photography, the direction, the music were all, as the British would say, top-shelf, and I have never questioned my original assessment of it as the best.  There have been flashes of brilliance in other dramatic series, but, taken as a whole, nothing compares with Brideshead.  But I have just seen a six-part miniseries that comes very close.  And the chances are that you’ve never heard of it.

The series is called Cloudstreet, and the DVD is available, although it has yet to be seen on American TV.  The production is from Australia and is based on a much-acclaimed (in Australia) novel by Tim Winton.  It has nothing in common with Brideshead except the quality of the story and the wizardry of the casting and direction and acting.  It probably will not satisfy all tastes, but it certainly satisfied mine.

The story involves two families in Western Australia in the 40s and 50s.  They are the Lambs and the Pickles, both hit by the depression and by tragedy.  Sam Pickles has lost the fingers of one hand in an accident, and the Lambs’ youngest son has nearly drowned and is as a result retarded.  Sam Pickles inherits a large but ramshackle house near Perth and looks for a family of tenants to share in the upkeep. Enter the Lambs.  The spine of the story is the relationship of the two families as the years pass.  But it is most assuredly not a soap opera.  “It is a story about life,” says the book’s author, simply.

Promising as the story is, it is the artistry of the director (Matthew Saville) that produces the magic that we see unfold in the DVD. That plus the casting. The acting is absolutely flawless, and it is all the more striking to an American viewer because the Australian cast is unfamiliar.  There is not a weak link in the bunch. 

How can Australia, which has fewer people than Texas, produce such a beautifully crafted television drama?  Years ago, the country gave us A Town Like Alice, an excellent series based on a Nevil Shute novel, but that was 1981 (the same year that gave us Brideshead).  Maybe there were other great dramas from Down Under, and I just haven’t been paying attention, but I doubt it. But I certainly will be watching from now on, and I have marked Matthew Saville as a name to be reckoned with.

You are unlikely to see Cloudstreet on Masterpiece Theater.  The series has several sexually explicit scenes and some four-letter words, and the Aussies would probably not tolerate heavy-handing editing.  Too bad; such quality television deserves a large audience.