Monday, December 21, 2009

Cinderella Squared

Back in the 30s, a popular radio show called The Major Bowes Amateur Hour lifted a lot of entertainers from obscurity to fame. Among the shooting stars were opera singers Lili Pons and Beverly Sills, comedian Jack Carter, pop singer Teresa Brewer, and a young singer named Frank Sinatra. The Major Bowes show was enormously popular, because the public always had an insatiable appetite for Cinderella stories. It was even better when they could help choose Cinderella (“call Murray Hill 8-9933”).

Major Bowes died in 1946, and one of his assistants, Ted Mack, carried on the tradition and brought it to television. Ted Mack’s show was also a big hit, proving that it was the concept, and not the moderator or the talent, that registered with the public.

That brings us to the “Idol” series, American and British, that so many viewers are hooked on, and its latest mega-star, Susan Boyle. This middle-aged Scotswoman was launched, as if you didn’t know, by her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Miss Saigon. It was a good, but not a great performance, musically speaking. But the whole package was a blockbuster, the kind of thing that PR people dream about.

The package, you see, includes the fact that Susan is a rather plain-looking woman, the kind you might find next to you in the checkout line at Wal-Mart (if not doing the checking out). One doesn’t expect to find that kind of voice in that kind of package. So you have Cinderella squared. Be honest, now: If Susan Boyle looked like, say, Nicole Kidman, would you be that excited about the fact that she sings well? (As a matter of fact, Nicole sings in the forthcoming film musical Nine, and it is a safe bet that as a singer she is no Susan Boyle.)

Susan, admirable though she is, is not a trained singer of theatrical songs like “I Dreamed a Dream.” Lea Salonga, who introduced the song in Miss Saigon, is a professional, with both the voice and the emotional range required for such a dramatic song. The same might be said of Bernadette Peters, Sarah Brightman, Elaine Paige, and Audra McDonald – but not Susan Boyle. I know that millions of records say that I am wrong, but that’s my story and I am sticking with it.

But, of the several songs I have heard Susan sing, one stands out as perfect for her: “Cry Me a River,” a torchy blues song that she absolutely nails. If I were her manager I would be scouring the music files looking for other torch songs for Susan. She can handle them vocally, and she is a believable victim.

Major Bowes would love her.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tides in the Affairs of Men

When I was in college, I dated a girl who was a free spirit, the kind you find in tales of Celtic fairies who live in places like Brigadoon and Glocca Morra. She would dance barefoot on the green in her home town and start singing "Honey Bun" while walking along the street (it was the season of South Pacific), and this, of course, added to her appeal. After graduation she took a job teaching in Texas, and I lost track of her for a few years. Then a mutual friend told me she was in New York, a sometimes actress. Since I went to New York often at the time, I called her and asked if she’d like to have dinner. Yes, she would very much like to have dinner.

The free spirit was still there, but now she had become serious about it. She was, some religious authority had convinced her, a true mystic with vast metaphysical powers, which waxed and waned with the positions of the stars and planets.

At first I thought she was pulling my leg. But as we talked on during dinner, it was clear that we occupied different planets.

“You don’t really believe in astrology, do you?” I asked.

“Yes. And it’s pretty obvious you don’t,” she said.

“No, not a bit of it.”

“Look, do you believe that the position of the moon is responsible for pulling whole oceans of water around?”

“Yes,” I said.

“But if the moon can do all that, then why can’t the positions of the planets affect the fluids in your body – in millions of bodies, for that matter?”

The rest of the conversation was centered on her acting career, such as it was. She had brought along a scrapbook, which told of her parts in a few off-off-off Broadway plays. But our evening effectively ended with her moon-talk. I cabbed her back to the Barbizon for Women, and promised to keep in touch. I still remember how, in my bed that night, I couldn’t sleep, thinking of billions of tons of water being sloshed around by one little moon, so far away.

I never saw her again, and I heard that she died a few years ago. But I have never forgotten her earnest profession of faith in the power of planetary alignment to influence human behavior. I think of it often, now that I have a front-row seat to the comings and goings of the Atlantic. It seems preposterous that the moon can move enough water to change the depth of the ocean by 10 feet every six hours, but it does.

It seems that mankind goes berserk at certain times in history. The American Revolution and the French Revolution occurred at roughly the same time, though there is no causal connection. In our own time, there were public upheavals here and in Europe in 1968. Younger readers may not remember it, but take my word for it, 1968 was a nasty time, when the fabric of society was badly torn.

Today’s news tells of a horrific bombing in Iraq, student riots
in Iran, bombings in Pakistan, a military coup in Honduras, a war without end in Afghanistan, the bombing of a Moscow - St. Petersburg train, the Philippine Army at war with thugs empowered by the Philippine government, anarchy in Somalia, genocide in Sudan. Some of these events are connected, most not. The world seems to be lurching out of control, and it is a much smaller world than ever, a world charted by Google maps, spanned by Skype, and circumnavigated by hundreds of satellites, all looking down at every one of us.

And it is a world influenced by forces not yet understood. Tides in the affairs of men, Shakespeare calls them.