A stronger union

norma-tae Let’s talk about unions for a second. As a person who writes about media, I’m no expert on unions. But in the past week, I saw two articles that are interrelated—both reported by two local media outlets in two different states. You might have missed them, because as far as I can tell they didn’t garner much national attention.

The first headline is: Missouri Gov. Greitens signs right-to-work legislation

The second headline is: GM earns $9.43 billion in 2016; UAW workers get record profit sharing

So-called right-to-work laws basically strip labor unions of their powers. Those powers usually include worker benefits, profit sharing and wages that keep up with the rise of the cost of living.

Now, I say “so-called” because who doesn’t agree with a right to work? By God, that’s our due as Americans, to have a right to work!

But “right to work” is a misnomer. It’s a misdirection in the way that the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the National Center for Policy Analysis are. Who doesn’t want research and analysis of policy?

But when that “research” concludes that a five-cent plastic bag charge that seeks to help the environment (and save the city money) is “a radical scheme to harm New Yorkers,” well, one wonders. And when that “policy” includes congratulating a racist for becoming the attorney general of the United States while simultaneously coopting a hashtag that developed organically in support of opposition Senator Elizabeth Warren, one wonders.

Which leads us to “right to work,” which actually means something along the lines of “makes it more difficult to be protected as a worker.” It means, “It’s good for the bottom line of businesses but not for the pockets of workers.” It means, “Defunding and defanging unions that fight for workers.”

Missouri is the 28th state to adopt this type of law. Meaning more than half the states in our union have such laws. Meaning that Republicans’ strategy of picking off individual liberties state by state, bit by bit, law by law, district by gerrymandered district, has worked. (It has a corollary in a slew of restrictive and vile state abortion laws, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

Said the governor of Missouri, “For too long in the state of Missouri, for too long people bowed down to intimidation, they bowed down to powerful union bosses who acted to protect their own interests instead of protecting the interest of Missouri workers.”

I’m sad to report that the era of “post-truth” and “alternative facts” has fully taken root when unions are said not to protect workers but instead “intimidate” them. This is not unlike the lies about the inner-city wasteland dystopia that is Chicago—you know how those “inner cities” are, filled with crime and devastation and, well, nonwhite people all on welfare.

These types of lies caused the rise of Trump et al. in the first place. We are seeing the results of the hard work of the Republicans for the past quarter-century, if not longer. They convince poor people that a corporate fat cat has their best interests at heart; that laws that protect them from being poisoned by the water supply are just “a thinly veiled attempt to wipe out coal mining jobs”; that the unions that protect them are actually harming them.

So now for the other piece of news you may have missed. It’s related to the fallacy above.

Last year, GM earned a record $12 billion. That company’s union-sanctioned profit-sharing formula, part of a union-negotiated contract, stipulates that UAW workers receive about $1,000 in profit sharing for every $1 billion in profit.

“Today’s performance bonus announcement of a maximum of $12,000 each rewards our members’ dedication and commitment to building some of the most popular and high-quality vehicles in the world,” said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada. “They deserve every penny of that collectively bargained bonus check.”

Now, fair is fair. The article reports that “Workers received zero money in profit sharing from 2005-09 when the automaker was struggling.” But since then? $9K apiece in 2014 and $11K each in 2015. Does that seem like a lack of worker protections?

By the way: That’s just at GM. Ford’s “UAW-represented workers will receive $9,000 on average in profit-sharing checks before taxes thanks to a near-record profit for the automaker.” And “Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said last month that UAW-represented workers will receive, on average, a $5,000 profit sharing check for 2016, or about $1,000 more than they did last year.”

So first, let’s cut the shit. The shit peddled by Republican, pro-business, richly paid CEOs who get stock grants and bonuses while regular workers get screwed. You want to know why we have the highest GDP of all time but suffer from economic stagnation? Just ask the “right to work” hawks.

Second, let’s hear it for the local media, in this case in St. Louis and Detroit, that are doing the work of documenting the day-in, day-out lives of Americans.

Third, the national media are working their butts off with no resources, skeleton staffs, closed bureaus and too many stories to tell.

But. But, but. Anyone could easily have found these stories. I’m not Carnac the Magnificent here (millennials, it was a Johnny Carson sketch).

So reliable mainstream media, I’m begging you: Make the connections. Tell the stories of Americans, not businesses. These laws, this administration, these governors and congressional representatives, these bullshit salesmen are bringing this country to the brink.

Or, as a matter of fact, maybe you should start believing your own bullshit: Let’s make America great again. Let’s start by bringing back unions.

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Now as then: The Grapes of Wrath

Kern County, California. Household equipment of Oklahoma family along highway in small construction camp. (National Archives)
Household equipment of an Oklahoma family along a highway in Kern County, California. (National Archives)

I enjoy reading before bed. But I’ve discovered that I can’t read most modern fiction or any nonfiction—it’s too interesting and keeps me awake. I save that stuff for commuting or when I otherwise want an escape hatch to a different world.

Over the past several years, I’ve discovered—and, in some cases, rediscovered—difficult fiction, mostly capital-L Literature and mostly long, to read before bed. I find that having to use my brain in this way exhausts it, for the most part.

Austen, Dickens, Trollope. Gissing, Tolstoy, James. Hawthorne, Cather, Fitzgerald. I read Gone With the Wind for the first time last year, and it is so good. So horrifically racist! But so good.

I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve learned a lot about myself. But mostly what I’ve learned is that much, if not all, of what these great authors wrote is universal, insightful and exceedingly relevant today. Anna Karenina is my emotional intensity. David Copperfield is my spirit animal.

I began reading The Grapes of Wrath in early November. After the election, I couldn’t pick it back up. I couldn’t do much, to be honest. The day after the heartbreaking loss, my spouse and I moved the TV and cable box into the bedroom and didn’t leave the bed until the following Monday, alternately crying, shaking our heads and otherwise going through the stages of grief. It’s fair to say I’ve been disillusioned. And I’ve been struggling.

I’ve turned toward history for explanations. I’ve been reading about Nixon and Boss Tweed. I’ve been trying to find precedent. Past is prologue and all that.

In mid-December, I rewatched the documentary The Dust Bowl, which is now streaming. It reminded me of the horrors of the worst man-made ecological disaster this country has ever experienced. It reminded me that I wrote a long blog post a few years ago, when I first saw the Ken Burns documentary on PBS, about how the media industry today is very much like farmers during the Dust Bowl (doing more with less, coping with disruptive technology, praying for a miracle solution, losing self-respect, folding up the tent and trying something new but not knowing what that is). And it reminded me that I should pick back up on The Grapes of Wrath, which, if you don’t know, concerns the Joad family, poor Oklahoma tenant farmers who are forced from their land by drought and nefarious bankers. They load up their possessions and travel to California seeking jobs but find only misery.

A family from Oklahoma works in a cotton field. Note the house, which is built almost entirely of packing boxes. (National Archives)

Reading this book now, knowing who will soon be president and who elected him; knowing there are refugees who need help, not hate; knowing this man will massively block immigration and massively increase deportation; knowing he will give tax breaks to the corporations and fat cats who need them least; knowing intimately the fear he strikes in the hearts of anyone who isn’t male, white, Christian and straight. This is the state of mind in which I read The Grapes of Wrath, and it was like Steinbeck fired an arrow in 1939 that landed at my feet in 2017.

I want to share some quotes from the book. Some capture my feelings about trying to forge a career in the media industry today. Some are about how it feels to be Other, to be struggling, to be forlorn, to be without hope. Most are about the America I forgot existed—the dark America whose hatred would propel it to elect to its highest office an unqualified, petty dictator with a history of sexual assault and deceit. The America that has seemingly not changed since 1939, when Steinbeck wrote these words, or since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or since Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

“If ya don’ wanta take what they pay, goddamn it, they’s a thousand men waitin’ for your job.” —Hooverville stranger to Tom Joad

“I ain’t no good anymore. Spen’ all my time a-thinkin’ how it use’ ta be.” —Pa Joad

In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything.

The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simply—the causes are a hunger in the stomach, multiplied a million times; the hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times.

“If it was the law they was workin’ with, why, we could take it. But it ain’t the law. They’re a-workin’ away at our spirits. They’re a-tryin’ to make us cringe and crawl.” —Tom Joad

They live on beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They wouldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny—deport them.

“I’m learnin’ one thing good. Learnin’ it all a time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.” —Ma Joad

Repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only a half step, never the full step back.

Families from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas settled throughout Weedpatch, in Kern County, California, and brought their church institutions with them. (National Archives)
Families from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas rapidly settled throughout Weedpatch, in Kern County, California, and brought their church institutions with them. (National Archives)

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Amazon goes back to the future

dbpix-company-borders-tmagArticleAmazon is opening brick and mortar stores! “What a world, what a world!” to quote the melting Wicked Witch of the West.

It seems that after spending its first 20 years putting local bookstores out of business, the company has realized: Hey, gosh, people really like local bookstores.

I should mention that Amazon.com put out of business not just thousands of local bookstores but also countless outposts of chain bookstores. Mall standbys like Borders, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, B. Dalton, and Waldenbooks are for the most part but a memory.

Perhaps Amazon can lease spaces formerly occupied by some of these businesses. After all, “Their goal is to open, as I understand, 300 to 400 bookstores,” said the CEO of a shopping mall who has apparently been in contact with Amazon.

Maybe Amazon can somehow make a go of brick-and-mortar stores. Maybe it knows something the defunct bookstores did not. Maybe it has enough time and money that it can afford to experiment. Maybe it has a long enough runway that it will figure it out. Maybe it has some secret algorithms that can help. Maybe Jeff Bezos himself will be stocking shelves in the back. Who knows?

But I think we can all agree that it’s spectacularly odd that the company that’s probably responsible for people even coining the term “bricks-and-mortar” is pursuing this strategy. What a world.

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Broadway reviews, part three

My stint with the Broadway.com Word of Mouth Panel continues. In recent months, I’ve had the pleasure of taking in the fun but forgettable family fare that was the musical Elf; the entirely unforgettable The Other Place, starring sure-to-be Tony winner Laurie Metcalf in a heartrending performance; the delightful (if occasionally slow) biographical performance piece Ann, starring one of my favorites, Holland Taylor, as former Texas governor Ann Richards; and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a Chekhov-inspired comedy (really!) that stars the surprisingly hilarious Sigourney Weaver. Click on my face to play the videos!

 

Elf video review:

The Other Place video review:

Ann video review:

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike video review:

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Broadway reviews, part two

As I mentioned last month, I’ve recently had the opportunity to be part of the Broadway.com Word of Mouth Panel for the 2012–13 theater season. I get amazing seats at new shows for free, and my only obligation is to have an opinion on it afterward — not a big challenge! Here are my reviews of Annie (loved it!) and Dead Accounts (didn’t love it!). Click on my face to play!

 

Annie video review:

Dead Accounts video review:

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My Broadway debut

Well, my debut of sorts. I’ve recently had the pleasure of being “cast” as part of the Broadway.com Word of Mouth Panel for the 2012–13 theater season. The deal is, they send me to shows and afterward film my thoughts about the show I’ve just seen. Opinion forming isn’t a big problem for me, especially in the realm of Broadway, so it’s a pretty sweet deal! I’m noticing annoying little things about myself that I can improve on in the future, but overall it’s been a fun experience so far. Here are the first two videos in which I appear. Click on my face to play!

 

The “Meet the Panelists” video:

The Heiress video review:

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My Barbra obsession, then and always

In honor of the Barbra Streisand “Back to Brooklyn” concert tonight (and the preshow fans’ dinner, and the postshow fans’ drinks outing…), I’m posting my recent contribution to Alison Waldman‘s new book, Barbra Memories. She used my essay as one of dozens included in the book  (click for full size).

It is posted below in its original form.

 

I was 10 when I saw Yentl on a rollaway VHS player in Sunday school at my synagogue in Toledo, Ohio.

Her voice was so pretty, she was so strong, and she was Jewish, just like me! Thus began my raging, decades-long obsession with Barbra Streisand.

In short order, my dad sought out 12-inch records for me from the local library and garage sales: Funny Girl (the movie), The Barbra Streisand Album and My Name Is Barbra. I was as entranced by her voice as I was by the pictures of her on the covers. Though I had fallen for her in Yentl, it was those early albums that cemented the fascination. Her voice was like no other I’d heard before: gorgeous, playful, resonant, full of personality. I’m quite certain I didn’t understand the ennui of “Cry Me a River” or the irony of her version of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” I’m sure I didn’t know the heartbreak of “My Man.” All I knew was that her voice — brassy, belty, zippy — spoke to me on a level I’d never experienced before. It was like she was singing to me. I was transfixed. I was moved. I was obsessed.

I continued the pursuit. When I was 13 I checked out the biography Streisand: The Woman and the Legend from the Wood County Library and read it passionately. The book portrayed her as bold and brash, confident and a little weird (boldly dropping the extra A?!). I ate it up. Every fact of her life spoke to me on a deep level. She was born one day before my mother, both in Brooklyn, NY. Somehow this transmogrified in my mind as though Barbra was my real mother — they must have been born in the same hospital, so maybe my mother was switched with her, and so I’m really Barbra’s daughter…? It all made sense in my adolescent mind.

There was more. She played clubs in the ’60s New York’s Greenwich Village; my grandfather owned a bar in the ’60s in the Village! Did they ever meet; did she ever go there?! I read other biographies. I bought tapes. I borrowed CDs. I rented bad sex farces. I also rented great love stories. I was transfixed when she was onscreen. She was like me — but talented! And that voice, that voice…

I developed a highly attuned sense of Barbra; I took her on as a role model and a hero. I shook my head at the Jon Peters years. I was dismayed by the press’s portrayal of her as an inflexible haranguer. I admired her unwavering support of liberal causes. I cheered her unrelenting quest for perfection in all things. And I marveled at her undisputed artistic achievement.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the peak years of my Barbra obsession coincided with the time I was developing my sense of self, the age when one is most influenced by and impressed with idols of all kinds. The summer before college, I even forced my teenage friends to watch Yentl and was positively dismayed when they shrugged her off as a middle-aged woman who didn’t remotely carry off the conceit of playing a girl pretending to be a boy. But this didn’t stop my adoration, nor did it prevent me from forcing my freshman-year roommate to listen to The Concert night and day.

But hero worship often ends. It ends roughly about the same time you start to realize it’s not the drinking that kills you, it’s the daylong recovery instead of the hour-long one. You’ve grown up and grown past it — or at least I did.

I found criticisms where I used to find only abject adulation. I thought Barbra’s new material was overproduced, overorchestrated. Big-voiced, belting Barbra, backed by a 60-piece orchestra, can be uplifting and life affirming (for example, “A Piece of Sky”). Intimate, lush Barbra can be smooth and inviting (“Speak Low,” “Lazy Afternoon”); pop Barbra can be upbeat and fun (“Stoney End,” “Guilty”). Sweet Barbra can be lovely and enchanting (“Evergreen”); jazzy Barbra can swing and dip (“Cornet Man”). But where was the simple bass-drum-piano accompaniment that let her voice be the star? The funky approach and unexpectedly off (but somehow perfect) pronunciations that showcased her talent in her early years had been replaced with sappy life lessons, bombastically produced. She was different. Or maybe I was.

When she toured in 1994, I couldn’t afford tickets (I was only 17 and still in high school, after all). I vowed that if she ever toured again, I would go no matter what. Thankfully that came to pass in 2000 (the “Final Tour”!) and again in 2006. Despite the fact that I’d grown up a bit — and, I thought, grown past my obsession — in both instances, I was moved to tears (during the “Yentl Medley” and “Down With Love,” respectively). And I expect to be bawling my eyes out again this time. Her unique take on the lyrics and surprising phrasing can still stop me in my tracks and give me goose bumps. Quite simply, she moves me. I don’t know how, exactly, she will move me this time, but I know that she will. How could she not? She’s been a precious and well-loved (and -respected, and -esteemed) part of my life since I was a child — since before I was able to put the emotions she made me feel into words like this.

Put simply, I am grateful for the many gifts she has been blessed with and with which she has, in turn, blessed me. Occasionally, on moments like this, when she’s on stage and in strong voice, I let myself feel that gratitude, let myself be transported back to my teenage bedroom, back to that classroom in shul — the one by the rabbi’s office, with the red carpet and the rollaway VCR — where I was first mesmerized and charmed by her voice, her look, her charisma, her authenticity, her talent.

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Remembering Nora Ephron

Nora EphronWhen Harry Met Sally… is well within in my top five movies of all time. I don’t think this is just because it hit me at the exact right age (movies are much more influential when you see them as a teen, don’t you think?). It’s not because it covered new territory (there were other New York-based romantic comedies, and arguably the movie is merely a woman’s spin on a Woody Allen film). But the territory it did cover was done in a such a completely new way, with such a different and fresh perspective. And when that is done well, it can be transcendent. With the Nora Ephron-penned When Harry Met Sally…, that’s exactly what happened.

I obviously didn’t know Ms. Ephron personally. But her impact on my life was significant nonetheless. She made New York seem so glamorous and smart. Between this movie and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, which was on TV around the same time, I thought the Upper West Side was the home of the most intelligent, wry, interesting women on earth, people who constantly had quips, comebacks and dinner parties. I didn’t dare admit to imagining I’d someday be in their midst.

Truthfully, I enjoyed You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle as much as the next guy, but I found her to be a fairly self-indulgent director, mostly in terms of editing, not dialogue. (I think the reason WHMS is so sharp is because of the crisp direction from Rob Reiner, who keeps the pace moving. Same for Mike Nichols’s direction of Heartburn. Compare those to her other movies’ draggy last half-hours, and all the parts of Julie and Julia when Meryl Streep wasn’t onscreen.)

But, oh, her writing. Her perspective was singular and trend-setting. I absolutely loved her take on things, her biting wit, her approach to life. Hell, I even saw Imaginary Friends on Broadway (and I even came back after intermission). The woman set the bar. She upped the ante. She changed the game. She did all of those cliches, including Ginger dancing backward, and she did it with panache.

Seems I’m not the only one she charmed. The articles and obituaries I’ve read today make her sound like a pretty amazing friend and mom, as well as a talented screenwriter, essayist, director and all the rest. I saw her do a Q&A with Gail Collins at the 92nd Street Y a couple of years ago, and she made everyone in the audience feel like we were gathered around her kitchen table. She was a gifted woman. A breed apart in terms of language, observation and truth-telling. I feel for her family. I can’t believe she’s gone; they must be out of their minds with disbelief.

In remembrance, I thought I’d cobble together some of the amazing dialogue from this incredible movie. I’m not providing context for these and they are in no particular order. Taken together, they show just how much richness was in that screenplay. I consider it her opus. She will be missed.

You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right.

(I don’t even know how many times my friend Molly and I have said this to each other over the years.)

It’s amazing. You look like a normal person but actually you are the angel of death.

I had these days-of-the-week underpants. He was all suspicious. Where was Sunday? Where had I left Sunday? And I told him, and he didn’t believe me. (Harry: What?!) They don’t make Sunday. (Harry: Why not?) Because of God.

You’re the worst kind; you’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.

Draw something resembling anything. (Later) “Baby talk”? That’s not a saying. (Harry: Oh, but “baby fish mouth” is sweeping the nation?)

You don’t always have to express every emotion you’re having every moment you’re having it.

You’re saying I’m having sex with these men without my knowledge?

Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash. But I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie.

No, no, you did not have great sex with Sheldon. A Sheldon can do your income taxes. If you need a root canal, Sheldon’s your man.

I’d like the pie heated and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it, if not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real; if it’s out of the can, then nothing. (Waitress: Not even the pie?) Sally Albright: No, I want the pie, but then not heated.

Is one of us supposed to be a dog in this scenario? (Harry: Yes.) Who is the dog? (Harry: You are.) I am?! I am the dog. I am the dog.

(Again, Molly and I spent countless hours with this dialogue. In fact, he is the dog. To him, it’s been seven years. That makes him the dog! Much debated!)

The fact that you’re not answering leads me to believe you’re either: A) not at home; B) home but don’t want to talk to me; or C) home, desperately want to talk to me, but trapped under something heavy. If it’s either A) or C), please call me back.

Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor.

No one has ever quoted me back to me before.

When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.

No, no, no, I drove him away! And I’m gonna be 40! (Harry: When?) Sally: Someday!

Someone is staring at you in Personal Growth.

I thought he was crossing the room to talk to my friend Maxine, because people were always crossing rooms to talk to Maxine.

I’m Ben Small, of the Coney Island Smalls.

This stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table!

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Gender inequality weekly roundup

The response by Rachel Sklar on Daily Beast to Daily Beast’s own “Digital Power Index” and the sexism therein (just seven women out of 100) really nailed it.

“[The problem] actually pretty simple: Either you think all these industries are dominated across the very top levels by predominantly white men because there are numerous deep-seated societal norms and institutional biases that make it more challenging for women and minorities to advance as quickly and as far as their white male counterparts…or you think that these lists merely reflect the fact that white dudes must just be better at everything…. There is no murky middle ground where some of these industries are just more meritocratic and it just so happens that the same patterns that play out across historically gender-biased industries coincidentally bubble up to the surface here too.”

I think many white men believe that the world is a meritocracy because they are rewarded in all kinds of ways (rightly, they think). Actually, they started the race 100 yards ahead, but they’re willfully unaware and also somehow still proud when they win.

Sklar name-checks Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, which I’ve also been thinking about since last week. The piece is about why women can’t have it all. She carefully unpacks tropes like, “It’s possible if you are just committed enough,” “It’s possible if you sequence it right” and “It’s possible if you marry the right person.” In the piece, she discusses family, pressure to be on site in the office and institutional prejudice against working moms. There’s no real solution floated forward (one of the problems with systemic prejudices is that it’s hard to solve them!), except maybe changing our agrarian school schedule to better match work schedules. Her conclusion is basically that we should all do what makes us happy.

I thought Rebecca Traister hit a nice volley back to Slaughter in her piece in Salon by saying that we should start by never even saying the words “have it all” ever again:

“It is a trap, a setup for inevitable feminist short-fall. Irresponsibly conflating liberation with satisfaction, the ‘have it all’ formulation sets an impossible bar for female success and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it’s feminism — as opposed to persistent gender inequity — that’s to blame.”

Which brings us back to where we started.

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Musicals: Life on a higher plane

Whenever I meet someone who hates musicals, or claims not to “get” them, I try to explain why I have the opposite feeling. It’s a silly exercise, because ultimately it’s pointless to try to put words to art, but nonetheless I do defend musical theater. What I usually say is something along the lines of: “Musicals take words and feelings to another plane; when you’ve taken spoken feelings as far as you can go with them, they must pour over into song.”

The example I usually cite is “Maria” from West Side Story. Tony has just fallen in love at first sight with Maria and he starts talking: “Maria.” He repeats the name and it soon takes him over until he can speak it no more and it has elevated itself to necessarily being sung: “Maria! I’ve just met a girl named Maria!” And he’s up there on stage, live, letting it out, right in front of you! (Added bonus: This song also contains one of my all-time favorite musical passages, “Say it loud and there’s music playing/Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.”)

Allowing oneself to be captivated by musical theater — to give yourself over to its implausibility, its suspension of disbelief, its distinct storytelling — is, to me, a favorable personality trait. If the person I’m speaking to understands this example and the broader context, we can be friends. If not, I’m sorry, but it was nice to meet you.

So it took my breath away — in that way if does when you feel another person has precisely captured the thoughts in your own mind and set it forth into the world in better phrasing than you could ever conceive of — to read this graf from Scott Brown’s essay on Broadway songwriting in last week’s New York magazine:

“A true musical is the fissile power of internal contradiction gone critical. It’s the disciplined, rigorous release of madness from the molten core of the human soul, apportioned in meter, disciplined (barely) in song.”

Precisely.

Precisely why I must walk home after a great Broadway show, my heart beating fast, my legs moving quickly, my soul have been affirmed and elevated. Precisely the reason why Smash‘s actual musical numbers invigorate me and their karaoke song covers make me cringe and roll my eyes. (Same goes for all the jukebox musicals so popular today.) Precisely why Audra McDonald caused me to spontaneously cry during Porgy and Bess (and that’s just the most recent time — it happens a lot.)

They don’t all have to ballads, by the way: I love fun, zippy songs that tell or help unfurl a story, too. But they must communicate from that heightened place, the place where only musicals can go, and where those who understand can be transported.

The online addendum to that essay, which is mostly about the state of today’s musical songwriting, by the way, is a slideshow featuring theater folk and their suggestions for how to improve the lot of current theater. All worth a read, but the one that spoke to me most was James Nicola, who said, “I also think a common problem is a lack of good book-writing — a thankless job, so it doesn’t attract maybe the best or most accomplished dramatic writers because of how unappreciated the work is. In a musical, even the most amazing song can fizzle without the proper set-up from the book writer.”

I saw February House at the Public over the weekend, and I really loved it. The songs were alternately moving, funny, humane and devastating, and altogether well done, showing a lot of promise. The book, on the other hand, could use some work, and I hope the producers spiff it up before it goes on to its next life on Broadway.

But nonetheless I walked out of the theater ready to take on the world, invigorated and thrilled. Because even when it’s not the perfect combination of music, lyrics, book, cast and production, it can still be transformative and life-affirming and pulse-quickening when it’s good. That’s the best of musical theater. That feeling is one of the best gifts art can give us.

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