A Golden Apple 

Billed as a world premiere, Hollywood royalty Ed Weinberger’s farcical throwback The Journals of Adam and Eve, which filled the Garry Marshall Theatre for six breakneck performances over a single weekend, was actually created to be more a reading than a staged play, something I initially missed by not perusing the press materials more thoroughly before attending. 

Beginning his illustrious career helping Dick Gregory,

Bob Hope, and Richard Pryor become comedy legends, writing and producing The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and spending five years making Johnny Carson a late-night icon on The Tonight Show, the three-time Golden Globe and nine-time Emmy winning Weinberger has lost none of his illustrious chops.

As Adam, Hal Linden begins by telling us how confused he is having been born a fully grown man and explaining that his name comes from the Hebrew word for soil or dust “even though He converted later.” Adam marvels about how the odd appendage on the front of his body seems to have a mind of its own and, when Eve (Sally Struthers) suddenly appears, their first fumbling discovery about how that appendage is meant to work causes him to blurt out to her that future classic line, “This has never happened to me before.”

Even though Adam announces he’ll call her “Woman” because that means “from man,” Eve is not amused by his perceived superiority right from the start. “How’d you like it if I called you Droopy?”

The laughs are frequent and decidedly old-style, surely geared to a more specific audience, as was Weinberger’s solo play A Man and his Prostate, in which Ed Asner toured the U.S. for five years or his other two-hander Two Jews, Talking, which Linden and Bernie Kopell took off-Broadway in 2022.

Surely, The Journals of Adam and Eve, so refreshingly returning to Weinberger’s brilliant but well-honed comedy chops, could enjoy similar success, although best marketed to an older demographic rather than a more youthful crowd. It could have a long life on the touring circuit but the only caveat would be to carefully handpick the actors cast in his unique version of the world’s first fantasy love story.

There could not be better choices to bring the delightful skewed historical characters to life than beloved veteran performers Linden and Struthers, who are individually the epitome of true comedic aristocracy and, as a team, are nothing short of perfection.

Linden’s timeing, peppered with a liberal sprinkle of traditional Yiddish theatre delivery, has been honed throughout his 65-year career and, at 92, he truly has the energy and sparkle of someone half his age.

Struthers is his quintessential foil, her Eve animated with an almost palpable wonder as she encounters the marvels of the world’s flora and fauna for the first time and yet she is not without a stubborn early (quite early) feminist indignation as she rejects being thought of as the inaugural member of the “second sex.” She even counts Adam’s ribs to make the point of being his equal partner.

Yet, when Weinberger’s imaginative take on the famous fable delves into the tragedies of losing a son and the sadness of the couple’s long separation, both Linden and Struthers are heartbreakingly simple in their choices and totally convincing as two people genuinely in love.

For me, seeing Sally Struthers evolution into comedy genius is particularly chest-puffing, as we were purdy close pals almost 60 years ago when we were both students at the now-defunct Pasadena Playhouse College of the Theatre Arts.

Sally was the best friend and high school sidekick of my Playhouse roommate back then, Portland’s late theatre meyvn Russ Fast, together with whom she left their hometown hand-in-hand way back in 1965 to take El Lay by storm.

I have a fond memory of Sally and me sitting on the steps of the school late, late one night, opening up to each other about our hopes and fears and genuinely trying to convince ourselves that we should stay on here and tackle that inscrutable beast known as Hollywood. To see the trajectory over the years of her Golden Globe and double-Emmy honored career is something of which I could not be more vicariously proud.

One can only hope Ed Weinberger’s wonderfully charming and continuously hilarious The Journals of Adam and Eve has a long life ahead of it—and that wherever it goes, Hal Linden and Sally Struthers are right there with it on its journey.

Back Down in the Valley: The Classic 'Dark of the Moon' Finally Resurfaces as a Bold New Musical  

28MAR23:  It’s been a long and winding (country) road for Howard Richardson and William Berney’s mysterious and magical classic 1945 “play with music” Dark of the Moon, a once popular piece fallen into obscurity over the years despite many previous well-intentioned efforts to grab the rights and transform it into a full musical.

Among the successful artists who had been turned down through the years by the playwrights’ estate have included Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Marvin Hamlisch, but they believed no one pitching an adaptation had ever found the heart and strange, gossamer beauty of the tale. 

Based on the centuries-old European folk song “The Ballad of Barbara Allen” and set in a small backwoods town deep in the American Appalachians, Dark of the Moon is the story of a “witch-boy” from the Smokey Mountains who descends from the fog to become hopelessly enamored by a beautiful, feisty village girl desperately looking to find herself in the outside world she has never known.

John makes a pact with the spooky “Conjur Woman,” potentially trading his immortality to join his earthbound love on good ol’ terra firma, but it’s a deal that will only become permanent if the lovers can work through the prejudice and fear that haunts their relationship and stay faithful to one another for a year.

It is a poetic, soulful Twilight meets Romeo & Juliet-esque tale which originally included the song upon which it is based, as well as a few authentic old folk songs such as “Down in the Valley” and “Give Me That Old Time Religion.”

Surely, in a world where The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz could become major contemporary Broadway warhorses, Dark of the Moon seemed to be the quintessential project to adapt into musical theatre, but if Jerry, Bob, and Marvin couldn’t make the grade, it seemed unlikely the play would ever again to be produced professionally.

The fog began to lift on the fictitious village of Buck Creek, however, when noted screenwriter and film producer Jonathan Prince had the inspiration as to how the play could be adapted without losing its heart or watering down its message of the destructive nature of narrow-mindedness and intolerance. The result is the staggeringly ambitious developmental world premiere of Dark of the Moon, A New Musical, now debuting at the celebrated Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura and playing through April 16, RTC’s 46th mainstage production presented in their ongoing commitment to the creation of new works.

The production is being directed by Rubicon founder and co-Artistic Director James O'Neill, who has shepherded more than 45 world premieres at the theatre since its inception in 1998 and is himself author of Lonesome Traveler, which debuted at RTC before landing off-Broadway and touring extensively featuring such folk giants as Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and George Grove, among others.

Dark of the Moon features an all-new dual bluegrass and rock score by multi-platinum musical hitmakers Lindy Robbins, Dave Bassett, and Steve Robson, and a cast and artistic team of some of the most impressive talent on the planet, including choreography by Christopher Gattelli (Tony winner for Newsies), musical supervision by Brad Haak (conductor of An American in Paris and Mary Poppins on Broadway), musical direction by Brent Crayon, and arrangements by Carole King’s grandson, renowned guitarist-composer Dillon Kondor.

What broke the resolve of the play’s estate? Explains O’Neill: “Elliott Blair, the attorney who represents the estate, was waiting for someone to solve the problems for a contemporary audience. Michael Jackowitz of WitzEnd Productions, Jonathan, and Lindy flew to New York at various times to present their ideas and he has really gotten behind this production and believes in what they are hoping to accomplish.

“The story is timeless… it’s about loving the other,” O’Neill continues. “The original writer was a gay man in the 1940s who felt he couldn’t give voice his own truth and his own story, but he could tell the story of a witch boy falling in love with a rebellious mortal girl, both experiencing different levels of hate and disapproval from their communities.

“Jonathan had the idea for a dual score—folk and bluegrass performed by the townspeople of Buck Creek—and rock and soul performed by the witches. The challenge in telling the story today is that some plot elements had to be changed. In the original story, the spell will be broken if Barbara is untrue and there is a rape in the church. In this story, the writers found a way for Barbara to have agency in the choices and sacrifices she makes. I think Jonathan has done that in an ingenious way.”

“It’s a big undertaking,” adds the Rubicon’s co-Artistic Director Karyl Lynn Burns. “We are so grateful to get to share this beautiful musical story with our audiences and to work with an amazing team. The writers are extraordinary. It’s been a life lesson to see how Jonathan, Lindy, Dave, and Steve work together. They are incredible collaborators. No stepping on eggshells but so much respect and love between them. And they’re facile and fast and so keenly intelligent and tuned in to each other. It’s an honor to be in the room as they finish each other’s sentences and lyrics and musical phrases. 

“Going back to big, it’s a cast of 29 and, including our onstage bluegrass band and another live rock-and-roll band downstairs, it’s a company of 34 in our intimate 185-seat space. It’s a rare opportunity.

“Developing new works and creating a nurturing environment for established and aspiring playwrights has always been a fundamental part of our mission and vision at RTC but this is definitely the largest and most ambitious undertaking in Rubicon’s history. We have been involved with the show for over four years through our Plays-in-Progress program and have been working dramaturgically with the team.

“The project came to us through our Director of New Works Michael Jackowitz, who has been with us since 2006 and was the recipient of Rubicon’s first Innovation Award during our 20th anniversary season. He has brought us many amazing projects and has also become a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer himself. He and his partners at WitzEnd Productions, especially Jeffrey Grove, have provided generous support so we are able to produce a story of this scope for our audiences.”

Bookwriter Jonathan Prince is the guy to thank for the idea of turning the play into a musical. Prince, who once turned a serendipitous meeting with George Burns into writing the film 18 Again, has written and produced over 200 hours of television on network, cable, and streamers. Many of his projects have had strong musical themes, including his Emmy-winning NBC series American Dreams, his film 1660 Vine, and music also played a vital role in his multi-year B.E.T. series American Soul, his HBO series Off the Record, and pilots developed with Mick Fleetwood, Stewart Copeland, and Broadway producer Andrew Lippa, with whom he is also developing another stage musical.

His personal connection to Dark of the Moon started “decades ago,” he says, when he played a small role in the play at his high school. There are those traditional folk songs and hymns in Richardson and Berney’s original script and Prince loved the idea of the music helping the story unfold.

“Since then,” he admits, “I haven’t been able to get that show out of my head. It’s the story of a star-crossed romance with a twist. It’s not the woman who has given up everything to be with her male object of adoration—think The Little Mermaid—but instead the genders are reversed.

“Then life got in the way for me. That is, I had to go make a living.” But after his many years writing, producing, and directing for film and television, he was “emboldened” to take the concept to Jackowitz and Grove.

“The idea was to let the music of the show reflect the opposing communities, that is humans and witches standing in for the Capulet and the Montagues. The humans would sing in bluegrass songs and the witches would sing in rock, two distinct sounds that must somehow be melded when the lovers are alone.”

Who could deliver such a score, “songs that were the kind of ‘earworms’” that would inspire the audience to go home singing the melodies? “We invited Lindy, Steve, and Dave to bring their talents to the show and they have taken that great notion planted in the brain of a high school student in the late ‘70s and they have delivered.”

Still, the rights needed to be obtained and the fact that brilliant Broadway minds such as Robbins, Fosse, and Hamlisch had tried and failed was in danger of taking the wind out of the team’s sails. “How could we dare think that we might succeed where those geniuses of the theatre had failed?” Prince continues. “But we pitched the vision with all the story changes proposed and with the unique notion of a dual bluegrass-rock score. We were elated when Elliott Blair said, ‘Go ahead’ and he continues to be an enthusiastic supporter of the musical.”

There had been significant issues with the original script, especially in the current #METOO era. It made Barbara Allen a victim rather than a proactive heroine and it also demonized the church and people of faith, not to mention Prince felt the characters of the witches were underdeveloped. Luckily, he had those ideas of how to make it work and when the team pitched them to Blair, he was thrilled with the profound changes they proposed. “They would make the show much more friendly to contemporary high schools, colleges, and professional companies who have been less inclined to do the play over the last few years because of the issues baked into the original.”

The creation of the piece was also something one could call unique. “Many people during the pandemic learned to bake sourdough bread,” quips Prince. “Many planted herb gardens, some took Zoom yoga classes. Lindy, Dave, and I basically Zoom-created an original musical.

“I wrote an outline with suggestions for song placement and themes, but often the songwriters went ahead and wrote songs before the actual scenes from the book existed. Sometimes songs were written after the scripted preface was ready. And always, always, the team wrote and rewrote. Rewrote scenes and dialogue. Rewrote lyrics and melodies. Rewrote characters. It’s been an incredibly collaborative process that’s been sort of amazing, really.”

One of the most compelling things for me about this project has been hearing about how it was unfolding along the journey from Lindy, a prolific five-time ASCAP Pop Award-honored songwriter credited with over 300 major releases, including Jason Derulo’s worldwide smash “Want to Want Me” and chart-toppers for Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony, Backstreet Boys, Nick Lachey, MKTO, David Guetta, Morgan Evans, Hot Chelle Rae, and the 2006 Disney Song of the Year “Cinderella” from the Cheetah Girls.

Lindy and Jonathan had been friends for many years, meeting as performers in the west coast premiere of Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways. They shared a love of musical theatre and unbeknownst to him, aside from her successful career writing pop songs, she had always dreamed of writing an original musical.

“Way back when I was in the group The Tonics and writing cabaret songs in New York in the 90s,” she recalls, “Michael Jackowitz said to me, ‘One day I’m going to find the right musical for you to do.’ I laughed it off then but little did I know.

“I spent the next 20 years back in LA fulfilling my dream to be a songwriter for mainstream radio and against all odds I succeeded, but I never lost my love for musical theatre, something that dated back to a childhood raised by a father who lived for musicals and the ‘Great American Songbook.’ So when out of the blue I got a call from Michael and Jonathan asking if I wanted to hear about a musical, I was ready for a new challenge. I met Jonathan at the Beverly Glen Deli, he filled me in, and I was instantly intrigued. Something felt right!

“Still, in my world of pop songwriting, it’s always collaborative—two people in a room writing together. I knew I needed a partner who could play instruments since I write lyrics and melody but only play a little piano. This led me to my first collaborator Steve Robson, a well-known and very talented writer-producer who lives in London. We wrote songs for what was Act One at the time, but it’s changed so much since then. Some of those songs remain in some form or another and are integral to the show to this day. Unfortunately, due to some health issues and the difficulty of collaborating across the Pond when the pandemic started, Steve amicably withdrew.

“After much deliberation, the solution hit me like a bunch of magical bricks: Dave Bassett! He and I had worked on pop songs on and off for 20 years and I just knew he was the perfect person to take this to the distance with me. Happily, he said yes. He’s incredibly busy and successful so boy, was I lucky to get him.”

The Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum songwriter and producer Bassett, a guy with more than a dozen #1 hits to his name, could not have been a better choice and he agrees that teaming up has been an exciting process. Both veteran songwriters were used to working in many different musical genres, so the choices they made together and the direction in which they took the score, as Lindy puts it, “happened song by song.”

The collaboration was instant magic. “We would get on Zoom or meet at Dave’s studio and just follow the story and let it be our inspiration. It was new and challenging and so much fun to have a story to tell. It helped a lot that Dave plays every musical instrument and is a producer, so he made instrumental tracks—as did Steve—and we sang most of the parts ourselves. The demos were super helpful throughout the process. We knew we wanted bluegrass and rock but there are many songs that fall somewhere in between.”

Bassett agrees wholeheartedly. “I’ve always prided myself on being a stylistically diverse collaborator able to wear many hats,” he says. “This process has given Lindy and me an opportunity to do just that as the styles are so varied throughout the piece.

“Between the bluegrass and the rock and the singer-songwriter style,” Bassett continues, “we have tried not to stray from the instincts that came natural to us. We knew we had to cater to the story, but we didn’t want to follow musical theatre formulas with our songs but rather approach them as we would work within the pop and rock genres. We truly wanted to write songs that could stand alone.”

“What I didn’t realize,” Lindy adds, “is how much of a collaboration it is between the whole creative team. The producers, the theatre, the director, the choreographer, and for Dave and me, our music supervisor Brad Haak has been a big part of all this for us. I mean, we didn’t even know what a music supervisor was and now I can’t imagine us creating this show without him.

“And reiterating what Jonathan said, I was not used to so much rewriting! Sometimes that has been very difficult but the show gets better and better. Now we need the x-factor of an audience to know where we go from here.”

Like Jonathan Prince, my own enthusiasm about this new journey back into Dark of the Moon also goes back to my own personal—though ancient—connection, having strummed a ukulele and warbled “Down in the Valley” myself playing Barbara Allen’s younger hayseed brother Floyd in Chicago in the early ‘60s when I was 14 or 15 under the direction of the Second City’s celebrated director, the lategreat Ted Liss. 

The lingering memory of playing Floyd Allen as a teen is an experience I also share with the Rubicon’s longtime resident company member Joseph Fugua, with whom I worked there and then again at Santa

Monica’s BroadStage Theatre as Cheswick and Harding in Dale Wasserman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest under the direction of Jenny Sullivan.

Time, of course, marches on and Joseph, who has also appeared in 110 in the Shade and Brighton Beach Memoirs at Lincoln Center and received universal praise playing the title role in Hamlet at Rubicon, is now cast as Barbara and Floyd’s father Thomas Allen in this new production, a gift for which he is over the moon—you know, the Dark one.

His thrill being part of this brave new undertaking is palpable. “After 23 years as a RTC company member,” gushes Joseph as only he can gush, “this show feels the most… what? Epic. I’m doing a small, small role that I wanted as badly as I’ve ever wanted any role in my life. I just wanted to be a part of this. Everyone is so gifted. The young cast is amazingly talented and it’s also a marvelous intergenerational company to be part of. This is big league and Jonathan Prince is a genius. What he has solved in presenting the witch-human connection is extraordinary and Jim is doing a superb job as director handling such a huge vehicle.

“And may I say I adore your friend Lindy Robbins and I’m so honored to be working with her,” he continues. “Her song ‘Day Drunk’ has been one of my favorites for a long time. The music in this show is truly exciting. Hit after hit, I predict. It will be the kind of cast album that yung’uns will be using as a “Corner of the Sky”-style audition piece for decades to come. I think we’ve got two prom theme tunes that kids would call “sick” and two or three other songs that will be sung at weddings—gay and straight—for years.

He is also over the Moon (another pun intended) about working with the glorious Jennifer Leigh Warren, a ginormous Los Angeles stage presence who created the role of Crystal in Little Shop of Horrors, as well as appearing in the original Broadway casts of Maria Christine and Big River.

In this production she was playing his wife before an injury in the cast moved her into the pivotal role of the Conjur Woman. “There she was, already in the company and let me just say JLW is as fierce as fuck.”

The Fierce Ms. Warren also says she is “thrilled to be part of the birthing process creating a new musical again.”

This remarkably talented group of artists, linked together to spark this bold new take on Dark of the Moon into life by tapping into the sheer wonder of their communal energy and devotion to the material, all seem to have one thing in common: a passionate appreciation for the adventure. This phenomenon is obviously foremost of the minds of everyone involved.

“I agree it takes a collaboration of artists working diligently with no rest,” Jennifer Warren quips, tongue firmly in cheek. “It can be exhilarating and frustrating and scary, but in the end it’s incredibly rewarding. I look forward to where this new show goes… hopefully with me included!”

Accompanied onstage by the Ventura County bluegrass band Whole Hog and that rock-and-roll pit band, the massive cast stars newcomer Ava Delaney, a recent graduate of The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and Jake David Smith (Frozen on Broadway) as the star-crossed lovers Barbara Allen and her witch-boy John.

Other veteran performers include Timothy Warmen (Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Jekyll and Hyde, and Steel Pier), Olivier Award-winner Lesli Margherita (Zorro the Musical in the West End, Matilda the Musical and Dames at  Sea on Broadway),

Juliette Redden (Anne of Green Gables at Goodspeed), Dylan Goike (Anne Frank off-Broadway), Teri Bibb (seven years as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and on tour), Jane Macfie (Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Ah Wilderness! on Broadway), and Phillip Attmore (Hello, Dolly!Shuffle Along...On the 20th Century and After Midnight on Broadway).

The ensemble also features CJ Cruz, Anna Demaria, Heather Youmans, Trevor Wheetmam, Sylvie Davidson, Marc Cardiff, Michael Allen Deni, Michael Stone Forrest, Ximena Valentina Alvear, Madeline Marquis, Lauralyn McClelland, Mark C. Reis, Spencer Ty, and the youngest member of the cast, 12-year-old Anastacia Noelle Jones, daughter of renowned singer Stacy Francis. All I can think of is how our cast half this size squeezed into the Rubicon’s three small dressing rooms during Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ll bet this production will make a lot of close friends.

“In our small space,” Jim O’Neill adds, “those 29 performances by some of today’s best musical theatre artists will be magical—and we also have some fantastical projections and lighting design by Andrew Schmedake, a great set by Mike Billings, sound by Jonathan Burke, and Pamela Shaw’s costumes.”

Still, the magic inherent in the show will require some suspension of disbelief,” he admits. “Not only is the musical itself a huge undertaking but the magical elements of the production have been a challenge as well. We won’t have witches flying, for example, which might be the case in subsequent productions. For us in this

developmental process, it has been about discovering what the magic might be for future productions.

"It has been an enormous privilege and the dream of a lifetime to work on this piece. I have always had a great love of bluegrass and folk music and I’ve always been deeply interested in mythology. This musical is very elemental and steeped in mythology. Our cast and the entire creative team have come up with some surprises and the score is thrilling. I think audiences will jump out of their chairs. We can’t wait to see how they will respond.” 

 

CHITA RIVERA: SOMEWHERE IN AN ATTIC A PORTRAIT IS REALLY GOING TO HELL 

SPRING, 2018:  Somewhere in the darkest, dustiest corner in the attic of some deteriorating old Victorian mansion on some traditionally gloomy moor, there must be a hidden portrait of Chita Rivera that’s really going to hell. Oscar Wilde himself would be impressed.

It was 1960 when I first met Chita, during the time I squeezed my fine young ass into bright orange jeans and started asking Mrs. Garfein eight times a week if Charity was home from school yet. It was a bit intimidating stepping into a huge hit show where a bunch of precocious kids my age had already bonded bigtime, but one person immediately made me feel at home: Chita Rivera, the star of the friggin’ show.

I was 13 then and Chita was 26. I thought she was the oldest person in the world—or at least the oldest person in the world who treated me as a friend and a contemporary despite my age. Still, you see, almost six decades later, something Twilight Zone-y has occurred here: Chit is now younger than I am. She frequently turns her classic profile to one side, noting with pride that she’s been alive so long “I face the wind now.”

A long-overdue reunion in May, 2018, during her brief one-night appearance at the Wallis Annenberg Performing Arts Center in those illustrious Hills of Beverly, proved to be another indelible evening of time-defying brilliance as Broadway’s most unstoppable superstar gifted us once again with her spirit, her energy, her razorsharp humor, and her unique ability to defy the laws of gravity—let alone nature. At 84, perhaps her legendary extension doesn’t quite bump against the side of her head any longer but, as she noted from the Wallis’ Bram Goldsmith stage last Thursday, “as long as it’s sharp, it doesn’t matter.” Sure, there were one or two of her early signature dance contortions Chit admitted she would no longer attempt, quipping that if she did, we could all go home and forevermore be able to say we were right there the night she died.

Chita offered yet another of many memorable evenings in my lifetime being awed by this remarkable woman. Beginning with one of the catchiest tunes from Bye Bye Birdie, “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do,” those 58 years came flooding back—and I’m sure that must have gone double for another former fellow resident of Sweet Apple, Ohio in attendance: Susan Watson, our original Kim McAfee, who sang “Livin’” to Dick Gautier’s Conrad Birdie nightly for the show’s entire New York run.

The evening shifted from Chit and host/accompanist Seth Rudetsky lounging in adjoining easychairs reminiscing about her long career to stepping back to the piano to perform the actual songs from the celebrated shows that energized her career. From Birdie’s seldom-performed opening tune “English Teacher,” the last notes of which made me want to run onstage on cue and start wailing about going steady for good, the amazingly prolific Chita Rivera Songbook was explored decade by decade, surely causing any diehard musical theatre fan in the audience to experience some kind of collective cerebral orgasm.

There were numbers recreated from her two Tony Award-winning performances in The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman, as well as highlights from her many other celebrated appearances, including her last of eight other nominated turns in The Visit. Without much surprise, however, the songs bringing the house down more than any other were from her first New York performance as the original Anita in West Side Story (“A Boy Like That” and a charming recreation of “America” with Rudetsky trying gamely to sing the Bernardo lines) and Velma in Chicago (“All That Jazz” and another hilarious though ill-cast duet of “Class”).

In the interspersed chats, Chit talked about her fascinating days hangin’ and being mentored by guys named John and Fred (Kander and Ebb, of course), Lenny (Bernstein), Bob (Fosse), and Jerry (Robbins), defending her name-dropping to Rudetsky by evoking her impressive longevity: “At my age, I call everybody by their first names because I can.”

She recalled the day at age 15 when some guy sitting in on Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero’s ballet class in her native Washington, DC showed an interest and offered her a scholarship to come to New York to study with him. She had no idea at the time who the gentleman was, but her first great admirer was none other than George Balanchine. When a classmate at his School of American Ballet named Helen begged her to go to an open call for the national tour of Call Me Madam for moral support, Chit tagged along and, having no fear of auditioning, she joined the hopefuls gathering to be seen. She had never acted before and had no idea she could sing but regardless, she was the one who was hired and Helen was not (“And I have no idea what became of her,” Chita recalls with a tad of amused guilt).

The evening ended with a hard to beat finale, performing—compete with cane and top hat—the final showstopping duo she and Gwen Verdon shared nightly in Chicago some 40-plus years ago. Recreating Fosse’s incredible choreography and magnificently imitating Verdon’s famous quavering vocal style in Roxie’s solo sections, she aced “Nowadays / Hot Honey Rag” as an inspiring homage to the lategreat Mr. and once-Mrs. Fosse.

There is no way to truly describe this ageless human dynamo because there’s no one else quite like her. Even in her second of two grueling shows at the Wallis that one night, she faced her guests for hugs and cheer well into the night—providing an opportunity to hear the same thing she’s said every time I’ve been in her presence for nearly 60 years: “How could I ever forget that sweet face?” For me, of course, the feeling is mutual but also easier to express. It’s that portrait in the attic thing, I’m sure.

Chit’s advice to staying youthful and vital well beyond the time when most people are sitting at home knitting and watching HGTV? She does knee-raises every day while she’s drinking her morning coffee. “If the leg goes up,” she explains with a laugh, “you know you have a little more time.”

So, I'm going to start doing my own morning knee-raises while nursing my everpresent pot of Cafe duMonde. If for no other reason, I still need a little more time with Chita Rivera.

JONI MITCHELL: AN ARTIST 'DERAILED BY CIRCUMSTANCE' 

Watercoler by Travis Michael Holder

For Salon City Magazine, Oct-Nov 08  /  CLEF NOTES by Travis Michael Holder  

It was about three thousand years ago when, as Talent Coordinator of LA’s infamous Troubadour folk-rock club during the peak of its golden years in the late 60s and early 70s, I was responsible for finding and booking raw undiscovered talent. I was tipped by the manager of a friend that I had to check out his newest client, a reserved Saskatchewan protégé of David Crosby who sang her own tunes and played her acoustic guitar some Sundays in the backroom of McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.

Although I loved my Sunday afternoons spent as far away from the music scene as I could possibly manage, I reluctantly folded up my towel early, shook out the Venice Beach sand, and puffed on a little inspiration as I headed east up Pico to McCabe’s. The small gaggle of already ardent fans gathered there was beginning to collectively shift on the impromptu club’s unmerciful folding chairs when an ethereal, hesitant lass in her early 20s stealthily made her way to the stage.

Peeking out warily from beneath exaggerated bangs cut into long, gravity-challenged blonde hair, on first impression this bashful flowerchild seemed an unlikely candidate for musical stardom to me, but as she quietly launched into the first bars of “Song to a Seagull,” the readjusting of uncomfortable backsides against metal stopped, replaced by stunned attentive silence and, if I myself was any indication, a few dropped jaws.

During my tenure at the Troub I received close to a hundred demo tapes each week and sat through the sets of many, many hopeful performers with drastically varying degrees of aptitude who waited—sometimes overnight—to sign up for our über-popular amateur “Hoot Night,” which took over the stage each Monday evening at the club. I had learned one thing from those windmill chasers determined to poke their heads above the surface in the shark-filled waters of the music business: there are a lot of talented people out there, but only a few courageous enough to try something new.

Innovation had become the key to getting my attention, the ability to create something different from the standard fare that had made successes of the current crop of superstars. Sitting that night in McCabe’s, I knew this shy young Canadian playing her sad little guitar a few feet in front of me had that quality in spades.

Not long after, Roberta Joan Anderson came to play the Troubadour for the first time and, as they say, the rest is history. I learned right then and there to trust my friends, especially since it was the late-great Laura Nyro who turned me on to Miss Anderson’s music and the manager both groundbreaking music business icons were prophetically to share was David Geffen.

Although Roberta Anderson had set out in life to be a painter, the distinctive style and immeasurably unique gifts she exhibited as a singer and songwriter were to be the stuff of which legends are shaped. The career-interrupted kid who’d begun her musical journey busking on the streets of Toronto to augment her income while trudging through art school—and who had so quickly managed to mesmerize me in McCabe’s backroom that fateful night—soon became one of the most influential musical geniuses of the 20th century: the inimitable Joni Mitchell.

Joni’s first appearance at the Troub signaled the beginning of a remarkable career that has now spanned 40 years, her 21 albums to date winning nine Grammys and seven additional nominations between 1969 and this year, including their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. In the 1990s, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and chosen fourth on VH-1’s list of “The One Hundred Most Important Women in Rock.” Last year, the face of demure little Roberta Joan from the farming province of Saskatoon, Alberta, graced a Canadian postage stamp.

Joni’s 1971 album Blue, listed by Time Magazine as among the “All-Time 100 Albums,” instantly makes me reminisce about our youthful days when she would barrel into my office at the Troub in a “state” as she looked for her erring ex-beau David Blue, whose dubious inspiration may be the reason that album is regarded as a culmination of her earliest message to the masses: a disheartened view of the world juxtaposed with a fervent belief in the redemptive power of romantic love.

This rather amuses Joni these days from her tranquil media-shunning existence on her secluded country estate near Halfmoon Bay, somewhere north of Vancouver on British Columbia’s gorgeous Sunshine Coast. “At that period of my life,” she admits freely looking back on our action-packed younger days, “I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong.”

But Joni has proven both strong and uncompromising throughout her career. At the height of her success, she took a drastic turn from reigning folk-pop goddess to concentrate on jazz and blues. The first of her boldly noncommercial explorations into experimental music was 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which Rolling Stone was reported to have dubbed the “Worst Album of the Year.” In truth, it was noted by the magazine only as the year's worst album title, but the publicity didn’t help the already contentious relationship between Joni and Rolling Stone, initiated when an earlier issue featured a “tree” illustrating all of her alleged romantic partners, something Joni admits “hurt my feelings terribly at the time.”

Still, Joni has survived intolerance for her musical and personal experimentation over the years and doesn’t care much anymore what critics say. Perhaps a lot of this is due to the fact she’s always considered herself a “painter first and a musician second,” evidenced by continuous gallery and festival exhibitions of her work, as well as the fact she has created the art for many of her own album covers.

Obviously, Joni paints exactly as she creates music, saying both mediums “involve putting down layers until something fully formed emerges.” Her passion here, too, is obvious: “You do your preliminary sketch, you build your skeleton,” she carefully explains, “then you start overdubbing an additional area. You put your first mark on your canvass. It’s the same way you lay your first bed whatever it might be, a drum part or bass part. It’s exactly the same process.”

Joni easily and unapologetically confesses she’s always thought of herself as a fine artist “derailed by circumstance” in her amazingly successful life, even during the peak of worldwide musical fame. “I’m really a painter at heart and I can say this now. Music was a hobby for me at art school, but art was serious. Art was always what I was going to do.”

Joni’s paintings, which seem influenced in equal parts by Matisse and Gauguin—with a hint of the folksiness and humor of Grandma Moses thrown in—have been exhibited in galleries in the States, Tokyo, London, and Canada. In the last couple of years, she has switched media, creating fascinating collage constructions from photographs, including many of her own. A series of enormous photographic panels she calls her “Green Flag Song” debuted in a West Hollywood gallery last year and traveled this summer to the Galway Arts Festival immediately following its mounting at Luminato 2008 as part of the recent Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity. The annual event also presented the return of Alberta Ballet’s celebrated The Fiddle and the Drum, the much-heralded anti-war dance performance piece created around Joni’s music that premiered last February in Calgary and Edmonton. 

A longtime environmental and political activist, with both The Fiddle and the Drum and “Green Flag Song,” Joni has completed a stunning lasting statement about the consequences of war and the prevailing human condition as she sees it, creating a poetic visual dialogue on humanity’s struggle with itself. “Green Flag” utilizes photographic images familiar in our saturated media, which she twists to mock the reactions they’re meant to induce, presenting them instead as evidence of what she sees as the “nightmarish realities of the world we live in.” This signature body of work protests the skewed power of political entitlement as it cries out about our current national and global mess born from aggression and fear. 

As usual, Joni has offered contemporary society a gentle yet fervent wake-up call with her art. Her activism has never wavered over the course of the past four decades, but it has shouted its loudest in recent years. She considers Shine, her 2007 album clearly reflecting her social and theological consciousness, as well as presenting a heartfelt plea for the health of the planet, to be “as serious a work as I’ve ever done.” This sentiment was surely strengthened earlier this year when the song “One Week Last Summer” from Shine afforded Joni her fourth Grammy, this time for Best Pop Instrumental Performance of the Year.

Not bad for someone who announced not too many years ago that she was retiring from the music business, eh? Joni explains her indecisiveness with a laugh: “There’s a certain kind of restlessness that many artists are cursed or blessed with, depending on how you look at it. Craving change, craving growth, seeing always room for improvement in your work.”

Martha Graham expressed it best in a letter written many years ago to Agnes deMille: “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action… Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

That declaration reinforces everything that makes Joni Mitchell a great artist, something that will be reflected for posterity in her music, in her paintings, in her photographic constructions. It’s an ongoing process of invention for her and, luckily for the world around her, her restlessness—be it a curse or a blessing—continues to enrich us all.

 

For GORGEOUS Magazine,  MAY/JUNE 2009:

Click on link below for PDF:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3-i2Jd103B3MzQyMEljZGpIMUE/view?usp=sharing

 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS' DUELING DIVAS HIT THE BIG EASY... HARD

Travis Michael Holder and Karen Kondazian in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore 

For Entertainment Today, 24 APR 08

Having just returned from my third spring journey traveling to the incredible Crescent City to perform at and attend the annual Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival, my head is full of dizzying pictures and my poor ol’ body is completely exhausted, sufficiently debauched, and probably about 20 lbs. heavier. Still, I’m artistically refreshed and ready to return again as soon as possible.

This year at the 22nd annual TennFest, my dear friend Karen Kondazian and I had the honor to reprise our roles in last fall’s award-winning Fountain Theatre production of Tennessee’s 1963 flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, a highly successful revival which won director Simon Levy a Garland Award in March, garnered Shon LeBlanc an LADCC Award for his spectacular costuming, and netted Karen a Best Actress nomination from LA Weekly.

Dubbing our event A Witch and a Bitch, we presented our scenes together from Milk Train at the historic Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, located right on Jackson Square in the French Quarter and about two doors away from the St. Peter Street flat where Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. Karen again bellowed her best Williams’ southern diva demands as the dying Flora Goforth, one of the world’s richest women, and I once again donned my best LeBlanc cross-dressing finery as the Marchesa Constance Ridgeway-Condotti, better known on the Italian Riviera as the Witch of Capri. Thanks to the generosity and ingenuity of David Cuthbert, N’awlins premier theatre writer for the city’s daily Times-Picayune, we were joined onstage by local actor Marshall Harris, who gamely stepped in (and out of his clothes) for us as our Christopher Flanders, the character Williams ominously nicknamed The Angel of Death.

It was an amazing year for my third appearance at Le Petit, where in 2003 I had the honor to play Williams himself in another transplant from here, the Laurelgrove Theatre’s original production Lament for the Moths, a piece culled from the great writer's mesmerizing but obscure poetry, and where last year I joined Williams scholar Dr. Kenneth Holditch, Louise Shaffer, and my friends Annette Cardona and Jeremy Lawrence for An Ode to Tennessee.

The newly refurbished Muriel’s Cabaret at Le Petit filled to capacity with Williams fans for A Witch and a Bitch, most everyone staying on after our performances to participate in a lively question-and-answer conversation with Karen and I talking about our own personal experiences knowing and working with Williams, and also discussing the pitfalls of performing Milk Train, one of Tennessee’s most difficult and infamously troubled “later” plays. We tried valiantly to give some insight about how the über-talented Simon Levy strived to make the play relevant for 21st century theatregoers—especially in LA, a city where audiences seem to have a collected attention span landing somewhere between the 101 and the 405.

Among the participants and attendees at this year’s Fest were Terrence McNally, one of America’s greatest playwrights; columnist and terminal Williams aficionado Rex Reed; Tony-winning producer-director Gregory Mosher, who directed Williams’ last full-length play, A House Not Meant to Stand, at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1982; David Kaplan, author of Tennessee Williams in Provincetown and artistic director of Provincetown’s own annual Williams Festival; Erma Duricko of New York City’s celebrated Williams-led Blue Roses Theatre Company; Thomas Keith of New Directions, editor and champion of latter-day Williams works; and Mitch Douglas, the playwright’s last agent, a man who must have had the patience of a saint.

Los Angeles was well represented this year, with two of our town’s preeminent theatre artists in attendance, director Jenny Sullivan and playwright Tom Jacobson, as well as LA’s best stage manager, Andrea “Ando” Iovino, in N’awlins to visit her sister and soon tagged to work at the Fest. Beloved, hardworking and incredibly talented local actor Stephanie Zimbalist of Remington Steele fame joined Reed, former LA actor/playwright Jeremy Lawrence, and Broadway legend Marion Seldes to appear in TennFest’s opening night gala, offering mesmerizing staged readings of Williams’ one-acts Steps Must Be Gentle and This Property is Condemned.

Seldes, who appeared as Mrs. Goforth’s secretary Blackie in the original Milk Train opposite Tallulah Bankhead, Tab Hunter as the Angel and Ruth Ford in my role, also graciously offered insight and humor in a post-performance “talk” with Reed that first night, discussing her career in general and what made Milk Train in particular close after only five performances. After trying to convince Karen and me—with no really clear assurance that she believed it herself—that she had just turned 80 (“Eighty is the new forty,” she quipped), Seldes graciously stayed on for another seminar led by McNally the following day in the ballroom of the Bourbon Orleans, where the next day McNally and Greg Mosher sat to discuss the state of Broadway and the American stage.

Mosher, who won a well-deserved Tony for directing the original Glengarry Glen Ross—and seemed a tad incredulous when I mentioned I’d played Shelly “The Machine” Levene in that play last fall at the same time as I was alternating at the Fountain as the Witch in Milk Train—came up with this year’s best quote from any TennFest event: “Theater is a funny word,” he told his rapt audience. “It refers to a building, it refers to an idea, it’s the way a culture understands itself. Playwrights help us understand who we are. By nature they’re outsiders and their attitude is, ‘I have a story to tell and by God, you're going to listen.’ Producers must step up and make the voices of young playwrights heard.” From your mouth to the Nederlanders’ ears, kind sir.

The now New York-based Jeremy Lawrence, who last year at TennFest offered a preview of his second amazing self-created solo performance as Williams, Everyone Expects Me to Write Another Streetcar (the first, Talking Tennessee, also debuted in Studio City at the Laurelgrove in 2002 in rep with Lament for the Moths), returned to present his newest work again fully realized and even more fascinating than before. Wrote David Cuthbert in the Times-Picayune: “Lawrence inhabits the role of the aging playwright wittily and wondrously. He is wildly funny, authentically moving, and his rapport with the audience is a marvel.”
And while we’re off in braggadocio mode, here’s what Mr. Cuthbert had to say about A Witch and a Bitch: “As two rich, ailing harpies waiting for the other to croak, Milk Train featured the exotic, larger-than-life Karen Kondazian as Goforth, laying on a thick Georgian accent and exhibiting remarkable pectoral control, and Travis Michael Holder as the cross-dressed Witch of Capri, a sly, malicious performance.”

The Annual Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest, affectionately know around TennFest as the “Stell-Off,” is held each year right in front of St. Louis Cathedral in the middle of Jackson Square on the last day of TennFest. It proved to also be a major event this time around, featuring its first ever silent mime finalist and heralding the spirited win of touring Aspen Sante Fe Ballet Company ensemble member Nolan DeMarco McGahan, who swept the judges off their feet after just finishing dancing in his company’s final visiting performance at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall. As I surmised in print last year, I am now even more convinced the best way to win this event is not just to shriek your best “Stell-AAAAAAAAA!,” but to rip off your Brando-blessed white t-shirt as your finale. Works every time—especially if you have a dancer’s body tucked away under your soon-to-be discarded Fruit of the Loom classic.

Now, if you have any aspirations to attempt sporting that dancer’s bod, the only thing you could possibly do in this city, where all good southern-fried New Orleanians laugh uproariously at the word “diet,” is simply to fast while you’re there. Among all the world-class eateries and greasyspoons in the world, this city has some of the best of both. From professional athlete-sized portions of fresh seafood at Jack Dempsey’s in the Bywater to the Camellia Grill at “river’s bend,” where the St. Charles Avenue streetcar meets the levee at the Mississippi, the food here is pure ambrosia.

There’s that trio of Tennessee’s own favorite world-famous and even historic hangouts where you can overindulge: Galatoire’s, Court of the Two Sisters, and Arnaud’s, as well as Irene’s on St. Philip for the best Creole spin on Italian food you could possibly imagine; the Basil Leaf on South Carrollton, the only Thai restaurant where you’ll ever taste a crawdad eggroll, I suspect; the renowned Acme Oyster House on Iberville, where I always go each trip for their knockout seafood gumbo and a massive plate of chargrilled oysters covered in seasoned garlic butter and crusty romano cheese; Café Du Monde for their deliciously bitter chicory coffee and a lapful of powdered sugar plummeting uncontrollably from their signature beignets; and Nardo’s Trattoria in the Garden District, the place to savor a Pinot Noir-infused veal chop topped with boursin, prosciutto, portabella mushrooms and artichokes.    

This trip my dear pals Penny Stallings and her husband Barry Secunda, Angelenos who live in N’awlins part of the year, gave Karen and me a dining tour to rival anything seen in Marco Ferreri’s 1973 gluttonous film masterpiece La Grande Bouffe. Among my favorite treats were the fried alligator with chili-garlic aioli appetizer and bacon-fried oyster entrée sandwich at the very reasonably priced Cochon in the warehouse district, the grilled pork porterhouse with brown sugar sweet potatoes and toasted pecans at Emeril LaGasse’s NOLA on St. Louis (near Napoleon’s house on Chartres), lemongrass scallops with coconut-lime broth and roasted eggplant at Susan Spicer’s Bayona on Rue Dauphine, and the layered bluecheese and fig cheesecake-like appetizer at EAT near our Biscuit Palace on Dumaine. Good lord, I swear I’m still full.

Beyond our depraved gastronomical excesses, the highlight of any trip to attend or work at TennFest will always be the privilege to wander around experiencing the sights, the sounds, the food, the music, and above all the history of this mysterious, unearthly city. This year, the fun was doubled by the fact that Karen—the consummate Williams heroine—had never been to New Orleans and had decided to join me this year before we were set to participate as actors. We stayed in the heart of the Quarter at an incredible guesthouse known as the Biscuit Palace, a former 1820s Creole mansion on Dumaine Street about two blocks from Tennessee’s last home in his favorite city and right next to Druid priest John T. Martin’s notorious Voodoo Museum, residence of my friend Jolie Blonde, the world’s most affectionate python.

Originally the home and law office of Christian Rosaleus, founder of Tulane’s School of Law, this amazingly atmospheric small hotel has retained all of its original architectural detail, unobtrusively enhanced by the Biscuit Palace’s equally atmospheric owner Clayton Boyer in the early 1980s to accommodate all the modern conveniences without sacrificing any of the place’s Old World charm and environment. Karen and I were given the adjoining Bourbon and Royal suites, sharing a grand N’awlins-style balcony that overlooked the Mississippi on one side and down Dumaine to Louis Armstrong Park (originally Congo Square, where owners took their slaves on Sunday afternoons to dance and play their forbidden drums once a week only under their dubious supervision) on the other.

My suite was the original “gentlemen’s parlor” of the house, the place where Rosaleus and his friend General William Tecumseh Sherman drank brandy and snorted cocaine, which is ironic since the Biscuit Palace was later utilized as a hospital during the Civil War while Sherman was setting fire to Atlanta. Clayton announced to me proudly the room was also where Clint Eastwood got a blowjob in the movie Tightrope, but I told him it must be my age or the burnout of my randy early years, because at this stage of my life, I was more excited about the brandy and blow than I was about the prospect of getting a Lewinsky. O, the ravages and revenges of time!

After spending a non-stop few days trying to catch every other beguiling TennFest event and cocktail reception we could squeeze in around performing in A Witch and a Bitch, Karen and I gamely shook off our exhaustion and hangovers to join one of Dr. Kenneth Holditch’s remarkable Tennessee Williams Historic Walking Tours through the Vieux Carre. Dr. Holditch, author of Tennessee Williams and the South and a dear friend-hyphen-drinking buddy of Tenn’s (who also still holds his Sazeracs splendidly, I hear), has created the quintessential tour, visiting all the various flats and restaurants and bars where the master American wordsmith hung his many hats over the years. It’s as though Williams has almost replaced Marie Laveau as the most intriguing dearly departed denizen of New Orleans and truly, his spirit is everywhere you look in the French Quarter.

Weighed down by almost two weeks of the world’s richest, most decadent, most celebrated food, the day after Karen reluctantly left for home and LA, I forged the aftermath of a raging tropical Gulf rainstorm to join Rob Florence’s Historic New Orleans Voodoo / Cemetery Walking Tour, burning a few million calories as I slogged through the mud and puddles and chunks of deteriorating red brick with my trusty camera close at hand on a search for the grave of the Widow Paris, otherwise known as that aforementioned local icon Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ notorious voodoo queen—who lived her scarily long reign by being quietly replaced in her geriatric years by her daughter Marie II, spreading rumors far and wide (or as wide as the 12-block Quarter would afford) that she used her powers to successfully cheat her first bout with death.

Mr. Florence’s tour begins with a walk through the stately Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral, the church on Rampart Street adjacent to the former fabled Storyville red-light district where yellow fever victims in the 1820s were quickly eulogized before being hastily planted next door at St. Louis Cemetery #1. It features one of my favorite N’awlins icons, the Ken doll-esque statue of St. Expedite, whom the city’s many Catholics, voodoo practitioners, and assorted others looking for favor in a hurry have come to seek help since the mid-1800s. The history of Expedite, known for his spiritually prompt responses and as the patron saint of publicity, financial help, procrastination, nerds, ne’er-do-wells, and computer hackers (honest), is what makes this particular statue so bizarrely special—and typical of the Crescent City’s vibrant past.

The tale goes that as an early Louisiana mission was waiting for supplies, the ship sank during a storm and sometime later a crate labeled “EXPEDITE” washed up on the levee carrying this statue of a Roman soldier missing from a Crucifixion tableaux. Immediately word spread throughout the superstitious New Orleans population that the missing centurion was a depiction of a saint named Expedite (alternately pronounced by various believers as “Ex-peed-eye-tee,” “Ex-pee-deet,” or even “Ex-peed-ee”) and soon after his sword was replaced by a cross and locals began offering devotions, from candles to coins to pound cake to random parts of sacrificed animals. There’s some evidence that St. Expedite’s cult originates much farther back than that, but still it’s a great story, isn’t it?

New Orleans’ dead are buried in aboveground tombs since the city is below sea level, so no one pops to the surface during a storm, and no local cemetery is quite as unique as the deteriorating, chillingly gothic St. Louis # 1. Mr. Florence’s tour next treats its guests to an eerie walk among the crowded, crumbling crypts which, dating back as far as 1789, must surely house some of the oldest human bones in America. With streets, alleys and wrought iron picket fences adorning the cramped network of ancient tombs, it’s no wonder N’awlins’ cemeteries are called “Cities of the Dead.”  

I became fascinated by one crypt on the far side of the cemetery from the grave of the Widow Paris and her descendents which also was scrawled with many triple-Xs and heaped with candles, dying bouquets, fading Mardi Gras beads, and even an old lipstick tube for visitors to wish upon. I emailed Mr. Florence (who is also author of the mesmerizing New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead) to ask if he knew who was buried there, as my head has been swimming these days with names such as Sanite Dede and Dr. John as I recently had trudged through a shelf-full of books about the history of this city and its roots, including the inscrutability of its voodoo origins.

Here’s Mr. Florence’s reply: “I think the reason that you can't find anything voodoo-related on that tomb is because it's a fake. I've been going through that cemetery for years and every time I see a tour guide at that tomb, they say it belongs to either voodoo priestess Sanite Dede or Malvina Latour. There is no record of either of them being buried in St. Louis #1. Here is what I see happening: these tour guides who feel a need to have their visitors deface tombs as if their tour wouldn't be satisfying without allowing people to mark up the landmarks (much like the swamp tours which feed the alligators marshmallows to make the tour more exciting but in the meantime wreak havoc on the alligators and the ecosystem), they fabricate burial places of legendary voodoo queens so people can scratch them up. What you will notice is that all the fictionalized burial sites are always conveniently located at junctures of the most well-traveled paths; they are never tucked away off the beaten path.”

Lord, isn’t New Orleans colorful enough without enhancement?

If I can’t figure out how to earn a living in the Big Easy someday, at least let me be buried there somewhere near ol’ Marie. And if someday you happen upon my moldering tomb, go ahead and knock three times and see what happens. No promises, but I’ll do the best that I can. After all, there’s nowhere where magic happens more often than in New Orleans.

For information on the Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival, check out www.tennesseewilliams.net; for the Biscuit Palace, click on www.biscuitpalace.com; for the Historic New Orleans Voodoo / Cemetery Tour, contact www.tourneworleans.com; for Kenneth Holditch’s Heritage Literary Tours, call (504) 949-9805

A Mystical Musical Metamorphosis 

                                                              Photo by Travis Michael Holder

For GORGEOUS Magazine, AUG/SEP 05   

Little Reginald Dwight began playing piano at age 11, possibly inheriting his musical talents from his dad, a trumpeter in the British Royal Air Force band. From those humble working-class beginnings in a modest suburb of London called Pinner, the shy kid went on to become the biggest pop star of the 1970s, winning more Grammys and other awards in the past three-and-a-half decades than could possibly fill the enormous music room of his castle-like estate, as well as an Oscar for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King. He also has the distinction of breaking Elvis’ record by having at least one Top 40 single every year from 1970 to 1996. After a bit of a career slump, his rewritten “Candle in the Wind 1997,” which he played at Princess Diana’s funeral that year, became the fastest selling single in history and his biggest hit ever. With all those numbers swimming in the stratosphere and considering the astounding number of millions he had delivered to AIDS research organizations since announcing in 1991 that all of his profits from single sales would benefit that cause and establish his own AIDS foundation, little Reggie Dwight was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1997, forever to become Sir Elton John.

It was in 1968 while in a London recording studio with the late-great and my forever missed friend Dusty Springfield that I first heard the voice of Elton John. He was recording his first hit, “Your Song,” in an adjacent studio and I had repeatedly passed the glass door beyond which the young man was pouring his heart out over the same lyrics. Whenever I heard the strains of the tune, something inside me stirred dramatically. “So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do,” he sang. “You see, I've forgotten if they're green or they're blue. Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean…Yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen.” When I realized back at Dusty’s flat that I was still humming the plaintive strands of “Your Song” and repeating his then-partner Bernie Taupin’s indelible lyrics over and over in my head, I remember looking at myself in the bathroom mirror and wondering if I had just heard the greatest love ballad of all time being created right in front of me. 

The following year, I’d returned to L.A. and taken up my longtime post as Talent Coordinator of WeHo’s Troubadour nightclub. From the second week working for that dysfunctional music business legend Doug Weston, I tried to persuade him to let me book the unknown English singer with the unlikely professional name, but Doug thought I was crazy. No one knew of Elton here and barely did in England yet, but I knew in my heart this guy would set the music industry on its proverbial ear. For a good part of a year, I brought him up to Doug, which became something of a joke around my office at the club. Working with the A&R department of Elton’s record company and management team, we devised a sneaky plan. I booked Elton as to open for Jerry Jeff Walker, who had the same management, knowing Walker was in England recording and the possibility of him playing the gig were all but nil. Nine days before opening, I informed Doug that Jerry Jeff was out and we had no choice but to headline Elton. He went ballistic, threatening me with termination and only taking credit for “discovering” Elton a couple of years later when the instant superstar bought out his five options to return to the Troub for a sum that would buy a good-sized home in Malibu today.

As U.S. Immigration wanted to know exactly where he’d be playing his first stateside appearances, I helped create an itinerary for Elton across the U.S., calling every folk-rock club across the country with whom I stayed in contact, in essence booking his first American tour. My lover and I met Elton and Bernie—with whom he still frequently collaborates to this day—when they arrived at LAX, heading first to the kind of place they’d only heard of in England: a decidedly seedy gay bar on Melrose Avenue just east of La Brea where naked go-go boys gyrated from the small stage, which was a first for me as well. The next night, his record company threw an introductory bash for their new artist at the Bitter End West, as Doug had asked too much money to host the party at our club. My date that night was another late-lamented friend, Janis Joplin, who was to leave us so heartbreakingly prematurely only a few nights later.

Debuting at the Troub proved a week’s worth of traffic jams and pandemonium on Santa Monica Blvd., with Elton’s sold-out shows followed after hours behind locked doors, where we reveled nearly til dawn each night hearing his band—the now equally legendary Nigel Olson, Davey Johnstone and Dee Murray—jam with a few sturdy fellows, including Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, and Leon Russell. The following week, after the unbelievable response at the L.A. Troub, Elton played for six nights at our short-lived San Francisco Troubadour, where the biggest house during the week for Elton and his bandmates was a whopping 19 people.

Perhaps that was the last time Elton ever played to less than several thousand people and, although he decried in 2001 that he was fed up with the recording industry and would put out no more new albums, he’s continued to write and tour, including creating the scores for Broadway’s Lion King and Aida, and currently represented on the West End with Billy Elliot: The Musical, heralded by London’s Daily Telegraph as the “greatest musical yet.” Topping himself once again, he debuted in Las Vegas last year at Caesars Palace’s 4,100-seat Colosseum with his all-new show The Red Piano, instantly garnering status as the “#1 Show of 2004” by Vegas’ Review Journal, who also honored Elton as “Best All-Around Performer” this year. Elton thus became the second regular to inhabit the $95-million room, enabling Celine Dion to have a few weeks off at least 25 nights a year for the next few years, including three weeks this coming October. He even has his own retail store at Caesars where you can buy CDs, t-shirts, a bobble-headed Elton doll, or a tiny diamond-incrusted grand piano for a mere $26,000.

His other big news this year was the announcement in May that on Dec. 21 he will wed his longtime partner David Furnish, calling the upcoming event the “best Christmas present ever.” To say Reggie Dwight has come a long way from his early days practicing scales in his parents’ home in Pinner is a major understatement. The life of Elton Hercules John—a name he chose legally, the middle moniker after a horse on the ‘60s British sitcom Steptoe & Son—has not been without personal trauma and other complications, but through it all he’s remained a lovely man, a steadfast friend, and a fiercely committed social activist, making me forever proud to think of myself as a catalyst in one of the music world’s most amazing careers.

ZUMANITY’S  JOEY ARIAS IN THE RAW:  HOME IS WHERE THE HARD-ON IS

For GORGEOUS Magazine, 8/04

There’s something rather surreal about all this, talking with Zumanity’s omnipresent “Mistress of Seduction,” infamous New York drag performance artist and torch singer Joey Arias, for Gorgeous. Seated on one of the red velvet loveseats that make up the front row of the show’s Paris-in-the-20s-inspired showroom at Las Vegas’ New York-New York Hotel, my subject stays busy drawing his profile on the back of my t-shirt with a Sharpie as we speak. Joey, whose longtime Thierry Mugler-clad alter ego Mitzi La Mouche resembles a cross between Vampira and Betty Paige, is without make-up as he draws.

Seeing him for the first time in the “raw,” his long black hair piled on top of his head in a haphazard bun, he instantly recalls the inexplicable earthy beauty of Anna Magnani squinting into the sun as she wipes her glistening brow after a day in the fields—but never forgetting exactly where the camera is located.

“This is my home,” Joey says as he reverently surveys the lovely stage looming just above us, created especially for this production’s debut last September. “I really love my job. I love being a part of this show.” The buzz was enormous last fall for Zumanity, which joined “O” at the Bellagio and Mystere at Treasure Island to become the third triumphant Cirque du Soleil permanent attraction to energize the evermore-dazzling Vegas Strip.

Still, aside from the splendidly erotic and exciting world Joey and the Cirque create twice nightly for 1,500 astounded and often visibly aroused patrons, he feels a bit conflicted about living in this notorious adult Disneyland smack-dab in the middle of the Nevada desert.

“I literally go back to my hotel room, eat, sleep, watch TV, go to the gym right in the building,” he admits. “That’s my life. I don’t go out. I get headaches in the sun. Everything’s too hot, too flat, too bright. It’s a mind-fry here. I stay inside or in the dark, like some vampire, you know? But see, Lady Bunny pulled me aside before I left New York and said, ‘You are so wild, but when you go to Vegas, use the time to refocus that energy and write and leave all that behind—it’ll come ‘round again someday.’

“So I thought, coming from Bunny, you know, that’s gotta be, like, profound, right? And then Thierry Mugler told me, ‘Don’t go anywhere. Do the show, go home. When you get to the theatre, that’s your party.’ So that’s what I do.”

Besides his meteoric success as the star of Zumanity, Joey’s new self-professed monk-like focus—a picture difficult to conjure—has fostered the recent publication of The Art of Conversation, a compilation of his most intriguing celebrity interviews from the days he moonlighted (sunlighted?) as a contributor to Paper Magazine. He’s also preparing to cut a CD made up of songs about his Vegas experiences that didn’t make it into the show, titled Tales of the Astonishing She-Monster.

“Honestly, this is the last place I would have chosen to live, but I’m doing this show and it’s nowhere else but right here. I still choke up with nerves backstage each time, then I hit this stage and…” Joey takes an elaborate but heartfelt intake of breath, recovering remarkably fast.

“I’ve only been here a year,” he snorts, “and I’ve been kicked out and banned from every gay bar in this city already, so my entire world is Zumanity and my friends are my Cirque family. But hey, I’ve been traveling all my life bringing me to the world, now I’m here in this beautiful house, so the world can come to me for a change. And you know what? They do!”

There was some collective baited breath held by the castmembers of the Cirque’s trio of Vegas companies a few months ago, however, when an HIV-positive gymnast from “O” filed a highly publicized suit against the Montreal-based organization after being fired, presumably because of his health status. The shows were even picketed, which put gay castmembers like Joey in an extremely awkward position. “First of all, those people hassling the Cirque were really militant types. They were what I call gay Nazis. And they should have gotten the story straight before jumping the gun. It was bullshit.”

Joey and anyone I know who has ever worked for the Cirque have always professed that their employers are the most supportive, most non-judgmental, most open minded and free thinking people anyone could ever hope to have sign their paychecks. And when the crisis began, the organization immediately went into high gear in an effort to help their employees cope with the situation, bringing in an AIDS doctor to talk to everyone and explaining everything that was happening with honesty and understanding.

“See, the guy was, like, doing an act where there was a lot of sweat and sometimes blood. An aerial thing, catching people. People he worked with didn’t want to be… well, I wouldn’t want to be in that situation either, would you? They offered the guy a change of job but he didn’t want that.” Of course, all hell broke loose when he filed a complaint and lawyers got involved, but eventually a settlement was reached.

“From what I heard, the guy was sorry it went that big but, like everything else, this was new to everybody—him, us, even this organization, which has grown big so quickly.” Bottom line, there are all types working on the ever-growing Cirque du Soleil team, every kind of sexuality, and Joey says easily that any thought of his bosses being homophobic is ludicrous. “I mean, look at me, right? The most outrageous drag queen from the New York underground scene they could possibly have hired! The gay people who work for the Cirque were behind the Cirque all the way. No one treats their employees better or more fairly.”

Joey finds himself in a unique position in Vegas, starring in a continuously sold out show that markets its rampant celebration of human carnality in a town where Linda Rondstadt was recently booed off a stage for dedicating a song to Michael Moore. “Being gay and outspoken and doing drag on top of that, it’s amazing what I can get away in Zumanity.”

This is something which included, the last time I attended, Joey asking two young straight farm boys in the front row if they were lovers. “They were in that big spotlight and they were freaking out, weren’t they?” Joey laughs heartily, throwing his head back at the memory. Still, he finally that night managed to persuade the boys to tentatively kiss before he moved on to other prey, quipping into his microphone as walked away, “Well, I guess there won’t be a pearl necklace in it for you tonight.”

He also at one point suggested to another hunky patron that he’d like to [insert popular slang expression for oral copulation here]. Zumanity isn’t a sing-along Sound of Music by any means—and Joey Arias would scare the hell out of those Von Trapp kids anyway.

“I realized early on, though, that I can’t go too fast and I can’t say too many really clever things. One night, there were these two really, really old ladies right off the bus, you know, sitting right here where we are,” remembers Joey. “I asked the first one if she liked orgies and she answered, ‘Depends.’ I said to the other one, ‘How about you?’ and she says, ‘Depends’ too. So I said, “Well, I’ve got a box of ‘em in the back if you want to borrow some.’ I waited for the audience to get the joke, but it took a long, long time. Most people aren’t used to my kind of humor. It’s gotta be pee-pee and poo-poo and ka-ka-doodle-doo. And I have to be, like, the bad child for them to accept me.”

But for all the delicious abandon of his onstage freedom, Las Vegas remains a conundrum for Joey. “They call it Sin City, they say ‘Everything in Vegas stays in Vegas,’ but I haven’t seen that side anywhere, especially at gay clubs. They say, ‘This isn’t New York or Berlin, you know—we don’t do those things in Vegas. It’s all such hype! Our show is the only one doing what we say we do, not kinda doing it, you know?

“There’s lot of the old Vegas tittie stuff still, but we’re trying to reinvent that image with a new lacquer, a new color, a new classiness. It’s truly as they call it, ‘The Other Side of Cirque du Soleil,’ the off-branch of the circus tree.” And, he hopes, they’re making human sexuality beautiful again, not the sordid and sad facsimile often presented by modern society’s narrow Bush-inspired view of what’s normal.

Often, however, it’s the audience members who are the bad children. “I swear, women take their tits out all the time and guys you’d never expect to do such a thing lift their jackets and show me their hard-ons. All the time, all the time! And in those back seats where it’s really dark back there, you’d be amazed what goes on.” According to Joey, the best thing is that Andrew Watson, the Cirque’s innovative Director of Creation who spawned Zumanity, “wanted that vibe.” It’s something meant to conjure Paris in the days of Toulouse-Lautrec or the sexual abandon of the late 1960s.

“That’s why I wrote in my song I do, Sex is Beautiful, ‘In my whorehouse of love, our bodies are in paradise all through the night.’ This showroom is my whorehouse of love.” And people are surprisingly accepting of the show’s emphasis on physical diversity and gender issues—maybe because they’re too shocked to move.

“In the beginning, when we first opened, some people walked out before they knew what it was going to be about—hell, before we knew what it was going to be about. But now the word is out. I tell people to think of it like a garden. There are weeds, trees, roses, gardenias. It’s like sexuality. Everything doesn’t grow the same.” Put all the elements together, Joey points out, and a garden’s variations can be a thing of great beauty.

“I’m just happy to be gay, in these times!” Joey suddenly screams with a mad Tullulah-esque skyward sweep of his green-glitter polished nails. “I love that the envelope is still being pushed and I’m helping to do the pushing. There’s always someone’s eyes you can open up and I get to try to do that for almost 3,000 people every night. The real message for Zumanity is that we’re all of us—all of us—under one umbrella.”

And Joey Arias does a remarkable job of keeping the rain out.

 

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