BRIEF BLOG INTRO:
NEWS UPDATE: I have been given the Editor's Choice Award for "Excellence in Songwriting" by BroadwayWorld. I am most grateful. If you've never been here...
I'm a man on a mission. A mission to convince you that music is a Super Power, and that life is worth living, no matter how many obstacles are placed in your way. And that you can accomplish great things if you just push ahead and don't let anyone tell you no.
I'm a singer/songwriter and actor from Texas who is "Living in the Bonus Round" in New York City-- which is my way of describing how I feel having cheated death. (In a game show, the Bonus Round is where time speeds up and the prizes are better.) Accepting my death changed me. Now, I'm consuming life as quickly and as fully as I can, while still taking time to breathe and appreciate every single day as an utter miracle.
Last year, I turned 60 and I had a set of goals, all of which came true, including composing -- and performing in -- a Mass, recording a solo album (selling 10s of copies), headlining to a sold out house at a major night club in New York City and playing the lead role in a staged reading of a play not written by myself. I update a few times a month these days, and I don't spam. So it's easier to keep up with me by following by Email. When this blog began, it was to track my death. I'm told it was the first AIDS blog. You can start at the gruesome beginning if you want. Or just jump in and maybe we can learn some life lessons together. Welcome to the Bonus Round. I'm Steve [SHACK-lin] and we're just getting started.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I wrote it as the caption on my Facebook page: Happiness is being slept on by a big cat.
Or something like that.
I had been planning on trying to maybe make it down to Kulak's last night for the open mic, but I fell dead asleep about 7, woke up at 11, went back to sleep 12:30, woke up at 4. My eyes hurt.
I am physically and emotionally exhausted. Both of us are. But, as I sit here writing these words, I can hear the heavenly sounds of a contented cat purring quietly next to me in the dark.
His tail is touching me, and part of a leg, which is all he'll allow for the moment. I want, of course, to snuggle up with him and roll around on the carpet, but he's not having that yet. After all, it has been a month since we've been together.
But he did sleep on Jim as they watched TV together and snored through the second episode of Dexter, which I was then awake for. Or was that Mad Men? Was it me or did they both have exhausted daddy plots? Did Don Draper turn into a serial killer? I'm so confused.
I can't tell, at this moment, whether I'm awake or asleep. But give me a few days.
I'm going to start back on all my regular health routines. Lifting my hand weights, working the camera down at Kulak's, both on camera and in the songwriting workshop where I can't tell if Im a guru or a student, and as doing much extra walking as possible. I also have a lot of music ahead of me. Two musicals (one in the workshop/writing phase, one I've taken on as a special project that involves cross-media platforms such as print and stage, plus some reunion-planning.
By reunion-planning, I mean that when Jim and I get back to New York, it will be at a time when all the TLS-LA cast and creative team (now that Maisey is on Broadway), are together in one city. It'd be cool to do something with them all.
Also, we'll be pulling together an informal staged reading of "Manhattan Clam Chowder," a new musical revue about New York that I'm doing with Jim and Amy. More info on that as we come up with a plan. Right now, we're focusing on Zero. (One of my ideas is to make all the sheet music freely available to anyone who wants to learn the songs. And then we could have a big "sing" one night in some club in the Village or something. Or is that what every songwriter wishes would happen with their songs?)
Also, as long as I'm chattering on, I'm thinking it's time for me to make a new record.
I like making all my little demos using home equipment cobbled together with the help of friends who are more tech savvy than I, but, just once more time before I die, I'd like to gather musicians around me in a studio and make a real record.
I want to play and record with great musicians. Is that so much to ask?
It's time. I'm ready and it's time.
Right after I go back to bed. The cat is starting to snore.
EDIT: I shouldn't write blog entries when I'm that tired. Now, back to not-moving.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Has it really been a month?
In this short month, it feels like we've done and seen everything, and yet we've barely scratched the surface. But we couldn't be full time tourists. After all, the main point of our being here was to put "Zero Hour" onto the stage in one of the most sophisticated cities (with one of the most sophisticated audiences) in the world, and to see what would happen.
It's one thing to do it in Florida for what would be mostly retirees (who, not so amazingly were also sophisticated and discerning), but this is, after all, Washington, DC. The city has a thriving theatre community and features some of the most progressive and stimulating art (and art critics) in the world. If we came to DC and failed, then New York would be almost an impossibility.
What we couldn't expected or dreamed was that not only would every critic in every paper give him rave reviews, but, Jewish holidays notwithstanding, we would end the run with sold-out houses and people hanging from the rafters.
Last night, for instance, every seat possible was filled, including two deep in the one-seat ring of balcony chairs, with people standing in the back for the whole show. At intermission, I saw several people giving him a standing ovation, and the show wasn't even over yet. Afterward, I heard more than a few people, upon exiting, saying, "See? I told you it was a fabulous show. That's why I had to bring you."
Which, of course, means they were coming back two and three times.
Jim got a letter last night, in his dressing room, "I saw 'Fiddler On The Roof' back when my parents brought me, but Zero was out for the performance. Thank you bringing his presence to me 43 years later. This was what I was waiting for."
For me, personally, it's been fun being his caretaker. Doing a show like this is like singing an opera every single night -- and it's not just the physicality of the performance "where becomes a rampaging bellowing animal every night," as one actor used to say about Zero's stage performances. It's a psychological and emotional drain, too. Zero lived with pain. The physical pain of his leg, which had been hit by a bus and almost amputated, but the pain of losing his parents when he married a Catholic girl, the pain of being blacklisted and hounded and hunted and shunned for 10 years, the loss the film of "Fiddler," etc. Jim relives these things and the explosions of anger and pain and loss permeate his performance, as every critic noted.
And then, there's the new stress of knowing we're headed into the harshest and most critical theatre town in the world, New York City, where Jim (and Zero) was born and raised.
All these things weigh heavily upon him in each and every performance. This piece, "Zero Hour," as he puts it, is his baby. It's his life. It's the culmination of a lifetime of theatrical work.
But, first, one last show, and then rest.
Home for a month, where he'll take one last look at the play and include the little tweaks he discovered while performing the show here.
But as happy as we are to be going home for rest and to see the cat, and for me to get back to Kulak's and singing again (and editing more video shot here), we feel a melancholy that it's all so suddenly over. We will miss the creative team here, particularly Seth, Daniel and Josh who have toiled in the (freezing) booth every night, calling the cues, hitting the lights and sound.
Theatre is weird in that you become intimately friendly with people, joking around and laughing and loving each other, and then the fierce and vicious clock dings a little bell, and, suddenly the little family is torn apart, instantaneously. It's just not fair. But it's reality.
So, the end of a successful run, particularly one in which all the final shows are sold out, brings with it the joy of accomplishment and the sadness that it all has to end.
Friday, September 25, 2009
The Capitol building:
Jim with our congressman, Howard Berman.
Me delivering my State of the Union address in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
The beautiful DC Jewish Community Center, home of Theater J.
Jimmy and Piper Laurie acting silly.
Jim with Aviva Kempner, who made the wonderful film, "Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg."
Backstage with Theodore Bikel with NY producer Ed Gaynes looking on.
In the Newseum with sections of the Berlin Wall.
Jim hiding behind a G-man.
Me being taken into custody, but ever defiant.
A piece of the World Trade Center.
Face to face with J. Edgar Hoover.
The Navy Memorial, built to look like the top of the ship.
And so much more to come!
But we had a special "backstage" tour of the Supreme Court building, a tour of the Scottish Rite Temple, which is the opening scene in "The Lost Symbol," and, on Thursday, a special tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Then, over to the Capitol for the House, Senate and a short visit with our Congressman (we just walked right into his office).
First, from the Smithsonian Museum of American History, an iconic statue (from Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" of George Washington depicted as an Olympic god.)
The Presidential Yacht, used frequently by FDR but sold off by Jimmy Carter:
Speaking of FDR, Jimmy with Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR memorial:
The Vietnam memorial:
A diorama of the Supreme Court. This is actually a little model, but we got to sit in the "honored guest" chairs and stand at the lecturn. No photos inside, unfortunately. But we did find out that in the friezes above, there is a religious historical figure depicted that they never talk about. It was meant as a tribute, but the followers of this religion don't like it when people make images of him.
The Capital from the steps of the Supreme Court.
We also toured the Supreme Court library, but all of that is on video, which I'll edit after we get home. It was exciting to get to go where nobody else gets to go.
Once again, if you're reading "The Lost Symbol," this is the iconic Scottish Rite Temple depicted in a couple of key scenes. They let you go inside and take all the photos you want. Their "secrets" involve only their rituals and meetings. In fact, they're a very open society and allow tours. Begun centuries ago, the Masons played a pivotal role in helping to establish freedom of thought and religion in this country, existing alongside the Catholic Church during the Dark Ages, promoting science and thought, which the church did not like. They were constantly persecuted for it. But, in fact, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and a number of founding fathers were Masons, and Franklin used those connections to get France and Germany on our side during the revolutionary war.
Two sphinxes sit out front. (I'll have video of our tour, also).
This is the big meeting room with the stone altar. During meetings, they will lay out all the holy books representing the beliefs of whoever might be in attendance. They were probably the first organization to promote freedom of religion.
And, of course, we had to sit in the big throne.
To be continued...
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I don't know why the movie, "They Harder They Come" hit me as hard as it did. Maybe because it was because it was about injustice -- country boy comes to the big city to make it in the music industry only find it corrupt and abusive, and "ends up a gangster who dies in a hail of bullets," as the NY Times obit puts it. Aside from bringing reggae music to the larger world, it also exposed the racism and class divisions in Jamaica.
I think it has the greatest soundtrack of any movie ever. Rootsy. Ragged. Filled with life. Filled with pain. I connected to them on a deep, spiritual level. And I'll never forget how I felt when I finally saw the film, years after it was released. Devastated. Exhilarated.
This is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino wishes he could make. It's violent, ugly and real, thanks also to Perry Henzell's unflinching direction -- he also co-wrote.
The writer of this Jamaican masterpiece died of a heart attack on Tuesday. Rest in peace. You helped shed light where there had been no light.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
I had this dream last night. I was on a ship. I was explaining to the workers around me why I was running this particular division.
"It's because," I said, "I volunteered at the bottom and just made myself useful."
The dream was very detailed as I showed them how, by following orders and being creative, trying to stay out invisible and small, and out of the way of the Captain and the powers that be, I eventually just figured out how to make it all work, by effortlessly utilizing and empowering volunteers.
When I woke up, I had this big smile on my face because the last "scene" in my dream was that I was being secretly slipped down into the kitchen, by other workers on the bottom of the totem pole, to eat some freshly caught fish. And I knew exactly where this dream came from.
It reminded me of a saying from Stephen Mitchell's translation of Lao Tsu:
The supreme good is like water,Jim was still asleep, so I went over to the couch and began quietly pecking on my keyboard. Holding it up on my lap was Dan Brown's newest book, "The Lost Symbol." I remembered back to the first day I arrived at the now-defunct National Academy of Songwriters. My big goal, at the time, was to learn about the music business. But, for the day, it was just show up and be useful as a volunteer, much like I'm doing at Kulak's Woodshed, helping out on camera 3.
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
I said to them, that day, in a city swirling with movie moguls and people reaching, desperately, for more and more power, "Might as well give me something to do because I've got nowhere else to go." So, they put me on the front desk answering the 800 line.
A year later, NAS was deeply in debt. Everyone on salary got pink-slipped and they gave me the responsibility to keep the services going, which led to a mad scramble on my part to bring in more volunteers, which led to my giving a desk and a totally made-up title and division, Director of Artistic Development (since we couldn't afford to pay her) to a woman named Blythe who, like me, walked in looking for a way to be useful.
One day, a sweet, shy fellow named Dan Brown walked through her door wanting to learn about the music business, not realizing that that volunteer would one day become his wife.
I've told this story before, and reporters keep contacting me, asking me about "the secrets" to Dan Brown success. But, really, it's not a complicated story. He did it with hard work and with the assistance of a woman who loves him. My part was small.
New York. September 1996. We were doing a staged reading of "The Last Session." I was barely back from the grave. Dan and Blythe, now married and living out east where Dan was teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy, came to listen because Dan loved the song "Going It Alone," and Jim had published his (Jim's) book, "Lucy In The Afternoon," about his days playing backgammon with Lucille Ball (a relationship that began when Jim slipped a script into her mailbox).
Dan approached Jim and said how much he'd love to be a writer, so Jim told him to get up every morning and just write. Dedicate yourself to it and don't stop.
A short time later, out of the blue, we received a book in the mail called "Digital Fortress." In the front, it was signed from Dan, saying how much he was inspired by what we had done.
It was sweet. Little Dan had a book!
We were so happy for the two of them, and they worked their butts off, going from book store to book store, trying to promote it. Sadly, the book didn't sell all that much, but he kept at it. One book after another. They still didn't do all that well, so he changed his agent or his publisher or something and...
One day -- and I remember this day vividly because I was sitting in my doctor's office waiting on some test results -- I picked up the New York Times there on the table in the waiting room, and opened it to a full page ad for a new book called, "The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown," complete with a fantastic review by Janet Maslin. I called Blythe, immediately, and she said, with a giggle and a whisper, "Can you keep a secret? Don't tell anyone, but Dan's next book is going to debut at number one on the NY Times best-seller list."
And the next thing you know, slowly but surely, no matter where we went, there would be someone holding that book. It was on every plane, in every bookstore window. Everywhere. Soon, all his other books were on the shelves next to "The Da Vinci Code" and it just kept going on and on and on.
As we sit here in Washington DC, (another town filled with people fighting for power and position, and, ironically, the setting for "The Lost Symbol," our hotel situated two blocks from the grand Masonic Lodge depicted in the opening sequence, on the same street, 16th street, two blocks from where "Zero Hour" is playing at Theater J), I can't help but marvel at how life can move in such unexpected ways.
On the inside of "The Lost Symbol," there's a single dedication: For Blythe.
Only two words.
But, for me, an entire history which all began the day I showed up in Hollywood with the simple intention of making myself useful, the lowest guy on the lowest totem pole in Hollywood. And who became my "assistant?" Blythe.
And that's how Dan Brown became the number one selling author in the world.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
And then the discussion turned to what it means when an object, city or land is declared to the "holy."
Up to that point, I was mostly listening and eating cheese and crackers, trying to get the cat to pay attention to me, but at the mention of "sacred," I blurted out, "Hey, I wrote a song about that once."
"Really?" said Tex Harris, a giant of a man, 6'7", with a great big American Texan voice, and who is a kind of hero to some people in the world for his work with the poor when he was ambassador to Argentina.
He bellowed, "Sing it for us."
A million things went through my brain at that moment. I'm in a fancy DC home, surrounded by some of the most literate and experienced people in the world. And one of them has just announced to the room that I should sing.
There was no piano. We were all seated, eating crackers and cheese.
But, without hesitation (and without a piano), I opened my mouth and started singing:
THE MARTYR WORE A JACKET BOMB
TO KILL THE INFIDELS AROUND
HE SAID THE PEOPLE IN THIS PLACE
DO NOT BELONG ON HOLY GROUND
THE ROCKET CAME FROM NOWHERE
CUZ THEY SAID THE MARTYR FORCED THEIR HAND
CHILDREN ARE COLLATERAL WHEN FIGHTING
OVER SACRED SAND
Then I told him my theory about how to test a religion, which is in the video below, recited by Piper Laurie.
Upon finishing the song, he began animatedly shouting, "SEND ME A LINK! I WANT THAT SONG! I have to send that to everyone on my list!"
And then you have to ask why I call this "living in the bonus round"?
BTW, I got Dan Brown's new book, The Last Symbol, as an early birthday present for myself. It's just too much of a coincidence that his book is set in Washington DC, and that we're only two blocks from the big Masonic Hall with the Egyptian statues out front and that my grandfather was a Shriner down in Louisiana.
Sounds like the start of new story, a new book.
Happy new year.
Oh, and if you haven't seen it, this is me singing "Holy Dirt" at my concert in Olympia for PFLAG:
Friday, September 18, 2009
Therefore, when biochemist and immunologist Sudhir Paul at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston discovered a weakness in the virus -- an antigen discovered in people with Lupus -- which manages to disable the virus across multiple permutations, they became very excited and are ready to move into human studies of a new vaccine based on the research.
News article in Washington Post. And more information here.
So, to that end, they are holding a fundraising event in New York to get funding for human trials. Here is the information from the press release:
CIF (Covalent Immunology Foundation) is a new non-profit organization created to raise money to further the research of Dr. Sudhir Paul who is on the cusp of creating a revolutionary vaccine for HIV/AIDS.
Dr. Paul has dedicated the last 26 years of his life to searching for a cure for HIV after accidentally discovering antibodies with catalytic activity in one of his patients in the 1980’s. With the help of over $30 Million in NIH grants, Dr. Paul has developed a prototype vaccine that successfully eliminates nature’s restrictions on production of protective antibodies to HIV by the immune system.
The Foundation's efforts will be jump-started by HARD MEDICINE, a 300 person gala at the Red Bull Event Space in SoHo, NYC on September 24th. Guest of honor Dr. Paul will be joined by a diverse group of influential young New Yorkers and celebrities from the worlds of fashion, music, art, and media who have come together to donate their time and efforts for the good of one doctor’s remarkable work. The evening will feature a musical performance by Amanda Blank, a limited edition gift from Bing Bang Jewelry and a silent auction with original artwork and items from exclusive fashion labels including DVF.
And we all have our fingers crossed.
I think I was still very fragile back then. (I'm still fragile, but who isn't?)
She had a deaf cat. Its ears never moved. And we all bonded.
Over the years, as Jim and I did our thing out in California in theatre, Cathy became involved with GLAAD as their PR person, and our lives intersected again when both TLS and Big Voice in New York and L.A. became nominees (winning once).
On her own now, with Renna Communications Cathy knows everybody and, better yet, everyone knows Cathy, or who she is. She's based here in Washington, but has been out of town until now for personal reasons. This was our first chance to catch up. I was almost unable to speak. All I wanted to do was hug. (Maggie, who we also saw this week puts it, totally deadpan, "Oh, right. You're a hugger.")
After we got caught up on our personal lives -- she and her partner's daughter is a "girly girl" who loves princess parties, Jim's here with Zero Hour and headed for New York -- and after playing, as Jim put it, La Ronde, with our menu selections -- "I've decided to have what he wanted"-- we began discussing a Depression-era type experimental theatre project she's involved with: A sequel to The Laramie Project, where the cast has gone back to the town and come back with another play, once again transforming, but this time into the thing Laramie has now become, ten years down the road.
The two killers were interviewed. It should be hair-raising.
Only instead of one production, they're allowing 130 simultaneous productions -- of either this one or the original -- to be performed on different stages all on one night, October 6. Would this be, in effect, a virtual movie or tv show?
I thought, how ingenious of the writers back then. It was being "broadcast," but everyone's channel had a different cast.
It's retro, and yet it's cutting edge because with all our electronics, there is no substitute for the live human voice. Almost everything that humans have ever been invented to make a sound are doing so in order to copy or catch something the human voice does. Or to reach beyond it while still being a "voice."
A movie or tv show is one step removed from real life, pale imitations of the real thing you feel when live theatre is at its best. It's visceral.
Last night, one of our close friends, the wife of an ambassador, came up to me after the show and said, excitedly, "You know, I didn't see Jim tonight! I thought I was going to see Jim, the actor, but I didn't. It really felt like I was with Zero Mostel."
But enough rambling. Cathy Renna is cool.
From her website:
Bruce Shenitz | THE ADVOCATE | October 2009
Eleven years after Matthew Shepard’s murder, the creators of The Laramie Project take a look at everything that’s happened in the town since in a new play that will premiere in more than a hundred theaters worldwide on the same night.
Kaufman has said that by opening a play at different theaters on the same night, he is following in the footsteps of the Federal Theater Project, the New Deal–era program designed to employ out-of-work artists, writers, and directors and through which Sinclair Lewis’s play It Can’t Happen Here was produced simultaneously in 22 cities in 1936.ON A PERSONAL NOTE:
In many ways, it's similar to the experimental theatrical project I have done with several student groups, including Northeastern University, where they cast and rehearse a staged concert version of The Last Session -- with me as Gideon, playing the score. They learn the music. I come in and stage it in a few days. Boom. We have a show, and everyone leaves, after laughing and crying for two hours.
I felt energized after talking to Cathy. She reminded me how much I love grass roots, community-based projects and programs, like I created and ran at NAS. The volunteer phone operator on the front desk who became the managing director almost overnight because we were broke and I was the last one left standing. Me and Danny Kirkpatrick and Paul Zollo. (To poor Paul, I was like, "Who the hell is he again?" To Danny, I was the one guy he could rely on to do make something happen so that we could stay open another month. I was inventing programs right and left. And one day, I created an artist development division, found a volunteer to staff it and and one day this nice, intelligent guy walked in the door and now he's Dan Brown, the biggest author in the world.
And I'm going to get his book today.
And I'm going to remember the power of being the volunteer front desk operator who comes in with an intention to just be useful.
And what was the silliness? Well, some publicist put out, onto the wires, that they had a starlet who "only ate flowers." Piper, being the dutiful employee, played along. But it would haunt her for years to come as reporter after reporter asked her about her geranium gestation.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
"There is something very special about Brochu's Mostel. Not only is the script brilliantly written and hilarious - and it is both - but it is also personal..."A comedic force of nature that knocks people out is a description that could apply to Brochu's acting as well. But when he says he was knocked out by Mostel, he means it literally. Brochu the sophomore had been invited to the play by his mentor David Burns, and searching for Burns backstage he ran into Mostel. Noting Brochu's uniform (he was in military school), Mostel told him, "You must be General Nuisance. What do you want?" When Brochu said he was looking for Burns, Mostel complained that Brochu never came to visit him and stormed off.Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour at Theater J. Photo by Stan Barouh
Brochu took the hint and visited Mostel backstage on several more occasions. Over time the two became friends. When he first asked Mostel for an autograph, Brochu was told he was unworthy - Mostel's "behavior was as outrageous offstage as it was on," he says - but after Mostel saw Brochu's off-Broadway performance in "Unfair to Goliath", he left an envelope with a signed photograph in Brochu's dressing room.Zero Hour is Brochu's attempt to return the favor, "a tribute to the life of a man who overcame both physical and social obstacles to become one of most enduring giants in the history of the American Theatre."
The essay/review leads, though, with the politics of the piece, which all come from Zero's point of view. Neither Jim nor I are political persons. We are both news junkies, and we lend our talents to benefits, just as Zero did, but we're performers. We love the attention, but don't come to us for answers. We're the clowns.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
Modern day Iraq.
They hunt down gay people and then ritually slaughter them.
It's happening now.
The killings are brutal, with victims ritually tortured. Azhar al-Saeed's son was one. "He didn't follow what Islamic doctrine tells but he was a good son," she said. "Three days after his kidnapping, I found a note on my door with blood spread over it and a message saying it was my son's purified blood and telling me where to find his body."
She went with police to find her son's remains. "We found his body with signs of torture, his anus filled with glue and without his genitals," she said. "I will carry this image with me until my dying day."
This is what we spent hundreds of billions of American dollars and thousands of American lives for.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Friday, September 11, 2009
But you learn that this wasn't merely about the Nazis. The hate thrown at Jews began long ago after the destruction of the temple, shortly after the death of Jesus. They were flung across the world, herded into ghettos, decried as "Christ-killers," banned from "polite society," forced into conversions, driven from one country to another, blamed for disease, poverty, etc. etc. etc. until it culminated into Hitler's decision to exact a "final solution."
I'm reposting a video I shot a couple of years ago while on a cruise. Boris was a passenger who told me his own incredible story of how he managed, beyond all hope, to be saved from Buchenwald, a concentration camp.
Even today, people are surprised to hear about our own witch hunts during the 50s, the millions of murders in Stalinist Russia, the millions killed by Pol Pot, terrorist actions of the KKK, a group that still exists to this day in this country, the genocides in Sudan and Rwanda, the religious hatred of Al Qaeda -- and it goes on and on.
As injustice, war and hate continue to fill the world, what all of us must do, as Jim demonstrates through the voice of Zero Mostel is to never forget. And to create peace and justice around us in any way we can.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
ZERO MOSTEL WAS hailed as the greatest performer on
the American stage, but his star has receded since his 1977 death. Fortunately, Jim Brochu is putting Mostel's name in lights again, playing him with ferocious anger as well as with great joy.
Even many who have heard of Mostel may not know he was a painter first. Brochu's Mostel does touch on the star's triumphs — in "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Producers" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" — during a rude, hilarious and touching autobiographical interview, but the interview takes place in a painting studio.
Brochu, looking like an insane Santa Claus, is wildly intense, expressive, manic and comic. He announces he's made 25 Broadway shows, 50 movies and 10,000 paintings. He insists on painting a visiting (unseen) newspaperman and asks whether his guest purchased his coat during a total eclipse. "Art is life," he offers. "Of course you can quote me."
"Zero Hour" is an assault of punch lines, many of which are wonderfully subtle or rely on Brucho's dead-on, over-the-top animation. But the story has emotional heft as well, and is particularly focused on the Hollywood Blacklist and the subsequent suicide of Mostel's friend, fellow blacklist victim Philip Loeb.
"Everyone who's excluded is angry," explains the volcanic Mostel near the play's end. "And then the door opens and I don't really want to go in."
The play, written by Brochu and directed by actress Piper Laurie, premiered three years ago in Los Angeles; it goes to New York after its run at Theater J.
» Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW; through Sept. 27, $42; 202-777-3210. (Dupont Circle)
Written by Express contributor Tim Follos
Photo courtesy Stan Barouh
Also, Piper Laurie came into town and did a talkback after the show last night. I taped it from my seat, so I'll be editing that and posting it to Youtube soon.
by Lisa Traiger
The clown prince of Broadway was an angry man. Funny man Zero Mostel, it seems, had a bitter streak that adds heft and intrigue to actor, creator, writer Jim Brochu's one-man bio-drama, Zero Hour, which explores the life of the rubbery-faced actor.
Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Brochu has the oversize dimensions, literally the weight and heft, to carry off a more-than-believable Mostel impersonation. But Brochu offers more than an off-the-shelf impersonation of the character comedian with his bulgy eyes, grimaces, grins and groaners. At the end of 90 minutes, Brochu has become a reincarnation of the late, great Mostel, a one-of-a-kind stage presence -- famed for his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Onstage at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center's Goldman Theater through Sept. 27, Zero Hour introduces us to a man who lived life with a vengeance. In the guise of a newspaper interview with an unseen New York Times reporter, Mostel's story unfolds over two acts.
This is Mostel late in life and he terms himself a painter who only took acting and comedy gigs to pay for his paints and canvases. Throughout the evening, Brochu sketches and paints. He notes in passing that he was just back from London where he filmed an appearance with Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy for a Muppet Show episode. That places Zero Hour in 1977, the year the larger-than-life actor died.
But Zero Hour goes beyond a dry study of the rise of a successful actor, lauded from Broadway to Hollywood. Brochu captures the intense fear and uncertainty of living through McCarthyism, for Mostel was one of many performing artists -- Jewish and otherwise -- brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee between 1947 and 1956.
Mostel, like many who appeared before HUAC -- in 1955 -- was asked to "name names." He understood the repercussions of such actions and the lives and careers that could be shattered if Communist Party affiliations were publically revealed. In fact, among the most touching moments is one when Mostel describes the devastating outcome being named a communist had on his close friend, actor Phil Loeb.
Mostel also recounts the origins of his well-known animosity toward director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, one of a few who unrepentantly named names. Mostel famously refused to shake hands or speak with Robbins, who said he named names for fear of being outed as a homosexual in the repressive 1950s.
But, when Robbins was brought in to work on Forum, Mostel acquiesced -- Robbins was, he allowed, a genius as a show doctor -- and they worked together there and on Fiddler: "I don't blacklist," Mostel declared.
The kernel of Zero Hour rests in Mostel's account of the McCarthy witch hunt, which he characterizes as an inquisition against Jewish artists. He contended that it was the Jews, outsiders in the then WASP-dominated United States, whom McCarthy and his supporters were after.
For a man of Mostel's generation, son of immigrants, being questioned just a decade after the Holocaust decimated European Jewry, it becomes a believable, even incendiary proposition, especially so in Brochu's hands as a Mostel alter-ego.
The sting still resonates a half century after McCarthy. Most American Jews, indeed, as a community and individuals, feel completely at home in their multicultural 21st century country. But witch hunts of other sorts abound these days, whether from the conservative right or the liberal left -- just open up a newspaper to confront the political and cultural divisions that have bisected America just in the past few months.
Brochu has wrought, aside from an uncanny impersonation of a larger-than-life man with googley eyes, great girth, a graying beard and slicked-down comb-over, a modern-day morality play that compels viewers to re-examine our own era for 21st-century witch hunts.
After he leaves Washington, Brochu brings his play Zero Hour to New York for an off-Broadway run; so don't miss a chance to see a star performance on the rise.
Questions from the past play into our present -- and future -- in Theater J's Zero Hour.
by Tom Avila
Published on September 10, 2009
On Oct. 14, 1955, the actor and comedian Zero Mostel was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He was asked if he was or had ever been a member of the Communist Party. He was asked, in a phrase that is as unsettling today as it was then, to ''name names.''
(Photo by Stan Barouh)
Established in the late 1930s, HUAC's mission was to investigate individuals and organizations with alleged ties to the Communist Party. The committee paid particular attention to entertainers, those individuals whose voices were heard loudly and widely. HUAC's work would later be rightly seen as a modern-day witch hunt, destroying lives and careers in the name of some unfounded greater good.
Jim Brochu's one-man show Zero Hour, the season opener at Theater J, takes that single transformative day in Mostel's life and uses it to tease open a biography that is as fascinating as it is startlingly rich.
Heartfelt and humorous, Zero Hour exercises a pleasing restraint in its storytelling by using the simplest of frames. Mostel is in his painting studio, giving an interview to a New York Times reporter. The set-up allows Brochu to take full advantage of both Mostel's complex personal history and wildly entertaining, quirky public persona. He jokes, reminisces and reveals in a fashion that is natural and uncontrived.
Brochu is an exceptionally talented writer and this play thrives because of his equal skills as an actor. He also manages the difficult act of investing in the life of an iconic figure without needlessly romanticizing him. (Though Brochu does step into the trap of indulging rather than editing in terms of the play's length.)
Even as we revisit that day in front of the committee, we see a man who was not trying to be a hero or make some grand political statement. Mostel was a citizen frustrated by the ridiculousness of HUAC and angered by its indignity and waste. Brochu gives us the truth of the moment and the man, and allows those echoes to resonate satisfyingly in our own time.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
By Trey Graham
Jim Brochu is Zero Mostel: the shrugging, the mugging, the right hand aloft to screw in that invisible light bulb, the eyes bugging as if to say “What, that’s the best laugh you’ve got?” The two-tone beard, the thinning hair scraped back to front, the screwed-up face, the waggling jowls—and those cadences, pinched and outraged, punchy and perfectly pitched. As a comic, Mostel had no peer, and as a mimic, Brochu does his hero proud: When it’s going for the funny bone, Zero Hour is a laff riot, down to the “I’m a little teapot” imitation excavated from Mostel’s early days in stand-up.
And that’s terrific, because most of us know Mostel merely as the guy to whom funny things happened in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, or as the guy who celebrated “Tradition” above all in Fiddler on the Roof. (Or—much to the actor’s chagrin, Brochu insists—as the sweaty swindler of a Broadway hack romancing wealthy widows in The Producers.) Brochu wants you to know Mostel the Brooklyn boy, Mostel the Hollywood blacklist survivor, and Mostel the man who nearly lost his leg in a 1960 bus crash—and masked the pain night after night onstage.
The blacklist outrage is where Brochu focuses his energy and his character’s famously volcanic ire, but that last gruesome story makes for one of Zero Hour’s better set pieces—and make no mistake, the evening is a series of set pieces, stories strung like pearls on the thin conceit of an interview with an invisible journalist. (He’s sitting, apparently, in the audience’s lap, which explains why Brochu’s Zero keeps talking directly to us.)
Hackneyed, that device? Yes. Predictable, the evening’s rhythms? More than once. But Zero Hour is a loving tribute nonetheless—and a deserved one. And it’s an impressive exhibition of craft besides: Brochu the performer knows how to make a moment pop, and more than one moment does so here.
Here's the review in full:
This wasn't advertised as a Pre-Off-Broadway engagement, but it turns out to be. Jim Brochu, who wrote and performs this solo show encounter with the inimitable but clearly impersonation-able Zero Mostel, will take the show to the Theatre at St. Clement's on 46th Street in New York with previews beginning November 14 and a formal opening slated for November 23. No need to wait the two and a half months until then, however. The show is up on its feet in fine shape right now (and some 230 miles closer to home for us here in the Potomac Region). It is another of those magical transportations that live theater can impart - the chance to spend an evening in the presence of a person from the past. Brochu brings the man back to life, looking so much like a living, breathing (and bellowing) Al Hirschfeld sketch of the real thing that you suspect the streaks in his comb over spell out "Nina." Those who enjoyed last season's similarly treasurable session, when Theodore Bikel gave us the chance to spend an evening with another icon of the theater's past in his solo show Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, will find the pleasure here has an almost "been there, done that" sense of deja-vu until they focus on the differences between the two men who are subjects. (Another similarity? Both shows are headed to New York. Bikel's Aleichem will run from November 8 to December 13 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center at City University of New York.)
Storyline: This solo performance is structured as an interview given by Zero Mostel after the completion of a theater career that was interrupted by the infamous blacklisting of the 1950s. He tells the stories of originating such notable roles as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and Max Bialystock in the movie The Producers.
Brochu has had a fascinating career as both a writer and a player. In addition to being a dancing raisin for a breakfast cereal commercial, he penned and directed the musical The Last Session and penned and appeared in his and his partner's autobiographical The Big Voice: God or Merman? for which the received (from the hands of none other than Jerry Herman no less) the Ovation Award for best musical - the Ovations are the Los Angeles equivalent of our Helen Hayes awards. With Zero Hour, Brochu seems to become Mostel, although his eyes are just slightly wrong. It is as if Mostel had brightly chipper eyes of Jay Leno rather than the saddened eyes that, after the blacklisting experience, seemed to radiate intelligence through a curtain of hurt and anger.
That hurt and the resulting anger is at the heart of the story Brochu is telling here. Yes, there are all the funny stories of his successes and failures on the stage and, yes, there are the bursts of comic energy that were Mostel's trademark. But it is the story of his being blacklisted for his failure to tell the House Committee on Un-American Activities the details they demand about a meeting in Hollywood that took place years before he even came to California and his subsequent refusal to "name names" that give the piece substance. This is followed by a retelling of the story of his famous remark regarding Jerome Robbins who did testify. When Robbins was called in as a show doctor on Forum the producers feared that Mostel would refuse to work with him. Mostel's reply was "We of the left do not blacklist." Brochu, however, continues the story to include Mostel's remark to Robbins. We'll leave that particular quote to be revealed on stage.
Throughout the performance, Brochu as Mostel dabbles in watercolor on a pad on his table. By the end, he has created a portrait. Oh, but by that time he has already created a portrait - of Zero Mostel. It is a chance to meet Mr. Mostel that is not to be missed.
It is uncommon to find a play that can make you both laugh out loud and struggle to hold back tears with equal intensity. In this-and every respect-Zero Hour delivers. Five out of five stars for a rare gem of a play in which a brilliant actor is paired with the role he was born to play!
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
The play treats us to an opportunity that may never have existed in life: to be present for an evening in Mostel’s private sanctuary, his art studio... In this way, the play doesn’t feel much like an interview, but more like watching the inner workings of Mostel’s mind. He interrupts himself, sometimes with a witty line, and sometimes because he appears to have forgotten what he is saying.. Brochu’s performance is a symphony of the wiggling eyes and silly facial expressions which made Mostel famous. From the moment the play begins, we are pulled in to a world of the gregarious, the witty, and the raunchy. His Mostel is both self-deprecating and everyone-else-deprecating. There is more than one joke made at a friend’s expense, but you can tell that it is done with the deepest of love (the same may not be said for the comments about the interviewer’s stature and clothing choices). And, the best part is, all of this is hysterically funny.If it wasn't funny, it wouldn't be Mostel!
The other night, after the show, a man said to me, "The moment he turned around, I believed he was Zero and I just relaxed. I knew I was in good hands."
Peter Marks called it "verisimilitude," a word Jimmy can't quite pronounce, but it means feeling as if you're in the presence of the real thing. Or, as he put it, "the next best thing."
Jimmy has always said, of course, that nobody can really be Zero Mostel. He was one of a kind. Rather, he says, "Zero inhabits me."
It's sounds supernatural, but really, it's just acting. This is what the great actors do. They don't inhabit a character. They let the character inhabit them. And when they're in the zone, it appears effortless. But effortless is not the same thing as "easy." One younger audience member came up to Jim afterward and thanked him for the acting master class.
Frankly, I think the world could use a great, big dose of Zero Mostel. To feel the energy of that volcanic presence -- "self-deprecating and everyone-else-deprecating" -- must have been as hysterical as it was intimidating and scary.
But, I wanted to begin this blog with the above so that a reader not acquainted with the play, would know that the piece itself is not a polemic, but a great entertainment. But Zero is not afraid to express his political opinions.
Mostel was quite a troubled man, and his boisterous persona often gives way to brokenness and anger. The portrayal is manic, an art of extremes, and the versatile Brochu goes from shouting to whispers and back again, sometimes in a single sentence. He captures the devastating effect that being black listed had on the actor.Rent two movies: The original "The Producers" with Zero and Gene Wilder, a movie that almost didn't get released. Watch the first hallway/office scene with Zero and Gene Wilder. Watch the sheer terror on Gene's face as he cowers away from the wild animal Mostel. Just the credit sequence of the film, alone, puts me on the floor; Zero playing S&M games with Estelle Winwood, who, at that time, had to be a 150 years old.
Film two: "The Front." Watch him in the scene where the club owner only gives him half of what he'd been promised. Watch his body language as he shrinks into a helpless mess, big hang-dog eyes tearing your heart out. And watch him instantaneously morph into a bellowing, roaring dragon. And remember that he is thinking about his best friend, Phil Loeb, who had just committed suicide.
Jackie Gleason could pull that off, too. Each, a menacing mountain of pain, innocence and anger.
Others may have cowered in fear in front of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. But we watch as an offstage voice delivers the questions, and Mostel, alone in the spotlight, stares down his accusers and uses his signature brand of humor, to soften, but not hide, his indignation at being summoned. Brochu shows us the depth of agony that the Hollywood blacklist caused for Mostel and his friends and the profound sense of anger that he felt towards those who named names. In particular, Mostel rants more than once about Jerry Robbins, but even here we are shown the complexity of Mostel, who tells Robbins, to his face, that he is a traitor who will be condemned by their Jewish faith, and yet later describes the art of the Broadway choreographer as “brilliant”. Brochu does not sugarcoat or simplify but shows a man who is simultaneously strong and broken, a contradiction that I think summed up Mostel’s life.
Mostel’s defense of socialism is notably apropos as we hear that word brandished and misused so often in our modern media. This relevance is especially surprising considering that the play was written in 2006, before the “socialism equals evil” equation made its sudden return into our national consciousness and political discourse. I was also particularly moved by the wistful way in which Mostel reflects on America’s greatest socialist venture, Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration and all of the great arts it funded. As an admirer of the greats, Mostel describes with reverence the impact that public funding for creative ventures had on the artistic legacy of the country, and notes how hard that must have been to pull off in such dire times. Zero Hour reaches from the past to give us commentary on the hard times and tough choices that we face today.Interesting. What a great city for "Zero Hour" to be in right now. This is where people discuss these issues. And he's right. Jimmy put this into the play right from the beginning, long before it became a meme, and it's word for word, Zero Mostel.