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Friday, June 05, 2020

The Stuff of Sondheim

From the Theater Vault Dept.: We’re going back 35 years here, re-visiting my piece about the Sondheim Melody Dilemma. With no Sondheim show on a nearby stage at that moment, I seized upon the cable-access showing of “A Little Night Music” to inspire this rant.


There’s not a tune you can hum.
There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum.
You need a tune you can bum-bum-bum-di-dum –
Give me a melody!

Why can’t you throw ‘em a crumb?
What’s wrong with letting ‘em tap their toes a bit?
I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit –
Give me a melody!

– Stephen Sondheim, “Merrily We Roll Along”

Elizabeth Taylor in "A Little Night Music"
STEPHEN SONDHEIM IS FOND OF decrying his naïvete as a fledgling lyricist working on his first Broadway show, which happened to be “West Side Story.” In the song “I Feel Pretty,” Maria sings the line, “It’s alarming how charming I feel.” “Right there,” says Sondheim, “you get the feeling that Noël Coward just walked into the room, where there’s supposed to be a Puerto Rican immigrant.”

With his most recent show, “Sunday in the Park with George,” taking the Pulitzer Prize (rarely does a musical achieve that honor), it’s interesting to note how far Sondheim has come since 1957 – and how he’s now perceived by theatergoers.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Re-Thinking the Kitchen

“FOR US IT'S BEEN about asking ourselves, how can we still show hospitality at such a weird time and place in our industry, when our traditional means of showing care and attention have been taken away from us?” So muses Jinah Kim, the owner of and unstoppable force behind Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, the Troy-based Korean restaurant that we profiled here.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“Like every other New York restaurant, we’re restricted to takeout and delivery right now,” she says. “For our business it hasn’t been that bad. You hear about fine-dining restaurants that are being hit from 50 to 75 percent; for us, it’s closer to 30 to 50 percent. So it was easy to transition into that kind of a quick-service model.”

Kim opened Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen on May 15, 2016, fulfilling a long-held dream – although it wasn’t, at first, of a restaurant: “I was thinking along the lines of a café or a farm, which then turned into the idea of a gathering place that would start out as a restaurant and evolve into a space where people would feel comfortable, and a place that could be a learning environment.”

To that end, she has been offering classes for immigrants, teaching English and computer skills among other subjects – but everything changed in March. “I think back to that initial week when the NBA suspended its season and things were getting really serious – and we were waiting in anticipation of what was going to happen next.” She describes a sense of vacillation between keeping the business open to continue an income stream, “but also to be able to take care of our staff and think of the well-being of our community.”

Friday, May 29, 2020

"A" is for Excellence

VIOLINIST LARA ST. JOHN’S RECORDINGS include works by John Corigliano and Matthew Hindson, a collection of folk tunes and improvisations from eastern Europe, and a pair of improbable yet uplifting CDs as part of Polkastra, an ensemble that merrily re-channels a variety of songs, classical included, into two-four time.

Her newest recording, “Key of A,” pairs sonatas by Beethoven and Franck, which would seem to be much too staid for her – until you reach track two, the second movement of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” It’s a theme and variations, each section marked with a repeat. But those repeats don’t go as marked: the second iterations feature variations on the variations, usually with trickier technical challenges for both violin and piano.

“That’s basically how it would have been done in Beethoven’s time,” St. John says with a laugh. “He wrote this for himself and for Bridgetower, who by all accounts was totally insane – so they would never have done a variation exactly the same way twice.”

History notes that George Bridgetower – a Polish-born, Afro-European violinist – was indeed an impulsive fellow. Forced to read from the sonata’s manuscript over Beethoven’s shoulder during its 1803 premiere, Bridgetower made some improvised alterations that delighted the composer. That they later had a falling-out had more to do with a woman than with music, and that’s why the composer changed the work’s dedicatee to the stuffy Archduke Rudolphe Kreutzer, who dismissed the sonata as too difficult and never played it.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Whose Garden Was This?

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Back in the heady days of late-’90s tech growth, I wrote for a number of computer magazines, among them the nascent Yahoo! Internet Life, which was intended to serve as a guide to the nascent World Wide Web. Here’s one of my pieces, written early in the magazine’s life. (Here’s its cousin.) It seems appropriate, with garden-planting season at hand – but let’s see how many of the sites recommended below still exist!


A POT OF DIRT, a little sunlight, a regular sprinkling of water – you’ve got yourself a garden. Whether you’re doing it for food or simply to admire, a garden puts you in touch with an inspiring cycle of growth and regeneration. Voltaire and Joni Mitchell both emphasized the need to enjoy quality gardening time, which at the very least is a nice diversion from the workaday world. Thanks to the many Internet gardening sites, you can at the very least wander through a virtual Eden, but the photos and how-to pieces should inspire even the most reclusive apartment-dweller to hang another houseplant in the window. The best sites combine good inline images and helpful information, and there’s a growing network of suppliers and fellow gardeners waiting to guide you--or at least sell you some seedlings and gardening gear.

The Best

The New York Botanical Garden (still here). [* * * ½] is about as close as you can get to nature without actually stepping outdoors. The handsome site promotes a garden complex located in a New York City borough, and therefore exhorts you to become a member and participate in Botanical Garden events. But those are only introductory stops on a lengthy ramble that takes you through such famous floriculture sites as the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, where you’ll be reminded of the old history of rose-giving (“a full-blown rose placed over two rose buds meant ‘we must be secret’”). Take a look at Daffodil Hill for some awesome photos and helpful cultivation tips, then continue the tour through collections of daylilies, herbs, and even an arborvitae maze for kids. Most of the pages are illustrated with beautiful photos that look even better in their accompanying larger versions.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Double-Barreled Drama

From the Theatrical Vault Dept., or, Look Who We Had in Town! Sometimes there are legitimately surprising surprises to be found in my dusty archives. Take this advance I wrote in 1984 for a visit by the British American Drama Academy with a pair of plays in repertory. “Game of Thrones” star David Rintoul headlined the cast – and I regret that I wasn’t able to see the shows in question. I regret, too, that I had no interview to go on, so I did an admirable, show-offish job of treading water.


“I PRAY YOU ALL, tell me what they deserve that do conspire my death with devilish plots of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d upon my body with their hellish charms! Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Men should be what they seem. Macbeth shall sleep no more! I have lived long enough!”

David Rintoul, pre-GOT
So declares “Sir,” the aged actor in Ronald Harwood’s play “The Dresser.” This upsets his dresser, Norman, who remonstrates him: “Now look what you’ve gone and done ... go out, go out, you’ve quoted the Scots tragedy.”

“Did l? Macb –  ? Oh, Christ!”

Whereupon Sir is forced to leave the dressing room, turn around three times, knock before re-entering and swear. (“Pisspots.”)

When Peter O’Toole mounted a version of the Scots tragedy at the Old Vic a few years back, it was beset with mishap and fared poorly. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the shortest of that author’s dramas, is said to carry a curse as well as the usual share of difficulties inherent in any Shakespeare play; perhaps that’s part of its appeal.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Sequestration Two-Step

I rise at nine, or maybe ten –
There’s nothing really pressing;
I spend an hour deciding when
It’s worth the trouble dressing.

I set the coffee up last night,
And eggs and toast await;
But all that shit is down a flight:
I’ll be a little late.

The outfit I took off last night
I’ll wear again today,
And expedite the odor fight
With shots of Febreze spray.

I’m at my desk to meet my doom
(It happens every day)
As fifteen other folk on Zoom
Find nothing new to say.

Those noontime beers are so sublime,
By one, the pain’s diminished.
By three it’s dry-martini time;
By five, the bottle’s finished.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Terpsichorean Duo

From the Dance Vault Dept.: It’s easy to see what I was doing one weekend in April 1986: attending dance concerts. I reviewed two of them in the same issue of the Schenectady Gazette, I retain pleasant memories of the experiences, and I offer them below.


PETER MAXWELL’S “BALLROOM DANCE THEATRE” is a show in the form of a series of dances for partners, the sort of thing linked to the name of Arthur Murray.

Peter Maxwell and partner
The performance yesterday afternoon in the Egg at the Empire State Plaza, Albany, was one of the first few this new company has given. It’s an original concept for a full-length show, it has moments of sheer wonder, and it ought to get better and better as the concept evolves.

At its best, it shows a company of four couples smoothly displaying the different aspects of a particular dance.

The tango sequence in the third act was the high point of the piece, bringing together excellent dance, attractive costumes, good music, and just enough characterization to carry through the six tango numbers.

Maxwell choreographed the bulk of the dances, with assistance both inside and out of the company. The individual couples boast long experience as partners and it shows in the dance; the challenge, then, must be to work out the method in which the dancers perform outside of their usual units.