A Bit of Russian Humor to Provide Perspective

As an American, I am envious of the Russian sense of humor that culminates in the ubiquitous anecdote.  No matter what the event or the occasion, the anecdote is up to the task.  It is the voice of the people, coming through a barrage of political slogans, twisted phrases, and distorted language.  I believe that the Russian anecdote is a release, a coping mechanism for all the struggles and problems this great nation has had to endure.

A digression with a quick return to our topic:  We often forget how different Russians and Americans are.   Russia is largely a misogynistic culture, although there have been many strong women throughout Russian history, and quite a number of “superfluous men”.  I remember a UCLA professor telling me I was going to take a men’s exam rather than a women’s exam.  At the time I was shocked, but realized later that such an attitude is common.  Anti-women anecdotes still predominate.  Such an anecdote could never be printed in an American paper:

At the zoo, a little girl asks her mother:

–Mommy, why is that goat looking off in the distance with such a sad expression?

–And, do you often see your Daddy smile?  That’s just the way men’s lives are.

Putin has been characterized as a swaggering bully.  He is a former light-weight champion.  To the White House, he has been responsible for a number of problems, and there is an anecdote for that:

At the White House:  –Did you hear the latest?  Obama’s Press Secretary is pregnant.  Do you know who was responsible?

–I can guess.  It must be Putin, since he’s responsible for everything else!

And about the Ukrainian situation:

A lady from Israel is talking to her friend from the Ukraine:

–So, what’s been happening over there?

–We’re having a little war with Russia.

–Have you had any losses?

–Just a few things:  the Crimea, a couple of regions, some airplanes, some helicopters, some weapons, and some of our people.

–And what have the Russians lost?

–Would you believe it?  They haven’t arrived yet!

And, of course, there is the Russian economy.  We look at two different perspectives:

The reality of the Russian economy:  The director of a major business was given the gift of a hen that could lay golden eggs.  Within a month, the business failed to make a profit.

–My dear Holmes, what do you make of the fact that in one year, the ruble has dropped to half it’s value, while the euro has dropped to a fourth of it’s value?

–Elementary, my dear Watson.  The given fact indicates that European help is twice as terrifying as it’s sanctions.

And there is the medical profession.  Two anecdotes:

–Russian medicine is very simple.  Whatever illness you go into the hospital with, you die from.

–Why don’t we fall off the earth when it rotates on its axis?

–We’re stuck to the hospitals.

And, lastly, the all embracing topic of alcoholism:

–Hello!  I would like to buy some alcohol on credit.

–Judging by the color of your face, I would say you have an excellent credit history!

–Do you have a dream?

–I do.

–Please tell me what it is.

–It’s to give up drinking.

–So, give it up!

–And then, how could I live without a dream?

Indeed!  How can anyone live without a dream?

Remembering a Forgotten Side of the Marvelous Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller with a parrot from his recording of Pinocchio

Marvin Miller with a parrot from his Audio Book recording of Pinocchio

Cover of Audio Book of Pinocchio

Cover of Audio Book of Pinocchio

Marvin Miller, who was born Marvin Mueller, was well-known for his radio, film, and TV appearances as a man with a strong baritone.  However, his work with the Audio Book Company of St. Joseph, Michigan has been virtually forgotten.  Yet he provided hours and hours of pleasure to youngsters like myself, reading classics to eager children.  In essence, the Audio Book Company built on an idea from the 1940s:  To have established actors act out adaptations from children’s classics.  In the 1940s, a whole series of 78 albums were produced for children that featured actors such as Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Coleman, Margaret O’Brien, Ginger Rodgers, Thomas Mitchell, and many others.  The albums were quite successful and spurred the talking audio books that began in 1954.  The audio books were played at 16 2/3 rpm, and required an adapter if your record player had no 16 speed.  Like the albums from the 1940s, the Audio Book Company employed famous character actors including Jeff Chandler, Gene Lockhart, Hans Conried,  Dan O’Herlihy, and, of course, the incomparable Marvin Miller.  These albums were the first to include complete renderings of such classics as A Christmas CarolTreasure Island, The Wizard of OzAlice in WonderlandThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Adventures of Pinocchio.  Because of his well-known ability to provide numerous voices for characters, Marvin Miller was the first actor hired for the readings, and was entrusted with several titles.  The audio excerpt below features Marvin doing several voices for Chapter XVI of Pinocchio.  Please lean back and take the time to hear Marvin’s superb artistry.

A Note about Pinocchio:  Originally, Pinocchio was intended to be a moral tale;  showing what happened when a block of wood(a “blockhead”) failed to obey his father and his conscience after several trials.  To whit:  Pinocchio was taken in by two street villains, the Fox and the Cat, and was hanged by them when he refused to give them his money.  That was to be the end of the story.

The author, Carlo Lorenzini(Carlo Collodi) saw his adventure as belonging to the moral, educational trend that was prevalent in 19th century Italy.  The novel was full of the sadistic, didactic episodes that were not only common in Italy, but in other European countries as well.  But a strange thing happened:  Children began to write letters, begging the author to continue the story of this young scapegrace, and Carlo Collodi complied.

The ending, which the author intended to be an inspiration to naughty children, was weak.  The illustrator’s drawing of a young boy was anti-climactic.  It was the puppet’s unwieldy, independent, self-serving character that children identified with.  In many ways, Pinocchio was more of a real boy as a puppet than the figure at the end of the book, and that was the author’s problem.  For Pinocchio was as individual as Peter Pan, and became a favorite among children throughout the world.

The chapter below was the first chapter that Carlo Collodi wrote when he brought Pinocchio back to life to enjoy new adventures. Chapter XVI from Pinocchio as read by Marvin Miller    

Pearsoney Falls Revisited

Pearsoney Falls lies just west of Prospect and below the North Fork of the Rogue River Gorge, which plunges over boulders to join the Middle Fork.  The falls is reached via an entrance on the south side of Mill Creek Drive.  The trail is at the upper end of the parking lot.  The falls is the first of many before the spectacular Mill Creek Falls that drops over a cliff to join the two forks of the Rogue River.

The video below shows Pearsoney Falls in its grandeur in 2009.  

Allegro: The Musical That Couldn’t, part 3.

Act 2 begins with the sinister time motif, employed in Act 1.  The Depression soon follows.  Ned Brinker becomes a pauper, and must rely on his son-in-law for support.  Jennie no longer has the wealth she has grown accustomed to.  She laments this fact with her girlfriends in the sardonic, “Money Isn’t Everything.”  The piece is one of Rodgers’s famous waltzes that culminates in a descriptive dance.

Joe is offered a position in a Chicago hospital by Dr.Digby Denby, Charlie Townsend’s uncle, who also works there.  This is the moment Jennie has been waiting for, and she opposes Joe’s plan to be an assistant to his father.  She lures him to her side by explaining how the money could help his father, and provide the means for supporting their future child.  So, off to Chicago they go!  Marjorie appears to give her husband comfort:  “You’re hurt.  Don’t let him hurt you.”  She also sings from “A Fellow Needs a Girl.”  This will conclude the rural portion of the play.

Joe learns that Dr.Denby’s hospital is a sanctuary for millionaire Brook Lansdale’s hypochondriacal friends.  Now the onrush of time becomes specific to city living, and the musical changes its focus.  In “Yatata”,  “The days come fast and are quickly gone, but the talk, talk, talk, goes on and on…”  The eerie time motif occurs, but now it is relegated to the wasteful time of city life.

In Chicago,  Joe appears to lose sight of what he values:  simplicity, trust, loyalty, service, and Oscar loses sight of what the musical is about.  His extreme sentimentality for country life, his preachiness, and his corresponding disdain for the speeded up life of the city begin to make themselves felt.  Generalized time becomes time specific in Act 2.  “Allegro”  refers to the mad, chaotic rush of time of city life:  “Same tempo morning and night !  Allegro!… We spin and we spin,… playing a game no one can win,…”  But generalized time flow characterizes all of Act 1, so Allegro does not seem an appropriate title for this musical.  If Allegro refers to the furious rush of time in all of our lives as rituals pass by one after another as in Act 1, the title makes sense, but, if not, confusion ensues.

Prior to “Allegro”, we get our one and only character song, “The Gentleman is a Dope.”  Sung by Emily the nurse, it takes a look at her reluctance to admit her growing affection and love for Joe:  “Look at me crying my eyes out as if he belonged to me…  He’ll never belong to me!  The gentleman is a dope…”  In this moving song, we feel an emotional bond to Joe as more than a set-up character, but as a man with real limitations and warmth.  It is one of the few songs sung alone; without benefit of chorus or other people.  It is significant that this is the only song from the musical that continues to be sung.  Strangely, this song is so different from the others, it almost seems out of place.  The song reminds us how different Allegro truly is from all the rest of R and H musicals;  they thrive on often gripping character songs such as “Soliloquy”, “Lonely Room”, and so many others.  Is the chorus a valid substitute for the traditional character song in delineating a person in a musical?  This is a question for the audience to decide.

Joe learns that his wife is having an affair with Brook, and this makes him realize what a stooge he has been. The voices of his country home pervade his consciousness in “Come Home”, a panegyric to the simple joys of rural life, sung by Marjorie.  It is a beautiful hymn, but it is too idealistic and presumptuous:  “You will find a world of honest friends who miss you.  You will shake the hands of men whose hands are strong…”  The implication is that Joe is out of place in the city, and needs to return to his roots, where honest folk dwell.  The contrast between the evils of the city and inherent goodness of  the small town becomes too stark.  Also, Oscar seems to have forgotten by the time theme which began the play, and what was central to Wilder’s play.  Wilder kept the Webb and Gibbs families in Grover Corners,  but when Hammerstein sent Joe and Jennie to the city, Allegro no longer had the continuity of the first act.

By adhering to Lansdale’s rules, he has been appointed successor to Dr. Bigby Denby.  But when Joe describes the doctor as “an ornament”, he becomes aware of the artificial and superficial hospital existence and declines the appointment.  Naturally, the chorus and ghosts of Marjorie and Grandma Taylor appear on stage to applaud his decision.  Emily and Charlie decide to join him in his hometown practice.

A number of caveats arise:  ” Jennie and Ned Brinker originated from Joe’s town, so the country is not as idyllic as Oscar paints it.  Also, the Depression has happened.  Things and circumstances are changing in Joe’s town as elsewhere.  Time does not stand still, and Joe will face a community different than the one he left.  The implication that there are no decent doctors in Chicago or a big city is absurd.  Surely, a large city needs good doctors as much as a small town.  That is why the ending seems too pat, almost too abrupt.  We never see what ensues when Joe, his future wife, Emily, and best friend, Charlie, return to work with Joe’s father.

Allegro is a musical that tries hard, is innovative and dramatic.  However, ultimately, this is a musical that can’t.

Note:  The first complete recording of Allegro was issued a few years ago by masterworks broadway.  It contains all the music described in this post, and offers superb performances by Patrick Wilson as Joseph Taylor, Jr.,  who endows his character with warmth and charm, Audra McDonald as Marjorie Taylor, who sings with compassion and understanding.  Other cast members bring this musical to life as it moves from the rural life to city life.  My only criticism is that Jennie’s character does not come through, so some of the drama is lost.  Inclusion of the confrontation scene between Marjorie and Jennie in Act 1 might have solved that problem.  Nevertheless, we are fortunate to have such an outstanding version of this often bewildering and always challenging musical.

 

 

 

 

 

Allegro: The Musical That Couldn’t, part 2.

In 1938, Our Town premiered on the American stage.  Written by Thornton Wilder, it gave a universal outlook to a few lives in Grovers Corners.  The rituals of birth, marriage, and death were commented on by a matter-of-fact Stage Manager, played by Frank Craven.  Suddenly, small town life gained a cosmic significance.  Oscar Hammerstein was influenced by this play, and tried to create a musical that would follow a man from his birth to his death.  He chose for his character the son of a rural doctor, and called him Joseph Taylor, Jr.  He hoped to show how significant and miraculous one human life was by tracing its early influences, obstacles, loves, career struggles, and, ultimately, decline and death.  However, in the middle of his second act, he began to lose focus, so he could not fulfill his goal completely.  Yet, his failure resulted in a dynamic, dramatic, innovative, unforgettable musical that in many ways did accomplish some of Oscar’s goals.

The musical begins with the celebration of Joseph Taylor, Jr.’s birthday.  The mayor has declared the event a legal holiday, so there is no school.  The opening chorus of celebration involves the whole town, from a church choir to drunks, stumbling along to somewhat grotesque rhythms.  And even the children cry out:  “Look what Marjorie Taylor’s done…  Hail him, hail him, everyone!  Joseph Taylor, Jr.!”  So, the simple birth is magnified in importance, and we feel that the country doctor, Joseph Taylor is quite an important man in the minds of the town’s citizens.

Grandma Taylor introduces the theme of time flow that is so critical to the first act:  “The winters go by. The summers fly.  And, all of a sudden you’re a man.  I have seen it happen before, so I know it can happen again.”  Growth is as much a human ritual as birth.  In her generalizing, Grandma Taylor sounds like Wilder’s Stage Manager.  Growth does occur when Joseph Taylor, Jr. takes his first steps in “One Foot, Other Foot.”  Richard Rodgers uses the music from this song as a “growing up” motif, indicating the steps Joe will take throughout the show.  Once Joe can walk, he emerges as a truly living character.  The play concludes with him taking another major step in his life to the same motif.

During Joe’s childhood, Grandma Taylor dies, though she will appear together with his mother as ghosts during his wedding, and at crucial moments of Act 2.  So, now it is time for another childhood rite:  the encounter with the opposite sex.  In an eerie, often grotesque Children’s Dance, punctuated with fragments of nursery rhymes, Jennie Brinker and Joseph Taylor, Jr. are pushed into each other through a children’s game, displaying the inexorability of fate.  Jennie Brinker, the winsome daughter of wealthy lumberman, Ned Brinker, is a beautiful blond with insouciant charm and Joe is smitten immediately.

Soon, it is time for Joe to go to college to study medicine as his father did.  The 1920s college atmosphere is evoked through dance music, college cheers, and excerpts from professors’ lectures.  But Jennie continues to haunt Joe in his thoughts and desires:  “You are lovelier by far, my darling, than I dreamed you could be!”  Joe is obsessed with Jennie’s external beauty, but of her deeper motivations he hasn’t a clue.

While in college, Joe meets fellow student, Charlie Townsend, a more worldly hedonist, without Joe’s hometown values.  All Charlie can think about is girls, and when Jennie is seeing another boy, Bertram, Joe decides to go out with Charlie’s acquaintance, Beulah for a date.  She sings “So Far”, a song about the romantic possibilities of their beginning friendship.  However, upon finishing her song, Beulah notices that “the little louse is asleep!”  No competition for Jennie!

When Joe returns home, Jennie and Joe become engaged.  Shortly before the wedding, Marjorie Taylor and Jennie Brinker have a major argument, and Jennie reveals her true intent by telling Marjorie the plans she has for Joe’s success, and by demonstrating her indomitable will and determination to achieve them.  Marjorie is shattered, realizing that Joe has fallen into the arms of a ruthless schemer, but is helpless to change matters.  In fact, she dies soon after their confrontation.  With her major antagonist out of the way, Jennie is free to control Joe the way she wants.  In Act 2, she does just that.

Another ritual:  the wedding.  “What A Lovely Day For A Wedding!’ is a satirical song, showing how the Brinker relatives and Taylor relatives despise one another as they come from different social milieus and have completely different values and expectations, even Ned Brinker laments:  “What I’m about to get, I don’t exactly need.  A doctor for a son-in-law, another mouth to feed!”   But the wedding must go on.  And it does!  During the ceremony, Marjorie appears, and her doubts and concerns are voiced.  Grandma Taylor, too, is there.

Act 1 ends with a choir wishing the newlyweds well: at first in soft, encouraging tones, then climaxing in daring, shrieking sounds, and the orchestra ends in total discord, hinting at what disasters lie ahead.  Grandma Taylor and Marjorie shake their heads in horror as to the coming future.  And we, as the audience, can only wait for Act 2!

 

 

 

 

Allegro: The Musical That Couldn’t, part 1.

Rodgers’s and Hammerstein’s musical of 1947, Allegro, has long been one of their most unconventional and problematic musicals.  For in this musical, they turned the concept of “the nice girl next-door” on its head, creating the most unlikeable woman in their repertoire.   Indeed, Jennie Brinker, has few redeeming qualities other than looks and a seductive aura.  She is selfish, grasping and greedy, but manages to hide these character traits by being self’-assured and poised.  Ultimately, she is unfaithful as well.   She even turns against her father, Ned, when he is no longer rich, although he has spoiled her all his life. Jennie remains an enigma among Oscar’s usually sympathetic women who invite our compassion.  Even Hammerstein himself thought of revising her personality, so that Joseph Taylor, Jr.  could become reconciled to her.  Needless to say,  it never happened.

In Allegro, there are no strong male characters.  Joseph Taylor, Jr. is  weak, influenced by the women that pass through his life:  his grandmother, mother, Jennie, and nurse, Emily.  He has difficulty making decisions, and seeing people for what they really are.  Like his father, a country doctor, he is too trusting in his dealings with unsavory personalities, and is taken in by Jennie’s charm and beauty.  His college friend, Charlie Townsend, is a hedonist, who chases girls, but has no strong convictions.  Dr. Bigby Denby is a mere tool of businessman, Brook Lansdale.  Although Brook exudes a certain power on account of his wealth, his character is almost a caricature.  Except for Jennie Brinker, none of the characters in Allegro are well-developed, and this is a major weakness of this disturbing musical.

Much has been said about the unusual use of a Greek chorus to comment on the feelings and actions of personalities.  However, Oscar was no Aeschylus, and Allegro is not a Greek tragedy.  Joseph Taylor, Jr. is, indeed, an average Joe, not a man of heroic qualities struggling with the fates.  Also, the chorus becomes tiresome and tedious, and tells us what Joe is thinking, what is going on in his mind, rather than let Joe show us through his actions.

The work has been criticized as a Morality Play with its characters dating from The Middle Ages.  The constant preaching led one critic to call Allegro a sermon.  Indeed, the simplistic contrast between the evils of the city(Chicago) and the inherent goodness of the rural life in the second act, leads one to think of the drama as a Morality Play, with the powers of good fighting the powers of darkness.  But was that what R and H wanted us to believe?  Or did they have another purpose that somehow got lost in the confusion of Act 2?

A Visit to Placerita Canyon State Park

Last Friday, Glenn Malapit and I took a trip to lower Placerita Canyon State Park.  This is the area of the nature center, and a series of short hikes around the canyon.  Placerita Canyon was the site of the first California Gold Rush in 1842 when a hired hand, Francisco Lopez of the Rancho San Francisco, discovered flakes of gold.  But today, that memory has faded, and the canyon is known for its branching trees, boulder formations, and creek beds.  Scrub oak, and huge sprawling oak trees abound, with sycamore and willow where the shade is plentiful.  What struck me were the magnificent patterns of dark branches against a blue sky.  The rocks, mostly quartz, feldspar, and gneiss, with gleaming biotite mica, provided their own wondrous forms.  The area is quite dry and exposed, so a coolish day is recommended for extensive walking.

When Glenn and I arrived, there were bus loads of children with teachers ready to introduce the kids to the natural world.  Most of the children walked around in the nature center to view samples of natural phenomena, and to hear talks on the special features of the park.  It was not quiet, but children add their own qualities to the park experience.  The photos below reveal some aspects of Placerita Canyon, but one needs to go there to appreciate its bounties.IMG_6252IMG_6257IMG_6258IMG_6261IMG_6264IMG_6267 IMG_6272IMG_6280 IMG_6283IMG_6291IMG_6300

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