Spanish Flashback

February 28, 2010 at 4:53 pm (look)

Today I’m starting work on a painting for a friend, and I figured it was about time I posted some pictures from the last series of work I did, based on Spanish architecture I saw during my Spring 2007 semester abroad. The 25 small paintings were for a show at 20th Street Art Gallery that ran Nov.-Dec. Here are a few highlights.

The bullfighting ring in Sevilla:

Houses in Granada:

The interior dome of a cathedral, city forgotten:

A graffitied wall in Granada:

A pillar in Parque Güell in Barcelona:

A bench, also in Parque Güell:

A cathedral in Sevilla:

The Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid:

Stained glass windows, all over Europe:

Who’s up for a vacation?

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Forget Best Screenplay—Here are the Best F*!@ing Insults from In The Loop

February 26, 2010 at 11:36 am (hear, watch)

Warning: This will get lewd. But how can you talk about the dizzyingly funny and wildly vulgar political satire In the Loop, nominated for best adapted screenplay, without language that would make Howard Stern blush?

In the run-up to the March 7th Oscars, there has been much discussion about performances, direction, best picture chances, ex-husband-and-wife rivalries—and very little about screenplays. As the only adapted screenplay nominee that did not receive a Best Picture nomination as well, In the Loop has been overshadowed by films like Precious and Up in the Air, but it may be my favorite movie of the year, and is certainly the one that most delights in language.

Most of it is foul language, to be sure. But oh, what foul language! Insults are often dumb, easy and cheap—we’ll spew the first crude things that come to mind in the heat of anger or frustration. But four letter words and bro-speak like “douchebag” simply can’t express the wide range of ways in which a person can be contemptible, disappointing or idiotic. Hearing sublime wit and style applied to the art of the insult made me cackle with glee.

The act of insulting may be immature, but In the Loop brings grown-up flair to its “fuck-off”s. The insults (some too complex to be satisfying in out-of-context quotes) reveal an ear for rhythm, a stand-up’s mastery of the set-up and punchline, pop culture literacy, historical knowledge and, centrally, an understanding of political manipulations as fodder for screwball comedy. Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s director of communications and the source of most of the verbal abuse, deploys his sharp tongue with a shrink’s incisive knowledge of others’ vulnerabilities.

Given that this is a British movie, the musicality and formality of British English, not to mention its cultural history, provide multiple jokes. In talking to a staffer for low-level cabinet minister Simon Foster, who is upset because she was not informed of a media appearance that falls within her purview, Tucker explodes: “Within your ‘purview’? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”

(For more Austen-bashing, admire Mark Twain’s verve: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone.” This quote appears in last fall’s Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, a compilation of famous authors’ fighting words that similarly celebrates impressive smackdowns.)

As with “jaunty little bonnet,” In the Loop revels in creative descriptions. When Tucker complains about a War Committee meeting with a very young State Department aide, he rants, “His briefing notes were written in alphabetti spaghetti. When I left, I nearly tripped up over his fucking umbilical cord.” And “lubricated horse cock” is only the tip of the iceberg of the film’s animal imagery: Tucker is called a “poodlefucker,” an aide smells like “a pissed seaside donkey,” a staffer in hot water is “lobsterising,” a State Department official is “an excitable, yapping she-dog” and an American staffer is warned: “You get sarcastic with me again and I will stuff so much cotton wool down your fucking throat it’ll come out your arse like the tail on a Playboy bunny.”

From start to finish, bonnet to arse, In the Loop is a linguistic masterwork. If you haven’t seen the movie, watch it now. And if you want to further admire the writers’ achievement, you can download the whole script.

So here’s hoping that the Oscar goes to Armando Iannucci, who also directed the film, and his three co-writers, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche. Just imagine the acceptance speech they’ll give.

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Lindsey Vonn vs. the Tragic Nymphs

February 17, 2010 at 11:03 pm (look, watch)

In an article that appeared Wednesday in Slate, Hanna Rosin examines the fraught world of sexuality for female athletes. Her central comparison is between skier Lindsey Vonn, who recently posed for Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and “pixie” figure skaters “whose notion of sexy involves sparkly outfits and blue eye shadow.” Among other conclusions, Rosin declares that, for women, the trope “assigned toskiers (female gladiator) is far preferable to the one assigned to skaters (tragic nymph).”

But throughout the article are a number of statements and arguments that left me wondering who ran over Rosin’s foot with a 1/8″ blade and left her with a grudge against skaters.

First, some thoughts about Vonn’s shoot. After looking through the pictures, my main reaction (besides that she kind of looks like Alicia Silverstone and that the high-waisted red flowered bikini was a questionable call) was that, despite the fact that Vonn fits the standard ideals of beauty, she looks noticeably–and nicely–different from most women you see in bikini shoots. She’s muscular, un-plastic-surgeried, and has the body that she does because she is an incredible athlete. Rosin says that “It’s appalling, really, that the poster girl for the U.S. Olympics team, a woman whose promise is compared to Michael Phelps’, should behave for all the world like a Playboy bunny.” But Phelps got a ton of attention for his body and willingly appeared shirtless on the cover of Sports IllustratedGQ, Men’s Journal and more, so it’s not right to say that Vonn is acting irresponsibly or getting sexist treatment compared to him. Also, athletes’ bodies are their instrument, so I don’t think we should be made to feel bad for wanting to see them in all their glory. Yes, we should care not because they’re hot but because they’re talented, but the side effect of all that training is often an amazing physique. And we’re only human.

But then begins the sexist treatment on Rosin’s part. After saying that at least Vonn’s sexuality is preferable to that of the figure skaters, she writes, “Watching pairs skating these last few nights has reminded me of what the figure skating narrative is all about: tender young fawns gliding to maudlin music, getting thrown around, and landing on frail ankles. The vibe is more Virgin Suicides than professional sports and is thus, from the teach-your-daughters point of view, problematic.”

I don’t have a daughter to teach, but here are a few lessons I think the young figure skaters could impart: grace under pressure, dedication to a goal (in an increasingly instant-gratification world), the power of dreaming big, and that beauty, femininity and physical strength aren’t mutually exclusive. Also, though Rosin is speaking to the narrative and not the facts, saying that the skaters are “getting thrown around” is downright offensive to these athletes, who have crazy muscle control and power, not to mention a risk-taking spirit. Plus, that description doesn’t hold up in individual skating, where the women are clearly their own driving force for those whiplash jumps.

Usually these glittering, whirling girls get attention galore. But part of the reason for all the hoopla surrounding Vonn is that “This year, for various reasons, the United States does not have a figure skating star who has captured the media’s heart.” Rosin does not expand on those reasons, but I think it’s an interesting question to consider. Why? Because there’s nothing tragic or nymph-like about Rachael Flatt, who won the 2010 US Championships and is the United States’ top medal contender. Her short program at the championships was bubbly and upbeat, and the New York Timesdescribes her as having “round, ruddy cheeks and uncontainable perkiness”—hardly Rosin’s “weepy heroine.”

In appearance, she is not nymph-like either. And here’s where things get complicated: Flatt didn’t do much for me when I watched the championships, partly because I found her lacking artistry–and I’d be lying if I denied that it relates to the fact that she seems larger than many skaters, and therefore doesn’t have the balletic lines of, say, tiny Sasha Cohen. So is Rosin arguing that Flatt hasn’t become a media darling because she’s too smiley and too solid? Because she’s not a nymph? I’m not sure, because Flatt isn’t mentioned in the piece.

In addressing a true media darling, Michelle Kwan, Rosin makes navigating the sexual trickiness of figure skating sound like a lose/lose situation. Girlish and weepy is no good, yet when Michelle Kwan, attempting to be more grown up, dressed as a sexy temptress to perform “Salome” for the 1996 world championships, Rosin says that “The resulting look is somewhere between little girls’ dress-up and Thai brothel. The photos look like they should be confiscated by the FBI.” So what should figure skaters do? They compete in a sport that highly favors young, small women. They may fit more naturally into a “pixie” image because they’re closer in size to Tinkerbell than to the 5’10” Vonn. But when they start to chafe against that image, it’s not fair to damn them for not looking young, sweet and girlish enough.

All of these questions are important because, Rosin argues, sex appeal is inherent in the sport: “One of the reasons skaters have enduring appeal is that they get to show their bodies.” Rosin takes them to task for their nude tights and short skirts. But skaters don’t show any more skin than track stars, swimmers or tennis players. And aside from skating in crazy shiny blue bodysuits, what are better options? The sport requires agility (i.e. non-restrictive clothing), and no male skater wants to get tangled in a long skirt as he twirls his partner into a complicated lift. Admittedly, they could cool it on the illusion netting. But be honest: unless you’re a die-hard fan, spangly, oddly cut-out costumes are half the fun of watching figure skating in the first place.

In defense of women like Picabo Street and Bonnie Blair, whom she feels are insufficiently honored, Rosin says that figure skaters “hog all the glory.” Is the ratio of prime-time figure skating coverage to coverage of most other sports off? Yes. But to give kudos to Vonn because she isn’t “an ice princess in a short skirt” is a slap in the face to women at the pinnacle of their difficult sport. I hope that Rosin plans to watch the women’s competition, which begins next Tuesday, with a more open mind and with more respect for the skaters.

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Two Rooms of One’s Own

February 17, 2010 at 12:02 am (read)

I recently wrote an essay for the Pomona College Magazine’s winter issue, themed around “shelter,” about how long college grads should hold on to their childhood rooms. The magazine is finally out, and you can download a PDF here. I encourage you to check out the whole issue, but to be simple, you can read my article below. Have any experiences of your own you’d like to share?

*     *     *

My dad loves The Beach Boys. When I was young, he taught my sister and me how to harmonize to the high, pure melodies that celebrated surfer girls and little deuce coupes. We also sang “In My Room,” a paean to the private world within a bedroom, and to the importance of a place to call your own.

Upstairs at my parents’ house in Sacramento, on the door at the end of the hallway, is a blue-painted sign with wobbly carved letters. The product of a seventh-grade woodshop class, it declares “Anne’s Room.”

That bedroom is one of nine I have had in my life. It’s not hard to give up a college dorm with standard-issue furniture and cold linoleum floors, or a room in Madrid belonging to a host family who ate dinner in near silence across a long glass table, or one without AC rented from a young couple during a sweltering summer in New York. But I’m not nearly ready to close the door on my childhood room.

This reluctance knows no age limits: Last year, 85-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt and a designer recreated the room she lived in at 16 for a decorator’s show house. Hers had silver leaf wallpaper and a 19th century grandfather clock. Mine has softball trophies and cardboard-framed pictures from a Hawaiian-themed school dance, a desk with a pile of 104 movie ticket stubs, and a mini trampoline that I would respectfully never bring to my second-story apartment, even though the downstairs neighbors throw parties that devolve into freestyle rap competitions at two in the morning.

I live in Sacramento, 10 miles from where I grew up. I love having my own place, but spend many Saturday mornings at my parents’ house. As we drink coffee and chat, I slide into home life so easily that sometimes I feel like there’s a part of me that never left my old room. My shadow self puts on the worn zebra print slippers, curls up on the bed and grabs the February 2004 Vogue from the nightstand drawer. Maybe she goes out on weekends carrying the vintage clutches and metallic purses that dangle on hangers in the back of the closet. Because if she’s not using my stuff, why do I need it?

When I was three my parents threw out all my pacifiers on the advice of a buck teeth-fearing dentist, and I cried until my dad retrieved them from the garbage. I didn’t need braces anyway, so I trust that I can make it to adulthood well-aligned and well-adjusted even with satin-skirted Madame Alexander dolls crowding my bookshelf. It feels childish and even selfish to still want that room and those things, especially against a backdrop of foreclosed houses and rising homelessness. But if my parents asked me to clear out I’d be an infant again, wailing because my anchor had been yanked away.

“It was horrible,” my friend Evan Pardo told me of giving up his room when his mom moved during senior year. As they packed up Lego models and unearthed childhood memories—some apparently better than others—he and his mom had their single biggest fight. He lost a second room, at his dad and stepmom’s house, when they turned it into an office the very day he moved out after college. “It’s totally a fair thing to do,” he said, “but the abruptness of the whole thing meant there was no mourning period.”

Still, seeing your old room converted may be better than finding out it’s been forgotten. “My ceiling collapsed and nobody noticed for days!” exclaimed Brittney Andres, my freshman year roommate, when I asked the state of her room in Illinois. Her parents had shut off the room, and after a bad storm last winter the attic floor broke through, spilling boxes of cat toys and other junk onto her bed. “It was all wet and smelled funny,” she recalled.

For those who haven’t been flooded or officed out of our rooms, how long do we hold on? Is there a helpful equation to set an end date, like [(age + salary) x miles from home] ÷ square feet of current apartment? Some people, like Ramsay Edwards-McNear, simply take things bit by bit. “Whenever I come home, my mom asks me to remove something or clean out somewhere,” he said. “At this rate, I will be totally moved out by 2024.”

Many recent grads occupy this vague space of in-between-ness and transition. We’ve gotten jobs and apartments and navigated the frustrating waters of non-family-plan health insurance, but haven’t cut the rope to float untethered into an uncertain, frankly kind of scary future.

So my old room is not just a storage space, or something I’ve been too lazy to deal with while I clutter up a new location: it’s tangible proof that I can come home again. There’s a tricky balance between a safety net and a restraint—it’s hard to apply for jobs in New York or move to Buenos Aires when you’re still rooted in family—but ultimately I hope I treat my room as a license to take risks. Dreaming big, traveling far, and chasing challenges could pay off, or might leave me broke and bruised. I’m lucky to know that if I need a room—a world to “lock out all my worries and my fears,” as The Beach Boys sang—there’s one with my name on it.

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Why is the Lady Gaga/Beyonce song “Telephone” so bad?

February 12, 2010 at 12:43 pm (hear)

Don’t get me wrong—I think Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are two of the most talented pop stars out there. I sing along to “Paparaazi,” Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” might be my favorite mainstream hit ever, and I saw a great Destiny’s Child concert when I was in 7th grade. They are sexy and bold women, and their clothes alone make award shows worth watching. So why are their collaborations terrible?

The stars first paired up on the remix of “Video Phone,” which is the stupidest song on Beyoncé’s album and feels like it was written exclusively for a commercial. Next came “Telephone” (sensing a theme?) for Lady Gaga’s album The Fame Monster. Just before the Grammys they shot the video, which reportedly involves Beyoncé rescuing Gaga from jail and makes use of the yellow truck from Kill Bill (aka the pussy wagon). Both women have a flair for the dramatic, so I’m sure there will be plenty of bonkers clothing and vaguely threatening technophile imagery.

But as for the song itself, these are among the lyrics the divas sing in the compelling tale of a woman who wants a boy to stop calling her because she’s trying to get drunk in a club in peace (as transcribed by Directlyrics.com):

“E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e

Stop telephonin’

Me-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e

I’m busy e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e

Stop telephonin’

Me-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e

Can call all you want but there’s no one home

And you’re not gonna reach my telephone.”

(Tao Lin, the author of Eeeee Eee Eeee, should get a royalty. Though, to be fair, many people prefer to write the near-poetry as “eh eh eh eh eh.”) Not that I should expect a ton of logic and intricate thought processes to happen in a pop song, but when faced with these lines from Beyoncé

“I shoulda left my phone at home

‘Cuz this is a disaster

Calling like a collector

Sorry, I can’t answer”

my reaction is “Turn off your damn phone!” People have become so attached to their devices that it doesn’t seem to even occur to the women to stop complaining and just hit the power button. Maybe there’s a deep metaphorical layer to the song—Gaga is clearly fond of imbuing her pop music with meaning derived from “performance art” and other high-brow buzzwords—but the song seems to revel in its triviality.

Coming from the powerful, feisty, creative duo, this song is an inane disappointment.For a cleverer phone-centric song, I’ll take Gwen Stefani’s “Breakin’ Up,” which uses bad cell phone reception as a metaphor for a failing relationship.

I will say, I would love to see the text messages these two phone-obsessed women send each other.

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Crazy Heart and a country playlist

February 8, 2010 at 11:07 pm (hear)

This past weekend I saw the movie Crazy Heart, about a down-and-out country singer who, despite being an alcoholic and having a penchant for leaving his belt buckles constantly undone, possesses a grizzled warmth that attracts both Maggie Gyllenhaal and the audience. Jeff Bridges is favored to win the Oscar for Best Actor, and “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” is up for Best Song.

I’m woefully under-informed about classic country, and the much-mocked form (“What kind of music do you like?” “Oh, everything. Except country.”) got a playful ribbing in my home, where my mom would sometimes drawl her imitation of a country song: “I lost my wife, I lost my truck, and then I lost my dog.”

But that mix of hardship and humor is what gives country music its heart, and it turns out that some of my favorite musicians have a country twang. Here, then, is my country playlist:

1. The Dixie Chicks, “White Trash Wedding”

This song has a rapid-fire, bouncing fiddle melody, plus it cracks me up. The chorus:

“You can’t afford no ring
You can’t afford no ring
I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring”

2. Ryan Adams, “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.”

Adams puts out too many albums to keep up with, but I loved 2007’s Easy Tiger. A taste of that country sadness:

“If I could I’d fold myself away like a card table
A concertina or a murphy bed, I would
But I wasn’t made that way, so you know instead
I’m open all night and the customers come to stay
And everyone tips but not enough to knock me over
And I’m so tired, I just worked two shifts.”

3. Wilco. Pick a song, any song. I love them so much I forget how alt-country they can be. But a few recommendations: “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and “Forget the Flowers” from Being There, “Hummingbird” from A Ghost Is Born, and “Jesus, Etc.” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

4. Kathleen Edwards, “In State” (in which she tells a failure of a boyfriend that she “know[s] where the cops hang out” and “maybe 20 years in state will change your mind”) and “Back to Me.” I’ve heard her newish album, Asking for Flowers, is really good, but don’t have it yet.

5. Julie Roberts (this woman really should have picked a stage name), “You Ain’t Down Home” and “No Way Out” (“Fell in love and there’s no way out, sometimes you just gotta laugh about it.”)

6. Rilo Kiley, “I Never”

I’m counting this as country because Jenny Lewis’ solo album was country-ish. I love the opening.

Also, pretty much the only radio-play song this year that I liked (ok, loved) was Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” So sue me.

Happy listening!

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Sing It: An Interview With Nanci Zoppi

February 6, 2010 at 8:50 pm (hear, watch)

If you haven’t heard Nanci Zoppi, you ain’t heard nothing yet. In the last year, the singer-actress has made waves in the Sacramento theater scene through performances with the New Helvetia Theatre Company, B Street Theater and weekly cabaret series Graham-a-Rama. With an elastically expressive face and a jaw that seems to come unhinged as she unleashes high notes, she brings equal parts comedic talent and yearning sadness to her role as Susan, the girlfriend of an aspiring musical theater composer, in Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! Presented by New Helvetia, the show runs through February 13. Nanci took some time between two shows on Saturday to chat about the musical, her new band and what makes her cry.

How did you get into singing and acting? Tell me about the first performance that you can remember. My dad’s a singer around town, Bobby Zoppi—he had the band Zoppi. So he taught me how to sing when I was two, when I started talking. I hummed before I knew words. And at six my first grade play was The Littlest Christmas Tree and they cast me as the littlest elf and I loved it. From that point on I threw myself into acting, and I went to theater school when I was 19.

Where did you study? I went to this place called Circle in the Square in New York. All my favorite actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Benicio del Toro and Felicity Huffman went there.

You’re currently starring in Tick, Tick…Boom! How would you describe the show? Jonathan Larson really wanted to bring real rock music to the stage. It’s still musical theater, but it does have a different edge to it and even if you don’t like musical theater you’ll still like this. The show resonates with a lot of people, with the question of “what am I going to do with my life?”

Had you been a Larson fan previously? I liked Rent, but I was never diehard. I’m more of a Sondheim person—Sunday in the Park with George is maybe my favorite musical of all time. I had heard Tick, Tick…BOOM! and I didn’t like the music at all. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to work with these people again [after starring in New Helvetia’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch last summer], and it’s been a great experience because I love the music now.

What changed? I think when you start to do your groundwork as an actor for your characters, you grow an attachment to them. That automatically makes the songs more personal. Plus [co-stars] Connor [Mickiewicz] and Tristan [Rumery] bring so much to the characters and sound so beautiful doing it. I don’t know if you’ve heard the cast recording of Tick, Tick…BOOM!, but Raúl Esparza is the star. Terrific actor. Has one of the most annoying voices on the planet. So I think that had something to do with it.

There are some clever songs in the show, like “Therapy,” plus one, “Green Green Dress,” that’s all about how hot you are in a green velvet dress. Do you have a favorite? My favorite song in the show I don’t sing. It’s the one Jon [the main character, who has a day job at a restaurant] sings at the end—it goes “I’m going to spend my time this way.” [The song is “Why,” in which Jon reaffirms his decision to devote himself to music and theater.] When he sings it I’m always offstage, and I cry every time at this certain part, when he says “Five o’clock, diner calls, I’m on my way.”

What makes it so affecting? I always knew what I wanted to do, from six years old, maybe younger. And then I hit 24, 25 and everything changed. Like, “I have no idea if I want to do this anymore.”

What made you doubt? Theater school was a lot of it. When you do six days, seven days a week from 8 a.m. until sometimes midnight and you’re trapped with 50 really needy, passionate, sometimes horrible people—I was so tired, I took two years off. I went through that, “do I give up? Is this something I really want to do?” Even if you’re super talented, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to succeed.

But you got back in the game, and people love your performances. On at least three occasions, the arts editors of the Sacramento News and Review have written that they’re “obsessed” with you. What do you think it is about your performance that leads to those strong reactions? If I knew that, I would try to mass produce it. I’m a vocal teacher as well, and the thing I tell all my students is, if I wanted to just hear a pretty voice I would listen to a CD. You have to make it personal so that people want to get out of bed, get dressed, get in the car, spend the gas money, buy a ticket and then at the end, be willing to do it all over. Leading up to high school, everything was really on a gut feeling, and feeling the audience’s energy, and when I went to theater school everything became very technical. I think I finally reached a place where I’ve been able to marry those two concepts.

A lot of people think of musical theater as over-the-top, jazz hands, all that. But do you also sing rock or pop music? When I was growing up I was training in opera and musical theater and contemporary stuff. I grew up listening to the Pixies. My favorite to sing though is folk music. I started a band with Graham Sobelman [the brains behind Graham-a-Rama] called Nanogram. I’d call it piano-based folk, and we’re currently trying to record an EP. The last year has been great because I’ve been able to just work doing theater and singing lessons. This is a new experience for me, and I hope to continue it as long as people want to come see me.

See Nanci perform:

  • Tick, Tick…BOOM! Through Feb. 13
  • It’s Only Life, a revue of the music of John Bucchino (presented by New Helvetia), March 1 at the Crest
  • As “Nanogram” at Graham-a-Rama, March 14

Watch: Nanci at Graham-a-Rama, performing “It Goes Like It Goes,” from the movie Norma Rae

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There is no future, there is no past: Rent and Tick, Tick…BOOM!

February 4, 2010 at 2:00 pm (Uncategorized)

When I was younger and kept a journal, nearly every entry began: “Wow, it’s been so long since I wrote!” So, um, hi. It’s been so long since I wrote. But now I’m back, and with lots of movies, music, art and books to talk about. Please join me as I try to make my way through the cultural landscape.

Last night I saw the musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s rock opera, as part of Broadway Sacramento. I’ve long been a fan of the show, which brings a grittiness and chaos to the often cheesy world of musicals.

A quick rundown of the background, in case you’re not familiar with the Larson mythology. He wrote Rent over seven years, and then it was staged in a workshop production at the New York Theatre Workshop. The night before the first public performance in 1996, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35. The show went on to Broadway, injected the staid stage with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, and became an awards-draped global phenomenon.

On this current tour, which closes here in Sacramento on Feb. 7, original Broadway cast members Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp reprise their roles as musician Roger and filmmaker Mark, respectively. Across town, at the Artisan on Del Paso Blvd., the New Helvetia Theatre Company is re-staging their fall production of Tick, Tick…BOOM!, an earlier Larson musical. The two productions combine to create an exhilarating portrait of late 1980s New York City, and of Larson himself. (I highly recommend the New Helvetia show, starring Tristan Rumery, Nanci Zoppi and Connor Mickiewicz. It runs through Feb. 13. Stay tuned for my interview with Nanci this weekend!)

What’s odd about watching both these shows is that they’ve become a never-never land, a place where Larson and the lost boys that are his leading men never grow up. Larson was obsessed with the passage of time. The semi-autobiographical Tick, Tick…BOOM! anxiously counts down until his 30th birthday, which he sees as the end of his youth. You can’t help but hear lyrics from songs like “30/90” in the context of Larson’s early death:

Stop the clock -Take time out

Time to regroup before you lose the bout

Freeze the frame – Back it up

Time to refocus before they wrap it up

Not just another birthday, it’s 30/90

Why can’t you stay 29

Hell, you still feel like you’re 22

Turn thirty 1990

Bang! You’re dead

Even the re-casting of Pascal and Rapp in Rent seems like an attempt to stop the clock. Fourteen years after the premiere they’re both pushing 40. We know they’re older, and are supposed to pretend that they’re youthful bohemians for nostalgia’s sake, and the chance to see great performers. For the most part it works, if you buy into the refrain, from “Another Day” and “No Day But Today,” that “there is no future, there is no past.” We’re trapped with these characters in the eternal present where nobody gets older or has to get real jobs that can actually pay the bills, and it’s joyful and hopeful—an attempt to seize the moment and connect in a disaffected world–but it’s sad, too.

Rent’s most famous song, “Seasons of Love,” begins:

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,

Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?

Again Larson tries to wrap his head around the passing of time, re-characterizing it with unusual measurements (30/90, 525,600, cups of coffee, love) that perhaps allow him to get a grip on its slippery, unstoppable nature.

The reprise then asks, “How do you figure a last year on earth?”

This is not to say that Larson somehow knew he would need to make the most of his short life—after all, his musicals are set in the age of AIDS, when for many people in the New York arts world days were numbered. Instead, since I’m wowed by the passion and creativity bursting from his work, I see him as someone who acutely felt the crush of the future because he had so much he wanted to accomplish.

Rent and Tick, Tick…BOOM! are firmly rooted in a place and a time and a moment; it will always be New York City at the end of the millennium, and Larson will always be a struggling young artist. I only wish that he’d lived long enough to experience other times and moments, and write musicals about those, too.

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