27 March 2012

Song of the day: "Beauty and the Beast" by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

Menken and Ashman did great work together and their most famous song is probably "Beauty and the Beast." The lyrics are so poignant and poetic. My favorite line is "Finding you can change/Learning you were wrong." The song takes on even more meaning when you consider that Ashman passed away before the Beauty and the Beast film was released. He knew he was dying the whole time he was working on the film. Alan Menken says that of all the songs in the film, this one was the hardest to write.

Apparently, Ashman was quite the driving leader and creative genius. He had a vision that animation and musicals would be a great marriage. And he sold the Disney corporation on it! He gathered a bunch of Disney people in a room and did a presentation where he discussed the history of the animation and the history of musicals separately and then showed how they were similar. (I don't have any further details on what the presentation was about.) I found a video where he coaches Jodi Benson, who sings Ariel in A Little Mermaid. He tell her to think about singing in a small enclosed space and makes an interesting remark about singing with "intensity" as opposed to with more "voice." I think what he meant is that you can convey emotion with the color in your voice instead of just using volume or belting.

There's also a nice video in which Alan Menken and collaborators reminisce about making Beauty and the Beast. I found out some interesting things. Ashman didn't tell anyone that he was sick, for a long time. But he would act out, doing things like smashing $500 Sony Walkmans. Ashman was also a guy who knew his theater really well. In the "Mob Song" from Beauty and the Beast, there are a couple obscure references. "Screw your courage to the sticking place" is a direct quote from Macbeth and "fifty Frenchmen can't be wrong" is a reference to Cole Porter.
Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends
Just a little change
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared
Beauty and the Beast

Ever just the same
Ever a surprise
Ever as before
Ever just as sure
As the sun will rise

Tale as old as time
Tune as old as song
Bittersweet and strange
Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong
Certain as the sun
Rising in the east
Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

26 March 2012

Song of the day: "Suddenly, Seymour" by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

A charming, sweet song from the musical Little Shop of Horrors. Howard Ashman was a gifted lyricist. I really like the line "He don't give me orders/He don't condescend." Unfortunately, Ashman passed away at age 40. Imagine how many Disney musicals would be better with his lyrics.
Lift up your head
Wash off your mascara
Here, take my Kleenex
Wipe that lipstick away
Show me your face, clean as the mornin'
I know things were bad, but now they're okay

Suddenly, Seymour is standin' beside you
You don't need no makeup, don't have to pretend
Suddenly, Seymour is here to provide you
Sweet understanding
Seymour's your friend

Nobody ever treated me kindly
Daddy left early
Mama was poor
I'd meet a man and I'd follow him blindly
He'd snap his fingers
Me, I'd say "sure."

Suddenly, Seymour is standin' beside me
He don't give me orders
He don't condescend
Suddenly Seymour is here to provide me
Sweet understanding
Seymour's my friend

Tell me this feelin'll last till forever
Tell me the bad times are clean washed away

Please understand that it's still strange and fright'nin'
For losers like I've been it's so hard to say

Suddenly, Seymour,
He purified me.
Suddenly, Seymour,
He showed me I can
Learn how to be more
The girl that's inside me
With sweet understanding,
With sweet understanding,
With sweet understanding,
Seymour's my/your man!

23 March 2012

Learning from other fields and cross-training

As I get older, I feel like scientists aren't really good at anything except science. Not that this is entirely surprising or that we should expect scientists to be amazing writers, speakers, etc. But if you're a scientist, you spend all your time immersed in the scientific community, thinking that the quality of writing or presentations that you see there are really the way things should be... well, you should go look at essays in the New Yorker or The Atlantic, or watch TED speakers or theatre performers or standup comics. The professionals of every field tend to have their strengths and weaknesses. If you want to shore up your weaknesses, go look for a field where that particular weakness is a strength, learn from those people, and use them as your inspiration. If you look outside your field, I think you'll have a huge leg up over others.

In sports, we call this cross-training. Athletes have no problem taking up yoga to help their hockey goaltending skills, for instance.

22 March 2012

Opinions and appreciation in culture and art

I've come to realize that there are certain genres or styles of performing art or types of food that I just can't seem to get into. Despite 8 years of piano lessons, I've never really understood classical music. I enjoy flashy violin solos like "Tzigane," but I have no idea what's going on in Mahler's symphonies. I don't get pop or rock music. I still can't tell the difference between various wines. Conversely, there are people who won't get my love of musical theatre, opera, and intense TV drama. (I'm still working on being a better theatre audience member.)

What does it all mean? If I don't appreciate something, is it because it's something innate about my personality (like gloomy people who can't stand Annie-esque material)? Or is it some innate prejudice (like my dad telling me as a child that pop music sucks)? Or is it that I just never met anyone who explained the merits to me, that I didn't have enough exposure to the material as a child?

Whatever the reason, I've learned that taste is very subjective. We shouldn't be dismissive of people's opinions when it comes to art and culture because everyone's opinions are born of complicated circumstances that we're likely never to know. On review websites, instead of saying that other people are wrong, you should say that you don't understand where the dissenters are coming from, or that your taste is different. And if you have a friend who loves death metal or something that you're not into, why not take this as an opportunity to learn why your friend loves the things he/she does?

16 March 2012

Notes on shows I've seen in the last six years

The Producers (March 2006)
St. James Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I'm pretty sure this was the very first Broadway show I saw. This was back when I knew zero about Broadway. My sister and I took the train down to meet up with some family friends. We had no idea what to see, but we had heard of the The Producers so we got tickets to see it from the TKTS booth. Our seats were somewhere in the middle of the theater. Neither my sister or I were very impressed with the show and I fell asleep during the climatic "Springtime for Hitler" number. Our friends, meanwhile, had scored lottery tickets to see Wicked in the front row. Apparently, they had a good time. C

Die Zauberflöte (November 2007)
Saturday matinee, Dress Circle D121, Metropolitan Opera, New York

I went for a doubleheader of Mozart, starting with Die Zauberflöte in the afternoon. I liked Act I, but found Act II dull and fell asleep except for the famous Queen of the Night aria. It was good to see a production at the Met, but this probably isn't my favorite Mozart opera. B

Le nozze di Figaro (November 2007)
Saturday evening, Dress Circle B22, Metropolitan Opera, New York

This is one of my favorite operas, so I was expecting a lot. I love the entire score. I don't think the production hasn't changed much over the years, so it seemed pretty similar to the DVD performance that I fell in love with. I think the famed baritone Bryn Terfel played Figaro. I vaguely recall that it was a good performance, but nothing amazing. B+

Il Barbiere di Siviglia (2007)
Metropolitan Opera, New York

I can't remember when I went to see this, so I'm guessing at the date. My friend, a German and an opera fan, got tickets to see it. The production was beautifully staged and I remember a lot of oranges. Peter Mattei played a very dashing Figaro. I had never seen any production of The Barber of Seville, so this was tremendously exciting. The music was, of course, amazing. I didn't find out until later that the Count who spends all his time trying to get the girl in The Barber of Seville ends up becoming an adulterous jerk in The Marriage of Figaro. A

Sunday in the Park with George (January 2008)
Tuesday evening, Orchestra B109, Studio 54, New York (Broadway)

This show is what convinced me to become a theater fan. I had just found out that the London production of SITPWG was transferring to New York and I was so excited that I bought a ticket to see it during the first week of previews. I'd never seen a show up close, and the best seat I could find was second row center during previews for the next day. I charged the ticket on my credit card without much hesitation and ran down to New York to see it the next day. It was the first time I'd done anything like that and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Normally, it's not the best idea to see a show during previews, but the show had transferred from the West End with the same leads, so it was more like a tech rehearsal. I do remember the mics having nasty feedback at one point during the show, but mostly it went on without a hitch. I vaguely recall that someone in the audience told me a story about how he had been at the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd in 1979 and that the set almost collapsed on the cast. It's amazing how I meet these people who've lived in New York for their entire lives.

Daniel Evans (George) and Jenna Russell (Dot) were amazing, especially up close. (After that, I always tried to get a seat in the first five rows. Yes, you pay twice as much, but the experience improves exponentially.) Evans was particularly intense. I recall Russell's interpretation of Dot was very different than what I had seen of Bernadette Peters on the DVD recording. Russell played Dot more sweet and bumbling compared to Peters' feisty portrayal. People say that SITPWG is a sobfest and indeed, I found myself crying (probably during "Children and Art"). I'd never been so moved during a theater production. This was also the first time I had ever stagedoored. Daniel Evans didn't really want to sign; he seemed irritated and wanted to run away with his shopping bag. I tried to tell him how much I admired his "intense" acting and he didn't seem particularly impressed by my compliment. But Jenna Russell saw us kids standing in the rain and felt really touched that we waited for her. She was just as sweet as her character.

A couple months later, I took a friend to see it again from the first or second row of the mezzanine. It didn't seem quite as moving the second time, especially from farther back. I had hoped that my friend, an artist, would like the dramatization of a life in art, but she didn't seem to like it that much, though she admitted that the ideas were very "creative." Still, when I think about an ideal night at the theatre, I think of Sondheim and SITPWG. A+

Sweeney Todd (March 2008)
Thursday evening, Orchestra M30, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (national tour)

This was actually the national tour of Sweeney Todd, but the same production as seen on Broadway. Back then, I had just become a huge Sondheim fan, particularly after I saw the Sweeney Todd stage and concert DVDs. It was too late to see the show on Broadway but the tour was still going around. I convinced my sister to see it with me in LA. Our seats were in the mid-orchestra. We both liked it, though I preferred the original staging from 1979. I thought the John Doyle actor-musician concept was interesting, but too gimicky and distracting. At the national tour, Mrs. Lovett was played by Judy Kaye and Sweeney was played by David Hess. My sister claimed that she saw Steven Spielburg (or maybe it was George Lucas?) in the audience. B+

Gypsy (May 2008)
Tuesday evening, Orchestra D105, St. James Theatre, New York (Broadway)

Following my experience with SITPWG, I knew what it took to get a great ticket to a hot show. I wanted to give the cast sometime to settle into their performances but I didn't want to see them too late when they were worn out. Patti Lupone had very good reviews from City Center and there was a lot of buzz about the transfer of the show to Broadway. The first day Gypsy tickets were available online, I jumped on them and got fourth row seats orchestra center. I chose a Tuesday evening performance on the theory that the audience would be made up of sophisticated New Yorkers (as opposed to tourists). Also, Much later, I found out that May is high season for Broadway shows. It's the best time to see them because it's after the Tony Award nominations are announced and the cast is scrambling to turn in.

I don't remember a lot about the show intellectually, despite the fact that I had watched a couple of the Gypsy films to familiarize myself with the material. The show was just an emotional blur of incredible excitement. When Patti Lupone (Rose) made her entrance, everyone started applauding. I had no idea this kind of thing happened and I learned another new theater tradition that day: entrance applause for a diva. I remember Laura Benanti (Louise) and Leigh Ann Larkin's (June) amazing voices and harmonies. I remember being in awe of Patti Lupone tearing up the letter at the end of ACT I's showstopper "Everything's Coming Up Roses." At intermission, I walked up to the stage and stared at the little scraps of paper, tempted to grab them as a souvenir. After the show, I met Boyd Gaines (Herbie). He was very gracious and down-to-earth. I told him that I had a friend who did a show with him and he asked me what show but I had forgotten. When Patti Lupone came out of the stage door, it was pretty hectic and she only had time to scribble her initials "PL" on my Playbill. I was very thankful nonetheless.

Three days after the show, I emailed Lupone at her fan page. I wrote that she and her supporting cast were brilliant, that I appreciated her signing my Playbill, and that I hoped she might have a performance recorded on Great Performances. She wrote back the next day and told me how much she appreciated my compliments. She said she would love to have the show recorded but it wasn't up to her. And sadly, the show was never recorded. A+

The Visit (May 2008)
Sunday evening, Right E12, Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia

Technically, this was not a Broadway show, but it was a tryout which had the potential to transfer to Broadway. Plus, it was written by Kander and Ebb and featured Tony Award winning actors George Hearn and Chita Rivera. I saw it at the Signature Theatre in the DC area when I was visiting my cousin's family. It was my first time seeing something at a first-rate regional theater in a small venue (about 300 seats) -- which was very cool. Unfortunately, I just didn't really like the musical. It was adapted from a play and I felt like the music didn't add much. It should have stayed a play. I was surprised by how informal things are at a regional show. My cousin and I met a woman who was the wife of one of the actors. The actors just came out into the lobby after the show (none of the crazy stagedooring I was used to at a Broadway production). I got George Hearn's signature and made the mistake of complimenting him on his work in Sweeney Todd. His response was "this show is good, too." Oops. I guess I won't be making that social slipup again. B

Rent (August 2008)
Sunday matinee, Center mezzanine A108, Nederlander Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I caught a Sunday matinee performance of Rent, the month before it closed on Broadway. Will Chase (as Roger) and Eden Espinosa (as Maureen) were in it, but obviously they didn't make much of an impression because I didn't even know until I looked at my records today. All I remember is that the music was really loud and I felt like I could have spent my time and money better. It probably didn't help that Rent seems so dated now. C

In the Heights (November 2008)
Sunday matinee, Front mezzanine B108, Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I got caught up in the Tony hype for In the Heights especially after I saw the clip of the recording studio performance of "96,000." I guess there was so much buzz that it was hard to find good seats. Plus, I made plans to see it with my friend, who wasn't going home to New York until the fall. So I got tickets for November, which in retrospect, was a bad idea. The cast seemed tired by then and it didn't help that we weren't sitting that close. Maybe they were tired because it was a Sunday matinee. Still, I was glad that we saw most of the original cast including Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer and star of the musical), Mandy Gonzalez (an awesome belter), Christopher Jackson, Robin de Jesús (Tony nominee), and Priscilla Lopez (original cast member of A Chorus Line). Karen Olivo had moved on to West Side Story. I thought my friend who like the modern score and the rap songs, but she didn't seem impressed. Now I know that musical theater's version of contemporary music (pop, rock, rap, etc) is not the same. Another failed attempt to show a friend a good time at a Broadway musical. B

August: Osage County (February 2009)
Wednesday matinee, Orchestra D106, Music Box Theatre, New York (Broadway)

This was my first Broadway play and not a good introduction. As far as I could tell, it was a play about crazy people who were completely unrelatable. There were too many characters. It's a bad sign if I sit in the front and still dislike the work. And this won the Pulitzer? I was also kind of disappointed to get the understudy for the lead role of Violet. Actually, she was very good, but I learned not to get matinee tickets because there'a a significant probability of getting the understudy. C

Mendelssohn and Mahler, LA Philharmonic (March 2009)
Sunday evening, Balcony C138, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

I went to see this concert with my sister. I didn't know anything about Mendelssohn or Mahler symphonies but they had a pre-concert talk to explain it to us. I had no idea that that are Mahler fanatics. The performance was pretty awesome and I was exposed to music I wouldn't normally listen to. Another plus was getting to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which has fantastic acoustics and amazing architecture. We took the architecture tour before the concert.

Unless I go see some hip musical, I tend to see older people at the theater. But that did not prepare me for a crowd who was all 60+ at the symphony. I was really shocked. If this is what it's like in LA with a top-10 symphony, I can't imagine that orchestras are going to survive much longer. It's truly frightening. A

Wagner's Ring Cycle (May 2009)
Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday evening, Family Circle standing room, Metropolitan Opera, New York

This was the opera experience of my life. After attending the Ring Cycle at the Met, it's okay if I never see another opera again. The friends I made at the rush line earlier for Don Giovanni told me how to get rush tickets for the Ring Cycle. I took the earliest train, which left at 4:11 am, getting into Manhattan at 5:47 am. From there, I took the subway to Lincoln Center and went to a place underground where a woman took my name to save my place. Then I went to a diner to eat breakfast and came back to get in line around 8 am. The box office opened at 10 am and I think I got my tickets before 11 am. What a steal, standing room tickets to see four Wagner operas for $100. It was the first time I had done standing room at the Met and I really liked it. Yes, I was at the top of the house as far back as you can go, but the sound was great, I could see everything and use my binoculars for closeups. Plus, what I hated about orchestra seat rush was that you had to wait for hours. For standing room rush, you just show up when the box office opens. There are also standing room tickets for the back of the orchestra section, but I wouldn't get those because the top half of the set is cut off from view. It wouldn't be fun to miss the rainbow bridge!

The Ring Cycle is considered the benchmark for a great opera company and I can see why. The insane, strenuous singing, the elaborate sets, enormous orchestra. I started to wonder if Siegfried ever left the stage and I noticed four harps in the pit. The most surprising experience I've ever had at the theater was during the finale of Götterdämmerung, when there are two set changes within five minutes. It was like the set just slammed onto the stage. I think my favorite was Die Valkürie, 'cause women warriors are cool. But Siegfried was also awesome, particularly the ringing hammer that is incorporated into the score. This Ring Cycle was particularly special because it was the last performance of the old Met production from the 1980s. Europeans really like it because it uses traditional staging and costumes. The new production (full of high-tech special effects) has gotten mixed reviews.

Some memories: 1) A European woman who hit me for talking on the cellphone during intermission. 2) A young Asian woman who I met in standing room. She asked me what I thought to the performance. I said I really liked Die Valkürie because I finally saw a strong woman character in the opera. She told me that unfortunately, this changes in the later operas, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. I also told her that I was disappointed that I didn't like Don Giovanni as a character. 3) A woman gave me her ticket to sit in the family circle. I tried to refuse it at first because I was quite happy in standing room, but she insisted and I accepted. I promptly fell asleep in that seat. Another reason to do standing room. A+

Don Giovanni (2009)
Family Circle, Metropolitan Opera, New York

This was the first Met opera I rushed. I heard about the Varis rush tickets which allow you get really nice orchestra seats. To be safe, I got to Lincoln Center around noon. The tickets aren't sold until around 5 pm, so that's a lot of waiting. Everyone in line seemed to be a die-hard opera fan and they gossiped about things like men lusting over Renée Fleming. One woman was reading a copy of the Opera News. The people were impressed that a young person like me came so early to rush and they were really nice and gave me tips about rushing. I can't remember what I did to pass the time, but I was prepared with a folding chair.

Unfortunately, the waiting made me so tired that despite getting the coveted rush ticket (I also got an extra for my aunt), I fell asleep during the performance. Don Giovanni is supposed to one of the best operas ever written. But I have no way to judge. The parts I did see I didn't really enjoy, maybe because Don Giovanni himself is a pretty nasty character.

Despite my fatigue, I met some really cool people including an older man who lived out near Stamford. He claimed that he came to the opera to escape his mother -- pretty amusing. no grade (since I fell asleep)

Wicked (2009)
Gershwin Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I can't even find my Playbill for this show. That bad, huh. Wicked seemed like the obligatory hit show I need to see at least once. I could never find good seats, but then the recession hit and I was able to score fourth row. Yes, it had big impressive sets, but other than that, I didn't find it particularly compelling. I never connect with or enjoy teen "high school" stories. The songs weren't that great, and the characters weren't well-developed, more like placeholders for teenage angst. C-

A Gala Evening with Kristin Chenoweth (May 2009)
Monday evening, Mezzanine B215, New York City Center

Technically, this was not a Broadway show. It was a concert at the New York City Center. I'm a great admirer of Kristin Chenoweth and wanted to see her. It was a good show and she did some of the songs I saw in the video of her concert with the Boston Pops. Unfortunately, the acoustics at New York City Center suck. Kristin loves her fans, so she came out to sign afterwards. I snickered a bit when a young girl complained that she sang too much "old" stuff and nothing contemporary like from Wicked. I was the last one to get my program signed. I was grateful that Kristin signed her full name. B

West Side Story (May 2009)
Tuesday matinee, Orchestra B116, New York (Broadway)

Another Tuesday matinee. I sense a pattern here: easier to get tickets for Tuesday night than any other night of the week. I didn't buy these tickets myself. My friend who lives in Manhattan dropped by the box office and they were able to find these awesome seats near the front. So my friend (finally a theatre-goer) and I went to see it. It was impressive to see real dance in a musical. It made us realize how much we missed it. I guess if musical theatre is supposed to be a dying art, dance must be in even worse straits. The leads, Josefina Scaglione (Maria) and Matt Cavenaugh (Tony), were good but I don't recall them being remarkable. Karen Olivo (Anita) had great energy and looked fantastic in her purple dress. No surprise that she later won a Tony Award for best supporting actress in a musical. When Olivo came out for the curtain call, we noticed that she had put on the purple dress again. My friend and I remarked, "She really likes that dress, doesn't she?" The production was also notable for using Spanish lyrics in some songs. All in all, a satisfying night of theater. A

Twelfth Night (July 2009)
Saturday evening, Section J Row U Seat 601, Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York

Ah, this was my first experience of Shakespeare in the Park, a summertime New Yorker tradition. I think Twelfth Night is considered Shakespeare's most popular comedy. Some notable members of the cast: Anne Hathaway (as Viola), Raul Esparza (as Orsino), and Audra McDonald (as Olivia). Anne Hathaway, the A-list movie star, was probably the biggest attraction and Ben Brantley's rave reviews probably also gave the production a huge boost.

I had been thinking about going to see it, but like all Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park productions, you need to line up for tickets the day of the performance. Finally, the last week rolled around, my friend's mom was in town. So I decided to go for it and line up for tickets. At the beginning of the run, you needed to line up at 6 am. Now, at the end, people were reportedly camping overnight on the street. I prepared by bringing a folding chair and my Nintendo DS Lite. That night, I checked Craiglist and saw that someone mentioned their campers were in line at 11 pm to get tickets. I thought "crap!" and immediately got on the subway. Unfortunately, I left after midnight so it was tricky getting to Central Park (subway runs much less frequently after 12 am). I finally got in line around 1 am, on the street outside Central Park. People were clearly more prepared than I. They brought tents, sleeping bags, games, musical instruments, etc. Then there were people like this Indian guy who showed up with nothing except a book and slept on the concrete sidewalk. Sometime around 6 am, they moved the entire line inside the park. Tickets were handed out around noon. Despite being in line for almost 12 hours, I didn't even get a real ticket, but a standby voucher. I came back about a half hour before the performance to see if I got the standby tickets and fortunately I got them! One for me and one for my friend's mom.

As for the performance itself, it was fantastic and kudos to the sound engineers at Delacorte Theater for the best sound I've ever experienced at the theater. My friend's mom had a blast, I had an adventure, and we both had memories to cherish. A+

Promises, Promises (May 2010)
Tuesday evening, Orchestra E109, Broadway Theatre, New York (Broadway)

I went to this show, solely to see Kristin Chenoweth. It was a huge disappointment. Chenoweth (who played Fran) was so skinny that I was concerned for her health. The music was pretty dull, not my kind of thing at least. Sean Hayes (a TV star who played Chuck Baxter) was good, but I'm not really a comedy person, so his slapstick was lost on me. Promises, Promises seemed so dated. Since when is suicide funny? My unhappiness with this show drove me away from the theater for a while. C+

Come Fly Away (June 2010)
Friday evening, Orchestra M4, Marquis Theatre, New York (Broadway)

My sister was visiting for a week, so I had a pretty restricted window to get tickets. Hence the unusual Friday night time. Since my sister loves dance, we went to a bunch of dance shows. The first was Twyla Tharp's Come Fly Away. I enjoyed the Sinatra music and the dance was pretty good. I'm not super into dance, so it didn't blow me away. Still, a good night. B+

By Popular Demand, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (June 2010)
Saturday matinee, Orchestra D16, Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn

I tried to squeeze in one more dance show for my sister and I found out about a distinguished New York dance troupe by the name of Alvin Ailey. This was my first time seeing a show in Brooklyn. There was a lot of variety in the dances, and I found it more interesting than Twyla Tharp's choreography in Come Fly Away. I had a good time, despite knowing nothing about dance. At one point, I fell asleep despite the loud music, but that was due to fatigue and not boredom. A-

Billy Elliot (June 2010)
Sunday evening, Orchestra N114, Imperial Theatre, New York (Broadway)

My sister loves Billy Elliot, so I got tickets for us to see it. There really weren't any great seats. I even went to the box office to see if there was something that hadn't popped up on Ticketmaster, but to no avail. The music was largely forgettable, the comedy was lame, a couple scenes were offputting, and the dance was cool, but there wasn't enough of it. I think my sister had a good time though. C+

Carmen (November 2010)
Wednesday evening, Family Circle B114, Metropolitan Opera, New York

I specifically bought this ticket to see the acclaimed performance of Elina Garanca. She was as great as advertised. After seeing this production, I have to put Carmen in my pantheon of favorite stand-alone operas along with The Marriage of Figaro and Tannhäuser. Yay, a strong woman role and more importantly, one of two great roles for mezzo-sopranos (I feel really sorry for them). Carmen is one of the few roles where strong acting really sparkles. A

Follies (October 2011)
Tuesday evening, Orchestra B107, Marquis Theatre, New York (Broadway)

At this point, I was sort of "Sondheimed out," but Follies is almost never put on, much less on Broadway. I skipped seeing A Little Night Music, but I dragged myself to see Follies. The day before I went to the library to get the Follies concert documentary and libretto and listened to the songs on Rhapsody in a furious cram session. I was familiar with a few songs from the Sondheim 80th birthday concert like "Losing My Mind" and "Could I Leave You?"

The cast was a distinguished group including Broadway legend Bernadette Peters (Sally), Jan Maxwell (Phyllis), Danny Burstein (Buddy), and Ron Raines (Ben). Still, I wasn't sure what to expect. The critics were relatively positive about the cast in DC, so that was a good sign. Follies was fun, but I understand now why people say it has a weak book. It felt like we were lurching from cabaret solo to cabaret solo. Janye Houdyshell gave a rousing, enthusiastic rendition of "Broadway Baby." Terri White led the ensemble in an energetic delivery of "Who's That Woman?" I wasn't too keen on Elaine Paige's diva-ish "I'm Still Here." Peters and Raines were good as the Stone couple, but I wasn't crazy about them. Peters sang "Losing My Mind" in tears, which wasn't to my taste, though a valid acting decision. My favorite was Danny Burstein. I could see the sweat on his face as he did the frantic "Buddy's Blues" number. Jan Maxwell was very good, but I already saw Donna Murphy in video clips of the same role, so that spoiled it for me. One thing I liked was the staging, particularly the spectacular colorful sets in Act II. That's really something you can only see on Broadway since Follies is so expensive to put on.

I took my time getting to the stage door, but I was able to catch Terri White and compliment her on the fun ensemble number she led. I also got Bernadette Peter's autograph, but I didn't get to say anything to her since she was busy talking to a friend. The other cast members fled out a different entrance or left early, so that was a bummer not to catch Danny Burstein or some of the other performers. Despite a few disappointments, it was a rare treat to see Follies and Bernadette Peters, so I have to give the night high marks. A

Final tally: 12 Broadway shows, 1 Shakespeare in the Park show at Public Theater, 2 non-Broadway New York shows, 1 Broadway show on national tour, 1 regional show, 9 operas, and 1 symphony concert. A total of 27 shows in 6 years. Not included a couple Shakespeare plays I saw in the 3 years prior.

12 March 2012

Favorite actor-singers

  • Kristin Chenoweth - great comic actor, operatically trained voice which makes everything sound easy, transitions effortlessly between pop/jazz/opera/legit musical theatre
  • Victoria Clark - has such a sweetness and optimism in her mannerisms and singing
  • Audra McDonald - has a voice to die for and four Tonys to prove her acting prowess, love her muscular arms
  • Kelli O'Hara - classically beautiful soprano, exudes class and professionalism
  • Marin Mazzie - beautiful, classically-trained voice with impeccable technique, fantastic dramatic actor (especially Sondheim), does my favorite rendition of "Losing My Mind"
  • Megan Hilty - just getting familiar with her, but she's great on Smash
  • Alice Ripley - known for her unique voice and intense belt (check out her belt face), probably the most versatile performer on this list, equally comfortable singing legit/pop/rock and doing comedy or drama, gives my all-time favorite performance in next to normal
  • Jenna Russell - great actor, saw her in Sunday in the Park with George
  • Raúl Esparza - unique, rich voice, great acting in Company
  • Brian d'Arcy James - fantastic, rich voice with impeccable technique (watch his mouth when he sings "I've Been"), touching performance in next to normal
  • George Hearn - Mr. Sweeney Todd!, near-operatic, classically trained booming voice
Actor-singer pretty much means musical theatre, though Carmen is a fine operatic acting role. I notice a lot of sopranos on my list. Maybe I like that voice type, because all the contemporary music is squashed into the alto-tenor range. Musical theatre is getting that way, too. It seems like all the guys sing tenor and all the women sing mezzo-soprano. Musical theatre composers: please write more roles for baritones and sopranos (I mean legit soprano roles, not sopranos singing low)! Altos and basses, too! We want variety in our singing.

06 March 2012

Backwards skating

I'm a terrible backwards skater and I finally decided to think about how to improve. Here are some things I've learned.

Backward stride

  1. Glide backward on the flats of both skates.
  2. Prepare to push with your leg. Place your weight above the pushing skate.
  3. Pivot the pushing skate outward with the heel facing out to the side. You want the pushing foot to be nearly at a right angle with respect to your gliding foot.
  4. Dig the inside edge of the pushing skate into the ice by rolling your ankle and bending the knee so that the skate and lower leg form a 45 degree angle to the ice. Make sure your full body weight is concentrated over the pushing skate.
  1. Start the c-cut. Use the front half of the blade to push.
  2. Start the push from the middle of the inside edge and finish at the toe. Drive the pushing leg against the edge, using a forceful snapping action of the leg.
  3. The push must executed with full extension of the leg, finishing with a toe flick of the inside edge. Your knee should lock out.
  4. At the midpoint of the c-cut, transfer your weight from your pushing skate onto the gliding skate. When you skate backwards, your body weight should be over the back half of the gliding blade. However, the entire blade of the gliding skate stays in contact with the ice.
  1. Keep the entire blade length of the pushing skate on the ice after the thrust is completed.
  2. Keep the knee of the gliding leg well bent, even when the thrusting leg is extended.
  3. Keep the gliding skate pointing straight backward all through the c-cut, with the entire blade length in contact with the ice.
  1. It's imperative that you do a proper recovery, so that your pushing foot is in the right position for the next c-cut.
  2. After the thrusting leg reaches full extension, re-pivot the foot to face inward.
  3. Pull the returning skate under your center of gravity and re-pivot your foot again when your foot gets under your body. You foot will make a larger arc as it returns and a small arc as you re-pivot under your body. Keep the entire skate blade on the ice as you complete the return.
  4. After the return, your skates should be side by side and under your body. You should not have one skate in front of the other. If that happens, you might end up zig-zagging down the ice.
  5. Now you are ready to do the next c-cut.
Key points and discussion

The most important thing to do is to get low. You want to bend your knees so much that they extend two inches forward of your toes. Imagine trying to bend your knees so much that your knees nearly touch your chest. Or imagine getting so low that you sit on the floor. Yes, get that low. And yes, it's exhausting. It takes much more effort and energy to skate backwards than forwards.

The second key point is to pivot your foot 90 degrees before you start the c-cut. It's hard to get power if your foot is at a shallow angle when you begin the c-cut. You want your foot to start perpendicular if possible. This requires some flexibility.

The reason you need to pivot your foot perpendicular is so that you can made a wide c-cut with a large radius. What you don't want is a c-cut with a small radius. The wider you can make your c-cut the more push you get.

The third key point is to get as close to 100% body weight on the pushing (cutting) skate as possible. To practice this, you can do c-cuts down the ice on one leg at a time. This will help you learn how to balance on your inside edge going backwards. It's similar to the power skating exercise where you glide on your inside edges, making half circles up the ice. The difference is that now you do it backwards.

You might have trouble getting full extension of your leg on the c-cut. This is a matter of balance. Make sure you do the things already discussed -- a) get as low as possible and b) get full body weight on the pushing skate.

A former Division I and Olympic player gave me the following advice. Don't skate pretty. Don't make beautiful c-cuts. Your goal is to skate with power and efficiency. You want to concentrate on pushing as hard as you can (explosively) on the first 1/3 of the push. As you push, thrust your leg out hard to full extension. As soon as you get to full extension, shift your weight to your gliding foot. I found that if I didn't shift my weight fast enough, I would lose my edge to the pushing foot.

When you start getting good at your c-cuts, you'll find yourself zig-zagging down the ice. Keep the gliding foot pointing straight backwards. You want to go backwards in a straight line, not a zig-zag. According to Laura Stamm, it's not possible to go backwards in an exact straight line, there will be a slight curve.

Remember to keep your skate blades on the ice. They should not lift up at any point during the backward stride.

The proper posture is to bend your knees as much as possible, keep your shoulders back, your back straight, and your head up. If you don't have a stick (for example, if you're practice at public skating where sticks aren't allowed), imagine holding a stick.

Keep the upper body and head still, except for the arms.

As you skate, move your arms in sync with your legs. As one leg makes a c-cut, move the arm, on the same side, forward while the opposite arm drives back. For example, if you make a c-cut with your left leg, move your left arm forward and drive your right arm back. The arms should move parallel to your body and not be swinging side to side.

Robby Glantz suggests that you practice the return, you should click your feet together. Of course, this is only when you practice, not in a real game situation.

A friend of mine who played Division I hockey had the following suggestion. When you first learn the backward stride, exaggerate the twisting hip motion.

Another thing you can try is to do forward c-cuts for practice.

Backward starts

There are two types of backwards starts: the straight backward start and the backward crossover start.

The straight backward start is pretty much like the normal backward stride. The difference is that you move your legs as rapidly as possible, while still making proper c-cuts at full extension and recovering. You do everything faster (push, recovery, etc), at a quicker tempo.

For the backward crossover start, you do a backward crossover followed by fast backward strides. It's debatable how many crossovers you should do. Some people suggest doing just one crossover, while I've seen other people recommend doing two crossovers in one direction and one more crossover in the opposite direction to straighten out.

Be very careful about using the crossover backward start. When you do a backward crossover before the forward has picked a direction, you have made the first move and the forward might blow past you. Several Division I players tell me that you actually start slower if you do a crossover. If you need to get back quickly, do a straight backward start. If you need to move laterally and have time, do the crossover start.


There are a couple things you can do to help people one-on-one. You can hold your stick above their head to force them to stay low. You can also have them hold their stick on one end with both hands while you hold the other end of the stick. They skate backwards while you provide resistance to help them keep their balance.

As mentioned before, to practice balancing on one leg and getting full body weight on the c-cut, practice making backward c-cuts down the ice and alternating legs, balancing on the cutting leg.

If you have a lot of players and not too much space, you can have the players lay their sticks on the ice and practicing doing c-cuts with their gliding foot gliding parallel to the stick. This helps teach people to keep their gliding foot pointing straight backward. You can have them do forward c-cuts, backward c-cuts, or both.

Finally, when the players are more advanced, you can have them play defense in one-on-one situations.


Laura Stamm, Laura Stamm's Power Skating (3rd ed), 2001.
Robby Glantz Secrets of Hockey Speed, Vol 1 - "Backward stride"
Laura Stamm - "Smooth powerful stride", 7:45

04 March 2012

Some thoughts on playing defensive hockey

I haven't played much defense, but I played D the last few games and frankly was terrible. I realized that I just don't know how to play defense. So I watched a college Division I game and some videos and here's what I've noticed.
  1. The keys to defense are:
    • Reading the play
    • Positioning
    • Angling
    • Gap control
    • Limit time and space
  2. When to pressure:
    • The puck carrier has his/her back to you
    • The puck carrier has poor puck control
    • Support is available
    • The puck carrier is isolated
    • The puck carrier is a scoring threat
  3. When to contain:
    • There's no immediate goal-scoring threat
    • The puck carrier is approaching
    • The puck carrier has good puck control
    • You have no support
    • You need to buy time in outnumbered situations
  4. When you play 1-on-1 defense against a forward, you keep a two stick length gap and watch their chest (not the puck). You want to angle them towards the boards by putting your outside shoulder on their inside shoulder and directing their movement with your stick. Generally you place your stick in the middle of the ice to force the attacker towards the boards.
    • If you get beat, you can try to "turn and burn". Turn from backward to forward, sprint after the forward, and force them into the boards, taking the body and the stick.
    • If you're close to the boards, take their body into the boards and put your leg inside their legs to tie them up. You can "step out" 90 degrees (sort of a backward to forward transition) and cut them off.
  5. At some point, you want to close the gap and challenge the forward. When to do this is subjective. The guideline is that you make a move between the blue line and the top of the faceoff circle. If you make a move at the blue line, try to force them offside. Don't let them go beneath the top of the faceoff circle without challenging them. At that point, they have a good scoring opportunity, so you must challenge them. You might want to "step up" and take their body/stick. Or try a poke check.
  6. If you're under pressure when going back to pick up the puck, you can execute an escape. Or if you're close to the net, use the net as a shield, skating around it with the puck close to the net.
  7. When in doubt, dump the puck along the boards, or if you're skilled enough, hold on to the puck, do some escapes/dekes, and skate it up until you can pass to the forward.
  8. If you're forced to ice the puck, you want to lift the puck, bouncing it high off the boards or alley-oop it.
  9. Playing the forward near the net. You can lift his/her stick or push them away (but not too aggressively). There are other techniques but I'm not sure which ones are legal. You always want to keep your chest facing the forward and swivel your head to keep an eye on the puck. Never turn your back on the net-attacking forward.
For points 1-3, the information is quoted from USA Hockey Magazine, February 2007.

03 March 2012

Song of the day: "I'm Alive" by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey

This is Gabe's big solo in the musical next to normal. Finally, a rock song that fits my voice! Technically, it's a rock-influenced musical theatre song, which I'm told is not authentic rock. (I'm no expert on rock music.) But hey it's fun, big, brash, and bright. Someone noted that it's also a great stalker song.

This is the solo version of the song. The stage version is interspersed with dialogue.
I am what you want me to be
And I'm your worst fear-- you'll find it in me.
Come closer...
Come closer...

I am more than memory--
I am what might be, I am mystery.
You know me--
So show me.

When I appear it's
Not so clear if
I'm a simple spirit or I'm flesh and blood...

But I'm alive
I'm alive
I am so alive,
And I feed on the fear that's behind your eyes.

And I need you
To need me
It's no surprise--
I'm alive...
So alive...
I'm alive.

I am flame and I am fire,
I am destruction, decay, and desire--
I'll hurt you...
I'll heal you...

I'm your wish, your dream come true,
And I am your darkest nightmare, too--
I've shown you...

I own you.

And though you made me,
You can't change me--
I'm the perfect stranger who knows you too well.

And I'm alive
I'm alive
I am so alive
And I'll tell you the truth if you let me try.

You're alive
I'm alive
And I'll show you why
I'm alive...
So alive...

I'm alive-- I'm right behind you.
You say forget, but I remind you.
You can try to hide, but you know that I will find you.
'Cause if you won't grieve me
You won't leave me behind...

Oh, oh, wah

No, no, no--
I'm alive
I'm alive
I am so alive,
If you climb on my back, then we both can fly

If you try
To deny me
I'll never die.
I'm alive...
So alive...
I'm alive...
Yeah, yeah...
I'm alive...
I'm alive...
I'm alive...
I'm alive!

01 March 2012

Song of the day: "A Light in the Dark" by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey

A sweet, moving ballad in the musical next to normal. I love Dan's ballads. In this song, Dan tries to convince Diana to side with him on a difficult decision.
One light shines in the drive --
One single sign that our house is alive.
Our house, our own --
So why do I live there alone.

Tell me why I wait through the night,
And why do I leave on the light?
You know. I know.
Our house was a home long ago.

Take this chance,
'Cause it may be our last
To be free,
To let go of the past
And to try,
To be husband and wife
To let love never die --
Or to just live our life.
Take my hand,
And let me take your heart,
Keep it far
From what keeps us apart --
Let us start
With a light in the dark.

Night falls I stare at the walls.


I stare at these walls...

I wake and wander the halls.

I get lost in these halls...

And I ache to the bone...

It's like nothing I've known<...br/>
I can't get through this alone.

Take this chance
And we'll make a new start
Somewhere far
From what keeps us apart,
And I swear that somewhere in the night
There's a light...
A light in the dark.