Sunday, March 31, 2019

Theater Review: ‘The Price of Thomas Scott,’ by Elizabeth Baker, from the Mint Theater Co.

I have expressed my admiration several times on this blog about The Mint Theater Company and its mission of uncovering unjustly neglected dramas of the past. But in its most recent production, The Price of Thomas Scott, which closed a week ago on New York’s Theater Row, I’m afraid that this plucky Off-Broadway troupe could not breathe life back into the inanimate body it came upon. 

In fact, I came away thinking that there might have been more off-stage curiosity and even drama in the life of this period piece’s English playwright, Elizabeth Baker, than in the play itself, which has not been produced since its original 1913 production.

The play is simple enough: After decades of running a drapery shop with increasingly dwindling profits, Thomas Scott can finally get out of the drudgery when an old acquaintance, Wicksteed, appears on his doorstep, offering to buy him out. 

Each of the rest of the Scott family, for reasons of their own, are eager for him to accept the offer: Wife Ellen wants to move to the suburbs; son Leonard, a promising student, could use the money to advance his education; and daughter Annie, sensing her flair for something more creative than the mostly mundane hats she trims in Thomas’ shop, wants to study fashion in Paris.

Unfortunately, Thomas, a Noncomformist, or non-Anglican Protestant, has very strict ideas about morality, including that dancing is sinful—and Wicksteed wants to turn the shop into a dance hall. Should Thomas take his money and not concern himself with what is done with the property—or stand on principle and dash his family’s dreams?

To her credit, Baker does not make Thomas Scott one-dimensional, as, for, instance, a playwright like the dogmatic Lillian Hellman might have done. And Banks and his cast have sensitively conveyed these characters’ hopes, hesitation, and disappointment in the fate they have been dealt. (A hurried, frenzied attempt at an in-house dance by Annie and her suitor, Johnny Tite, offers a welcome kinetic release, as well as an appropriate symbol of cultural rebellion.) But the characters swallow their various misgivings, so that the action never reaches the emotional climax one expects here.

Too often, reviewers write about a revived play they don’t like as being “dated.” I hate the term: it’s not only cliched but meaningless. (What, after all, is more “dated” than King Lear or Oedipus Rex?) 

But I’m not sure how the Mint company thought it could make contemporary and relevant the intensely religious Edwardian milieu of Thomas Scott to overwhelmingly secular Manhattanites of the 21st century.

I would have welcomed the chance to learn more about the Noncomformists and the Liberal Party in Great Britain before World War I—a topic discussed by George Robb of William Paterson University in a post-show talk. Still, the post-performance lecture I attended, given by Maya Cantu, a member of the drama faculty at Bennington College and dramaturgical advisor to the Mint, was quite illuminating about Baker’s own life.

Like Annie Scott, Baker came from a strict religious background. Nor did her initial job in the workplace, as a shorthand clerk and typist, offer opportunities for what became a consuming creative interest: the theater.

Keenly observant, Baker quickly absorbed the conventions of the well-made theater of her time: sharp, realistic dialogue and unity of time and setting—facts reflected in the single setting and confined time period (two days) of The Price of Thomas Scott

For a while, the London press hailed her as a “widener of frontiers.” But after a final one-act play in 1932, she fell into obscurity, except for a few telecasts of her plays by Britain’s Four ITV Television Playhouse from 1959 to 1961.
This production will be the first of a projected three that the Mint company will mount of Baker's plays over the next two years. One hopes that Partnership and Chains will fulfill the promise and soften the flaws present in this initial entry in the “Meet Miss Baker” project.

Quote of the Day (John Dryden, Invoking the World’s ‘Creator Spirit’)

“Creator Spirit, by whose aid
The World's Foundations first were laid,
Come, visit ev'ry pious Mind;
Come, pour thy Joys on Human Kind;
From Sin, and Sorrow set us free;
And make thy Temples worthy Thee.”—English poet John Dryden (1631-1700), Veni, Creator Spiritus (“Come, Creator Spirit”) (1693), in Dryden (The Laurel Poetry Series), general editor Richard Wilbur (1962)

(The image accompanying this post is The Creation of the Animals, a painting by the Italian Renaissance master Tintoretto in 1550. It is displayed in the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice.)

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Quote of the Day (Nathaniel Hawthorne, on Our ‘Odd and Incomprehensible World’)

“This is such an odd and incomprehensible world! The more I look at it, the more it puzzles me, and I begin to suspect that a man's bewilderment is the measure of his wisdom.”—American novelist and short-story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Flashback, March 1969: Campbell Scores With Another Webb-Penned Hit, ‘Galveston’

It’s not unusual for a recording artist to achieve a supernova of commercial success, even over a sustained period. Think of Elton John for the first half of the Seventies, or Michael Jackson from 1979 (Off the Wall) to 1991 (Dangerous). But it’s another thing entirely to achieve that level of broad acceptance not only on the radio but on film and TV. For that, we’re talking about Sinatra, Presley, the Beatles—and, in 1969, Glen Campbell.

In March of that year, Capitol Records released the 13th album by the country singer, Galveston. To a burgeoning career as a recording star, he was now adding to his repertoire TV variety-show host (The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour) and even actor (True Grit), playing second male lead to the grizzled veteran John Wayne. Campbell had become, as his friend, the songwriter Jimmy Webb, would put it nearly a half-century later, “a small industry.”

Webb himself had become something of a “small industry,” if not with Campbell’s visibility. He did not have the singer’s number of media outlets, but he had an even wider array of people who clamored for his work. In 1967, he had come away with Record of the Year for the Fifth Dimension’s recording of his “Up, Up and Away.” The following year, he had simply set the music industry on its ear by composing an epic “pop cantata” that became a smash for Richard Harris, “MacArthur Park.”

But the recording star with the greatest affinity for Webb’s work was Campbell, who won a Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” then followed with Grammy and Country Music Award nominations for “Wichita Lineman.” 

Webb had initially begged off Campbell’s request for an appropriate follow-up to “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”—i.e., “something about a town”—with the weary observation that he “just about exhausted the Rand McNally phase of my career,” the songwriter recalled in his 2017 memoir, The Cake and the Rain. But then he yielded, turning out another geography-based smash, “Wichita Lineman.” “Galveston”—originally performed by, of all people, Don Ho—furnished Campbell with another hit in this vein that would serve as the title cut of another best-selling LP.

Both men enjoyed great appeal among the music spectrum through their association. The 22-year-old Webb, who had seen his tunes place among the rhythm and blues charts as well as pop, now found that the plaintive, storytelling qualities of his songs hit the sweet spot with country audiences. 

And Campbell, who had spent the previous decade cutting his musical teeth as a guitarist for the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, The Beach Boys, and Phil Spector, could translate a distinctly regional sound into broader national appeal through both his musical gifts (wide vocal range and vast skill with multiple stringed instruments) and personal factors (boyish good looks and down-to-earth, humorous manner). Before Kenny Rogers, Taylor Swift, LeeAnn Rimes, or Lionel Richie, Campbell had shown the way as probably the first true country-pop crossover recording star. 

As a sign of that appeal, “Galveston” would be nominated for Country Music Awards for Album and Single of the Year and rise to #1 on the country charts, but it also made it to #4 on the U.S. pop charts. In a 2011 interview, Webb—who contributed another hit, “Where's The Playground Susie,” to Campbell’s 1969 LP—marveled at how Campbell managed to convert his songs into gold: 

"Glen was very, very good at commercializing my songs. He could come up with great intros and great solos, great breaks, and he wrote perfect strings, because he wrote very little. It was a minimalist approach and it just left Glen out there with the song and the guitar. I tended to write a little bit more as an arranger, and probably too much. So I could have done better to have stayed out of Glen's way, I think."

In another sense, though, Campbell’s single, dominated by producer Al de Lory’s thick layer of arrangements, was performed at an upbeat tempo totally at odds with its underlying message. A song about solitude, anticipated mortality, and loss, its lyrics need to be silently absorbed before they can even begin to be remotely understood.

I wasn’t moved by “Galveston”—I couldn’t concentrate on it, even—until I heard Webb himself perform it on his 1996 CD, Ten Easy Pieces. Campbell far surpassed Webb in the pristine quality of his voices, but stripped to the bone, with just the songwriter accompanying himself on the piano, “Galveston” throbs with all its intended melancholy.

Like another pop classic of the late Sixties, the Bacharach-David tune “I Say A Little Prayer," “Galveston” is a study in ambiguity, composed at the height of the Vietnam War, in the voice of someone separated from a lover because of wartime service. But Hal David’s lyrics are so general that they have been applied in contexts completely unrelated to the conflict (such as the 2010 revival of the team’s musical Promises, Promises, when it was inserted to boost Kristin Chenoweth’s role). It has been interpreted most often simply as a statement of undying commitment and love. I would be very surprised if more than one radio listener in a thousand has understood it in any other way.

“Galveston” has never had a problem being seen against a backdrop of war—indeed, it’s well-nigh impossible, with that lyric “while I watch the cannons flashin',” to regard this in any other fashion. But opinions remain divided about which war was meant. Some listeners thought Webb meant the Spanish-American War—not unnaturally, as the seaport served as the jumping-off point for servicemen on the way to Cuba. Less defensibly, others looked all the way back to the Civil War.

But Webb was deeply opposed to the Vietnam War. If he didn’t engage in fist-pumping protest songs, he forced listeners to work harder: to understand the pain of a military man far away from the 21-year-old woman he still remembers “standing by the water,/Standing there looking out to sea.” (A second verse, included on Don Ho’s version but not Campbell’s, makes the narrator’s pain even more explicit: “Wonder if she could forget me, I’d go home if they would let me/ Put down this gun and go to Galveston.”)

After a five-year hiatus, Campbell and Webb would collaborate on four more albums over the next four decades—including, most poignantly, Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb: In Session (2012), released after Campbell announced that he had Alzheimer’s.

The enduring commercial appeal of the two was recognized two years ago by Capitol Nashville/Ume, when the label reissued on vinyl the three Campbell albums that constituted his transformation from ace session player to solo superstar in his own right: Gentle on My Mind, Witchita Lineman, and Galveston. 

Webb may have groaned about songs with place names in the titles, but the quartet of hits that Campbell covered—“By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “MacArthur Park”—became pop classics that evoke the aching places in the heart. Whether Webb knew it or not then or not, love and loss have habitations and names, and millions of listeners have responded overwhelmingly to his evocation of them in the last half-century.

(The photo accompanying this post shows Glen Campbell in 1969 on his Glen Campbell Good Time Hour TV show.)

Joke of the Day (Jimmy Fallon, on People With Many Phobias)

“A new study found that people with a lot of phobias are more likely to have health problems. Or as those people put it –‘I was afraid of that.’” —Late-night talk-show host Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show, July 14, 2012 episode