Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Meryl Foster Streepkins or, How to sing out of tune without really trying


Well, this is becoming a dangerously frequent event. It’s only a year since I was last taken to the cinema and, today, yes, I’ve just been again. That’s five films in five years. Way above my lifetime average.

My last times in a movie theatre were in Berlin. In that huge, glamorous, popcorn-filled, 3D-specced cinema complex at the Potsdamer Platz. 

Today was a little different. Yamba, NSW doesn’t run to multi-salle complexes. We have one deliciously old-fashioned little cinema, which my friend Robert says he’s been attending since the 50s … and it just happens to be right opposite his house!  So we rendez-voused at 4pm for a wee drappie and, then, crossed the road for a 4.30 movie.

Now, you mustn’t think I’m an easy touch. I wouldn’t have crossed the road for just any movie. I mean car-chases, any sort of guns, love stories, ‘action’, anything noisy, anything sloppy, most things American … forget it. I can’t believe Paul subjected me to Jurassic Park! But this was a film from my world. Sort of.

Florence Foster Jenkins. I don’t understand why the world has suddenly ‘discovered’ her after all these years. I heard her peculiar recordings in about 1960 and dismissed them as a curiosity. Which is what they are. All claims in the film’s after-notes to the contrary.

But, in the 21st century, several folk have decided to use Mrs Jenkins’s recordings as the bases for what I assume are semi- or largely fictional dramatic works. This one, which boasts the name of Meryl Streep above the title (oh, and Hugh Grant too) is the most publicised and, well, it was across the road so, at precisely 4.30 today, we went in (‘hurry up, you’re missing the trailers’) and sat comfortably down …

It’s a darling wee cinema, and it was a nice wee film. I’ve no idea if it has any relation to fact (I suspect not), but it made up into an enjoyable, if rather slow-paced, story. Rich, society lady desperate for ‘art’ presents herself at Carnegie Hall in a coloratura concert with the help of a fond, but opportunist, young ‘husband’ and a striving young pianist … and dies, as we are made to believe, from a bad review.

Well, you’ld throw that plotline out right away if you were Darryl Zannuck. Red Shoes, Schmed shoes. But the present writer(s?) and director have kind of made it work. With the help of a very starry line up. Meryl Streep is Mrs Jenkins. I have only seen Ms Streep once before, as a rather iffy witch in Into the Woods. Here, she is much, much better. Warm, trusting, striving, touching  … you are on her side, even when she gets up and blissfully sings horribly off pitch. She doesn’t make the woman into a fool and a vanity … in the very best moments of the film you hear her singing as SHE thinks she sounds … and it is grand.
Hugh Grant has no part to play. Just a two-dimensional sweet and smiley man, which he can do with his hands off the handlebars. But the wowee of the cast is Simon Helberg (who, I was almost sorry to discover afterwards, is a well known telly actor) as her pianist. The film almost became his story. Which actually might have been more fun.

But, in the end, it all came out as a nice, little film. Conveniently acted and … well, sung? It is very difficult to sing off pitch intentionally. Surely the singing was dubbed. But I see no one credited for any of the vocals  … Marni Nixon maybe? But, whatever… 
So, I hardly looked at my watch at all. A rare thing in a cinema. And I really didn’t groan internally too much, except at the lack of continuity in the Carnegie Hall audience scenes and Agnes Stark’s far-too-common outburst. Well, maybe the very one-dimensional representation of Toscanini and the singing coach from wherever, were a bit thin. And there were some other minor actor failures. But the film isn’t about the bit players. It’s about Ms Streep, and MM Helberg and Grant. And someone’s take on a 76 year-old lady (yes, that was her age at death) named Mrs Jenkins, whom we thankfully heard singing, in propria persona, in the tactful epilogue. You know, she wasn’t quite as awful as I’d remembered.

But I am rather left with the feeling: why make a film, fictional or partly true, about the lady? Who was never, in spite of what the publicity says ‘an opera singer’. Or around her name, anyhow.

Never mind. It was an OK hour and a big bit, followed by an excellent dinner with my pal at my favourite resto … and I’m home now, with Roland Garros and a little pink wine feeling quite content …

I wonder what my film for 2017 will be ..

Post (a few hours) scriptum: I have just been told that Ms Streep's singing voice was her own! My admiration is simply boundless ... that is a helluva feat. I wonder if they used one of the pitch-hitching machines to un-pitch-hitch her!

Monday, May 23, 2016

BUBBLES IN MY BONNET, or when musicals were fun.

More years ago than I care to count, I was staying at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, for a week or so, in my capacity as assistant-assistant-producer and neophyte casting-director (OK, assistant producer’s boyfriend) to the Harold Fielding organisation. And I’d just started writing my first (eventually) enormous book, The British Musical Theatre (2 vols). The Algonquin in those days was a crusty, ageing, delicious place of  memorable corned beef hash and bloody Marys … I thought I was in pretty swell company. Anyway, it was a kind of dream come true. Even if the windows leaked.

Ian, of course, had been there in pre-me years and he knew everybody. So I, shyly (?), soon got to meet that everybody. And there was this kid … the owner’s grandson … who wanted to write musicals. Oh, yeah, sure, everyone round here wants to write musicals, I thought superiorly, from the height of my 20-something years. Well, more fool me. Young Michael Colby has written a vast number of produced and re-re-produced musicals since those days. Oh, not the sort of musicals that you see on Broadway, with a cast of dozens and enough scenery and extras to cover up the lacks in the material. Colby’s are what I call ‘proper’ musicals. Smaller scale pieces, where you actually have to listen to the dialogue and lyrics … descendants of the Adolph Phillipp tradition in the American musical theatre …

But enough. You get the picture. Charlotte Sweet. A (sung-through) 8-handed musical play, with lots and lots of music. The score as recorded and, here, reissued on Jay Records … goodness, would it be 30 years later? … covers two CDs. The booklet doesn’t give dates, but I looked it up (because the show is on Wikipedia) and, yes, it was 1982. I remember when it first came out and I thought ‘well!!!!, blow me down’.

I haven’t listened to it since then but, this morning, I have sat down with 2CDs and a pot of coffee and, here goes! Will I still enjoy it, decades later.

Two hours later there is one clear answer! Yes, yes and very much yes. I’d forgotten how clever and inventive and funny and tuneful the show was. Is. Like Drood (and others), it is framed in a British (Liverpool) music-hall programme, which gives it its style: verging (?) on the burlesque dramatically but musically embracing not just the low comic and baby blue ballads that most folk equivate with ‘music hall’, but real singing. Faust was given its first British hearing in a music hall, operatic selections were the highlights of the programmes, and Marion Hood, the Mabel of The Pirates of Penzance, was a Liverpool Jewish (née Isaac) music-hall singer before her Savoy Theatre triumph. Charlotte composer Gerald Jay Markoe has included all the elements of real nineteenth-century music hall in his happy score, with our heroine skittering up to Z in alt in what is a delicious display of widely ranging solo and ensemble vocal music.

I’m not going to attempt to detail the intricate-ish plot, but it circulates around sweet (high) soprano Charlotte’s forced co-option into a ‘Circus of Voices’ run by dastardly, lecherous Barnaby Bugaboo and her last-curtain escape therefrom, to her beloved Ludlow Ladd, after a last scene with as many dead bodies as Hamlet, by stratospheric (no, I’m not going to tell you, but it’s the best ending in musical theatre, EVER) means …

In the sung-through score, there are nevertheless take-out features. My own particular favourites, as heard on this recording, are the ensemble ‘Liverpool Sunset’ and the original and delightful ‘Bubbles in my Bonnet’ sung by Cecily (Merle Louise), the super-vibrato singer of the Circus, in the first act, and, of course, our Charlotte’s (Mara Beckerman) high soprano set-piece ‘Lonely Canary’, which should be required performance material for all those gals who sing ‘Glitter and be Gay’ or ‘I Want to be a Prima Donna’ interminably.

The mostly original cast lend themselves to the fun (if not exactly to Liverpudlian accents!) and the music so wholeheartedly that one can almost see the performance, but I must say that if I were casting this piece (and wouldn’t I like to!) I’d cast the villains with a plunging legit basso and a basso legit contralto, to balance the sopranos of the piece. Imagine Bugaboo’s villainous Act-One closer thundered out by a Leon Greene rather than a Thenardier! Maybe some one will do that one day. For this piece is a thorough treat, which all provincial and repertory theatres should look at doing, rather than the often skinny versions of ‘big’ over-exposed musicals that they thrust at us. Or an umpteenth revival of Little Shop of Horrors.

I’ve had a really enjoyable two hours. And … what’s this? There’s another CD in the package. Tales of Tinseltown a movieland music. Movieland? Hmm I know little of movieland. Well, another morning. For now I’ve got ‘Bubbles in my bonnet’ and I’d like to stay that way. It kind of sums up the whole last two hours. Whee!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Harness Racing in New Zealand. Am I the only rat packed and ready?

I feel a little ungracious. I wrote this piece a fortnight ago, but haven’t got round to posting it. And in that fortnight, Harness Racing New Zealand has ventured on some considered changes to try to stop the sport withering away. But are they changing the right things? Are they going to succeed in making the playing of the game less elitist and more popular? More fair. Well, not so far. So I’ll post this anyhow.


‘Since I first fell in love with New Zealand harness racing – sixty years ago, the year that Somerset Lad won the Nelson Cup – and since I got involved, forty years later, as a fairly small-time owner, breeder and ephemeral (sadly) amateur driver, the world of what is, curiously, still called ‘trotting’ Down Under has changed. Changed, alas, in such a way that now, after twenty years of much glorious fun, I’m preparing to say goodbye.

Last week I bought a share in a wee Aussie galloping filly.

Why? Well, of course, I’m going to tell you.

I bought my first horses, when I was younger and sprightlier, to have fun being a wee bit hands-on and traipsing the country circuits with them. OK, I’ve been lucky enough, since, to have had a few metropolitan wins, too, but that’s not what I really came in for. And, progressively, the non-metropolitan meetings and tracks, are vanishing, and the townie nights (yes, nights instead of days) with their high-profile teams and trainers, their mobile starts (of which more anon), and their sprint races are taking over. With the blessing of the hierarchy. Sorry. If I had wanted to race a horse in America, I would have done so. I’ve already raced in France (by far the most well organised) and in Australia (with amazing success), so New Zealand … well, grow up or die.

So, what do I dislike, now, about New Zealand harness racing that I didn’t in the 1950s and 1960s. Or even the 90s. A few examples.

(1) I much prefer daytime racing to night racing … I presume the change has been made for gambling reasons … I don’t bet.

(2) Mobile starts. Grotesque. Artificial. For trainers who can’t be bothered to teach their horses to stand and start. And there are way more false starts and accidents from the mobile than … bah! And the machine wobbling dangerously along on grass!??? Wait for a fatal accident. See (5)

(3) The sweepstakes. Sires and Breeders and Sales. No, it’s not sour grapes. We won the Victoria Breeders Crown 3yo fillies heat a few years ago, but I wouldn’t pay up now. In NZ, we have boring 6-horse heats (maybe 4 from the one stable), and they are nowadays quite simply a risible drug on the market.

(4) The programming. If you want to be able to train and race your horse effectively, you need to have accessible races for him/her to run in. I shifted my operation from Nelson to Christchurch, to be in the harness-racing capital, with hopefully the sort of opportunities and options one has in Australia or France. No such luck. Weeks go by, at certain times of the year, with no local-ish races, no maiden or C1 races, no trials even, some meetings are entirely b**** mobile starts … so you keep your horses in training, waiting, wasting time and money … oh no, not in the grown-up countries, you don’t.

(5) Starts. This should have been resolved years ago. Stand versus mobile, of course. I’m a 100pc stand man. But I won’t go into that. I reckon more false starts are caused behind the hairy gate than from a stand regulated by a competent starter. But one can’t wholly blame the starters. They don’t have firm rules. For me, any horse that rears up, turns away, or refuses to take its place when called, should be sent immediately to a third row. Any horse which disrupts a mobile start: disqualified. The NZ system is too mimsy. Too limp-wristed. And too open to abuse by smart drivers waiting for a certain moment, or worse … in France, they would be fined and/or kicked out.

(5) Breaking horses. This (along with starts) is my biiiiiig bugbear. The sport (not ‘industry’ … come on, they still call football a ‘sport’) is called ‘trotting’ (or, at a pinch, ‘pacing’). That’s what the horses are supposed to do. Yet, in New Zealand, a horse can gallop for 100 metres – preferably losing only a smidgin of ground (there are a couple of drivers who are particularly good at that!) --  and still be allowed to compete in the race. Here, again, France has it right. Break stride for more than a few steps (15 max), and disqualified. Break in the home straight (5 strides max), or even go roughly: disqualified. And disqualified means pulled out of the race. No mimsies in France.
So they have better-trained horses, mostly better trainers, drivers and notably horses, because if you are ill-behaved you don’t get in the stud book.

So, why, you may say, do I not go and race my horses in France or Australia? Well, I have done. But I don’t live in France any more, and my wee Aussie flat has a ‘no animals’ rule. And I like to live with my horses, just as I used to like to drive them. But the point is, I’ve long loved New Zealand harness racing … it’s what I grew up with from the age of ten … why has it become so poorly regulated, why a mess of such ridiculous ’rules’, why such an … an unfriendly arena, except for anyone with many more millions to waste than I?

Well, they don’t have troubles with start(er)s and breakers and all that other stuff in the galloping world. So … here I go. Maybe our little Stratum filly will be a champ.

But I would love to get to fifty lifetime wins (I think I’m at 48) before I sign out totally! Go Montmorensy (NZ, 2 wins), Livia de Gerolstein (Tasmania, 11 wins) and Dynamite Paul (NZ, 0 starts)! It’s last chance corral time.

Postscriptum. I see that one issue that is being addressed is field selection. Points system? Why? There is one indiscutable way in which to select fields. Money won. The C0, C1, C2 system is being manipulated too often. How many horses come second ‘on purpose’, and amass dollars in a lower grade that are rightly the profits of other horses? Just like the Sweepstakes horses that accidentally don’t qualify for the final and get to run in a well-endowed consolation …
Money won. Then there is no ‘selecting’ to do, and no one can complain …

 PPS One thing that Canterbury, New Zealand, does better than anywhere else I have been is ... Race Images photography... pictured largely (the good ones) above:
(1) Davey Crockett wins me my first race
(2) The Stratum yearling
(3) Rickster Quirk takes Gwen round Manawatu birdcage (photo: me)
(4) Rosy des Baux before her first win at Domfront (photo: me)
(5) Livia de Gerolstein wins her eighth race in Victoria
(6) Agnes de Gerolstein ... almost made it
(7) Montmorensy ... maybe my last winner?
(8) Seppl ... the best trotter I ever bred and raced

Monday, May 9, 2016

Little things ... that give so much joy ...

There are little, seemingly insignificant things, in daily life, which can matter so much to a person who … Little, sweet things that everyone can do, that no one really even considers, except for the few who can’t 

So today was a wee bit special for me.

Everybody likes a swim in the sea. Or even a paddle. I think my last of both was in Port Vila or Santo with Ship’s Officer Catrina Morley or maybe at Zipolo Habu … what? six, seven, eight years ago. Because, since my stroke, I haven’t been able to do (a) – I know doing frog stroke with just one operative leg is not impossible, but it is for me … and as for (b) well, its hard enough walking and standing sticklessly up, steadily, on land, but as the sea rips in and out around you, pulling one way then the other …

So I’ve been making do, these recent seaside days, with a refreshing dip in the swimming pool.

But, earlier this week, I got up the courage to scale the excellent path (handrails!) from The Cove down to Yamba’s Main Beach.  And, there, I watched the young folk playing beach cricket and dipping in the sea, surfing (sort of) and splashing. 

And my insides went ‘awwwww’. I thought of those special days when I used to drive our horses on the beach, and walk in the water … days all gone. Oh, dear.

I thought about it for two days. And this afternoon I trekked down again. A sunny but rather wavy day. Beautiful. Crashing surf. But Monday, so only a few bathing belles and one inept surfist. And I put a foot in the water. Then two feet. Cold. Heavenly. Whoops! Here comes a wave … and a bigger wave … I’m up to my knees … and whoops! Almost to my waist! Out goes the wave, and just as I’m steadying into the rip from one side, it changes to the other … but I’m still standing. Wouldn’t it be great to sit down … and let the water flow over my body …?

No. There’s only one bathing belle left and she’s reading a magazine. The non-surfist is preoccupied by his ineptitude. Maybe next time. When there are more 'safe-watchers' at hand.

Up the hill, glowing with pleasure and pride … ‘you never know what you can do until you try’ … my little land mark for the day. And it felt soooo good after all this time. Sigh ….