The Magic of Musicals, from the Inside

“Not every show has an ‘I Want’ song. Or a conditional love song, or a main event, or even an 11 o’clock number. But most do.”

The terminology may be unfamiliar, but the ideas are not.

A Broadway-style musical begins with an Overture, except when it doesn’t. Is the overture the lightning bolt that energizes the whole enterprise? Or is a divine spirit that visits a particular script, score, director, performer, ensemble, or theater?

Form matters. That’s the mantra of Jack Viertel who wrote a book with the odd title, The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built. He’s the Artistic Director of Encores!, responsible for the simple re-staging of three musicals every year for Broadway-literate audiences. During the recent past, Encores! has produced and presented “1776,” Do I Hear a Waltz, Cabin in the Sky, Zorba!, Paint Your Wagon, Lady Be Good!, Fiorello!, Lost in the Stars and Where’s Charley—mostly shows from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s. As for more recent shows, Viertel questions their meanderings away from proper form and structure.

He is a man who has helped to construct magic—his credits include Hairspray, Angels in America and After Midnight—so his opinions are both well-formed and well-informed. He has credibility. I learned a lot by reading his book, in part for professional purposes, but mostly because he’s an terrific teacher with a subject that fascinates me.
In his words: “How do you begin a show?” How does a musical greet the audience at the door? How do creative artists introduce the characters, set the tone, communicate point of view, create a sense of style, a milieu? Do you begin with the story, the subject, the community in which the story is set, the main characters?”

enmjW_the-secret-life-of-the-american-music....jpeg.220x0_q85_autocrop_crop-smart_upscaleSince overtures “have become a rarity today,” the opening number carries the weight. Originally, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum began with “a sweet little soft shoe about how romance tends to drive people nuts” but that misled the audience because the show was not about romance or charm, but instead, a boisterous vaudevillian take on three Roman comedies. Critics and audiences don’t enjoy mixed messages, so the reviews were lousy and the audiences stayed away. The creative team—a top-notch group that included Larry Gelbart, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, George Abbott, and Burt Shevelove—didn’t know what to do. They asked director Jerome Robbins what he thought. He asked Sondheim (music, lyrics) to write something “neutral… Just write a baggy pants number and let me stage it.” Viertel: “He didn’t want anything brainy or wisecracking, but he did want to tell the audience exactly what it was in for: lowbrow slapstick carried out by iconic character types like the randy old man, the idiot lovers, the battle-axe mother, the wiley slave and other familiar folks. Sondheim wrote “Comedy Tonight” as a typically bouncy opening number, but he couldn’t resist his clever muse, and so, the “neutral” number’s lyrics go like this:

Pantaloons and tunics,

Courtesans and eunuchs,

Funerals and chases,

Baritones and basses,

Panderers,

Philanderers,

Cupidity,

Timidity…

You get the idea. (Go listen to the song! It’s terrific.)
Another show provides the textbook example of Broadway construction. The opening scene in Gypsy is a mirror image of the closing conceit—and both are built around the song, “Let Me Entertain You!” (Sondheim wrote those lyrics, too!)

Unknown.jpegAnother simulates the movement of a train pulling into River City, Iowa a century ago—serving to introduce the flimflam man named Professor Harold Hill—“Cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks, cash for the cotton goods, cash for the hard goods…look, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk?…”to set the stage for The Music Man. Similarly Cabaret begins with the multi-lingual “Wilkommen” and Fiddler on the Roof begins with “Tradition.”

Some shows combine the traditional role of the opening number with the inevitable song that follows, called the “I Want” song. “Good Morning Baltimore!” provides a taste of what Tracy wants in Hairspray, but A Chorus Line is more direct in its use of I Want in its opening number:

Chorus-Line-Weston.jpg

God I hope I get it.

I hope I get it.

How many people does he need…

I really need this job.

Please, God, I need this job.

I’ve got to get this job!”

hqdefaultIn Annie, the I Want song is “Maybe”– the orphan dreams of her parents. In Gypsy, the “I Want” song is “Some People,” and in “West Side Story,” it’s “Something’s Comin’” In Hamilton, it’s “My Shot.” It’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” in My Fair Lady and “Somewhere That’s Green” in Little Shop of Horrors. Note the consistency of a place far away as a device to express desire—“ Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid follows the same pattern.

The conditional love song comes next—or follows shortly after. “If I Loved You” from Carousel, ”I’ve imagined every bit of him / From his strong moral fiber / To the wisdom in his head / To the homely aroma of his pipe..” sets up the unlikely romance between a gambler and a Salvation Army worker in Guys and Dolls.And now, things become complicated. (Heck, you could write a book about it…) There is “The Noise” — “a pure expression expression of energy” that’s intended to be, mostly, fun, without much consideration for story. Try, for example, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly. Then, the plot thickens, a secondary romance is introduced, unexpected obstacles, confusion that must be resolved within the next hour or so. The disappointment—a character has made an unfortunate choice. Tentpoles lead to expanded  audience expectations: “I had a dream / a dream about you, Baby! / It’s gonna come true, Baby! / They think that we’re through, but, Baby…” From at least one character’s point of view, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” but others in Gypsy have their doubts—and when the first act curtain falls, many of the characters are gone, never to be seen again.
b6d1048bcf323255f40fcaf41997abd7Gee, this is fun. Suddenly, every musical I’ve ever seen makes more sense than ever! I could go on about “The Candy Dish,” “The 11 O’Clock Number” and the construction of the ending, but that would make the whole blog article too long. Pace matters.

Buy the book. See the musical(s). If you’re in NYC, buy a ticket to “Encores!” — even if you  don’t know the show, will not be disappointed because now you’ve taken a glimpse backstage, under the hood, inside the dream. It’s all a glorious confection—characters in the midst of the most dramatic adventure of their lives stopping everything to sing their hearts out and dane a lot. Makes no logical sense. But it’s wonderful. And it’s been going on for the better part of a century. And there are people who are very, very good at this particular art form. Every once in a while, it’s nice to celebrate them.

“Confidence in Government Was Abysmally Low”

“The rump end of the Continental Congress still wobbled along in New York City, where it had met since 1785, but it hadn’t achieved a quorum since October. Its secretary, Charles Thompson, buttonholed members on the street, when he could find them, and dragged them into his office so that he could claim in his records that they had technically, “assembled.”

The people had elected a President, but nobody was sure what the man was supposed to do. People from Pennsylvania considered people from New England to be their enemies, and the feelings were mutual. Southerners trusted no one except themselves. The states didn’t want to work together, not that this seemed especially likely given the “the yawning listlessness” and “over-refining spirit in relation to trifles” exhibited by Congress’s first members. Apart from a few clerks, the Federal government had no employees. And almost no money. There was no Supreme Court, and there no lower courts. There were more than fifty different currencies in use, plus plenty of counterfeit currencies. There no political parties, but there were Federalists, who believed in the potential of a powerful central government, and Anti-Federalists, who did not. The Anti-Federalists were ready to take apart the new U.S. Constitution and start over, this time favoring these States, not a unified nation.

And we’re only a dozen pages into the book, “First Congress” by historian Fergus M. Bordewich. As a modern reader, the dysfunction is almost beyond comprehension. Not only was nothing much done in preparation for operating a nation, there were almost no likelihood that  the First Congress would accomplish anything in particular. And the only guy who could pull the whole country together—George Washington—expressed tremendous apprehension about becoming the President, or the King, or whatever the leadership role might be called. George had his doubts, but he really, really wanted the job and needed to be careful about seeming too anxious. (Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography “Hamilton” on which Broadway musical is based, also wrote a great bio book called “Washington: A Life” which is heavy on George’s constant internal conflicts. Bordowich does not as deeply here because he has other territory to cover.)

So it’s James Madison—whose story ought to follow “Hamilton” as a Broadway musical—who convinces George to man-up, and run the country. Hamilton is also in a leadership role, convincing Congress that the new country ought to set up a bank, assume the states’s debts, and establish a meaningful credit rating. But everything in those early days seems more like an informal startup company than the beginning of the richest nation on earth. “There was also John Jay who ran the Confederation’s Department of Foreign Affairs from his law office, and Henry Knox, who presided over the War Department from rented rooms at a Water Street tavern.”

Look into his eyes. This is James Madison, a politically savvy man who convinced George Washington to lead the new nation.

Look into his eyes. This is James Madison, a politically savvy man who convinced George Washington to lead the new nation.

Eventually, they got to work. Madison was the first congressman to propose a law so that the new country would have some revenue, and control its coastlines. And then, everybody argued, and protected their regional interests. And besides, nobody was clear on how these new rules could possibly be enforced.

With or without proper tariffs, Vice President John Adams “tirelessly repeated that Europeans would never take the United States seriously unless its chief executive was endowed with the trappings of sovereign grandeur…At minimum, he considered His Highness or His Most Benign Highness as the barest acceptable forms of address for its president. He…scathingly dismissed President as appropriate for ‘Fire Companies & of a Cricket Club.’ Any member of Congress willing to settle for less he considered a ‘driveling idiot.” Everything was new, nothing was settled, and everybody carried a strong opinion of how things must be done. Still, they were not without humor: Ben Franklin, who was always good for a laugh, called Vice President Adams “Your Superfluous Excellency,” while others looked at his widening girth and favored, “His Rotundity.” (I found Franklin’s comment on the web, not in the book).

Did the First Congress get anything done?

The surprising and overwhelming answer is “yes!” In surprising chapter by chapter, Bordowich leads us through one astonishing accomplishment after another. Congress establishes itself as a powerful legislative body. They manage to keep the government running at a time when it appears as though George Washington will not survive an illness. They worked out the Bill of Rights. They figured out where to place the new nation’s capital—a  major political accomplishment because of the many competing interests. While busy complaining about how little they understood about finance, they did not stop Alexander Hamilton from establishing the U.S. as a viable financial operation—a capitalist one at that. They worked on a reasonable solution for slavery—but failed in the attempt. They—and Adams gets much of the blame for this—managed to make the Vice President an ineffective leadership role. They invented the President’s Cabinet and its various departments—and convinced a very reluctant Thomas Jefferson to leave his lovely Paris mansion and lovelier lifestyle to return home and establish the State Department. They learned to deal with lobbyists (Quakers were the first lobbyists).

“Men who had seen themselves primarily as citizens of their individual states had now mostly come to see themselves as the common citizens of a nation and embraced their new government as their own in a way they had never done before.”

“Public opinion now mattered. Newly emboldened newspapers brought the doings of government to the door of every citizen, including the illiterate , who gathered in urban taverns and frontier hamlets to avidly hear reports read to them by their literate neighbors.”

A new nation had begun.
the-first-congress-9781451691931_lg

Far from Here

With dreams of barbecue and blues, I visited Memphis for the first time. Instead of Graceland, my rented car took me to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Second only to Motown, Stax Records was home to Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the MGs, Rufus Thomas, William Bell, Wilson Pickett, and other ground-breaking artists, the label folded in 1975. Now, it’s old headquarters is a museum. Arounfourway-logod the corner from the museum is The Four Way Restaurant, where Stax musicians, producers and engineers used to eat, and where I shared a table with a preacher who was touring the South, speaking about how Wal-Mart was destroying the local economy. Fried chicken, fried fish, side dishes of greens and yams. Preacher told me he would be heading next to Clarksdale, then on to Cleveland (Mississippi) and Indianola, just a few hours south. Next morning, I decided to skip a few speeches at a trade show and head for Clarksdale, figuring I’d be back just after lunch. I guess I didn’t anticipate driving down Highway 61, or waiting on Aunt Sarah to do her daily deliveries before serving lunch in what turned out to be one of the few places to buy lunch in the once-vibrant small city of Clarksdale. And if it wasn’t for my visit with Roger Stolle in the Cat Head Store in Clarksdale, I wouldn’t have known about Miss Sarah in the first place—Sarah Moore passed in 2009, and I sure wish I had time to stay around for a nighttime performance because Sarah’s Kitchen was a popular juke joint before the place closed down in 2010. Driving back to Memphis, I kept staring out at what had been plantations—these massive open fields with tiny shacks in the distance, and nothing to protect a runaway from the advancing dogs except the cypress trees with their submerged swampy roots and cottonmouth snakes. I drove away, first to Helena, Arkanas where a deranged woman attempted to enter my moving vehicle with a straight-edged razor in her hand, then to Oxford, Mississippi to stand between the columns where James Meredith claimed his college education, then passed more than a few gas stations whose second business was cooking up and selling ribs.

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I live a thousand miles away, not two days’ drive, but no place in my country has ever felt more foreign. Never articulated that before, but then, I hadn’t read Paul Theroux, either. Some months ago, I got my hands on “Deep South,” written by an extremely well-traveled author who had “driven from my home in New England, a three-day road trip to another world, the warm green states of the Deep South I had longed to visit, where the past is ‘never dead.’

Summer is the time for travel, but if you’re feeling as though the road might be too rough, or too hot, or just too darned far, “Deep South” is the book you’ll want for armchair traveling. There is no single narrative. It’s just a series of four road trips with notes that became essays, profiles, musings, and the chatter of a good traveling companion (photographer Steve McCurry—you know him from the famous photo of the Afghan girl with those amazing blue eyes) went along for some of it, and contributed some photos to the book.

A few samples:

“There was hardly any work. There were no visitors, as in years past. Once there had been textile factories in Allendale, making cloth and carpets. They’d closed, the manufacturing outsourced to China, thought a new textile factory was set to open in a year or so, he said…I was to hear this story all over the rural South, in the ruined towns that had been manufacturing centers, sustained by the making of furniture, or appliances, or roofing materials, or plastic products, the labor-intensive jobs that kept a town ticking over. Companies had come to the South because the labor force was available and willing, wages were low, land was inexpensive, and unions were nonexistent. And a measure of progress held out the promise of better things, perhaps prosperity. Nowhere in the United States could manufacturing be carried on so cheaply…Even the catfish farms—an important income-producing industry all over the rural South—have been put out of business by the exports of fish farmers in Vietnam.”

and

“You take the cane and strip it. Then you take it out to the syrup mill, where you had a thing like a crusher. You put the cane up there and hook your  mule to it. And you had a pan, called a syrup pan, about four feet wide, and the syrup run up into that pan, and up the front, that’s where the heat stays. Like a skillet. You boils it and throws the top away with a ladle. That molasses was prime.”

“It seems you could feed yourselves.”

“We was poor, so we made our own food,” he said. “Gutting and smoking hogs. Bleeding them, cutting them up, smoking them for about two-three days. We done everything ourselves.”

“How much land did you have?”

“Forty or fifty acres, we rented it from a white man who had a lot of land. I have nothing bad to say about that white man. He had a tractor, though, and we had nothing but two mules.”

“Mules instead of a tractor”

“Sure enough. Hook ‘em up to the plow, but they only plowed one furrow at a time, not like a tractor that could do two or more.”

We went on talking about the old-fashioned farm, cotton picking, foraging, hunting.

“My father went out hunting almost every day,” Floyd said. “He shot rabbits and squirrels and deer, and we ‘et ‘em.” He smiled, perhaps thinking of those meals. Then he said, “Not like today. People are hungry today but all they do is sit around.”

and forty-two year old Dolores Walker Robinson:

“I wanted something I could own,” she said. She’d been raised on a farm near here. “I wanted to get my sons involved in the life I knew.”

Apart from the herd of cows and goats, she had sheep, geese, and chickens. She encouraged the chickens to sit on nests of eggs, sold some of the fowl, sold and ate some of the eggs. She grew corn to feed the cows. Because the cash flow from the animals was still at the break-even point, she worked six days a week at the East Arkansas Area Agency on Aging as a caregiver…Money was always a problem.

Easy going, uncomplaining, yet tenacious, Dolores Walker Anderson had all the qualities that make a successful farmer: a great work ethic, a strong will, a love of the land, a way with animals, a fearlessness at the bank, a gift for taking the long view, a desire for self-sufficiency.

“I’m looking ten years down the road, she said as we tramped the sloping lane. “I want to build up the herd and do this full-time.”

 

 

Photo by Steve McCurry, appears on the cover of Deep South. Here are the details: DSC_4192, Deep South, Warren, Arkansas, USA, 09/2013, USA-10914. Pastime theatre.  Final Deep South selection for Smithsonian. retouched_Sonny Fabbri 11/25/2014

Photo by Steve McCurry, appears on the cover of Deep South. Here are the details: DSC_4192, Deep South, Warren, Arkansas, USA, 09/2013, USA-10914. Pastime theatre.
Final Deep South selection for Smithsonian.
retouched_Sonny Fabbri 11/25/2014

 

 

 

In Praise of Sarah Cooper

I don’t usually post funny little graphics (okay, sometimes I do), but as a CEO of a nonprofit, I certainly recognized the truth in this graphic. It comes from a clever website called The Cooper Review.

I don’t usually repost cute little graphics, but this one deserved special treatment.

I became curious about what The Cooper Review was all about, so I found the source of this graphic and learned about Sarah Cooper. Here’s the start of her bio: “I was born a small blackish child in Jamaica. My mother is half German and my father is half Chinese, which is why I look Colombian. My family moved to Washington, DC when I was three. As soon as I learned to talk I was correcting my parents’ accents and grammar.”

No need to go on and on Sarah’s stuff when it’s only a click away. I did some exploring, and if every item from this former Google designer’s site doesn’t hit the mark, her batting average is really impressive. I especially liked her analysis of nodding behavior at meetings, a good place to begin.

Ms. Cooper’s first book will be published in October. I’m guessing it will become quite popular.

 

 

 

 

West Coast Troublemakers, or the Naked Girl with the Big Clock

Ten or fifteen years ago, I read a really good biography of the photographer Ansel Adams. I’ve recommended it often, but somehow, I couldn’t find it on my shelves. A bit of curiosity and research led me to the author, Mary Street Alinder and her new book about Adams and his West Coast photography buddies and co-conspirators including Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Brett Weston (Edward’s son), Consuelo Kanaga, Dorothea Lange, and other notables. Sometimes formally, sometimes less so, they were collectively members of a group bound to change American photography. They called themselves Group f.64, which is both among the smallest lens apertures generally available (for extreme depth of field and its resulting sharp images) and the title of Ms. Alinder’s latest book.

UnknownWhen the photographers in Group f.64 started out, they found themselves in what, today, seems to be an unlikely situation. Photographers on the east coast followed a mostly European tradition anchored in painting. On the West Coast, the fad was pictorialism in which photographs were not considered viable unless they were altered to look like other forms of art. For example, the pictorial photographers often hand-colored their work, used soft focus lenses, and created faux brushstrokes during the photographic development process. Pictorialism found some rather odd expressions: one very popular West Coast photographer named William Mortensen was, according to Alinder, “the very vocal champion of the Pictorialists. He applied his expertise in set design and the latest in Hollywood makeup artistry: elaborately costumed historical portraits and tableaux. He staged each picture’s setting, building a fictional alternative universe, often of a teasing salaciousness or portraying scenes of horror, his models transformed into monsters with heavy makeup.” Mortensen was among America’s most famous photographers and easily photography’s most prolific teacher. In a series of well-described articles in Camera Craft magazine, he sparred with Ansel Adams who took the position of photography as pure art form that required none of the nonsense that Mortensen promoted.

From 1932—just a few years before those articles—the f.64 wrote a manifesto to explain its unique and somewhat radical approach to pure photography as an emerging art form. “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technic [technique], composition or idea derivative of any other art-form.”

What did that mean? For Edward Weston, in 1927, pure photography involved making perfect images of a single pepper or a shell. What’s perfect? Have a look.

weston - shell

Also from 1927, Ansel Adams provides this example:

Ansel-monolth

Time has not been kind to Mr. Mortensen, whose partial portfolio can be found on an Eastman House website:

Mortensen

Mostly, this is the story of perhaps a dozen fully engaged West Coast photographers whose clear vision redefined American fine art and serious amateur photography. In an attempt to gain serious recognition in New York City galleries—remember, the west coast was rather distant from the east in the 1930s—they solicited a largely unimpressed Alfred Steiglitz in what they believed to be photography’s future. You know Stieglitz’s extraordinary work:

The_Steerage_1907_Stieglitz_Corrected

In time, and with considerable frustration, the West Coast photographers found their way into the mainstream. The level of detail provided by Ms. Alinder may overwhelm casual readers, but it’s all worth reading to better understand the large aesthetic shift that occurred in what amounts to about twenty years, maybe thirty.

Where does the story lead? Clearly, Mr. Mortensen’s fascinations have faded from public interest, but the work of Ansel Adams continues to demonstrate the power of photography for the world to see (and for a great many amateur photographers to emulate). The shift from manufactured to realistic beauty is nicely expressed by this famous image by Imogen Cunningham:

Cunningham

I believe that the world is a better place because these photographers taught themselves to see, and then encouraged us to do the same. Dorothea Lange’s well-known work includes images of migrant workers, but I think I like this one best:

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Or maybe this one. Ms. Lange gets out, grabs the camera, finds the angle, and creates a memorable self-portrait.

Dorothea-Lange-2

Time for me to re-read the Ansel biography, I think. Good news—the same publisher (Bloomsbury) has reissued the book with some new material and additional insights. I can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

 

In the future, we’ll watch TV

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.26 AMSure, there’s been a lot of hubbub about how television has changed and will change, but I think the conversation is over-rated. For seventy years, people have watched news, sports, comedies, dramas, movies by pressing a button and staring at a screen. We’ve added stereo, color, lots and lots of TV channels, on-demand viewing. Ask the average person about the revolution in the television industry and they’ll tell you that that they thought The Tonight Show was kind of funny last night. They probably would have said the same thing in 1954.

What has changed is the industry that provides the programs. Once, there were three or four. networks Now, the number is uncountable because nobody’s sure how to classify Netflix, YouTube, or HBO NOW. Kudos to Pamela Douglas for trying to make sense of a very messy industry. She wrote a book—a very good book, in fact—entitled The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. We got to know one another, and talked about why she took on such an impossible project, how she approached the subject matter, and what she learned along the way. I should explain that Professor Douglas works at USC, that she has done her share of writing for prime time television, and that she is the author of a popular book entitled Writing the TV Drama Series for the same publisher (Michael Wiese Productions, a publisher also active in the production world).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.34 AMMoving from the old world of traditional broadcast networks through hybrid innovators including cable networks then into the new world of internet services and alternative funding models, she covers the waterfront. There are interviews with knowledgable leaders from Netflix, Kickstarter, HBO, and other companies whose work matters a great deal in 2015.

I knew she was on the right track when I read this sentence, part of an interview with longtime Writer’s Guild executive Charlie Slocum: “…some writers are introverts and they don’t want to deal with all the people who are production managers, accountants, location scouts and so forth. Fine, so partner with a producer who loves all that and doesn’t have the patience to sit down with a blank page. That’s the path to being an entrepreneur in a partnership.”

He goes on: “On broadcast, the priority is to be similar….The classic example…what they have on at eight they hope is compatible with what they have on at nine so they keep the audience. It’s audience flow programming strategy.”

And here’s the important point that informs not only the conversation, but the whole book: “…individuals pay for HBO and Netflix. So if your base is subscribers, your goal is to have as many different subscribers as you can. That means when you have one show like House of Cards, you want the next show to be as different as possible [italics mine]…On subscription TV the goal is to get as many different people as possible to be happy to pay the monthly bill. One series, maybe two, can lock you in for the whole 12 months.”

The strategy comes to life in a conversation with Dan Pasternak of IFC. “…our brand is silly and smart. Our tagline is ‘Always On. Slightly Off.’ I said let’s not try to be Comedy Central. Let’s not be Adult Swim. Let’s program content that feels uniquely like IFC. So one of the first shows I helped to develop was Portlandia. And fortunately it became brand-defining.”

(In the 2010s, brand definition is the major challenge for every cable network, and every subscription service. It’s the most effective way to rise above the competition.)

He goes on: “(Portlandia) doesn’t belong anywhere else. Sketch comedy has evolved in the era of the digital short. Essentially each episode of Portlandia is eight little movies. But it’s really one unified perspective, voice, look, and feel.

The philosophy that drives an IFC is vastly different from the strategy that drives NBC’s prime time schedule. Often—and this is the reason why Pam wrote the book—it’s about the writer’s vision. That’s confirmed in her interview with HBO’s Michael Lombardo, who explains, “HBO starts with great writing. There’s no cheat to it…that has been our mania since early on.”

In the new world, the starting place is Netflix. Pam writes, “My writer friends and I love Netflix because it provides (a) place for our best work. But this isn’t our first romance. At the dawn of the 21st century, we were sweet on HBO for Oz and The Sopranos; in the first decade of the century, we had a big crush on AMC for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Now we welcome Netflix into the second decade.

If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re beginning to understand why Pam wrote the book. It’s all about the writing, the stories, the characters, the writer’s vision, and, of course, a place for all of that creative energy in a well-defined marketplace.

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos: “It’s about the product. Netflix was the only way to see House of Cards.”

So that’s the key for the subscription services—the only place to watch. This is a vastly different strategy from the one employed by A&E or TBS in order to achieve their current success (they used reruns to build audience).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.21 AMNowadays, most cable networks are coming to the same conclusion: their future is going to be defined by original programming (scripted and unscripted, both have their place), and by events (which tend to work only sometimes, in part because they’re expensive and also because they’re difficult to construct with any frequency). So there’s the conundrum for the deeper future: as each cable network, and each subscription service, develops and markets their own unique programs, the audience becomes that much more fragmented. The pie slices become smaller, the ability for any individual player to make an impact becomes that much more challenging.

If you’re a cable programmer, or you’re responsible for one of the growing number of subscription services, your job relies upon your ability to generate programs that can be seen and heard above the crowd. If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, you now need to understand the nuances of the programming marketplace in ways that were never required in the past. Everything is more complicated. And it’s not.

In the end, nothing has changed. A writer has an idea, pitches it, somehow survives the development and production process, and connects with an audience. That fundamental formula has been around for a century (longer, if you dig back to the days when John Wilkes Booth was widely known as one of America’s most popular stage actors).

The message: be a diligent student, but spend most of your energy dreaming up great stuff.

A Spectacular Thousand-Year Journey

Wayfaring StrangerEvery once in a while, I’ll catch an episode of The Thistle & The Shamrock on a public radio station. Seems to me, the show has been on forever, but I’ve never thought much about the program’s title. Of course, it refers to music from Scotland and from Ireland, but that’s a very small part of the story that its host / producer tells in her new book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. (From the start, I should point out that this is a fabulous book, a work deserving of all kinds of awards and many quiet hours of reading accompanied by many more spent listening, preferably to live music.) In fact, it’s not just Ms. Ritchie’s book: storytelling and scholarly research duties are shared by an equally talented music lover, Doug Orr, whose Swannanoa Gathering is, among many good things, the place where the idea of the Carolina Chocolate Drops took shape: “they have helped revive an old African American banjo tradition that was fast disappearing.”

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

Beginning in the 1600s, long before America became a nation, there was an African American banjo tradition in Appalachia. Mostly, the musicians were slaves brought to America to work on the plantations.  The “banjar” evolved from stringed instruments played in West Africa, and eventually became known as the banjo. The instrument lost its luster when it was adopted by musicians performing in blackface in minstrel shows. That’s why the old African American banjo tradition found itself in need of revival.

Of course, the term “minstrel” is rooted in a much earlier tradition. They were dancers, mimes, jugglers, wrestlers—all-around entertainers who wandered Europe, from backwoods village to royal court. By the time Christopher Columbus voyaged to the new world, that minstrel tradition was fading. By 1700, minstrels were hard to find, but the idea of a traveling musician, accompanying himself (sometimes, herself) on a stringed instrument (very portable) was taking hold. It was enabled by new technology: the printing press. Broadsides (single sheets) were printed, then sold. They covered news and opinion, and often, featured lyrics to songs meant to be sung by groups of people in public, for fun. The most popular type of song was the ballad: “a narrative poem that tells a story meant to be sung.”

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

The serious journey begins in the North East region of Scotland known as Aberdeen. Separated from the rest of Scotland (and England beyond) by the Cairngorms to the west and the Grampian Mountains to the south, its culture was much affected by sailors who came across the North Sea from Scandinavian, Nordic and Germanic people; the trip was only a few hundred nautical miles, less than the distance from Aberdeen to London. Although this history is more than 800 years old, some of the music survives, not as museum pieces but as traditional repertoire in the Appalachian hills of the U.S., in Ireland, in Scotland, and on my stereo system. Often, the fiddle (imported to Scotland from Italy) was the instrument of choice because it was portable and versatile—but it was not without controversy (by the time it reached the Appalachians, some Baptists called it “the Devil’s instrument.” There are so many styles of fiddle playing, each broadly associated with a region: the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, Highland fiddle and its kin heard on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which would be the Acadian fiddling that makes its way down to New Orleans with the corruption of the term Acadian now called Cajun.

“Connecting hollow bones and sticks to an animal bag…” begins in primitive times. Nero played the bagpipes. It’s been traced back to early Egypt, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, and India, used by shepherds and herdsman who had easy access to the necessary materials. The troubadours of France and the minstrels of the Middle Ages made bagpipes part of the traveling show. “By the 15th century, the bagpipe had displaced the harp (!) as the instrument of choice especially in its role as a call to battle.”

The trail of connections extends over an extremely wide portion of time and space. These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The connection between Sweden and North Carolina is, perhaps, not so far as anyone might think.

These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The distance between Sweden and North Carolina may not be so far after all. Click to watch a performance video.

About 8,000 years ago, people began traveling the narrow channel between Scotland and Ireland. Of course, they brought their music along. “Common language, common culture, the whole fiddle tradition, and the whole music tradition is all very, very similar and connected. The history and the geography have all played a part in it. You know the shamrock, the rose and the thistle—meaning the three—England, Scotland, and Ireland—all contribute to what we know call the Ulster song tradition…,” explained Irish traditional singer and song collector when he was interviewed by the authors at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina.

Some had heard of the land far across the Sea of Green Darkness, the Ocean Sea, the Western Ocean, the Sea of Perpetual Gloom. Some knew of the early Viking passages to to Vinland, now Newfoundland. In 1717, Ulster Scots (Scots who had migrated to Ulster) were beginning to migrate to Boston, and in 1729, the first Highland Scots were arriving in Cape Fear, North Carolina. In 1745, Andrew Presley travels from Aberdeen to North Carolina; 190 years later, his family tree would include the birth of Elvis Presley. In 1768, James Ritchie and his five brothers set sail from Liverpool and eventually settle in Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas; in 1922, Appalachian singer, song collector and scholar Jean Ritchie is born to a branch of the family well-established in southeastern Kentucky. In the 1770s, Doc Watson’s Scottish ancestor Tom Watson leaves Edinburgh for North Carolina. As they travel, and when they settle, they sing melancholy songs about parting ways with the family left behind, sing about the hardships and the good times. Parts of their stories are reassembled by the song collectors who travel to learn them by heart, write the songs down, perform them, and record the elder folk before they, and the memories, pass.

DIVI077The authors have done just that, and so, in their way, have Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and dozens of others whose names may be less familiar. But the authors have accomplished more. They’ve managed to weave a very complicated story together, a saga of migration and evolution, Viking travels and minstrel shows, song fragments that survived for nearly a millennium, wonderful artists from Scottish poet Robert Burns to Kathy Mattea. There is so much love and passion for the history, the music, the instruments, the people, the land. There’s a CD bound into the back cover so you can hear the music, with every track explained in fascinating detail. There are dozens of handsome full page photographs that provide a sense of the land, plus illustrations of the instruments. Every time I wanted to know more about an interesting concept, I’d turn the page and find a very comprehensive briefing on, for example, “The Ceili, or Ceilidh” (a social event with music that originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland); the dulcimer; “Child ballads” (Scots and Irish ballads classified by Harvard Professor Francis James Child, and often referred to by their numbers). I had never heard of The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. but now I understand its importance. Before Ellis Island, Philadelphia was the American point of entry for most immigrants from Ulster. They’d travel this early highway west and then south, ferrying across the Susquehanna River to Winchester, Virginia (home of Patsy Cline) and the Shenandoah Valley and on to the Yadkin Valley terminus in North Carolina (think in terms of today’s Boone, NC); Daniel Boone extended the trail to what became the Wilderness Road out to Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap.

When I first noticed this book, I figured I’d learn something about music history. Certainly, the authors covered that territory with great skill. That was only the starting point. I’m reminded that there is no such thing as music history, just as there is no such thing as art history or political history. Everything is intertwined. It’s an unbroken circle.

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians."

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians.”

 

 

Return of the Teacher

uc-book
Scott McCloud is on my short list of heroes. If you work in media, or education, or you’re curious about storytelling, you should read Scott’s book, Understanding Comics, at least once every five years. And if you happen to notice that he’s speaking nearby, change your plans and spend the hour watching his on-stage presentation (he posts his schedule here). During the past several years, Scott has been phenomenally busy—we’ve gotten to know one another a bit. He’s been writing, drawing and otherwise building a rather massive graphic novel (487 pages long) called The Sculptor. This is one of those one-person creative enterprises that completely dominates a professional life, where the plan is clear but the day to day execution becomes a kind of parallel universe. It’s a remarkable life: to be completely wrapped up not only in story but in visualization, too. No other medium demands this level of commitment from an artist, and no other medium affords so much creative control.

ScottIn book, lecture and conversation, Scott McCloud has taught me a lot. But it’s one thing to be a teacher and another to be the creator of the material. The expectations become unreasonably high. The student wants to see every lesson incorporated in exquisite elegant prose and picture. The story must be perfect. The storytelling, better than perfect.

His new book is not perfect. That’s an unreasonable demand. It is a very good book, well worth the $29.99 cover price (a lot for a graphic novel) and the two-and-a-half pounds of paper and binding (it’s a heavy book, both physically and metaphorically).

At the start, we meet the character pictured on the cover, the plainly-named David Smith, an artist who seems to have burned out early, speaking with his favorite uncle, Harry. They’re sitting in a coffee shop. David is miserable. His life is not working at all. He says, “My dreams keep growing, Harry, even while my options keep shrinking. It’s like they’re demanding that I make them, demanding to be seen, demanding to exist…and now I’m scared that I’ll never finish a single one.”
sculpt-bookAs David tells his story, the evidence of Scott’s visual storytelling skill propels the sense of reality. There are extreme close-ups and wide streetscapes, frames without dialog that communicate more than those with words, and an interesting isolation technique in which David is fully inked against a world that is rendered only in sketch form. There’s a girl, of course, an angel of sorts, and as in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, a difficult-to-fathom big city art scene (Scott and Stephen wrestle with some similar themes.) Main character David tells us that he hates parties and by extension, the whole scene, but those pages are among Scott’s very finest: a crowded multi-page sequence where you can feel the energy of a noisy large-scale party and the frustration in coping with the idiots who won’t leave you alone while you’re trying to keep some girl within your visual range, while you’re trying to chase her before she’s gone forever. (Gee, he does this well!)

In time, the world becomes malleable. David, the sculptor, can sculpt whatever he wants. He can reshape roads and bridges. He shouts, with truthful glee: “I am the master of the universe!” Physically, that’s true, and the graphic novel form is ideal for showing us what he can do. It’s not long before he reshapes everything in sight, and becomes one of our most prolific artists (the process is astonishingly fluid, and fast). The room is filled with sculptures of giant hands, strange totem poles, the girl (a girl, that girl, which girl?)—unbelievable creative output! But along the way, his soul may not emerge intact—a deal with the devil that every creative person somehow encounters and, to some extent, masters (or doesn’t). He may be running out of time—another deal with the devil (in this case, Uncle Harry).

If you’re getting a sense that Scott’s latest work is cinematic in the scope of its story and deeply personal in a way that only a hand-drawn graphic novel can be, then I’m interpreting what he did with a degree of accuracy. Sure, there are scenes of sex and violence, trippy explorations of time and space curving around one another, gut-wrenching sadness, extreme anger (nothing like a graphic novel to screech and blast anger with words, pictures, abstractions). And a ticking clock—actually, a ticking calendar marking the number of days that David has left in his life. Or so it seems. There’s no requirement for closure—the book is more interesting because it doesn’t quite lend itself to a complete understanding of what happened or why. It takes about two hours to read, maybe three, and after complete immersion, your mind is likely to be so connected to David’s mind, it’s okay to think in terms of possibilities, not a singular ending.

photo-texasFor me, that’s the treat, same as reading Understanding Comics, same as watching Scott lecture, same as spending time with him. We’re living in a world filled with stories and ideas, and clever ways of communicating. If it’s all as simple as A-B-C, then the magic isn’t so magical. Life’s more complicated than a straight series of logical events—and that’s the beauty of a well0-crafted graphic novel. No shopping mall cinema audiences to satisfy with a clearly articulated happy ending. No need for extreme helicopter crashes or uncomfortable explosions punctuated with graphic violence. The story can be personal, it can be told by a single storyteller (provided the storyteller is willing and able to spend several years writing and drawing his epic), and it can be somewhat nonlinear. With that, a reader’s note: do it in one day. That is, find yourself a good stormy day, turn off the cell phone, and just lose yourself. Don’t think too much—just allow the storyteller control your mind for a few hours. We do this for movies all the time—with this book, you don’t want to disengage. You want to pay attention, and grab the ideas as they’re unfolding, then return to study the craft. Last weekend, I read the book. Today, a Saturday, I returned to study the construction of the visual sequences, the use of characters, my favorite scenes and how they were put together.

My next step: start recommending The Sculptor by Scott McCloud to others. That process has now begun.

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I want to go to Provence. In 1970.

There was a secret shared, and in time, the secret was widely shared. It was beautiful. Tasty and life-affirming, too. And many of us benefit from it every day of our lives.

Before 1970–give or take a few years either way–we ate frozen and canned foods, modern conveniences for the busy family. Fresh food wasn’t on the radar (and certainly not on the Radarange). Restaurants weren’t modern, not yet focused on locavores, or for that matter, shared cuisines beyond, say, a local pizza or Chinese restaurant.

What changed? Lots of cultural norms–greater awareness, shifted sensibilities, a focus on nutrition and fresh foods. This didn’t happen magically. It may have begun, in earnest, in 1970, when several iconoclasts gathered in nearby homes in the south of France. They changed the way we think about food, and if food is life, they changed the way we think about life, too.

They were Julia and Paul Child, whose rough contours were sketched in the film Julie & Julia. And, to a lesser degree, Simone Beck, who co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Julia, and whose insistence upon classic French tradition emboldened Julia to think more clearly about the real world of American moms (few American dads cooked–except outdoors). There was the travel / food / free spirited writer M.F.K. Fisher and the American food expert  James Beard, struggling through an extensive survey of our unique and sometimes inexplicable cuisine. And several others who cooked together, argued, and savory the good life that was making its way to Sonoma and Napa.

Their story is told by Ms. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr in a book that’s becoming quite popular. It’s called Provence, 1970, and it provided a  winter weekend’s entertainment. There are menus, and they lead into wonderful stories of friends building meals together– serious cooks experimenting and showing off for their foodie friends. It’s loose and informal, and I kept fantasizing about what it might have been like to join them, if just for a night. Few nonfiction books draw me into the story in quite this way, and it was fun to be a part of it, if only as an observer nearly fifty years later.

It’s now available in paperback, but there’s something about the hardbound edition that’s even more appealing.

Enjoy!

BTW: The complete title is “Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of NPR.

M.F.K. Fisher, clearly enjoying life.P.S.: I think I need to read more by M.F.K. Fisher. One intriguing title is a 1942 book called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I found a review of the book when it was new in the digital catacombs of The New York Times. They wrote:

Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her books creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.”

A Blended Book about Blended Learning

bookThere is no DVD sewn into the back of “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools,” a new book by Clayton Christensen’s acolytes, Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker. Instead, there are QR codes and URLS. If I’m reading with an iPhone or an iPad nearby, and I happen to have a QR reader installed, I can watch Clip #15, which shows how the Quakertown Community School District produces A La Carte courses to provide students with flexibility.” Sometimes, the QR code reader doesn’t do it’s job effectively, so it’s helpful to have the URL printed below the bar code. In fact, I am writing about “Blended” on an iMac, which does a lousy job reading QR codes with its built-in camera (too hard to bring the book up to the camera, then focus, etc.) So: what we have here is a blended solution, a book that relies upon videos to tell its story in an era when books lack any means to display a video except via an external device. And a free chapter to read.

Add a whole lot of scale, and many more people, and the problem of blended schools begins to take shape. We still have school buildings and classrooms, and millions of students making their way through a traditional curriculum, but many of those students now use digital devices to pursue their own interests, and most of these pursuits are individual activities, not collective learning experiences. So we do the best we can with a hybrid situation that will probably last a long while. The authors attempt to classify, codify and otherwise organize what we know and what it means, but they’re fully cognizant of the strange situation they are describing. And they are trying to make the best of it.

Quite reasonably, they begin with the now-commonplace thoughts on “Why Factory-Model Schools Fall Short Today,” and “Why Schools are Reaching a Tipping Point,” the latter detailing desire for personalization, desire for access and desire to control costs as three significant discussion points. They describe four common K-12 blended learning models: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual, then drill down on several Rotation models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation. Huh? To explain this not-so-helpful taxonomy, they break a rule of book publishing. They follow each chapter with its own appendix! Brilliant! I flip the page at the end of the chapter, and there are more pages to explain the concepts in more detail.

After reading the definitions, I was unimpressed with the current state of the taxonomy. Pretty much, some work is done online, some is done in the classroom, some involves more teacher interaction and some involves less. Lots of diagrams attempt to explain these very basic ideas—which aren’t all that different from learning during the 20th century, as some students were allowed more or less freedom based upon their own initiative and the teacher or school’s flexibility. (Important not to overthink these ideas, and also, not to rely too heavily on what seems to be impressive technology circa 2015).

The authors are Christensen people, so they tell the best stories about innovation and obsolescence. My favorite one—clearly told to agitate the laggards—goes like this:

…seeing steam’s potential, the old sailing-ship companies that specialized in wind-powered transoceanic travel did not completely ignore the new technology. The only place they could even think about using steam power, however, was their mainstream market—to help them build ships that would cross entire oceans even more efficiently. They had little motivation to refocus on inland waterway customers, given that they had the opportunity to build even bigger, more profitable ships to cross the oceans. Not wanting to dismiss steam power entirely, however, sailing-ship companies searched for the middle-ground. They ultimately pioneered a hybrid solution, one that combined steam and sails. In 1819, the hybrid vessel Savannah made the first Atlantic crossing powered by a combination approach; in truth only 80 hours of the 633-hour voyage were by steam rather than sail… The wind-powered ship companies never made a true attempt at entering the pure disruptive steamship market—and ultimately they paid the price. By the early 19o0s, the steam-powered ships, which started in those inland waterways that looked so unattractive to the wind-powered ship companies, became good enough for transoceanic travel. Customers migrated from sailing ships to steam-powered ships, and every single wind-powered ship company went out of business.”

And so, the authors ponder, “What will become of schools?,” how to design teams to innovate, “The Cost of Getting It Wrong,” and so on. This is a practical book, a companion or “field guide” to a previous book called “Disrupting Class” that is filled with the theory that makes these practical approaches work. Both are worth reading, both for educators and parents, and for those in businesses or other situations that are not yet equipped with the large-scale change that the 21st century seems destined to spread to so many of aspects of daily life.

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