Fragmentary Thoughts Rescued from a Weekend of Culture

I spent the past weekend in the Boston area, and so had a chance for more cultural activities than I usually do. First was an alumni event for the school I work at: a trip to see the Boston Pops orchestra perform a salute to Stephen Sondheim, who celebrated his 75th birthday in March.

Despite having spent an awful lot of time in theatres, I'm not a big fan of musicals, but Sondheim's work is an exception, and the performance at Symphony Hall was magnificent, because the songs were performed by Broadway veterans Marin Mazzie, Greg Edelman, and Faith Prince as well as five younger performers from the Tanglewood Music Center (two were excellent, one was good, two were pretty awful). The choice of material was particularly strong -- I've got a bunch of CDs of Sondheim retrospectives, most of which have one or two good performances, but are, as a whole, forgettable because they try to cover Sondheim's entire career and end up being stretched too thin to be coherent. The selection of songs here was brilliant: a few from Act I of Sweeney Todd, including both "The Worst Pies in London" and "A Little Priest" (I think the friends I was sitting with were a bit horrified by my maniacal glee during the latter -- but really, how can you not be delighted by lines such as "And we have some shepherd's pie peppered/ With actual shepherd on top!"), then a handful from Sunday in the Park with George, then a couple from Merrily We Roll Along, including the horrendously difficult "Opening Doors" to end the first half of the performance. The pieces from Merrily were particular fun for me, because I directed the show a few years ago, and some of the people who were in it were with us at Pops. The second half commenced with solos by Faith Prince ("The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company), Greg Edelman ("If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" from Evening Primrose), and Marin Mazzie ("Losing My Mind" from Follies). All were excellent, but Mazzie's was simply perfect, both musically and emotionally. Then came five songs from Into the Woods and the finale, part 2 of "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along, an odd choice that they pulled off well.

Anyway, a phenomenal evening, and one I hope will makes its way to PBS's "Evening at Pops" series and perhaps even an album, because it deserves to be preserved. (Ed Siegel's review for the Globe seems mostly accurate to me.)

Then came Sunday, when I met up with Geoffrey Goodwin (who you might know from Bookslut) at Pandemonium Books in Harvard Square and we wandered off to Kendall Square to go see Howl's Moving Castle. This ended up being a bigger endeavor than we counted on, though, because neither of us knew how to get to the Kendall Square Cinema, and directions we got made it seem much farther away from the subway than it really is, so we ended up walking through Cambridge for a couple of hours on a quest for the theatre. By the time we found it, we were exhausted and famished, so we bought tickets to the 5pm show and then went off in search of food. You would not think this would be difficult in a city, but while Harvard Square had been bustling, Kendall Square was eerily empty of people and every restaurant we found was closed except for a pub that was too enamored with meat for two vegetarians to be able to get any food at. Finally, desperately, we ended up at an Au Bon Pain. So here's some advice: If you go to Kendall Square on a Sunday, bring your own food. And if anybody tells you the Kendall Square Cinema is really far away, don't believe them.

But we finally saw the film, and it was magnificent. It's not perfect -- the ending ties things up too hastily -- but it's richly detailed, mysterious, evocative, haunting, funny, touching, and endlessly inventive. Only about 15 minutes of the movie draw very closely from the original novel, which may disappoint some Diana Wynne Jones fans, but I loved what Miyazaki did with the material, and it actually made me appreciate some of the original elements of the book more, though I still remain essentially impervious to what I'm told are the novel's charms (well, I liked the first quarter or so of the book, but not so much after that). I expect to have something more here about Howl's Moving Castle in the next week or two, but for now I'll just say that while it's not Miyazaki's best movie, it's unlikely you'll find a better film in theatres this summer, so even if it takes time and sacrifices to go see it, you should.

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