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.


  1. I think the friends I was sitting with were a bit horrified by my maniacal glee during the latter --

    I love Sweeney Todd. "A Little Priest" was quite probably been the first song from that musical that I learned. It has such a cheerful tune, and then the lyrics hit you . . . But fortunately it's also clear / That everybody goes down well with beer!

  2. In re Castle: I wanted more of the political thread and less of the fairy-tale love story thread.

    The fairy-tale love story thread was never quite as interesting as the similar thread in Spirited Away. The political thread promised, for a little while, to really delve into the pacifist themes Miyazaki only hinted at in Laputa and Porco Rosso, but seemed to lose steam at the end.

    (I note from a quick skim of a Russian pirate e-text that the war plot appears to be a wholly Ghibli contribution — true?)

  3. Yes, the war was new. I would have probably thought it was Miyazaki's best film if the war had been more meaningfully integrated into the story and given the intensity that the battles in Princess Mononoke. I didn't mind too much, because it's not my story to tell, but certainly that would have been my preference, too. It was interesting to see some of the posters on walls, though -- a few in German, plus some anti-war ones in English.

  4. It was. I always enjoy Miyazaki's fantastic geographies.

  5. Sonya -- I was looking for an article from The Nation about Sondheim that mentioned the wonderful thing about "A Little Priest" being its class awareness, but I can't find it online. I don't think it's quite as revolutionary a statement as the Nation writer did, particularly given that it's a serial killer justifying himself, but it is at least amusing that within that song is the chorus about "those above will serve those down below".

    The politics of Assassins also seems to me reactionary, though on the surface it appears to be a "dangerous" story of people killing presidents -- really, it's about how anybody who yearns for a better, more just way of life is a dangerous, deluded lunatic. But I still like the songs.

  6. One of my friend Andy's pet never-to-be-realized projects is a hypothetical film called Bad Men: a series of vignettes each starring Gary Oldman as a different presidential assassin.

    Which would, y'know, tend to fit in with the "dangerous, deluded lunatic" theme, at least if he hams it up the way he does most of his B-movie roles...

  7. Gary Oldman as all the assassins would be quite interesting, indeed. Their stories are fascinating and haven't been mined nearly as much as they deserve (except for the biggiest like Lincoln and Kennedy).

  8. Have you seen/heard Sondheim's Assassions?

    Rick Bowes

  9. Yes, indeed, I've seen Assassins three times, and know the original soundtrack pretty much backwards and forwards. (Haven't heard the new soundtrack.) I have some trouble with what seems to me the underlying theme, as I said above, but I love the music and find a lot of scenes very amusing. And I could be wrong about it communicating an idea that only freaks desire a better world, since I haven't given it a tremendous amount of thought, and what may bother me most is the portrayal of Emma Goldman, which is very two-dimensional. But then, I'd like to write a musical someday about Alexander Berkman's attempt to kill Henry Clay Frick, and end it with a song called, "Damn Your Hand, Berkman! If Only You'd Been a Better Shot!" so I'm not sure anything I say is worth paying attention to....


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