Friday, November 1, 2019

Living in the Future: Aaron Cohen's Move On Up

The Impressions in 1970: Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden (Phoyo: Giles Petard)

“They were living in the future, those artists. You have to live tomorrow, you can’t think of today. The real beauty is not the music but the reflection of what it shows us. I’m ready to get back to the future.”  – Rhymefest
I first encountered the fine writing of Aaron Cohen in his marvelous little book on Aretha Franklin’s magnificent 1973 live-concert gospel record Amazing Grace. His book with the same title was released by Bloomsbury’s 33-1/3 series focusing on individual albums and their influences on music and pop culture. I use the word “little” in reference not to its content, which is huge, but only to its diminutive format: the series takes short but penetrating looks (and listens) at frequently landmark recordings in an attempt to deeply explore the album as a work of art along the lines of a great painting or compelling novel. I was also fortunate enough to glean some insights from him for my own upcoming book on Tina Turner, and was grateful for the clarity of his grasp of soul music as an expression of black culture in general and Turner’s role in the first wave of popularizing its style with white audiences.

In this new book, Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power, Cohen stretches out for a longer and in-depth appreciation of soul music in its city-specific relationship to his hometown of Chicago, where he teaches humanities, journalism and English composition at City Colleges of Chicago and received a Public Scholar fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016. Cohen's articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, DownBeat, The Washington Post and The Nation and he is the two-time recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). I like the way author Jonathan Eig characterized Cohen’s heartfelt study of the city and the army of talented musicians who gave it a distinct tone and vibe, one so different from Aretha’s Detroit or Tina’s St. Louis/Los Angeles: “An extraordinary achievement, cue up The Chi-Lites, open this book and enjoy.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

An Appreciation of Philip Kerr's Final Novel Metropolis

Metropolis by Otto DIx (1927-1928).

When the Scottish-born author, Philip Kerr, died of cancer last year at the age of 62, he left behind the manuscript of Metropolis which turned out to be the 14th novel in the Bernie Gunther series. Although he wrote several standalone novels and a children's fantasy series, he will probably best be remembered for the hard-boiled, iconoclastic Berlin detective turned private investigator.

The Weimar Republic, specifically 1928 Berlin, is the locale of Metropolis. The novel is a prequel to the series that began thirty years ago with the publication of March Violets set in 1936 Nazi Germany at the time of the Olympics. Interestingly, that time-span roughly matches the aging of the novels' cynical protagonist since Kerr's penultimate novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts takes place in 1957.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Found and Lost: Fiddler on the Roof, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles and The Late Show

A scene from Fiddler on the Roof at Manhattan's Stage 42. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Since Fiddler on the Roof swept New York five and a half decades ago, there’s never been a shortage of productions. And no wonder: with its Tchaikovsky-inflected score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Jerome Robbins’s exuberant dances and especially the big-boned, amazingly accomplished Joseph Stein book, Fiddler is a strong candidate for the best Broadway musical ever written. (Most likely contender: Gypsy. Extended lists furnished on request.) Of all the versions I’ve seen, Norman Jewison’s 1971 movie, which ends with images of some of the exiled Russian Jews making their slow, fateful way toward America, remains my favorite, but I loved Bartlett Sher’s 2016 Broadway revival, with Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Hecht as Golde. Last spring’s West End revival, directed by Trevor Nunn, was less impressive – the performances were of highly variable quality and it contained an embarrassing quantity of schmaltz; by the time it ended every major character on stage had cried at least once, even the young revolutionary Perchik.

The idea of performing the show for New York audiences in Yiddish seems such an obvious one that it’s surprising no one thought of it before the current National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene revival, a runaway hit at Stage 42 on Theatre Row directed by Joel Grey. Grey, who turned 87 in April, has staged the musical with graceful simplicity, in the style of a Yiddish vaudeville, with a farcical Rabbi (Adam B. Shapiro) leading the ensemble of Sholom Aleichem folk-fable shtetl types, and the choice is inspired; it even lifts the second-act village-rumor chorus number, “I Just Heard,” which has always been a dud, and makes it work. Stein’s and Harnick’s libretto is mostly comic for the long (nearly two-hour) first act, the striking exceptions being the verse of “If I Were a Rich Man” where Tevye fantasizes longingly about having the time to pray in synagogue every day, “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” (Shraga Friedman, who did the Yiddish translation, has turned “If I Were a Rich Man” wittily into “If I Were a Rothschild,” which also provides a reminder for musical-theatre aficionados that Bock and Harnick went on to write The Rothschilds.) The pogrom that interrupts the joyous wedding party at the end of act one marks the tonal shift that prepares us for all the sadness in the last hour – Hodel’s joining Perchik in Siberia, Chava’s marrying out of the faith, and finally the eviction of the Jews from Anatevka. The robustness and stylized humor of the first act of this Fiddler give the downbeat elements more poignancy and more potency.