‘Dirty Dancing’ for the First Time

Dirty Dancing the Musical is coming to Seattle January 20 through February 1 at the Paramount Theater. It’s based, of course, upon the classic 1987 Patrick Swayze vehicle, which was massively popular at the time of its release and even more massively popular now. It’s also a film that I had somehow gone my entire life without seeing. How can this be possible, you ask? A cultural touchstone of this magnitude, and I, a self-professed movie buff? Heck, I’ve seen Transformers 2 more than five times, and I hate that movie.

The primary reason is because this movie came out when I was nine. I was chemically predisposed to be uninterested in it, no matter how often my mom blasted the soundtrack in the living room. The “dirty” part of the title sparked some interest, but early reports from friends who had seen it in the theater assured me that there were zero naked ladies in the film. It might as well have been called Dancing. The only thing I would’ve been less interested in seeing would be a movie called Insurance.

But now I’m legally an adult, Dirty Dancing the Musical is coming to Seattle and the time has come. So I sat down with Dirty Dancing and watched it all the way through.

Here are just a few of the many, many things I learned from watching this beloved film. 

It’s AWESOME
Note: I did not say GOOD. It’s kind of not good. Hopefully this apparent dichotomy will make sense by the end of this piece. 

Patrick Swayze is the best part of this movie. 
He IS dancing. His character, Johnny, enters rooms filled with dancing people and immediately asserts his dancing dominance with wild feats of acrobatic dancemanship. All other dancers form a circle around him and cheer wildly as he deftly and often shirtlessly displays his gifts. This encircling phenomenon happens at least three times. When Jennifer Grey’s “Baby” sees Johnny the first time, she slips into a daze like she’s just been hit in the face with a beach ball. But that’s kind of what everyone looks like when they behold the presence of Johnny, and the viewer needn’t wonder way. Few actors could sell that kind of awesome like Swayze. He was a force of nature. 

Patrick Swayze is also the worst part of this movie. 
When he’s not dancing, he is often saying words, which is not his strong suit in this film. He’s using an accent that could best be described as Brooklyn by way of the Deep South. It’s weird and distracting. He’s also bad at portraying emotions, which is a significant portion of an actor’s job. But the movie seems to realize this, and for each time he’s angrily shouting about how “the reason people treat me like I’m nothin’ is because I AM nothin’!” we can be confident that we’ll soon see him shirtless again, spinning around, hoisting ladies up over his shoulders and we’ll immediately forget we ever found fault in him. “Oh Johnny, you ARE somethin’!”

FYI: I ran the numbers, and Swayze is shirtless precisely 68.32% of the time he’s on screen. Feel free to check my work.

The dancing is actually dirty
When Baby first witnesses the titular style of dance, she has just busted in on a secret camp employee dance party. Before I go further, I should point out that this movie takes place in a strange camp where families go to learn dancing together. Now I’m sure this is a thing that actually existed in the early Sixties. Heck, these things might still exist today. But outside of Dirty Dancing I’ve never seen nor heard of such a camp. But then again, 1963 was a much more innocent time, camp-wise.

All of the dancing that the instructors teach publicly is tame and by the book: tangos and mambas and such. But behind closed doors? Well… you know the title of the movie. Baby walks in on a room full of attractive people doing this and is shocked and allured. “Where’d they learn to do that?” she asks a friend, as if you needed weeks of training to grind pelvises with someone. Johnny is able to show her in less than a minute. Step 1: Thrust pelvis. Step 2: Repeat.

I know little to nothing about dance, but “dirty dancing” seems questionable as a legitimate dance style. It’s really just rhythmic heavy petting. I can understand why the parents might not approve of it. I’m not even sure I approve of it.

The plot was a tad more adult than I was expecting. 
Look, there’s no way to sugarcoat this. The main plot of the movie involves “Baby” taking the place of Johnny’s dance partner so she can get an abortion. That’s what this beloved piece of fluffy ’80s/’60s nostalgia is about. It’s all of a piece with some of the larger, non-dancing related themes of the movie, which takes place in the Summer of 1963, “before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came.” So a lot of it is about the alleged shift in values from the stable, conservative ’50s to the tumultuous, radical 60’s. There’s loads of feminism (“everyone called me ‘Baby’ and it never occurred to me to mind”), class conflict, allusions to the escalating crisis in Vietnam, and—yes—abortion. It all seems surprisingly grounded in reality for a movie called Dirty Dancing.

But not really
I mean, all of these thorny issues are basically solved with dancing in the end. In fact, the movie abruptly shifts away from its weightier aspirations in the climax, which almost seems like a completely different movie. Johnny’s reputation has been slandered and he’s been kicked out of the camp, Baby is on the outs with her once trusting father and all seems to be lost. Then, Johnny heroically comes back, scoops up Baby (“Nobody puts Baby in the corner”), and they interrupt the camp talent show to perform a dirty dance to the tune of a special record that Johnny produces.

That record is very special indeed, as it contains the sounds of the far-out future world of 1987, specifically “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” a song which doesn’t even attempt to approximate the music of the early ’60s. I half expected Marty McFly to pop out and start shredding a Van Halen solo at any moment. Soon, caught up in this alien-sounding, powerful jam, all of the other dancers spontaneously join Baby and Johnny, performing an improvised routine in COMPLETE SYNCOPATION.

But that’s not all! This dirty dance fever spreads to the entire camp! Everyone begins to dirty dance with wild abandon, even the old people and the fat people! It’s an unprecedented event that quite possibly gives birth to the peace and love generation right there in that dance hall in the Catskills. It’s pretty ridiculous. In fact, the odd seriousness and relative realism of the earlier stuff makes this final detour into out-and-out fantasy particularly bizarre and, well, kind of awesome. It’s like The Karate Kid ending with Daniel defeating his opponent and then flying away into space in the final shot. WHAT? Where’d that come from? That was AWESOME.

I still don’t get “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” 
That’s the big, famous line from this movie, and it kind of comes out of nowhere. Having now seen the movie it still doesn’t entirely make sense to me. Baby is sitting with her family up against the wall and a perpendicular support post. It’s not really a corner. But leaving aside that technicality, we also never see a part where someone goes “Hey, Baby! You sit there!” or “Here’s where I’m putting you!” For all we or Johnny knows, she put herself in that “corner.”

I just don’t understand why this became the big famous Swayze line, when this line is also in the movie:

“You just put your pickle on the plate, college boy, and leave the hard stuff to me.”

To say nothing of this: “Last month I’m eating jujubees to stay alive and this month women are stuffin’ diamonds in my pockets.”

(Most of) the music is great.
There’s nothing wrong with having affection for the glossy sounds of “She’s Like the Wind” or “Time of My Life,” but those songs are guilty-pleasure schmaltz. I’m not going to pretend I don’t sing along whenever “Hungry Eyes” plays in the mall, but I’m not going to pretend to be proud of it either. But the actual songs from the 60’s that made the cut are absolute classics. “In the Still of the Night,” “Be My Baby,” “Stay,” “You Don’t Own Me.” I mean come on. You can’t go wrong with tunes like that. Dirty Dancing is dopey, charming, dopey, and packed with great tunes and an infectious spirit of fun. Should make for a pretty great night of theater.

Midweek Moment of LBJ: Holiday Edition

On Christmas Eve of 1967, the Accidental President was a victim of circumstance. Gone was the dominant political architect portrayed in All the Way. By the final act of The Great Society, the disastrous escalation in Vietnam has overtaken the Administration and threatens to consume LBJ’s ambitious legislative agenda, deftly indicated by Christopher Acebo’s steadily crumbling set.

By Christmas, LBJ had already made the painful decision not to run for reelection. He planned to announce his retirement in the upcoming State of the Union address, secretly assigning that portion of the speech to a former speechwriter but concealing it from the rest of his staff. He ultimately decided to leave the announcement out to keep the stench of lame duck off of pending legislation.

With that tragic backdrop, here’s the Johnson family Christmas card for 1967:

Heedless of the holidays and the futility of his prospects, LBJ still worked furiously to find a way to bring the war to a close, embarking on a globe-circling mission that started with a state visit to attend the funeral of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, who had disappeared while swimming off the coast of Victoria (and whose body was never found).    

From there, LBJ secretly flew to the U.S. base in Korat, Thailand where he surprised airmen just returning from nighttime combat missions, then on to Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam where he handed out medals and visited with the wounded.

As more unannounced stops were added to the cryptic itinerary, an increasingly exhausted press corps began grumbling about the marathon holiday jaunt. Here’s an account from Sid Davis, one of 52 reporters on the press charter plane, revealing a cranky and driven LBJ who’d be right at home in a scene from the Schenkkan plays:

“Reporters’ complaints made their way to the president through notes assembled by White House press officer Tom Johnson. He quoted The Washington Post’s correspondent Carroll Kilpatrick as saying the president was being ‘too secretive, placing unmerciful pressure on the staff and the press.’

‘We’re sleeping on the deck,’ complained one reporter.

‘The president is fatigued,’ said another.

And this one: ‘LBJ is trying to kill us all.’

In a column in Life magazine, Time magazine columnist Hugh Sidey dubbed the president ‘Lyndon B. Magellan.’

LBJ was not amused. He told the press pool aboard Air Force One that while he was desperately seeking peace, their buddies on the press plane ‘are bitching about their comfort.’ One sympathetic reporter assured the president the press was supportive. When the reporter left the compartment, LBJ whispered to ABC’s Frank Reynolds using an indelicate term to call the reporter a brown-noser.”

The contingent finally made it to Rome for a secretly-brokered meeting with Pope Paul VI, where the Air Force One helicopter became the first to land in the Vatican Gardens, bypassing rush hour trafffic with Presidential swagger. LBJ hoped the Pontiff could help broker a deal to end the war, if not at least advocate for better treatment of American POWs in North Vietnam. He was met with understandably benign skepticism and blessings but no breakthroughs.

What makes this trip a classic Midweek Moment of LBJ: Holiday Edition is the gift exchange that happened on December 23, 1967 between the two world leaders. Pope Paul VI gifted Johnson with a beautiful 15th century oil painting of the Nativity, and LBJ gave the Pope a bronze bust…of himself. That’s right: LBJ liked to gift heads of state with busts of himself. It’s such an illuminating Johnsonian nugget it’s hard to believe it didn’t make it into at least an early draft of the Schenkkan plays. 

Here’s State Department Chief of Protocol James Symington on LBJ’s ultimate white elephant gift:

“You can’t fault a man for wanting to give mementos and gestures of his friendship. But what [LBJ] wanted to take with him was, I don’t remember the exact figure, something like two hundred busts of himself. Some of them were white marblish in appearance and others were bronze-looking. It is, I think, unusual for a man to give a bust of himself in his lifetime, although it’s difficult to give it any other time. But to make a mass-production gesture really boggles the mind…

Today, there are heads of state all over Asia who are trying to decide what to do with the President’s bust. But not just heads of state, because that would have been only a dozen or less [of the busts]. As I say, we had hundreds of them, so many, many people—cabinet ministers and all kinds of functionaries—received one. The President would say, ‘I want a white one.’ ‘I want a bronze one.’ And you never had the one he wanted and you had to go back to get it. [LBJ would exclaim] ‘Damn it! Can’t anyone do anything right?’”

And here’s a photo of the moment in the Vatican on Christmas Eve’s Eve (note Il Papa’s bemusement):

I think we can all relate. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Symphonic Side Gigs: Stephen Bryant and String Quartet River Rafting

Stephen Bryant has played violin with the Seattle Symphony for thirteen seasons, but he’s got another gig he’s been doing even longer. Every summer for the past 26 years he leads a string quartet into the wilds of the Grand Canyon where they play concerts on a river rafting tour, hiking into a different side canyon each day to perform in sublime natural amphitheatres. The work of the great composers mingles with the sounds of wind, water and wildlife.

I spoke with Bryant about his interesting side gig.

I’d imagine your colleagues are used to playing in the completely controlled, acoustically perfect environment of a place like Benaroya Hall. Here you’re going into the wild and presenting the same music. Does that give you any insight into the music, playing it in different settings?

Absolutely. I gotta say, Mother Nature is intelligent. For example, there’s a side canyon called Black Tail that I like to play Shostakovich in because there’s a darkness to it. It was an Anasazi site. It happens to sit right on the Great Unconformity—geologically there’s 800,000 years of rock missing—and all of this comes together to form the most perfect concert hall.

I’ve had experiences with, shall we say, ghosts in that particular canyon. I’ve seen things that defy conventional explanation. This particular side canyon, whenever we play Shostakovich it gets incredibly quiet; the birds stop chirping, the frogs stop. It becomes really quiet, and always after [we play] there’s this incredible assortment of natural sounds. I bring a recorder along and record an hour or two just to listen to the music of nature.

Conversely, if we’re playing Mozart, for example, I find there are certain birds, like the canyon wren, who love to participate. The ravens really like Beethoven. One of the side canyons has a creek right below the “stage” making a burbling sound, and what I’ve discovered with playing in that environment is that your diminuendos disappear completely into this natural sound, and when you play very softly it’s like the music comes right out of the sound of the water.

Most of the concerts happen early in the morning because these are summer trips and they get very hot. By nine or ten in the morning we’ll be playing a concert, and after lunch we’ll go rafting and do the rapids.

Then you get into another spectacular campsite. There are beaches all along the Grand Canyon where the side canyons empty in, and we set up camp in those places. After we get our camp set up the quartet will play a different kind of music than we would in the morning. In the evenings we’ll play popular music, cocktail music. The guides prepare hors d’ouevres and it’s a magical time on the river.

For me to play this great music in that environment—there’s nothing better. I get goosebumps just telling you about it.

River rafting string quartet

It’s the most amazing place. What it gives is so much; a chance for reflection, for solitude, a chance to appreciate beauty and let the mind subside. You listen—really listen—and that means you’ve gotta stop thinking.

The intellect wants to cut in: “Oh, I hear the ‘A’ theme there, and this is a reference to that, and that’s a little out of tune.” Are you listening or are you busy thinking and critiquing?

I teach people how to listen by simply putting their attention on their breathing. Once you put your attention on the breath, the mind has to follow and all of a sudden you notice a lot more because your senses fully open up. That’s the time to look at the [canyon] walls and listen to the sound of the wind or perhaps the sound of Beethoven or Stravinsky.

I’ve seen the amazing power this music has in so many places. The Seattle Symphony has sent me to a dementia and Alzheimer’s facility—these people are in rough shape, but by the end of a Beethoven string quartet they’re so focused and cheerful. They’ve forgotten their troubles.

Last month we played at Monroe [Correctional Complex] and the prisoners loved it. One asked me if I’m ever afraid coming there and I said, “The first time I was, then I met you guys and realized that here is an audience that really knows how to listen.” They love doing the breathing. You can get a little bit of freedom from the constant flow of thoughts.

Is there any place you haven’t played yet that you’d like to play? Any setting or environment?

There are a lot of those. Every time I’m looking at National Geographic and I see their gorgeous pictures from wherever—could be an ice cave, an underground cavern. I’d love to play in Carlsbad Caverns.

Midweek Moment of LBJ: The President Orders Pants

In observance of the triumphant, record-breaking run of the LBJ plays currently underway at the Rep through January 4, we present a new weekly segment taking a closer look at the powerful, indomitable and sometimes downright unusual man who was our Accidental President.

For this week’s installment, here’s a charming animation of an actual recorded White House call from LBJ to the Haggar clothing company in which the Chief Executive describes his particular specifications for a pair of pants.

You might recognize some of the, ahem, specialized anatomical terminology from the masterfully introductory first act of All the Way in which a tailor struggles to fit LBJ as he barks into the phone at a series of notable figures from J. Edgar Hoover to Robert McNamara (and Martin Luther King, Jr. holds on line three.)

Here’s the video by animator Tawn Dorenfeld:

A Kid Reviews ‘Dick Whittington and His Cat’

Dick Whittington and His Cat one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at Seattle Children’s Theatre.

Yeah?

Totally. I’m not just saying that.

You’re saying you liked it.

I liked it. My favorite characters were Bloody Bess, the pirate. She was a good bad guy. I tend to like bad guys.

Hopefully not when you start dating.

DAD! So, Bloody Bess. And I liked the Peacock Hat Chief Guy. I liked Peacock Hat Chief Guy because he was hilarious and made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt.

Are you sure it wasn’t that giant cookie at intermission you could barely finish?

WHAT?! IT WAS A GOOD COOKIE!

Were there any parts that particularly struck you?

One part I liked was when Dick Whittington was sleeping up in the attic. It was really creepy and there were rats everywhere and the housekeeper guy sang this funny rat song. I liked the differences there—we were scared and laughing at the same time.

Did you know the guy who plays Pinky wrote the music?

Pinky was SOOOOO GOOD!

And you do you know how he moved that little boat of his around the stage all night? There’s a motorized wheelchair underneath it all. They have a little joystick that you can’t see and they can move it around anywhere across the stage.

And when they turned out the lights and the rats glowed. That was so cool! And the cat itself. It’s just a puppet but they moved it around like it wasn’t. You almost believed it was a real cat.

However funny it was though, or how much good singing there was, or how great the characters and sets were realized, it was about more than just a guy and his cat, wasn’t it?

Here’s a poem I wrote…

DICK WHITTINGTON AND HIS CAT: A Poem

Quick. Agile. Eyes that shimmer like
diamonds in the dark. Fast, yet unmoving.
The fur like a blanket covering you
in the coldest of nights. A friend.
Braveness and good feelings. True heart.

That’s good.

DAD!

For Thanksgiving dinner perhaps I should find peacock hat and dance around like that guy?

If you do, I’m eating Thanksgiving dinner somewhere else.

An Eleven-year-old Encounters ‘The Garden of Rikki Tikki Tavi’

“Dad,” my eleven-year-old daughter says as we enter the theatre and find our seats to the sound of bird calls, “I think I might be the oldest kid here.”

She could be right. Little kids are everywhere. “Hmm, yes,” I say, consulting the program, “It looks like the show is for kids five and up.”

“I’m up above five.”

“What about me?! I’m WAY above five.” I say.

“You don’t act like it.”

Waiting for the lights to go down, we read our Encore Arts program to learn a bit about the show before it begins. Based on the classic short story by Rudyard Kipling, the man who wrote The Jungle Book, it’s a story of friendship and cooperation in an Indian garden. There’s an innocent baby mongoose named Rikki Tikki Tavi, a vain bossy bird named Darzee and a befuddled muskrat named Chuchu who have to work together to rid the garden of their arch-enemy, the sneaky cobra Nag. By cooperating, they realize that friendship makes the garden a home.

After the show ended the cast signed autographs for the little ones.

What did you think?

I would rate the whole production four stars.

Out of 5 stars?

No, dad, out two thousand stars. Yes, five stars!

Who was your favorite character?

Darzee, because she has such a dramatic change from the beginning to the end. And, also, she’s really funny.

She was a good actor.

I wrote a poem about her!

Darzee
A poem by Grace Shipley

Purples, reds, oranges, greens, and blues swirl
together, flapping wings and selfish spirit.
Emotions spread across the feathers that
sway and beat in the wind. A dance of 
difference occurs through every chapter.
What is this beautiful, strange creature.
It is a bird. It is Darzee.

I thought all the actors were pretty good. Didn’t you, kiddo?

The cobra was great. The actor put a lot of emotion and enthusiasm into it. And the muskrat was funny. The actor worked really hard at it and his funny voice was solid through the whole show. And Rikki Tikki Tavi, herself, was well cast. She was small, too. I liked that. It was a baby mongoose after all.

Do you know what the plural of mongoose is?

Mongooses. Duh, dad.

What about the costumes?

They were neat but I would have changed the costume for the muskrat because I couldn’t clearly see the character and I didn’t understand what it really was at first. But then he said he was a muskrat. So, that’s cool.

[We walked out into the lobby afterwards.]

So, even though you’re a little older than five, you actually didn’t mind seeing the show at all, did you?

But, I’m eleven, dad. Let’s hope I’m not the oldest one in the audience for their next show.

Don’t forget, kid. I’ll be one of the oldest in the audience for the next show. I’m 30 years older than you are.

But you’re an adult.

But with the heart of a child!!

DAD!


‘Beauty and the Beast’ and the Evolution of the Disney Princess

Seattle Theatre Group presents Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Paramount Theater October 21 through 26. Based on the acclaimed 1991 film, it features many of the original songs (“Be Our Guest” OF COURSE) as well as several new ones.

There are many reasons why Beauty and the Beastbecame one of the most beloved of Disney’s already widely cherished catalog of animated features: great songs, stunning visuals, great songs, “Be Our Guest,” more great songs. But it also marked a turning point in the way Disney portrayed female protagonists. Disney “princess” movies have long been criticized for presenting regressive role models for girls. More recent Mouse House movies like TangledBrave and Frozen have subverted this perception, presenting stronger female characters who behave more like real people with stronger motivations than “I need to be rescued” or “I need to find a husband” or “I need to be rescued by someone who will then become my husband.”

I re-watched a bunch of these movies to see how the Princesses have evolved over the past seventy-seven years.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Before I get into the nitty gritty of Snow White and the other weird, nonsensical early features, let me first say that if you haven’t seen these old movies in a long time, you should watch them again. However, I wouldn’t recommend watching all of them over the course of just two days like I did—the experience left me feeling a little unstuck from reality. These movies were made in the glorious days before proper labor laws made it way too expensive, impractical and cruel to make animation as gorgeous as Snow White. There are images in this film that are absolutely breathtaking.

Which is great, because the story itself is fairly nuts. Fairy tales, it seems, were all written during a time when everyone was constantly drunk because drinking water was poisonous. Snow White, one of those classic abused princesses with evil stepmothers who seem to make up such a large portion of medieval Europe’s population, bears little resemblance to an actual person. She seems nice. She sings to animals—A LOT. She’s good with household chores. That’s about it.

In Disney’s defense, nobody else is a strong, rich character, either. If you think Snow White is a shallow caricature of her gender, you should get a load of “The Prince.” I think that’s actually his name. He’s handsome. He’s a Prince. He has a nice voice. He is nice. That’s the character for you. Character development simply wasn’t much of a priority with these early animated epics. I mean, you learn all you need to learn about the Dwarfs by their names alone. Grumpy’s grumpy. Sneezy sneezes. (What kind of personality trait is “sneezing”?) Doc seems like a good guy.   

Cinderella (1950)

This is one of those movies that makes you wonder about the objective of children’s entertainment in the first place. What are these stories supposed to be telling kids? This goes for fairy tales in general. Why did I have to hear the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears so many times? Was it to learn not to break into people’s houses? Or at what temperature to properly enjoy food?

Cinderella also seems like a really nice person. She’s basically enslaved by her horrible family, but she still has a winning attitude and—like Snow White before her—enjoys a hearty endorsement from the animal kingdom. Then, when things are looking bleak, magic comes and saves her because she’s nice, and a powerful man chooses to marry her because she’s pretty. Girls: keep on smiling, because magic and men will save you if you’re a gorgeous and polite doormat! Am I oversimplifying? I really don’t think I am.

I love most of these movies despite their antiquated weirdness, but this one really pushed my buttons with its fetishization of glossy, regal opulence and its direct conflation of outer and inner beauty. In the world of Cinderella, ugly people are bad and beautiful people are good. I resent that.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Twenty-two years after Snow White and it seems like we still haven’t come very far, doesn’t it? The namesake and climax of this movie revolve around a pretty princess who can only be saved by a man coming by and kissing her to bring her out of the loveliest coma of all time. It’s still just hunks rescuing ladies. By this point, however, the characters are beginning to seem more like, well, characters. Princess Aurora is nice and beautiful and has excellent posture and does all of the requisite singing to animals required of a troubled, high-ranking member of the nobility. What’s different is that she actually seems to have a sense of humor, mischief and imagination about her. Compared to Snow White, she’s a veritable fount of personality. Sure, she’s boy-crazy enough to dance with an owl and a squirrel dressed like a man, but who isn’t at that age?

The Little Mermaid (1989)

It took Disney 30 years to get around to making another Princess movie. After thirty years of lesser classics like The AristocatsThe Sword in the Stone and The Black Cauldron, the studio finally got back to doing what it does best: giving little girls costume ideas for Halloween. Things haven’t changed all that much in three decades. Princess Ariel is nice, sings to animals and needs a man for fulfillment, but there’s a lot more agency to her story. She really has to go to great lengths to hook up with her hunky prince. She’s doesn’t just wait for him to invent the aqualung and come down to marry her. She makes a stupid deal with an obviously evil sea-hag, leaves her whole family, loses the ability to talk, gains legs and is naked in public just enough to give me odd stirrings when I was 10. In other words, she earns her prince.

However, as a genuine, red-blooded American, I tend to get irritated by the infatuation with royalty in these movies. Why can’t Ariel fall in love with, say, John Quincy Adams, or some other beacon of representative democracy instead? And don’t say “because that’s what happens in the book” because of course you’d be right.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

We made it! Now, just to be perfectly accurate, Belle (last name not provided, let’s just say it’s “Kowalski”) doesn’t begin the film as a princess, but she does end the movie as one (spoiler!). She’s a bookish, strong-willed young lady who lives with her (non-King) father and sings songs about wanting more. She rejects the advances of the hunky alpha male who the villagers idolize. Far from the patient doormats of the early movies, Belle isn’t taking crap from anybody.

Eventually, however, she has to go live in a magical castle with a horrible (looking) monster for reasons too complex to get into here. Then the whole Beauty and the Beast story that you’re no doubt aware of by now plays out. What I like about this one is that, yes, it ends with the lady finding her man, but only after she saves his life. That’s different! Wait, no. That happened in The Little Mermaid, too.

The other bonus is that this movie flips the script on the ugly=bad, pretty=good lessons from Cinderella. Although after Belle figures out she loves The Beast despite his ghastly appearance, he does turn back into an impossibly gorgeous man. So that muddies up the moral just a bit. But hey—“Be Our Guest”!

Everything After Beauty and the Beast (1991-present)

Disney has been getting better and better at presenting fully realized and independent female characters, some of whom aren’t even related to hereditary rulers! Mulan is an action hero. The Princess and the Frog cleverly tinkers with the idiotic “Princess and the Frog” fairy tale, Tangled has a kick-butt Rapunzel, and don’t even get me started on Frozen, in which the whole “True Love Saves the Day” trope is updated with a wonderful twist… okay, that might be a genuine spoiler.

The female characters in these more recent movies are unquestionably stronger and more fully realized than their classical counterparts. Watching all of these these movies in chronological order is kind of like stepping out of a fog—things feel like they’re starting to make more sense. It’s a feeling which is particularly important when you watch eight Disney cartoons in two days. You don’t want to come out of that kind of ordeal with nothing more than bizarre dreams and the profound urge to sing to animals.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs October 21 through the 26 at the Paramount Theater.

‘Funny Girl’s’ Bumpy Road to Broadway Success

It was no laughing matter getting Funny Girl onto a Broadway stage. The 1964 musical about the life and times of vaudeville legend Fanny Brice (currently on stage at Village Theatre starring Sarah Rose Davis) is now a classic, and rightfully so, but it had plenty of swings and misses along the way.

The show’s early days were filled with personnel changes and scripts written, rewritten and scrapped, and rewritten again. People were hired and let go, and hired again only to quit. Choreography was changed almost as often as choreographers; stars were considered and rejected. With all that tumult, it’s a wonder that Funny Girl ever got on stage at all.  

The musical is set in New York City circa World War I; the story is about the Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice (a real star of stage and screen at the time) and her relationship with husband Nick Arnstein (a gambler who saw the jail cells of both Sing Sing and Leavenworth in his lifetime).

The idea to dramatize their story started with Ray Stark, husband to Brice’s daughter Frances, who commissioned an authorized biography of his famous mother-in-law. He didn’t like the finished result and paid $50,000 to stop publication of The Fabulous Fanny entirely. Strike one.

Stark then turned to Ben Hecht (famed screenwriter of Scarface, His Girl Friday, and Notorious, among many others) to write a Fanny Brice biopic instead. Stark didn’t like Hecht’s finished result. Strike two. Nor did he like the efforts of the ten writers who tried to write the biopic after Hecht.

Finally, Isobel Lennart produced a script that Stark was pleased with, My Man, which he promptly sold to Columbia Pictures for a tidy sum. Brice’s life would hit the silver screen. But wait! Wouldn’t it be better as a stage musical?

After reading the screenplay, Broadway star (and Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite) Mary Martin contacted Stark with just such a proposal. Stark contacted infamous Broadway producer/impresario David Merrick, who suggested that Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim (creators of the 1959 musical Gypsy) tackle the adaptation. Sondheim, as legend has it, told Styne that he wouldn’t do a Fanny Brice story starring Mary Martin, because she wasn’t Jewish. Soon after, Martin backed out.

The long list of strike-outs continued, as name after famous name considered the project and then dropped it. Broadway director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and actress Anne Bancroft. Actress Eydie Gormé was in contention for the part of Fanny, but would only play it if her husband was cast as Nick. Carol Burnett turned the role down because she insisted it should be played by a Jewish actress. Then there was Barbra Streisand, who Styne remember from her earlier Broadway debut. Intriguing!

They’d found their Fanny, but the whole project was shelved as Styne worked on other material, and dusted off when the legendary Bob Fosse signed on to direct. He quit, and the project was put back on the shelf. Streisand didn’t want the new director, Garson Kanin, and wanted Jerome Robbins back! And, what? Kanin wanted to cut the song “People” from the show, even though Streisand has already released it as a popular single? Okay, the song stayed in.

The show hits out-of-town tryouts in Boston, where critics like Streisand but not the show. It’s too long. The libretto stinks. The New York opening was delayed four times as they worked out the script. It finally bowed on March 26, 1964 at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, directed by Kanin and choreographed by Carol Haney, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill and a book by Isobel Lennart. And just like that, it became a smash.

“In a black sequined dress that clung to her thighs like a patch of lichen, she threw her head back, sang her heart out, and knocked New York on its ear,” Joanne Stang wrote of Streisand in the New York Times, following the debut.

Funny Girl was nominated for eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. (In one final strike, Funny Girl faced off against Hello, Dolly! and didn’t win one Tony Award because of it.) The cast album went gold. There was a successful run in the West End of London. A subsequent movie adaptation was the highest grossing film of 1968; Streisand won the 1969 Academy Award for Best Actress. 

Forty-plus years later, Funny Girl is still a smash. With classic songs like “People,” “You Are Woman,” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Village Theatre will undoubtedly not strike out at all.

The Truth Behind ‘Truth Like the Sun’

When the World’’s Fair came to Seattle in 1962, this corner of the Northwest finally landed on the international map. From April through October of that year ten million people, filled with space age wonder, visited this uppermost corner of the country. The Space Needle arose. The Project Mercury capsule that carried Alan Shepard into space was on display. The monorail, “the world’s first full-scale rapid-transit system,” took off. The World of Tomorrow exhibit, billed as a “21-minute tour of the future,” featured a giant spherical hydraulic elevator made of acrylic glass—called, fittingly, the Bubbleator. Count Basie performed; Lawrence Welk did, too. Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe paintings hung in the Fine Arts Pavilion. Ed Sullivan did live broadcasts under the Space Needle. Elvis Presley visited and made a movie, It Happened at the World’s Fair. More than 50 years later, Jim Lynch tapped into this pivotal period for his novel Truth Like the Sun, and Book-It Repertory Theatre jumped at the chance to bring his Seattle-centric work to the stage. 

“I wanted to write a novel that cut to the core of Seattle,” Lynch recently told Jane Jones, who adapted and is directing Truth Like the Sun for Book-It. “And the World’s Fair has always loomed in the recent past as this coming-out party for this young, ambitious city. The audacity of the fair is what struck me as quintessentially Seattle… so I wanted to mesh the fair with modern Seattle and see if I couldn’t come up with a storyline that could weave the two Seattles together into something illuminating.”

Truth Like the Sun is Lynch’s third novel, a political thriller firmly set in those two Seattles—the glory of the 1962 World’s Fair and the glory of 2001, in the gold rush technology boom times after Microsoft’s ascendency. The story is that of fictional Roger Morgan, a mastermind who brings the fair to Seattle, eager to make the city famous. The novel, and subsequent theatrical adaptation, blends that time in his life and forty years later when he’s running for mayor in hopes of bringing Seattle back to its former glory. Gumming up the works is an eager reporter, Helen Gulanos, who is looking into Morgan’s career to see who he really is and to see where his power comes from.

“There is much marveling to be done as Truth Like the Sun unfolds,” wrote The New York Times. The Dallas Morning News called Lynch’s work, “taut and accomplished,” while The London Independent raved, Lynch is “a consummate stylist.”

No one hailed the work louder than Book-It, which quickly snapped up the rights to produce the work on stage. “You write about our region and community from an insider’s perspective,” Jones recently told Lynch in an Encore Arts Program article. “You’re local… and your narrative really suits the Book-It style… You write people we either think we know or want to know.”

Book-It is staging the production about the World’s Fair at the Seattle Center, itself created for the World’s Fair. Adapted from the novel by Jones and Kevin McKeon, it stars Chris Ensweiler as Roger Morgan and Jennifer Lee Taylor as Helen Gulanos. The cast also includes Northern Exposure alum Cynthia Geary, McKeon, and Chad Kelderman, amongst others. “Putting the fair on stage has probably been the trickiest,” Jones admitted. “We have a cast of 15 and are representing an event that drew 115,000 people a day at closing. But we like challenges, and a lot of really smart artists are spending a lot of time making those impressions.”

Book-It has long been impressed with Lynch, a former Seattle Times reporter and current Olympia resident. With Truth Like the Sun up and running, the company has officially staged all three of Lynch’s novels. His 2006 debut, The Highest Tide, is a coming-of-age novel set along the tide flats of south Puget Sound. Book-It staged it in 2008. Border Songs, about a border patrol agent along the rural western end of the U.S.-Canada border, was published in 2009, and won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction. Book-It staged that production to rave reviews in 2011. And now, running on stage through May 18, is Truth Like the Sun, another Lynch play that places him firmly on Book-It’s theatre map. There, right next to the Space Needle.

‘In the Book Of’ Allison Strickland

“Everyone starts out a stranger,” says Allison Strickland, a lead actor in Taproot Theatre’s new production, In the Book Of. “To people. To places. To experiences.” Stranger no longer to Seattle’s theatre scene, Strickland is eager to share to audiences this rarely seen play, written by John Walch and directed by Scott Nolte.

For those unfamiliar with In the Book Of, it’s based loosely on the Book of Ruth, a slim book in the Old Testament. It centers around Lieutenant Naomi Watkins (Strickland, and her Afghan translator Anisah, played by Carolyn Marie Monroe. They’ve both lost husbands in the war. “Without giving too much away,” Strickland gives away, “Naomi ends up briging Anisah back to her small town in Mississippi.” It’s there that they both encounter love, healing, and, Strickland says, “What it truly means to embrace life in all of its ups and downs.”

Strickland, who has performed as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Seattle Shakespeare Company and as Rose Rose in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of The Cider House Rules Pt. 2, is performing for the first time in her life on Taproot’s stage. “It’s been a great process and, honestly, they’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They make sure you feel like you are part of their family from day one.”

The role hit her before she knew it. “It came out of the blue, really,” Strickland says. Some mutual friends put Scott Nolte in touch with her. “I came in to read for him and a couple of days later I got the job!” She’s happy to have taken it. The most rewarding and challenging aspects of the role are one and the same. “We have a great military consult for the show named Erik. Through his stories of life in and out of battle, it’s made me realize what an honor it truly is to tell the story of so many servicemen and women.” She’s proud of her small part in recognizing the hard-working members of military. “We see them. We are grateful.”

What’s next for Strickland? “I can’t really say much but it’s pretty wild!” Suffice it to say, she’s currently doing some motion capture work with green screens and body suits for a video game still in development. Such is the life of an actor: a stranger in a strange land, until it’s not so strange anymore.