Wednesday, March 16, 2016

LIZ SMITH: How to command

Leona as Queen in an ad for The Helmsley Palace.
by Liz Smith

Leona Helmsley — the musical? Tovah Feldshuh is the "Queen of Mean" ... Dolly, Loretta, Emmylou — Country Icons Soar in Various Projects ... "Keep Calm" — It's only a Mike Binder Thriller!

"HE WHO wishes to be obeyed, must know how to command," said Niccolo Machiavelli.
ON MONDAY April 4th and Thursday April 7th, at The Actors' Temple in NYC (339 West 47th Street), the great Tovah Feldshuh will be presented in a reading of the upcoming musical "Queen of Mean: The Rise and Fall of Leona Helmsley." The late Leona, a flamboyant hotel magnate known for her lavish ways and terrible temper, was done in during a tax evasion case that put her in jail for 21 months.

A maid reported that Leona once said "Only little people pay taxes!" True or not, her reputation never recovered. (Be careful what you say in front of the help — it could cost you your freedom!)

The musical, from Alex Lippard, David Lee and Ron Passaro, apparently puts a more amusing and perhaps more human gloss on the much maligned Leona. (After a while, the beat down on her was so excessive, one could feel only sympathy for her, especially after the death of her beloved hubby, Harry.)

The creators of "Queen of Mean" describe her rise as "Faustian." I guess they'll let us in on what devil she sold her soul to for wealth and power.

Tovah in "Yentl."
Tovah as Golda.
I am anxious to see Tovah Feldshuh in this. She has been a favorite of mine from way back, when she appeared in the small, exquisite version of "Yentl" back in 1976, before Barbra Streisand got a hold of it and turned it into a great big musical.

"Golda's Balcony" ... "Lend Me a Tenor" ... "Irena's Vow" ... "Volpone" and of course all those "Law & Order" appearances as the no-nonsense attorney Danielle Melnick. There seems literally nothing Tovah can't do. Last season on Broadway, audiences went wild for her portrayal of the trapeze-swinging Berthe in the acclaimed revival of "Pippin."
I will be interested to see what Tovah can do with Leona. Hopefully, along with the laughs and music, there will be some sense of humanity and understanding. Go to
DOLLY PARTON, with her wigs of many shades of blonde, will soon embark on her first major U.S. and Canadian concert tour in 25 years. The country queen's set-list will include all the familiar Parton hits ("Jolene," "I Will Always Love You," etc) along with new songs from her latest CD "Pure & Simple with Dolly's Biggest Hits." She also promises to play songs that she hasn't done live in 20 years! For more info on dates and cities, go to

But, wait, there's more! On September 9th the two legendary "Trio" albums, a collaboration of Dolly, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt will be available in one package, a new three-disc CD, all spiffed up and remastered. This treat will also include bonus material not found in either "Trio" or Trio II."

I love country music — real country music, not the pop-infused variations that we hear so often now. Country music tells a story, simply, with an ache, a nod toward the realities of life and sometimes just rollicking joy.
The trio — Dolly with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
I was reminded of the beauty and truth of country music when I watched the wonderful PBS documentary on the legendary Loretta Lynn. What a woman, what a voice, what a life!

In the March 14th issue of Time magazine, writer Nolan Feeney conducts a Q & A with Lynn. He asked her if she was surprised about the strong reaction to her 1968 song, "Fist City" which was about her reaction to the women who attempted to usurp her while she was on the road, leaving her husband "Doo" to his own devices? Loretta says: "If you can't fight for your man, he's not worth having!" (And remember, Loretta is the composer of "Don't Come Home a Drinkin' With Lovin' On Your Mind" — she might punch her rival out, but she takes no crap from a man who's doing her wrong, either.)
Loretta thinks "real" country music will be saved, "because you can't lose something we've had for a hundred years."

As for retiring, the 83-year old, who has a new album, titled "Full Circle" says: "Somebody once asked Tammy Wynette, 'Why don't you move over and let us younger singers take over?' Tammy said: 'Why don't you try and move me?' I've had that stuff happen to me. Just try to move me! I could work every night if I wanted to."
I PICKED up a new book titled "Keep Calm: A Thriller" by Mike Binder. Henry Holt published this at the beginning of February. It has a handsome red cover with a guy running in what looks like London.

I thought at first it might be a take off on a popular British saying, "Keep Calm and Carry On." This was devised by the British Government during World War II as a morale booster. Now, "Keep Calm" is used for many things, such as when Kate Middleton married Prince William, there were lots of online features and tee-shirts and buttons that declared: "Keep Calm, You Can Always Marry Harry!"

This thriller does take place mostly in London, but it set in a future time and Prince Harry isn't even mentioned. (In this world, is Harry happily married to some lucky lady, whom he has whisked off to one of those far-flung unglamorous, manly spots he favors?)

The book features a hapless, flawed principle character — an American. I don't want to write about him, Adam Tatum or tell you much about this plot, except for a few highlights such as a bomb at 10 Downing Street, a ruthless villain and lesbian attraction between a petite female detective and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

If you have ever traveled around London and its countryside, you will get a thrilling tour and also approach the question of the British voting to leave or not the European Union.
Read this book right away. I did ... until 3 in the morning. It is presented so convincingly one certainly closes with the feeling real life events could soon mirror the plot.

There are fascinating characters and high-energy situations galore in this one — full of precocious children, the high life, and the twists and turns of marriage and public life. You don't have to slog through a lot of exposition; there is something happening on every page and I see one of my writing favorites Lee Childs, has recommended the book.

"Keep Calm" is exciting and sophisticated. It will make a hell of a movie!

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.