Friday, April 13, 2018

Sagas and Scandals

After the sting of the asp, Cleo prepares to join Anthony in a happier afterlife ...
The Saga and Scandal of "Cleopatra" Comes to the Stage, as "Cleo." Also — Bruce Springsteen ..."The Boys In The Band"..."Beetlejuice" The Musical. And famous people — you ARE products, realize that, and work with it!   
by Denis Ferrara

“I MUST not be sorry for myself.  It doesn't seem fair. What I feel I should have felt long ago when I was very young. When I could say to myself that this was how love was ... and how it would be. But to have waited so long — to know so suddenly, this late. How it hurts. How love can stab the heart!”

That was Elizabeth Taylor declaring herself to Richard Burton in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 “intimate epic” titled “Cleopatra.”  Then and now, it remains the most publicized, controversial — and possibly expensive — film of all time. (At least 40 million dollars then, which would be, like, $500 million today!)
The movie was not the “bomb” of legend. In fact it was the highest grossing film of ’63.  But back then it could simply never make its cost. (“Cleo” eventually went into the black after its sale to TV.) 

Now, the wild and wooly tale of out-of-control studio expenditure, out-of-control emotions and a scandal to dwarf any before or since, has become a play, onstage currently at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas, directed by Bob Balaban and penned by LawrenceWright. 

Originally, Mr. Wright told the New York Times, he wanted to look at the film through the eyes of director Mankiewicz.  But after Mr. Balaban met Miss Taylor several times, she — no surprise! — convinced him that the real meat and potatoes was her and Richard’s mad love affair, which destroyed two marriages (hers to Eddie Fisher, Richard’s to the divine Sybil Burton), shook the foundation of 20th Century Fox, caused Taylor to be condemned by the Vatican, and, yes — to become an even greater star, although this was her second “home-wrecking.”  (She — a widow grieving the death of third hubby Mike Todd — blithely took up with Eddie while he was still supposedly happily married to Debbie Reynolds, who had been Taylor’s matron of honor at the Todd marriage!) 
As the scandal explodes Mr. Burton looks mighty pleased with himself…
Even before Burton — a well-known but not “famous” actor — there had been near death for ET in London, during “Cleo’s” first production, forgiveness, a so-called “sympathy” Oscar for “Butterfield 8” and an entirely new production mounted for La Liz, the world’s most valuable movie property.

“Cleopatra” seen today looks so much more elegant, powerful, moving (and often witty) than it did in the white hot of the scandal.  And the Taylor/Burton dialogue reflects not only what the couple was doing then, but in so many ways, how their relationship would progress, for better and worse. (Mank, who had worked closely with Taylor on “Suddenly Last Summer,” knew his leading lady’s mercurial emotions and heedless, fearless passions intimately.) 
Taylor/Burton dialogue.
With Rex Harrison, the “other guy” in the movie ...
The stage show is titled, winningly, “Cleo” and stars Lisa Birnbaum as the world’s most notorious movie queen and Richard Short as Burton, who really didn’t know what he was getting into. (Reportedly after the first time he slept with ET, he boasted, correctly, “I’m worth a million dollars more today.”  Soon, after the scandal broke, he said, stunned, “How the fuck could I have known she was THIS famous?!)  Given to reading poetry and the Great Works, I guess Burton had missed the fan magazines and newspaper headlines.

I hope “Cleo” barges into New York at some point. This tale of desperate corporate fear and hope, and the sometimes brutal relationship of two people — insanely attracted but so different in so many ways — is an evergreen for drama. 
Cleo at the Alley Theatre in Houston.
P.S. Ironically, out of all the misery — and the eventual ongoing spectacle of  the married Liz ‘n Dick — only one person emerged with full dignity intact and a happy ending — Sybil Burton.  After the divorce, which she never imagined would actually happen, Sybil met and married the younger Jordan Christopher, opened the famous disco, Arthur’s and eventually founded the New Theater in Manhattan and the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.  She and Jordan remained married until his death in 1996, by which time, her ex, who died in 1984, had remarried three more times (including a second, brief wedlock to Taylor).  And Elizabeth, who had also tied the knot again twice, was in declining health.  Elizabeth passed away in 2011. Sybil died in 2013. The two former Mrs. Burtons had finally reconciled over the deathbed of their mutual dear friend, Roddy McDowall. 

... BRUCE Springsteen’s triumphant Broadway show, simply titled “Bruce Springsteen on Broadway,” has added 81 more performances in an extension beginning in July. 
... I STILL don’t know how I feel about a revival of Mart Crowley’s coming “The Boys in the Band” under the aegis of producer Ryan Murphy, about whom I have not always been kind. 

(I recall what I felt about the 1970 movie, as a 17-year-old: fascinated, of course, thrilled somewhat, but with a sense that in the two years since the play broke such important ground, that ground had been tilled, toiled over and totally transplanted — it was a new and liberated epoch; Mart Crowley’s denizens seemed trapped in a suddenly lost world.

We shall see what the all-star cast and a considerably changed atmosphere brings when the play opens on May 31st at the Booth Theater.)  In any case, on May 17th there will be a special benefit performance of “Boys” for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. Prior to the show, The Lambs Club throws on a big dinner, where new research and education will be discussed.  Tickets are very pricey, but if this isn’t a good deed in a naughty world, what is?  Emial
I really would like to see this show and write it up, if I find it as provocative, moving and “timely” as has been advertised.  Liz Smith was adamant about never being negative about the theater.  She felt critics — and even our little column — had too much power over people slaving their asses off every night, people who could be out of work over, say, a harsh NY Times critique. If we didn’t like something, we should stay silent.  Of course, since Liz’s passing, I’ve not received one press seat offering.  And that’s the way it goes.

... I CAN’T imagine what a theatrical musical version of “Beetlejuice” will be like, but I am fascinated to find out.  Who does not love the 1988 Tim Burton movie — starring Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara — about ghosts trying to haunt people out of their home?  It’s one of those movies when I come across it, no matter where it is, I watch till the end. Performances of  “Beetlejuice” the musical begin at Washington, D.C.’s National Theater in October. Music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect, book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, and directed by Alex Timbers. Casting of the loathsome Beetlejuice and his hapless victims, living and dead will be announced shortly. For more info visit
... THEY say there are still a few tickets left to the April 17th screening of Milos Forman’s classic movie “Amadeus” at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, with the brilliant live musical accompaniment of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. This event is sponsored by the Hamptons Film Festival. Once again, tickets are high-priced. But there’s a two-hour reception beforehand.  Drinks and munchies will lessen the pain in your pocket. Go to
ENDQUOTE: “At the end of the day, it’s business. No matter how much people say you’re family, you’re a product and they just want to sell the product.  They’re going to keep selling it till it breaks.”  That’s singer Iggy Azalea to Billboard’s Jason Lipshutz. 

Before you ask, the only Iggy I’ve ever heard “sing” has the last name Pop — and I wouldn’t really call what he does singing.  Ms. Azalea tells in this article of her rise and fall and now a coming back.  I do know the name, but the particulars of her career and issues I’ve glossed over — until I read this article. 

The remark about being a “product” to your bosses — record labels (in her case) studios, managers, agents, even your devoted personal staff — is a good point. I hate to encourage people to be cynical, but particularly in a business where every other sentence begins or ends with “darling” and “we all love you” is the common, endlessly stated sentiment, cynicism and caution are not to be despised. 

As Jimmy Cox wrote it, and Bessie Smith first sang it in the 1920’s — nobody knows you when you’re down and out. Be a product, but be a smart product.

P.S.  Also in Billboard, I read about another singer I’m only slightly more familiar with — Ashley McBryde. In an article written by E.L. (sorry, he/she used only initials here), Ashley described her music as “Bonnie Raitt and Loretta Lynn getting into a fight at a Waffle House.”  Well, this made me immediately order her new album “Girl Going Nowhere.” 

I love country music, and not just the rock infused tunes of recent years, or even the more “pop” stylings of the later Patsy Cline.  I mean I like Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Dottie West and — unreligious as I am — gospel music.  (Mahalia Jackson, take me home!)
Contact Denis here.