Murdering “Cats”

The critics have apparently done it again. Sneering snidely, they have likely sunk any chance of success for the movie Cats, the film version of the long-running Broadway musical. Having seen and enjoyed the musical a few times, we decided to ignore the critics and went to the movies. After battling our way through throngs of people there for the twenty-third running of the Star Wars quintology (not a real word but it fits), also slammed by some critics, we sat in a nearly empty theater as the opening scene appeared.

To be clear, the movie version of Cats has some serious flaws; I about to tell you what they are. But to say that the movie is a “disaster,” etc. as some critics have exclaimed, is, I think ridiculous.

First, one must recognize that the Cats story is a fantasy intended to entertain. It is not a serious thing, except perhaps in one way I’ll come to. It was, after all, a musical based on some poems about cats. If you want to taste the kind of over-analyzed attempts to give some profound meaning to the story, you have many choices but a good one is https://screenrant.com/cats-movie-ending-explained-grizabella-heaviside-layer/ It’s a spoiler in many ways, however, so you may want to avoid it and the others if you’re considering watching the movie (it likely will be “free” on some Internet service soon since it’s being massacred at the box office). I am, frankly, tired of critics condemning works of art because they don’t fit some pre-conceived narrative of what “should” have been done.

Second, the musical is recognized even by the critics (however grudgingly) as much-loved by audiences. According to Wikipedia, the “London production ran for 21 years and 8,949 performances, while the Broadway production ran for 18 years and 7,485 performances, making Cats the longest-running musical in both theatre districts for a number of years.” That doesn’t count the many other performances (like Washington DC where I first saw it). Not bad for a fluffy piece of fiction with a somewhat puzzling story line and no dialogue.

Third, all that notwithstanding, the movie version has some serious flaws. They detract from the heft of the music and special effects, sometimes in major ways. First, and most serious for me, is the modern practice of having the camera viewpoint constantly shifting from one vantage point to another every few seconds. Rather than letting you see a dance scene as a whole, the director, or whomever, has the camera viewpoint constantly changing.

One moment it’s on the lead dancer, Victoria, played by the stunning Francesca Hayward, who in real life is a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet at London’s Covent Garden. Then it shifts to a group of cats dancing, then back to Victoria, then to another cat doing something different, then to the entire scene from a different vantage than the first one, and so on and so on. Why, I have to ask, when you have a talent as beautiful and skilled as Francesca Hayward as a main character do you not just show her dancing as the center of attention in the larger frame? If you were watching a live ballet you likely would focus most of your attention on her. But, no, the director, or whoever makes these decisions, wants us to see everything from a constantly changing viewpoint.

This practice is commonplace in music videos I have seen (rarely to completion) but I suggest it does not belong in the staging of a musical as movie.

Fourth, there are several “episodes” in the movie version that occupy an inordinate amount of space/time seemingly to accommodate the actors chosen for the roles. These include James Corden, Rebel Wilson and Jason Derulo. I was struck that at the end of the movie, when the credits roll, Corden was given top billing. I lack the imagination to understand how that could be warranted by anything related to the movie.

Fifth, the most iconic music from the stage version is, of course, Memory. It is sung by the aged and defeated Grizabella, played in the movie by the powerful Jennifer Hudson. Unfortunately, her rendition is an over-wrought downer, over-acted and overwhelmed. I don’t fault Hudson. This had to be the director’s choice and it was a bad one.

Finally, the handling of Macavity, played, inexplicably, by Idris Elba, was a major error. In the story he is a malevolent creature with magical powers and the presentation seems discordant with the rest of the story, albeit that it contains many fantasy elements throughout.

Well, then, with all those flaws, how did the critics go wrong? The answer, I think, is in condemning the whole because of a few defects, unhappy ones, to be sure, but hardly fatal to the overall concept. In the end the story is about redemption, goodwill and generosity triumphing over evil and selfishness. It is a fantasy, a divertissement that should not be taken seriously. It is intended to amuse you and, in the end, lift you up. I thought that, flaws notwithstanding, it did that. It’s a movie, after all, not a major philosophical dissertation.

I suspect it’s too late for a “market correction” that might save this movie from the dust heap where severe criticism tends to push productions that the true critics don’t like. Too bad. Many people who would enjoy the spectacle will now miss it because self-important and self-appointed “experts” have decided that the movie is a “debacle.” Debacles do happen in Hollywood as elsewhere, but I don’t think this Cats is fairly condemned.

P.S. — I had a similar response to the critics’ treatment of Bohemian Rhapsody [see https://autumninnewyork.net/2018/11/04/bohemian-rhapsody-ignore-critics/] that, according to Wikipedia, grossed over $903 million worldwide on a production budget of about $50 million, making it the sixth-highest-grossing film of 2018 worldwide and setting the all-time box office records for the biopic and drama genres. The film earned 4 Oscars and was Best Motion Picture – Drama at the 76th Golden Globe Awards, among other awards and nominations. Just saying. Since the Bohemian Rhapsody post was in the AutumnInNewYork.net blog, I am simultaneously posting the Cats piece in both blogs.

Dinner at DeGrezia

We discovered this marvel of a restaurant in the below-street level at East 50th Street about 15 years ago. We reserve it for very special occasions, most recently for our 13th anniversary last night. It never disappoints.

As the photos below show, DeGrezia is a “traditional” Italian establishment, tastefully decorated with soft music as background so you can have quiet conversation – no need to shout over the music. A lot of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Brightman and Billie Holiday, among others. This creates an atmosphere in which everyone’s conversation is muted. The wait staff wears tuxedos and are attentive without being overbearing. The overall atmosphere is one of muted sophistication, a really nice way to enjoy a special occasion meal. The scale of the main dining area is such that even at full capacity the typical din of a New York restaurant is usually avoided.

Then, there is the food. We started by sharing a “giant shrimp” dish with white beans in a delicious red sauce. Since there were two giant (really) shrimp, it was easy to share and there was no pushback from the waiter. It was so big and tasty that I failed to take a photo.

The main courses were even better. A cream sauce covered my lobster ravioli special with very small shrimp generously added. Even the tiny shrimp had great flavor. My wife ordered gnocchi with Bolognese sauce and had to get a doggy bag (pictured below) to take some home. We completed the meal by sharing a flourless chocolate cake and a surprisingly robust decaf coffee.

With two glasses of wine and a club soda with lime, the total bill for this feast was only $120, an amazingly reasonable price, especially for a fine restaurant in New York City. DeGrezia is a gem that will satisfy anyone looking for fine food in a pleasant atmosphere.

 

Supernatural Happenings at NYCB

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to watch New York City Ballet perform a “working dress rehearsal” of two upcoming ballets. The first was Summerspace choreographed by Merce Cunningham in 1958, followed by a performance to Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

I knew nothing of Cunningham or Summerspace, but one of the Lincoln Center docents provided an explanation in the lobby before the rehearsal began. [These lectures are also provided before and during intermissions at actual performances, a wonderful opportunity to learn about the history and concepts of the performances] Cunningham was romantically connected to John Cage, described in Wikipedia as a “pioneer of indeterminacy in music” and “one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde.” Cage’s studies of Far East philosophies led to the idea of “chance-controlled music.

Thus, the docent explained, Cummingham believed, like Cage, that meaning and art should be separated. The musical score for Summerspace, actually composed by one Morton Feldman, indicated which instruments would play a specified number of notes at which moments in the performance but the notes were to be chosen by the musician on the spot. The orchestra leader’s job was simply to metronomically keep the time of the beats. The choreography was completed in the absence of music which was then “added” to the performance. As described in Wikipedia:

The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text decision-making tool, which uses chance operations to suggest answers to questions one may pose, became Cage’s standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage]

If you can accept the idea that art has no meaning, that music should not follow any thematic or melodic structure and that music can be a sequence of random sounds, you might be able to appreciate Summerspace. I am not one of those people, so I was thoroughly put off by seeing the rehearsal involving 4 ballerinas and 2 male dancers accompanied by a grating sequence of beeps and squeaks provided by flutes and a few other instruments. The dancing was more “modern dance” than ballet and involved a lot of running around (and on and off) the stage with random leaping and interactions of sorts among the dancers.  For me, at least, a major part of the magic of ballet arises from the correspondence of the dancers’ feet and the music. I am hardly an “expert” but I know what works for me.

Summerspace was, in any case, a minor distraction. The Piano Concerto rehearsal was next. This stunning piece was performed by a large corps de ballet of 22 dancers and a seven-dancer lead group at the head of which was Sara Mearns who gave the term prima ballerina its full and true meaning. I was transfixed trying to imagine what this ballet would look like when the dancers were in costume. When the rehearsal wound down, I raced home determined to buy tickets if we could get decent seats at an affordable price. We could and I did.

By the time Saturday night arrived, I was afraid I had over-hyped the coming spectacle to my wife but in the event there was no reason for concern.

The first performance was to Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, choreography by George Balanchine. Even without any dancing, this would be a great experience because of the glorious music, but with the ballet, it was sublime, a taste of things to come. Then came Summerspace, pretty much as rehearsed.

And then … Sara Mearns and company, again to music by Tschaikovsky, based on a very difficult score but, unlike the rehearsal, with the full orchestra involved and the dancers in beautiful costumes with tiaras both adorned with Swarovski crystals. Watching Mearns was both exhilarating and exhausting. Her gifts seem truly supernatural – she must have been on the stage at full tilt for 90 percent of the entire performance, rarely at rest. Mearns and Russell Janzen were in perfect synchrony throughout and despite the physical demands of their roles, no loss of grace, style or command could be seen.

I remarked at the end that Mearns must need a 24-hour sleep to recover but the truth is likely otherwise. In a 2017 interview, she answered the question: What is a typical day in the life of Sara Mearns?

 A typical day during performance weeks start off with me trying to get up to my alarm around 9:00AM. My nights at the theater can end as late as 11:00PM, which makes it hard to get moving in the morning. I take a really hot shower to get my muscles warmed up before I roll out and stretch for about 45 minutes at home. I get to the theater around 10:30AM and then start rehearsals between 11:30AM and noon. We rehearse between 5-6 hours a day depending on our repertory schedule and each ballet can range from 15-20 minutes a session. We have a 2 hour break between rehearsal and the show, which offers an opportunity to eat something, receive hair and makeup, and then it’s showtime. I eat dinner around 11:00PM and don’t usually fall asleep until 1:00AM. It takes a while for the body to wind down and relax after such a grueling day. [https://www.sakara.com/blogs/mag/sara-mearns-prima-ballerina-nyc-ballet]

That article describes Mearns’ early dance history, starting, unhappily (the ironies), at age 3. Fortunately for those privileged to see her dance as a mature woman in full command of her mind and body, her early unhappiness with dance didn’t last long.

The only other astonishing aspect of this event was that many of the seats in the upper (4th) ring of the theater remained unsold. I had never seen anything like this since our first ballet and it was disconcerting that so many people missed this opportunity. The lesson is to never assume that even the greatest performances will be sold out. We had a perfectly fine view of the entire stage and from the heights could see the action in the back and front equally well. It’s a shame that when there is this disconnect between supply and demand, the seats cannot be made available to schools (for example). I understand there are issues of impact on demand for the “better” higher priced seats. and I don’t know how that can be solved. It just seems tragically wasteful that so much talent and beauty is not witnessed and enjoyed by the maximum number of people, many of whom would be converted, as I was, to fans for life.

 

 

 

Come From Away – Speechless

Well, not quite. We had been mulling over whether to see this show for some time. A visit by friends from DC inspired us to choose it. Totally blown away by this show.

The story itself is, of course, very moving but the truly special element of this musical lies, first, in the story adaptation for the stage, using multiple characters to tell the story in often rapid-fire shifts of narrator and, second, the use of a relatively small cast with each member playing multiple roles in the story. You have to pay close attention to what is being said and what is happening to keep up with the fast-moving story. But the role changes for the cast members occur so smoothly that you don’t realize what has happened. Somehow, before our eyes but without your being aware, a cast member has slipped off stage, changed clothes and reappeared as someone else. In other cases, the performer simply slips into or out of a jacket and plays a completely different role in the story for a brief period. You see it happening but it is completely in accord with the movement of the story.

The music is joyous and to a degree overcomes the otherwise incredible drama of what you know has happened and is going on in New York City while the people who “come from away” are mostly left in the dark.

We have seen enough top tier musicals in New York to wonder sometimes why the audiences are not more enthusiastic and choose not to reward the performers with a standing ovation. No worries in this case. The entire audience was on its feet in a few seconds after the curtain came down, roaring their approval for an extended time while joining the musicians in an improvised hootenanny style hoedown. Wonderful in every way. As we moved slowly out with the crowd, my wife noted she would see the show again and I agreed with her. It was that good.

 

 

 

 

 

Brooklyn Botanical Garden

As the signs of fall weather inexorably creep in, we decided to visit the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. At 52 acres, it’s a good deal smaller than the Bronx Botanical Garden (250 acres!) but very much worth the trip. The website, https://www.bbg.org/, says it takes a full day to see the entire garden and interior exhibits. If everything were in bloom, that might be right, although we covered most of it in a few hours, including photographs (about which more shortly). If we had any beef with the place, it was that following the map was confusing. More signs would be helpful. But that’s a quibble and who wants to be a quibbler on a beautiful fall day in New York?

Back to the photographs. They speak for themselves and words will only detract, so I’m just going to lay them out and be done with it.

Carnegie Hall – Iconic in More Ways Than One

An evening at Carnegie Hall, the most iconic of New York music venues, has been on our must-do list for some time. When the Winter 2019 schedule was announced and individual tickets became available to see YoYo Ma perform Beethoven with Emanuel Axe and Leonidas Kavakos, we were ready to pounce. It turned out that most of the tickets had been scooped up before I got online and the price of what remained was simply too much. To see this caliber of performance, you’ve got to get up early.

Not to be defeated so easily, I fell back to the offering of Beethoven symphonies and found acceptable balcony seats two places off the right aisle for performances of Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth (my favorite). I registered and completed all the required information, including credit card, only to be greeted by a message that an unexplained “error” had occurred. The instruction was that if you received the error message you should send an email to a provided “feedback” address. I did that, but it felt like sending a complaint to the moon.

Not to be defeated so easily, I tried again, but now the offer was for seats I did not think were acceptable and at the same price as the better seats previously offered. I wrote the “feedback” email address again with my final moon-shot, telling Carnegie Hall that we were going to pass and why. I emailed my wife with the bad news that I was defeated and that Carnegie Hall was not in our immediate future after all.

Within a few minutes, literally, my phone rang – I answered to hear a young man at Carnegie Hall [YMACH], “I see you’re having a problem buying tickets?”

I am not fantasizing; this actually happened (I have the confirmation).

Me: “Yes,” explaining in passing that I had really been hoping to get two seats starting on an aisle.

YMACH: “You want an aisle seat?”

Me: “Yes, but … (thinking, this is going nowhere but at least I can convey how disappointed I am).”

YMACH: “I can put you in an aisle and adjacent seat closer to the center, better than the seats you were trying to buy.”

Me: “Done and done.”

That, dear readers, is how it should be done. I am now a devoted fan of Carnegie Hall for life. Humans over computers – is that great or what?!  I did not spoil the moment by asking why the computer offered me worse seats than were available at the same price. The young man likely could not explain it anyway, but the lesson is clear. Next time I just call or go to the box office. Now the waiting begins – the performance is in February!

London Versus New York City – An Unscientific Comparison

We recently spent a vacation week in London and were constantly reminded of the similarities and differences, large and small, between that great city and New York City that we now call home. To avoid any wrong impressions from what follows, we had a great time in London. Among many other things, I rode on the London Eye, my first time on a “ferris wheel” in many decades. Very good experience.

The first afternoon we took a bus tour of the city, something I would normally not want to do, but the tour guide was a semi-retired lady with sharp English wit who provided many comical moments as we drove through the relatively calm Sunday afternoon. We walked along the south bank of the Thames, now a thriving public space for foot stalls and buskers. And, of course, we paid a visit to Harrods and Selfridges for a little shopping.

One of the largest differences between the cities cannot actually be seen from the ground – London occupies almost exactly twice the square mileage of New York City including the boroughs. If you look at a map while you’re there, it’s clear that London is simply enormous. At the same time, it is not as vertical as New York City. There are a few very tall buildings, but most of London is open to the sky.

The most obvious similarity is the traffic congestion. It actually seemed worse in London because there were so many times when it did not seem to move at all for long periods. New York’s congestion does usually creep along, albeit with much horn honking and other irrational responses to the frustration. Oddly enough, there was much less horn honking in London. We quickly realized that the only smart way to get around during the day was The Tube, the London equivalent of the New York subway.

Except that the Tube and the New York subway are not equivalent. The list of differences is long and important; in London’s Tube,

No trash on tracks or in stations        High frequency of trains

Padded seats                                      Did I mention padded seats?

Clean cars                                           Large windows

Light traffic most places during day    No foul smells

Lifts and escalators mostly working    Trains relatively smooth & quiet

On the other hand, the Tube had

No air conditioning in the cars

            No disabled access

Small signs to the lifts where they existed

The lack of air conditioning resulted in very hot cars most of the time and compounded the failure of many young Englishmen/tourists to use deodorant. Thankfully, the scale of the Tube combined with its frequency, at least at the stations we used, meant that we could get around the city very quickly and, in our experience at least, reliably. Access to the Tube made our entire trip work.

I noticed a few other things. This may well be “eye of the beholder,” but the English are justly famous for frumpy clothing and it was on full display during our week there. Because of the crowds in the main shopping areas especially, Londoners exhibited another tendency we’ve seen a lot in New York City – the commandeering of sidewalk space by people who suddenly decide they have to consult their phones, a map or just stop to chat with each other. Likely, many of these were tourists but it was so common that I strongly suspect the indigenous population was also guilty. It was early summer, so, of course, there were plenty of tourists on hand. You’d think many of them had never been away from home before.

There were a few other rough spots. One was what I will call the VAT tax refund scam. It turns out the only way you can recover the money at the airport is to have in your possession the physical items you purchased, which means holding them out of your suitcase when you check in.

Rough spots aside, we worked very hard to avoid what is known as “British cuisine” and were, for the most part successful. We ate at some fine restaurants and while they were generally a bit expensive, this was a cost well worth incurring. We largely enjoyed most of our meals except a forced lunch at a pub on Sunday, the only eating place open in the immediate area on a Sunday. The food was simply awful. Not so at the Richoux tea room for lunch during the week. Great food and ambience. We enjoyed a fabulous fish dinner at Milos before a show and the last night an incredibly tasty Indian cuisine at Matsya in Mayfair. Bill’s in Islington was funky but very friendly people and interesting food.

London has a thriving performing arts scene, which we undertook to enjoy to the fullest on our short visit. We saw what I can only describe as a largely “experimental” dance/ballet performance at the somewhat remote Sadler Wells Theatre, as well as two traditional shows, Mama Mia and Les Miserables. The musicals were wonderful, marred only by the necessity for the house manager to threaten to remove some of the teenagers who came en masse to see Mama Mia but mainly to talk, check their phones and generally act like jerks. Les Mis was presented in a small theater, magnifying the power of the show even more than usual, a spectacular performance.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Churchill War Rooms, covered, very partially, in the photos below; it was a genuinely unique experience. One important note for anyone interested in seeing the War Rooms: make your reservations weeks or even months before you arrive. If you don’t, you’re likely looking at a multi-hour wait in line, outside.

Finally, we spent an entire day on a private tour of the Cotswolds, a beautiful section of English countryside that is well represented in the photos at the end of this post. We highly recommend this to anyone visiting London.

Finally, finally, I have to add in closing that our hotel and room were among the more bizarre designs I’ve seen in many years of traveling. there was no way to plug the sink to create a pool of water for shaving. The shower had a sliding door that resulted in water accumulating on the bathroom floor. We tried everything to stop it, without success. The hotel restaurant had a decent menu, but for breakfast the buffet was the identical collection of items for seven straight days.

So, that’s it in summary. The photos, a fraction of what was shot, follow.

Hotel

General London

Churchill War Rooms

Cotswolds