Monthly Archives: November 2010

A Randy Newman Jukebox Musical — Not

Harps and Angels 08The revue of Randy Newman’s songs that just opened at the Mark Taper Forum works because it gets precisely when, and when not, the songwriter’s tongue is lodged firmly in cheek — and because its cast sings and looks a lot better than the notoriously raspy, frumpy Newman. Technically, Harps and Angels is a jukebox musical, a collection of extant pop songs — yes, including “I Love L.A.” and “Short People” — strung together for the stage. But conceived by Jack Viertel and directed by Jerry Zaks, it’s a lot smarter than that usual nostalgic pop cliche. That’s because Newman’s one of rock’s greatest wisecrackers, a sardonic wit who writes sweet-sounding ballads about slavery’s middle passage.

That song, “Sail Away,” is one of several that aim a hard jab at the American psyche in Harps and Angels. Katey Sagal, aka Peg Bundy,  delivers a hilarious Howard Zinnesque lecture on “Great Nations of Europe,” proving that she’s not just a gifted comic actress but a great singer. By the time Newman’s near-rant “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is delivered near the end of act two, it’s clear that this is no mere feel-good pop musical. Newman’s much closer to Stephen Sondheim than Frankie Valli in ironic verse.

In my opinion, Zaks, Viertel, and the talented cast get the tone just right. I like some of these songs better in their hands and mouths than in their creators’. Zaks smartly doesn’t go for the obvious choices: The salacious “You Can Leave Your Hat On” is sung by the Marilyn Monroe-esque Storm Large to a befuddled, nerdish Ryder Bach. Michael McKean subs in just right as a graying doppelganger for Newman (who is merely an occasional taped presence in the show). On a couple songs, the character of God is played by a black woman, Adriane Lenox. The political edge in Act 1 gets mostly displaced into character sketches and philosophical questions in Act 2. There’s no real storyline here, which bothered LA Times reviewer Charles McNulty, but didn’t bother me at all. Themes and characters recur, but Harps is more a medley of short stories than a narrative. As it should be.

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Wild Flag Rocks

Sleater-Kinney is missed, but Wild Flag steps into the void. I caught their LA debut for the Times, and it was so great to see Carrie Brownstein be the rock star she was born to be.

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Wired and Women

Interesting discussion of Wired‘s breast coverage at Poynter. I’m struck by how similar the issues are to those that have long plagued Rolling Stone: a magazine that’s supposed to be about a topic (music/tech) but has instead (d)evolved into a men’s magazine, and is therefore terrible in its coverage of women. I really appreciate Cindy Royal’s expose, so to speak, of this issue, and Rachel Sklar’s important work as well. And I also praise Wired for the important story on generative tissue advances that is somewhat lost in the controversy. That, Rolling Stone would probably still not do.

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Never Ever

I was helping out in Cole’s second-grade classroom this morning. The lesson was about maps, and the teacher was explaining what N, E, S, and W meant on the compass, and how students could remember them. One student piped up with his own homegrown memory device: “My mom always says to remember, ‘Never Ever Smoke Weed.”

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Kim Fowley Speaks

Kim Fowley — child star, polio survivor, gender-bent performer, svengali — just had his second surgical intervention for bladder cancer, and is in the mood to set some records straight. So even though he thinks I’m a feminist out to get him, he has agreed to talk to me for Queens of Noise, my Runaways book. Say what you will about Kim — it’s probably been said before — he’s a great interview. “Death is easier to contemplate than the Runaways,” he told me. Of course, he made me promise to mention his new film/band, Black Room Doom — his own rejoinder to The Runaways movie. Done.

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Florence Live Review

Florence Welch has a confidence and force I can only envy. I caught Florence + the Machine’s show Saturday at the Wiltern for the LA Times.

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