Tag Archives: Randy Newman

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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Song of the South 2.0

The Walt Disney Company has not left stereotypes behind; they have sunk as deep into their muck as ever.

Disney should get some sort of credit for having an African-American princess  — it only took them 72 years. But The Princess and the Frog’s retrograde animation style, sexual politics, and ugly caricature of rural Southerners undo any possible positive effects of affirmative action, and derail the film’s effort to culturally resuscitate a once-great American city.

The Princess and the Frog is largely a paean to New Orleans. In the wake of the misery and hatred that Hurricane Katrina unleashed, that mission is perhaps even more important than giving black girls their very own icon of impossible hyper-femininity. But once outside the city, the film portrays rural denizens of the Mississippi Delta region as stupid, toothless, overbreeding insects. As anyone who’s ever eaten jambalaya or danced to Beausoleil knows, Cajuns provide some of the most rich and interesting culture in America. By making this group of people, symbolized by their distinctive accent, seem like so many redneck hillbillies, Disney puts the time machine in reverse and then hits the gas.

The Princess and the Frog is one of the most appallingly ugly movies since the days of Dumbo (with its minstrel crows) and The Song of the South (Walt’s woefully misguided attempt at “multiculturalism”). It’s really hard to know what the company was thinking — and how such seemingly smarter than that Louisianans as Randy Newman and Dr. John, who provide some of the film’s admittedly great music — let themselves get associated with such grotesque caricatures.

Also, I thought we were all over this Princess-Prince Charming fairytale crap. Wasn’t the whole glorious point of Shrek that it’s better to be an ogre than a phony? Okay, I know, princess culture is bigger than ever. But I’ll always root for the Fionas of the world.

The Princess is drawn in the sort of color-saturated dreamlike style of the Technicolor movies of yore — as if stop-animation, 3D, or Pixar in general had never happened. It’s as if Disney took one big gamble — okaywe’llhaveablackprincesstherewesaidit — and then backpedaled furiously on the last few decades of political, technical and aesthetic progress. Plus, it’s not very funny, or well-written.

Cole and I went to a screening of the film at Disney’s Burbank headquarters. I was truly excited to take my son to his first film studio, with its promised interactive event afterward. On the way into the theater, just when I was about to be frisked to make sure I wasn’t sneaking in a movie camera, the tip of Cole’s shoelace got stuck in a floor vent, and he went crashing into the hard metal knee first. (Bootleggers: This is an excellent diversion tactic. Just bring your own Band-Aids.) The small army of smiling greeters who had carefully pointed us from the parking lot to the theater down the not-to-be-veered-from path seemed suddenly stunned by this unscripted freak accident. Noone offered to help me get Cole up; they took about 15 minutes to find a Band-Aid (people, you’ve invited hundreds of kids onto your property; have some first aid ready!); and he never got ice.

The interactive event consisted primarily of photo ops with actors dressed as various Disney princesses. The free popcorn was great and Cole had a good time once his knee stopped hurting. But now I have to figure out how to restore the dignity of the bayou in his impressionable little mind. Heading over to iTunes now for some Michael Doucet and Buckwheat Zydeco.

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