Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley

Source of book: Audiobook from the library, but I had to finish reading the last chapter on my Libby app. 


A couple weeks ago, my wife and our two youngest kids drove up to the Bay Area to see Ruddygore. As we often do, we found an audiobook to help the miles pass. We selected Trent’s Last Case, but discovered that it was just a bit too long for our driving time. Since we haven’t all been in a car at the same time since then, I went ahead and finished it by borrowing an electronic copy from the Los Angeles County Library system. 


Trent’s Last Case is considered one of the greatest detective stories ever written, and was the favorite of a number of other mystery writers. The irony is that Bentley wrote the book as a send-up of the genre, both breaking rules and having his sleuth get nearly everything wrong about the case. It is an anti-detective novel, so to speak. 


There are some sour notes, unfortunately, that I want to mention at the outset. The book was written in 1913, and contains some bigoted ideas all too common in the era. Since the book is over 100 years old, I assume that spoilers are okay here. If not, then go read the book first and come back to this post. 


The plot turns on a character deciding, it appears, to kill himself in order to frame someone else for murder. This rather unlikely scenario is justified by three things. First, the person is a wealthy investment banker, and we know they all have some strange obsession. (This is doubtful - mostly they are obsessed with making money and lack normal human consciences about it.) Second, he is an American, ha ha, and we know what Americans are like. (Yeah, there was a lot of this in a certain era of British writing.) And third, he had Native American Blood and we (wink wink nod nod) know how hot-headed and irrational those people are. Ouch. 


Also present is the use of the n-word and the quotation of racist minstrel songs. So reader beware. These have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, so I have no idea why he even put them in. 


So, that said, the plot centers on the death of the wealthy investment banker under mysterious circumstances. Who committed the murder? Was it his young wife, who had discovered him to be abusive and cruel? Was it one of his two personal secretaries? Was it one of the servants? Or was it a business rival with a vendetta? 


While the cops are investigating, a London newspaper enlists Phillip Trent, one of their occasional correspondents, to do his sleuthing magic. 


As I noted above, Trent gets everything wrong, at every turn. He isn’t stupid for doing so - the evidence does indeed seem to point in turn to a number of suspects - but he is rather stupid for falling in love with the young widow, hardly something to keep one’s mind free of bias. 


After the final revelation, which Trent never sees coming, he announces that he will never again mess around with detection - hence the title of the book. 


But, this book is actually not the last Trent book, but the first one - after its smashing success, but more than 20 years later, Bentley wrote two more novels about the detective, although neither of these sold quite as well. He also wrote a number of short stories featuring Trent. 


While I thought the book had its flaws, it did have the requisite twists and turns, the interesting characters, and the red herrings that good detective fiction should have. It also had plenty of subtle jokes at the expense of the genre, which were amusing. The style is also a bit of a spoof, hearkening back to the Victorian Era rather than the more modern style of 1913. Overall, it creates a certain atmosphere that is definitely classic British murder mystery. At the same time, its more sardonic and tongue-in-cheek style would influence later writers within the genre. 


Overall, worth a read, particularly by fans of the murder mystery. 


Tuesday, March 19, 2024

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. I occasionally read Science Fiction, but it is not my usual fare, particularly contemporary authors. (I do enjoy Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin and a few other classic writers.) 


To start off with, this book is a bit unusual. It is technically SciFi, and speculative fiction, but this is more the context than the content of the book. For plot-related reasons, the context matters - the story could only take place in the context of time travel and the Butterfly Effect. But, at its heart, the book is a love story, and a metaphor of hope that irreconcilable enemies can become friends and create a new future. 


The book was co-written by Amal El-Mohtar (who wrote the “Blue” sections) and Max Gladstone (who wrote the “Red” sections.) The authors got together in person and blocked out the plot and outline, so the book holds together with far fewer seams than most co-written books. However, they also wrote the letters between the characters without full knowledge of what would be said, so there remains an element of genuine surprise, and of discovery as the correspondence unfolds. 


The basic premise is this: there is a “time war” being fought using time travel between two competing organizations. The Garden is a sort of biological/evolutionary collective consciousness - one might think of it like a mycelium - while The Agency is a more AI/singularity/technology collective consciousness. A battle between two future collective intelligences, so to speak. 


But these intelligences also manifest in individuals, including the two main characters, Red and Blue. Red works for The Agency, Blue for The Garden. They are both top-level secret agents tasked with going back in time and taking action to ensure that the future belongs to their respective forms of life. 


This might mean murder, or nurture, or something else altogether. Basically, the agents use the Butterfly Effect to alter the future. These futures are intertwined like a vine in what are referred to as “threads,” and have numbers and connections which can be navigated and selected. A small change in one will affect everything down-thread from there. 


So far, nothing too surprising. In fact, the authors simply assume the reader understands the universe this is taking place in, and do not take the time to explain. This is fine, as long as the reader has the sort of background to figure out the “rules” without a need for them to be stated. It also allows the book to be relatively short, and to spend very little time setting the stage and explaining the rules of the game before the story itself can begin. 


There are some less expected twists, though. Men are not really present as characters in this book. At all. When they appear, they are historical figures which exist in multiple possible futures. So, Shakespeare and Socrates exist in every possible future, but they are different depending on the circumstances. One of the best examples is that Romeo and Juliet will be either a comedy or a tragedy in any given future. But you only know which one when you get there. 


Other than that, all of the characters are female. Red and Blue, their superior officers, their fellow agents, and anyone who actually serves as a character rather than an NPC. (Non-player Character for those of you who don’t know the video game lexicon.)


This means, naturally, that the love story - it should be no surprise to anyone within the first few pages that this is between Red and Blue - is therefore a queer romance, although not an explicitly sexual one. Metaphorically, though…let’s just say that “becoming one flesh” is definitely involved.  


Over the course of the book, Red and Blue go from being rivals in a somewhat Spy Versus Spy sort of way - trading victories on different threads - to gradually becoming friends, and then something more, before each literally sacrifices their lives for the other, in order that they can have a chance at building a future beyond the time wars. It all starts with Blue leaving behind a letter to Red, who returns the favor at the next meeting, and so on throughout the book. 


It’s a fun premise, and the writing is good. One might even say poetic - several people in our book club used that word, and it fits. At the beginning, the characters mostly talk smack, but gradually progress to a sort of professional respect, then friendship, and finally a kind of love that really has to be understood as romantic. Along with this, the language changes, becoming more intimate, more tender, more emotionally involved. 


I mostly read this on the flight back from New York last week, so I got to experience the book as a whole, rather than in pieces, which I think helps. It really is a unit, a compact novella, an emotional journey. 


There were a few lines that I noted. The first one describes pretty well what the Time War itself is about. 


Red has done what she came to do, she thinks. But wars are dense with causes and effects, calculations and strange attractors, and all the more so are wars in time. One spared life might be worth more to the other side than all the blood that stained Red’s hands today. A fugitive becomes a queen or a scientist or, worse, a poet. Or her child does, or a smuggler she trades jackets with in some distant spaceport. And all this blood for nothing. 


I particularly love that the poet is the most dangerous. In the long term, this has often proven to be true, for good and ill. There is another scene, set in one of the many possible Atlantises - like Shakespeare, they exist in every possible future, and end roughly the same way - where the religious leaders stay to the end, dying in their temples. 


A priestess and a priest remain with their temple. They will be burned. They have lived their lives as sacrifices to - who again? Red has lost track. She feels bad about that. 

They lived their lives as sacrifices. 


This is a question I have asked myself a lot lately. I think most humans understand (and at some level admire) those who live their lives as sacrifices to some noble principle. “Give me liberty or give me death” and all the variations on that theme. Or “greater love has no man than he who lays his life down for his friend.” 


But the sacrifice of a life to the service of a deity or religion that is not connected to a universal noble principle? That is a lot harder to countenance. Even less so, the sacrifice of others to one’s religion, something I know all too well from experience. 


I didn’t catch it at first read, but going back (which I did throughout the book), this moment is a crucial one in Red’s personal journey, where she first starts truly questioning whether she herself is living her life as a sacrifice to…what again? To “winning”? To destroying “the other”? 


There is also a discussion, mostly by Blue, on the problem of forgery. As she notes, “Forging someone’s handwriting was wasted effort if you didn’t also learn their idiosyncratic orthography.” This is true as well of AI writing. I have looked over my kids’ essays for years as part of their schooling process. I can easily tell when they are writing in their own voice rather than copying too closely (as all kids do when they are learning proper essay form) because of their idiosyncratic style. 


This also carries over into the book. Because Red and Blue are written by different authors, their idiosyncratic styles are recognizable, particularly in the letters. 


As a final thought, I mentioned that I ended up flipping back throughout. The reason for this is that the book is carefully plotted - very much like a good murder mystery. From the first few pages, there are carefully placed clues about what will happen later, but they are not noticeable but very subtle. 


For the first 40 pages at least, I was unsure where the book was going, but by the time I got near the end, I could see that everything was delicately set up with clues, events, and language. I very much appreciated this - a book that has such a tapestry that only becomes clear at the end is a treat. 


This isn’t the kind of book I would have thought to pick up and read, but I ended up enjoying it, and also very much enjoying the conversation regarding the book at our club. (We really do have great conversations and a variety of perspectives.) 


I read a physical copy, but those who listened to the audiobook thought it was good, so that may be another option for those who prefer that. 


Saturday, March 16, 2024

Broadway and the Bay - Live Theater in March 2024



My wife and I finally got to take a longer trip together - for the first time since 2016 and Paris - and went to New York City. It was my first visit, but her second; she and a friend went in 2022, a trip that had been planned for 2020, but things, um, happened. 


I probably mentioned this, but my wife is a big Broadway fan. We both love live theater - our first date was Shakespeare, after all - but Broadway is very much her thing. Her prior trip was to see Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in The Music Man, and she grabbed discount last-minute tickets for a few other shows. 


For this trip, the main attraction was Merrily We Roll Along, one of Stephen Sondheim’s flops. Well, at least initially. More about that later. I picked a performance at the Metropolitan Opera for my main show, and we saw Puccini’s Turandot. With the exception of Monday night, when most Broadway theaters close, we got last-minute seats for every additional night of our trip. 


In addition, my wife discovered that an obscure Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was playing several hours away the weekend before our trip, so I am including that in this post. 


I will discuss the shows in the order I saw them. Because there are so many, I will not be writing full-length discussions of each due to time constraints. There are many other things that would be fun to discuss about each, from the details of staging to the nuances of the themes. My wife and I did discuss each after we saw them, either over dinner (NYC is actually open after 10 PM!) or cocktails. I cannot imagine anyone I would rather go see shows with for that reason. 


Ruddygore (Gilbert and Sullivan)


This show was playing up in Mountain View (for non-Californians, that is in Silicon Valley), close enough to drive up for the day and see a matinee. 


Ruddygore is not well known outside of the tribe of Gilbert and Sullivan fans. It’s initial run was a flop, in significant part because of poor acting, but also because audiences found the plot to be unsatisfying. I am not entirely sure why, as G&S plots are, pretty much by the conventions of comic operetta, thoroughly silly. I mean, Cosi Fan Tutti is even sillier, but whatever. 


The second run went better. The name was changed to Ruddigore (apparently because “ruddy” was too close to “bloody” and thus profanity), and some songs and dialogue were changed. Whether the changes themselves were sufficient, or if audiences just reacted differently the second time is unclear. For my part, I don’t understand what the initial distaste was about - the operetta is hilarious and satirical and a lot of fun. I am also using the original spelling, as this production did. 


The basic idea is this: The Murgatroyds, dukes of Ruddygore, have been cursed by a witch, after the progenitor of the family engaged in witch hunts. Every duke must henceforth commit a crime a day, or he will be tortured to death by his ancestors. 


The latest duke, Ruthven, has disappeared, and, as we soon learn, is living as a gentleman farmer under the name of Robin Oakapple. His younger brother, Despard, has ascended to the dukedom, and is living as a proper villain. 


Young Rose is the niece of Dame Hannah (who was once engaged to another of the Murgatroyds), and the most eligible single lady in town. She has been raised by her aunt…and a book of etiquette. Because of this, she believes the man must take the first step. She has interest in Robin, but he is too shy and unconfident to speak his love. 


Also in the mix is Robin’s foster brother, Richard Dauntless, who is a sailor and a rake; and Mad Margaret, who was engaged to Despard. 


Got all that? 


This is, naturally, the setup for everything to go wrong, before being made right. 


I won’t get into the plot more than that, but I will mention some of the scenes and songs. 


This particular production was set in Mexico, and the dancing is folklorico. This gave the director some fun and interesting options for telling the story, which I thought worked well. 


First, during the overture, the projected background portrayed the characters as loteria cards. Each was featured in turn, with a little background information on the character, to help the audience figure out who everyone was in advance. This was quite helpful - although I also read the libretto beforehand. (We own a lovely two volume Folio Society set of the Savoy Operettas.) 


Second, Richard Dauntless was played with exaggerated machismo, perfect for the part. 


The production also had a live orchestra, which is always appreciated. 


In general, the acting was done in a melodrama style, with stylized rather than realistic characterization. Given the silly plot, this really is the way to go. Don’t take things too seriously. 


One of the scenes that apparently flopped initially occurs in the second act, when the paintings of the ancestors come to life and hassle poor Ruthven. I am hard pressed to believe that the audiences of the time failed to note that the whole thing is a parody of the visit of the statue in Don Giovanni - and that includes the music itself. It is truly hilarious, and yet a bit more chilling than Gilbert and Sullivan typically are. 


In this production, there is another fun nod. As Don Giovanni prepares for his dinner party, the orchestra plays familiar songs - including one from The Marriage of Figaro, which Leporello comments he knows far too well. 


In Ruddygore, when the ghosts give Ruthven a sample of the agonies he will face, they sing (badly indeed) songs from other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, causing Ruthven to say “I had no idea it was anything like that!” 


There is so much more I could say about the operetta, but I have to get to the other shows we saw as well. 


Special call outs to Noah Evans, as the foppish and timid Ruthven (great physical acting and so hilarious), Sabrina Romero-Wilson as the virginal and fickle Rose, and Eduardo Gonzalez-Maldonado as the swaggering Dauntless. Overall, great singing and acting - a fine production. 


An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen


I just missed a chance to go see this play in Los Angeles before the pandemic, but went ahead and read it, intending to see it live whenever I could. I wrote about the play itself in this post, and noted that the second half of the play was increasingly bizarre and misanthropic. In particular, the hero (to the extent there is one), Dr. Stockman, goes off on a rather eugenicist rant, which alienates everyone from him. 


Subsequent playwrights, most notably Arthur Miller, have noted the problems, and made attempts to make Dr. Stockman more palatable, or at least understandable. 


In this production, the revised version was done by Amy Herzog, who took kind of a middle road. The most poisonous of the eugenics are removed - the stuff that would tend to sound like racial slurs to a 21st Century American audience - but she leaves in his classist views, and very much makes the way the citizens of the town turn on Dr. Stockman to be fully believable. I very much liked the adaptation - I felt it preserved the character of the play without losing anything while also modernizing the language. 


What this does, though, is leave the character of Dr. Stockman as problematic - is he the hero? Is he doing the right thing, but in the wrong way? Is he allowing his own prejudices to undermine his goals? 


Clearly, this requires an excellent actor to make all of the internal contradictions coherent. Jeremy Strong (probably best known for Succession, but he got his start on Broadway) played the part, and gave the best male performance in any of the shows we saw. In my opinion. (And there was competition, believe me.) Just a fantastic job of showing the inner conflicts, the blind spots, the lack of self-awareness that dooms him. 


Playing opposite him, as his brother, the mayor and capitalist who is willing to sacrifice lives for profit, was Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos), who nailed the lugubrious and ruthless nature of the character. It was easy to see the combination of conflicting motivations as well as the sibling rivalry. 


Those were the big headliners, but all of the parts were well done. I’ll mention Victoria Pedretti in the role of Petra. Speaking of which, the major change that Herzog made was to combine the character of Petra (Dr. Stockman’s daughter) with that of Katherine, his wife. Katherine is killed off before the play opens, and Petra gets her lines as well as her own. I think this actually worked well, as I felt there was some overlap. Katherine in the original version is the supportive wife, while Petra is the somewhat radical schoolteacher. It was easy enough for one woman to do both. 


We saw this at Circle in the Square, a theater in the round. Even with back-row seats, we were close to the action, and heard every line clearly. 


Another interesting twist in the production is that the meeting that opens the second act was set in a bar, which was set up on the stage. Audience members who gave ID before the show then got a shot of Linie Aquavit - the Norwegian spirit with strong caraway notes. I suspect there was a sponsorship agreement of some sort, but it actually really worked. The audience came up on stage and was essentially part of the meeting as the play resumed. 


I’ll end by noting that this play truly seems relevant today. While the original public health issue was bacteria in the water, it tracks for both Covid response and climate change. In both cases, appropriate response and correction has been difficult in no small part because all of society is complicit and stands to lose financially. And that, unfortunately, includes the little guy - perhaps he loses the most because he has the least reserve to weather a transition. 


Turandot by Giacomo Puccini


I will admit that I love Puccini’s music. Of course it is emotionally manipulative and schmaltzy - that is the point, and there is nothing wrong with that. Of his operas, I am the most fond of Turandot, in no small part because the score is so gorgeous and innovative. There were a few different operas we could have seen, but I went with this one, and was not disappointed. 


The plot is, naturally, dramatic. Its origins are in a 12th Century Persian poetic epic, with the story modified over time by Francoise de al Croix, Carlo Gozzi, and Friedrich Schiller, in that order, before Puccini enlisted Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni to write the libretto. 


Puccini himself died before he could complete Turandot, but left enough sketches behind so that Franco Alfano was able to complete the orchestration. One casualty of the death is that the ending seems to be lacking either an aria or a duet to flesh out how Turandot comes to love Prince Calaf. As it is, the transition seems a bit sudden and forced, and you have to read between the lines. 


The opera also has its problematic elements, as the program noted. Even in its original Persian form, it exoticised “China” as a place of barbarity and superstition, and Puccini’s version contains some stereotyping that would not be put on stage today. Like many masterworks of the past, you have to look beyond the flaws and enjoy the good. Most likely future generations will do the same for what we write today. 


The story is a bit like others in The Arabian Nights. Princess Turandot, furious about the way her ancestor was raped and murdered by an invading prince, has sworn never to marry, but to have her revenge on men. She therefore decrees that any man who wishes to woo her must answer her three riddles. If he fails, he is beheaded. 


Enter Prince Calaf, who decides to risk his life for his love of Turandot. His elderly father begs him not to do it. His father’s faithful servant, Liu, who has harbored a crush on Calaf since childhood, begs him not to do it. Alas, he does not return Liu’s love. 


Calaf successfully answers the riddles, to Turandot’s horror. She never expected to have to marry, and asks Calaf if he would take her by force. Calaf replies that he would rather that she burn with desire for him, and gives her an out: if she can tell him his name, then he will release her from her obligation to marry him, and submit to execution. 


This sets off a frantic search to discover Calaf’s name. Liu, seeing that Calaf’s father may be tortured, claims that she alone knows his name and will never reveal it. She steals a dagger from a guard and kills herself, to Calaf’s horror. 


At the end, just before the sunrise that will mark the deadline to reveal his name, Calaf places his life in Turandot’s hands, telling her his name. At the climax, Turandot announces she knows his name - it is Love - and agrees to marry him. 


It is a tragedy even amid the happy ending - for Liu, there is no winning, and the grief of unrequited love can only find its end in her sacrifice for her beloved. 


For Calaf, he wins his victory the right way. (I don’t blame him for Liu - he didn’t owe her his love, and never made any promise to her - and he is genuinely shocked when she chooses death.) That telling scene with Turandot, where he declines to have her against her will is powerful - he will have her love because she loves, not by obligation. 


For Turandot, while her reasons are left out (possibly due to the death of the composer as noted above), it isn’t difficult to imagine them. Calaf is the first suitor who takes her intellect seriously, engaging with the riddles and guessing her personality in creating them. He respects her reluctance to marry, and gives her an out. And, in the end, with victory in reach, he chooses to be vulnerable, to literally place his life in her hands, and have her for love, or not at all. It is a better ending than most fairy tales, in my opinion. 


As for this production, no superlative seems enough. Los Angeles has a lot of things going for it, but it really does not have the level of opera that the Met can provide. For one thing, I don’t think there is a stage and pit of the size needed. 


There were over 100 singers on stage, a huge orchestra, and incredible sets. As for the sets, they took two intermissions - one after each act - and they were long due to the need to completely remove and rebuild the sets, each of which were different and changed during the acts themselves. After the opening of the second act, the screens were removed, revealing a whole structure behind it, and you could hear the audience gasp - it was that unexpected. 


So, total spectacle, which is what grand opera is supposed to be. The singing was outstanding all around, and the orchestra sounded phenomenal - totally together and in sync with the singers. 


Even those who aren’t into opera have to love a little Nessun Dorma, right? Calaf’s aria where he expresses his optimism that he is going to win this thing is so delicious that I enjoyed it even if the audience did applaud before the orchestra finished that final cadence - come on people! The orchestra matters too! 


It really was a wonderful night, and my favorite of the productions we saw. Although, obviously, I enjoyed all of them. 


Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler


One of the mad skills my wife has is knowing how to get tickets to stuff. For the ones we knew would be super popular, she got them well in advance. For the ones that would likely have tickets available up until the day of the performance, she waited in line for the discount ones. The first of these was Sweeney Todd


I was familiar with the musical, but had never seen it in person. It has been done locally, with Ken Burdick as the titular character - my wife saw that one, but I either was out of town or had a concert. 


The character of Sweeney Todd has been around since the Victorian Era, making his first appearance in print in The String of Pearls, an anonymous penny dreadful. Sondheim based the musical on the 1970s play by Christopher Bond. 


The story should be familiar enough. Sweeney Todd is a barber who was wrongfully convicted and transported so that a corrupt judge and beadle could have his beautiful wife. Returning to England, vowing revenge, he sets up his barber shop above a meat pie shop run by Mrs. Lovett - the worst pies in London! 


After Todd kills a blackmailer, Mrs. Lovett comes up with a plan to dispose of the body - and things escalate from there pretty fast. 


It is best not to take this musical too seriously. It is lurid and violent of course, but also really funny. A macabre sense of humor and an appreciation for Sondheim’s delicious lyrics are a must. 


I particularly want to mention that this show had the single best performance we saw the whole week. Sutton Foster played Mrs. Lovett, and she is incredible in every possible way. From the physical acting to the dancing to the singing in an accent while remaining on perfect pitch - every facet of her performance was amazing, and she totally owned the stage in every scene. No shade to Aaron Tveit in the title role - he was great - but nobody could compete with Foster. She is a superstar for a reason. 


Another mention goes to Mia Pinero in the role of Johanna. She was the understudy in several roles, and got to shine in this particular performance. Great job and really excellent singing. 


The set was rather cool too - lots of moving parts that could be rearranged. 


It was fun to see this show together, because my wife knows an incredible amount about Sondheim’s works and about music theater in general, so I always learn things talking with her afterwards. 


I’ll note that this show, like all of them (except An Enemy of the People for obvious reasons) had a live orchestra, which I always love. Sondheim’s score for Sweeny Todd may well be his best. Very symphonic, with fascinating rhythms and harmonies - definitely not a boilerplate musical - and a near-operatic use of music to move the plot forward. 


Chicago by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse


This was another last-minute choice, with a couple of backups if we had failed to get tickets. I hadn’t seen Chicago before, and went in with no idea what it was about, which is kind of fun sometimes.


I appreciated that the band was on stage throughout. This left a limited space for the acting and dancing, and the sets were minimal, but this is part of the experience. Likewise, all of the performers except poor Amos were dressed in chorus girl or guy outfits throughout - Amos got a bland suit, for his invisibility.


The show is a send-up of celebrity “justice,” which seems pretty relevant now with a certain orange messiah continuing to avoid actual incarceration, which would have happened years ago for us ordinary folk had we done what he did. It also is a satire of show conventions, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek lines and knowing winks. So basically a lot of fun. 


The show opens with Roxie gunning down her paramour for trying to break things off with her, and her husband Amos agreeing to take the blame. 


This pretense only holds until Amos realizes who the victim is, and that he has been cuckolded. Roxie’s arrest and subsequent trial are the main plot, but there is also the matter of aging star Velma, also awaiting trial for the murder of her husband and sister, who she caught in flagrante delicto. Roxie is the younger and newer celebrity murderess, who steals Velma’s lawyer, her tabloid attention, and her trial date. 


The lawyer is Billy, who is in it for the money. Although, to be honest here, his lawyering seems ethical enough. His job is to get a not-guilty verdict for his female clients, and in order to do that, he has to portray them as victims. This is pretty standard stuff, and demanding large fees for the task is fair enough - capital cases are time eaters and need to be done right. So, as a lawyer, I’ll deduct points for smarminess, and add points for fairly good adherence to actual legal procedure, albeit stylized. 


Poor Amos, though. He can’t catch a break, and he is ruthlessly taken advantage of by Roxie. His sad aria about being invisible was hilarious. And also, the actor playing him (I can’t find my playbill for this one) was perfect in the role. He not only looks like a cartoon loser from a century ago, he had such a hangdog aspect and delivery. 


Velma too was a real scene-stealer, with a big voice and the best dance moves in the cast. 


Overall, I would say Chicago was the most fluffy of the shows we saw, all about the fun and laughs and satire. Which, considering how dark the other shows were, was a nice contrast. 


Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth


As I mentioned above, Merrily We Roll Along was one of Sondheim’s flops. It got negative reviews, and closed after a mere 16 performances, in many of which the audience walked out. Yikes. 


Part of the problem may have been the casting decision. All of the parts were cast as teens or young adults - the age of the characters at the start of the chronology. The costumes were identical, making it hard for the audience to keep the characters straight, and the themes didn’t resonate. 


The basis for the musical was an earlier play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, updated a bit for a new era. The original also had a rough initial run, finding only modest success later. Sondheim switched the era so that Hollywood would play a major role in the plot, and also changed the specifics and names of the characters. 


What Sondheim did retain is the backward structure of the original. When we first meet the characters, it is at the end of the story, when they are middle-aged and disillusioned. Each scene goes back a few more years until the play ends with the naive, idealistic, and hopeful youths looking forward to an open future, oblivious to the trauma that awaits them. 


If one were to tell the story forward, it is of three friends: composer Franklin Shepard, playwright Charlie Kringas, and journalist Mary Flynn. They meet-cute as young people, and swear friendship. 


For a while, things go well. Franklin and Charlie become a lyrics and music pair, with the dream of writing a political musical, Take a Left, and in the meantime paying bills by writing and performing in witty revues at a local theater. 


They are eventually discovered by agent Joe, and have a few hits on the stage. 


But there are problems. Mary’s love for Franklin is unrequited. He instead marries Beth, they have a son, and eventually divorce when Frankin has an affair with Joe’s wife Gussie. Franklin pushes for more and more commercial success, in part because he has child support payments to keep up. This in turn causes conflict with Charlie, who wants to retain the purity of their art, not sell out any further. 


A catastrophic television interview forever severs that friendship, and Mary, who has fallen by the wayside, slides into alcoholism. 


In a way, each finds success - Franklin has Hollywood blockbusters which are vapid and forgettable but make money; Charlie wins a Pulitzer for one of his plays, and enjoys a happy marriage with his longtime sweetheart; and Mary’s book sells well enough and is translated into other languages. 


But these victories are hollow. Franklin would trade his celebrity for what Charlie has - an intact marriage and artistic integrity. Charlie has lost his dearest friendships, in part because of his inability to discuss things directly, letting his frustration build up until he snapped. Mary never finds love - by the time Franklin is finally single again, she realizes he is not worth the bother. 


So yes, some heavy themes. Not least of which is one that very much resonates for me at my age. There was a time when I was looking at a future which seemed endlessly open, all possibilities on the table. I am thinking particularly of some of those nights with my then girlfriend (now wife) when we were hopelessly optimistic about the future. 


To be fair, many of our hopes and dreams really did come true. We have had a good marriage, we have five children who we are proud of, and have enjoyed. (Some are about to fly the nest, which really does mean I am getting old.) My wife’s career dreams have been met, and I have done all right in my quiet legal practice. 


But there are other things we could never have anticipated: Trump and Covid are big ones, of course. My estrangement from my parents - it is hard to believe I was once naive enough to think my mom would eventually embrace my wife, but youth will be youth. 


Even the good things, though, have gone from the realm of anticipation and imagination, and there is a certain bittersweetness about that. I have thoroughly enjoyed being a parent (at least most of the time), but I can see the end approaching as my kids grow up. There are things we hoped to do but haven’t. The “is” is pretty darn good and I’m not complaining, but there will always be the “what might have been.” 


One could describe this as the aching sadness of existence. And also the beauty of life, ephemeral as it is. 


This show was the one with the biggest headliners, so my wife got tickets well in advance. Jonathan Groff played Franklin, and was, in my opinion, the most consistently good performer. He has a great voice, with an excellent ability to project at low volumes, dances like a pro, and inhabited his character. He’s worth seeing in any role. 


Mary was played by Lindsay Mendez, who has a long list of Broadway credits. She was great, and did a great job particularly of portraying the different ages of her character. 


For many in attendance, I suspect Daniel Radcliffe as Charley was the main draw. He is a bit of a different performer than the other two. He sings in tune and pleasantly, but he doesn’t have a particularly big voice - it isn’t Broadway in character exactly. But his acting is really excellent. Charley is in my opinion the hardest part in the show. He is, on the one hand, intended to be the most likeable character, the one the others tend to take for granted. But he also has to lash out pretty viciously on live television, so it is important that the character be developed sufficiently so that the snap makes sense in context. 


Oh, and this has to be done backwards


Yeah, it’s a tough part, and I thought Radcliffe sold it really well. I’ll also note that Radcliffe had to compete with actors who have done Broadway for a lot longer than he has, and also who are all taller than him. (As a short guy myself, I fully sympathize.) He had to work harder to project presence and assert himself as the equal of the others. 


Circling back to the idea of the backwards format, I think this was a challenge in general, and may have been a reason for the initial failure of the show. So many things have to not only go backwards, but have to be kept in chronological order in the characters’ heads. 


Not only do they have to grow in reverse, so to speak, to regress toward the womb of youth, they have to act the early scenes fully aware of the later (in the show but earlier in chronology) scenes that explain the ones they act first. 


The music itself does this too - we hear the reprises of songs before we hear the original versions the reprises reference and alter. The emotional impact of each trauma comes out first, before we see the better times of the original. Keeping all of this in mind is a huge demand on the actors. 


I felt they rose to the occasion quite well - not just the leads but the supporting characters. The whole felt coherent to me, and the way the emotional arc felt complete at the end, backwards, was impressive. 


The music was very Big Band era, so a lot different than the other Sondheims I have experienced. My wife says it has a number of things in common with Company, which she saw on her last trip to New York. (Weirdly, I have never seen that show, but have played a tune from it at a wedding…) 


The band was located on essentially a balcony above the stage, only partly visible, but easy to hear. It was a good score, and Sondheim’s quirky lyrics are always fun, even in a darker work like this one. 


So, there you have it. Our run of live theater and a much-needed getaway trip with my beloved.