The Force Awakens. And May It Not Go Back To Sleep.

SPOILER FREE. TRUST ME: Until now, there’s only been one good movie in the Star Wars canon. No, don’t argue with me. That movie wasn’t Star Wars itself but The Empire Strikes Back and while it has only grown in reputation in the 35 years since it was released (and the first movie at least remains a turning point in the history of modern science fiction cinema even if it wasn’t quite as good as its reputation suggests), Empire was the peak of the Star Wars experience and perhaps the peak of George Lucas’s career. It was also the film that prevented Lucas’s original box-office smash from becoming a one-hit wonder.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Not your father’s Stars Wars. Not really George Lucas’s, either.

All of that seems like ancient history now, yet I can still remember the excitement I felt watching The Empire Strikes Back on its opening night in 1980, somehow transforming itself from a postmodern Saturday morning serial into something darker, more resonant, more adult. It promised great things to come. Frankly, I had been a little disappointed in the first film, maybe because it had been praised just a little too lavishly by my friends and my expectations had gone through the roof. After Empire, though, I realized that the stars weren’t the limit for these wars. Lucas had already announced plans to make a nine-film series and they were just going to get better and better.

Only they didn’t.

Return of the Jedi, the third film in order of production, was a bland if slickly produced mediocrity with high-budget special effects, a cast of comically demented Muppets, and aliens who looked suspiciously like plush Christmas toys. There was very little of the adult darkness that had permeated Empire. After my hopes had been wildly raised by the second film, they were dashed by this perfunctory resolution to Lucas’s ostensibly mythic arc.

Yet there was still hope: Maybe the prequels, which Lucas was already planning, would be better.

Okay, stop laughing.

The prequels are now history and should remain so, but we now have something that could and should prove far, far better: the sequels. Hollywood media factory extraordinaire J.J. Abrams, who would have been ten years old when the first movie came out on May 25, 1977, may understand the appeal of the Star Wars franchise better than its creator did. While there may be a few points at which Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens falters, Abrams gets so much right that I can’t imagine any but the most churlish fans of the original films complaining that the Walt Disney Corporation has purchased the keys to the Millennium Falcon from Lucas and handed them over to the wrong person. Abrams is perhaps the one person on earth best qualified to make the light speed jump that Lucas failed to make into the 21st Century.

What does Abrams get right? Very many things. Great special effects? Check. Nicely paced action scenes alternating with slower character moments? Check. But Lucas would have gotten those right too. Here are some thing Lucas might have fumbled: Abrams brings back every significant member of the original cast, right down to Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Han Solo’s furry copilot on the Millennium Falcon. He gives us two wonderful new cast members, John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, as a reformed stormtrooper and a starship pilot turned scavenger, respectively — and anybody who doesn’t love their characters by the end of the movie lacks heart, soul and eyeballs. And he also gives us a Darth Vaderish villain in Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren.

The cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

From top to bottom: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver looking a lot like Darth Vader

As if that weren’t enough, Abrams had the wit to bring back masterful screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to work on the script. But most of all he found the darkness that Lucas left behind in Empire and failed to restore in Revenge of the Sith, though you can see him trying, at least, in that last one. The darkness in the The Force Awakens — and, yes, the humor too — prevent it from being just another science fiction action film (and may explain why it wasn’t released as a summer blockbuster) and kick it up into a much higher cinematic orbit.

I can’t tell you much more than that because it would all be spoilers, especially this soon after the movie’s release. Let’s just say that things happen that have deep emotional resonance and that when the final credits appear you don’t want the movie to end: You want to know what happens next. And not because someone’s life is in peril but because there are relationships being formed and revisited that leave tears in your eyes, a smile on your lips and a powerful urge to buy advance tickets for Episode VIII. ( You should get them at the theater where we went, which has reclining seats, stadium seating and surprisingly cheap tickets. No, I won’t tell you where it is.)

If you haven’t seen this one yet, go. It’ll be in theaters for a little while, but see it before the spoilers burst out into your Facebook feed — or from the mouths and text messages of your friends. And see it while you can see it on a huge screen — yes, bigger than that wall-mounted flat-screen baby in your den.

Or just see it so that J.J. Abrams can get even richer than he already is. He’s earned it.

Adventure Games: The Text Years

What’s your favorite type of computer game? If you’re a typical gamer of the 2010s you may have replied CRPGs (computer role-playing games) like Skyrim or The Witcher, or their massively multiplayer online counterparts like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you like your action faster and more furious, maybe you’re partial to first-person shooters, like Halo or Call of Duty. Or if you lean more toward thoughtful, turn-based exercises in strategy, you might have replied 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”) games a la Sid Meier’s Civilization series. And if you don’t have much time for gaming but need a quick bit of relaxation during your downtime, you might have put in a vote for casual games like Bejeweled or Candy Crush.

But if you’re a long-time gamer, one who’s been playing for 20 years, 30 years, or even more, you might just have said … adventure games.

Tales from the Borderlands

Telltale Game’s Tales from the Borderlands: What adventure games look like in 2015.

Adventure games have gone through many permutations over the last 40 years. They’ve fallen in and out of fashion, they’ve gone through multiple visual and gameplay styles, and there have been periods when they’ve nearly disappeared altogether. But after four decades, they’re still here. And it’s possible they’re more popular than ever.

In the early to mid 1970s, when microcomputers were still barely a blip on the computer hobbyist horizon, mainframe programmer and part-time spelunker Will Crowther logged on to a DEC PDP-10 and used his FORTRAN skills to write a computer game called, simply, Adventure. It was set in a huge cave not unlike Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which Crowther had explored. He wrote the game in part so that his daughters could play it and in part to indulge his love for Dungeons & Dragons. By all reports Crowther’s version was fairly rudimentary compared to later versions, but it caught on and spread from computer system to computer system. In 1976, a Stanford University graduate student named Don Woods expanded Adventure with Crowther’s permission into what became known as The Colossal Cave Adventure. Although it was too large to be played on most microcomputers of the period, it was widely available on mainframe and minicomputer systems. Here’s what it looked like running on a DEC PDP-10:

Colossal Cave Adventure

Colossal Cave Adventure: All those words add up to a lot of game.

The Colossal Cave Adventure looks deceptively simple — you type in one- or two-word commands to move around in and interact with a world described purely through text — yet it created a remarkably large, surprisingly open world and went on to become one of the most influential computer games ever written. It spawned a long line of imitations that continues to this day, though you might not recognize most of its descendants based on the text screen reproduced above. If you’ve never played the Colossal Cave Adventure and you’re curious what it was like, here’s a simulation sponsored by the AMC-TV show Halt and Catch Fire.

The original Crowther and Woods version wouldn’t have run on microcomputers in the late 1970s because early personal computers weren’t powerful enough; they didn’t have enough internal memory and they mostly lacked disk drives. However, in 1978, a young Wisconsin programmer named Scott Adams (no relation to the creator of Dilbert) set out to prove that something very much like the Colossal Cave Adventure could be written on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I, a popular home computer of the day, and that he could do it in 16-kilobytes of memory. Yes, that’s not 16 gigabytes or even 16 megabytes — that’s 16 kilobytes of memory, where a kilobyte is 1,024 memory locations, each of which can store a single number in the range 0 to 255. To give you a sense for how much memory that is, the text in this blog post takes up about one and half kilobytes, but that picture at the beginning probably uses more memory than Scott Adams’ TRS-80 had in total.

Amazingly, Adams succeeded, writing a game called Adventureland that neatly mimicked the Colossal Cave Adventure without copying it and it ran, as planned, on a 16-kilobyte TRS-80. Adventureland was successful enough in the early gaming marketplace that Adams was able to spin off his own company, Adventure International, and market an entire line of adventure games for several different models of computer. Although no longer for sale commercially, you can still download playable versions from Scott Adams’ own website or play them directly on your browser using the links he supplies at that address.

Scott Adams' Adventureland

Adventureland: Still text, but no PDP-10 required.

Like the Colossal Cave Adventure, the play mechanics of the Scott Adams adventures were simple. You typed in one or two word commands, like “look” (to get a description of what was visible from your current position in the game’s world), “west” (to go in that direction) or “get sword” (to pick up any swords that you may conveniently have stumbled upon).

Even while Scott Adams was marketing his first adventure games, a small group of programmers at MIT consisting of Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling were creating their own, far more ambitious variation on the Colossal Cave Adventure. They called it Zork.

That name may or may not ring a bell. If it does, you probably just experienced a pleasant flash of nostalgia. Zork was witty, quite huge by the standards of late 70s games and had something that neither the Colossal Cave Adventure or Adventureland had: a parser that could read English language sentences and respond to commands longer than one or two words. Admittedly, it still couldn’t understand English as it’s normally spoken between human beings, but if you knew how to construct a command properly — say, “Pick up the gold sword on the wooden desk” — Zork wouldn’t get confused. Zork was the next step in the evolution of text adventures.

Zork: The Great Underground Empire

The first Zork game. Be careful. You might get eaten by a grue!

The microcomputers of the late 70s weren’t ready for Zork, but by the early 80s they were and the Zork programmers, following in Scott Adams’ footsteps, created their own publishing house to publish Zork and the sophisticated series of text adventures that would follow. They called that publishing house Infocom.

Like the word Zork itself, the name Infocom sends shivers down the spines of old-time gamers. Infocom was one of the greatest game publishers of the 1980s, perhaps of all time, and they produced adventure game after adventure game, every one of them just as sophisticated as Zork had been and some of them even more so. I’ve written elsewhere about my love for their mystery game Deadline, which I still consider one of the most magical experiences of early 1980s computer gaming, but Infocom spent most of the 80s turning out one classic text adventure after another: more Zork games, Planetfall, Starcross, Suspended, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and others.

Yet even as text adventures were increasing in sophistication, so were the graphics capabilities of microcomputers. In 1980, a young programmer named Roberta Williams, became obsessed with the Colossal Cave Adventure when she played it at home on and Apple II computer serving as a terminal for her husband Ken Williams office mainframe.

Roberta Williams, game designer

Roberta Williams, creator of the graphic adventure Mystery House and a significant designer of early adventure games.

Williams combined the graphics capabilities of the Apple II computer with the mechanics of a text adventure to produce the game Mystery House, which her husband used as the flagship game for what would become one of the most successful game publishing companies of the 1980s and 90, Sierra On-Line. The graphics for Mystery House were crude, but they were an early sign of the direction in which adventure games were headed.

Mystery House by Roberta Williams

Mystery House: Crudely drawn, but a harbinger nonetheless.

By the mid-1980s, purely text adventures had fallen out of fashion in the commercial marketplace. The graphic capabilities of home computers had improved to the point where nobody wanted to play a game that involved reading words rather than looking at pictures. More advanced attempts than Mystery House were made to create text adventures that showed pictures at the top of the screen while text flashed by at the bottom, but this was only a stopgap measure until somebody came up with a better way of combining high-resolution images with the puzzle-solving interactivity that made adventure games so alluring.

Text adventure with graphics

A text adventure with shifting graphic images at the top of the video display. Published by Telarium.

Text adventures never died, really. Nowadays they’re called interactive fiction and people still write them, primarily as a hobby but occasionally for commercial sale. To learn more, check out the Interactive Fiction Wiki to find out where you can download new games and collect tools that you can use to create your own. (I’ll write more about the current interactive fiction field in a later installment of this post.)

Even as the original Infocom games were thriving in the early 80s, though, the seeds for a radically new type of adventure game were being planted. Those seeds would take root at Sierra On-Line and the game designer who would bring them to fruition was the same person who created Mystery House: Roberta Williams.

I’ll talk about that in more detail in the second installment of this post.

The Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

Even for those of us who love Christmas music, there are certain individual Christmas songs that have all the aural appeal of a buzz saw slicing through a Fraser fir. Several years ago I ran a poll on a forum I frequented asking people what Christmas songs they couldn’t stand. The results were no doubt skewed by the usual self-selection biases that affect Internet polls as well as my tendency to inject my own opinions into the conversation. But some very definite trends emerged. There are several Christmas songs that just make people see red. And I’m not talking about deliberately awful songs like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” but Christmas classics that, at some point, became more annoying than a barrel full of drunken elves.

Here are some Christmas songs that would make the holiday brighter simply by going away.

“Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney  was possibly the single most divisive Christmas song in the poll. In fact, it was witnessing the derogatory comments lobbed in the direction of this song that inspired me to start the poll in the first place. Not that a large number of people hated it, but the ones who did utterly despised it.

Why the hate for Sir Paul? It may be the repetitious nature of the melody or those bouncy synthesizers boing-boing-boinging in the background. Or maybe it’s just the sense that McCartney didn’t spend any more time writing this song than it took him to sing it. But most likely it’s because the song is wildly overplayed on every shopping center audio system from Thanksgiving on.

I actually like the song myself and several other people rose to its defense. Not that the former Beatle needs defending. McCartney’s royalties from “Yesterday” alone have probably paid for several vacation homes, where he can have as wonderful a Christmas time as he wants.

“The Little Drummer Boy” by a Lotta Different People grated on at least as many nerves as “Wonderful Christmas Time.” This is another song that suffers from ubiquity — those endless “pa-rump-pa-bump-bumps” are everywhere during the last month of the year — but “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole is just as ubiquitous and hasn’t worn out its welcome, at least not with me. There also seemed to be some question as to why the sound of a drum would be appreciated by a newborn baby. The main problem, though, may be the dirge-like nature of some arrangements, including the Harry Simeone Chorale version linked above. Yet compare this to David Bowie’s weirdly sublime 1977 duet version with Bing Crosby.

This version is marvelous, a Christmas song for the ages, but it also cheats. Bowie, along with the producers of the Christmas special where it originally appeared, added a counterpoint track, “Peace on Earth,” that replaces the monotonous drumbeats with a lovely, flowing melody. Halfway through you barely remember what song you’re listening to.

I have no problem with “Little Drummer Boy” in any version because it makes me think of my childhood, of tiny manger scenes covered in pine needles and sprayed-on snow, of eggnog served next to the radio. But I suspect even I’d be tempted to rip the speakers out of a department store ceiling the 19th or 20th time they played it during a single visit.

Other songs mentioned in the poll included “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid, a well-intentioned charitable relief effort weighed down by the same monotony and ubiquity as “Little Drummer Boy” (though I’m pretty sure nobody ever sings “pa-rump-pa-bump-bump” in it); “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Miss Piggy and others, a one-joke song that doesn’t get any funnier the 500th time you’ve heard it; “Feliz Navidad,” which is pretty much just José Feliciano singing “Merry Christmas” over and over in Spanish; and “anything by Mariah Carey.” I’m pretty much on board with all those choices.

There was, however, a clear winner in the poll. Okay, it didn’t help that I made it obvious from the start how much I despise this particular song. I even posted a YouTube link to make sure the lucky people who’d never heard it could experience firsthand how bad it was. It’s a song that’s manipulative, crass, smug and fuzzy on its poorly thought-out religious notions. It’s the awful Christmas song to end all awful Christmas songs.

I am referring, of course, to “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong.

If you’ve never heard it, you owe it to yourself to listen, though I advise a stiff drink of eggnog first, preferably with more rum than nog. Note that the video above contains clips from the Rob Lowe TV movie made about the song. Yes, this song has even had a TV movie made about it. The movie came out the year Lowe left The West Wing and he must have been really desperate. I hope he changed agents.

The song is about a man — we’ll call him Rob — standing in line shopping for Christmas presents, presumably shoes, and having a lot of trouble getting into ye olde Christmas spirit. Rob is apparently a bit of a jerk, which is no doubt what gives the TV movie its character arc, and then the young boy in front of him starts trying to pay for a pair of women’s shoes with a handful of change.

At this point most jerks would go ballistic and start shouting loudly about how many damned times they’ve heard “Little Drummer Boy” on the audio system, but no. Rob actually listens to what the boy is saying. It turns out that the boy’s mother is dying — on Christmas Eve, which really puts a damper on the holiday — and the kid wants to buy her a new pair of shoes so she’ll look good for Jesus.

It’s possible that you already feel manipulated by just that brief description, but it gets worse. Rob decides to buy the boy the pair of shoes so his mother can go to heaven in style and — guess what? — his heart is suddenly filled with the true meaning of the holiday, which apparently involves giving shoes to a woman who’s more in need of chemo.

The execution of the song is perfunctory in a country-western-lite sort of way, with the requisite children’s chorus (a gimmick that actually works in some Christmas songs) coming in on cue. I suppose taken strictly as a piece of music it’s no worse than one of the lesser songs from the Kenny Rogers oeuvre (something I don’t mean as a compliment), but it’s the song’s message that churns my stomach. The lyrics imply that God is taking the life of the boy’s mother in order to give Rob the Christmas spirit!

I’m not religious, not even remotely, but even I can see what a craven, exploitative message that is. Worse yet, Wikipedia tells me that NewSong is a Christian vocal group, which presumably means they’ve run this concept past their personal Jesus and he gave it his holy okay. The best spin I can give it is to assume that the woman was dying anyway and God decided that this made her son the perfect candidate for spreading Christmas cheer. Yeah, I’m sure those shoes really cheered mom up, assuming she came out of her coma long enough to put them on. I’ll have to watch the TV movie and find out.

Other respondents in the poll were even more cynical about this song than I was. How do we know the kid’s not running a scam, reselling expensive shoes to a fence in an alley behind the store? Or maybe he’s a closeted crossdresser, who’s ashamed to admit that he just wants to wear the shoes to a Christmas party that evening.

Whatever way you look at it, “The Christmas Shoes” is the worst Christmas song of all time — yes, even worse than “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” which at least is trying to be bad.


When a Broadway Baby Says Goodnight, It’s Early in the Morning

New York, New York. It’s a helluva town. It’s a wonderful town. It’s the Big Apple. It’s the city that never sleeps. It’s the town so nice they named it twice. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

Times Square

The city that never sleeps — or turns off its lights

New York is a city of neon. It’s a city of brownstones. It’s a city of strangers. It’s a city of frenemies. It’s a city of gentrified slums and genteelly decaying mansions. It’s a city of people who travel the world. It’s a city of people who rarely leave the boroughs they were born in.

And sometimes it’s a city of tourists.

Los Angeles, where Amy and I live, is another city of tourists, a sprawling urban region known largely for being in the background of every other television show ever made. But tourists tend to disappear into the Los Angeles scenery, vanishing somewhere between the beaches and the freeways. You don’t see tourists ogling the buildings in L.A. because, frankly, there aren’t a lot of buildings worth ogling. Instead, you find the tourists on the Venice boardwalk or at nearby Disneyland. Or at Universal Studios Hollywood, an amusement park that used to be an actual tour of a movie studio. Universal Studios Hollywood is Los Angeles pretending to be a replica of Los Angeles.

In downtown Manhattan, tourists are hidden in plain sight, mixing with the locals in a gravitational mass so dense that, like a black hole, it traps the light from the neon signs so that it can never escape into the rest of the universe. New York glows on the interior, not the exterior. New York throbs with internal life. See that photo above? It was taken in downtown Manhattan just before midnight on a Thursday evening, during the five-day stay that Amy and I returned from last week. The city was as alive with light and humanity at that hour as it had been at midday, perhaps even more so. New York isn’t just the city that doesn’t sleep. It’s the city that drinks caffeine when everyone else is taking Tylenol PM. It wakes up when Los Angeles is rolling up its sidewalks. It thrives on darkness — and defies it.

When tourists come to New York, they don’t come to do touristy things, like go to Universal Studios. Well, maybe they come to do a few touristy things, like visit the Statue of Liberty or watch the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. But mostly they come to do real things, the sort of things that actual New Yorkers might do…like theater. Theater is something that Amy and I (and quite a few of our friends) are very much into. Theater is what brought us together. And New York is a city of theater, perhaps the greatest theater city on earth with the possible exception of London. We went to Manhattan to see the city, yes, but even more so to see the shows. Much of our time there was spent sitting in theaters, traveling to theaters, having late night coffee after we’d been to theaters. We’d get back to our bed and breakfast after midnight with programs still clutched in our hands. And every show we saw was terrific.

What shows did we see? I thought you’d never ask.

I used my iPhone to keep a visual diary of our theater experience in New York — a visual diary of the posters and marquees, not the interiors of the theaters, where photography is frowned upon, especially during the actual shows. I posted this diary on Facebook during our visit and now I’m going to share it on this blog. No, you don’t have to thank me. I consider it a charitable work.

A View from the Bridge poster

A View from the Bridge at the Lyceum

On Thursday, our first day in New York, we saw Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Lyceum. A View from the Bridge is not Miller’s best known play — that’s almost certainly Death of a Salesman — nor is it necessarily his best, but the theater company at London’s the Old Vic has mounted a spare, powerful production that recently transplanted to New York and we had the good fortune to see it from seats located directly on the stage, perhaps ten feet from the actors. It was an unusual staging for the Lyceum, which for the purposes of this production had turned its classical proscenium stage into a thrust stage more like the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, with the audience on three sides of the performers.

A View from the Bridge staging

A stage within a stage at the Lyceum. (Not my photo.)

The production is powerful and the cast, headed by Mark Strong, is a standout. Although written in 1956, the play deals with issues that are just as relevant today, if not more so, issues like illegal immigration and acceptance of gays. Director Ivo Van Hove made the somewhat unusual choice of underscoring the entire production with music and ambient sounds pitched barely above the level of audibility — honestly, I’m not sure if the rest of the theater could hear them — that added a nerve-jangling sense of foreboding to the whole show. Well worth seeing.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time poster

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Ethyl Barrymore

Friday night we saw another production recently imported from London, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel about a high-functioning autistic teenager connecting with his family. It was one of the most stunning pieces of stagecraft I’ve ever seen. While reasonably successful on a dramatic level, The Curious Incident functions best as a sensory experience — it uses the electronic machinery available in modern theaters in an attempt to convey to the audience what it’s like to be autistic. To what degree it succeeds at this, I can’t say; I’m not, as far as I know, autistic.

What the play suggests is that autism is a kind of sensory barrage and that the reaction of the protagonist to emotions and external stimuli is not so much a rejection of the outside world as it’s an attempt to organize and categorize sensory information in a logical, internal grid. This grid is represented literally on the stage as a matrix of lines crossing the floor and the three walls of the stage.

Stage design for The Curious Incident

Stage design for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (Once again, not my photo. Keep your iPhones turned off at all times during shows, folks.)

Inside this matrix, the show’s technicians use projections and flashing electronic lights to suggest how the teenager perceives information. The ultimate effect is not so much moving — though the story is touching and Tyler Lea is excellent in the lead — as it is dazzling. That was enough to make it a riveting evening of theater, though.

Hamilton poster

Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers

Saturday was a two-play day, with a matinee and an evening show. The matinee was Hamilton, which is the hottest and most-difficult-to-see musical on Broadway currently but one we weren’t prepared to visit New York without seeing. It was worth the effort we put into getting the seats.

If you haven’t heard of it — and the fact that the cast album is riding high on the Billboard charts at the moment suggests that you might have — Hamilton is a retelling of the late colonial and early independent days of the United States from the viewpoint of the eponymous founding father. What makes it extraordinary is that Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda has framed the story of our early immigrant nation in terms of modern immigrants and minorities, with the Hispanic Miranda himself as Alexander Hamilton and African-American actor Leslie Odom Jr. as his eventual nemesis Aaron Burr. The cast is extraordinary, not just for their performances but for the sheer amount of energy they put into the production. There’s enough electricity onstage in Hamilton to light half of Times Square. The staging, with a pair of turntables nested inside one another to transport the actors in circular arcs, is almost always in motion, turning Hamilton’s life and America’s birth into a spinning kaleidoscope of singing and dancing humanity.

Staging for Hamilton

A kaleidoscope of humanity on a pair of turntables

What’s most striking about Hamilton, though, is its score, a pastiche of pop musical styles from the last half century with rap used throughout as a form of hip-hop recitative. Rap has never exactly had a high profile on Broadway (though Miranda used it in his previous show, In the Heights), but the way Miranda marries the hip-hop rhythms to the characters and themes gives the show a freshness that signals his arrival as possibly the most original voice in musical theater since Stephen Sondheim. And if you know how much I like Stephen Sondheim’s music, you know that’s not something I say lightly.

Fun Home poster

Fun Home at Circle in the Square

You’d think by this point our appetite for theater would be waning. But no. Theater was what we’d flown 2,500 miles to see and theater was damned well what we were going to do. After Hamilton, we went to dinner with friends and then walked to Circle in the Square, where we saw Fun Home, composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist/playwright Lisa Kron’s adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel about, among other things, coming of age as a lesbian, learning that her father was a closeted gay male and dealing with her father’s eventual death in a road accident that may or may not have been suicide.

From that description Fun Home might sound like a bit of a chore to get through, but it isn’t. It’s a delight, with a book and score that move deftly from deeply emotional to whimsical and back again. The show is anchored by a standout performance by Michael Cerveris as the father and an excellent turn by Judy Kuhn as Bechdel’s mother, but the actresses who portray Bechdel at three different points in her life, from childhood through college to middle age, are also wonderful, as electric and energetic as anyone in the cast of Hamilton. It was a terrific show.

First Daughters Suite

First Daughter Suite at the Public

First Daughter Suite by Michael John LaChiusa, which we saw Sunday evening, was our final show of the trip and our only venture into one of the smaller off-Broadway theaters. Off-Broadway is where LaChiusa’s musicals can typically be found, as well as at regional theaters like Signature in Washington, DC, and The Blank in Los Angeles; to my knowledge only Marie Christine and The Wild Party have made it into theaters officially designated as Broadway houses. This may be because LaChiusa’s shows tend to be both eclectic and eccentric or because he doesn’t write for wide popular tastes. I really don’t know. Amy and I have seen several of his musicals and loved almost all of them. His melodies are soaring and his lyrics both comic and deeply moving.

First Daughter Suite, a companion piece to LaChiusa’s 1993 First Lady Suite, is a set of four musical sketches about the daughters of American presidents: Julie and Tricia Nixon, Susan Ford, Amy Carter, Patti Davis and Pauline Robinson Bush, with large, showy roles for first ladies Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush. Tonally, the show is all over the place, ranging from fantasy and farce in the Amy Carter-Susan Ford scene (which is set in a dream that Carter is having) to something very close to tragedy in the Bush sequence. Each of the four pieces, different as they are from one another, is strong, but the Bush scene turns out to be a surprisingly powerful note to end on, accomplishing something I wouldn’t have thought possible: making me feel sympathy for Barbara Bush.

Monday, in a remarkably smooth plane ride from New York to Los Angeles, we came home — where we could do something we’d barely had the time or the inclination to do in New York: Turn out the lights and go to sleep.