Category Archives: Musicals

Interview: Mark Gottlieb chats about project with George Clayton Johnson

Émile Zola illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Mark Gottlieb is a composer and a lucky person to have been a lifelong friend of screenwriter George Clayton Johnson. This friendship led to a collaboration between Gottlieb and Johnson on “Zola,” a compelling musical that features the Dreyfus affair, a scandal that rocked France at the end of the 19th century and reverberates to this very day. There are a number of things to unpack and discuss here. We begin with an overview of what the infamous Dreyfus affair was all about and go from there, with plenty of recollections about the great ole storyteller, the timeless, George Clayton Johnson.

The Dreyfus affair focuses upon a wrongly accused man who made the perfect scapegoat for the time. Considering how Rod Serling was such a steadfast advocate for human rights, it is quite fitting to find George Clayton Johnson, one of Serling’s fellow writers on The Twilight Zone, as co-creator of this musical. Johnson was always a person to side with the nonconformist. So, it was natural when Gottlieb, in search of a libretto, came calling on George. The two entered upon a partnership and worked, off and on, on the Zola musical for many years. Since the death of George Clayton Johnson in 2015, the impetus has been to get the musical out into the world. To that end, Gottlieb is contacting like-minded souls such as myself to help spread the word. As someone who also got to enjoy a special connection with George, it is my pleasure to present to you this conversation I had with Mark Gottlieb recently.

Now, a little history: The Dreyfus affair occurred during France’s Third Republic. It was sparked by the wrongful imprisonment of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. The matter would officially drag on until 1906. Dreyfus was convicted of treason for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans in December 1894. At first the public supported the conviction; it was willing to believe in the guilt of Dreyfus, who was Jewish. Much of the early publicity surrounding the case came from anti-Semitic groups (especially the newspaper La Libre Parole, edited by Édouard Drumont), to whom Dreyfus symbolized the supposed disloyalty of French Jews.

The effort to reverse the sentence was at first limited to members of the Dreyfus family, but, as evidence pointing to the guilt of another French officer, Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, came to light from 1896, the pro-Dreyfus side slowly gained adherents (among them journalists Joseph Reinach and Georges Clemenceau—the future World War I premier—and a senator, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner). The accusations against Esterhazy resulted in a court-martial that acquitted him of treason (January 1898). To protest against the verdict, the novelist Émile Zola wrote a letter titled “J’accuse,” published in Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Aurore. In it he attacked the army for covering up its mistaken conviction of Dreyfus, an action for which Zola was found guilty of libel.

What follows is my interview with Mark Gottlieb. Here we begin with the Dreyfus affair and quickly dig deeper into the issues involved. Then we steadily see how Gottlieb and Johnson joined together as a creative team. In the process, we get a unique inside view into the world of George Clayton Johnson, a unique voice in storytelling. He is best known for iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone like “Kick the Can,” and “Nothing in the Dark.” Among his work, he is also known for writing “Man Trap,” the first episode broadcast of Star Trek, as well as being the co-writer, with William F. Nolan, of the landmark science fiction novel, “Logan’s Run.” Lastly, I have to say, I believe this interview will really hook you in. The proper warm up and set up is done and off we go:

For the interview, click the link right here.

Stay tuned for more news on the Zola musical.

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Filed under France, George Clayton Johnson, Mark Gottlieb, Music, Musicals, pop culture, Social Justice

SIFF Review: ‘The Fabulous Allan Carr’

“The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz

Warren Beatty announcing the wrong winner at this year’s Oscars was a disaster but the all-time biggest disaster is so bad that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would rather not discuss it and there is nothing on Youtube to document it, except for a verbal description by comedy writer Bruce Vilanch. The story is about how legendary Hollywood producer Allan Carr ended up creating the strangest opening number ever for the Oscars. That infamous moment, truly mind-bending surreal camp, is the linchpin to a new documentary on a fascinating life and career, “The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.

If you were a kid growing up in the ’70s, as one snarky person interviewed in the doc says, there were two big movie events: for straights it was “Star Wars” and, for gays, it was “Grease.” Be that as it may, “Grease,” back in 1978, was a very big deal at my high school, whatever your sexual orientation. I was in the marching band and, as a last-minute prank, many of the boys decided to drop their pants and moon the crowds in the stadium. This was directly inspired by “Grease,” which was as far away from an Oscar opening number flop as you could get. “Grease” was a bonafide hit and it put the movie’s producer, Allan Carr, on the map.

Steve Rubell losing patience escorting Olivia Newton-John and Producer Alan Carr into the “Grease” Party at Studio 54.

How Allan Carr gained the confidence and sense of purpose to become a Hollywood legend is thoroughly explored here. We follow Carr from insecure boy to insecure man, finally losing his virginity in his 30s. Where he was on firm ground was his steadfast desire to put on a show. If you loved “La La Land,” you will relate to Carr’s great love for the grandeur of Old Hollywood, particularly the heyday of movie musicals. After Carr’s success with “Grease,” there would be various ups and downs. One undisputed high point was his producing the Oscar-winning “The Deer Hunter.” And Carr reached his greatest heights producing “La Cage aux Folles” on Broadway.

And then came that incredibly over-the-top opener for the 1989 Oscars. The clip below is not from the documentary but gives you an understanding of what all the fuss was about. This is Bruce Vilanch who, by the way, does provide some wonderful segments exclusively made for the documentary:

EDITOR’S UPDATE: Okay, it turns out that the “infamous” 1989 Oscars opening segment is currently available on YouTube. And, like many a legend, there is more to this story. Basically, it helps to view the above segment with Bruce Vilanch along with seeing the actual footage. Vilanch makes a big mistake by adding to the legend with his hyperbolic description of the show. Despite that, he provides the necessary context. Most importantly, Vilanch explains that this was a case of “manufactured outrage” by Disney president Frank Wells, who lodged a complaint against the Academy even though Snow White is in the public domain. The truth is, Disney was hypersensitive about advertising concerns. Here is the clip. You will likely find this to be charming, entertaining, and heartfelt:

After “Grease” would come Carr’s first big misstep: 1980’s “Can’t Stop the Music,” the musical showcasing The Village People. Carr had hoped to bring abroad Olivia Newton-John for a lead role but, after reading the script, she rejected it. So did Cher and Raquel Welch. However, Carr was able to secure Valerie Perrine. Carr also enlisted a rising star, Steve Guttenberg. The whole affair was directed by veteran funny lady Nancy Walker who was not much of a director. In the end, this was a classic Carr flop: over-sexed camp too far out on a limb. And so he moved on to the next project, and the next.

In time, Carr would find himself. One key personal moment was when he discovered caftans. The spacious velvety robe allowed Carr’s undisciplined body to run free. With a caftan, he could relax and be more open about himself and his sexuality. The ups and downs of his projects would settle into perspective. There would be the undisputed triumphs. And, in the end, he could say he lived his life to the fullest.

The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, was a standout at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. The documentary is based upon the book, “Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr” by Robert Hofler. As the story about a gay chubby insecure boy who grows up to live out his wildest dreams, it provides another compelling view of the hopes and dreams of La La Land.

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Filed under Gay, Hollywood, Movie Reviews, movies, Musicals, Seattle, Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF

Movie Review: ‘La La Land’

In love with the magic of Old Hollywood.

In love with the magic of Old Hollywood.

“La La Land” is as much a movie about movies as it is an exploration of a relationship, at least within the unique confines of a musical. That’s a tall order but back in the heyday of movie musicals, the best ones managed to strike a chord that rang true. Even today, if you’re in Hollywood working toward your big break, part of you has to believe in make believe. We all do. The best of the musicals of yesteryear intertwined a believable depiction of the everyday with the large-than-life. “La La Land” rises to that level.

Going in, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a revamping of 1964’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” this time set in Los Angeles. By that, I mean that I was ready to hear every word of dialogue in song. That is not the case and I’m grateful. Maybe it would have worked but I cherish the moments the two leads have together. If two crazy kids aiming for the stars were ever meant for each other, it is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). I keep coming back to how the movie evokes a believable day-to-day reality. The fact is that this has more references to past musicals than any casual observer, including myself, would likely spot.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Hollywood movie musicals used to be quite common, with a glorious run from 1929 to 1969, and occasional success ever since. With their unique capacity to fill the screen, a successful movie musical was easily a favorite pick for Best Picture come Oscar time. There have been some all-time greats that have done just that: 1951’s “An American in Paris,” 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” all the way to the most recent and last, 2002’s “Chicago.” Which brings us to “La La Land,” with its beautiful homage to that old Hollywood magic.

"La La Land," written and directed by Damien Chazelle

“La La Land,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle

“La La Land” wears its self-awareness well. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, this musical provides that giddy feeling of uplift, a touch of irony, and a compelling contemporary narrative. These two star-crossed lovers don’t see stars for each other, at first. Aspiring actress Mia is too busy recovering from the latest humiliating audition. Aspiring jazz artist Sebastian is too busy trying to carve a place for himself with his idealism. It looks like boy will never meet girl and then they do meet and things get complicated as their relationship and dreams come into conflict. Interlaced within this story are songs to knock your songs off (music by Justin Hurwitz; lyrics by Damien Chazelle).

A special kind of fairy tale magic used to come more easily to Hollywood. The conflict between new and old is very much a theme here. Both Sebastian and Mia represent a standard of excellence that makes huge demands. The results are likely to be bittersweet. But when it looks like your dream will come true, then any hardship seems worth enduring. It’s a dream that may seem corny and unreal, but there are plenty of people in Hollywood right now that will attest to just how real it really is. Mia and Sebastian are wondrous, yet decidedly grounded, examples of contemporary, yet utterly timeless, star chasers. Sure, these characters were created from a runaway imagination filtered through some of the greatest musicals of the past. Ah, the stuff that dreams are made of!

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Filed under Academy Awards, Hollywood, Movie Reviews, movies, Musicals, Oscars

“JUST IMAGINE” RETURNS TO THE SILVER SCREEN

If you’re in LA, you may want to turn back the clock and then return to the future with the silly and joyful 1930 sci-fi musical, “Just Imagine.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? And this one is a keeper. A rarely seen gem today, it has influenced many famous sci-fi flicks. Go see it in Santa Monica this Sunday, August 19, at the Aero Theatre and take in a lively and informative panel discussion after the feature.

Press details follow. You always need those details:

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Filed under Entertainment, movies, Musicals, science fiction