A New Pippin Production


Before Andrew Lloyd Webber destroyed Broadway with his tuneless operas, there was Stephen Schwartz who wrote the songs for two iconic musicals of the early 1970s: Godspell and Pippin. Then he more or less disappeared from Broadway until 2003 when it seemed he shocked the theater world with Wicked. Apparently, the audiences were impressed to learn that songs could be crafted that were memorable. I should be clear, though. I think Schwartz is a great songwriter. But it’s not like he’s always on. There is such a tendency for musical comedy songwriters to write for more than they should. That’s especially true of Webber, who really is a major talent but who has been doing little more than grinding out scores for two decades now.

Two years after Pippin, Schwartz wrote the music to The Magic Show, which was incredibly weak. And frankly, since then his work is mostly that kind of banal songwriting that we’ve come to know and hate from otherwise talented people like Randy Newman and Elton John. But all the cylinders were firing on those first two plays. And so I was pleased to see an add for a new production of Pippin.

The ad came on before a YouTube video. It was one of those things where you have to wait 5 seconds before you can skip it. And I almost did. I could hear “Magic To Do” playing, but that’s a song that is used for all kinds of things. It looked like it was being used for a circus. And that’s why I continued to watch, even though the commercial was slated to be over two minutes long. You see, Pippin is quite cleverly structured by Roger O. Hirson not as a story about Pippin but as a story of a group of actors performing a play about Pippin. It seems pretty clearly to be an homage to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And just as in that play, it becomes a postmodern mess at the end. The difference is that Pippin is an entertainment and so all ends well. Stoppard’s play never clearly delineates what is supposed to be reality. (The movie version is more clear.)

The original production of Pippin had all this as subtext, with musicians and juggler and such. But this production takes this aspect to the extreme. Check out the video below. There are a few things that stand out. One is that we have Andrea Martin playing the original Irene Ryan part as Pippin’s grandmother. (Ryan died while in the cast.) Another is that this production has a woman as the Leading Player. And they do a great thing with hoops that recreates the original banner that is above. (Maybe they did that in the original; I never saw it; I was only 8 and I lived in California.)

On the other hand, there is something about all Broadway productions that bugs me. I would like to see this production because I love the book and songs. And it includes all the parts of a circus that I like. (What I like: everything but the clowns.) But there is a sense that theater tries too hard to be video. I saw a rock concert recently (I just noticed that I’ve forgotten to write about it!) and with all the effects and video screens and cameras, I thought it was a joke. In that case, I would rather sit in some bar listening to a guy with an acoustic guitar. And when it comes to theater, in general, I would prefer if the production would embrace its limitations. Because I think there are things you can only do live. For example, the one person show doesn’t really work on screen. There is something intimate that cannot be otherwise be recreated. And I think there are great untapped opportunities in the art form if only producers would try.

But Pippin was never supposed to be anything but an entertainment. What’s more, I understand the appeal of a production like Cirque du Soleil. And it looks like this production provides this—along with a number of catchy tunes and a very sweet story.

Huston’s Honor

John HustonRenaissance composer Guillaume Dufay was born on this day in 1397. Italian opera composer Antonio Cesti was born in 1623. And another Italian opera composer Leonardo Leo was born in 1694. Although not as celebrated in his day, he is much more interesting to a modern ear. Here is his Cello Concerto Number 3:

The great mathematician Niels Henrik Abel was born in 1802. He proved that it is impossible to have a general solution to a fifth order polynomial. I always find these negative proofs amazing. It is one thing to find the generalized proof of a fourth order polynomial. That’s the sort of thing that I am up to. But I wouldn’t even know how to approach Niels Henrik’s work. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 26.

The great French opera composer Ambroise Thomas was born in 1811. Here is a bit of a performance of his opera Hamlet:

The great Russian realist painter Ilya Repin was born in 1844. The “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick was born in 1862. When I was a kid I read a good biography of him, which seems to have been updated recently as The True History of the Elephant Man. It is very sad.

The Finnish composer Oskar Merikanto was born in 1868. I don’t think he is especially great, but he did write some really pretty stuff. Here is Valse Lente:

Unusual, proto-modern landscape painter Tom Thomson was born in 1877. Russian sculptor Naum Gabo was born in 1890. First man on the moon Neil Armstrong was born in 1930. And director of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark was born in 1941.

Composer Betsy Jolas is 87 today. I dare you to go and listen to any of her music. Actor Loni Anderson is 68. And actor Jonathan Silverman is 47.

The day, however, belongs to one of the greatest Hollywood directors John Huston who was born on this day in 1906. He directed and usually wrote any number of memorable films. Just to name a few: The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, Moby Dick, Prizzi’s Honor. Here is a great scene from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre where Fred C. Dobbs goes from creepy to crazy in two minutes. The funny thing is that when I first saw the film, it seemed over the top. But since then, I’ve had some experiences with a number of actually crazy people. It’s pretty accurate. The combination of intelligence and paranoia is powerful. The one thing that is wrong is that they don’t laugh. It is deadly serious to them.

Happy birthday John Huston!

Opinions for Sale

S&PAfter two years, Neil Irwin looks back on the Standard & Poor (S&P) downgrade of the United States government from AAA to AA+. And he finds no evidence for it having affected the borrowing costs of the United States. But I’m afraid that Irwin is taking the whole thing too seriously. Even at the time, I don’t remember anyone thinking anything other than that it would not mean a thing. The only prediction I remember hearing was that S&P would embarrass itself. It turns out that S&P did not embarrass itself. It seems that everyone already knew that the ratings agencies are a joke.

There is a problem with articles like Irwin’s: they imply that the ratings agencies are held to some standards. But we know this isn’t true. Even before this ridiculous downgrading of American debt, we got the spectacle of the ratings agencies testifying in front of Congress after the financial crisis. All three of the ratings agencies had given investment grade ratings to subprime packages that shouldn’t have been rated above junk. But it wasn’t their fault. They were just exercising their first amendment rights to talk out their asses. It was just opinion and nothing more.

As far as that goes, I’m right with them. They have a right to charge people money for their useless opinions. The problem is not with them. I wish I were like them: I wish people would pay me billions of dollars for my opinion about investments. I have strong opinions about what’s happening in the tech sector. Anyone want one of my opinions for a few thousand dollars? In fact, I’ll offer a special to all you Frankly Curious readers: $999 and I will tell you what I think will happen in the tech sector or anything else. No takers? Well, you know how to get in touch me.

The problem we have more broadly is that those who run our investment industry are just a bunch of charlatans. I doubt that the people at Goldman Sachs think that the ratings agencies know what they’re talking about. But they use nice offices, drive nice cars, wear nice clothes. They can sell the ratings agencies as a sweetener to investors, “You don’t have to worry because these guys with nice offices, cars, and clothes say it’s safe.” And everyone on the inside feels good about this. Investment bankers say everyone knows the whole thing is corrupt. The ratings agencies know they are providing all the nice offices, cars, and clothes that the investment banks want. And the investors don’t find out about the scam until it’s too late.

After something like the financial crisis, you would think someone would step in and stop it. You know: someone like an umpire whose job it is to make the system fair for everyone. Someone who punishes the grifters and thieves. You know, some kind of governing body. If we had such a thing, I would think, after the crisis, they would have thrown some people in jail. They would have reorganized the whole system. They would have been clear that the farcical and inbred investment system had to change. It sure would be nice if we had such an institution.

I’m afraid that as well intentioned as Neil Irwin’s article is, it only feeds the beast that is our broken investment banking system. Because it may call out S&P in this one instant, but implies that the ratings agencies are something we can normally count on. And they aren’t. They are just a rotting core of pretend expertise that can never be held accountable.

See also: S&P and Anti-Meritocracy

Benghazi Still Not a Scandal

Frank WolfSo what is this stuff about Benghazi I wrote about earlier? Last Thursday, CNN broke a story suggesting that the CIA was running guns from Libya to Syria out of the Benghazi proto-embassy. This, supposedly explains the administration’s “cover up” of the attack. The big problem I see here is that the story is an answer to a question no reasonable person is asking. But okay, I’ll bite.

CNN claims that they’ve learned that “dozens” of CIA operatives were “on the ground” in Benghazi the night of the attack. I want to start with the vague number “dozens.” It literally means at least 24. Yet the article later claims that there were only 35 people total at the compound and that there were 21 at the annex, which is claimed to have been run by the CIA. Still, 21 is a lot of people. But why would this make us believe that it had (1) anything to do with gun running and (2) anything to do with the attack? CNN doesn’t even have a source for the first connection. All it says is this, “Speculation on Capitol Hill has included the possibility the U.S. agencies operating in Benghazi were secretly helping to move surface-to-air missiles out of Libya, through Turkey, and into the hands of Syrian rebels.” Note all the weasel words here: speculation, included, possibility. As for the second connection there is nothing at all.

The article also gives major time to Frank Wolf. He believes that we need to have public hearings with everyone who was in Benghazi the night of the attack. I’m all for that, but I don’t think that Wolf is an honest broker here. This is a man, after all, who thinks that Edward Snowden is a traitor. He’s said some nice things against the surveillance state, but I suspect if a Republican where in the White House, he wouldn’t even go that far. It seems to me just another Republican witch hunt with the vaguest of targets. After all, even the CNN article provides no reason to believe that anything the CIA was doing had anything to do with the attack. So what would Wolf’s hearings be but an open ended opportunity for the Republicans to snipe at the Democratic administration?

The strangest part of the CNN report is its discussion of CIA agents being given lie detector tests. According to three unnamed sources, people who were in Benghazi have been tested much more than usual regarding leaks to the press. There’s a fundamental question here, though: wouldn’t these unnamed sources be afraid they will be caught by all of this internal surveillance? Over the weekend, Max Ehrenfreund discussed this part of the story in more detail:

A much simpler explanation for the frequency of the polygraphs is that this administration is panicky. They have gone to absurd lengths to keep personnel from talking. As McClatchy reported, the administration’s “Insider Threat” program, launched in response to Pfc. Bradley Manning’s leaks, requires all federal employees, not just those working with sensitive information, to keep a careful eye on one another. Personnel are encouraged to report not just unauthorized disclosures, but any signs of psychological stress, including divorce, debt, or frustrations with colleagues. The logic is that these conditions can be what pushes a person like Manning to take information outside of an agency…

I think Friedersdorf gives the CIA too much credit. He assumes that the frequency of the polygraphs must have a rational motivation. What we’ve seen with this administration is that secrecy engenders a kind of institutional pathology, in which chiefs of agencies feel compelled to keep everything under wraps. The cause, I believe, is essentially political at a variety of levels. I would speculate that the Department of Education is involved in the Insider Threat program mainly because the administration thinks that if employees start chatting to the press, Republicans in Congress might find some reason to withhold the department’s funding. The same is probably true inside the surveillance apparatus. Secrecy is how the National Security Agency was able to convert Total Information Awareness, the Bush administration program rejected by Congress, into PRISM.

I am open to there being something to this story. In particular, I think we should know if the CIA is running guns into Syria. But the whole Benghazi attack line is a bridge too far. How long is the press going to jump every time Republicans make another unsubstantiated claim? There is a law of information accumulation that goes along with the idea of entropy. If you gather enough information, eventually you will end up with contradictions. If you look for scandals long enough, you will eventually find something that looks kind of like a scandal—whether it is or not. At this point, CNN and the Republicans are going to have to come up with a bit more than, “There were CIA agents in Benghazi and they might have been running guns.”

Elder Abuse on Fox News

Elder AbuseYesterday, I talked to my father and he expressed his concern about the Benghazi attacks and that no one was ever going to be punished. I probed him a little to find out who exactly should be punished. I wanted to know if he was talking about the attackers or the government officials. It was the latter, of course. And that meant one thing: dad had been watching Fox News again. I tried to turn the conversation onto more friendly ground. I said that we didn’t actually know that there was any wrong doing in the government regarding Benghazi, but that the new revelations about XKeyscore were really unsettling. It turned out this was not friendlier territory.

My dad is a perfect example of the American conservative: reasonable in the extreme when people aren’t shouting at him from the TV. But Fox News propaganda sinks into his brain effortlessly. I know this because I hear Fox News talking points coming out of his mouth. In the case of the NSA spying, he told me that he didn’t mind as long as the government kept us safe. That was shocking because (1) that is the opposite of what he has always said and (2) that is exactly what conservative media are now pushing. So we ended up having a detailed conversation to pinpoint exactly what was acceptable to him. We determined that listening into his phone calls was fine because he doesn’t have anything to hide. But the government installing a video camera in his kitchen was not fine. I could never get clarity on why one was okay but the other was not. Maybe he cooks naked when no one is around?

I think the distinction lies in the fact that one issue has been politicized and the other has not. No one is talking about putting video cameras in our kitchens. And so it is easy to see how absurd that is. But the government tapping all telephones, that’s not absurd; that’s fighting terrorism! This is why all the nonsense we hear from government officials about the terror plots that were broken up by programs like XKeyscore are so dangerous. Good news sources have managed to put these claims in the farcical context they deserve. But conservative sources report them as the gospel truth.

My father has always been a smart and independent man. But he’s now 80 and much more prone to just believe what he’s told. And so I think Fox News is committing elder abuse. But maybe they think they have to be simplistic in how they put out information. People think the same thing about kids. It both cases, however, it is wrong. And regardless, for most people who disseminate information it is just easier to provide a simple narrative of good and bad rather a complex one about real people and issues. For Fox News it is that as well as having a political ax to grind.

I have never doubted that people like my dad really are conservative. But when I talk to him away from the influence of Fox News, he’s much more like Richard Nixon or even Dwight Eisenhower. It is only when the TV hits him over the head with “propaganda as truth” that his opinions start to gel with the modern Republican Party. But we must continue to talk to people like my father and even try to make alliances. Because the cold hard truth is that the Republican Party is not looking out for the interests of people like my dad.


For the record, my father is neither rich nor a social conservative. So he is part of that large part (but not majority) of the Republican Party who really do vote against their own interests. Although I’m not sure just how much he votes Republican anymore. And he’s not aligned with any party officially.

Republicans Have Been Very Very Good to Social Conservatives

Paul KrugmanI have a bone to pick with Paul Krugman. His column today is quite good, Republicans Against Reality. The first half of the article is about Republican dysfunction. He highlights last week’s transportation bill fiasco. It’s an old story. Talk to any conservative (and sadly many liberals as well) and they will tell you that there is loads of wasteful spending in the government. But when you ask them what ought to be cut, the first thing they say is: foreign aid. There are two problems with this. First, foreign aid really does help us out globally by pushing back against all the bad stuff we do. (And note: Israel gets by far the most foreign aid of any country.) Second, foreign aid only makes up about 1% of the federal budget.

So the problem the House Republicans are having is that they’ve gone along with Paul Ryan’s new mythical budget. But when it comes to actual policies, the House members don’t like it because it requires cutting programs that their constituencies like and depend upon. So vauge notions of cutting “waste”: gooood! Concrete ideas of cutting actual programs: baaad!

The second half of Krugman’s article is about how the Republican leadership is reaping what it sowed. He writes:

For a long time the Republican establishment got its way by playing a con game with the party’s base. Voters would be mobilized as soldiers in an ideological crusade, fired up by warnings that liberals were going to turn the country over to gay married terrorists, not to mention taking your hard-earned dollars and giving them to Those People. Then, once the election was over, the establishment would get on with its real priorities—deregulation and lower taxes on the wealthy.

That is mostly true, but I take exception to the claim that the Republican Party has abandoned the social conservative base. Just in terms of policy, they got things like the Defense of Marriage Act and Terri Schiavo. But more important, they’ve gotten really conservative judges throughout the federal court system. I don’t have any doubt that if Roe vs. Wade came up for a vote in the Supreme Court that it would be overturned. So social conservatives have gotten what they want.

Now it is also true that the socially conservative judges happen also to be economically conservative. I’ve always found this strange; how does the Bible relate to thinking that businesses have way more rights than individuals? But that is the state of modern conservatism. Also, it is important to remember that the social conservative base of the Republican Party is itself fairly wealthy. This was discussed in detail in Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State. In general, poor people can’t spend all their time picketing abortion clinics.

This may seem like a minor point, but I think it is important to understand our adversaries. The Republicans are not running a bait and switch on the social conservatives. What’s more, the social conservatives are generally the economic conservatives. The Republicans are doing right by them. The problem is that these people are a distinct minority. When Republicans win it is because few people vote. I think Mitt Romney understood the issue well:

There are roughly a third of the people who will vote for the Republicans no matter what… Who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims… These are people who get huge tax breaks… And so our job is not to worry about those people. We’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for the facts.


Just to be clear: yes, I do believe what I wrote in the quote. The rich are hugely more dependent upon the government than the poor, even though that dependence doesn’t so much come in the form of direct cash payments. Conservatives as a group think of themselves as victims. Just watch Fox News; it is amazing the amount of whining you hear. What do you think the whole “War on Christmas” is about? And finally, they don’t take personal responsibility. They want everyone to think they do and doubtless they’ve convinced themselves. But we are all dependent upon each other and to deny that is not not take personal responsibility. Nor is it taking personal responsibility to only get news from sources that flatter your prejudices. And what are we to make of people who want to constrain the consensual behavior of others?

Update (5 August 2013 10:00 am)

I mistyped the headline with “verry” instead of “very.” That was because I originally had, “Republicans Been Berry Berry Good to Social Conservatives.” But it struck me as kind of racist, so I went with the “very” and added “have.”

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Unusual Malady

Gwyneth PaltrowIt is widely accepted that Gwyneth Paltrow is one of the most slappable people in Hollywood. I, of course, am an iconoclast, but even my powers of contrariness are not great enough to like her. In fact, I dislike her so much that I even fast forward through “He Plays the Violin” in 1776 because I hate watching her mother—who looks just like her. (I also hate that they used the very weak singer Blythe Danner when Betty Buckley belts out that song so beautifully on the original cast album.)

A couple of weeks ago, The Savory published an article, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Most Obnoxious Food Quotes. She’s written two cookbooks, but that apparently is not the problem. One thing that really comes across in the quotes is just how clueless she seems to be about the lives of non-millionaires who actually have to work for a living. She also has what can only be termed an unnatural relationship with Vegenaise.

My favorite quote, by far, was the following:

My grandmother’s father was a chicken farmer on Long Island back in the day; so needless to say, chicken soup is in my blood.

Coming from a normal, self-aware person, I would think that was a clever line. But there is no indication that she’s joking. I think she just doesn’t realize what she’s said. “Don’t the chicken parts get stuck in your veins? You should see a doctor about that!”