For a specific generation, the sight of Sandy’s evolution as the quintessential “good girl” gone “bad” in the camptastic 1970s movie musical Grease, you’d think an opera diva hit a high note.
It rocked many of us to the core, seeing Olivia Newton-John wearing those skin-tight pants and the red Candie’s high-heeled mules, that ciggie forever burning her amazing self into our minds. Coupled with an equally sexy John Travolta as Danny Zuko, we all wished we could be one or the other — and in most cases — both.
Yet, when I think of Olivia Newton-John, my mind returns to my family’s legendary drives through the American southwest as we vacationed by car to visit Dad’s family in Mexico City. Dad most trusted co-pilots remained me and the car radio during those long-haul night drives through the lonely desert as the family slept. (I had to stay awake as I didn’t want to miss anything!)
Dad and I didn’t talk much as he didn’t want distractions as he drove fearlessly across some mind-numbing landscapes that I imagined contained all sorts of nefarious creatures. But we forged and shared an appreciation for the sounds of ONJ, an earnest voice keeping us company as AM stations played many of her iconic hits of that time. The warmth in her voice proved as seductive as a siren song as we made our way across the US southwest during those memorable trips. My love of ONJ began and grew with every new pop hit, her starring roles in Grease and, especially, Xanadu.
News of her passing at 73 makes for a bittersweet trip to a time I keep compartmentalized as an adult. I’m suddenly seven years old, 10, 13, and 14 at the same time, all ages marked by her music and movies, moments that resonate just as strongly today. I never was able to see her perform live. Yet, I join her legion of fans that will honestly and hopelessly proclaim their love and devotion for ONJ today and onwards because she will forever be true magic as an artist and human being.
Amazing how Hollywood dared to take on the task of adapting “kidult” tales in the 1970s, finding indifference at the box office in the process.
George Cukor took on “The Blue Bird,” an American-Russian venture that had its wings cut by critics in 1978. Producer David L. Wolper brought forth an imaginative take on Roald Dahl’s iconic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which found fame after its initial release in 1971. Or, how about Sidney Lumet’s gorgeously designed vision of Oz as an urban fantasia in “The Wiz,” that landed with a thud in 1978 when the Broadway smash was transformed into big budget lesson in EST? Somewhere in the middle, you will find Stanley Donen’s 1974 musical film THE LITTLE PRINCE.
Written by Count Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, THE LITTLE PRINCE endures as one of the most treasured books of the 20th century. A delicate fable of a young boy who lives alone on asteroid B-612, its fantastic vision has inspired various adaptations, from ballet to opera and, especially, film. An animated version was eschewed theatrical release and streamed on Netflix in 2016. However, it is the live-action musical version directed by Donen continues to orbit in some film circles.
Panned by critics during its release, THE LITTLE PRINCE is a real cinematic oddity. Featuring the last film score of the legendary duo Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Lowe (“My Fair Lady,” “Camelot”), Donen dared to craft an abstract, yet sweeping vision of the original novella with to erratic effect. Starring Richard Kiley as a pilot who encounters the Little Prince (newcomer Steven Warren) after his plane goes down in the desert. As the little boy who has fallen to earth, the two forge a friendship while the pilot attempts to repair his plane. He relegates the grown-up with tales of his space journeys, venturing to other planetoids, seeking answers about the meaning of life, love, war, and the pursuit of knowledge.
No one he meets seems to think he’s old enough to understand the answers, that he’s only a child. It isn’t until he meets a fox (Gene Wilder) that seeks to be tamed and a perfidious snake (the amazing Bob Fosse) that he starts to understand the truth about life and death. Before the Little Prince dies, he shares his knowledge with the pilot, bringing the man’s journey full circle. The pilot, realizing the boy was just a figment of his imagination, takes off anew, hearing the sound of the Little Prince’s laughter as gazes into the starry night.
Despite its luscious score, THE LITTLE PRINCE’s musical numbers fall curiously flat. Despite the efforts of such stage luminaries as Kiley (“Man of La Mancha”), dancer Donna McKechnie (“A Chorus Line”), and Clive Revill (“Oliver”), all working hard to make it work, the narrative sections are a lot more compelling. More, little Steven Warner’s performance is oddly wistful and distracting thanks to the Phyllis Diller wig plunked on his head. Worse, Warner at times feels swamped by the production, beautifully shot on location in Tunisia. Yet, moments occur when the film fires all cylinders, where Donen’s skill to capture motion and music feel beautifully realized. The highlight is Bob Fosse’s rendition of “A Snake in the Grass,” featuring his sinuous choreography. It is a mesmerizing piece of artistry, one that deserves a chance to be relished. (Word is this section hugely influenced the late Michael Jackson, best evidenced by his performance in “Billie Jean.”)
To be honest, viewing the film with a 2020 context will raise a few eyebrows, which is why it is important to leave any cancel culture sensibilities out of the mix. Yes it is flawed, but THE LITTLE PRINCE is fascinating in its attempt to bring Golden Age into the evolving universe of the 1970s. Lerner & Lowe did not have in common with the studio, opting out of the recording sessions. Donen would not reach the apex of his career that brought us “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Funny Face,” and “Charade.” The 1970s proved unkind to the director, marred by such high-profile failures as “Lucky Lady” with Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds in 1975 and the notorious sci-fi thriller “Saturn 3” with Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett in 1980. You have to credit Donen for wanting to keep relevant as the industry changed with incredible speed.
Despite its hitting a few harsh chords, the message at its poignant end is one for the ages. We have a choice in how we see the world; that choice ultimately defines us. Sometimes it does take a child to lead us to that part of ourselves before we trade our innocence for weary experience. Its simplicity struck me as a fitting grace note, especially with what we witness on the daily of late. While THE LITTLE PRINCE may have struggled to unleash the imagination of its source material, it remains proof that even those films deemed failures can still offer something for an audience willing to appreciate its joys.
God, how long have I been basking in the glow of hyperbole?
It’s like I don’t know any other way to express myself or view the world. Everything to me is:
It’s all just a cover-up, really. This endless search of non-information that clutters my brain, distracting me from the narrative that I really want to express, not just to the world, but to myself. If there is anything to offer as a resolution for 2015, it is to abandon the hyperbole and focus on what matters in defined terms. Fuck these endless social media streams, I want truth again.
I haven’t been too eager to promote many entries on this blog of late. It’s been a combination burn book and teen girl journal for weeks. “This family member talked so much shit about my me!” or “Those family members had the nerve to make it all about them!” or “This date was just another Harry Houdini! Now you see him! Now you don’t!” I bet even Taylor Swift would go, “Fuck bitch. Get a new theme!”
What happened to self-reflection and understanding, to humor and positivity?
What happened to the last third of 2014?
Well, a lot.
John Kander and Fred Ebb composed a song for Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” called “The World Goes ‘Round.” I’ve had it on a loop these last few weeks. It helped shape what I decided to write today, summing up exactly what sort of year many of us experienced in 2014.
Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re sad
But the world goes ’round…
And sometimes your heart breaks with a deafening sound…
Somebody loses and somebody wins
And one day it’s kicks, then it’s kicks in the shins
But the planet spins,
and the world goes ’round….
I thought a lot about what this closing blog entry of the year should contain. But, as I sit here in my bedroom (More teen girl imagery. That has to go in 2015), I find that I don’t want to replay any of it. I want to focus on the reality that the world will continue to spin — and that hope matters.
My boss Alan and I got into a rather revealing discussion about hope, an ideal my friend doesn’t seem to think exists.
But I do. I really do.
Hope, like love, has lost its power. It’s a brand. It is a campaign logo. It has been appropriated by the self-help contingent, those annoying life coaches and magazinespeak spinners. It is that blanket statement too many of us use to cover up our woes, disappointments and our other beautifully weak and frail moments. “Don’t worry. There is always hope.”
Hope, like love and happiness, takes effort. It takes work to NOT let yourself fall prey to the myriad of distractions and stupidities that dominate our daily lives. You can’t use hope blindly. Hope needs to be seen clearly. It isn’t like prayer. “I hope” is not like talking to God. You are talking to yourself. You are being your own source of faith and courage to face the challenges that we face. And the challenges, particularly at this age, will arrive with the efficiency of a high speed train.
Hope, like love, is not for pussies. And hope needs to be taken back from the legion of those wanting to cash in on our gorgeous neuroses for their own gain. Before any of us can begin to understand just how important love is in our lives, we have to reeducate ourselves in the power of hope. Where there is hope, you will find love. You will find them exactly where you left them before you let all the static of modern life cloud your own beliefs and true self.
In a few hours, 2014 will join the album of detritus that is memory. It will be relegated to the tales we tell whenever we reunite. Those who are lost, will be remembered. Those who hurt us will be reviled again, but ultimately forgiven because they just don’t know any better. Those who made us laugh, will make us laugh that much harder. And we will all be glad that we survived to tell the tales again and again.
I also found great comfort in another song, one composed by Hans Zimmer and Trevor Horn for the film “Toys,” performed by Wendy & Lisa and Seal. It features this lyric:
This is a Time to be Together
And the Truth is somewhere here
Within our love of People
At the Closing of the Year.
I spent these last months in a state of free fall. I haven’t hit ground yet, but I see it below. I have not lost sight that it is with my family and my family of friends, new and old, here and abroad, where I did find my truth in 2014.
I can’t wait to find out what I will learn in 2015.
Wednesday, December 31. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena, CA.
If you know me, then you know how much I revere the art and artistry of Stephen Sondheim. His ability to drive narratives with some of the most stirring music and insightful wordplay is beyond compare. More, he is one of the few songwriters who can give voice to the many selves we carry inside.
It’s been illuminating to see his most iconic shows on Broadway, particularly since turning the ages of the characters that impacted me most. “Company,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Follies” and “Gypsy” all transcended what I initially felt for such musicals a kid. As an adult, his contemplative themes of youth, age, fear, death, life and, especially love, shed their romance and to become something tangible. The intricacies of the melodies and the precision of his lyrics revealed to me as much about the real world as any relationship or friendship I’ve encountered in over 40 years of living. I hope to tell him that in person some day.
One Sondheim show that has eluded me is “Merrily We Roll Along,” which annoys me because of its connection to my high school days. Believe it or not, I dared to act and sing while at El Rancho High. Our drama teacher Stan Wlasick was often bold in his choices for this Chicano-centric school located in the jewel of the SGV, Pico Rivera. He was going to stage “Merrily…,” a show even New Yorkers failed to embrace when it debuted on Broadway in the early 80s. But the show had so much to say about the idealism of youth and how we corrupt ourselves with success and other trappings of adult life.
Granted, what do any teenagers know about such themes? Hell, I played disillusioned and unhappily married Dr. Jim Bayliss in the ERHS production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” (A harbinger to come? No. But it was so cool to tell that to Miller in person. Short version: he laughed over my anecdote. I’ll save the full version for my book.)
I so wanted to play the part of writer Charley Kringas. I felt such a connection to him. He was the second banana to his glamorous bestie Frank Shephard and I understood that. (I wasn’t meant to be center stage, even then. But I knew I had something to contribute to the show that is life, you know? I just didn’t want to be languishing in the background.)
Charley and Frank formed part of a trio of friends, which included Mary, who carries an undying torch for Frank. The beauty of their story is that it is told in reverse. We see what they’ve become at the start, and it’s not good. Frank is an jaded egomaniac, about to divorce his glamorous second wife. Charley carries bitter resentment over losing his best friend and writing partner. Mary’s unrequited love is steeped in acrimony and alcohol. But, what makes “Merrily…” such a profound piece is seeing where they all begin. They are the epitome of youth, looking at the future in the horizon with such hopes and dreams.
We’ve all entertained thoughts of “If only I could go back…” It isn’t magic that fuels “Merrily,” just this voyeuristic look into people’s lives in reverse. It is an imperfect show, but it is an unforgettable one.
I was able to witness a digital broadcast of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production last year with my dear friend, Mimi G., herself a young actress with her star on the rise. (Now that I think of it, we were the embodiment of what the show was about. Maturity and youth. Interesting….) Needless to say, we both had strong emotional reactions to our respective halves of the show. It was a near perfect production, but man, I want to see it staged for real.
One of the key songs, outside of the longing ballad “Not a Day Goes By” is Mary’s acceptance of how life will disappoint you. Given what’s been happening around me of late, the song “Now You Know” seems awfully apropos. At one point, she sings:
“It’s called letting go your illusions and don’t confuse them with dreams.”
I don’t confuse illusions with dreams, at least not anymore. And life can be crummy. But we don’t have to fall apart, even if it feels like everything is so broken. The emotions of this complex year did overwhelm me. And we’re not out of the woods yet. But none of us are alone, either.
Now you know…
Monday, October 27. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena.
NOW YOU KNOW by Stephen Sondheim
“All right, now you know:
Life is crummy.
Well, now you know.
I mean, big surprise:
People love you and tell you lies.
Bricks can fall out of clear blue skies.
Put your dimple down,
Now you know.
Okay, there you go ?
Learn to live with it,
Now you know.
It’s called flowers wilt,
It’s called apples rot,
It’s called theives get rich and saints get shot,
It’s called God don’t answer prayers a lot,
Okay, now you know.
Okay, now you know,
Now forget it.
Don’t fall apart at the seams.
It’s called letting go your illusions,
And don’t confuse them with dreams.
Yes sir, quite a blow ?
Don’t regret it,
And don’t let’s go to extremes.
It’s called what’s your choice?
It’s called count to ten.
It’s called burn your bridges, start again.
You should burn them every now and then
Or you’ll never grow!
Because now you grow.
That’s the killer, is
Now you grow.
You’re right, nothing’s fair,
And it’s all a plot,
And tomorrow doesn’t look so hot ?
Right, you better look at what you’ve got:
Over here, hello?
Okay, now you know,