Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Comden & Green & Shakespeare

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

The 1944 Broadway musical “On the Town” brought together the composer Leonard Bernstein and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the book and lyrics. The show follows the adventures of three sailors on 24-hours of shore leave in New York.

In Act I, one of the sailors, the serious-minded Gabey, expresses his rapture at suddenly finding love. The song he sings is “Lucky to Be Me“:

I used to think it might be fun to be
Anyone else but me.
I thought that it would be a pleasant surprise
To wake up as a couple of other guys.
But now that I’ve found you,
I’ve changed my point of view,
And now I wouldn’t give a dime to be
Anyone else but me.

What a day,
Fortune smiled and came my way,
Bringing love I never thought I’d see,
I’m so lucky to be me.
What a night,
Suddenly you came in sight,
Looking just the way I’d hoped you’d be,
I’m so lucky to be me.
I am simply thunderstruck
At the change in my luck:
Knew at once I wanted you,
Never dreamed you’d want me, too.
I’m so proud
You chose me from all the crowd,
There’s no other guy I’d rather be,
I could laugh out loud,
I’m so lucky to be me.

Now, you’d be right to say the song’s romantic formula — a woebegone fellow looking for redemptive love finds it smack dab in front of him — has been used so often as to be, by now, a cliché.  But there’s something about the song’s lyrics, some quality that makes it work.

So let’s back up a minute.

Suppose it was your task is to write a jaunty update of this old tale of a lucky turn of fortune, this love-walks-in cliché. Suppose you’re expected to write something that fits within the tongue-in-cheek style of the show while also paying respect to tradition. From whom, among your betters, would you respectfully borrow? What ur-text would you reference?

A possible answer hit me a few days ago, and it may be the very same answer Comden & Green came upon seventy years ago.

I think the guy Comden & Green latched onto was the father of durable clichés: Shakespeare.  My guess for the text they referenced?

Sonnet 29:

When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

You don’t have to strain to see parallels. Both sonnet and song are emotional exclamations and both foreground a man whose depression lifts with the appearance of a loved one. Yet the affinities go beyond subject matter. The path of Gabey’s and the sonnet writer’s stories charts the same course. The same cues appear. All of this is described with synonymous language.

To begin, Comden & Green’s twentieth-century American notion of fate and destiny is of course entirely different than that of Elizabethan England. Yet notice how crucially the word “fortune” is used in both instances. Though separated in time, there is the same initial yearning to be “anyone else but me,” the distressed wish to be “like him” over there or “like him” over there — and, then again, like this man, like that man. We see that the “couple of guys” mentioned by Comden & Green are a summary of what may have been twice that number in Shakespeare.

The emotional “turn” (“Haply I think on thee”) that Shakespeare withholds until the two-thirds of the way through the sonnet is something Comden & Green choose to reveal partially in the introduction (“I’ve found you”) and then with fuller detail as to the circumstances further along (“Suddenly you came in sight”). A different pace and placement of the revellation is understandable, as the lyricists’ audience would demand more lavish attention be paid to the emotional payoff (Sing to me at length, repeatedly, about how you feel now!) than does the reader of the sonnet. The quiet reader is content to learn that the speaker feels like singing at heaven’s gate — and demands no demonstration thereof.

Both song and sonnet close with the identical lesson learned: When I’m in love, there’s no other guy I’d rather be. I wouldn’t change my lot for a king’s fortune. I scorn alternatives. In my state of joy I just want to laugh out loud.

How daunting it is to stand before Shakespeare and his verbal mastery. How could anyone — even word wizards like Comden & Green — not desire that man’s art, that man’s scope? Back to the task at hand, the solution was to stand with Shakespeare or, let’s say, to borrow a little from the guy. To form an informal trio of Comden & Green & Shakespeare.

OK. I’ve got no proof of my hypothesis. But, pace Google, I did find an interview Betty Comden granted in 2004 that offers some interesting leads. Here she reflects on her early education and drama apprenticeship:

I understand that you attended a special program at New York University in the Department of Dramatic Arts. What were your studies like at NYU, and how did they influence your later work?

Oh, well, it was an interesting school. I was there all four years, and we mainly studied the classics—Shakespeare, a lot of Shakespeare—so it was a dramatic group at the college. Not in regular classes, but they did performances every evening in the school auditorium, and so I saw a lot of Shakespeare. But a lot. And it was a great education; I’m glad of it. I recommend it to anyone.

What were the Washington Square Players?

Oh, well that’s the group I was just mentioning that played mostly Shakespeare and some Sheridan. Let’s see, what else? It really was mostly the Shakespeare plays.

While “Lucky to Be Me” is mostly all Comden & Green, it takes nothing away from their accomplishment to say they learned to play well with Shakespeare.


Who Knew You Could Dance to T.S. Eliot?

Saturday, February 11th, 2012



As processed through Songify using musical accompaniment of “Deluge” by Khush:  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Opening Lines)


Shakespeare suffers the same treatment, here: Sonnet 18


“Meditations in an Emergency” by Frank O’Hara

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011



This slim volume contains 30 poems, short to medium in length. Thirteen are one-pagers, twelve are two pages, five are three.

Some of the poems in MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY are opaque. An exuberant talker, O’Hara on occasion goes on auto-pilot erudition spills, and when this is applied to a subject of limited interest the result can be a poem that may not speak to most readers, especially those of us not thoroughly tutored.

Yet I think I am like most of his readers who forgive him this, knowing that with the next poem or the one after the next he will return to his naturally communicative, pleasure-giving mode.

What the American poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth once noted about O’Hara is right on the money: Each of the poems has the air of a “fresh start.” When encountering the best of them it is as if your eyes, long occluded, open suddenly onto the world.

This being O’Hara, there are newly-coined and revived words and phrases (cupiditously; buttered bees); thoughts of suicide, express and implied, and premonitions of violence; paeans to pop culture icons (“For James Dean”); a campy fandom of Hollywood (“To the Film Industry in Crisis”); tossed off witticisms (“It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so”); a devotion to New York (“I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life”); and, finally, intimate love poems that draw us near.

He has an original voice, and yet I enjoy the occasions when he behaves as other poets, like Ginsberg or the Romantics, or even Shakespeare, who I swear I hear in the poem “Radio.” It begins:

Why do you play such dreary music

on Saturday afternoon, when tired

mortally tired I long for a little

reminder of immortal energy?

This shares the questioning voice found in Shakespeare’s sonnets (the constant Why? Who? What?) as well as the author’s expression of mock petulance — disappointment turning into complaint turning into self-pity — such as in Sonnet 34:

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day

And make me travel forth without my cloak

To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way?

For some reason I like to read O’Hara’s poetry while standing, or walking around a room.


Here comes a decade-long, Big Five-O party

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

A collective shrug of “Uh, who cares?” greeted the recent spate of 40th anniversary celebrations. Woodstock? Yawn. The moon landing? Snooze. The birth (arguably) of the Internet?  Feh.

But while these fortieth birthday parties fizzled, that won’t stop promoters exploiting all of the upcoming big Five-O shindigs.

In just a few weeks the calendar will flip to the year 2010.  As with any year, 2010 is an abstraction. Right now 2010 is content-free, sans emotional resonance, non-seductive. Yet our culture is at the mercy of a base-10 numbering system. The media, needing to fill time and space, will grab at mathematics: 2,010 is the sum of 1,960 plus the very marketable, “Hey, it’s been 50 years, so let’s get a party on!”  With box cutter knives in hand, the whole exploitive band of writers, commentators, filmmakers, sordid hangers-on, are all poised to attack the packed  boxes labeled “the ’60s.” Unpacked, their contents will be spilled across every available screen.

If I were asked to set the agenda for this non-stop orgy of baby-boomer nostalgia, I’d first remind my staff that the distinction of the 1960s was not so much its general calamities amidst general progress. That can be said of every decade in recent world history. What the ’60s was more “about” was something in the realm of feeling: a relentless pow! pow! pow! of special tragedies and triumphs of an intensely personal kind. To set up this theme, I suggest the festival begin on January 4 with a somber program devoted to Albert Camus. An odd choice? Perhaps; but hear me out:  It was on January 4, 1960, that the 46-year-old Camus, then at the height of his creative powers, a man immersed in the struggle for individual freedom in an absurd universe, met a violent death in a car crash. Surely this was a lesson for us, a warning to prepare for a decade-long reminder of an inescapable truth: Everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment.

Which, on a happier note, will also set the stage for a 2017 program devoted to Twiggy.


UPDATE (11-23-2009): Today, the New York Times reports that, to mark the 50th anniversary of Camus’ death, President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to transfer the writer’s remains to the Pantheon in Paris, one of the most hallowed burial places in France.

Do Dogs See Colors?

Monday, July 20th, 2009


On our walk through the neighborhood this morning my dog Jesse began to strain on the lead when he got within 20 feet of a certain object of his desire.  It was a blue Toyota Prius. Not my blue Prius, mind you, but someone else’s, parked blocks away from where mine sits in front of the house.  When Jesse reached the car he put his muzzle right up against car’s hatchback door, as if to say “Open Sesame!”  Then he turned and gave me a look that said, “Let’s go to the beach!”

By that point in our walk we had already passed dozens of parked cars, and Jesse had shown no sign of interest in any of them, let alone any move to commandeer one for a day trip.  He’s always ignored other Priuses parked around the neighborhood, cars that were the exact same model as mine, although come to think of it, those others were of a different color (red, black, silver, etc.)  This blue car today was so close in appearance to mine that even I did a double-take.

So why did Jesse select it to be the “stuff [his] dreams are made on”? 

I think the answer is the color blue.

For a long time it was assumed dogs could not see colors.  A post on the website “WikiAnswer”, found here, echos that view.  But recent scientific studies have come to a different conclusion.  In an article entitled “How Dogs See Color” by Dana K. Vaughan, Ph.D., Dept. of Biology, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh (available here), Dr. Vaughan reports that, yes, dogs can see colors, but somewhat differently than humans: 

“These experiments showed that dogs do see color, but in a more limited range than that seen by normal humans, who see the rainbow of colors described by “VIBGYOR”: Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, and Red (plus hundreds of variations on these shades).  Instead, dogs see “VIBYYYR”  (Violet, Indigo, Blue, Yellow, Yellow, Yellow, and Red).  The colors Green, Yellow, and Orange all look alike to dogs; but look different from Red and different from the various Blues and Purples.  Dogs are very good at telling different shades of VIB apart. Finally, Blue-Green looks White to dogs.”

Dr. Mark Plonsky, a Professor of Psychology, also at the University of Wisconsin, presents slightly difference results here.  His article includes an admittedly speculative color spectrum chart showing what your pooch likely sees:



One finding common to both studies is that dogs can readily discern the color blue.  So blue is the color to select next time you buy a car, if you want your dog to have a chance of spotting your vehicle in a crowd.

It’s reasonable, I believe, to assume Jesse can recognize a Prius by its size and shape, and through his sense of smell (as the car’s factory installed tires and its brake system probably emit distinctive odors).  But Jesse is able to find my Prius and his personal means of long-distance transport — or  get to the point where he believes he’s found his Prius — only when he comes across those elements plus the color blue.

Meanwhile, I haven’t settled on what to say to Jesse if today’s episode recurs.  This morning I simply said “No!”, yanked the lead, and walked on.  But I feel Jesse deserves a fuller explanation, something to indicate he is mistaken to think he has found my (his) car, yet he shouldn’t feel bad since it’s an understandable mistake.  So what voice command can contain than amount of  nuance? 

I’m thinking, maybe, “Close, but no cigar!”?

“The Tempest” at Steppenwolf

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Wednesday night I attended a performance of “The Tempest” at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.  The show opens officially on April 5.

Scholars generally accept “The Tempest” as the final play Shakespeare wrote alone — a valedictory capping a career of two decades and nearly 40 plays.  There is in the work a nostalgic tone, mixed with autobiographic references, therapeutic disgorgement, final statements. 

I am no Shakespeare scholar (nor was meant to be).  I am not a credentialed critic.  With but poor power to add to or detract from accumulated commentary, I present these few notes on things that struck me specially:

My ears perked up at Trinculo’s remark (in Act II, Scene 2) about the eagerness of Englishmen to pay good money to see strange and awesome creatures brought back from distant travels.  The Jester notes how eagerly English purses open for foreign entertainment  (“they [the English] will lay out ten [coins] to see a dead Indian”) and he contrasts this with their disregard for a grotesque situation on their very own doorstep, namely, legions of destitute fellow countryment (“they will not give a doit [small coin] to relieve a lame beggar”).  With this cutting observation, I sensed Shakespeare was chastising many of us in the audience — people who happily paid to watch the playright’s show of “strange beasts,” while outside the theater, needs go unobserved, un-almsed.

Striking to me also was Prospero’s passionate warning (in Act IV, Scene 1) to the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand against premarital sex, lest it poison their marriage.    Listening to this extended outburst (“[Do not] break her virgin-knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rite be minister’d”) I wondered if Shakespeare was recollecting his own quick forced nuptials with a pregnant Anne Hathaway.  (Historians note that “the couple may have arranged the ceremony in some haste, since the Worcester chancellor allowed the marriage banns to be read once instead of the usual three times”).  Is Shakespeare blaming his own unhappy marriage on its flawed beginning? 

At the play’s end Prospero’s relationship with his brother Antonio is not repaired, an exception to the otherwise universal reconciliation.

Isn’t it unfair to reward the faithful Ariel merely with release from servitude?  That’s no reward at all.  Ariel deserves to be granted some grander thing, such as — would it be possible? — the gift of being made human.

The totally satisfying trajectory of the plot.

Actors must find it wonderful to inhabit the role of Prospero.  You are allowed to be not only a fully-dimensioned fictional creation, but also a stand-in for Shakespeare himself, the sum of his life experiences and thoughts.  In other words, you get to be Everyman.

I wonder if Gonzalo’s vision (in Act II, Scene 1) of an alternative, and better, world (with his key imaginings of “no sovereignty;” “nature [bringing forth] all abundance to feed my innocent people;” “all things in common”) was the inspiration for John Lennon’s “Imagine”  (with its similar vision of  “no countries;” “no need for greed or hunger;” “sharing all the world”).


Quick comments on the Steppenwolf’s bold and satisfying production of “The Tempest” (bear in mind that what I saw was a preview performance four days before the official opening):

The music composed for the pageantry of the play deserves high praise.  It is much more than “incidental” music.

The production design for this quintessentially timeless play was generally superb, save for the insertion of certain era-specific props into what is otherwise a stripped-down, “universal” stage design.  I mean the Apple laptop Ariel uses to compose and direct his high jinks.  (I hope Steppenwolf’s attorneys negotiated a hefty endorsement fee from Apple; a winning ad campaign could be developed upon the theme, “Capture Your Inner Ariel with an Apple”).  I also mean the retractable dog leash.  And the “timeless” aura would have been served better if Gonzalo had sat in a generic wheelchair device, not the one of contemporary design and engineering that the prop folks got from a 21st century medical supplies firm. 

The actors were superb across the boards (as well as  through the air).  One caveat: the wobbly Italian accent issuing from Stephano could use  realignment. [But see a reader’s comment below (added 04/06/2009)]

I was surprised at the stinginess of the audience’s reaction: only polite unsustained clapping.  No one stood to applaud.  No calling back the actors for further well-deserved appreciation.  Is this a Chicago tradition?  Is it typical of a Steppenwolf audience? 


In the play’s lyrical, smiling Epilogue, Shakespeare directs Prospero to inform all of us who have absorbed his tale:  

“My project  . . . was to please.” 

This production very much pleases.  I for one was overwhelmed.


UPDATE (04-05-2009) – A first  review, generally positive, from Chicago Tribune critic, Chris Jones, in “The Theater Loop”: also available at,0,7681846.story

UPDATE (04-06-2009) – A blogger who was enchanted is Venus Zarris:

One who was not is Nina Metz:

J. Scott Hill offers an ecstatic review:,

As does Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times:,CST-FTR-Weiss06.article

Rob Kozlowski liked the show except for some stage elements and the rap song:,26212/