It’s been a week of fandom in a life that, in many ways, is devoted to the practice and study of it.
First, I went to see The Simpsons Movie. I’m definitely a fan of the show, although I’m not so far gone that I don’t realize it has slipped a lot from its golden (yellow?) years. Still, a compromised Simpsons is a cut above most of what’s on TV, so watching it feels like voting for quality. The voting part is apt because even though I’ve read that conservatives and even Christian conservatives have come to appreciate the show and argue that it “doesn’t play favorites,” I challenge that notion. True, it had that annoyingly funny George H.W. Bush/Dennis the Menace installment and does seem to embrace a core belief in God (which isn’t a strictly conservative trait), but I think Groening’s attacks on left-wing buffoonery have kid gloves and his attacks on right-wing buffoonery have talons.
Plus, even 20 years after the characters debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show, it rises to the occasion from time to time and makes me go, “Ha-ha!”
The screening was interesting...there was a gigantic line even an hour before the movie started and the jostling for seats inside was streaked with barely subdued panic. This is how I feel all the time going to the movies (“Must. Not. Be. Late. Must. Get. Aisle. Seat,” said through clenched grin.) so I was right at home. Thunderous applause at the opening credits. I get turned off real fast if an audience is too appreciative unless I’m as hypnotized as they are, but since I’m basically on board with the show I withheld grumpiness even as all the jokes—even the lazy ones—drew rapturous guffaws.
Generally, fans really mean it. From here.
The movie was cute and I’m glad I saw it. It had a few very funny lines and visual jokes and went down easy. It wasn’t as savagely funny as I’d hoped and I found myself wondering how they managed an hour and a half with so little Milhouse (my favorite), Mrs. Krabappel, Mr. Burns, Moe and just about every other non-Simpson. But I enjoyed it. I’d probably give it a B or B-.
Fans, however, seem to live and die for it—is “Spider Pig” really, really that inventive? Does yet another near divorce really represent brilliance? Okay, the opening sequence featuring Green Day (R.I.P.) was truly memorable for me, but it’s strange how being pre-excited about a franchise can nearly dictate one’s response to the latest installment. It’s a bit like religion, isn’t it? Like everyone around you is “speaking in tongues” and you’re pretty sure you don’t have the spirit in you so you either laugh at them or—or you pretend to speak in tongues, too.
I can’t tell if being left out of the experience is annoying because I look down on it or regret not being as swept away, but I’m at least a semi-believer regarding Bart & Co. so I didn’t feel much of either.
Next, I got to see the last performance of Gypsy at City Center, the praised new take on what is considered to be the best musical ever written, starring Broadway force Patti LuPone. Even before the show began, fandom presented itself in the form of star sightings. Barbara Walters walked up to us looking exceedingly orange and plastic in a way that many people would think constituted looking “great.” My impression was she looked waxy and was surprisingly stiff, like she couldn’t really move her upper body and was lucky to be maneuvering in heels. But it was Barbara Walters, a legend, an icon and also still someone I watch from time to time—or watched, until recently—and it was kinda exciting to see her. (I’d seen her once before outside the Paris when I was about to watch a revival of Purple Noon and thought she was both formidable and a caricature of an Upper East Side lady.)
I was right by her in the same room with her and so I did what others were doing—I decided I hadda say something.
I don’t always do this; I don’t often do this. But I introduced myself and said I was one of her male View-ers and said I’d enjoyed the show in the past and wished her well. She did the signature Barbara pursed Mona Lisa smile, made brief eye contact before looking to the side and murmured “thank you” three times evenly spaced between the seconds it took for me to have my say. The effect was cool, robotic, but polite. It felt like we were both trapped in the inevitability of this type of encounter—celebrity creates an imaginary relationship between a star and a fan (or admirer) so that when a fan sees a star in person, there is almost a feeling that it would be rude not to say hi. The real relationship is not between the star and the fan, but between the fan and him- or herself, as spurred by whatever emotions the star has aroused in him or her over the years.
I can’t fault her for being less than engaging. After all, admiration and contempt are two sides of the same coin—my assessment of our encounter is fair and accurate but it’s hardly flattering. (Another, harsher example of what happens when fans happen into a star’s orbit and get caught up in the tail is this amusing, possibly apocryphal Madonna visitation.)
Before the show started, we saw Frank Langella with Barbara—they definitely attended together. That was interesting to me because he is an ex- of Whoopi Goldberg’s, and Whoopi is about to be announced as The View’s new Rosie O’Donnell. We also spotted Kirsten Johnston (back to looking like a babe after looking like a hot mess of a middle-aged mama in the Drew Barrymore/Hugh Grant romantic comedy Music And Lyrics), Harriet Harris (who must’ve rushed over after her Old Acquaintance matinee) and Brian Williams (unnaturally handsome).
Sitting behind us were a full-figured blonde babe who’d come from Alabama for the experience—a true Patti fanatic—and her studly young beau, obviously a Juggs Magazine reader. She squealed and hollered pretty loudly once the show began and he had a bit of a beeper issue, but her passion for simply being privileged enough to witness the show made up for any overexcitement. He’d never heard of Gypsy until this week, and that was cute, too.
Oh, then there was the show. I’d only ever seen Patti in Master Class (superb) and had never heard her sing, but I was the only one there who could say that—if The Simpsons has fans, Patti LuPone has apostles. At first, though her voice was beautiful, I wondered if I were going to enjoy her perfect phrasing and almost operatic flourishes. But she embodied the role flawlessly, bringing to it so much humor and ripe sexuality, and her performance of the familiar songs grew on me as she seemed to open a valve within her that poured pure Mama Rose. I never saw Tyne Daly’s Rose, but I didn’t care for Bernadette Peters in the role and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Patti LuPone going forward. Is it possible this production will stand as a three-week experiment and not return for a long Broadway run? Her only other stab at Rose was in 2006 in Ravinia, Illinois. This show must go on!
True fans don't recognize laws.
The entire cast was excellent. I did prefer Tammy Blanchard’s incandescent Gypsy to Laura Benanti’s more tomboyish and grounded take, but it’s like comparing diamonds to emeralds—both spectacular. I loved the arch quality Leigh Ann Larkin had as June, which she believably softened before June’s surprising departure, and Boyd Gaines made Herbie genuinely mysterious, a guy who went from being a push-over to pulling anchor when he’d been walked all over a few too many times.
Footage from Ravinia 2006 isn’t contraband like footage from an NYC stage 2007 is...even though everyone was doing it!
What stood out most for me about this production was the humor and the empathy—these qualities made it less a show about showbiz than a show about family dynamics, and one that is impossibly fresh for being nearly 50 years old.
Patti’s Rose via NY1 clips.
At the end, after a devastatingly dead-on “Rose’s Turn,” LuPone’s bows were like an extension of the performance—it was as if she were still Rose, bowing to a make-believe audience. And then the curtain calls kept coming. The audience was beside itself (“Well, then make sure they pay double,” Rose would say.) as she welcomed creators Arthur Laurents
, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim to the stage, and even after the lights came up she refused to leave, wandering the stage and hanging at the side far longer than I’ve ever seen happen. Her sheer joy at having achieved her dream of playing this role was infectious, as were the tears shining in Benanti’s eyes at the realization that moments like this are rare and do come to an end. (UPDATE: Of course, Jule Styne is dead...which explains why I couldn't see him from my sideview. I guess Sondheim was gesturing to his picture or something when he asked us to applaud for Styne?)
Not having much experience with Patti, only having seen Gypsy once and often being more of a patron than an apologist for the state of the American musical, I could easily have been a Grinch in the face of the audience’s fan-club reaction to this latest Gypsy. But I guess not being a total diehard has its rewards in that when you find you treasure an experience, you’re secure in the knowledge that you’re not overcompensating for all you’ve invested in the franchise leading up to it.
It was a real treat. Now if I run into Patti LuPone, I’ll know just what to say.
But...so will she: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
(None of the stage photos of Gypsy are by me, and many of the best are from here.)