Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

O'Hare to Fifth Avenue: a photo essay

I rarely carry a camera but happened to have one on me during my recent trip to New York City. Always thinking of you, my literally tens of readers, I started taking pictures at O'Hare...

Aren't we all?

This woman's hair was so huge that people in the long security line were staring at her and debating whether it was real or a wig.

Inevitably she attracted the attention of the crack security staff...

...led by this guy, whose lanyard left little doubt as to who was in charge.

This guy must have been her dad.

Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History installed this dinosaur skeleton in the airport. It lived in Colorado 150 million years ago. "Talk about a long layover!" I would say if I were Lewis Black.

Back off, ladies.

At LaGuardia I caught a ride with a friend to his Central Park South hotel. With two hours to while away before meeting friends at the nearby St. Regis, I took a leisurely stroll down the boulevard that gradually turned into a hotel tour.

My next stop was the Plaza, still in part a hotel after the recent conversion of its Central Park-facing rooms to apartments. I sat down on a leather bench in this dining room to warm up and make a few phone calls. It was so sumptuous that even such a poor photographer as I couldn't help but take a magazine-ready photo.

Eloise still lives there.

I banged out the Saturday New York Times crossword in the Plaza's lobby cafe, enjoying the swirls of foreign-accented chitchat around me. I've been on a major NYT xword kick for the past year or so, grinding through the grid every Friday and Saturday. It's easiest on Monday but I jump in at week's end because I like the tough ones. I am ___ enough to do them with a pen (confident? experienced? arrogant?).

Eventually it was time to go. As I started making my way down Fifth Avenue, I took a moment to admire the iconic facade.

It wasn't snowing that day, but there was one big snowflake hanging above "5 Av."

I like the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago, but had never visited their New York outpost. Check!

Despite my lousy photography, the hotels look great lit up at dusk, don't you think?

My final stop was the St. Regis, where you'll have to take my word that this license plate read ST REGIS.

As I took this shot, I had a moment of self-awareness: I was in New York City for one night and taking a picture of a hotel car's vanity license plate. It was time to put my camera away.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The bright side of life

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of Monty Python's Spamalot at the Auditorium Theater.  

It feels a little funny to call it an opening night when the show ran a tryout in Chicago four years ago this month en route to Broadway; and having just wrapped up its long, Tony-winning ride on the Great White Way, now returns to kick off its national tour; but the performance did open the current Windy City run, and since Broadway In Chicago was nice enough to pass along tickets, if they call it an opening night, I will too.

With that business out of the way, here's what actually matters:  Spamalot is funny and entertaining, full of the brainy, daft antics you'd expect from a Monty Python musical. Richard Chamberlain lends a certain gravitas as King Arthur, grounding the show and providing ballast for the cockamamie flights of fancy around him.  It's well worth your consideration, in both senses, if you're looking for a fun night out.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

A final rehearsal with Will Ferrell

I've had the 24-hour flu but this weekend was the first time I "24-hour flew," to New York City on Saturday and back home on Sunday. I highly recommend the rare experience of leaving the rolling bag at home and sauntering down the jetway with only a New Yorker and a toothbrush.

The trip was occasioned by my good fortune to attend an "invited rehearsal" of Will Ferrell's upcoming Broadway debut, "You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush."

The show begins previews tomorrow (Inauguration Day, appropriately enough), officially opens on February 5 and runs through March 15 at the Cort Theater. Ferrell co-wrote the script with his longtime collaborator Adam McKay, who is also directing.

It's one of those shows that, as soon as you hear about it, you want to see. "Will Ferrell's one-man George W. Bush farewell show live on Broadway" is a five-second pitch any smart producer would buy sight unseen, and three of them did. Heck, even the title is funny.

After months of writing and rehearsing, it has barely been performed in front of an audience, and with its run about to begin, the producers wanted their star and technical staff to get a run-through in front a live crowd before the paying customers arrive. Ferrell had yesterday and today off before he launches into the traditional Broadway schedule of eight shows a week. Thus his final dress rehearsal on Saturday night became a ticketed event.

One of the aforementioned smart producers and I flew out together and he brought me up to date on the Ferrell show and his other current projects. "You're Welcome America" is off to a good start with strong early sales before advertising even began. A lot of people are talking about it and many of them are buying tickets.

With the show beginning previews this week, the creative team has been promoting its work. Will Ferrell sat down with the New York Times' Patrick Healy for a nice preview feature that appeared in yesterday's Arts & Leisure section. The outspoken McKay drops a few rhetorical bombs in that article as he does in this on-camera interview from

And, of course, they've also been doing what they do best, creating a series of amusing Ferrell-as-Bush videos for use in television ads and direct viewing on the Internet. Here's one example:

The show's website,, is also getting into the act. For weeks it's been a placeholder with a show poster and a link to buy tickets. It got a facelift in the last few days and is now an imagining of what Bush's MySpace page might look like.

But enough about the marketing campaign, what about the show itself? Terrific. Loved it. It's hilarious and damning, smart in its dumbness, politically pointed, a survey of Bush's life broken into the chapters you'd expect (childhood, Yale, those pesky two decades of idle drunkenness and drug abuse, Texas, 2000 election, September 11, Katrina, Iraq war) with some silly fictional stuff mixed in.

McKay and Ferrell made a good writing choice by not editorializing or opining, but rather airing true facts and actual quotes and letting Bush's own record convict him in the court of public opinion. And it's flat-out funny, with a boatload of solid jokes maintaining the momentum between painful reminders of statesmanship gone awry.

All in all, it's a polished, highly entertaining show that will please the crowds and offer a cathartic measure of closure. As I told the producer afterward, he's got a hit on his hands.

In full disclosure, I should mention that I am involved in the show as an investor, but these are my honest opinions, and anyway it doesn't matter what I say about it. This thing is already becoming a runaway train even though almost no one has seen it yet. Despite the lack of critical reviews or informed word-of-mouth, not to mention the ongoing recession and that it's Broadway's traditional slowest time of year, there's a feeding frenzy underway at the box office.

I'm sharing the story because I think it's interesting and to offer a word to the wise. The theatrical run is just eight weeks long and I urge anyone who wants tickets to grab them before it's too late. From what I hear that will be pretty soon.

It's easy to understand why. Yes, Ferrell is a popular movie star, but it's more than that. The Bush presidency was for so many people a waking nightmare that felt like it would never end. Now that America's least favorite houseguest is finally bumbling out the door, this show provides a richly deserved kick in the pants to help him on his way. Buying a ticket is saying "me too."

The rehearsal I saw wasn't quite the first performance, as Ferrell and McKay mounted a secret show a few weeks ago at Largo in L.A. for friends and fans of Funny or Die, their comedy website. Someone who was there posted a rave review, which I second. Based on Saturday's crowd reaction -- people laughing uproariously, giving Ferrell an enthusiastic standing ovation, and texting their friends to buy tickets -- I'm not the only one.

It was a privilege to be one of the first people to see "You're Welcome America." Congratulations to all involved for putting together this satisfying piece of American theater.

Friday, January 16, 2009

He Madoff with the money

Judge: Madoff Not a Flight Risk

(AP) Bernard Madoff won the latest round in his fight with prosecutors over his bail package Wednesday as a judge ruled he can remain free, brushing aside arguments by the government that the money manager needs to be in jail because he cannot be trusted. The judge ruled prosecutors did not make a compelling argument that Madoff is a danger to the community or a flight risk.
Yeah, but what about out the window?

Author who lost a fortune rips Bernie as a 'sociopath'

(New York Daily News) Best-selling author Alexandra Penney lashed out at Bernie Madoff Saturday after revealing she had lost her life savings to the arch-swindler.

"This is not a human being - it's a sociopath," Penney, best known for her 1982 classic "How to Make Love to a Man," told CNN, declining to say how much she had lost. "I'm sincerely, and this is the understatement of the year, appalled that this man is not in prison."

Penney, a former editor of Self magazine and one of the originators of the pink ribbons used to symbolize breast-cancer awareness, had quit writing and was living as an artist.

Not anymore. Penney said she plans to start writing again to pay the bills.

Suggested title for next book: "How to Get Screwed by a Man."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dudamel speaks

On Friday evening, I was fortunate to see the brilliant young conductor Gustavo Dudamel lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a bravura performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 2, Barber's Adagio for Strings and Golijov's Azul for Cello and Orchestra with special guest soloist Yo-Yo Ma.

The next afternoon, the charismatic Dudamel gave a lively interview at a Symphony Center reception for supporters of the orchestra. Throughout his casual conversation with resident CSO music historian Phillip Huscher, Dudamel was funny, candid and self-effacing, easily charming a room full of people who pretty much already loved him anyway.

I took notes, and because I've been getting some traffic from fellow Dudaphiles, I thought I'd pass along a few of the rising maestro's remarks:
  • Dudamel was familiar with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra long before he first visited in spring 2007 and conducted Mahler's First Symphony. As a boy in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, he had a vinyl Deutsche Grammophon LP recording of the CSO. He would rush home from school to conduct to it, with his toys arrayed in rows around him like an orchestra.
  • His father was a salsa trombonist, and when he was a young boy, his dream was to follow suit. He had to wait to play the trombone because his arms were too short.
  • "El Sistema," the Venezuelan national music education program catering primarily to inner-city children, has captured the imagination of an entire nation. Just as every kid in Brazil wants to play soccer, so does every kid in Venezuela want to play classical music.
  • In a country of 25 million people, there are 300,000 kids playing in El Sistema, over one percent of the population. Dudamel is its best-known product and the founder is one of his mentors.
  • Dudamel was recently named the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is already working on YOLA, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, a Sistema-type outreach program to the kids of East L.A.
  • Dudamel recently conducted a simultaneous performance of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the Venezuelan national youth orchestra, along with two other youth orchestras on the same stage. There were 600 kids performing at once and thousands in the crowd.
  • The atmosphere was like a rock concert. When they played the familiar opening chords of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the audience went nuts. People in the crowd were screaming "Tchaikovsky!"
  • Dudamel sees the above scenario as the future of classical music, bringing the energy of rock music to the classical milieu. (Of course, classical and romantic music were the rock music of previous centuries, the popular music of their day, before electricity, recording technology and Les Paul came along.)
  • The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra in Caracas includes 853 musicians. "It's all big in Venezuela."
  • As a 23-year-old conductor in 2004, Dudamel entered (and won) the prestigious Mahler competition, a contest among the world's most promising young conductors. His English was very limited. It was his first time conducting a professional orchestra and the only phrases he could say in English were "It's too loud," "Perfect," and "One more time."
  • Because he couldn't understand what people were saying to him, he would nod yes to everything. Huscher joked that this is why Dudamel books so many gigs.
  • When he won a spot in the second round, his English was so poor that he didn't realize he'd advanced. He was surprised to learn it. Later, when they announced he won the competition, he didn't understand that he'd won. Eventually someone explained it to him and he was like, "Oh, good!"
  • The first time the Argentinian maestro and piano virtuoso Daniel Barenboim called him on the phone, he thought it was one of his friends pranking him. Barenboim summoned Dudamel to Berlin and they soon became mentor and protégé.
  • Although he has already learned a wide repertoire, he is saving certain composers and pieces for later in his career, including Wagner, Bruckner 6 and 8, Fidelio, and The Magic Flute.
  • For the English music magazine Gramophone, Huscher recently asked Barenboim for a quote summing up Dudamel. After a long pause, Barenboim replied, "He already knows everything that cannot be taught about conducting."
  • Dudamel conducted a series of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. After each show he would go to the well-known Pink's hot dog stand for a post-concert bite to eat.
  • Eventually the Pink's proprietors learned that a famous young conductor was a regular customer. After Dudamel was named Esa-Pekka Salonen's successor at the helm of the L.A. Philharmonic, they added to the menu a tribute sausage called the Dudamel Dog.
  • Dudamel has tried his namesake sandwich. His review: "It's delicious!"

Monday, January 12, 2009

I hate it when that happens

At least we know it begins with a T.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dude, where's my baton?

Teenagers find themselves in different ways. Kurt Cobain grabbed a guitar, Eddie Murphy started doing standup, and Bill Gates learned to program his school's computer.

Improbable as it may seem, many kids in modern-day Venezuela find a direction in classical music. Thanks to their thriving national music education program, "El Sistema," they're exposed to instruments, composition and conducting from a young age.

One prodigy who emerged from El Sistema is Gustavo Dudamel. The shaggy-haired young conductor started leading the national Venezuelan youth orchestra at just 15 and has since shot to international acclaim as a conducting phenom.

He's in town this weekend to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; my Flavorpill preview is here.

Thanks to the generosity of my parents, I will be fortunate to attend tonight's benefit, at which Dudamel will be joined onstage for the first time by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Meanwhile, here's 60 Minutes' Bob Simon to tell us more about "Gustavo the Great":

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I'm dreaming of a white Kwanzaa

And speaking of Avenue Q...

I went to college with the show's co-creator, Jeff Marx, and we've stayed friends ever since. At one point, we were simultaneously writing and directing our respective law schools' annual parody revues, each entitled "Law Misérables." Apparently there are only so many theatrical legal puns.

In the years since, I've gone on to win a Tony Award for my smash hit Broadway show, which also toured the nation and played London, Las Vegas, Israel, Scandinavia and southeast Asia; been hired by major Hollywood studios to write movie musicals; worked with the South Park guys on a new screenplay; and been nominated for an Emmy Award for my episode of Scrubs. No, wait, that was all Jeff. But I created a blog.

A few weeks ago, Jeff mentioned in an email that he was en route to New York to work on his CNN song. I didn't understand what he meant, but figured he was creating a new jingle for them.

It turns out Jeff was headed for the show D.L. Hughley Breaks the News to perform his new holiday song, "White Kwanzaa." It's good stuff, and it sounds something like this:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Librarian, write thyself

Speaking of "President" Bush, his wife Laura just signed a book deal with HarperCollins, selling the rights to her memoir for an undisclosed sum.

What will she write about? Smiling and waving? She's a complete cipher, with the most minimal public persona of any First Lady I can remember. Perhaps we'll finally learn something about her.

Unfortunately, Laura Bush's book will likely ignore or gloss over the one thing about her that interests me: the fact that as a teenage driver, she ran a stop sign and caused an accident that killed a high school classmate (this is true).

When her husband signs his book deal, of course, it will involve hiring someone to read him one.

Monday, January 5, 2009

"George Bush is only for now" is only for now

The Broadway smash Avenue Q is a funny, outrageous romp through the issues of post-college adulthood: scoring an apartment, landing a job, sorting out the sex thing, missing campus life, enjoying the big city and finding a purpose.

The show ends on a bittersweet note with the song "For Now," a meditation on the transitory nature of life. Enumerating things that are "only for now" (health, employment, discomfort, love, your hair), it reminds us that everything is ephemeral. The most memorable of these lyrics is "George Bush is only for now."

I first saw the show shortly after it opened on Broadway in summer 2003, by which time Bush had squandered massive post-9/11 goodwill and a historic statesmanship opportunity by manipulating intelligence to foment a cynical, unnecessary war. The Bush lyric was hugely cathartic and got the biggest ovation of the night.

Sadly for the country, it remains impactful all these years later and is now among the most beloved lines in the libretto.

At long last the Q crew has a little tweaking to do because the Bush gag will soon be obsolete. Although the show's losing a good joke, I think everyone at the Golden Theater shares my contentment that the worst president in history is about to exit stage left.

But what will replace "George Bush" in the closing number? That's where you come in. Avenue Q is holding a contest to find a replacement line. If yours is chosen, you'll win a bunch of prizes, including a revised script that includes your lyric. You can enter here.

Act fast, though, because the contest ends January 12. It's only for now.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Une semaine divertissante

It's been a week of fun around Chicago, and not just because the last digit on the calendar changed.

First on Friday night you had your Bing Faithful's Very Merry Nondenominational Holiday Special at the Annoyance Theater, intelligent Christmas goofiness with tongue firmly in cheek.

There was also traditional yuletide entertainment onstage all weekend, from Americana comfort food (Meet Me in St. Louis at the Drury Lane Water Tower) to Irish bleakness (Dublin Carol at Steppenwolf).

Fancy-pants theater is fine, but like the kid in the old Twisted Sister video, some people just want to rock. Happily for them, they didn't have to choose between the big Alex Chilton birthday party Sunday night at the Empty Bottle and the return of The Sea and Cake, Tuesday and Wednesday at Schubas.

Tuesday also brought the Eve of the Eve, an annual charity ball at downtown Union Station and the week's biggest drunkfest until the next night. I was getting whiskey-soaked text messages from friends all evening and I wasn't even there. Didn't write that one up for Flavorpill but with two thousand people a year in attendance, I don't think they need my help spreading the word.

Although I persist in the delusion that the world plans its social calendar around my Flavorpill writeups, not even I am so silly as to think anyone was looking for my advice for New Year's Eve.

I did, however, write up the ginormous event of New Year's Day, the NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. The Winter Classic is a remarkable new tradition in the National Hockey League, an annual contest played outdoors. The open-air set-to is a nostalgic reminder of the pickup hockey games on frozen ponds and rivers where many current pros started playing the sport as kids.

It's captured the imagination of a lot of people, including casual observers like myself who know little about hockey. Tickets sold out in twenty minutes long before I even cranked out my preview, but we cover sports so rarely in Flavorpill, it was fun to write and I wanted to mark the unique occasion of ice hockey being played outdoors at the old ballyard.

It was fascinating to follow news reports of the gradual construction of a temporary pro-quality ice rink at Wrigley Field, but even as a matter of pure hockey, there were subplots aplenty.

After years of slumping attendance and indifferent teams, the resurgent Chicago Blackhawks have quickly restored their luster. Led by 20-year-old captain Jonathan Toews, the third-youngest team captain in league history, and fellow 20-year-old whiz kid Patrick Kane, the Hawks tore through Canada and the U.S. on their latest road trip, beating everyone in their path on a 9-game winning streak.

The run was broken up by their personal Voldemorts, the Detroit Red Wings, defending NHL champions, winners of four Stanley Cups in the last eleven years and the league's consensus best team. On the other end of the age spectrum, the Wings' lineup includes Chris Chelios, the former Blackhawk All-Star and league Methuselah at 46 years old. As good as the Blackhawks look against the rest of the league, the Wings look against Chicago, having already beaten the Hawks four times this year.

The Winter Classic was the back half of a home-and-home series, the first part of which Detroit won at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday. Beyond the bragging rights, there were two more points at stake in Chicago and a few scores to settle from two days earlier (one player was checked so hard he did a full-body 180 over the boards). Unfortunately, despite taking an early lead, the Hawks couldn't close the deal as Detroit poured on five unanswered goals to take the signature game.

Astute as ever, Bob Costas observed on NBC's national telecast that the Hawks' rise is reminiscent of that of Michael Jordan's Bulls, who only tasted glory after figuring out how to get past a tough league champion from Detroit in their same division.

As a frustrated Andy Roddick once said about constantly losing to Roger Federer at Wimbledon, "It's not a rivalry until I win one." Although the Wings remain the better team, the Hawks keep getting closer, playing Detroit tough and showing no fear. On a broader note, with the Hawks and Wings two of the original six franchises in the NHL, a renewal of their rivalry isn't just the latest chapter in a storied history, it's good for the league.

OK, we've covered comedy, theater, music and sports. What's left? A trip to the movies. Rounding out our week of fun is some silver screen gold. As Winston Churchill said, "I am easily satisfied with the very best," and The Sting is probably my favorite movie of all time because that's exactly what it is. If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and get over to the Music Box Theater today or tomorrow for a matinee screening. If you aren't thoroughly satisfied, I will personally refund your money.

Happy new year, everyone.

p.s. What kind of pretentious ass gratuitously entitles a blog post in French? Ce genre, mes amis.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year

The Breeders, "New Year"
Koko, London, U.K.
17 April 2008