Thursday, December 02, 2010

Gratuitous Brunette: Lucy Liu


Lucy Liu arrived on the scene - fully formed and raring to go - when she played Ling Woo on Ally McBeal; through the highs and lows of her movie career (Charlie's Angels being a high, the Vancouver-shot Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever being an entirely expected low) she's managed to maintain a diverse fan following.

Having returned to television with guest appearances on Ugly Betty and starring roles on the short-lived Cashmere Mafia and the slightly longer-running Dirty Sexy Money, in March 2010 she made her Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage playing Annette as part of the second replacement cast along side Jeff Daniels, Janet McTeer and Dylan Baker; those among us with the sharpest ears will also recognize her dulcet tones in the Disney videos Tinker Bell and Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure.

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Now Showing - "Sunday In The Park With George"

Sunday in the Park with George was the brain-child of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, inspired by Georges Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte; first staged Off Broadway in July 1983 at the Playwrights Horizons theater in New York City, and starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, the play takes liberties with Seurat's life* - in reality, for instance, he had no children who survived long enough to give him grandchildren.

*One fact left untouched by the creative team... He was born on this day in 1859.

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Georges Seurat Makes A Good Point

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Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is the masterwork of French painter Georges Seurat, born in Paris on this day in 1859.

Seurat's technique is known as Pointillism, in which millions of individual dots of primary colour are painstakingly placed upon a canvas; the human eye then registers these dots of red-yellow-blue as an array of secondary and tertiary colours. It took Seurat two years (1884-6) to completely cover the enormous 2m x 3m surface with tiny dots; today, the London Drugs photo printer can do much the same thing in about 45 seconds.

Art is illumination; yet for the variety of social mores on display in his most famous creation, it was the idea of it that profoundly changed the way we look at our world. Every photograph, television, or film image you or I have ever seen is made up of tiny dots, as is your monitor screen. Seurat didn't just paint a picture, he opened everybody's eyes.

Seurat's vision became Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's in July 1983 when Sunday in the Park with George opened off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters; the show then opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre in May 1984, where it ran for 604 performances.

The play attempts to insert the artist into his work, only to discover that he's already there, in every little dot; for its tender insights into the creative process it became only the sixth musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

As for the painting... It's one of the stars in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, and was featured in a memorable scene in the film Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
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In Memoriam: Emperor Pedro II of Brazil


In retrospect, maybe it wasn't such a good idea to try and transplant a European monarchy into a New World colony; whatever social and political stability the monarchy might have leant to those fledgling nations which attempted it*, as early as the 16th Century it was becoming obvious that those settlers who made their way to North, Central, or South America were clearly not interested in recreating what they felt were the mistakes of Europe in the pristine wilderness they occupied...

The first European kingdom to plant itself in the New World did so out of necessity in 1815, when members of Portugal's Bragança Dynasty fled to South America just ahead of Napoleon's invading army; in Brazil - then their most important colony - they established the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarve. Once it was safe for them to return to Europe, in 1822, Brazil gained its independence with one of the dynasty's spare princes - the man who became Pedro I - at the helm of the newly created Empire of Brazil. Alas, he just wasn't very good at it; a civil war in Portugal over a disputed succession involving his daughter Maria II unseated him from both the throne of Portugal (where he'd briefly reigned as Pedro IV) and Brazil. He died at Lisbon's Queluz Palace in September 1834, aged only 35.

Born on this day in 1825, Pedro II came to the throne of Brazil at the age of 5 following the abdication of his father in April 1831; he achieved his majority in July 1839 - when he was 14 - and was crowned just under a year later. In September 1842 he married Teresa, daughter of King Francis I of the Two Sicilies and his Spanish consort Maria Isabella; over the next six years Pedro and his Empress had four children together - Afonso, the Prince Imperial who died as an infant; Isabel, who survived until the 1920s as the comtesse d'Eu; Leopoldina, who married a German princeling and died at 24; and Pedro, another Prince Imperial who followed in the tragic footsteps of the older brother he would never know.

Perhaps because he had come to it so young - and had therefore never known anything else - Pedro II managed to keep his throne for 49 years. During that time he used the Moderating Power granted to him under the Constitution of 1824 to help shape his nation in many essential ways: by encouraging farmers to grow coffee rather than sugar, leading the nation full steam into the age of industrialization by building railroads as well as a telephone network, bringing about a gradual end to slavery culminating in the passage of the Golden Law in May 1888, and even trying to learn Guarani so as to communicate with the largest of the indigenous groups in his charge.

While the Paraguayan War of 1865-1870 affected Brazil economically, weakening the Emperor's popularity, it was the freeing of the slaves which angered Brazil's elite, and ultimately brought about an end to both the Emperor and his Empire; he was deposed by Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca in November 1889, at which time he and his family went into exile in Paris. Pedro II died there in December 1891, but returned to Brazil in 1920, when his remains were transferred to a cathedral in Petrópolis.

*Brazil and Mexico.

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The Late, Great Desi Arnaz Plays The Hell Out Of "Babalu"

Throughout the run of I Love Lucy the word Babalu was more a punchline than anything; I used to watch the show and hear the word and wonder why the audience went into hysterics at the mere mention of it. I mean, it is a funny word, but still...

It wasn't until I got a chance to watch the entire series in reruns on KVOS-TV (a kind of primitive version of TV Land where I earned my Ph.D in sitcoms) that I first saw the above clip, and recognized both the manic power of the song and the immense talent of the man performing it.

Written by Margarita Lecuona, the Santeria-flavored ditty was first recorded by Desi Arnaz in 1946 and released by RCA Victor.
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Remembering... Desi Arnaz

To call Desi Arnaz the father of the American sitcom would not be stretching the truth even one iota; America may have loved Lucy, but they wouldn't have had Lucy to love had it not been for the business acumen of one Desi Arnaz...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAware that his wife Lucille Ball was pushing 40 by the time the show went on the air, Arnaz hired Karl Freund, an old hand around the Hollywood studios to give I Love Lucy a more cinematic look, paying close attention to lighting; shooting the episodes on film before converting them to video tape - or the dreaded kinescope - means that those old episodes look as clean today (thanks to their subsequent restoration and the magic of DVD) as they did they day they were recorded.

His innovations don't stop there, however; not only did he decide to shoot the show in Hollywood (when most shows were still being made in New York City) Arnaz just so happens to be the one who devised the three-camera system still routinely used in sitcoms which are shot in front of a studio audience today. Not only did he put microphones above the audience to capture their abundant laughter at Lucy's scripted antics, he recorded those laughs, and sold them to other, less funny shows, to use in their laugh track*. He also bought back earlier episodes of the show (which were owned by CBS) at a ridiculously low rate, on the hunch that people might want to watch the shows again and again in syndicated reruns. Once again he was right.

At one point in the 1960s, Desilu Studios was producing some of the biggest shows on TV, and had even added the old RKO lot (where he and Ball had met) to its holdings; because he realized early on that the only people who make money in Hollywood are producers, he quickly grabbed the reins of I Love Lucy and made himself (not to mention Lucy) a fortune by doing so. Long after their 1960 divorce, Ball was still crediting Arnaz with most of the success enjoyed by the show.

Born in March 1917 in Santiago de Cuba, Arnaz died on this day in 1986.

*CBS sound engineer Charles 'Charley' Douglass was the inventor of the laugh track, but Arnaz and therefore Desilu Productions were probably the first to profit from it financially.

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Happy Birthday Dan Butler

How apt is it that Dan Butler once appeared in Terrence McNally's 1989 play The Lisbon Traviata? While he may be more famous for portraying Bob 'Bulldog' Briscoe for eleven seasons on Frasier, in terms of my blog (which, let's face it, is about all that matters, at least to me), his performance in a play about a person with whom he shares a birthday is much spookier...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1954, in 1973 Butler got himself the Hell out of Indiana but fast, on an Irene Ryan Scholarship; first in San Francisco (where he lived at the time of the first Tales of the City books, and in which miniseries he would later appear as A-gay Edward Bass Matheson - another spooky coincidence) then in New York, he began to make a name for himself in theatre, then movies, and finally TV where, in 1993, he landed the kind of plum role that actors dream of - a recurring featured character who gets funnier lines than the stars, and whose life in syndication is lucrative beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

The genius of the show Frasier (and by extension, the character of Bulldog) was in the way it toyed with audience expectations regarding male sexuality; this was just one of the ways in which the show functioned as high farce. Given that Bulldog is the straightest guy on the show, the fact that he's played by a gay man only serves to illustrate the utter irrelevance of gay male stereotypes.

When, recently, David Hyde Pierce came out the world, seemingly en masse, replied: 'You mean you weren't already?' But when Butler came out publicly after the first season of Frasier it sent ripples of excitement down my... Well, never mind about that. The point is, it was almost as shocking as the revelation that the subject was already old news; Butler has never been in the closet, and successfully mined the subject of his sexuality for a one-man show, entitled The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me... which he performed from 1994 through 1995 in LA, off-Broadway, as well as on tour.

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"Say It Right" by Nelly Furtado

Say It Right was definitely my favourite song of 2007 - an atmospheric, evocative (and most importantly, sexy) single by Canada's own birthday girl Nelly Furtado; the song is so good, it can't even be ruined by remixing, proving once again why it is they pay Timbaland the long green.

Enjoy, and remember: there's no shame in once in awhile dancing around your apartment, even if it does startle the cat.
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It's Always Nice To See A Nelly Getting Ahead

Whilst I was still toiling in the CD mines at Sam the Record Man late in the year 2000, a fresh-faced young Canadian released an album entitled Whoa, Nelly!; I'd like to say I predicted her eventual superstardom as I have done with so many others, but I did not.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe best place to become cynical about the music industry is a record store; there you discover brilliant talents with no backing from their label foundering at the bottom of the remainder bin, and no-talent hacks whose publicity costs more than their recording who nonetheless continue to spew their middle-of-the-road dreck directly into the marketplace and all the way to the top of the charts.

Not that I'm bitter...

Furtado's first album was so big, and yet her second album Folklore such a low-key affair, that by the normal measure of things should have meant her third album was rushed into stores and forgotten... Followed six months later by a 'greatest hits' compilation, a tour of suburban shopping malls, and the rest of her career spent singing I'm like a Bird for anyone who asked, bearing the dreaded stigma of a one-hit wonder and occasionally featuring on those 'Where Are They Now' segments favoured by such celebrity reacharound programs as Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood.

Again - not that I'm bitter.

Nelly Furtado, however, confounded all expectations by following her second album with a smash-hit third album, entitled Loose, after which her enduring stardom looks like a fait accompli*. And all this before her 32nd birthday, which is today. Whoa Nelly? More like Go Nelly! In fact, I can't think of any better advice than that...

*A Spanish language album entitled Mi Plan was followed by The Best of Nelly Furtado in November 2010; a fourth studio album - tentatively called Lifestyle - will hopefully appear one of these days.
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Happy Birthday Your Royal Highness


Bulgaria's Crown Prince Kardam, by custom known as the Prince of Turnovo, may never inherit the throne his father (the former Simeon II) was forced to relinquish in 1946; he could still, however, choose to follow in the footsteps of his father anyway... The deposed Tsar of Bulgaria, under the name Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, subsequently served as Bulgaria's Prime Minister from 2001 to 2005 - a first for Europe*.

His Royal Highness - born on this day in 1962 and shown above in 1997 with his wife Miriam, Princess of Turnovo, and first-born son Prince Boris Turnovski in happier times - was involved in a serious road accident outside Madrid, where they live, in August 2008. As serious as the Princess' injuries were, she was released from hospital less than three weeks later; the Prince, though, suffered a severe head trauma, and was kept in hospital under close observation until January 2009 - at which time he was released. His condition at the time was said to be improving, in that he could then stand unaided and had begun to communicate.

In January 2010, however, the Prince was again hospitalized where he remains comatose to this day...

*Regular readers will remember a similar job swap committed by Cambodia's King Sihanouk.

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"Suicidio" by Maria Callas

This clip - taken from her final performance, a November 1974 concert in Japan - does not show Maria Callas at her best vocally; dramatically, however, she's at the top of her game here.

The aria is one for which she is famous: Suicidio, from La Gioconda, by Amilcare Ponchielli (libretto by Arrigo Boito) and based on the novel Angelo by Victor Hugo.
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Maria Callas: La Divina

Maria Callas may be the first female opera singer whose personal life and travails in the gossip columns of the world were in danger of overshadowing her accomplishments onstage; mainly due to her involvement with Aristotle Onassis, she was drawn into conflict (at least in the public imagination) with the world's most famous widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAlthough she does have a legitimate claim to having been the pre-eminent diva - especially given her tempestuous rivalry with Renata Tebaldi - in terms of sheer ability Maria Callas was far from the greatest soprano. What Callas possessed in greatest abundance was a prevailing spirit; she was probably the finest actress the opera had ever seen, which meant that if she failed to hit a note, the audience was more than willing to overlook this shortcoming in favour of an appreciation for her performance as a whole.

Once a full-figured woman, in the mid-1950s Callas embarked upon a diet which dramatically reduced her weight, and which may have hastened the decline of her voice as well; the tension between the singer and the actress was always present in Callas, and in this case the actress won out...

Born in New York City to Greek parents on this day in 1923, Callas returned to Athens for her musical education at the Greek National Conservatoire, and got her start appearing in secondary roles at the Greek National Opera. Early on she showed an adept ability to perform everything from the highest soprano, coloratura, bel canto, contralto, and even allowed her to sing into the male range of tenor and high baritone.

Callas' voice remains a controversial instrument; while essentially unpretty, it is nevertheless a distinct voice, distinctiveness not being a trait which many singers consider important regardless of their metier. Most people consider her a mezzo-soprano, as that is her natural register, while others, myself included, feel that she is simply beyond categorization, as befits the woman known as La Divina.

Maria Callas was immortalized in the theatre by Terrence McNally's 1995 play Master Class, which was based on teaching she did at Juilliard in 1971-2; McNally had also based his earlier 1989 play The Lisbon Traviata around her life, as did Ethan Mordden, when writing his 1998 novel The Venice Adriana.

Maria Callas gave her final performance in Japan in November 1974; she died in September 1977 at the age of 53.

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In Memoriam: Gianni Versace

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSuccess came as naturally to Gianni Versace (born on this day in 1946) as if it were his birthright; a smashing success from the time of his first collection in the mid-Seventies, soon his designs were redefining chic along Eurotrash lines. Witty as well as sexy, by the late 1990s the Versace brand was known worldwide for being the quintessence of Italian style.

Then, in July 1997, tragedy struck; spree killer Andrew Cunanan gunned down the 50-year-old designer on the front steps of his Ocean Drive palazzo in Miami's South Beach - then the hottest locale in the country. Versace's longtime partner Antonio D'Amico got 50 million lire ($26,000) a month, Cunanan got a self-inflicted bullet in the head on a nearby houseboat a week later, and the House of Versace got a new designer, Gianni's younger sister Donatella.

After a few bumpy seasons, Donatella's stewardship of her late brother's empire seems secure, and with his brother Santo guiding things behind the scenes, the empire begun by Gianni Versace looks to be in no danger of collapse.
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"Hip Hop Hooray" by Naughty By Nature

Birthday wishes go out today to Treach, who once busted mad flow on behalf of Naughty by Nature; beginning with Scuffin' Those Knees (from their 1989 debut album The Independent Leaders, for which they were billed as The New Style) the group was responsible for a string of hits, including O.P.P., Everything's Gonna Be Alright (also known as Ghetto Bastard), Uptown Anthem, and of course Hip Hop Hooray...

The video for Hip Hop Hooray - which spent a week at Number One on the US R&B Chart and peaked as high as Number Eight on the pop charts in 1993 in support of their album 19 Naughty III - was directed by Spike Lee, who also appears in it; Queen Latifah, Eazy-E, Monie Love, and Run-DMC also have cameos. The track gained even greater fame amongst fans of the Seattle Mariners when it was used by Ken Griffey Jr. as his theme song during his plate appearances at the dear, departed Kingdome.

Naughty By Nature's amazing run ended with the single Jamboree, from their album 19 Naughty Nine: Nature's Fury; the group has been silent since 2002.
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POPnews - December 2nd

[This stylized view of the birth of the First French Empire was brilliantly imagined by Jacques-Louis David... Having received the coerced blessing of Pope Pius VII, Napoleon Bonaparte took up the modestly named Crown of Napoleon and placed it on his own head; he then made an Empress of his consort, Joséphine de Beauharnais. At 610 × 931 cm (or more than 500 square feet!) the painting currently occupies considerably more of the Louvre than the crown does, even though the crown once contained a thing as vast as the Emperor's ego - compared to which the painting is but an opulent molecule.]

1409 - The University of Leipzig was founded.

1703 - When what was known as the Great Storm of 1703 finally subsided off the southern coast of England following more than a week of hurricane conditions, 8,000 people were dead, 4,000 oak trees fell in the New Forest alone, and countless ships had been wrecked on their way home from fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession.

1755 - The second Eddystone Lighthouse was destroyed by fire, almost 52 years to the day after the Great Storm of 1703 destroyed the first one in November 1703.

1804 - Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, rather than at Notre-Dame de Reims, where French rulers had traditionally been crowned.

1805 - The Battle of Austerlitz gave Napoleon his most decisive victory over the combined forces of Russia and Austria by destroying the Third Coalition; the battle is often called the Battle of the Three Emperors as it was fought between Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Francis II, the Holy Roman Emperor.

1823 - President James Monroe proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine during his seventh State of the Union Address, establishing a precedent for American neutrality in European wars; the clarity of the Monroe Doctrine has since been muddied by the Roosevelt Corollary and the Clark Memorandum.

1848 - Franz Josef I became Emperor of Austria upon the death of his uncle, Ferdinand I.

1851 - French President Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Second Republic.

1852 - Napoleon III declared himself the third Emperor of the French.

1859 - Abolitionist John Brown was executed for his role in the October 1859 raid on the Armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia.

1867 - Charles Dickens gave his first American reading, at Boston's Tremont Temple; before a paying audience of 2000+ he delivered his 'secular scripture' A Christmas Carol 'like a sermon' or, in the author's own words, a 'literary sledge-hammer'.

1908 - Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, came to the throne at the age of 2.

1927 - The Ford Model A went on the market; it was introduced to eventually replace the company's Model T which had made its debut 19 years earlier in October 1908.

1939 - New York Municipal Airport opened for business, having been dedicated in October 1939; it was later renamed La Guardia Airport.

1942 - As part of the ongoing research of the Manhattan Project, a team led by Enrico Fermi initiated the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

1943 - A Luftwaffe bombing raid on the harbour of the Italian port of Bari sank numerous cargo and transport ships, including an American Liberty ship, the John Harvey, which was carrying a stockpile of WWI-era mustard gas.

1947 - The Jerusalem Riots broke out in response to the approval of the UN's Partition Plan.

1954 - The United States Senate voted 65 to 22 in favour of Senate Resolution 301, as recommended by a Select Committee headed by Arthur V. Watkins of Utah; the Watkins Committee's suggested measures led to the censure of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose involvement in the Red Scare it deemed 'conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute'.

1993 - Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was shot and killed by agents of the Search Bloc in Medellín.
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