Raise the Curtainby SDJJ Staff November 30, 2011
By SDJJ Staff
It’s no secret that San Diego is a treasure trove of performing and visual arts, from its numerous theater companies, orchestras and symphonies, dance companies, art galleries and other venues for all forms of artistic expression. This month, we feature some of the top performance groups and art venues — and a few of the lesser known ones — in the San Diego region. Read on for features about upcoming performances or attractions with a specific Jewish interest, and turn to page 74 for dates and times of featured shows, plus complete calendars for featured venues, as well as other venues and performance groups not featured, but with a line-up no less exciting and entertaining. Now go get in touch with your artsy side.
The Klezmatics return to San Diego’s Anthology as part of their 25th anniversary tour
By Alanna Berman
The Klezmatics, the band that brought klezmer to the forefront of world music — and even won a Grammy for doing so — are currently celebrating their 25th year as musicians with a world tour, stopping at San Diego’s Anthology Dec. 18 at 6 and 8 p.m. A two-CD set of the group’s 20th anniversary concert performed at New York City’s Town Hall was just released in conjunction with a documentary about the group and its members, “On Holy Ground.” We spoke with lead singer and one of only two original band members still performing with the group, Lorin Sklamberg, about what it means to celebrate 25 years of klezmer.
San Diego Jewish Journal: You just released a two-CD set for the 25th anniversary of the band. What was recording that album like?
Lorin Sklamberg: The new album was recorded at the Town Hall in New York City. The idea for documenting the concert came about because there was a documentary film being made about the band [for our 20th anniversary] at the same time. During the beginning of the filmmaking process, the filmmaker decided we should have a concert professionally recorded. It was kind of a summation of what we’d done up to that point and a celebration of that time. By the time we managed to get it edited and mixed, we released it in celebration of our 25th anniversary.
SDJJ: What about the documentary? What can fans expect to see about the band?
LK: It’s about everybody’s personal histories on the road with the band, in studio, in concert and in collaboration with other musicians. It kind of explores what the lives of freelance New York musicians are like. It’s good for people who make assumptions about musicians who they admire to find out about their personal lives and what they do, [because] it humanizes them and it shows there are a lot of things we all have in common.
SDJJ: How does klezmer speak to you, being a Jewish musician?
LK: In my personal case, the music comes from my heritage, so I feel a particular entitlement to the music. I feel drawn to it, because I grew up in a Conservative Jewish world, where I had a lot of information that was related to the music that I’m doing now. I am able to sort of tie it in to that, and that’s very gratifying.
SDJJ: What have the last 10 years looked like for you? The next 10?
LK: In the last 10 years, we’ve had a documentary film made about us, we’ve won a Grammy, we wrote music to the lyrics of Woody Guthrie. We explored the intersection of Yiddish music and African American spirituals, and we survived the departure of one of the original members of the band. We’ve survived for more than 25 years, so the last 10 years have been pretty important and full of milestones for us. Hopefully, the way the next 10 years will go is we find something that is interesting and challenging for us, and then find ways to make it work.
1337 India St.
San Diego, CA 92101
Joe Kobryner helps Broadway-San Diego sparkle and grow — and celebrate 35 years
By Pat Launer
When he was a kid, Joe Kobryner worked in his father’s yardage stores (read: schmattas). He grew up in Chula Vista and Del Cerro and became bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Sholom. His parents were Holocaust survivors.
“I watched my father sell fabrics like a yiddishe Harold Hill [“The Music Man”], a handler, but an honest one,” says Kobryner, vice president of Nederlander Organization, the New York-based parent company of Broadway-San Diego, which brings high-profile national tours to our town. “I learned a lot of my customer service and sales techniques watching my father. He was so passionate about his work. He chose a season of fabrics like I choose a year of plays.”
Kobryner grew up to a soundtrack of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, with his father singing along. But he didn’t see his first live theater until he was in high school. It was a field trip from Patrick Henry High School to San Diego State University to see the musical “Carnival.” He was smitten, and that experience motivated the rest of his working life.
From 1976-77, the first two years of San Diego Playgoers (the previous name of Broadway-San Diego), Kobryner processed subscriptions and worked the box office.
“I was in the box office opening night of the first season at the Spreckels Theatre,” he recalls of his first job with San Diego Playgoers, which in 2001 became Broadway-San Diego. “November 8, 1976. The play was ‘Equus,’ and the evening was electric!”
He knew he wanted to stay around theaters, and he spent 15 years as marketing director for the Old Globe.
Then, in 1996, he was enticed back to Playgoers, when the Nederlander Organization signed an agreement with the Civic Theatre, to become the exclusive presenters of touring Broadway shows. (The Nederlanders own nine Broadway theaters, and there are nine cities on their touring circuit).
“They were looking for a local general manager with a strong background in marketing/sales and community outreach,” Kobryner says humbly. “And I was hired.”
Now, he’s helping Broadway-San Diego celebrate its 35th anniversary. In honor of the occasion, Mayor Jerry Sanders proclaimed Nov. 8 ‘Broadway-San Diego Day,’ recognizing the organization as the premier presenter of touring Broadway shows, concerts and special events.
The San Diego — and Jewish — Connections
There are many highlights of Kobryner’s long tenure at Broadway-San Diego, but mostly, he cherishes the San Diego links to particular productions: his first touring show, “Damn Yankees!,” that Old Globe artistic director Jack O’Brien had revived and sent to Broadway (Kobryner had marketed that show at the Globe, too); “Rent” (helmed by then La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Michael Greif); the return of “Hairspray” (directed by Jack O’Brien), “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (originated at the Globe) and La Jolla Playhouse-sprung shows such as “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Jersey Boys.”
This season, there’s another San Diego production that’s coming home from Broadway (where it’s still going strong): “Memphis,” directed by La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley (July 24-29 at the Civic Theatre).
“Having two high-profile local theaters present so many musicals that changed the face of Broadway is really exciting,” Kobryner says. “Those are always among our most popular shows. There’s a pride in San Diegans who saw the shows here first. It’s artistic nachas!”
And speaking of Jewish pride, there’s always Jerry Seinfeld, coming back with his standup show (two performances Jan. 7, 2012).
“Seinfeld’s iconic,” says Kobryner. “He doesn’t tour often, but this is the third or fourth time we’ve presented him. He likes a good theatrical audience, which he knows San Diego has. He still loves the live audience — and they love him. And yes, he’s still funny, for sure!
“I remember when he was an up-and-comer. He played at the Globe as an opening act for someone else. That memory made me wonder: At what point in your life do you become an icon? I guess when your body of work has a long-lasting effect on society.”
Surely, Seinfeld has done that, adding to the lexicon expressions like “re-gift,” “yada, yada, yada” (etcetera, etcetera); “master of my domain” (refraining from masturbation); “shrinkage” (men, submerged in cold water — figure it out); “shiksappeal” (the irresistible attraction of Jewish men to non-Jewish women), among many others.
San Diego is a very good theater market,” Kobryner asserts. “The national tour of ‘Spring Awakening’ started here, and the West Coast premiere of ‘The Producers.’ And we were one of the first to get ‘Next to Normal,’ with its original star, former San Diegan Alice Ripley. We’ve got great theater in town, and lots of San Diegans have a great theatergoing habit.”
“Parents and schools are so important,” Kobryner explains. “That’s usually kids’ first introduction to theater. The arts are decreasing in the schools, but there are still some very passionate teachers.”
Kobryner feels that what keeps children or adults from experiencing theater for the first time is “fear of the unknown. How to act, how to dress, worrying ‘Will it be beyond me?’ So, you need teachers, parents, friends or co-workers to help break down that fear barrier. When folks see other people their own age, it helps.
“We’ve gotten some wonderful notes from audience members about what a theater experience is like. One said, ‘I look forward to going with my college-age daughter; it gives us a chance to be together. It’s our time.’ Another said, ‘We got to know our seat neighbors and exchanged recipes.’
“It’s haimish,” Kobryner says proudly. “Theater also has the power to connect people with the actors or characters onstage. You take the journey with them. And it’s a really rewarding experience if the journey not only changes the character, but you, too.
“Like me, many San Diegans come to the theater and are transformed. Some become a better person for the experience. Some decide to make this their career path. I’m proud to be a San Diegan who’s made a life in the arts, and thrilled to be able to welcome other San Diegans to the theater.”
3666 Fourth Ave.
San Diego, CA 92103
J*Company and La Jolla Playhouse
In an unusual move, one theater company takes its entire season to honor the work of another
By Jessica Hanewinckel
When J*Company Artistic Director Joey Landwehr decided he’d like to develop a ‘La Jolla Playhouse’ theme for the Jewish Community Center theater company’s 19th season, he was met with support and encouragement from all directions. After all, what better way to collaborate with the Playhouse than to present a series of Broadway musicals that got their start on the Playhouse’s stages, just up the road from the JCC?
When he wanted to include the rock musical “The Who’s Tommy” in the lineup, though, he raised more than a few eyebrows. Anyone who has ever heard of it probably saw the 1975 British film “Tommy,” which was, like the 1992 musical, based on The Who’s 1969 double album rock opera. Though both were rife with almost every form of adult subject matter in existence, the film presented it in an arguably more shocking and disjointed way. The fact that many more people saw the film then the stage production means most gasp at the thought of placing it in the context of youth theater. Leave it to Landwehr to make it work.
“We would never put anything on our stage that would not be appropriate for young people and for families,” he explains, “because we are very proud that this is a warm, welcoming place for all ages.”
After a meeting with Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley and Director of Play Development Shirley Fishman, plus a phone call to Des McAnuff, who wrote and directed the musical at the Playhouse, they agreed to give Landwehr carte blanche to alter the play to make it youth theater-friendly.
“I was astounded, tickled and honored [at the proposition],” says Ashley, whose own current season at the Playhouse consists of “Jesus Christ Superstar” through Dec. 31, “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose” Jan. 27-Feb. 26 and “Sandra Bernhard: I Love Being Me, Don’t You?”.
“‘The Who’s Tommy’ has so much edge on it, so how they turn it into a piece for the J*Company I’m really curious about,” Ashley continues. “ Also, having directed ‘Xanadu’ myself, I’ve never seen anyone else’s production of it, so I’m really excited to see what he does. I’m expecting it to be a highlight of my year. It’s like seeing your baby do it’s first recital.”
Convincing the JCC wasn’t quite so easy.
“To their credit, I went through a lot of hoops to put ‘Tommy’ on the board,” Landwehr says. “[JCC executives] asked how are you going to do this, this and that. I explained everything to them. They were very cautious, which is good, but they also have a lot of faith in me, which I’m very proud of.”
So how did Landwehr make the musical into a wholesome production with a classic rock edge?
“When I first got the script, I started digging into it and I thought, this is going to be so hard, how am I going to do this?” Landwehr recalls. “And what’s funny is it’s so episodic that it was very easy to just sort of pluck things out, and it all kind of fell into place. I like to think I was brilliant and I took tons of time to figure it out, but I really didn’t do much.”
The musical, with its messages about the importance of families sticking together, actually lends itself well to the kinds of healthy, positive messages J*Company promotes, Landwehr says.
“When you take all the horrible bizarreness out of it, there’s this core plot that’s really beautiful,” he says, “about this family and how we take care of each other, and how we create our own families along our way.”
But J*Company’s version of the musical is still “The Who’s Tommy” at the core, with a live rock band onstage the entire time and the basic main plot, set against the backdrop of post-World War II London, left intact.
“The Who’s Tommy” comes to the JCC’s David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre Dec. 2-11.
Other La Jolla Playhouse Fun
Continuing the theme of Broadway musicals produced La Jolla Playhouse will be “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (March 2-8) and “Xanadu — The Musical” (May 4-13). “The Playhouse really wanted to do a breadth of what they’d done,” Landwehr says, “so we have something from when Des [McAnuff] was the artistic director [“Tommy,” 1992], we have something from when Anne Hamburger was the artistic director [“Millie,” 2000] and then something Christopher [Ashley], their new artistic director, is very much connected with [“Xanadu,” 2008, which he brought with him from New York’s Helen Hayes Theatre, where it opened in 2007]. So it was a nice breadth of what they’ve done.”
Audiences can expect lots of tap dancing (“We’ve been tapping for the last nine months!” Landwehr says) in “Millie,” which is set in the 1920s flapper era and is based on the 1967 American musical film of the same name, starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore.
“There are family values in that, too: how [characters Millie and Jimmy] find each other, how a young woman can be anything she wants to be,” Landwehr says.
And then there’s “Xanadu,” which is in a category all its own. Like the original musical, which was based on the 1980 cult classic film of the same name, actors entertain with a strange and fantastical combination of a roller skating disco (and, yes, roller skating characters onstage), Greek mythology and the always interesting art scene of Venice Beach. Place it all in the context of the 80s, and this is one fun show everyone in the family can laugh along with, says Landwehr, who, a product of the 80s himself, is especially excited.
“We’ll have little in-jokes from the 80s for the adults in the audience, which the kids probably won’t get, but it’ll still be very youth friendly,” he says.
A Deeper Collaboration
According to Landwehr, the collaboration between the La Jolla Playhouse and J*Company necessary to make this 19th season of J*Company possible has been ongoing and fruitful.
“They’re practically our sister,” Landwehr says of the Playhouse. “They’re right down the street. We’ve always had a close connection, but this is the most public connection we’ve had.”
Adds Ashley, it’s a first for both theater companies.
“The La Jolla Playhouse has never had anything like this,” Ashley says. “I’ve actually never heard of one theater doing a season celebrating the work of another theater. I thought it was a great idea and really fresh.”
The Playhouse staff, in addition to assisting with some logistics, has also worked with the kids who will be recreating their musicals.
“Des [McAnuff] is going to come and talk to the kids and talk about the process of ‘Tommy,’ Arthur Wagner [who sits on the Playhouse’s Board of Trustees and founded the UCSD Department of Drama] is going to come speak to the kids, and Chris [Ashley] is probably going to come when we do ‘Xanadu,’” Landwehr says. “That’s another reason I wanted to do this, to give this great opportunity to our kids to be able to connect with the La Jolla Playhouse.”
Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center
4126 Executive Drive
La Jolla, CA 92037
La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Dr.
La Jolla, CA 92093
Lamb’s Players Theatre
The Lamb’s presents the So Cal premiere of “Brownie Points”
By Jessica Hanewinckel
When Robert Smyth read the script of “Brownie Points,” a play that premiered in Atlanta, Ga., in Jan. 2010, the producing artistic director at the Lamb’s Players Theatre says he knew he wanted to bring it to San Diego for the Lamb’s 2012 season. It was produced a second time in Seattle, where Smyth saw the production himself, validating his inclination.
“It’s a remarkable piece,” Smyth says. “One of the reasons I was so excited to put it in our season is I have seen very few pieces of theater that speak this way. It isn’t an agenda, nobody’s preaching. It comes out of true character and true life.”
Written by Janece Shaffer, a Jewish playwright from Atlanta, the five-character play explores what happens when five diverse women must spend a stormy night together in a cabin during their young daughters’ camping trip into the Georgia pine hills. Once the girls have gone to bed, the women’s personal histories collide, and they address their differing walks of life head on.
In the case of the play, “brownie points” is a loaded phrase.
“There are a number of layers,” Smyth says. “Not only does it have the Girl Scout Brownies image, but part of it is how we keep score [against one another], and part of it is a racial black/white issue.”
But Smyth is careful to point out that this is anything but an “issues” kind of play.
“This is a treasure trove or character, because all of them take the journey, all five of them individually,” he says. “This is a real life play with real characters who are very honest and get a chance ultimately to confront some things in themselves and become very honest with each other.”
Being written in the South by a Southerner, black/white issues certainly come into play, but Shaffer also wrote into the play the character of Jamie (played by Erica Phillips), a Jewish mom, whose religious identity is as much a part of the story as the other characters.
“[Jamie] is kind of overlooked in a way and has a moment where another character is feeling unappreciated and marginalized and has not realized what she’s done to marginalize [Jamie],” Smyth says. “There’s a confrontation that begins to open both of their eyes, and that is based on the fact that she’s Jewish and the other character has no real understanding of what the means, especially in the South.”
The play’s subject matter — blind spots and tolerance, race and religion — certainly are of interest to a Jewish audience, or to a black or white audience, but really, Smyth says, it’s appealing to anyone who’s ever felt relegated to the fringe of a group for any reason, or to anyone who’s done the relegating.
Adds Smyth, one reason the play is so powerful is that it uses humor to reach its audience.
“It’s an intriguing piece,” he says. “And yet it’s a riot as far as being funny. And I think really good work works that way. It disarms you and gets inside of you a little deeper.”
Lamb’s Players Theatre
1142 Orange Ave.
Coronado, CA 92118
The Madison Gallery
So Cal artist Lori Cozen-Geller brings modernist, minimalist pieces to La Jolla’s Madison Gallery
By Jessica Hanewinckel
In her second group exhibition at downtown La Jolla’s Madison Gallery, Venice artist Lori Cozen-Geller is returning for “Minimal Thought,” an installation she will share with Canadian contemporary abstract artist Richard Roblin. The Southern California artist, who first appeared at Madison Gallery in the group exhibition “Pop Life: Commerce and Celebrity” in 2010, is unique in both style (minimalist, with wood and auto body paint as her media) and in the trajectory of her career, which didn’t begin in art at all, but in teaching. We talked to Cozen-Geller about what inspires her to create, her one-of-a-kind pieces and the very serendipitous nature of her life as an artist. Her exhibit at the Madison Gallery opened in November and remains through Dec. 31.
San Diego Jewish Journal: Talk about how your art career began following your father’s death.
Lori Cozen-Geller: I was never an art major. I had a teaching credential from USC. I used to see my dad every day, but the night my father died when I was 33 years old, I pulled a crumpled napkin out of the trash, and I uncrumpled it and drew a square and a triangle in the square. Then I cut out the square, cut out the triangle, crumpled up the triangle and threw it in the trash, feeling like my perfect life was over because my dad was gone. I said, ‘No, my dad taught me to be an optimist,’ so I reached down and grabbed that triangle. I couldn’t put it back in the square, because life wasn’t the same for me, so I put it next to the square and said, ‘My dad is still here, because he lives within me, but it’s never going to be the same.’ Then, my brother, who was a young architect, helped me build that piece of art for Dad. It was out of wood, and it was painted in Ferrari Rossa Corsa red for the love that I have in my heart for him, and because Dad loved exotic automobiles. I hung it in the living room, and I named it “Piece,” because I was at peace in my heart knowing that a piece was missing, but that it was still there.
SDJJ: And you created more artwork after that first one?
LCG: I made about five pieces of art just for our house. A gallery owner in Santa Monica heard about me and asked to come see my art. She told me if I did 10 pieces, she’d do a show for me. I took my sketchbooks and I put them under the bed for the next 17 years, thinking that in my family, you went to school to have a profession. You didn’t just pull your profession out of a hat. I was sitting with my cousin in 2003, and she said there’s a creative gene that runs through our family…that night I decided I was going to do my art. I got a studio in Venice and started in 2003.
SDJJ: Talk about the meaning behind your pieces.
LCG: Every single piece has a different meaning behind it. What I try to do is I take an emotion and capture it. For my piece called “Berlin,” I went to Berlin to visit my daughter, who was studying abroad there. Going to Berlin as a Jew is a very interesting experience. The piece is orange, which shows rebirth and the future for Berlin. There are two semi-circles, and they look like they’re coming together, but there’s a little bit of a gap. One of those semi-circles is old Berlin, the war and all the horrors that happened there. The other semi-circle is new Berlin, which is life, acceptance, rebirth. They’ll never really come together, because that little bit of history will always be there, but the old and the new are trying to merge.
SDJJ: Is the dichotomy between the simple appearance of your work and the deep emotions and moving stories behind those pieces intentional?
LCG: I’m a minimalist at heart, so I’m reflecting my background. I’m also an optimist. So I take that style that directly came to me through my father’s taste when I was growing up, and I take the emotions I’m feeling, and because my style is minimal, that’s my art. I wouldn’t know how to do anything frou frou. I can’t splatter paint. I also have that organizational sense to me in that I was a schoolteacher for a few years.
The Madison Gallery
1020 Prospect St., Suite 130
La Jolla, CA 92037
North Coast Repertory Theatre
“Visiting Mister Green” is the Jewish-interest play of the Rep’s 30th anniversary season
By Jessica Hanewinckel
Entering its 30th anniversary season this year, the North Coast Repertory Theatre has a lot to celebrate. In fact, says Artistic Director David Ellenstein, they’re planning a 30th anniversary celebration at which they’ll honor North Coast Rep founder Olive Blakistone, and Ellenstein and his wife will read A.R. Gurney’s play “Love Letters.”
“We’re going to celebrate all year long,” Ellenstein says. “We’re calling it a season of celebration, which will be marked in different ways…We’re just looking at it as kind of an amazing accomplishment of 30 years.”
This 30th season may be unique in that sense, but one element that’s an eagerly anticipated annual occurrence is the North Coast Rep’s Jewish-interest play, which Ellenstein selects each season specifically for the theater’s Jewish patrons (though, of course, anyone is welcome to attend).
“Though we’re certainly not a Jewish theater, we do have a substantial Jewish audience that comes to North Coast Rep, says Ellenstein, who is himself Jewish and who began the tradition when he came to the theater in 2003. “[Additionally,] so many of the great plays are written by Jewish playwrights — Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard. People you don’t even think of as being Jewish actually are. So many of the plays that are Jewish-themed are either about people overcoming great adversarial conditions and still thriving, or about hope, or about faith, or about compassion. Those are all the things that draw me to being a theater artist.”
This season’s pick, “Visiting Mister Green,” comes from playwright Jeff Baron. It’s won numerous awards worldwide and been produced more than 300 times since its 1996 premiere in Massachusetts. The two-character piece tells the story of two men, one young, determined and reckless, the other elderly and crotchety, whose lives come together in an unexpected way. Though at first they resent one another, their relationship brings forth sides of them they had pushed away.
“I have known about ‘Visiting Mister Green’ for a long time, and I kind of realized that nobody had done it in San Diego,” Ellenstein says. “And I thought, ‘It’s too good of a play to not have been produced. I have an actor I work with a lot named Robert Grossman who would be terrific in the role of the older man, so I thought it just made sense.” (In November, actor Craig De Lorenzo was cast as the younger man.)
The best part of “Visiting Mister Green,” Ellenstein continues, is its universal appeal. Sure, it’s the season’s official Jewish-interest play, but its appeal, as has been proven in its worldwide stagings in more than 20 languages, goes beyond Jewish audiences.
“It’s a play about two characters that happens to go into some things that are of Jewish nature, because one of the characters is a Jew, but it is a universal play,” Ellenstein says. “It’s about grief. It’s about tolerance. It’s about coming to terms with closed minds. It’s very moving, but it’s very funny too. So it’s got the odd couple thing working, because the two people who are sort of accidentally pushed together have to deal with each other, who under normal circumstances never would. It has to do with two different kinds of people coming to terms with a common humanity.”
North Coast Repertory Theatre
987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Suite D
Solana Beach, CA 92075
The Old Globe
Bacharach is back, collaborating with Steven Sater on a new musical at the Old Globe
By Pat Launer
So, what are two Nice Jewish Boys doing writing a Christmas musical?
Let’s examine the question more closely.
First, there’s a long-standing precedent for this sort of thing. Two of the most beloved Christian-holiday songs — “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” — were written by Irving Berlin. Even Barbra Streisand recorded a Christmas album.
Second, “Some Lovers,” the world premiere musical debuting at the Old Globe (through Dec. 31), is not really a Christmas show. The story begins on Christmas Eve, and the couple at the center, former lovers who reconnect after 20 years, were especially fond of the O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” The new musical was inspired by that story, it’s running during the holiday season, but it’s not really a Christmas show.
Finally, the two “Nice Jewish Boys” aren’t all that Jewish, though they were both born that way. Burt Bacharach, the legendary Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer/pianist/conductor/ music producer and arranger, claims that, though he grew up in Forest Hills (Queens), N.Y., the only time he was ever in a synagogue was for a “gig with a band” many years ago. And Steven Sater, the gifted Tony and Grammy-winning lyricist and playwright (much-lauded for “Spring Awakening”), has been a practicing Buddhist for some time.
So, there you have it. And yet, all these disclaimers don’t diminish the excitement of this cross-generational collaboration. And a new musical is always something to celebrate, at any time of year.
The First Meeting
Steven Sater, who won two of eight 2007 Tony awards for “Spring Awakening” (for Best Book of a Musical and Best Score), and who has written other plays and musicals, first met Bacharach four years ago.
“Burt Bacharach was my hero,” Sater says. “I always loved his music so much. We had this cordial first meeting, and as he was leaving, he said, ‘Maybe some time, if you have a lyric…’ And I said, ‘I brought one with me.’ He looked at what I had and was really struck by it. He sat down, read it out loud, and said, ‘Oh, man! Who hasn’t felt like that?’
“At the time, he was conducting his first symphony in Sydney,” Sater continues. “But some time later, I was invited to his house in L.A., where we both live. He had set the lyric exactly as I wrote it. I was reeling, so moved by the beauty of the song. We kept working together, and one day, he said, ‘Stevie, I had a dream that we rented a theater and played all our songs.’ We already had a year and a half of songs. So I conceived a musical.”
And that’s how it began. That very first Bacharach-Sater song, “I’m Ready to Be Done With You,” remains in the new show.
“It’s about the sense of having been in a relationship a long time — the heartaches and yearnings,” Sater says of “Some Lovers.” “It reminded me of ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ but it’s not based on it. This is a completely original musical. Its unique storytelling involves moving back and forth in time, between the couple’s 20s and 40s.”
There have been three workshops this year in New York and L.A. under the auspices of the Old Globe.
Sater thinks this musical, which features two pianos onstage (with an eight-piece orchestra below) and four actors playing young and older versions of Ben and Molly, is “just as innovative” as the groundbreaking “Spring Awakening,” created with indie rocker/composer Duncan Sheik.
“In ‘Spring Awakening,’ we embedded a kind of rock concert within a classical play [the provocative, controversial 1891 drama by German dramatist Frank Wedekind],” Sater says. “Here, we embed an experience like the Café Carlisle [the famously elegant, intimate New York cabaret]. Ben is a composer. We see him at the piano when he’s young and older. The performers talk directly to the audience.
“The show’s got beauty and mystery to it, like memory does. It’s a Burt Bacharach musical about being in love — what more can I say? Its 18 new songs make for a gorgeous, rich score. The classic Bacharach sound, but it feels contemporary.”
Sater’s collaborator is equally enthusiastic.
“I think it’s going very well,” says the prolific 83-year-old member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “I really love the way Steven writes. He’s just brilliant with words. He writes very musicalized words, and he has a very good script and story sensibility.”
Bacharach admits that musical theater is a world he hasn’t been involved in for years. His last musical was “Promises, Promises” (lyrics by Hal David, book by Neil Simon), which premiered on Broadway in 1968 and ran for 1,281 performances. A 2010 revival had a 291 performance run.
“It seems like a very good platform to write music for,” Bacharach says. “As opposed to writing hit songs. That doesn’t exist anymore. The record business has disappeared.”
Bacharach certainly knows what it’s like to write hit songs. From the 1950s on, he created more than 70 Top 40 hits.
His complex music is characterized by unusual chord progressions, syncopated rhythms, unpredictable or irregular phrasing and frequently changing meter.
Consider signature songs like “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk On By,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (from “Promises, Promises”), “The Look of Love,” “Close to You,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “What the World Needs Now,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” all written with Hal David.
Bahcarach’s film scores have also achieved classic status: “What’s New, Pussycat,” “Casino Royale,” “Alfie” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (for which he wrote “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”).
His work has inspired myriad pop, rock and jazz musicians, singers and songwriters.
Now, Steven Sater is thrilled to be working with him.
“It feels like a dream come true,” Sater says. “When you give words to your idol and he sings them back to you…it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“This show is very much a story from the heart and about the heart,” Sater continues. “When you loved someone so much, and now you find that love again…what is the gift you give yourself? People in long-term relationships will have a lot to relate to.”
The Old Globe Theatre
1363 Old Globe Way
San Diego, CA 92101
San Diego Opera
The San Diego Opera co-produces a major new work, “Moby-Dick”
By Pat Launer
It’s a leviathan. To some, “Our American Bible.”
Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, “Moby-Dick,” is a mythical, metaphysical epic, perhaps the greatest American Classic.
When The Dallas Opera contacted acclaimed composer Jake Heggie (“Dead Man Walking”) about creating a major new work, he said, “There’s only one opera I’m interested in doing: Moby-Dick.”
The result is a multimedia extravaganza, a multinational co-production of The Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, The State Opera of South Australia, Calgary Opera and San Francisco Opera.
The West Coast premiere opens at the Civic Theatre Feb. 18 (it’s already been seen in Dallas and Australia, and after the co-producer presentations, it’s scheduled at a half-dozen other companies).
The Dallas reviews were rapturous: “a massive artistic accomplishment”; “powerful and emotionally irresistible”; replete with “lush, expressive music,” with “traces of Debussy, Wagner and Hollywood”; “both high-seas drama and personal tragedy”; “breathtaking to watch,” “stunningly staged and sung,” “a near-perfect version of Melville’s dense novel about an obsessed captain, a whale and the crew forced to hunt him down.”
“My main love,” says the affable, down-to-earth Heggie, “what compels me, is powerful storytelling that’s brought to life with operatic voices. I’m very proud of the production. It’s such a spectacle, but still so honest and true to the story.”
Winnowing the story down to a manageable size was no small feat.
Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer “had to focus on the central journey. And the way we got to one of the most important journeys was treating the actual novel as events that happened many years ago. This is not Ishmael’s book [in the opera, he’s called Greenhorn]; he’s actively living the situation. Then we weren’t bound by the novel — though 50 percent of the words are Melville’s — but this keeps it active, without a narrator.
“Greenhorn is one unformed person who thinks he’s nobody, from nowhere, who signs onto a whaling boat [the Pequod]. Through his experience, he learns about life, connects with others aboard and comes into himself.”
Of course, the central character is Captain Ahab, the charismatic monomaniac who lost his leg to the great white whale, Moby-Dick, and is seeking revenge at any cost.
“Ahab is the tree out of which all branches grow,” says Heggi, who will be in town for a conversation with San Diego Opera general and artistic director Ian Campbell, Dec. 6 at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla. “Every decision he makes affects everyone. So there are two central journeys in the opera: Greenhorn’s and Ahab’s. People, interactions and events help define the characters and their journeys.
“We thought Melville scholars wouldn’t like it,” Heggie continues, “because we didn’t try to be literal. We opened it up, made it three-dimensional. They were thrilled. They thought it captured the essence of the book.”
The Jews, Jonah and the Biblical Connection
There are numerous themes and copious Biblical references in Melville’s massive novel.
Consider the first three words of the work — “Call me Ishmael” — one of the most famous lines in literary history (Surprise: It isn’t the first line in the opera).
“In Melville’s time,” Heggie says,”those words would have been shocking, powerful. Like saying ‘Call me Saddam’ or ‘Call me Osama.’”
“Ishmael,” explains Rabbi Michael Berk of Congregation Beth Israel, “was the son of Abraham and Hagar, the servant of his long-barren wife, Sarah. In the ancient world, the handmaiden was like a substitute wife; that was accepted practice.
“How shocking it must have been, then, for Hagar and Ishmael to be expelled, after Sarah gave birth to Isaac. In the Bible, as in ‘Moby-Dick,’ Ishmael is an outcast, an alienated wanderer. The Biblical Ishmael became the father of Islam. That’s why we say the Jews and Arabs are ‘cousins.’ Interestingly, in the Qur’an, Abraham doesn’t abandon Ishmael and his mother; he visits them regularly.
“As for Ahab,” continues the rabbi, who will join Dr. Nicolas Reveles, the Geisel Director of Education and Outreach for the San Diego Opera, for “‘Moby-Dick’ and Reflections on the Book of Jonah,” Dec. 7 at Congregation Beth Israel, “he was an evil Jewish king in the ninth century B.C.E., a contemporary of Elijah [another character in the novel, also a prophesier]. Ahab, married to Jezebel, was obsessed with the worship of Ba’al. Like Melville’s Ahab, he had a singular pursuit that led people astray and led to destruction.”
Perhaps the most direct Biblical link in “Moby-Dick” is the story of Jonah and the whale, which features prominently in a sermon delivered by Father Mapple to the whalers.
“Both Jonah and Captain Ahab go against the will of God,” Rabbi Berk says. “Jonah is arrogant and thinks he can disobey God, avoid God’s mission for him, by fleeing.
“Father Mapple’s sermon has two lessons. One is the folly of thinking you can fool or run away from God. That’s a lesson we Jews tend to get from it, and one of the reasons we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. The second lesson is to speak the truth in the face of hostility or lies. That’s the role of the Hebrew prophet; in the novel, that probably refers to Ishmael, who will speak some harsh things about the voyage with Captain Ahab.
“Jonah repents during his days in the whale and averts the death decree. Ahab never backs down; he pays with his life and the lives of his crew.”
One of the aims of Heggie’s opera was to personalize Ahab, not just make him “an evil obsessive.”
“That’s what he feels; that’s not who he is,” Heggie says. “We see him as an aching, confused, wounded individual, who’s driven. He’s going mad, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
“He’s a successful leader. He knows how to inspire his crew. But there’s something in him. Like a soldier who keeps returning to war. He has to be at sea, hunting whales. This whale has offended him so deeply, he has to go after him.”
Heggie is thrilled with his celebrated stage director, Leonard Foglia, and his much-admired cast, headed by Ben Heppner, one of the world’s leading dramatic tenors, who will reprise his lionized Dallas performance as Ahab. Heggie also lauds his creative team, which includes “gifted” scenic designer Robert Brill, a former San Diegan, and “genius” projection designer, Elaine J. McCarthy.
“Everyone is totally focused on serving the drama and telling the story.”
And what a whale of a tale it is.
San Diego Opera
18th Floor, Civic Center Plaza
1200 Third Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
San Diego Repertory Theatre
Todd Salovey crafts a new musical about Pete Seeger
By Pat Launer
Pete Seeger. The name conjures up folk songs, protests and politics, commitment to causes and championing the underdog.
A multiple Grammy-winning folk hero, singer/songwriter/activist Pete Seeger, in his lifelong quest for peace, understanding, justice and hope, personifies the best of the American spirit.
Born into a musical family (his mother was a music professor, his father an ethnomusicologist), he started out on the ukulele, moved on to the five-string banjo (even wrote a seminal book about it), was on tour by age 20, in 1939, and has been going strong ever since.
Just two months ago, at age 92, Seeger marched with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators — two canes supporting him, but no less feisty and defiant — accompanied by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, also a singer and activist.
Last year, Seeger co-wrote (with Lorre Wyatt) and performed a song, “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You,” a searing commentary on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
And in Jan. 2009, at age 90, Seeger was there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, singing the Woody Guthrie classic, “This Land is Your Land,” with his grandson Tao and Bruce Springsteen, in the finale of Barack Obama’s Inaugural Celebration concert.
Seeger’s songs were mother’s milk to Todd Salovey, associate artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre. And so, honoring his parents and his political idol, Salovey set out to create a new musical, “A Hammer, A Bell and a Song to Sing: The Music of Pete Seeger,” premiering at the San Diego Rep, Jan. 7-29).
“His music was my parents’ music,” says Salovey, the new show’s writer and director. “They were involved in some of the same social causes. His music appealed to them in terms of how people should be treated, which corresponded to traditional Jewish values: honoring other people, taking care of those less fortunate, giving to the community.”
“My dad fashioned himself after Seeger,” Salovey says. “His favorite Seeger song was ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,’” co-written with The Weavers, the influential folksinging quartet he co-founded in 1948.
“Seeger’s songs were our bedtime songs,” Salovey recalls. “That was our mama-loshen [mother tongue]. I always relate Pete Seeger to my dad, who even named my brother Peter after him.
“I began to realize the emotional effect those songs had — and still have — on me,” Salovey continues. “Over the past six months, I’ve been grabbing my kids and showing them clips of The Weavers on YouTube. I would just weep each time.
“Those songs are part of the foundation of who I am, what I love and what I believe in. This music is both my moral and artistic legacy, passed down to me from my parents.”
Seeger’s own parents were prosperous and distinguished. He once described them as “enormously Christian, in the Puritan, Calvinist New England tradition.” But Todd Salovey considers him “an honorary Jew.” In fact, one of the Weavers’ earliest hits was the Israeli song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950.
“See?” exclaims Salovey. “There’s even a little Hebrew in the show!”
Not Just a Life Story
“When I started to write this piece,” Salovey explains, “I didn’t want it to be a biography. I wanted it to be about stories, and about the causes. There’s a fabulous projection design that gives a real sense of the cultural periods these songs sprang from. The three actor-musician-singer-performers start with Seeger’s civil rights music, then move on to Vietnam War era music, then music about kids and music from Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), like ‘So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You.”
Inspired by the iconic Guthrie, whose guitar was labeled “This machine kills fascists,” Seeger’s banjo was emblazoned with the motto, “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.”
Seeger is best known for the seminal songs he wrote (“Turn Turn, Turn”) or co-wrote (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer” — the source of Salovey’s show title — both co-written with Lee Hays of The Weavers). And the songs he popularized, especially the spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” that became the anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
“The through-line of the musical,” Salovey says, “is Seeger’s voice and the censorship he had to fight. I want people to realize how dangerous it was to sing like he did. And how crippling it was to him to be blacklisted during the ‘50s.
“Many scholars think the blacklisting caused the resurgence of folk music in America. Since Seeger was banned from TV, he could only work at high schools, colleges and summer camps. He went around the country playing to young people. And that became their music. Right now, events in the world and the country, on Wall Street and at Civic Center Plaza, are supporting our desire to express the messages of this material: wanting the best for the community and for the country.
“Through all the censorship,” Salovey marvels, “Seeger stayed authentic.
“The question this show asks is: Do we still believe that we can raise our voices and make a difference in our communities and in our country?’”
Seeger’s musical, political and philosophical spirit clearly impassions Salovey. But there’s one more reason he’s putting together this new work.
“It’s a Jewish reason. I love the idea of people — strangers — sitting together and singing. We as Jews still understand the power of song to unite a community. And in this show, not only will the audience sing, but in harmony!”
That’s highly reminiscent of Seeger’s mesmerizing, galvanizing performances, which attracted young and old, black and white, rich and poor, and got them all to sing together.
“If this world survives,” Pete Seeger once said, “I believe that modern, industrialized people will learn to sing again.”
Todd Salovey’s new show is a step in that direction.
San Diego Repertory Theatre
79 Horton Plaza
San Diego, CA 92101
San Diego Symphony
The San Diego Symphony brings back violin luminary Itzhak Perlman
By Pat Launer
At age 3, he taught himself to play on a toy fiddle. He had perfect pitch, precocious musical ability and a preternatural interest in the instrument, yet the Shulamit Conservatory denied him entrance, pronouncing him too small to hold a violin.
But that didn’t deter Itzak Perlman, who grew up to achieve superstar status as a violin virtuoso. He’s about to make a return concert appearance in San Diego, courtesy of the San Diego Symphony, Feb.18, 2012.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1945, Perlman didn’t let polio hold him back, either. During his lengthy convalescence, beginning at age 4, he continued practicing (his parents bought him a violin at a local thrift store), and he was finally able to attend the Conservatory. He played his first recital at age 10, just prior to moving to the U.S., to attend The Juilliard School.
Americans got their first glimpse of the musical prodigy on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1958. At age 13, Perlman had been discovered during a talent search and was chosen to represent Israel on “The Caravan of the Stars.” By age 18, he’d made his Carnegie Hall debut.
His technique has been lavishly praised, as has his warm, lyrical sound, his impressive musicianship, his charm, humanity, jubilant showmanship and unparalleled rapport with audiences. He’s won four Emmy Awards and 15 Grammys, in addition to the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors.
Legendary violinist Isaac Stern once said of Perlman, “His talent is utterly limitless. No one comes anywhere near him in what he can physically do with the violin.”
Perlman remains one of the most popular instrumentalists in the realm of classical music. In addition to an exhaustive (and exhausting!) recording and worldwide performing career, he is a sought-after conductor as well as an educator. He’s performed in innumerable countries and has appeared on American TV, from “Sesame Street” to “The Tonight Show” to two Academy Award broadcasts. He’s even been a soloist for movie scores: “Schindler’s List” in 1993 and “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2005.
Perlman has played with all the greats, including violinists Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and opera singer Jessye Norman. And he’s played for many greats, too: for several U.S. presidents, for Queen Elizabeth, and at the Obama inaugural ceremony, with Yo-Yo Ma. (Backstory on that performance: the two iconic musicians did not perform live that frigid, blustery day. They ‘played’ to a recording made a few days earlier, since string instruments don’t stay tuned reliably in sub-freezing temperatures).
Passing the bow to the next generation
One of the things that excites him most is the Perlman Music Program (PMP), founded in 1995 by his wife of 44 years, classically trained violinist Toby Perlman. What began as a summer camp for exceptional young string musicians has expanded to an impressive year-round program.
“It’s fantastic,” says the ebullient Perlman. “There’s the six-week program in the summer on Long Island for the 12-18-year-olds. There’s a two-and-a-half-week winter residency in Sarasota, Fla., for those 18 and up, and there’s a four-day mini-program in Stowe, Vt. And there are concerts throughout the year — Works in Progress — for the young musicians to try out their repertoire for a small audience. We sometimes take them abroad.
“It’s a very unusual program,” he continues. “This is our 18th summer. The participants get coaching, chamber music and a wonderful social experience. Everyone plays in the string orchestra, which I conduct. And everyone — including my wife and yours truly — sings in the chorus: works by Handel, Bach, Mozart and Brahms. That’s unique. It was all my wife’s idea.
“We even have reunions,” Perlman enthuses. “Once you’re in, you’re part of the PMP family. We keep it small, no more than 40 students in each program each year. Many students come back year after year. And 99 percent of our alumni are making a living as professional musicians.”
More than three-quarters of the students are on “some sort of scholarship,” Perlman says. “It’s my wife’s dream to provide the program totally free. But we’re a nonprofit and we have to raise the funds, which isn’t easy these days.”
The Perlmans, who live in New York, have five children, one of whom, Rami, was a singer/guitarist in the rock band Something for Rockets. Perlman is a distant cousin of Canadian comic/TV personality Howie Mandel. This year, to honor his Eastern European ancestry, he embarked on a new venture.
Returning to his roots
In March, Perlman played a concert in L.A. called “The Soul of Jewish Music,” a joyful celebration of the universal appeal of his musical heritage. His collaborators were klezmer maven Hankus Netsky and world-renowned cantor Meir Helfgot.
“I heard him sing,” says Perlman of Helfgot, “and he’s absolutely amazing. Phenomenal voice and terrific technique. I thought, ‘What a great experience for me, and for the various Jewish communities across the country.’ We’re recording together and hoping to take the show on tour. I’m very excited about this.”
In fact, he recently said, “It’s a historic project, and it excites me to my kishkas!”
We won’t be seeing that concert when Perlman appears at San Diego Symphony Hall in February. He doesn’t yet know what he’ll be playing (he makes that decision about two weeks in advance), but he certainly knows with whom: Rohan De Silva, a Sri Lankan pianist who’s a Juilliard alumnus and teacher; he also taught at PMP and has played with many famous musicians — including Perlman for the past 10 years.
Perlman still teaches, too, at PMP and at Juilliard. He continues to support disability-oriented organizations like Rotary International, which is dedicated to the eradication of polio. He keeps advocating for better access for disabled people — in theaters, concert halls and airports.
“Traveling has become such a megilla,” he laments.
The violinist extraordinaire, in demand all over the world, is a lifelong globe-trotter — who hates traveling.
“I wish I could do that ‘Star Trek’ thing,” he says, “and beam myself everywhere!”
San Diego Symphony
at Copley Symphony Hall
750 B Street
San Diego, CA 92101
The Shining Twins
San Diego natives Alex Weiss and Marisa Kreiss tour as punk-rock duo The Shining Twins
By Alanna Berman
San Diego Natives Alex Weiss, 21, and Marisa Kriess, 23, are The Shining Twins, a punk-rock band whose tough but catchy sound and girl-power-infused lyrics have garnered them a cult- following in the two years since the band’s inception. Having already played shows in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Tokyo, France and Austin’s famed South By Southwest music festival, the band is currently on tour with The Lemonheads. In October, the tour brought them to San Diego, where they played at Soda Bar on El Cajon Boulevard to a sold-out crowd including Weiss’s grandparents, San Diegans Matthew and Iris Strauss, and her cantor from Beth Israel. The U.K. leg of the international tour began two weeks later, so we caught up with the girls in between shows to talk about life, punk rock and what two nice Jewish girls are doing singing angry punk rock in after-hours clubs.
San Diego Jewish Journal: How would you describe your music?
The Shining Twins: Punky. Angry punk rock, but sweet at the same time.
SDJJ: That’s interesting. Who inspires you musically?
TST: The Ramones, definitely. The Damned, The Runaways…just any punk rock really. We love punk rock, so that’s where our influence comes from.
SDJJ: How do two nice Jewish girls get into the punk rock scene?
TST: (Laughs) It was hard for both of our families [to get used to it]…because they didn’t know what to expect. One day we just decided we were going to be in a band. I think at first they were a little scared with all the connotations that come with punk rock, but we know now that our families are very proud. They come to our shows and really love it. We’re Jewish, and it was hard for them to accept at first, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t nice girls — we’re just nice Jewish girls who love punk rock. And now our families are really, really proud and couldn’t be happier that we’re doing what we love. They actually are our biggest fans.
SDJJ: Speaking of being Jewish, how does it play a role in your lives, musically or otherwise?
TST: Neither of us are very religious, but being Jewish is definitely a part of our cultural lives. We [celebrate] Shabbat every time we’re home, and we both come from Jewish families, so the usual stuff. I definitely would say we have the Jewish irony and Jewish wit; a big part of our lyrics is our humor. We also both look very Jewish and are known as being ‘these Jewish girls.’ All of our values come from that origin.
Alex Weiss: I went to Jewish summer camp every year and, growing up, was involved with a lot of Jewish activities and with the Jewish community at Beth Israel. It’s hard for me to differentiate between Jewish values and just regular values, because we were both was raised in a Jewish environment.
SDJJ: Definitely. So what’s next for the Shining Twins?
TST: A single just came out on iTunes, and our first EP [extended play] “Cum Play with Us” that we recorded ourselves is on iTunes as well. We have another EP coming out in a couple weeks on Volcom, the same label that put out our first single. In the next year we will have a bunch of singles coming out all over the place. We’re going to be very busy.
The Shining Twins