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BOUNDS FOR GLORY: A New L.I. Theater Troupe Pushes Boundaries

by david lefkowitz

Note: This article was published July 2018 in Long Island Pulse magazine, under the title “Pushing Boundaries: Comfort Zones Realigned.” http://lipulse.com/2018/07/03/pushing-boundaries-studio-theatre/

 

Three movie-theater ushers endure a long night of boredom and drudgery. Two lovers hide out in a seedy motel and become increasingly paranoid, berserk, and itchy. A victim of a botched sex change sings about his failed relationship with a rock star. Not your typical Saturday night theater fare—especially on Long Island, where habitual musicals, children’s shows, and acting classes sometimes seem to be the only activities with any sustainability. And yet, this season, audiences in Lindenhurst have been treated to The Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-winning The Flick, Tracy Letts’s early psychodrama Bug, and now the rocking but decidedly off-the-wall Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Who would dare put on such a creepy, volatile piece in a landscape that tends to favor Nunsense, The Wedding Singer, and I Hate Hamlet? A theater company that calls itself, aptly enough, Theater Out of Bounds. It’s a new troupe run by twenty-somethings Scott Johnston and Joe Rubino, actor friends who saw an opportunity to bring edgier shows to our shores. So the pair approached David Dubin, artistic director of Studio Theater, where Rubino works as technical director.

The timing was perfect. Dubin, who took over Studio just a couple of years ago when the previous owner, BroadHollow, was about to shut it down, had been looking to do more challenging plays but feared alienating his subscriber base. He told Pulse, “Studio started 50 years ago as a place for edgier work. I wanted to restore that, but a lot of our subscribers are older people who want comfort food. Believe it or not, some have even been here since we opened. So along with original works, we still have to do Neil Simon comedies and Agatha Christie mysteries. What’s great is that Theater Out of Bounds takes our dark weekends to do three performances of work I wouldn’t dare put in our subscription series. I’m just hoping it catches on so down the line, that’ll be more of what we regularly do.”

This partnership, with Studio Theater offering free space and paying the bills, allows Johnston and Rubino to concentrate on creating instead fretting over the bottom line. As such, the company might be able to avoid the recent failure of Northport’s BareBones Theater, which started out with a similar ethos but had to swing rent and other costs based on a venue holding only 40 seats (Studio has 140). “Northport is a great town to be in,” Johnston told Pulse, “but it’s hard working across the street from the John Engeman Theater, which was also been doing straight plays.” Johnston added that Studio’s magnanimity allows Theater Out of Bounds to do “darker shows that maybe wouldn’t have been produced otherwise.”

Such as Hedwig, which will be staged by NYU directing student Tommy Ranieri and star Boston Conservatory at Berklee grad, Dylan Whelan. “Last August, another company brought in Jonathan Larson’s Tick…Tick…Boom to the Studio,” explains Johnston, who played Larson in that semi-autobiographical musical. “David saw it and thought right away the intimate space was perfect for a good small musical that we can make big, like Hedwig.

Meanwhile, plans are already shaping up for next season. Though not confirmable at press time, likely productions include Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, about a high school athlete who volunteers to help a sick classmate with her Walt Whitman project, and, just in time for Halloween, Rubino’s adaptation of Night of the Living Dead. Comedian Jamie Campbell’s solo, The Devil on the Wall or, That Time I Got Kidnapped, seems poised for a tour stop at Studio in late September, while Steven Adly Guirgis’s dark comedy, The Motherfucker with the Hat, is being considered for January. Asked if he was worried the title might put off more comfort-foodie theatergoers, Johnston replied, “Well, David’s really good at giving pre-show speeches about the season to a 60-and-over crowd. So he’s sure to say the title and make a quirky joke, and then the audience will start whispering to each other to show they’re comfortable and they get it.”

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs July 13-21 at Studio Theater, 141 South Wellwood Avenue, Lindenhurst, 631-226-8400. studiotheatreli.com.

BYLINE:
An adjunct English professor at the University of Northern Colorado, David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) a long-running radio show streaming live on Facebook (radiodavelefkowitz) every Saturday morning.

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MILLER, MONROE & KAZAN AT BAY STREET THEATER

(c)2018 David Lefkowitz

(Note: this article was first published in June 2018: http://lipulse.com/2018/05/21/fellow-travelers-bay-street-theater/)

“How do you reconcile your friendships and relationships with your belief system? When someone you love doesn’t adhere to the same code, what do you do?”

Asking those questions is playwright Jack Canfora, who explores themes of camaraderie and betrayal in his drama Fellow Travelers, world premiering at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater May 29. The plot follows a love triangle of sorts, as two close pals both obsess over the same complicated woman. In this case, though, the buddies are playwright Arthur Miller and director Elia Kazan, who originally staged Miller’s landmark Death of a Salesman but also went on to name names during the McCarthy eraThe woman? Miller’s wife Marilyn Monroe, with whom Kazan—as shown in confessional letters published posthumously in 2014—had an affair. “Miller, Monroe and Kazan had an intense and enmeshed relationship,” Canfora explained. “And it always fascinated me that nobody wrote a story about it.”

Canfora penned his story seven years ago, with Broadway’s powerful Shubert Organization holding the option to produce it. “My main producer Leonard Soloway gave it to them a while ago, but it can take a long time for plays to get momentum behind them. They did a table reading this past summer, which led to the premiere.”

Michael Wilson, former artistic director of Hartford Stage and director of 2013’s The Trip to Bountiful Broadway revival with Cicely Tyson, helms the play, which features “fictionalized” dialogue to go with actual events. “What happens in the play really happened,” Canfora avowed. “There are no ninja attacks or car chases! It’s just that some things had to be compressed. For example, Mark Blum plays Hollywood film producer Harry Cohn. The real Harry Cohn didn’t do all the things this character does—though he did a lot of them—but all the things he does in the play were done by somebody.”

Asked if Arthur Miller was a particular influence on his own playwriting, Canfora claimed, “I wouldn’t compare myself to him in terms of quality, and I don’t see myself writing like him stylistically, but he’s a tremendous influence.” Canfora’s style perhaps owes more to the likes of Stoppard, Kushner, Albee and…Elvis Costello. “My plays tend to be very oriented in language. Characters have fairly witty responses to things, which helps because I often write dramas that are heavy thematically but have light moments and comedy in between.”

As for what he hoped to achieve by writing about the legends in Fellow Travelers,Canfora replied, “These are iconic figures sealed into our collective consciousness, but in the process they’ve become ‘typed.’ Treating them three-dimensionally is sometimes lost when that happens. But the same tropes that were politically and socially at play then are still valid now. Miller was a universal writer but also an extremely American one. He’s writing about what it means to be a thinking, feeling person in our culture. That doesn’t get old.”

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NOTES & BACKSTORY:

When planning my monthly column for Long Island Pulse magazine, I’m always happy to do a piece about Bay Street Theater on Long Island, since, sadly, they’re one of the only venues producing new plays in the region.

 

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PRIDE AND JOY: Entrepreneur Joy Mangano Celebrates New Book and Old Values

(Note: This article was first published in Long Island Woman magazine, May 2018)

The world may still be awaiting the invention of a better mousetrap, self-cleaning toaster, and 3-D food printer, but improved mops, coat hangers, and luggage wheels? Been done. And they’ve been done by Joy Mangano. The entrepreneur whose self-wringing floor mop sparked a multi-million dollar empire has lost none of her can-do optimism. If anything, thirty years of success through hard work and television has made her only more eager to share her story and, just as importantly, her advice to anyone struggling to bring an idea to fruition or simply persevere through a tough time.

Mangano did both when, as a divorced and struggling mother of three, she tired of cleaning filthy mops by hand and built her own solution. With financial help (and hindrances) from her dad and his fiancé, Mangano was able to make molds, and then mops, which sold well enough to get the attention of TV. Despite an initial setback, wherein a male QVC host bungled the product’s debut (yet still sold 500 of them), Mangano rebounded in a huge way to become a mainstay of home shopping. Millions of Piatto bakery boxes and huggable hangers later, the President of Ingenious Designs LLC and founder of the Joy Mangano Foundation remains one of the top sellers on HSN and an object lesson in David beating Goliath—that is, a lone woman with an idea and sense of fair play who conquered all the manufacturing obstacles, legal hassles, and outright fraud thrown in her way.

The leap from cult figure to mainstream icon came when director David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) chose to semi-fictionalize Mangano’s biography in the 2015 film, Joy. Playing the protagonist was none other than Russell’s artistic muse, Jennifer Lawrence, who notched an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win for her performance. Although the movie takes numerous dramatic liberties small and large (the real Mangano, 62, has three children, not two; and she doesn’t have any siblings, let alone a seethingly jealous half-sister), Mangano doesn’t mind the fictions. After all, Joy the movie is a Hollywood fairy tale, complete with Bradley Cooper as its prince-(mostly)-charming and Robert De Niro as its complicated villain. If some scenes deliberately eschew literal truth for melodrama, the overall effect is still Mangano-esque: stick to your core principles, never quit, and success is just around the corner.

To hammer that resourcefulness home even further, Joy the person has now penned a memoir. If anything, the book, co-written by Alex Tresniowski, treats Mangano’s life with a lighter touch and less gritty detail than the film—which is just how the author wants it. The point of Inventing Joy: Dare to Build a Brave and Creative Life is not to rehash Mangano’s rise to riches but to turn each event in her herstory into a teachable moment. Nearly ever chapter begins with the next twist in her biography, quickly followed by what she learned from that setback and how fans could benefit from that example. “I wanted readers,” Mangano explains in our chat, “not only to say `Wow!’ but to transfer that touchpoint into their lives. I truly believe we are all alike. That’s why I hear so often, `my life has changed. I didn’t do this for 30 years, and now I’m finally doing it!’

“We all have ability,” she continues. “I know brilliant people, but I am not brilliant. And there are no `experts.’ You do not have to be good to get started in anything. You want to start a nursery school? You want to be the best nurse that America has to offer? You want to start a coffee shop or invent a product? I say that everybody has the ability, and you make your luck. You just have to get started and then keep putting one foot in front of the other. And you can’t stop, because if you do, 100 percent—nothing will happen. But if you don’t stop, your path may change.”

Mangano adds that the worst mistake a would-be inventor can make is simply not inventing. Being scared of failure. “As children we’ll build a bicycle ramp, and if we fall, we’ll build it better,” she explains. “We’ll build the swing hanging off the tree, and if it’s not strong enough, we’ll make it stronger. Children fail, but they just get back up and try again. As adults, we have a million reasons to talk ourselves out of things that seem a little beyond the envelope. We should not do that.”

Certainly, naysayers can claim that Mangano is a one-in-a-million combination of talent, gumption, and just plain luck, but the inventor of the fluorescent pet collar notes that a successful journey tends to be circuitous rather than a straight line to glory: “I began with a picture of `success’ in my mind, and the result is completely nothing like I started out thinking. But it put me on the road. I kept going and kept absorbing, no matter what was thrown my way. Therefore, I ended up in a different world, but it was the one I was meant to be on. The one I loved and was good at.”

Speaking of love, Mangano’s parents—portrayed so unflatteringly in the film and more sympathetically in the book—are still very much alive and, says Mangano, “proud of everything. My father, who is now 86 years old, focused on the fact that Robert De Niro was playing him. That’s all he thinks about!”

It is true that Mangano’s ex-husband remains a trusted friend and executive at her company, and that since her brand took off, she has had little time and energy for any further romantic entanglements. “I would have to invent more time in a day to include, with realistic caring and attention, another person in my life,” Mangano says. “I would love ten, twenty years down the line—being the age I am—to meet someone; that would be fabulous. But I will tell you that as a result of the movie and the book and the world I’m in, I can’t work fast enough. The velocity of what I do has increased so much. I manage thousands of people and am part of a major company, and I’m fortunate to love every aspect of what I do. But when you’re doing that, there just isn’t enough time in the day.”

There is always time, however, for family—especially since all three of Mangano’s children are in the business. Her son Robert, a Columbia Law School grad, ditched his associate slot at the uber-presitigious Cravath, Swaine & Moore to become Executive Vice President of Ingenious Designs. “At the law firm, he was working seven days a week, twenty hours a day—we didn’t see him for six years,” recalls Mangano. “So I started noodging him because I needed his brilliant mind. Eventually, his wife tells him, `You want to help people so much? Your mother needs help.’ And now he runs all my business strategy and retail roll out.” Christie Miranne, Mangano’s oldest daughter, left a public relations firm to work in IDL’s product development, while daughter Jackie serves as the company’s fashion expert. Even Mangano’s son-in-law is part of the team: “He was a producer for me before he married my daughter,” chuckles the entrepreneur-turned-matchmaker. “I won’t say I had a lot to do with that, but I did have something to do with it!”

For thirty years a specialist at creating handy items that make life easier, Mangano is nonetheless thinking bigger these days. Although she’s not ready to divulge specifics, the inventor of Forever Fragrant odor neutralizers and Clothes it All luggage has spent the last ten years developing a new product line that “will impact lives, universally, in such a positive way. I’m very excited because it will be one of the broadest things I’ve ever done.”

That said, she makes no apologies for championing the small triumphs. “There’s a cute little saying: you don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” she explains. “I don’t know if you’ve seen my luggage, but I re-invented the wheel. It took almost four years and many, many patents. It’s the most amazing luggage, with 20 percent more packing space. You know, 97 percent of all luggage damage is the wheels breaking off. But you can’t break these wheels! Still, I don’t just innovate for innovation’s sake. It has to be meaningful innovation that really matters. The customer is the most important person in my life, so I try to do the best quality at the best possible price. That probably takes me almost as long as inventing or designing. I can build luggage that costs $1,000, but when you can offer it for $99, that opens the universe to so many more people, which makes me so proud.”

Regarding the wide world of inventors bellying up to the “Shark Tank” crew with their own billion-dollar brainstorms, Mangano admits she rarely watches the program. “They asked me to be on it as a judge back when the movie was getting underway, and I chose not to be.” She regards with some dismay the show’s ethos that unless you’re willing to spend five years living on ramen and three hours of sleep, you’re not truly serious about your invention. “You don’t have to jump off a cliff!,” she contends. “You don’t have to mortgage your house or give up your career. If you’re an accountant, but you love surfing, and you want to open a surf shop one day, then be an accountant in a surf shop! Go into the arena. Start learning about what you don’t know, and wiggle your way in gradually to follow what you love.”

Long Islanders will be proud to know that East Meadow native Mangano still loves her hometown—loves it enough, in fact, to keep living here, even though she must regularly commute to Clearwater, Florida for her HSN hosting duties. “I grew up on Long Island, and raised my family here,” she recalls. “I took classes at Stony Brook and later took the Long Island Rail Road—it’s not that bad!—to a side job. And then I started my business on Long Island. The first place I went to hire people was the local church. And when they started, some of them were literally riding bicycles to come to work. I still have certain people with me from almost 30 years ago; now they’re driving beautiful cars. And when I moved my business ten years ago, I moved it only a couple of miles away in consideration of the people who work for me. I’m very conscious of loyalty: business, family, friends, so I’m thrilled. Long Island is home for me, and I don’t see that changing.”

Nor does Mangano see her lifestyle changing anytime soon—and why should it? “I’ve never been healthier,” she says. “I exercise and I’m conscious of healthy eating. But then again, as a young woman, I tried to do everything, every day, all the time. I was a box-checker, checking off every box. And now I look at these young girls who work for me. They walk in my office for a meeting; they look amazing, they’re totally prepared with a presentation. So I say to them, `What did you do this morning?’ And they say, `I started the presentation at five; at six o’clock, the kids got up. I got them dressed, I fed them. I took them—one to my mom’s, one to daycare—came in here, finished the presentation . . .’ So I’m like, `What do you do when you get home?’ `I’ll pick them up, and I’ll bring one to soccer, and I’ll feed them dinner, I’ll bathe them and . . .’ So I tell them—and this is the best advice I could give any young mom or young woman with family and a career trying to do it all: you can’t, and you don’t have to.”

What you do have to be is your best self; that’s what people respond to. Mangano recalls the time Gayle King told her, `Joy, you are not selling; you are informing me. You’re telling me everything I need to know about your product, so I can make the decision as to whether I want or need it.’ That made me feel really good. When I stand up onstage, it feels very organic. I’m their neighbor, I’m their best friend. If I go through an airport, people feel totally comfortable coming up to me, hugging me and kissing me and saying, `I watch you all the time, and I feel like you live next door to me!’ That’s a wonderful thing. But there’s work involved to get there, because I was there before there was a product. It’s not about achieving financial success; it’s about success at all different kinds of levels.”

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SIDEBAR:

More Mangano

Favorite Vacation Spot?
That’s an easy one for me: East Hampton. That’s where I used to take my children on vacation. My father had a boat out there, and I still go there for a week at a time.

Favorite Website to Surf?

It would be the fashion sites. I get very addicted to the Net-a-Portes and things like that.

What’s on Your Playlist?

Keith Urban—I design guitars with him, and I absolutely love him and think he’s amazing. Natalie Cole, Celine Dion, Zac Brown, and Neil Diamond. That’s probably who I listen to 99.9 percent of the time.

Favorite All-Time Book?

The Godfather, which shouldn’t surprise you.

Favorite Movie?

The Godfather, and equally, the movie Joy. Jennifer and I still have a beautiful relationship; we do a lot of philanthropic things together.

Favorite Meal?

Pasta and arugula salad, especially at [my restaurant] Jema in Huntington. They make the best Long Island duck that you will ever eat.

Favorite TV Shows?

I watch very little TV, but when I put it on, it’s HSN and QVC, because that’s my business. But I also love M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Laverne and Shirley, Will and Grace. I love comedy.

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BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts the long-running show, Dave’s Gone By, which recently began videostreaming live at http://www.davesgoneby.com.

 

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DISCOVER THE ARGYLE THEATER IN BABYLON VILLAGE

©2018 David Lefkowitz

(This article was first published in Long Island Pulse magazine, May 2018, under the title “It Takes a Village: Babylon Unveils the Argyle”: http://lipulse.com/2018/04/23/argyle-theatre-babylon-village/)

For 92 years a movie theater stood in the middle of Babylon’s West Main Street—well, not 92 straight years. In fact in 1924, only two years after the Riley Brothers constructed the Capitol Theatre, the place went bankrupt. Running under new management just a year later, the rechristened Babylon Theater spent succeeding decades alternating between movie-palace glory and post-fire reconstructions. Recent years have been cruel to old-fashioned cinemas however, and after a screening of Guardians of the Galaxy in September 2014, the doors shut for good. A former Babylon Village Chamber of Commerce president told Newsday, “It’s another part of a vanishing Long Island. It’s a sad thing.”

But with every death comes rebirth. This spring, the period of mourning comes to an end thanks to the efforts of a clinical psychologist and his actor son. Last year, Mark Perlman and his son Dylan purchased the Babylon Theater and, using savings, recent earnings and some tax help from the local Industrial Development Agency, set about birthing The Argyle Theatre, a legitimate house for Broadway-caliber shows. On 500 high-backed seats that used to be part of the Beacon Theater, patrons can enjoy a cultural night out watching Equity actors and well-known musicians.

The creation of a new performing arts center flies in the face of the attrition that has gutted the Island theater landscape over the past decade. How then do the Perlmans think they can make it so close to, yet so far from, Broadway? “We want a convenient and affordable alternative for Long Islanders,” Dylan stressed. “We’re using union talent to try to replicate the Broadway experience, from the customer-service end to the venue itself.”

Mark elaborated that they have “a team of about twenty people experienced in Broadway and regional theater on board to handle artistic, technical, sales and marketing.” Hofstra-educated Dylan also emphasized the use of the venue for such alternative revenue sources as concerts, comedy series, film festivals, day camps, theater classes and fundraising events.

Still, creating an in-house theater company is priority one. “We’ll be casting both in Babylon and at a studio space in Manhattan,” explained Dylan, who expects to hire Broadway performers “who may be in-between shows or off a tour” alongside homegrown newcomers seeking “a launchpad for their own careers.”

The Perlmans anticipate each production will run five-to-six weeks, at six performances a week, and cost more than six-figures—a daunting prospect considering The Argyle is a for-profit venture and must rely on revenue rather than subsidies and grants. As such, the pair are targeting frequent theatergoers. “It’s increasingly difficult for the average person to see multiple Broadway shows. Tickets are $115! Even discounted tickets are pretty out-of-control,” Dylan noted.

“We’re five minutes from the Babylon train station,” Mark added. “A person can go on a Thursday night and not have to worry about expensive parking. We want to become part of the fabric of the community and be a thing to do on the Island: have dinner and walk right to a show.”

The Argyle’s inaugural Broadway season begins May 10 with the premiere of Guys and Dolls, which runs through June 17. “It’s been seeming real for a while, now it is real,” Mark said. “It is fun to stand on the stage and look out at the imaginary audience when that was only an abstraction just a year ago.”

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NOTES AND BACKSTORY:
Hey, anybody building a theater on Long Island deserves kudos and best wishes, so I was certainly happy to write this piece, if skeptical.

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FEELING THE LOVE POWER: Ronnie Spector on Memories, Men, and Music

(this article was first published in Long Island Woman magazine, March 2018)

by David Lefkowitz

 

Her voice, which an A.V. Club writer once described as “part New York tough chick, part tender-girl vulnerability,” has thrilled rockers as vaunted as John Lennon, Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, and Joey Ramone; while her story, of rising to stardom only to escape the clutches of an insanely jealous husband, has served as a lesson in starting over to myriad women. Most of all, Ronnie Spector’s desire to keep recording and performing in concert, even as she nears her 75th year, can only inspire admiration in anyone familiar with the legendary records she made five decades ago: “Be My Baby,” “Walking in the Rain,” “Do I Love You?”, and “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine.”

Long Islanders got a double dose of Spector last year, thanks to a February visit and a December “Best Christmas Party Ever” concert, while the rest of the country enjoyed a new single, “Love Power,” produced by Narada Michael Walden and sung by Ronnie with backing vocals by a recreated Ronettes (which included Toyin Dong, the daughter of Ronnie’s troubled late sister and original Ronette, Estelle Bennett). Why, after all these years as a solo, bring a trio back into the mix? As Spector told USA Today last year, although she’s had many career high points, the early years (1963-66) “remain magical to me. That’s before all the craziness, the ripoffs, the lawsuits. There was an innocence back then that I miss.”

And the light-skinned songstress, of black, Cherokee, and Irish extraction, truly was an innocent when she started out. Because she grew up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood (“with a Jewish deli, a Spanish grocery store, a Chinese laundry, and Sherman’s Barbecue—owned by a successful black businessman” she recalls), it never occurred to young Veronica Bennett that she might face racial prejudice. However, when she, her sister, and her cousin went down to Miami Beach to open up a second Peppermint Lounge, the trio walked into a nearby restaurant and were fine—until Ronnie’s mother entered a moment later. “They asked her to leave,” Spector told Long Island Woman, “and I said, `That’s my mom!’ Then they told the rest of us to leave, too. I never understood that.” Awhile later, on a stop in South Dakota, the Ronettes were “chased through town by some rednecks in a pick-up truck who thought we were Indians”—an incident for which the town’s mayor apologized.

As she detailed in her terrific 1990 autobiography, “Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness,” Spector’s sexual innocence was also put to the test by city life and the music world. Her first time seeing a naked man was of a flasher standing outside a candy store, while her introduction to various sexual positions (watching, not performing) came when, at a penthouse party for The Beatles, she pushed off the attentions of an insistent John Lennon, only to find the remaining Fab Three watching a groupie have sex with a member of their entourage, while fellow invitees snapped photographs.

Ultimately, wunderkind producer Phil Spector would be her “first,” following a chaste courtship that saw him enthralled by her voice and look and her enraptured by his eyes, his cute tush, and his genius in the recording studio. For awhile, that was enough, until she became a virtual prisoner in his mansion, forbidden to perform, and having to be rescued, famously, by her mom, who snuck her out barefoot (because her husband kept her shoes hidden). Ten years after their protracted divorce in 1972, Ronnie married her manager, Jonathan Greenfield, and they’ve been together raising two sons in Connecticut ever since. Meanwhile, Phil Spector’s first opportunity at parole will be in 2028—when he’s 88 years old. But don’t expect the “Wall of Sound” creator’s ex-wife to bash him without mercy. At this point, she told Long Island Woman, “I really don’t put any thought into [the marriage]. It failed, it’s over, and all the time you’ve invested in the relationship is gone. But we had a professional relationship, too, and that connection between us still exists in some form. Still, you move on, and I like to move forward.”

It’s hard to blame Mrs. Greenfield’s fans, however, for looking backward. This is the woman who inspired Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (his early band, the Hassles, once opened for the Ronettes), dated David Bowie and Keith Richards, and was connected to the first blast of American rock and roll, the British Invasion, and even the punk scene—leading to her great 1999 cover of The Ramones’s “She Talks to Rainbows.” “Everything about Joey was cool,” Spector recalls. “I went through a tough time, and he helped me focus on what always kept me going: making music for my fans and for myself.” Even as Ramone was battling lymphoma, he traveled to London to sing on Spector’s EP. “It was a magical evening…that was pretty much the start of the next chapter in my professional life. He was an incredibly generous soul.”

Spector has equally kind things to say about the Rolling Stone in her life, Keith Richards: “He was a very sweet, respectful, humble guy who loved music and loved to have fun. He still has all that in him, even though he is way past those days of traveling around the UK when he and I would jump off the bus and run into Wimpies for hamburgers.” It was Ronnie and her sister who first took Richards and Mick Jagger backstage to meet James Brown at the Apollo—which was pretty much the only way to end Mick relentlessly grilling Ronnie about the godfather of soul’s every waking moment. “Enough already,” she told the Stone, “I don’t even know James Brown. I’m a Ronette, remember?” As for later-life Keith, Spector credits his “amazing wife,” Patti Hansen, for helping him become “so well-adjusted now. I love him and am happy that he’s happy.”

Although she never dated George Harrison, their early friendship paid off in her covering a number of his songs, including “Try Some, Buy Some,” which was released as a single two years before the ex-Beatle put it on his “Living in the Material World” album. “The lyrics were pretty out there compared to songs I normally recorded about love and relationships. So here I am, not really sure what the song is about, and walking into Abbey Road studios, which was the start of my solo career. I go into the studio and there is one person there, and I didn’t recognize him, but it was George with a very long beard. We hugged and talked about the old days; it was just so good to see him again. Then we sat down at the piano to go over the song, and I asked, `George what’s this song about? I don’t get it.’ And he said, `Ronnie, I wrote it, and I don’t know what its about!’” The recording sessions, for a comeback album that never got finished, ended up including a visit from John and a lot of “sitting on the floor eating Indian food and drinking wine.”

These gentle memories of musical giants stand in marked contrast to Spector meeting her first idol, Frankie Lymon. First, when he was 13 and already famous, he reneged on his promise to come to Ronnie’s own 13th birthday party. Then, when he did pay her a visit weeks later, he was inebriated and grabby. Nevertheless, Spector can put aside her disappointing encounters with this tragic figure and happily recall when he was her vocal crush. “His voice and diction just killed me,” she says. “The Teenagers had great routines, and I loved their outfit with the big ‘T’ on their sweaters. So when I came home from Junior High School, I put my Frankie Lymon 45’s on the record player, grabbed my hairbrush for my mic, and sang my heart out until mom got home from work. My sixth grade teacher Mr. Sachs actually called my mother and told her I had to stop singing Frankie Lymon songs in class!”

Little did Mr. Sachs know that a few years later, Spector would sing for the most groundbreaking and flamboyant musician of the rock era. “I hadn’t seen Jimi Hendrix in about three years,” explains Spector, “and now he was the Rock Star but still shy—even though, at his apartment, he’s lying on a mattress on the floor, with three girls getting him whatever he needed, lighting his cigarette, whatever.

“After awhile,” Spector continues, “we decided to go down to Electric Ladyland, so everyone piled into my Camaro, and I drove to the studio. I don’t remember much about the session [for “Earth Blues,” not officially released until 2013], but afterwards, I dropped Jimi back off at his apartment. The next day, I answer my door, and there’s Jimi leaning against the door with a big smile on his face. He said, `Ronnie, I left my tapes in your car.’ That was Jimi!”

Asked if she misses the era of turntables and 45’s and major labels, Spector notes, “I’m a simple kind of girl, and I grew up with vinyl. Vinyl I can hold in my hand, play it, read it. Or be looking at Frankie Lymon on the album cover and dreaming.” The songstress adds that, much as she loves making music, she rarely listens to it or purchases it. The last CD she bought was Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black”—“my son picked that up for me.”

Her two biological sons, by the way, are not in the music business—“thank God!” Spector says. “Because if you don’t love this business, don’t waste your time. Plus, I want my kids to follow their own dreams, not their mother’s. So my oldest is a certified tennis and ping pong instructor, and my youngest has worked for a major supermarket for 15 years and loves it. They both really helped me so much as a person, and they don’t even know it.”

In terms of her own health and well-being, Spector, whose father was a loving but dysfunctional alcoholic, has endured battles with the bottle. But she’s currently a model of healthy living. She does yoga daily, consumes lots of protein and salads, and drinks homemade juice on the road. She rests her voice—with complete silence—on show days, and takes tea with lemon for her throat. “I never overeat,” she adds, “and never finish a meal.” As a result, she has no health issues to report apart from “a couple of aches and pains, the usual. I have been very fortunate.”

Fortunate, too, to continue doing what she loves. At the time of this writing, Spector was getting set to record new music in an L.A. studio. “I’m recording live with the band,” she said, “just like I did in the 60’s. I’m working with a producer that I really want to make music with, so I’m very excited about it!” Or, as she sang in last year’s single, “Love Power,” “Sometimes we’re up, sometimes we’re down, but our feet are always on the ground.”

*

QUESTIONETTES:

What’s a recent book you’ve read?

“Not Pretty Enough,” Gerri Hirshey’s book about Helen Gurley Brown

What are some songs on your iPod?
Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” and a couple of Adele songs.

All-time favorite non-Ronette songs?

“Maybe” by the Chantels (1958) and “I Do Love You” by Billy Stewart (1965).

Favorite vacation spot?

I love to be home relaxing when I am not on the road, so my favorite vacation spot is on the couch in my TV room!

So what do you watch?

My all-time favorite is “Columbo,” but for new shows, I like “Forensic Files,” Leah Remini’s show about the Church of Scientology, and “Shark Tank.”

Favorite meal?
I still love a medium-well burger on a toasted bun with fries.

Thoughts about Long Island?
I love Long Island, period!  Before the Ronettes were famous, we played there doing sock hops and Bar Mitzvahs, which was a big deal for us. And when we finally had hits, we played places like The Action House all the time. Plus I never had to worry about getting a good burger `cause Long Island had great diners—still does!


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BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts the weekly Facebook extravaganza, Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com).

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FEATURE: Go Big

Go Big or Go Bigger: Broadway’s Goes Mega in Spring 2018

by David Lefkowitz

Note: This article was first published, under the title “Broadway Goes Big This Spring,” March 2018 in Long Island Pulse magazine: http://lipulse.com/2018/02/26/go-big/

 

Were you lulled by a relatively quiet autumn season on the Great White Way—one whose most acclaimed productions were a chamber musical about a waylaid Egyptian band and solo turns for John Leguizamo as a Latin historian and Bruce Springsteen as his humble self? Fear not, for those were mere trickles before the deluge. Whether the upcoming rush of big shows will live up to their hype, only hindsight can predict. But for those with deep pockets and an itch for the epic, spring on Broadway is certainly the place to be.

Direct from London comes Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—six hours of magical doings in and around Hogwarts that pick up where book seven left off. Here’s what you need to know: 1) This one’s about the kids, especially Albus Potter and his best bud, Scorpius Malfoy. 2) It’s not a musical. 3) High-tech special effects are non-stop. 5) It’s directed by John Tiffany, Tony winner for Once. 4) Variety called the West End premiere “quite simply, spellbinding.”

If cartoons are more your speed and you’ve already seen autumn’s SpongeBob SquarePants musical, Disney has Frozen, an adaptation of its staggeringly popular 2013 animated tuner about two sisters estranged by resentment and a lot of sub-zero water. “Let it Go” will be sung by Caissie Levy, who cut her teeth on such pop musicals as Rent, Wicked, Les Miz, Hairspray, and Hair.

Then again, if you’re more into chilling out than a big chill, Jimmy Buffett’s oeuvre and lifestyle have been blended into Escape to Margaritaville, a love story that agglomerates such tunes as “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Last Mango in Paris,” and, well, you can probably guess the first-act closer. Charles McNulty, chief critic of the L.A. Times, wrote that he “had a good time”—an admission he was “not exactly proud of.” That’s okay, Chuck, James Herbert of the San Diego Union Tribune liked it, too.

If, however, you prefer angst-ridden New Yorkers to Parrotheads, perhaps Angels in America is more your speed. Tony Kushner’s landmark gay drama receives its second New York revival and first Broadway remount, this one featuring Andrew Garfield and, as the despicable but fascinating lawyer Roy Cohn, Nathan Lane—both repeating roles they assayed when the show won raves at London’s National Theatre last April.

Classics of an older variety also reach Broadway stages this spring, with Denzel Washington as a salesman with a secret in The Iceman Cometh, Condola Rashad as a maiden with a mission in Shaw’s Saint Joan, Tony winner Jessie Mueller and nominee Joshua Henry as mismatched marrieds in Carousel, and Brit newcomer Harry Hadden-Paton and Six Feet Under star Lauren Ambrose as the cunning linguists in a Lincoln Center My Fair Lady. Notable revivals of a more recent vintage will include Children of a Lesser God, Lobby Hero, Stoppard’s Travesties, and Albee’s Three Tall Women—the latter starring Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, and Alison Pill.

With Tina Fey’s Mean Girls musical and a new play by August: Osage County Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts also in the mix, spring is shaping into a King Kong-sized season. No, wait. That show doesn’t arrive until next fall.

*

NOTES:  

The Minutes opens March 8 at a Broadway venue to be announced.

Escape to Margaritaville opens March 15 at the Marquis Theater.

Angels in America opens March 21 at the Neil Simon Theater.

Frozen opens March 22 at the St. James Theater.

Lobby Hero opens March 26 at the Helen Hayes Theater.

Three Tall Women opens March 29 at the Golden Theater.

Mean Girls opens April 8 at the August Wilson Theater.

Children of a Lesser God opens April 11 at Studio 54.

Carousel opens April 12 at the Imperial Theater.

My Fair Lady opens April 19 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 opens April 22 at the Lyric Theater.

Travesties opens April 24 at the American Airlines Theater.

Saint Joan opens April 25 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater.

The Iceman Cometh opens April 26 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater

*

 

BYLINE:
An adjunct English professor at the University of Northern Colorado, David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com), co-publishes Performing Arts Insider, and founded TotalTheater.com. His one-act comedy, Blind Date, recently played in Chennai, India,

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Still Breathing: Toni Braxton on Love, Marriage, Divorce, Sex, & Cigarettes

(This article was first published in Long Island Woman magazine, Jan. 2018)

by David Lefkowitz 

When you’re Toni Braxton, you have seven Grammy Awards, a reality series with your family, a best-selling memoir followed by a docudrama you’ve produced about your own life, and a new album and movie to release. You’re also a woman who has faced divorce, filed for two bankruptcies, raised a child with autism, and coped with such ailments as angina and lupus. In other words, you’re a celebrity—with all the triumphs and tribulations that come with it.

It didn’t start that way. Unlike the Jacksons, the Braxtons did not have showbiz in their blood. In fact, Michael and Evelyn Braxton were working-class churchgoers raising their son and five daughters just outside Baltimore. Still, church gave Tamar, Towanda, Traci, Trina, and Toni a chance to sing in choir. By 1990, they were a group; although, famously, record producers L.A. Reid and Babyface chose to focus on Toni and eventually signed her as a solo. Whatever familial rifts and jealousies that might have caused—enough for five-plus seasons of Braxton Family Values—the move proved a commercial success, leading to such early hits as “You Mean the World to Me,” “Breathe Again,” “You’re Makin’ Me High,” “I’m Still Breathing,” and “Un-Break My Heart.”

Two decades later, the songstress has lived through the challenges and changes of being a divorced working mother of two, and, of course, a Grammy-winning, world-famous recording artist and serious actress (Faith Under Fire, the true story of an elementary school teacher who emotionally subdues an active shooter, airs in February). That sort of dichotomy fuels creativity, and Braxton is now back with her first album since 2014’s celebrated Love, Marriage & Divorce. Titled Sex & Cigarettes, the record will continue her tradition of sultry R&B, albeit with an even more directly adult approach—it’s her first collection to carry a parental advisory sticker. But how forthcoming is Braxton about her own intimate life?

Well, she doesn’t smoke cigarettes, but she boasts to Long Island Woman that she enjoys a cigar “once a year, on my birthday.” As for the first part of the album title . . . that’s a secret. She won’t even address the gossip that she has been dating rap musician Birdman. All Braxton will admit is that she “is out there dating” and that she looks for men who are old-school gentlemen: “I’m a flowers-and-candy girl,” she says. “And don’t give me flowers just when you’ve been a bad boy. I want `just because’ flowers, too.”

What the singer also wants is for fans to continue the emotional-musical journey she began with Love, Marriage & Divorce, which followed her divorce from musician Keri Lewis, and celebrate the better place she’s now in—especially since rediscovering the joys of her art. “I was contemplating retiring,” Braxton recalls, “and my dearest friend, Babyface, came and held my hand and said, `No, you’re too young.’ He walked me through it and helped remind me why I do this. So the new album is about me falling back in love again with music and how I much love recording.

“I still sing a lot of sad love songs,” promises Braxton, “because they match my voice. But I never want to sing songs that make a person feel like she’s going through it alone. Although I’m not going through the pain with you, maybe my voice can decorate some of the pain.”

Alas, in Braxton’s current life, the torment she does endure is not interpersonal but physiological. In 2010, she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacks tissues and can cause everything from rashes to joint pain to extreme fatigue. “I have good days and bad days; I can’t deny it,” she sighs. “Today’s a good day. Of the different levels of lupus disease, I have the worst. It affects my blood, it affects my heart and a lot of different things. I’d mention `angina,’ but people think I’m saying `vagina,’ and I’m, like, ‘No! Look up here!’

“But seriously, in spite of all that, it’s not as bad as it could be. There are moments I can’t move or I have to be hospitalized—things like that. But I’ve got a great doctor, and the medications are working for me. I keep trying to find the silver lining in things even when I don’t feel like being positive. But I know it works for me and helps me keep motivated. I have my kids to live for. I’ve been blessed with my talent. Singing defines me, and it also calms me. It soothes me.”

Braxton supports numerous philanthropic causes, including Lupus LA, and has particularly encouraging words for fellow singer and sufferer Selena Gomez, whose own lupus led to a kidney transplant last fall. “She’s a warrior, and I’m proud of her,” Braxton notes. “She’s a young girl battling this, and she’s doing great. You can be proud and not want to ask for help, but sometimes you have to. It’s okay to do that.”

The singer also tries to help herself by staying active whenever she can. She visits doctors three-to-four times a year and tries to eat “pretty decently.” She stresses the importance of feeling alive and full of motion—“like my body’s not suppressed.” That said, she draws the line at yoga. “As a mom, I can’t. I can’t do it!” she laughs. “A thousand things go through my head. You’re supposed to think about nothing—N-O-T-H-I-N-G, N-O-T-H-I-N-G. And that works for a minute. But then I go, `Oh, gosh, I forgot to send the cupcakes!’ My brain just goes crazy. So I would love to be the kind of person who can do meditation, but I just can’t.”

For relaxation, Braxton instead turns to painting (“I do a lot of oils because I’m not good with watercolors”), ceramics, and crafts. She also crochets Christmas scarves which, by her own admission, are “terrible.”

Soothing, too, for the songstress, is listening to music, and some of her choices might surprise fans who expect her to stay within the Natalie Cole-Luther Vandross wheelhouse. “I love Steely Dan,” she says, “and Hall and Oates and Michael McDonald—we both have that same contralto style.” She also lauds Carly Simon and James Taylor, whom she calls “the John Mayer of his generation.”

And then there’s her friend, Prince. “I think about him often,” says Braxton, who was shocked by his passing in 2016. “When I was in Vegas at the Flamingo and he was in Vegas at the Rio, we would often have dinner together. I’d go catch his show after mine because he was real rock and roll, so he’d go on at two o’clock in the morning, which is great! We’d have such fun together with all of his friends, Dave Chappelle—I can’t even think of all the names right now. We’d all congregate and hang out together.”

Of course, for several weeks each year, Braxton hangs out with her sisters, as documented on Braxton Family Values. She won’t be in the new season as much as previous ones because she’ll be busy promoting Sex & Cigarettes, but do expect her there at some point. “It’s like a 24-hour cup of coffee, bottomless,” explains the singer about the reality-TV process. “We’re always shooting, and it’s authentic. It’s based on our lives. We don’t make up a story. They shoot for about two months, but the months are not consistent year to year. In fact, we’re usually shooting while the previous season is coming out and being watched. Once it’s over, we have two months off and then begin again.”

And yet, being so public with her day-to-day life doesn’t necessarily put Braxton on a soapbox. Asked how she’s coping with America’s political swing to the right, the singer pauses, chuckles, and replies, “It’s been . . . different. But as an entertainer, there’s a fine line for me. I’d love to talk politics in my private time, but sometimes I just want to entertain. When we have too much of an opinion on politics, that’s not a good thing. So I save politics for my friends and my family and people close to me. I don’t want to be ridiculed for having an opinion. So I don’t have to advertise what I do. I just do it.”

However, Braxton proves a bit more forthcoming on religion, since she and her siblings were raised strongly in the Methodist faith by their pastor father—a dad who spent years cheating on their mother before the two eventually divorced and he remarried. “These days, I’m more spiritual than religious,” Braxton says. “For me, religion is a group of people who get together and decide, `this is how we’re gonna get closer to our spirituality. Do these rituals.’ But for me, religion is personal. I don’t need anyone to tell me how I should do it. And I won’t decide for anyone else.

“When I was a child growing up, religion was great for me,” Braxton affirms. “It gave me my morals, my scruples, and my value system and enabled me to be in the business that I’m in. And there’s a kindness that goes along with how I was raised. So I would never want to change that. But for me, as an adult and being much older now . . . eh, more spiritual. But I still think religion is a wonderful thing.” In fact, Braxton’s two children, Denim (15) and Diezel (14), both go to religious schools, attend church occasionally, and keep some traditions—“especially the celebrations.”

This detente with faith did not come easily for Braxton. As she recounted in her 2014 memoir, Unbreak My Heart, a decade before she gave birth to her kids, she had an abortion. When Diezel was diagnosed with autism, Braxton saw that as God’s punishment for her decision to terminate a life. “It’s how I felt at the time,” says Braxton. “Guilty. I was hurt, and that was my thought process. I had yet to learn to eat the fish and throw away the bones. Back then, I ate the bones, too. But since then, I realized that God—my God—is not a punishing God. I think women sometimes feel that if something bad happens to their kid, `it has to be something I did.’ And a friend of mine just told me, `It’s not something that you did. It’s just something that is.’”

Be it fate, faith, or coincidence, Braxton did catch a lucky break—Diezel improved to the point where he is no longer even on the autism spectrum. “He’s been in every therapy the doctors told me to put him in,” says the singer, “and now he doesn’t even qualify for an IEP [Individual Education Program]; he’s in regular school. We’re very proud of him. And my oldest is doing very well, too. He’s been playing tennis since he was four, but now he wants to play basketball. Okayyyyy. But they’re very smart kids, they’re obedient, and they give me no trouble. We have a great relationship so, yes, I’m very fortunate.”

Fortunate, too, that her financial difficulties from a few years back (she has twice filed for bankruptcy) appear to be behind her. However, asked about her current economic status, Braxton again closes the gates. “That’s like asking me what position I like to have sex in! It’s way too personal and not polite or nice to ask a person.” On the other hand, when questioned about turning the big 5-0 (as she did in October), the songstress is happy to forecast her future: “I plan to be a centennial—that’s my goal! I want my letter from the President. And I want to be on the cover of Smucker’s Strawberry Jam! I’m looking forward to the next 50 years.”

*

BRIEFLY BRAXTON

Favorite position to have sex in? 

(laughs) Next question.

Favorite songs by other people?

I love rap music. Anything by Biggie Smalls. Also, Ella Fitzgerald. Michael Jackson’s “Lady in My Life.” Lionel Ritchie’s “Easy Like Sunday Morning.”

Favorite Vacation Spot?
Baden-Baden in Germany. It’s a beautiful spa town. I love Vegas; I’m a Vegas girl. Italy! I feel at home every time I go there.

Favorite TV shows?

Though it’s not my favorite, I love Empire. And I can never get enough Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Just surfing the channels, you get stuck with it, and you find yourself watching two or three episodes.

Recent books you’ve enjoyed?
Every year for my birthday, I read, Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Otherwise, I just read The Four Agreements [by Don Miguel Ruiz]. And one more, but it’s kind of a `girl’ book…so I won’t tell you that!

Advice to young singers?

This is gonna sound crazy, but you gotta be a little bit selfish. A lot of times we want to be one big happy family, but it’s okay to feel confident in yourself. Not arrogant, but just sure about your talent. I promise you, it’s okay.

*

BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. His comedy, Blind Date, was recently staged in Chennai, India.

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