A Letter from Manhattan, June 1, 2006
"Another op'nin, another show." Welcome to the premier of the ongoing, online "A Letter From" your friend Joel. My dream is of a formal opening night on Broadway, so how's about getting into your white tie or gown.
If you're not naked you are probably better dressed than the tourists at Broadway shows today. Actor George Grizzard laments the sea of white, by which he means white legs, he sees from the stage. His audience is wearing shorts. My shock comes at Sardi's, the venerable theatrical hangout, where tourist ladies arrive with uncombed, poorly colored hair and in outfits my mother wouldn't have worn to dust the back of her horse.
Another feature of this "opening" will be the sound of Joel's voice without amplification. Sore point #2 is the heavy use of microphones in live theater today. Actors are no longer required to project their voices beyond their front teeth. At all the original productions of the great American musicals and plays the only "mikes" in the theater either sat out front or carried Actors Equity cards and appeared onstage.
Everyone seems to be in a tizzy about illegal immigration these days, even President Cornpone. Yes, illegal immigrants are illegal; they come mostly from one or two nearby countries with lousy governments that have the effrontery to encourage their citizens to migrate here; they are here to make a living and not to see the sights; and most are decent, desperate individuals who merit our sympathy while others among them are a royal pain in the butt.
By virtue of their illegal status does the presence of these immigrants make a mockery of our laws? To what extent do lax border policies put our country at risk? Is illegal immigration fair to those who came here legally, to overburdened border state sheriffs and police, to taxpayers who support the schools these worker's children attend, to all who pay higher health insurance premiums to cover immigrants' emergency room care, to Americans seeking jobs, or to those whose neighborhoods are consequently going to hell? Do illegal workers overall help us more than harm, and is that even the point?
And what of our good neighbors to the south? The US of A tells every other country what to do. Who decides what happens at our southern border, Mr. Fox? Shouldn't Washington both pressure and assist Mexico, starting with revising trade policies that protect U.S. agribusinesses while putting legions of Mexican farm hands out of work?
In my day illegals were under the care of veterinarians.
Wallace Shawn's play Fever advances the idea that our comfortable lives are underwritten by the blood and toil of workers in Third World lands. Struggling "illegals" today contribute to our materially abundant lives. If we paid these workers a living wage, a head of lettuce or a maid to dust the blinds would cost a hell of a lot more. Try to imagine life without that fourth bathroom, cutting out one of the three overseas vacations each year, settling for maybe three Mercedes in the twelve car fleet.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. "Joel, somebody's got to pick our food." GOT to? Do I sense a sense of entitlement about what the world owes us and on our terms. I'm going to play the Social Darwinist's advocate for a minute. We want or feel we've just got to have something, we're going to have to pay for it, the cost of labor very much included.
"W..w..wait a minute, Joel," said with a patronizing smile. "You're forgetting our national slogan; Americans won't take these jobs." Make these jobs more attractive, says I, and you never know who will show up. And if they don't we either import our food just like we do oil, or we go on diets. Neither prospect appeals. Maintaining our food supply turns out to be a matter of national security.
You'll soon discover that I don't give a damn about the privations of the more privileged classes, my own very much included. To help lower income and flat out poor Americans through the inflationary consequences of the higher cost of labor I advocate, consideration can be given to a more sharply progressive income tax, universal healthcare and, dare I say it, food stamps.
My preferred remedies require too much determination and cost too much. If I could wave a magic wand the 11 million would never have come here in the first place. Instead, I have a vision of the Guest Worker program to end them all. Interested employers would be required to cross borders and recruit the workers they need for a specified period of time. Our government, having made a priority of border security and immigration reform, will then monitor the program with the diligence found at the bedsides of stroke patients in ICU's.
Each worker will sign a contract with the employer and be clearly told what they can expect, to wit: Being driven into the US on a company bus and kept track of in a series of frequent roll calls. At or near job sites they will be housed in spare but safe, clean and reasonably comfortable quarters. The housing, work sites and, if needed, medical facilities will be the only places they will be permitted to go. Enforcement would involve swift and consistent deportation of violators and equally swift shutting down of job sites and prosecuting employers who break the law. When their job is done the workers will be once again accounted for and escorted back home. A series of fences and walls that are adequately patrolled will prevent many to most of them from returning on their own.
Oh, one more thing. Each worker will be paid the prevailing minimum wage and in addition be provided with medical coverage, both at the expense of the employer who may pass it on to the consumer, and as decent working conditions as at any American job. And so, any economic incentive to favor undocumented workers over American citizens will have vanished.
Yeah, I know.
The L.A. Times editorial of April 2 got it exactly right when it called us the "knowingly complicit consumers" because we want and want and are too damn cheap and spoiled to pay for it.
"If we use the word "Amnesty’ to describe bringing 11 million humans out of the shadow economy, then let's not spare the lawbreakers—the farms, restaurants and construction firms that employ them; the legal residents who don't verify the papers of their gardeners, plumbers or maids; and the people who drive by U-Haul or Home Depot stores to hire some muscle for moving a couch.. All these co-conspirators made the deliberate decision to break the law; they are every bit as illegal as those who swam the Rio Grande for work.
“Once we bring ourselves to 'forgive' the sin of both the employee who wants work and the employer who needs workers, we can talk about grace for the knowingly complicit consumer-which is to say the rest of us. If you eat California produce, buy a North Carolina Christmas tree, drive through a carwash or leave your key with a valet, chances are you are purchasing a product or service made possible by undocumented labor."
The Times concludes, "It's about all of us who purchase their labor and the goods they produce. Maybe lawmakers in Washington can debate an Amnesty for themselves for allowing the country to depend on an 'illegal' labor force for so long."
What, then, do you think? This is a tough nut to crack, isn't it? I welcome your feedback and wisdom any time.
Now on to another kind of crime, Broadway showicide. And showicide, in my humble and infallible opinion, was committed on the stage of Carnegie Hall with the recently televised concert version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.
Concert versions, indeed. Musicals are operas in the sense of being the plural of opus, or work. They require works of story and tune, costumes and sets, lighting, choreography and greasepaint. That is why concert versions do not work.
How many of us can think of South Pacific without getting misty in the eyes? A classic New Yorker cartoon showed salmon swimming and jumping while repeating, "Evening, evening, evening." The caption? "Salmon chanted evening." From South Pacific we get wartime grit, gratifying character change, boy meets girl, East meets West and an object lesson in bigotry, all in one enchanted package.
Somebody ought to lock Reba McEntire in a room with a good acting coach for sustained periods because I'll tell you something; she's a natural acting talent that needs only to be watered and fed. With the exception of the actors who played Capt. Brackett and his assistant, McEntire was the only soul on stage who effectively showed who her character, Ensign Nellie Forbush, was and how she felt.
Brian Stokes Mitchell, of matinee idol mien and melodious voice, elected to portray his Emile as a stuffed shirt, an error not uncommon. (I've never understood what Nellie sees in Emile other than an exotic father figure, but when it comes to love, "who can explain it, who can tell you why?") Mr. Mitchell, to me, is in some ways beyond repair. He has been told he walks on water too often to engage in some needed reappraisal of his acting skills. McEntire's love for her Frenchman showed all over; Mitchell's words of affection were intoned.
The other leading players may wake up some Christmas morning to a gift of acting lessons from me. The male chorus of Seabees sang and moved around well; the women's looked more like they had come directly from a Day of Glamour at Elizabeth Arden's than the grime of WWII and their dances were absurd.
Like any musical, South Pacific depends on far more than music, lyrics and book. I suggest you make your own South Pacific. Rent the horrific Hollywood version and fast forward to anything Juanita Hall does, except that her singing voice was dubbed, a stupid decision, and you'll have your Bloody Mary. Try to get hold of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza performing some numbers on Ed Sullivan. Then play the original cast album, close your eyes and go off to your own Bali Ha'i, and you'll never have to endure a clutzy South Pacific again.
I have no sympathy with the company's having, from the looks of it, forty-five minutes to rehearse. These performers are at the top of their profession and pay scale, and South Pacific is a well know entity. Actors, directors and the others make choices. The highest dramatic art comes when the easy and obvious are avoided and the subtle and unexpected employed. One example from Joshua Logan's original direction of South Pacific will suffice.
Final scene. Emile comes home safe. Nellie is so overwhelmed by his return, and he by her acceptance of his children, that they silently go through the motions of sitting down and preparing to eat barely averting one another's gaze. As Nellie turns the tureen toward Emile to serve, the couple reach out and clasp hands from opposite sides of the table, the fusion of "opposite sides of the sea," to a crescendo of the final notes of "Some Enchanted Evening." Curtain.
Later productions take the Hallmark greeting card expedient of eliminating the table sequence and having Emile and Nellie hug and kiss instead. Ticket sales remain unaffected either way, but which do you think is likely to move you more?