HONKEY TONK PARADE

honky-cover2Ang Lee | August Wilson | Baz Luhrmann | Bill Hicks | Billy Connolly

Dame Edna Everage | Laurence Fishburne | Judi Dench | Tony Kushner

Mira Nair | Cole Porter | Richard Rodgers | Kenneth Tynan | Yip Harbourg

Ang Lee

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine a Hulk inside Ang Lee. He is, by Hollywood standards, sensationally calm and self-effacing. Short and wiry, with slightly hunched shoulders, he meets the world, as Nick Nolte says, “with a smile and that gentleness coming at you.” Even Lee’s wife, Jane Lin, a cell biologist at New York Medical College, says, “He has never lost his temper, really. We could never have an argument.” Western drama is built on the escalation of tension; Chinese life is built around the reduction of it. Lee is a curious amalgam of both influences. The Chinese have no word for “individualism,” and Lee, who is now forty-eight, says that he didn’t even think of himself as an adult until the success of his film version of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” in 1995, and he didn’t see himself as “Ang Lee, director” until the release, five years later, of the sleeper hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”-the highest-grossing foreign film ever made and the first Chinese movie to win an international audience.

Because Lee doesn’t exude any of the imperialism of self associated with most directors of his stature, he is sometimes difficult to read. Ted Hope, who was a producer of Lee’s first three movies-“Pushing Hands” (1992), “The Wedding Banquet” (1993), and “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994)-quickly discovered that “part of the role I had was getting Ang to say no.” Hope remembers looking over at Lee during the filming of a scene in “Pushing Hands”: He was clearly unhappy. I asked him what was the matter. ‘The dress.’ ‘It’s a brown dress. You said you liked the brown dress.’ ‘Yes, I liked the brown dress.’ ‘Then what’s the matter?’ He goes, ‘Well, I liked the blue dress more.’ ‘Why didn’t you say that?’ Ang said, ‘Well, you just asked me if I liked the brown dress.”

Lee doesn’t hector; he doesn’t bluster; he doesn’t insist on his own superiority; and he’s not materialistic. He still drives his first car-a 1995 Mercury minivan-prefers sweatsuits, jeans, and sneakers to more elegant attire, and lived, until 1997, in an eight-hundred-and-twenty-five-squarefoot three-room apartment in White Plains, New York, where be and his wife slept in the same room as their two sons. (He now lives in Mamaroneck, in a four-bedroom house with seven rare breeds of chickens at the bottom of his garden.) In fact, there is nothing conspicuous about Lee’s behavior but his talent. “He has the most quiet footprint, a tremendous humility,” Hope says. “He once said to me, describing his process, that movies pass through him.”

Still, because Lee likes to find his films as he is making them, he requires from others a special quality of collaboration and from himself a special quality of attention. “Ang is as concentrated as any director I’ve ever worked with,” Nolte says. “He keeps the actor constantly churning. Ang always wants to go beyond and find something new.” Emma Thompson, who starred in “Sense and Sensibility,” explains, “The quality of listening makes you want to do your best to surprise him, because he’s allowing you that space. It’s the silent equivalent of somebody like Robert De Niro, whose mumbling makes one lean forward. You don’t necessarily see this great intelligence on the surface, but as soon as you come toward it you receive the strength. Ang could always throw us off balance physically, as well as with his words. That’s what all creative people need. They need to be pushed off their runnels.”

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August Wilson

THE PLAYWRIGHT AUGUST WILSON lives in a leafy, genteel part of Seattle intended by the city’s founding fathers to be the site of the state capitol, and so named Capitol Hill. He moved here in 1994, with Constanza Romero, a Colombian-born costume designer who is now his third wife, and they share a rambling turn-of-thecentury house with Azula, their three-year-old daughter. Azula has her father’s ear and number, as well as total control of the living room, which, apart from a jukebox and a piano-props from Wilson’s productionshasn’t a stick of adult furniture. Wilson, who doesn’t drive, is more interested in the inner terrain than the external one; writing, he says, “is for me like walking down the landscape of the self . . . . You find false trails, roads closed for repairs, impregnable fortresses, scouts, armies of memory, and impossible cartography.”

Wilson does most of his pathfinding below the living room, in a lowceilinged basement, lit by neon bars, where he goes to sneak cigarettes, listen to records, and wait for his characters to arrive. He writes standing up, at a high, cluttered pine accounting desk, where he can prop his legal pad and transfer his jottings to a laptop computer. Pinned on a bulletin board, just beside where he stands to write, are two quotations, as bold as street signs: “TAKE IT TO THE MOON” (Frank Gehry) and “DON’T BE AFRAID. JUST PLAY THE MUSIC” (Charlie Parker). When Wilson looks up from his desk, at the dingy wall with its labyrinth of water pipes, he sees honorary degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, his home town, and from Yale, where his career as a playwright began, in 1982-just two of twenty-three he has accumulated so far, which is not bad for a fifty-five-year-old writer who quit school when he was fifteen.

For years, about two steps behind Wilson’s writing table, an Everlast punching bag was suspended from the ceiling. When Wilson was in full flow and the dialogue was popping, he’d stop, pivot, throw a barrage of punches at the bag, then turn back to the work. Recently, however, during a particularly vigorous rewrite of his new play, “King Hedley II,” which opens on Broadway this month, Wilson knocked the bag and its ceiling hook down, and it now rests mournfully in the corner. Wilson has a retired boxer’s heft-thick neck, square shoulders, wide chest-and a stomach whose is eiflasiises. Wilson is the product of a mixed marriage, but, he says, “the culture I learned in my mother’s household was black.” He has a handsome face that is dominated by a wide forehead and a concentrated gaze. He exudes a very specific sense of gravity. He gives away nothing at first, or even second, glance. But when his guard is down, and especially when he’s telling a story, you feel what his wife calls “the sizzle.”

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Baz Luhrmann

THE AUSTRALIAN DIRECTOR BAZ Luhrmann is an impresario of himself; inevitably, for a protean talent, he is known by many names. At the entrance to his temporary base of operations, in a wood-beamed loft on Wooster Street, in New York, he lists himself as “C von G.” It’s an abbreviation for Count von Groovy, a nickname conferred on Luhrmann by his cohorts, in acknowledgment of both his sometimes grandiose pursuit of the extraordinary and his image as a swami of style. His more common moniker, “Baz,” which Luhrmann, who is forty, started using in the seventies-he was christened Mark-is also intended to add a defiant lustre to a lifetime of self-invention. “I imagined I needed a fabulous name, an exotic name,” he explains. “I was always theatrical. I was mythologizing my own existence from the age of ten.” His long-time associate director, David Crooks, agrees. “He likes to see himself as a sort of director cum rock star,” he says. “He is the consummate actor. It’s very rare that he just takes off all his façades.”

Luhrmann has been in town to oversee a production of Puccini’s “La Bohme,” which he first staged twelve years ago, at the Sydney Opera House, for sixteen thousand dollars, and which will open December 8th, in a six-and-a-half-million-dollar Broadway version. His company Bazmark Inq-which has its headquarters in a rambling Victorian mansion known as the House of lona, in Sydney’s seedy Kings Cross area-employs about twenty people, including an archivist, but Luhrmann is the source from which the energy flows. He is the visionary, the director, the huckster who pitches the product. “He is the fire,” says Luhrmann’s wife and partner, Catherine Martin, whose job it is to give his imaginings material form. (Last year, she won two Academy Awards, for the costumes and for the set design of his film “Moulin Rouge.”) Luhrmann, who has a leading man’s good looks and a mane of carefully layered and tinted hair, claims to see “no separation between work and life.” For the last thirteen years, he has contrived to be always either in rehearsal, in production, or on the publicity trail. “Work is the prayer,” he says. He is, first and foremost, an entrepreneur of astonishment. “It’s not enough that you move through the worldyou must change it to suit your expectation,” he says. The root of his romanticism, he adds, is “a belief that things are better, more incredible, more wonderful than they actually are.”

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Bill Hicks

ON OCTOBER 1, 1993, THE comedian Bill Hicks, after doing his twelfth gig on the David Letterman show, became the first comedy act to be censored at CBS’s Ed Sullivan Theatre, where Letterman is now in residence, and where Elvis Presley was famously censored in 1956. Presley was not allowed to be shown from the waist down. Hicks was not allowed to be shown at all. It’s not what’s in Hicks’s pants but what’s in his head that scared the CBS panjandrums. Hicks, a tall, thirty-one-year-old Texan with a pudgy face aged beyond its years from hard living on the road, is no motormouth vulgarian but an exhilarating comic thinker in a renegade class all his own. Until the ban, which, according to Hicks, earned him “more attention than my other eleven appearances on Letterman times one hundred,” Hicks’s caustic observations and mischievous cultural connections had found a wide audience in England, where he is something of a cult figure. I caught up with Hicks backstage on a rainy Sunday last November at the Dominion Theatre, in London, where a record-breaking crowd of two thousand Brits was packed so tightly that they were standing three deep at the back of the dress circle to hear Hicks deliver some acid home truths about the U.S.A., which to him stands for United States of Advertising. Hicks thinks against society and insists on the importance of this intellectual freedom as a way to inspire others to think for themselves. “To me, the comic is the guy who says ‘Wait a minute’ as the consensus forms,” Hicks told me as we climbed the stairs to his dressing room. “He’s the antithesis of the mob mentality. The comic is a flame-like Shiva the Destroyer, toppling idols no matter what they are. He keeps cutting everything back to the moment.”

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Billy Connolly

THE SCOTTISH COMEDIAN BILLY Connolly likes to date his enduring optimism to his days in the shipyards of Glasgow, where he worked as a welder from the ages of sixteen to twentyfour. One day, he says, he went to buy a pack of cigarettes from lam, the chain-smoking old worker who ran the company store:
He started to cough. It was like a storm building up-a thundering storm from miles away. He ended up with these noises that sounded like a platoon of cavalry galloping through a swamp in Wellingtons full of vomit. Then it came to an end; all calmed down. I says, “Jesus, lam, that’s some cough.” He says, “Fuck off?” He says, “Did you pass the graveyard on the way in here?” I says, “Aye.” He says, “Well, the graveyard’s full of people that would fucking love my cough.” And that’s basically my philosophy: if you think you’re having a bad time, the graveyard’s full of people who would love to be doing what you’re doing.
In a thirty-three-year career, which has included some two thousand stage appearances, eighteen videos, and fifteen CDs, Connolly has almost never written down a line of material. Instead, onstage, for two and a half hours, he holds a sort of seance with himself. (One of his daughters once referred to his profession as “comedium.”) A comedian performing without a script is like a high-wire artist working without a net: it creates a particular kind of immediacy. Connolly’s free-associating hodgepodge of personal revelation, fantasy, and bawdry often takes him, as well as the audience, by surprise. “All this shit comes out,” he told me in his distinctive burr. “All this fear and angst and learning.” He added, “If I’m talking about something during the day, it’ll pop up in the night. I remember talking about sex to Pamela”-his wife, the former comedian Pamela Stephenson-“when we first met. My point was that it was an animal act, and the worst thing you could do to it was put on it the manners of the dining room.” In his routine, that idea became “You mustn’t take the animalism of the bedroom into the dining room-except for foreplay . . . . It’s handy to remember, when it comes to the cutlery, that it’s the same as foreplay: start at the outside and work your way in.”

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Dame Edna Everage

MARCH 8, 1989. IT’s 3 RM., BUT the marquee above the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the oldest and most venerable of London’s theatres, has already been switched on. Passersby as far away as Covent Garden can pick out the sign’s blinking red neon message: “DAME EDNA’S SECOND COMING-SHE’S BACK BECAUSE SHE CARES.”

In England’s rich and vicious eighties, “caring” was high concept that became high parody. Margaret Thatcher, caricatured on the cover of The Spectator as a Dame Edna look-alike, complete with pink diamante glasses, assured the nation that the Tories cared. “Labour Cares” was the theme of the Opposition. And Dame Edna, always up to the minute, was repeating her 1987 revue, and raking in approximately a hundred and sixty thousand pounds a week from selling out the Drury Lane’s twenty-two hundred and forty-five seats, because she, too, cared. “I mean that in a very caring, nurturing way,” Dame Edna was fond of saying after delivering a particularly low blow. The maneuver was in keeping with the vindictive style of the times, and so was the title of Dame Edna’s 1987 show, “Back with a Vengeance!” By the late eighties, revenge on liberalism was such a blatant part of the English political climate that maliciousness-Dame Edna’s stock-in-trade-could be uninhibitedly flaunted. And Dame Edna was nothing if not uninhibited and illiberal.

Dame Edna had announced herself to the critics and the newspapers weeks before the opening of the 1989 show-“Back with a Vengeance! The Second Coming”-_and had done it in her own inimitable style: “My gynaecologist, my numerologist, my biorhythmologist, my T’ai-Chi instructor, my primal scream therapist, and my aromatherapist all tell me that I will be at the height of my powers as a woman from March 9, 1989, for a strictly limited season.” The press release, featuring a Russian Constructivist logo and a clenched fist full of gladioli, added, “It’s not so much a show, more a private audience. And since I’m writing my autobiography this could just be one of the last chances you have of seeing me before my millennium comeback. DO YOURSELVES A FAVOUR-See the Turn of the Century before the turn of the century.” This was not a conventional press release, but then Dame Edna is not a conventional person. Dame Edna is, in fact, a theatrical phenomenon: the only solo act to play (and fill) the Drury Lane since it opened for business, in 1663, with Beaumont and Fletcher’s “The Humorous Lieutenant.” The Observer named Dame Edna “one of the idols of the 80s,” and the public keeps faith with her. The 1987 “Back with a Vengeance!,” which ran nine months and played to capacity, had the third-highest advance in the history of London’s West End-exceeded only by “Phantom of the Opera” and “Chess.” For the thirty-one shows in Dame Edna’s 1989 season, the box office had six hundred thousand pounds in advance sales the day before opening. Television had won Dame Edna an even wider popularity and a new theatregoing audience. In the autumn of 1987, a seventh of the British Isles, or about eight million three hundred thousand people, representing 48.7 per cent of the network share, tuned in to “The Dame Edna Experience” in prime time-at ten-thirty on a Saturday night-to watch Dame Edna, the supremo of narcissists, treat the celebrity guests on her TV talk show like audiovisual aids.

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Laurence Fishburne

IN THE HISTORY OF DRAMA, MANY plays have been published with an author’s note, but Laurence Fishburne’s “Riff Raff” is the only one, to my knowledge, that comes with a warning. “Practitioners of the craft, be forewarned,” he writes in the 1997 acting edition. “DON’T FUCK AROUND! COME CORRECT, COME TO GET DOWN. A ‘RIFF’ IS A ‘RIFF.’ SO SWING!”

“Swing” is Fishburne’s favorite word to describe the nuanced and dynamic force that he brings to his performances. “I mean it in the exact sense that jazz musicians mean it,” he explains. “‘Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got no swing.’ It’s got to have a feel, a rhythm, a sense of melody and tempo.” In nearly fifty films, Fishburne, with his broad-shouldered swagger, his heavy-lidded almond eyes, and his smoky, wet voice, has made his own eloquent music, swooping between registers of sorrow and joy. “There is hardly an actor of his age around who exhibits more flash, energy, and intelligence,” David Thomson writes in “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.” Acting, to Fishburne, means “being fearless-it’s throwing yourself off the bridge.” He goes on, “Sometimes it’s not appropriate; sometimes it may be wrong. But it’s gonna be O.K. You’re gonna arrive at something that’s true. You’re gonna fly. You’re gonna catch the right fucking updraft, man, and you’re gonna go, ‘Oh, oh, yes!-this is what 1 was trying to do.”

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Judi Dench

In her time, Dench has been serenaded by Gerry Mulligan from beneath her New York hotel window. She has watched, in West Africa, as, at the finale of “Twelfth Night,” people in the audience threw their programs into the air, then jumped to their feet to sing and dance for several minutes. She has downed with the comedians Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. She has locked herself in a bathroom with Maggie Smith to escape the advances of the English comic character actor Miles Malleson. She has refused Billy Connolly’s offer to show her his pierced nipples. As for her own nipples, she has stood in front of the camera, naked to the waist and unabashed, dabbing meringue on them. She has cooled herself on a summer day by jumping fully clothed into a swimming pool. At Buckingham Palace, she has scuttled away from the ballroom with Ian McKellen to sit on the royal thrones. In a Dublin restaurant, when Harold Pinter, a theatrical royal, barked about the tardiness of their dinner, Dench, according to David Jones, actually barked hack, “Mr. Pinter, you are not in London. Would you please adjust.” She has made David Hare a needlepoint pillow as a Mother’s Day present, with the words ‘Tuck Off” intricately stitched into the tapestry. On the day she became Dame Judi, Dench pinned her D.B.E. insignia on the jacket of the actor playing Don Pedro in a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that she was directing. It is a barometer of her louche and lively life that, not long after that, the first ten rows of the National’s Lyttelton Theatre heard Michael Bryant, who was playing Enobarbus to her Cleopatra, say to Dench under his breath, “I suppose a fuck is well out of the question now?”

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Tony Kushner

The swashbuckling quality of Kushner’s intellectual aspirations is not borne out by his demeanor. At forty-eight, he is tall, courtly, unassuming, and flatfooted, with a tangle of wiry black curls–his “wackadoo hair,” as his friend the director Michael Mayer calls it. He is by nature a “fummfler”-what Sendak calls “the jewish fumbler who is in perfect control, who uses his comic character to somehow make everyone feel comfortable and loose.” He talks extraordinarily fast, with a machine-gun-style delivery that reflects both his swiftness of mind and his nervousness. At the same time, his pace gives him a distinct comic advantage. When delivering the Class Day speech at Columbia University earlier this year, he reminded the students that he had been their fourth choice-after Warren Buffett, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Jon Stewart. “I think I should begin by acknowledging your disappointment that I am not Jon Stewart,” he said. “Your disappointment that I am not Jon Stewart will last one morning. I am disappointed at not being Jon Stewart every morning of my life.” To graduates at Bard, where he was awarded an honorary degree, he observed, “I cherish my bile duct as much as any other organ. I take good care of it. I make sure it gets its daily vitamins and antioxidants and invigorating exposure to news of Antonin Scalia and everyone else working for the Bush family.” At Cooper Union, receiving another degree, he began his speech by pronouncing President Bush’s words of the previous day: “Thank you and good evening. I’m honored to visit the Army War College. Generations of officers have come here to study the strategies and history of warfare. I’ve come here tonight to report to all Americans, and to the Iraqi people, on the strategy our nation is pursuing in Iraq and the specific steps we’re taking to achieve our goals.” He paused, then added, “I just wanted to feel what it felt like to say that.”

When Kusimer speaks in public, his gambit is often to share with his audience a little secret, some complaint that downplays his own prestige: he’s tired; he’s nervous; he’s unprepared; he’s overworked; he doesn’t know what to say. “He keeps dismantling himself, reminding himself of how weak he is and how many frailties he has,” Nichols says. “He lets you see the vulnerability. It’s part of a genius’s self-protection.”

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Mira Nair

“To be a filmmaker, you have to be diseased,” Nair once said. She is, she explains, “permanently afflicted.” Among the many accomplishments of “Monsoon Wedding,” the most startling is that it conveys onscreen something that is palpable in Nair herself, what the Punjabis call mcjsti-an intoxication with life. In film, which she chose as her metier at the age of twenty, Nair has found a form “where I can embrace life completely.” She is now forty-five, and her relish for the world around her is fuelled, in part, by the knowledge that three horoscopes have predicted that she’ll die at sixty-one. “I don’t really believe it, but I don’t forget it, either,” she says. Nair, who is the youngest of three children reared in an upper-middle-class home in Bhubaneswar, a backwater-“remote even in Indian terms”some two hundred and forty miles southwest of Calcutta, is a person of color, and she celebrates color. Whether she is showing us Bombay strippers in her documentary “India Cabaret” (1985), the racial divide between blacks and browns in the South in “Mississippi Masala” (1991), or even a white-trash Bayonne, New jersey, no-hoper, who can’t get a date (played, improbably, by Uma Thurman) in the HBO movie “Hysterical Blindness” (2002), N air’s films negotiate disparate ethnic geographies with the same kind of sly civility she practices in life. Her approach is sometimes oblique: she doesn’t make political films, but she does make her films politically. Her gift, to which “Monsoon Wedding” attests, is to make diversity irresistible.

Nair is, above all, a populist-a mass communicator who actually maintains contact with the masses. When she was showing her 1996 erotic movie “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” in India, where cinemagoing is a vocal, largely male-dominated experience, she insisted that there be special screenings for women. After making “Salaam Bombay!” (1988), her audacious first feature, about street children in India, she started the Salaam Baalak Trust, a program that now assists some four thousand homeless kids a year in India. “I have always been drawn to the stories of people who live on the margins of society-on the edge, or outside, always dealing with the question of what and where is home,” she says. Nair herself, who set off for America at eighteen, exists in that weird, liminal expatriate zone, and the complex negotiation of identity across cultural boundaries has become an inevitable theme in her work. “To have a world view-to look at the world through a point outside America-is crucial,” she says. Even in India, she notes, “the process of day-to-day living stops people from seeing the things that I see when I come from the outside.” One day in 1983, when she was in Bombay, as her taxi idled in traffic, she recalls that a boy “with just a torso and head, on a wooden platform with wheels,” grabbed onto her cab. As we approached the junction, he let go of the cab, pirouetted with the extra velocity, and then made a big gesture, like he’d just finished his most important circus routine. It was just fantastic to have this flamboyant lack of selfpity.” She adds, “If I lived there, I might not have noticed the extraordinariness of that.” The moment was her inspiration for “Salaam Bombay!”

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Cole Porter

Porter’s entire life was built around the act of decoying his depths. From the moment in 1905 when the elfin fourteen-year-old from a powerful lumber and mining family in Peru, Indiana-the pampered and only surviving one of three siblings-_—arrived at Worcester Academy, in Massachusetts, with his paintings and an upright piano for his dorm room, he cast himself as a kind of dandy. The dandy’s strategy is to combine daring with tact, flamboyance with distance. Instead of breaking the rules, Porter learned to play with them. “At boarding school I was always taught,” he wrote in “I’m in Love,” “not to reveal what I really thought, / Nor ever once let my eyes betray / The dreadful things I longed to say.” At Yale, where he had a sensational undergraduate career, his salmon-colored ties, his slick, center-parted hair, and his manicured nails broadcast his privilege and his rebellion. “Porter did not fit easily into the social mold of a Yale man,” his friend Gerald Murphy, who engineered Porter’s entry into the most raucous of Yale fraternities, DKE, said. Still, music made a place for him on campus, allowing him both to tease the mainstream and to join it. He composed “Bull Dog” and “Bingo Eli Yale,” football anthems that are still played today; he wrote his first musical, “Cora”(1911); he was a member of the Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s most prestigious singing group, and the president of the Glee Club. Behind a piano, delivering his mischievous lyrics in a highpitched, metallic voice-“I sing unpleasantly,” he once said-Porter could confess and, at the same time, mask his feelings, keeping the world both engaged and at arm’s length.

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Richard Rodgers

The contrast between music and lyrics was mirrored in Rodgers and Hart’s seemingly opposite natures. Rodgers was a detached, disciplined workaholic with an eye to his own legend; Hart was a warm-hearted, undisciplined wastrel, who was more interested in seizing the day than the brass ring. “That boy will never see twenty-five,” Rodgers’s mother told him in the early days of their collaboration. (Her instincts weren’t wrong, and Hart did die young, of pneumonia, in 1943, at the age of forty-eight.) Rodgers had social ambitions and moved easily in high society, Hart’s view of the rich was that they were “a lot of crumbs held together by their own dough.” Rodgers was empty without work; Hart was empty with it. (“What have I lived for?” were his last words.) Rodgers was emotionally contained; the idiosyncratic Hart seemed to spill out over everything. “When he liked something apparently his whole body itched,” Rodgers said of his partner. Rodgers was a womanizer who longed for a happiness that always seemed to elude him; Hart was a closeted gay man-a romantic who couldn’t get a date-the poignancy of which is broadcast in so many of the team’s memorable songs (“A Ship Without a Sail,” “Spring Is Here,” It Never Entered My Mind,” “Where’s That Rainbow?,” and-note the pun-“Nobody’s Heart”). “Let me buy you a stimulant” was the diminutive Hart’s mantra. Cigarchomping and night-loving, he was, as he once described Falstaff in a prizewinning high-school essay, a “blustering, boisterous boy of Bacchus.”

No-one made more of a myth of the duo’s contradictions than Rodgers himself. Just as Hart’s size made Rodgers look bigger than he was-five feet seven-his wild ways made Rodgers look better than he was. Hart’s bad behavior allowed Rodgers to camouflage, from the world and from himself, his anxieties about his own fragility; next to Hart, he was a model of normality and rectitude. “I was pretty much a thorn in Larry’s side, because I lived a much more conventional life,” Rodgers said in an oral history stored at Columbia University. (The section of the oral history relating to Hart remained sealed until Rodgers’s death.) “His mother used to badger him. She used to say, ‘Why can’t you get married like Dick and have children?’ Well, this was the last thing that Larry wanted to do . . . . I know that it bothered him. There it was in front of him, every day, the conventional good citizen.”

In fact, Rodgers was an alcoholic, too, excessive in his philandering appetites (all his life he kept an apartment for cinq ci septs), and phobic about, among other things, germs, airplanes, fire, elevators, tunnels, bridges, and homosexuals. “Had dinner with the shrimp last night and hit the hay at a very early hour while he went on about his nefarious (get it?) business,” Rodgers wrote to his wife, Dorothy, the sister of a childhood friend, whom he had married in 1930. Decades later, Diahann Carroll, who starred in “No Strings,” for which Rodgers wrote the words as well as the music, recounted the shock of his saying to her, “You just can’t imagine how wonderful it feels to have written this score, and not have to search all over the globe for that drunken little fag.”

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Kenneth Tynan

AT OXFORD, WHERE HE BECAME A postwar legend, Kenneth Tynan cut a gaunt romantic figure. He liked to characterize himself to the Bright Young Things as a kind of meteor who would blaze across the English scene only to be extinguished before his thirtieth year. “By then,” he said, “I will have said everything I have to say.” In fact, Tynan’s skyrocketing crash-and-burn scenario took nearly twice as long to play itself out. With his reputation for brilliance more or less intact, he died too young, of emphysema, in July, 1980, at the age of fifty-three. At the memorial service, Tom Stoppard turned to Tynan’s three children, Tracy, Roxana, and Matthew. “For those of us who were working in the English-speaking theatre during those years,” he said, referring to the period between 1950 and 1963, when Tynan’s drama criticism was as much an event as the plays he reviewed, “for those of us who shared his time, your father was part of the luck we had.”

Critics do not make theatre; they are made by it. Tynan’s luck was to be in the right place at the right age with the right credentials, the right vocabulary, and the right impudent temperament to savor the new British theatrical resurgence-certainly the greatest flowering of dramatic talent in England since Elizabeth I. With his hard-won intellectual precocity and his rebellious instincts (“Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds” was the quotation-his own, as it happens-pinned above his writing desk), Tynan was the old Brit and the new rolled into one lanky, well-tailored package. Of the many qualities that made him an outstanding critic-qualities of wit, language, knowledge, style, and fun-perhaps the most important and the most surprising was his profound awareness of death. It fed both his voracity for pleasure-for food, for drink, for sex, for talk (“Talking to gifted and/or funny people,” he wrote, is “evidence both of intense curiosity and of jaded palate”)-and his desire to memorialize it. “I remember about thirty times between waking and sleeping and always while I’m asleep that I am going to die,” he said. “And the more scared I am, the more pleasure and enlightenment I want to squeeze from every moment.” For Tynan, writing was a hedge against loss, a way of keeping the consoling dramatic pleasures alive inside himself by making them live for others. “I mummify transience,” he announced, at the age of twenty-three, in the epilogue to his first book, “He That Plays the King” (1950), an almost delusional rant, intended as an exercise in what he called “the athletics of personality,” with which he launched himself from Oxford into the waiting world.

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Yip Harbourg

ON MARCH 5, 1981, NEAR THE intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Veteran Avenue, in Brentwood, a car drifted slowly across the lane into oncoming traffic. The body of the songwriter E. Y. Harburg, also known as Yip, was found lying across the front seat of the wayward vehicle; his chest had caved in from a heart attack. Harburg was eighty-four. At the time, there were rumors that the car he’d collided with was the former limousine of Richard Nixon, which would have been a piquant irony, given that Harburg was blacklisted in Hollywood in the fifties because of his politics and always took delight in tweaking the nation’s follies, including what he called Pentagoonery. This year marks Harburg’s centenary, and although his songs are still very much a part of our musical atmosphere (his ASCAP royalties average about five hundred thousand dollars a year), Harburg himself is a forgotten man. He belongs in the pantheon of great theatrical lyricists—Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, and, latterly, Stephen Sondheim (whose favorite lyric lines are “Ever since that day/When the world was an onion,” from Harburg’s “The Eagle and Me”)-but he has become the invisible man of the American musical. Though he collaborated with Harold Arlen on the classic score for “The Wizard of Oz,” you won’t find his name on “The Wizard of Oz in Concert” or on the three-disk set of “The Ultimate Oz.” Unlike his Broadway colleagues, Harburg does not have a coffee-table compendium devoted to his lyrics-a reversal of fortune that puts Harburg himself with the other demoted “big-wheel controversials” he laughed at in “Jamaica” (1957):
Napoleon’s a pastry

Bismarck is a herring

Alexander’s a creme de cacao mixed with rum

And Herbie Hoover is a vacu-um.
But before the wa-wa pedal, before the Fender Stratocaster, Harburgwho will finally get his due this November, when the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts mounts an exhibit devoted to his life and work-was writing songs that moved Americans and gave words to their inarticulate longings and fears. He called himself variously “a wheelerdealer in stardust,” “a rainbow hustler,” and “a re-evolutionist”; Arlen, with whom he wrote a hundred and eleven songs, and who died in 1986, called him the Lemon-Drop Kid. “Yipper is not a blues thinker,” Arlen once told me. “He likes things to be joyous and/or poetic.” Harburg liked to take issue with his times, and he did this by making unacceptable ideas irresistible. “Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song makes you feel a thought,” he often said. “Barriers fall. Hostilities melt, and a new idea can find a soft spot under a hard hat.”

Every lyricist has his own thematic obsessions, and Harburg, whom I interviewed at length in the mid-seventies, regularly discoursed on the views of the other lyricists in his league. “Cole Porter saw the world as an

elite party,” he said. “Hammerstein had a little more humanity. He felt for people. He was as corny as Kansas in August. Berlin saw the world as a hit song. Ira Gershwin saw the world as a smart song. His thematic attack is always ‘Oh, sweet and lovely lady, be good. Oh, lady be good to me!’ He wants mothering: ‘Someone to watch over me.’ Larry Hart saw songs as a means of stopping the pretty girls from rejecting him. His songs always yearn for a ‘hand to hold my hand’: ‘When the music swells, I’m touching your hand; It tells that you’re standing near.’ The height of ecstasy is to have somebody hold his hand. And me? ‘It’s only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea, But it wouldn’t be make-believe, If you believed in me.’ And somewhere over the rainbow we’ll be all right.”

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