Monday, April 29, 2013

A Different Life After Being Governor

There are people in the world that would never give someone a break or a second chance. That demand documentaries answer the questions THEY want answered. That believe they have a certain right to those in the public eye because those people 'chose' to make themselves public. 

That's what I found after watching the HBO documentary Fall to Grace about Jim McGreevey and then reading reviews and articles about it. Writers and reviewers wanted the story to continue where he left off when he walked away from office. They felt his memoir, going on Oprah and all that 'coming clean' wasn't enough. They needed the why/where/who answered.

That didn't seem to be what filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi was in search of when she decided to follow him around.

Yes, one can criticize that there seems to be much hugging of the women in prison that McGreevey is spending his days counseling. And that he appears to still be campaigning when walking the streets of Newark and people come up to him. But that could also just be part of having been in the public eye for so long - people are going to approach you on the street.

My take away from the documentary: I saw a very caring man that seems to truly believe in what he is doing. Debate all you want that he should have come out of the closet sooner - but this man was torn for years between what his religion taught him and who he really was. Do I hate that men in the closet ruin the lives of their wives? Absolutely. But that's not what this documentary is about.

It is about someone changing course midway through life. And actually - it hardly deals with him being gay. That's but one aspect of his life now. He is a father and he is partnered and he and his husband go about as everyone else. But like I've blogged before about 'regular' every day people making career changes later in life...this is a prime example of it. Out of the political eye. Trying to let go of that ego that made him seek attention and fame. I saw a loving man that cares for these people in the prison system that he believes are left alone. He identifies with them and he leans on something else that has always been very important to him: his faith. We see in the tabloids that he wants to be a priest and his turned down by the Episcopal Church. But from this documentary, you see a man who is living the life he feels he was called to live and I can't fault that. 

It takes a special person willing to give of their time to others. This was a man all about "me" and I saw a man about "them". I'm really glad I watched it and saw this other side to my former governor.

And I don't need answers about his personal life. I was simply happy to see he has found a way to switch courses later in life and it seems to bring him peace. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Did Nashville Succeed and Not Smash?

Have you noticed that most critics and TV people compare the two shows “Dallas” and “Nashville” when talking about them in articles? One can assume this is because they are two southern cities in the title and came out around the same time.  I watched “Dallas” up until JR Ewing died, but sort of let it go after that. However – I do still keep up with “Nashville”.

I sort of think that comparison isn’t fair because the shows are very different. If we want to compare two shows currently on…we should look at “Nashville” and “Smash”. Both use a creative industry as the background of the stories they choose to tell. One is more main-stream in that many people across America listen to country music. The other is truly a niche market because it deals with the theater world in New York City.

I have to admit: I should absolutely love “Smash” because of all that it is and all that I have been my entire life. I’m all about musical theater and that’s the setting for this show. And I have tried these first two seasons to love it – sadly, I’m not the only one that feels that way. Ratings have not been good (4 million more people watch "Nashville" than "Smash") and NBC has moved it around and has decided to air the finale as a two hour special on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend (not the best time-slot). I guess fans should be happy they are getting an ending to it as network television has no problem nowadays cancelling a show and never letting us know what happens to the characters we have grown to love.

What did “Nashville” do that was right that “Smash” couldn’t tap into? I love the music on both shows, yet the stories and characters on “Nashville” simply pull me in much more than those on “Smash”. Both shows have performers at odds with each other, both have people sleeping around within the industry and both give us drama (with a capital D).  But there is something in the writing of the Music City Capital tale that makes me care about these people when the other has me longing for another song by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.  

I'm sure I'll tune into the finale in a month to see what becomes of Ivy and Karen, but I know it won't affect my summer with its departure. I wish viewers could have cared more about what happens in the making of a Broadway musical (and I really wish they'd just write Bombshell and get it on stage) - but for a story that makes me feel something; I'll continue to tune into ABC to see if country superstar Rayna James ever gets back together with her first love Deacon. (Of course - that's until ABC decides they are not pulling in enough viewers and replaces it with a Celebrity D-List reality show.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Last Five Years Soars at Second Stage

I love musicals - especially those small gems that have cult followings, but that few people see. (I spent years searching those out for 4th Wall Theatre when I served as their artistic director.) So I realize my card should be revoked that I did not see “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown when it ran off-Broadway ten years ago. I love his work from “Songs for a New World” to “Parade”. The man is a genius as a composer/songwriter. In this piece, he has mixed his contemporary sound with a semi-autobiographical account of his first marriage and placed it on the stage for all to see: and all told through song.

The musical running at Second Stage Theatre has been extended several times and if you are in New York…you must go and see it. We witness the lives of two twenty-somethings as they meet, fall in love, marry and dissolve: all within five years. Jamie Wellerstein is an up and coming novelist who takes the literary world by storm (much as Jason Robert Brown did as a composer in his twenties) while Cathy Hiatt is one of the thousands of people in New York trying to make it as an actress, but doesn’t quite  get there. I give nothing away by saying the marriage dissolves, because the story is told through two perspectives: Jamie moves forward and Cathy starts at the end and moves backwards. It may sound confusing, but it is cleverly done in this song cycle – with the two never really connecting except in the middle when it is at their wedding.

Brown has directed this version himself and I can’t help but wonder what that must be like for him. As a writer myself, I realize I put some of my own life into my writing – but his former wife actually tried to get this show stopped when it first came out. Distance and time must place a new perspective on it for this writer/director. But he has done a great job at directing and the clever sets and lighting all add to a wonderful production.

The two actors are incredible. I think I’m in love with Betsy Wolfe and now I must see everything she does. She is completely adorable with her comedic numbers, heartbreaking when she starts the show with a bang, and a belt that shakes the cavernous room at Second Stage while also drifting up into angelic soprano areas. I found myself grinning ear-to-ear when she was on stage.  Adam Kantor makes the role his own, even while being directed by the man who ‘semi’ lived it. The man has a vocal range from bottom to top that does not quit. Watching him progress in his career with exuberance is delightful and he carefully maneuvers some pitfalls written into his role.

I’m twenty years beyond my twenties, but I still recall those years in NYC when I was striving to balance career and relationship. It’s never easy. As a novelist, I watched carefully as Jamie’s world takes over the marriage because even at 44 I want to make sure that never happens in my own life. So the show has themes that many couples can relate to – no matter our age.

The one issue I would have with it is that we don’t get a sense of where the love came from. We see devotion from Cathy and we see a lot of ego from Jamie. We wonder why Jamie would ever leave her (especially with such a vibrant actress playing the role). But if you look closely at the lyrics – I think Brown has put it in there. Jamie sings the word “I” over and over. Even when he has an amazing song called “If I Didn’t Believe in You” (which when I heard Norbert Leo Butz sing from the original recording it broke my heart) – the arrogance of Jamie shines through in Kantor’s performance. Maybe we would have felt more for this man climbing the literary ladder and leaving his wife behind had he only said “If you didn’t believe in me…” But Jamie makes it all about himself – all the time. Perhaps this was Brown’s way of apologizing to a past love. I guess we’ll never know.

The musical is being made into a film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. (I have a huge crush on Kendrick too in every movie she makes.) I’ll be very curious to see what director Richard LaGravenese does with a stage show that has two characters singing monologues and never connecting to each other on stage. Can't wait to see!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Birthday to Remember Childhood

I started my birthday this year in the best possible way I can imagine: speaking to a group of preschoolers about my book Chicken Boy. Those tiny faces were adorable as we talked about how we are different and not to ‘point at’, ‘make fun of’, or fear someone…simply because they are different. I carry that message to every school I attend. Because I see how people stare at my godson when we are in public and he does something that others may feel is ‘not normal’.

My birthday lunch was spent with that godson and his family and the 4th grader was enjoying feeding me my birthday dessert (as he doesn't like chocolate sauce and it was covered in it). Spending so much time with kids made this old guy feel very young at heart that day.

And then the terrible afternoon happened in Boston at the marathon: during a joyous event that carries so many messages of endurance, personal victories, and remembrance of tragedies past.

My mind went back to the children I had been with in that morning. How parents find themselves talking to their kids about these heinous events that occur in our world. How they continue to make them feel safe. And how they talk about the word ‘fear’ that I had just mentioned in the morning.

Every generation has had to deal with some huge event that has placed a dark stamp on history, but here in the US, this generation seems to be dealing with so much more. Parents are constantly finding themselves talking to their kids about awful events and one can only imagine how it is shaping their tiny worlds…can only imagine what they are thinking in their heads. I salute the people who raise children in today’s society. I admire their courage and strength as they tuck in their little ones with encouraging words that everything will be ‘ok’.

So, this one birthday went from an overwhelming feeling of joy to incredible sadness. But I used it as a time (as so many of us do) to evaluate where I am in my life and what is important. For me: it’s important that kids get to be kids. I loved my childhood and I hate to think that those growing up today will one day spend their birthday thinking about how they grew up in a world they feared.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Searching for Utopia at The Madrid

There is so much a playwright can learn when attending a new play. You see what works in the piece, what doesn't. How a cast and a director can take the piece and make it come alive. How important structure is to taking an audience on the journey.

After attending a performance last evening, I read people's comments on the NY Times theater review for “The Madrid” at the Manhattan Theater Club. It seemed as if the average theater-goer was not enjoying their experience at New York City Center. Written by Liz Flahive and directed by Leigh Silverman, I personally couldn't help but feel at times the two were at odds with each other: not sure of the tone they wanted to convey in the evening.

Edie Falco plays Martha: a teacher who is 'done' with it all. She leaves her classroom and her family and we spend an entire act trying to figure out what is going on and why. The daughter recently out of college returns to live with her father and take up her mother's life. We meet neighbors who speak of how much they miss Martha. Everyone misses Martha. Yet the Martha we have seen doesn't seem like someone you would miss.

And then we get to act II and we discover the unending string of times Martha has wanted to leave the family before and yet she longs to have a relationship with her daughter: the person that seems to have been the cause for her wanting to leave – that she wanted to give up motherhood. (Is this making sense to you?) It doesn't make a lot of sense on stage either. And yet, there is something very moving about it and left me so melancholy. (Strange for a show billed as a comedy.) For those that know the musical "Next To Normal" - I see similar themes running in both. It's just that “The Madrid” doesn't ever quit 'get' there. 

Edie Falco is an amazing actress and I love to see her perform. But I get the sense she's not always certain of Martha's decisions either. Yet some of the scenes between her and the daughter (Phoebe Strole) are so real and raw. Frances Sternhagen plays a grandmother teetering on the edge of alzheimer's, but the comic relief she brings to the show feels like it belongs in a different play. (I saw Sternhagen in “Driving Miss Daisy” many, many years ago and loved seeing her again.) There are quirky moments that pop up - I suppose as the author stating that life is never black and white. There is comedy in every dramatic situation. We long for things we don't have: that "Madrid/Utopia" that will make us happy...but we don't always achieve it.

The play has a feel like an indie film and I almost believe pacing and theme would probably be better in film. This may be one of the reasons so many of those comments I first mentioned had such a tough time with the play. For me, it wasn’t the best show I’ve ever seen – but it did bring up many questions for people to carry out of the theater about marriage, relationships, and put me in a very philosophical mood.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Lucky to See Hanks

Print is a dying art, but those that are journalist love what they do more than anything in their lives.

That is sort of the theme I walked away with after seeing Broadway’s Lucky Guy: Nora Ephron’s final nod to a business she was a part of for many years and the last thing she wrote before passing away.

You can’t attend this show without speaking about seeing an amazing ensemble. And I do mean ensemble. Yes, Tom Hanks is the main character. He never leaves the stage. He gives a performance like…well, like Tom Hanks: the lovable actor we all crave in movies. The man that can win you with a smile or a lilt in his voice, no matter the character he is playing. 

But this IS an ensemble with everyone taking a bow together at show’s end. For me, Courtney B. Vance is pure magic and I couldn’t take my eyes from him while on stage. So wonderful to see him back on Broadway. He made a splash in the 80s in the play Fences with James Earl Jones and has mastered quite a career since. The stage is full of movie and television personalities including: Richard Masur which has done everything from One Day at A Time to one that has always stayed with me from the early 80s Fallen Angel, Christopher McDonald most recently from Harry’s Law (but he’ll always be Goose from Grease 2 to me), Maura Tierney from ER and NewsRadio, and Hanks’ other Bosom Buddy Peter Scolari along with a fine group of other stage and film actors. (Stephen Tyron Williams makes his Broadway debut in a five minute scene playing Abner Louima and blew me away.)

These actors took what many reviewers have felt is not the best script (though most are afraid to dwell on that because it is Ms. Ephron’s final work and she is not here to defend it), and created full blown characters. That alone is worth the admission if you are an actor looking to hone your craft. You get an evening of witnessing what it means to create a story that is not on the page. Something actors must always do and all of these fine people did a wonderful job with it; some better than others…but that is the nature of the size of their roles. (Insert ‘no such thing is a small part, only small actors’ here.)

George C. Wolfe is one of those directors I absolutely admire and I love what he has done with this cinematic script. And it is. It is written and cut like a movie. The action doesn’t stop. We move from one setting to another – quickly. (And I’ll admit I love that as I’ve been told I tend to write plays in that fashion: not the standard one living room set and everyone enters and plays their scenes there.) We are inundated with the smell of herbal cigarettes as everyone smokes. A newsroom in the late 80s: you couldn’t get away from it. (Sometimes Peter Scolari’s job is actually to stay on stage and smoke to continue to fill the stage.)

What we don’t get much of is a story that makes us feel something. It all comes at you so quickly and if you are not part of that life, you may be glancing at your watch (which I saw people next to me doing). In Ephron’s attempt to shed light on the real life story of Mike McAlary who jumped jobs from newspaper to newspaper in the 80s and 90s and who won the Pulitzer Prize before his death on Christmas Day in 1998, we end up with a bio-drama that feels more like a documentary that is just giving us the facts. When the show would stop for a moment and allow the characters to have a scene, I felt I could breathe and settle into the show. But then we were off and running to get through about 15 years of his life. Critics seem to dislike Act II and yet – I found it to be the one that had the most heart: possibly because we got more dialogue and scenes and less of one of the actors spitting out exposition to the audience in the form of a “newsboy headline cry”. 

McAlary had many moments in his life that could have been explored in play form (and actually another play on him ran off-Broadwayin 2011). He was a controversial man that infuriated many with his style, demeanor and especially his coverage of rape victim Jane Doe. But this incarnation of his life feels like an attempt to turn an everyman into a hero – as quickly as possible. To do so, you skim over his life and you cast the most famous everyman that people adore: Tom Hanks.
Why We Love Hanks

It is Hanks that makes me feel for McAlary towards the end of his life. And yet, I’m not sure if I were feeling for McAlary or just caught up in the glory that is witnessing Tom Hanks mesmerize us with another fine performance.

You go to the theater. You tell me how lucky McAlary was or if you feel lucky for snatching up tickets. And then come back and let me know your thoughts on it.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fate Found in Sedona

Do you believe in fate?

A year ago I went to Sedona for my birthday. My book was launching that same day and I needed a chance to regroup, rethink, recharge. Everyone had said Sedona was the place for
that and they were so correct.

While there we saw signs for the film Sedona all over and I knew I wanted to see it. But came home, forgot to look it up and it passed from my mind. Sometimes that little thing called fate plays a part in what happens in our life and because of a certain social site - I was up this morning watching the film on iTunes.

Exactly what I needed.

A year later and my life has gone in many directions since then, but it feels like time to regroup and take stock again as my birthday approaches. This wonderful film made me think of all of that and more. It not only captures that town so beautifully, but is all about destiny and how certain people come into our lives at the right moment (and oddly enough - birthdays play a significant point in the story). I found filmmaker Tommy Stovall to have such a great eye for both creating a gift to the town in which he resides and for telling a story that pulls in audiences with a mix of comedy and drama. Full of quirky characters that are not always found in standard Hollywood films - this film captured the essence of the vortexes of Sedona, the craziness that some feel about the people that live there, and kudos for showing a gay couple that completely plays against stereotypes. The film intertwines the lives of two very driven strangers and follows them in the course of one day.  Actors we recognize such as Francis Fisher, Seth Peterson, Beth Grant, Christopher Atkins make up this fine ensemble cast (which was also another coup for a indie director). I also really love the tone of the film: how it rides the line while dealing with some dramatic situations and yet keeping it light because life is not always black or white when it comes to drama and comedy.

A good film stays with you and causes you to think. I've been lost in my head for a while lately, but this one really added on additional layers about doing what makes you happy. Not allowing those we love to get lost in our lives. And honestly believing that things happen for a reason. As a writer and someone who has been in the entertainment industry in some capacity for many years, lately my mind has gone more and more to film: how my novels would translate into this medium. 

Tommy Stovall
Seeing films like Sedona renews that dream as I witness others living out theirs. And I don't simply mean the story we see on the screen. I mean the one behind the camera with filmmaker Tommy Stovall. A man who (while getting his degree in film at the University of Texas) started his own production company and worked in that industry all through college. Who went on to challenge himself in the middle of a very competitive field and raised the funds to produce his first film in 2005 and then did it again with Sedona in 2011. 

Hats off to, Mr. Stovall for living his dream. And for making a really great film that not only inspired me this morning while watching it - but makes me want to return to Sedona again.

So DO you believe in fate? 

After watching "Sedona" ... you just might.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Awareness AND Acceptance

This year we are hearing so much about changing the word Autism "Awareness" to Autism "Acceptance". Personally - I'm all about saying that just because someone is different (whatever that difference may be) - be aware of that difference, accept them for who they are, and celebrate how different ALL of us are! 

It has been a year since my book Chicken Boy: The Amazing Adventures of a Superhero with Autism has been out and what an amazing year it has been. No, I have not become a millionaire because of a book…was never the intention. I think what has happened has been just as wonderful. I have been able to be a small part of a much larger movement to make the lives of those living with autism visible to others.

And I do mean SMALL part. I realize what I do is nothing in comparison to the countless
hours of what others do, but I'm pleased for what I do get to be involved with around this time of year.

My book is one of the many items up for auction at a fundraiser for autism in Minnesota. It is being read by a group of PACE (after school program) kids in Richardson, Texas and my publisher made a donation to help get those kids shirts. It received an amazing review from a young boy with autism today. And it is part of a giveaway on another blog. An abundance of richest in one week!

Last week, I was the guest speaker at a kick-off for autism awareness at a middle school in New Jersey. And today, I spent the day at three different elementary schools in New York talking about the book, signing copies and sharing the message to 'not be afraid'.

The past year has been an incredible personal journey for me and I'm so happy to meet each new person I come in contact with that has autism in their lives on a daily basis. I learn new stories. I see smiling faces. I feel I am part of awareness and acceptance. And at times, I can't keep quiet about how I feel and take to my blog on Huffington Post to share my views.

April 2nd - awareness day. Whatever that may mean to you. It has meant the world to me and I'm proud to be a part of it. 

BTW - I hear from people that I should contact their school and speak there. I am more than willing to travel around the Tri-State area (NY/NJ/CT) to talk about the book. But it's because of amazing parents in the school that bring the book to the attention of the school that gets me in there. Would love to do more!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Back Up on a SoapBox

Social Media can be confusing. So is building a platform if you are a writer. I've been doing it for almost two years now and if I were to look back at the amount of time I've spent on it, I probably could have written several other books during that time.

We all look for ways to connect to other people. Many people do it so much they don't leave the computer and simply try and do it virtually. For a writer, you not only want to connect - you want to cultivate readers for your books.

Spoiler alert: The next section may seem contrary to my 'pay-it-forward' attitude I have - so if you don't want to view my practical side, stop reading now.

Enter businesses aimed at 'indie authors' looking to help them build their list of followers or likes. (Yes, there are a few out there and if you are an indie author, I'm sure you've been approached and know them.)

I'll admit, I got pulled into these during my writing career and would spend the 3rd Friday of every month with the letter Y in the title going through their lists and following their rules to LIKE someone's page so they will LIKE me back. You must type X. You can't be logged in as your author page because it must COUNT. (Twitter has rules that your followers to follow ratio has to stay in proportion or they don't allow you to follow anymore. Facebook doesn't count PAGES that like your page, but many people don't want to use their personal account to LIKE another page - which is all that 'counts': case in point, I have another 175 PAGES that have 'liked' my author page on FB, but show in no counts).

My honest thoughts on this: it does nothing for you. Building numbers doesn't make you a better writer. LIKING a page of a book you'll never read doesn't help the author. If you took the time to read about that author, you may find you have nothing in common, don't agree with their philosophy and would probably not even be friends in the real world.

I have purchased so many indie books during the past two years to support many of those writers. I thought it was the 'right thing to do'. Some (I'll admit) did not grab my attention and I stopped reading, but many I have read, reviewed and shared. (That's my pay-it-forward mentality...see, it is still there.) But I'll be completely honest in this blog and say I have not always seen that reciprocated. I know the authors are most grateful when they see a tweet that says "I just bought X BOOK by Z" (and I always put their twitter account in place of Z) - I'm sure that makes them happy. But it doesn't always cause a writer to think in terms of checking out something I have written.

(Ouch...that last paragraph sounds like sour grapes and it is so not my intent. Just want to share with others indies the reality of it all.)

If it is about connecting to anyone and everyone - I say do it! Follow as many writers as possible. (Writers are readers after all.) Click 'Like' on every author page (even if you don't agree with 'pregnant wicca who only eat tofu'). And build up those total followers.  You never know what networking may do for you. (I actually love the site for connecting to others in the entertainment industry.) 

But if it is about finding readers for your work, make real connections. Talk about things other than your book on your site and tweets. Engage people in conversation. Absolutely share what is happening with your writing career, but you want people following you that have a passion for your subjects and themes and just might tell someone else about your work. Like the old commercial "they told two friends and so on, and so on, and so on...".

Those are the people I want to engage with in social media. Not just someone that will add another 'count' to my likes.