Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review of "Tales of the City: A New Musical"

As much as it pains me to say so, the new musical version of Tales of the City is not as wonderful as it might be. I say this with love and a desire to help—the show is currently in previews; one assumes they’re still tinkering.

Like everyone I know, I adore the books—not only as gems of popular American literature, but also on a deeply personal level: the books are about my city and my friends. They are about me.

I also adore musicals. So I expected this to be a giddily delightful theater-going experience.

There were a few moments that approached this: When the show is funny, it is at its best. Dissatisfied society wife DeDe Halcyon-Day has, I think, two of the best songs (her musical seduction of a Chinese-food delivery guy was one of the highlights of the first act). Among the dramatic numbers, Michael Tolliver’s musical delivery of the coming-out letter he wrote for his mother was moving. (All credit for that lyric is of course due Armistead Maupin.)

All the major players in the show did well in their parts. But here’s the thing, maybe: At their heart, the Tales books (at least the first couple of them) are very, very, very sweet. The good people at 28 Barbary Lane are very good. Even the messed-up, confused ones have hearts of pure gold. (Bad people are punished. Love conquers all. Society’s misfits prevail. We are all cosmically connected. And so on.) Then, the traditional musical relies on this sort of simple sweetness and morality. So the sweetness of the tale and the sweetness of the format combine to make this musical cloying. I wondered whether the writers could have cut some of the treacle by pumping up the raunchiness factor. The show’s “raunchiness” has a cartoonish quality (as do the books’—but putting cartoonish raunchiness to song amplifies that quality in a cringe-y way). I wished for a bit of grit. Mona’s drug use is too adorable. Michael’s romantic heartbreak is too wistful. (Or maybe I’m just too cynical and awful.) The scene with the jockey-shorts contest was entirely too PG. I’m thinking of the film version of the musical Cabaret when I think of cartoonish raunchiness that had a good gritty quality.

And that’s enough of the word raunchy, I think.

The adaptation of the book was quite literal, mood-wise (some plot elements were shifted a teensy bit). We have the benefit, now, of hindsight—of knowing what comes after the freewheeling 1970s; I don’t think it would have been out of place to drop a little bit of foreshadowing into this version of the story.

I was most surprised by how forgettable the music was. The talent involved in creating the music is formidable: Jake Shears and John Garden of the group Scissor Sisters are credited. But I wondered whether they felt oppressed by this unfamiliar genre. All the songs were generically “musical-esque”—and the show was heavy on ballads. I wanted a few catchier tunes. This show didn't feel like a musical journey to the 1970s—I (and all the other old queens in the audience) should have felt like getting up and dancing! I didn't. I wanted Mrs. Madrigal to have an "I Am What I Am" moment instead of quite so much maternal concern. The songs in this musical should be headed right for remixes and modern discos. … They should end up at The Endup. I don't see that happening.

Adapting such a well-loved book series must have been daunting. Fitting the complex story into three hours must’ve been very difficult (the plot might perhaps be simplified). I hope the show gets a little bit of retooling, because I want to love it and I think I could!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Here a Blog, There a Blog, Everywhere a Blog-Blog

I'm blogging (occasionally) about LGBT stuff again, on Queerty. This week's post is about whether we should boycott mixed-sex weddings. And, you know, I continue to blog it up over at!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Illogical Punctuation

Slate columnist Ben Yagoda recently wrote about a standard punctuation rule in American English: the placement of commas and periods inside quotation marks when those quotation marks enclose a title or some kinds of quoted material.

For example, we would write:

I love the song "Bad Romance,"
don't you?


I love the song "Bad Romance", don't you?

There are a few reasons for this preference. A primary one is that, long ago, American typesetters agreed that text looked better this way (putting below-the-baseline punctuation marks inside quotation marks prevents unsightly gaps in blocks of text). Another reason is mere tradition. This is just the way we do it.

In his well-reasoned post, Yagoda argues that this rule is illogical; he would rather that our periods and commas not intrude on titles like this. And his argument makes sense.

He also argues that a lot of people are already ignoring the rule when writing online. In the continuing language debate between prescriptivism and descriptivism, Yagoda is on, in this case, the side of descriptivism: that is, the "right" way to write is the way that enough people are doing it. (The definition of the word enough is a whole 'nother conversation; I'm not sure if enough people use its and it's interchangeably for a descriptivist argument that we should do away with the distinction, but I hope not.)

But "everyone else is doing it" is not a persuasive argument, and I know your momma taught you that. In the end, we, sadly, can't always let logic dictate how we write. By extension of the logic argument, we would spell words phonetically—English spelling is notoriously illogical and dependent on tradition, and this causes all sorts of problems and misunderstandings.

Here's the best reason to use standard punctuation as it's outlined by the major style guides, such as our dear Chicago: Punctuation shouldn't call attention to itself—it shouldn't get in the way of what a writer is trying to say. If a reader notices your punctuation, you're probably doing it wrong. If you often have to explain to people that the way you're punctuating something is not, in fact, an error, your punctuation isn't working for you.

I'd guess that the typical general-interest online reader doesn't know (or doesn't care about) where commas go in relation to a closing quotation mark. Seeing a comma in either place won't bother her. But people who know the rule will be momentarily jolted out of their reading every time they come across a period in the "wrong" place. Like them, I'll be happily reading along and suddenly interrupted by the thought "Typo?" flitting across my consciousness.

The purpose of grammar rules isn't to allow the people who know them to feel superior. (Most people get by just fine without knowing them.) Their purpose is to help writers express themselves clearly by using mutually understood guidelines.

Having standards (even arbitrary ones, like some punctuation rules and the spelling of a great many English words) allows writers and editors to concentrate on getting meanings across, without having to waste time wondering and debating about where the comma goes. The answer is right there, in Chicago. We don't have to worry about it.

Shut Up

Sixteen hours? Sixteen hours of being subjected to someone else's nonstop high-volume cell-phone conversation? I'm amazed it took that long for someone to tell the yakker to shut up.

Of course, I wouldn't recommend those words. But I have some thoughts about the story of Lakeysha Beard, the Amtrak passenger whom police recently removed from a train's "quiet car" after she reportedly talked on her cell phone for 16 hours. ... Again: 16 hours! Who has that much to talk about?

And why didn't Amtrak staff intervene? Why was it left to the passengers? When I used to write a manners-advice column, I was often asked what to do about someone who was breaking the laws or rules of a public space and thereby annoying other people. My response was generally along the lines of this: "If you can, find an authority figure—someone in a uniform of some sort. Bullies (and that's who these people usually are) are cowards, and cowards are cowed by authority figures."

Plus, taking care of these sorts of problems is in authority figures' job descriptions.

Failing that, you can try speaking to someone like this as if she were simply unaware of the problem and would surely be happy to correct it. But as we see in Beard's case, approaching people who are clearly flouting well-understood rules is a losing proposition. (Beard got violent—of course she did!) Such a person is not only a bully but also (at least slightly or perhaps temporarily) a sociopath: She knows the rules but breaks them anyway. She knows she's bothering or endangering other people, and she knows that this makes her frightening. She is probably not a person you can have a productive conversation with.

I probably would've been one of the passengers who sat silently fuming for 16 hours. There's just something so teeth-grindingly, eye-rollingly annoying about being subjected to these one-sided cell-phone conversations. It's visceral. And I think that's because of the aforementioned sociopathy, or narcissism, of the speakers. It's not simply that they don't care about annoying other people. It usually seems to me that they're enjoying their stolen spotlight. They think their conversations are impressive, that we're somehow wowed by the glimpse we're getting into their lives.


With notable and infrequent exceptions, other people's private conversations are beyond banal. I try to remember that when my phone rings while I'm on Muni. And I always travel with ear plugs.

In related news: Lakeysha Beard's blathering killed an unknown number of bees.

Image: Christian Meyn /