activities and events, originals and inspirations

So what have we been up to besides eating and shopping? Here are some notes, and in putting this post together, I realized that lately I've been thinking a lot about originals and adaptations.

In our not-so-distant bleary past we actually paid to see a stage adaptation of Moby Dick. We were in London and couldn't get tickets to whatever it was that we had first thought of seeing. Based on print reviews and our own bad judgment, we had expected the play to be a blend of the lightest elements of St Trinian's and certain favorite Monty Python episodes. Not. The plot was that a girls' boarding school had fallen on hard times and was about to close, and could be saved only by the efforts of a plucky English teacher who had written a dramatization of Moby Dick, which would be produced in the school swimming pool to raise money. With me so far?

The play was not as lively as it sounds. There were some good moments, owing largely to the girls in bright blue tanksuits who, together with a bolt of blue fabric, played the Great and Cruel Ocean. Two girls held the ends of the bolt and made it undulate. Others just undulated. Still others were the crests of waves, that is, they crouched behind the Ocean and raised and lowered white cardboard cut-outs of wave crests. The whale was played by a schoolgirl who held a cut-out of its head on a stick, and her friend who held a cutout of the tail on another stick. They stood behind the Ocean and raised and lowered their sticks as the plot required. Still another girl was armed with a very large watergun and played the whale's occasional spout.

We didn't last very long and in a lovely moment of domestic harmony agreed that the waste of time and money was both our faults. "I never thought I'd say this," Himself grumbled, "but the book was better."

Oh, did I mention it was a musical? I'm told it's recently become a cult item, which shows you that it does take a certain willful suspension of judgement to become part of a cult.

As for Practical Magic, that delicate fable of the commonplace and mysterious set in a working-class development on Long Island - the part with the storefront newsstands, strip malls and traffic jams, not the part with costly glass houses on beachfront property - well, if you'd ever lived or visited in the area, you'd recognize the development, the roads, the cul-de-sacs. I was excited when the story was Sold to Hollywood, and couldn't wait to see the movie.

I went by myself. Himself had stayed home to watch a game. The audience was predominantly female. There were a lot of games on that weekend.

The movie relocated the story to Nantucket. Instead of dreary "little" jobs, the two sisters ran a cute Magicke, soap and scented candles shoppe on a prime location in Nantucket. Instead of living in an ordinary ranch house in a development, they lived in a large and beautifully restored Victorian house with a widow's walk. Nobody stayed for the credits, which is a mortal sin in these parts. No, there was a well-bred rush to leave, and a swelling murmur of "The book was so much better, they ruined the book, can you sue if you're just a reader, I would, the book was better, they ruined the book..."

Now don't misunderstand me, I know thousands of people loved the movie, lusted after the house, wanted the great hair of the stars... On its own terms it's not a bad movie. It's just not the entrancing book I loved.

On the other hand, at least they didn't make a musical of it.

So we were a little nervous about some inspirations and adaptations on offer in New York this winter. A Gentleman's Guide To Murder, which recently opened on Broadway, is based on Kind Hearts and Coronets. Who could ever, ever outdo Alec Guinness and that gang of eccentric relatives? Actually the movie with Sir Alec is, in turn, based on a novel by Roy Horniman.

Well, I haven't enjoyed myself at a play so much in years! I laughed so much I ached. Everything was perfect, the casting, the costumes, the sets, the acting... If you're in New York and you have the chance to see only one thing, this is the one.
The script sticks pretty close to the movie we love so well, both in language and in characterization. Not sure about the novel, until I saw this play I couldn't imagine wanting to abandon Sir Alec for the printed page. Now there's room in my heart for the movie and the play. Warning: the play has songs. But guess what: they advance the plot, they're not just endless set pieces repeating a theme. So no further spoilers, go see the show.

Also this past winter, we both read Act One, Moss Hart's autobiography. The book was originally published in 1959, and was reissued to coincide with the appearance of the play. It's funny, it's sad, it's well written (no surprise), and it stops with the opening of the author's very first Broadway play. I gather that further volumes were contemplated, but none appeared.
Anyway, we were eager to see the play based on the book, so many of the scenes - for instance, shy and self-conscious young Moss laboring away as a dancing and social director at a mountain resort - seemed made for the stage.

On the other hand, the very rich texture that gave life to the characters, for example, Moss' father who was so ground down by poverty that he hardly spoke, saving all his energy for job-hunting and suffering, didn't seem susceptible of staging. The set was everything Cameron Mackintosh dreamed of building, a hodgepodge of stairs, doors, shelves that variously became the family's tiny apartment, a producer's office, a fur factory, a crowded street... The script itself, in the words of George S. Kaufman, Hart's writing partner and friend, "needed work." When we saw the play, it was still in previews, so I'm sure there have been changes and revisions. I thought the acting was first-rate, and this was definitely worth seeing.

All The Way depicts the first year of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, and Bryan Cranston plays the ambitious and driven president at full throttle. LBJ is depicted as Machiavellian, idealistic, lovable and despicable, and committed to his ambitions. All of those are probably accurate. All the other characters - Hubert Humphrey, J.Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King, Ladybird Johnson - are secondary to that. The play was worth seeing, although I wouldn't call this a fun evening. And it was seriously shorter than the Robert Caro biographies - Himself has read all three volumes and is anxiously awaiting publication of the fourth. I, on the other hand, found the excessive detail suffocating. In any event, we are assuming that the fourth volume will be the last.

Further on the topic of originals and, um, adaptations, here is the sequinned and embroidered jacket that, against all odds and against the strong opposition of the J.Crew Customer Service, I finally reduced to possession:
And here is an embroidered, less elaborate version that last week was in the window of Alice & Olivia's Madison Avenue store, not 150 feet from the J.Crew Collection Store:
It must be in the air.

Happy Easter, Happy Passover, everyone!


  1. I have been disappointed with too many movies after reading and loving the book. Even if I hear wonderful things about the book, if I hate the movie no book. Thus, I will never ever read the Twilight saga. Have a very happy Easter.

    1. You, too, BB! I agree, the movie/tv vs book problem works both ways.

  2. Hello!

    Well, you do make a very convincing case for the adaptation of Kind Hearts and Coronets but we struggle to believe that this can surpass the performance of Alec Guinness in the film. It is one of our all time favourites, a family institution if you will and now you are introducing a 'young pretender' into the camp! Well, first, of course, we have to get to New York and then.........

    The latest film we have seen is The Grand Hotel Budapest, sadly made entirely in Germany with not a foot being stepped into Budapest. However, on this film we were firmly divided. One said tedious one said interesting. Have you seen?

    Happy Easter!

    1. Hullo Hattatts and Happy Easter! I think the reason I enjoyed the >Gentleman's Guide so much was because it was truly inspired by Kind Hearts and not a copy or a version. Thus it's possible to love and treasure both.

      I enjoyed The Grand Hotel Budapest, but I saw it on a dreary gray snowy day and the froth and whipped cream and not-too-well-hidden snarky references were the perfect antidote. Himself had other (higher? lower?) expectations, and didn't share my delight. But, you know, sometimes a pastry is just a pastry.

  3. That jacket! I've always loved it. I think Ema has it too? I hope you have a Happy Easter/Passover holiday Fred!
    Interesting about Practical Magic, of course that movie is loved for the house, and the hair as you wisely point out. I didn't even know it was a book!

    1. Happy Easter to you, too, Dani! I seem to remember Ema posting about the jacket too. I wore it in London once, and women stopped me in the street to coo.

      I recommend reading Practical Magic, it's very unlike the movie and a lovely light read.

  4. Great to catch up with all you've been up to. I had heard about the Moby Dick musical but had no idea it was like this. Thank heavens my AmDram group have never suggested we do it, though I remember once playing the part of an undulating river in the Uncle Tom Cabin's ballet sequence in the King and I. My finest hour...

    1. Hi, Trish, I remember the wives' dramatization of The Small House of Uncle Thomas" vividly. I bet you were a terrific river, and put your heart out there without worrying about motivation.


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