Berlin

September 30, 2006

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Berlin has always been the most mysterious of international cities.  Paris is romantic, New York is busy, Rio is sun-drenched.  And Berlin has always had a touch of the forbidden about it, be it the decadent Weimar Berlin of Sally Bowles and Cabaret, or the divided Cold War Berlin of Hitchcock and Torn Curtain. (Yes, I know I can’t go two sentences without bringing in a film reference.)  Of course, now that there’s no more Berlin Wall, a good deal of the mystery has gone.  Instead of standing on a high platform to get a glimpse over the Wall to the Brandenburg Gate on the other side, visitors can now stroll right through the gate… and, a few steps further, straight into a Starbucks for a Venti Caramel Frappuccino.

Even though the wall has come down, the legacy of the “divided city” continues. There are still duplicates between the eastern and western halves: two Egyptian Art museums, two old cathedrals, two city halls, and so on. Architecturally, the city is still divided as well, but not in the way you’d expect. The western side was free to build itself up in the post-war years, and dozens of huge modernist concrete office buildings sprang up through the 1960s, replacing the buildings destroyed during the war. The eastern side, with it’s command economy remained pretty “boring” with lots of ugly squat buildings big empty “no man’s land” spaces between it and the West.

But, now that the wall is gone, those easily-destroyed ugly squat buildings and ample open spaces have provided Berlin with something it’s been missing for quite a while: prime real estate.  The old dull Eastern side is now buzzing with building, a forest of construction cranes, and suddenly the center of all that is cool and swanky.  Just beyond the Starbucks, there’s a Galleries Lafayette, dozens of designer-label stores and a Bugatti dealership.  Ironically, now it’s the western half that seems old and dated and trapped in 1960’s concrete office-block hell.  

The eastern half also has all the cool museums.  There’s the Altes Museum with it’s celebrated bust of Neffertiti, the Alte Nationalgalerie with an admirable collection of German expressionists like Caspar David Friedrich, and of course, the crown jewel of Museum Island, the Pergammon, which features no less than three monumental ancient reconstructed structures within it’s massive walls: The Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate and the Mshatta Facade.  And if that’s not enough for you, you can truck over to Alexanderplatz (which, apart from it’s fame from the eponymous Fassbinder film, was universally knows as the ugliest public square in all of Europe, though it too is being completely ripped up and re-built), and see the Fernsehturm, an observation tower that looks like a large golf ball impaled on a giant knitting needle.

On the western side, the redevelopment plan is going forward with mixed results.  The Reichstag has been lovingly restored, though it seems like more of a tourist attraction than an actual government building.  Most folks come just to see the view from the roof and walk up and down the spiralling ramps inside Sir Norman Foster’s mirror and glass dome (amusingly, the building’s most distinctive feature now, but not originally part of Foster’s design).  The Reichstag is flanked by the “functional” government buildings, which unfortunately look like the 21st century version of big 1960’s concrete office blocks (combined with a dash of the Kennedy Center).  Beyond those buildings, they’ve built a huge serpentine complex of apartments specifically for the public servants, so they can live where they work and avoid a lengthy commute.  Unfortunately, nobody seems to want to live this close to work, so they’re being re-purposed.

Across the river from the unused political apartments, there’s the sparkling new Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central train station).  Berlin has never had a “central” train station, in the same way that Paris and London don’t either.  Instead, there were regional stations on opposite sides of the city, serving opposite directions (like Waterloo and Paddington in London, or the Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon in Paris).  Somebody had the brilliant idea of closing all the old stations and centralizing everything in one “centrally” located station.  Never mind the logistical nightmare that creates.  Never mind the fact that it’s not easy to get to the new station.  And never mind the fact that it doesn’t link up at all with Berlin’s vast underground metro system. I’m sure it looked brilliant on paper.  It almost seems like east and west have traded sides.  The east is now caught up in the gung-ho capitalist building craze, and the west is stuck experimenting with poorly thought out central planning schemes.

Despite all the references to Berlin’s recent Communist past — at Checkpoint Charlie, you can still take your picture in front of signs warning you you’re about to leave the American Sector and enter the Soviet Sector, and then be accosted by street vendors selling anything and everything emblazoned with the East German flag and the Soviet hammer-and-sickle (most of it, I’m sure, made in last week in Taiwan) — there are few references to Berlin’s Nazi past.  Even the tourist guide you get at the Reichstag features a historical timeline of the building that conspicuously omits everything between 1930 and 1950. 

Near the oddly rococo Berliner Dom, there’s a plain-but-pretty cobblestone square known as the Bebelplatz.   Towards the center, through a scratchy glass panel embedded in the pavement, you can peer down into an all-white room filled with empty bookshelves.  This is the memorial to the fact that Bebelplatz was the site of the Nazi’s infamous book burning in 1933. (You may remember this from the decidedly un-historical Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)  But, you literally have to squint to know that this modern-day location was that historical location.

Over near the Brandenburg Gate, there’s a new Holocaust memorial designed by architect Peter Eisenman.  It’s a football field-sized plot, filled with 2711 black stone rectangular slabs (which viewed from above look like coffins).  They’re all roughly the same height, but as you travel toward the center, the ground level deepens, and the “coffin” walls rise up around you, feeling like a cement hedge-maze or something out of a Terry Gilliam dream-sequence.  It’s a powerful piece of art, and a moving, somber memorial.  But, even this is not without controversy.  The Jewish community complains that it’s not on a site with any Jewish or Holocaust connection.  And during its construction, it was revealed that the anti-graffiti paint used to protect the slabs was manufactured by the same company that once manufactured Zyklon B for the Nazi gas chambers.

In a way, I felt that Berliners were constantly trying to escape their city’s past precicely because it’s inescapable.  Even without a single plaque or memorial, either to the victims of the Nazis or the Communists, there’s a weird undercurrent — something in the air — that makes you feel just a little uneasy in Berlin.  Even at the Potsdamerplatz, where the Sony Corporation has built an ultra-modern office and entertainment complex under a fabric-and-steel canopy that’s supposed to evoke the shape of Mount Fuji, even here, adjacent to the IMAX theater, there are inescapable remnants of the city’s past: pieces of the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall, and two other interior walls from the ornate gilded breakfast room of the Kaisersaal, now sitting outside, preserved under glass.  This is how Berlin reveals itself to you; a brick here, a wall there; like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing.  Mysterious and fascinating.

More info: Berlin

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We Will Rock You

September 23, 2006

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Somewhere I read a review of this show which boldly stated, “This is the future of West End musicals!”  Really?  To my mind, it’s more of a combination of the recent past and somewhat-less-recent past, with a glossy veneer of high-tech stagecraft.  Before I get into reviewing this show, let’s take a trip in the wayback machine and see if we can figure out why anyone would think this show represented the future of musical theater.

When We Will Rock You opened in 2002, the London theatre scene wasn’t looking too hot.  The glory years of the splashy giant-scale 1980s powerhouse shows like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables was over.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, once the titan of the West End, was churning out drivel like Whistle Down the Wind (a musical nobody remembers, based on a Hayley Mills movie nobody remembers).

Coming out of the 1990’s, stage musicals tended to be dark and grungy.  Rent typified the genre.  The oft-moody Stephen Sondheim was in his element with shows like Assassins and Passion.  Going to see a musical was no longer about having fun.  It was serious business.  It just wasn’t theatre without, say, the heroine overdosing on heroin.

For whatever reason, nobody wanted to take a chance on an original musical comedy.  At least not until Mel Brooks came along with The Producers in 2001, a good old-fashioned musical comedy that everyone loved because you didn’t have to think; you didn’t have to sit through a lecture; you just had to relax, enjoy the songs, laugh and generally have a good time.  The Producers was such a wonderful breath of fresh air, such a “final nail” in the coffin of the gloomy 1990s, that the American Theatre Wing saw fit to grant it a record-setting 12 Tony awards.

But, we’re not there yet.  In 1991 “gloomy” still ruled on Broadway (and in the West End).  Even worse, it appeared that we ran out of songs. Or, at least, no one seemed to remember how to write “fun” songs anymore.  Or, maybe it was just economics getting the better of us.  Because, what happened in the mid 1990’s was that somewhere, somebody realized that you could build a musical around a pre-existing catalog of songs.  No songwriter necessary.  (Only a team of layers to work out the royalty scheme.)  And, even better, you’d have a pre-existing audience waiting to buy tickets for shows featuring the songs they already know and love.  In the dodgy world of theatrical accounting, this as close as you get to a “sure thing”.

Thus, the “jukebox musical” was born.  Abba’s songs became Mamma Mia!Lieber and Stoller’s songs became Smokey Joe’s CaféBilly Joel’s songs became Movin’ Out.  And, on it went.  Although, in all fairness, this kind of creative laziness didn’t begin in the 1990s.  Singin’ In the Rain, which many people (myself included) will tell you is the summit achievement of Hollywood’s golden age of movie musicals, is actually a story built around a pre-existing catalog of songs from the MGM movie library.  There’s not an original song in there.  (The only “technically” original song, “Make ‘Em Laugh”, is really just a re-wording of Cole Porter’s, “Be a Clown”.)

So, here it’s 2002, and along comes We Will Rock You.  For the folks who miss the spctacle of the 1980’s, there’s plenty of stagecraft wizardry, including massive sets, giant video screens and an immense propeller-like platform that rises from the stage and swings out over the heads of the audience.  For the folks who miss the 1990’s, there’s a “serious” message about freedom of expression and government thought-policing.  And, for the accountants, there is the music of Queen, which honestly is all most people are here to listen to anyway.

This is the problem I have with “jukebox musicals”.  Rather than just put on a tribute-band concert of golden oldies, the producers feel forced to cram the songs into some sort of plot, even it it makes no sense.  Then they build a fabulous high-tech set to distract you from the fact that the story has more holes than a Florida ballot.  Unfortunately, it never really works.

For We Will Rock You, the producers hired London’s current “it” writer, Ben Elton, to concoct an absolutely ridiculous post-apocalyptic sci-fi storyline that’s part Logan’s Run, part Footloose, and part “Macintosh Computer ‘1984’ Super Bowl Ad“.  Maybe the plan was to make it so incredibly goofy that nobody in the audience would even try to make sense of it.  The fact that the main charater is named Galileo Figaro solely so the lyrics of “Bohemian Rhapsody” will have something, anything to do with the plot… well that tells you a lot.  As does the fact the bad guys all look and act exactly like characters from The Matrix.  (Clearly, someone saw the film and said, “Yeah, let’s do that!”)

Amazingly, despite all of this, I did actually enjoy the show.  Putting aside the overblown sets and silly plot (“In the future, the government controls music, and rock-and-roll is illegal!”), the music is still great.  And even though the actors have to keep winking and nudging each other to let you know that even they think the plot is stupid, they’re a cast of extremely talented singers and dancers who give you every last ounce of their performance.  The dancers drip buckets of sweat performing acrobatic high-energy routines that made me exhausted just watching them.  And the singers, particularly Peter Johansson in the lead (who has to convincingly transform from geek to rockstar every night), are top-notch.  Singing “I Want to Break Free” or “We Are the Champions” with the forcefulness and conviction of Freddie Mercury is not easy, but these young actors rise to the challenge with voices worthy of their own recording contracts.  It is they (rather than the show iteself) who are the future of West End theatre.

More info: We Will Rock You


Donkey’s Years

September 23, 2006

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This is going to be a short review, simply because this was a short, and fairly forgettable play.  Donkey’s Years  (the title is British slang for “a very long time”) is a bedroom farce from Michael Frayn.

Frayn is a bit of an odd duck.  On the one hand, he’s able to write some of the most hilarious stage comedy ever (the prime example being Noises Off), and on the other, he’s able to turn out Tony award-winning serious dramas like Copenhagen and Democracy.

Donkey’s Years is definitely more of the former variety of entertainment.  It’s an enjoyable diversion of a show about a college reunion where everyone gets caught (sometimes literally) with their pants down, and cartoony characters jump to improbable conclusions about one another with hilarious results.  In other words, it’s a lot like your standard episode of Friends.

And, that’s where the play falls apart for me.  I can watch Friends at home, sitting on my sofa in my underwear.  If I’m going to get dressed up and go out to the theatre, I want to see something a bit more, well, exciting.  Believe it or not, I was originally going to compare this play with the opera Albert Herring.  But, that’s a bit of a reach.  I think Neil Simon’s Rumors is probably a better match. (Neil Simon being the “American Michael Frayn”, or is it the other way around?)

But, even that comparison is unfavorable to Donkey’s Years.  When I saw Rumors in Los Angeles, I wanted to see it again (and I did).  Frayn’s play was okay to see once (at matinee price).  The actors all did an excellent job, but the material just didn’t stand up.  Overall, it felt like a dress-rehersal for the far-superior Noises Off, and considering it was written five years earlier, I guess you could say that’s excactly what it was. 


Buckingham Palace

September 23, 2006

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Yes, I’ve been inside Buckingham Palace, and no, I haven’t met the Queen (though I did get to see a fair amount of her closet).  How did I get in?  Sadly, not via any royal invitation.  Since the 1990s, (when she needed to raise money to pay for restoring the fire damage at Windsor Castle) the royal family has offered limited public viewings of the palace’s non-residential areas.  Unlike the White House, Buckingham Palace doesn’t require you to go through background checks and get a letter of reference from your local elected official.  Amazingly, all you have to do is sign up online (provided you can get in before all the time slots are gone).

Another nice bonus is that it’s a self-guided tour, so you aren’t hearded from room to room like a flock of errant sheep, tended to by not-so-Secret Service agents carrying sub-machine guns, and lead by a snippy blonde tour guide… “We’re walking; we’re walking; we’re walking; we’re stopping.”  (See Bonnie Hunt in Dave.)

The Buckingham Palace experience is more like a good old cattle drive.  It’s a steady stream of visitors, routed through the place like a giant mudflow through Malibu canyon.  Even the audioguide commands you to “please keep walking toward the doors at the far end of the room while I tell you about the paintings here.”  Not that you could resist.  The shear mass of people coming in behind you prohibits anyone from standing still to admire the artwork. 

So, what’s it like inside?  Probably about what you’d expect: grander than the White House, but nothing remotely like Versailles.  One of the nicer aspects of the tour was that you got to enter and move through the rooms as if you were actually a guest, by which I mean: through the main entrance, up the grand staircase, through the parlors and into the throne room, then on through the smaller galleries and ballrooms, eventually leading out through the terrace to the private gardens (which you also got to see quite a lot of).

It takes several hours to see it all, even with relentless tide pushing you along (towards the gift shop, of course, where you can buy all manor of hideous “royal” china, emblazoned with the kind of overly-ornate gold-and-pastel patterns beloved of Queens and First Ladies).  Along the way, you learn some interesting things.  (For example, all the dinner menus at the palace are printed in French and must be personally approved by the Queen.  She speaks French fluently and routinely sends the menus back with grammer and spelling corrections.)  On my visit, the most of the women (It was about 80/20 middle-aged British women vs. every other demographic.) were racing through the 200-odd years of history on display in the state rooms to get to the dress exhibit.

This was the Queen’s 80th birthday, and in honor of the occasion, we got to see 80 dresses from her collection.  For whatever reason, they were principally arranged by color: the blue dresses here, the beige ones there, and the yellow ones over there.  You quickly realized that the Queen’s fashion sense hasn’t changed much over the years.  She’s apparently only had three or four main designers, and the only other information about the dresses on display were the years of creation.  So, quickly, the whole thing descended into a game of guessing the year of the dress based on the width of the waist.  Awful, I know.

If you have the chance, I do recommend a visit to the palace.  It’s not often that you get to see the inside of a real, working royal residence.  And, as soon as they fix the last bit of the roof at Windsor, it’s anybody’s guess if Charles will keep letting the rabble trapse through the throne room each year.

More info: Buckingham Palace


Open House London

September 17, 2006

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Every year in the Fall, the government offices and private clubs of London open their doors to the common rabble, who queue up in endless lines to catch a glimpse of a world normally hidden safely behind closed doors.  Museums open their workrooms, offices open their boardrooms, and government buildings open their staterooms.  This is Open House London.

The great news is that it’s free to anyone wanting to go.  The bad news is that everyone wants to go.  Still, with literally hundreds of buildings to choose from, you can usually find something interesting that doesn’t have a line that stretches from here to Afghanistan.

This year, Derek and I teamed up with our walking group to visit four historic buildings.  First up was Marlborough House, which is currently the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat.  (Basically, a smaller-scale version of the UN for the 53 British Commonwealth nations.)  In previous years, the Christopher Wren-designed house was the home of royals and ex-royals, most notably the Dowager Queen Mary (widow of King George V).  It was here in the drawing room that her son, King Edward VIII confided to his mother his intention to marry Wallis Simpson and abdicate the throne.  Today, the drawing room is still there, but many of the other rooms have become offices.  What was once probably a ballroom now holds a long table, fitted out with international flags, and seating for 53 Commonwealth ambassadors.

Next up was the Argentine Consulate.  This was a nice enough space, a converted mansion in a prime location on Belgrave Square.  Oddly enough, for Open House weekend, the entire place had been taken over by various modern art installations.  There was a large inflated “blimp” that you could stick your head inside (via a velcro-sealable flap).  There was also a pitch-dark room filled with a scattering of chairs and sofas, with small speakers placed at ear-level.  From the speakers, you heard people whispering in your ear about their sexual fantasies.  Seriously.

Heading back over to the City, we came to the Vintners’ Hall.  This is a sort of private club that is part of the Vintners’ Company, which is essentially a lobbying group for the wine industry.  I’m a member of the Rainier Club in Seattle, and I can tell you that the interior of the Vintners’ Hall looked fairly similar (although obviously steeped in a lot more history).  The membership is mostly hereditary and limited to about 500 people, including Margaret Thatcher.

Lastly, we visited the Bank of England.  This is the English equivalent of the US Federal Reserve.  Unlike the other buildings we toured, here there were huge lines and metal detectors, and tour guides, and security guards.  You’re truly getting into a privileged place when you get in here.  Inside, there are courtyards and impossibly long stairwells. (The building looks to be only a few storeys tall from the outside, but actually sinks five or more storeys underground.)  There are also some absolutely breathtaking “meeting rooms” that are easily grander in scale and decoration than some of the rooms in Buckingham Palace.  I can’t imagine working here day in and day out.  Do the gilt ceilings and the Thomas Chippendale chairs and the Grinling Gibbons fireplaces ever get boring, I wonder?

When the Bank isn’t open for visitors (ie: the other 363 days out of the year), you can still visit a small museum about the history of the British pound, and the role the Bank of england plays in the international economy.  I know, that sounds dead boring, but there is a real solid gold bar you can hold in your hands (through a glovebox, with an armed guard standing next to you), and the history of the design of the money is  pretty interesting.

More info: Open House London


Phantom of the Opera

September 16, 2006

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Way back in my freshman year of high school, I was a theatre usher for the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts.  It was a tough job because the theatre was sunk into the ground with a very steep rake.  This meant bounding up and down stairs like Stallone in Rocky.  It was exhausting, but you got to see all the plays for free, and after getting bored with that (There are only so many times you can sit through Pump Boys and Dinettes.), you could to gab with the other ushers, who were all theatre junkies of one sort or another.

It was around this time that Phantom of the Opera first opened on Broadway.  To say it was a cultural phenomenon would be an understatement.  One day (I think it was during a performance of Here’s Love.) one of my fellow ushers (a woman in her mid 40s) shared her dream of seeing the show in New York.  It was more of an obsession, really.  Remember, this is before the advent of eBay, and yet she already had an album full of posters, tapes, flyers, souvenir booklets, newspaper clippings and, most disturbingly, a whole portfolio of charcoal drawings she’d done of Michael Crawford as the Phantom.

The really sad thing about this was that she wasn’t alone.  Otherwise normal people seemed to go completely mental over this show.  I finally saw Phantom in L.A. in 1991.  And, I have to admit, I loved it… at the time.  It was a thrilling experience to watch live.  I remember describing it to my friends as the Star Wars of stage musicals.  Sure, there were some catchy songs, and a romantic plot, what really wowed everyone was the stagecraft.

There are something like 190 trap doors in the stage floor.  There’s the boat on the lake, flickering candles everywhere, the magnificent gilt cherub-encrusted proscenium, and of course, the falling chandelier.  It was that chandelier, swooping down over the heads of the audience, that brought people in the door.  Although, to be honest, I’m not sure what’s been keeping them coming back time and time again for the past 20 years.

Seeing the show 20 years on, I have to say it hasn’t held up well.  The sets which once seemed so grand and mysterious now look musty and worn, like something out of the London Dungeon.  The songs sound trapped in a painfully 80s rock-opera orchestration.  And, the actors… well, lets say that after 20 years they’ve rotated down through the A, B and C casts and are now rapidly running out of alphabet.

It’s still a fun show though.  Still infinitely better than the film version (except for the brilliant performance by Minnie Driver as Carlotta).  But, it seems like a period piece.  Not of the period in which it’s set, but of the mid 1980s, when a musical just wasn’t a musical without a dark brooding plot, rock-opera songs, and goofy over-hyped special effects like revolving barricades, flying helicopters, and yes, falling chandeliers.

More info: Phantom of the Opera


Reading (Redux)

September 10, 2006

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It’s official: Derek and I moved to Reading.  I guess this blog should no longer be called “A Yank in London”, but I haven’t gotten around to changing it yet.  The truth of the matter is that I kind of hope we move back.  Nothing against Reading, but it’s a pretty boring town.  I thought that wouldn’t matter much because I never seemed to get out much in London anyway.  Mostly, I just stuck to the two blocks between our apartment and Paddington Station.  But, like they say, you never realize what you’ve got until it’s gone.  Maybe I never went out, but it was nice to know I could’ve if I’d wanted to.  In Reading, you don’t have the choice.  So, stay tuned.