Recently by Donald Munro
Re "Misery Does Not Love Company": Laura Collins-Hughes writes about the horrific week in Journalism Land, and I have to agree: Make it stop! I picked up the L.A. Times on Friday for my weekly devouring of the Calendar section, and after reading the news earlier this week about film critic Carina Chocano losing her job I did it with a fair amount of trepidation. Sure enough, there was a "shared" movie review by Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips right there on the cover. (Did anyone else notice that in the Times' recent redesign, the byline style was conveniently altered so that you have to wait until the end of the story to find out if it's by a staff writer? Now a filler wire story gets just as much byline prominence as a locally produced story. And what's with leaving the "By" off a byline, anyway?) I just don't get it: The L.A. Times isn't just any paper; it's HOLLYWOOD's paper, and running non-staff movie reviews is, frankly, embarrassing. Everyone keeps talking about how newspapers can get their reviews "off the wire." What happens if even the wire reviews disappear?
But the day ended better than it began. I attended a whopper performance of the musical "The Rocky Horror Show," staged by a newish Fresno theater company, on Halloween night. There was something exhilarating about witnessing the payoff of the time and preparation that the cast and crew, all of them volunteers, put into the endeavor.
The performance wasn't Broadway quality, but even its rough moments gave it an even sweeter authenticity, and I'm glad that I pushed hard to give the production the coveted cover-story slot in our weekly entertainment tab. (We did a six-step photo series in our print edition of our own local Frank N. Furter showing folks how to do the Time Warp, which meant that I got Step 5 -- the pelvic thrust, pictured above -- onto breakfast tables all across Central California.) To be in the wildly enthusiastic sold-out audience -- feet stamping, rhythmic clapping, a standing ovation that wouldn't stop -- reminded me of how local theater can bring a community together. Now I'm just crossing my fingers that I continue to get paid to write about it!
I just finished banging out an overnight review of a local production of "La Boheme" -- regional opera is alive and well, thank you very much, and Fresno Grand Opera after 10 years is putting out some good stuff -- and while the singing and staging were first-rate, I'm not sure if the directorial concept worked. (And when I say overnight review, I really do mean overnight -- I posted at 1:18 am to my blog, just one more example of how the 24-hour-news-cycle is further blurring the lines between work and leisure, um, sleep time.) Instead of setting the opera in 1830s Paris, as is traditionally called for, the director opted to push things forward a hundred years to a time of "Hollywood glamour."
Such tinkering with the setting of a well-known work is common, of course. We've all seen Shakespeare staged in a Wild West saloon, say, or read about a Verdi opera translated to a post-apocalyptic future. My all-time favorite pitch for resetting a show comes in the Alan Mencken sci-fi musical "Weird Romance" when one of the characters -- an actress -- explains her next project:
A contemporary version of "Our Town," set on Jupiter's third moon. I play Emily, but instead of coming back from the dead I've been assimilated by an alien mass-mind, and I have to decide whether to take one last look at everyone I ever loved ... or eat them.
The Fresno "La Boheme" doesn't come close to taking such liberties, of course. The 1930s glamour angle is mostly covered through the costumes. I liked the razzle-dazzle -- Musetta, looking like a ramped up Jean Harlow, strutted around in a shimmering white floor-length gown and impossibly long white feather boa -- but didn't feel the concept meant much more in the long run than a chance to show off some great clothes.
All this got me to thinking: What makes a successful resetting of a classic play or opera? Is it really possible to use the exact same libretto or script but completely change the era? What is it, critically speaking, that makes some such reimaginings work and others fall flat? Do any examples stand out in your mind?
I'm wondering if any critics out there have thoughts they can share.
Musical theater lovers: You can't miss this inspired pro-Barack-Obama video set to "One Day More" from "Les Miserables." (The idea is that it's Nov. 3, 2008, one day more to the election.) Granted, the lighting design is pretty bad, but in this uber-stressful time of financial calamity and approaching-election jitters, nothing inspires relaxation like a rousing first-act finale.
I'm feeling a little lonely today. Perhaps someone out there can relate: I work for a newspaper that just went berserk because the hometown college baseball team won the NCAA championship.
And I just can't get caught up in the hype.
I know I live in a journalistic world in which sports coverage is king. (And that cultural/arts coverage is a mere deputy earl or something.) And I know that a sizable number of folks in my community are really excited that the Fresno State Bulldogs won. Most are convinced that the rest of the country is awestruck at this mighty "accomplishment." (Never mind that when the baseball season started, the Fresno State team couldn't draw much of a crowd at its home games.) This is the insular nature of sports fandom -- that an underdog win like this truly is a "historic event." People forget that there are champions every year in a number of different sports, and there's always an underdog story waiting to pop up and fulfill the "dream season" template.
OK, so let the fans have their fun, right? Let them have their bragging rights and their homecoming parade. But I wonder: Is there any limit to how far the local newspaper should go in stoking this hoopla? My paper wiped out the front page and made it into a big photo of the team. I guess I can live with that in the name of sports boosterism. But The Bee didn't even provide a "second" front page inside with real news inside. Not even a special top-of-the-news summary. Instead, the second page was the usual People/Celebrity news and the third page had a big ad.
A chance comment made by an editor quoted in one of these posts a few weeks ago is still nagging at me. Some readers of the Sacramento Bee were disappointed that an opera review was posted online but didn't run in the print edition. Tom Negrete, the managing editor, said the omission was the result of miscommunication. Still, Negrete says that there will be changes in the paper's review philosophy:
Reviews still will be printed in the paper, he said, particularly of shows with multiple performances.
What he wants to stop are reviews of one-night stands, where a performer or event are long gone by the time the review is published.
On the surface, that sounds perfectly reasonable, right? Why waste space for a performance that won't repeat?
Let's answer that with just two words: sports section.
The new "Indiana Jones" movie opens Thursday, but chances are that if you're even remotely interested, you've already read a review. This is in stark contrast to the wishes of the studio, which tried as valiantly as Harrison Ford's anti-aging makeup person to keep reviews under wraps (at least Stateside) till opening day. The AP's David Germain reported from Cannes:
In an era of Internet spoilers, fan blogging and online video diaries where filmmakers show off their tricks, Indy returns with the old-fashioned covertness Spielberg always has favored.
"He is the only one in the world who keeps his cards face down on the table until the 11th hour, 59th minute, 59th second, and nothing deters him from doing that," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, Spielberg's partner at DreamWorks.
Yet it's proving impossible to keep this film -- or any other -- totally under wraps. Not only have reviews leaked out about "Indy" -- particularly a scathing one from an unnamed distributor whose negative opinion received big headlines on Drudge -- but we've already been through several cycles of conventional wisdom about the film (it's terrible, it isn't as bad as you thought, it's actually halfway decent). And it hasn't even opened yet.
The interesting thing is that the studio just kind of gave up trying to keep all the domestic reviews bottled up. The invite that critics received for the Sunday morning press screening had the usual stern warning: No reviews should be published before opening day, not even online. And that means you, too, bloggers.
Yet by Tuesday, Rotten Tomatoes listed several mainstream reviews of "Indiana Jones" from its "Top Critics," including from USA Today, Boston Globe, New York Daily News, the Newark Star-Ledger, the Arizona Republic and Los Angeles Times. And it didn't appear that all of those critics had actually seen the film at Cannes. In fact, a San Francisco press rep, when asked about a review from a Fresno press screening, threw in the towel on Monday and said: Go ahead and post.
Your newspaper's print circulation is declining. The staff is smaller. Your newsroom managers are so obsessed with boosting Internet traffic that they're waking up in the middle of the night screaming about hit counts and RSS feeds. So what do they want the arts staff to do?
It's happening at papers all over. Managers are discovering that blogs about entertainment and the arts can drive traffic. Ours, at The Fresno Bee, is doing well. Not only that, but well written blogs can draw in regional and national audiences, which hit-count-loving corporate types love.
At a Newspaper Guild gathering at a Fresno pizza place last week, we got together to talk about the B word. Blogs are all the rage, of course, and editors who a couple of years ago wouldn't have known a browser from a button hole are now fretting over Top 10 read-stories lists and figuring out how to work "Facebook" into every lifestyle section headline.
Now for a bit of good news. In the midst of the terrible headlines about laid-off critics, slashed arts coverage and cutbacks in music education in the public schools, I figured I'd pass on some positive tidings for a change. I was excited recently to write a different kind of arts story: a piece about a fantastic new performing arts center opening smack in the middle of California's Central Valley.
And here's the most amazing thing: It belongs to a high school.
The Clovis Unified School District puts a premium on the arts, and officials here have planned for years on how to provide superior facilities for its students. After voters passed two bond measures, the district budgeted $17.5 million to build an arts center that houses a 750-seat concert hall and a 150-seat black box theater.
Man, those days are long gone.
Now the comments can start literally minutes after I've posted a review on my Fresno Bee blog. If my review of a production is highly critical -- or if I am underwhelmed by a show put on by a local community theater that normally produces a high standard of work -- those comments can come in a flood. As the blog "owner," I'm responsible for approving those comments one by one. And I've been learning that it isn't as easy as it sounds.