Between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the entertainment lost two irreplaceable and very different artists: playwright Harold Pinter and singer-actress Eartha Kitt. Pinter was 78, Kitt was 81.
Both emerged as major talents in the 1950s, and from the most unlikely of circumstances. Harold Pinter, born in London's poor East End, the son of a modest Jewish tailor, began his career as an actor and didn't try his hand at playwriting until he was in his late twenties. Eartha Kitt was the illegitimate, unwanted child of a South Carolina sharecropper who was part African-American, part Native American, and a white landowner. She was given away to an abusive family in New York when she was young and was on her own by the time she was in her teens. Yet, by the time she was 20, she had carved out her diamond-hard stage persona: sexual, determined, fierce, cynical, teasingly funny and defiant, with not the least touch of self-pity or sentimentality.
Audiences, critics and producers didn't know what to do with the pint-size sex kitten with the growling voice and incendiary personality, but they knew they wanted more of her. After conquering Paris, she embarked on a successful recording career in New York in the 1950s, wrapping her insinuating vocals around songs like "I Want to Be Evil" and "Santa Baby." She soon began appearing on stage, in movies and on television and never ceased to take roles until her final year on earth. She was almost always a vamp, a chanteuse, a vixen or a threat, and she played the part to a "T." At times her career dipped and she seemed to disappear for years at a time. But her memory was too indelibly etched on the public's mind for her to ever be completely forgotten. Her final decade was one of her busiest, with prominent stage assignments alternating with cabaret gigs at Café Carlyle and regular recordings. A survivor from the start, she was dead set on being a survivor to the very end.
Like Kitt, Harold Pinter was one of a kind, the first to practice his particular style of art, which seemed to have been etched, fully formed, out of thin air – and widely imitated thereafter. A film critic once performed a test to see how long it would take a friend, uninformed as to the authorship of a movie, to recognize a film was by Alfred Hitchcock. Ten seconds or so passed before the friend named the director. Pinter was like that. It's doubtful a knowledgeable theatregoer or critic would sit, ignorant, program-less, at a Pinter play for more than five minutes and not know that they were in the hands of the master of the pregnant pause, the unspoken menace, the elliptical insinuation.
Many playwrights spend years searching for their voice. Pinter found his with his first play, The Room. After initial critical rejection, the theatre embraced the vague, fear-drenched world of Pinter's The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Homecoming. As far as offering illumination on his themes and meanings, Pinter the playwright was very much like one of the characters in his plays: mysterious, stubbornly unforthcoming, forever hinting at darker, unspoken intentions. He would not explain himself. He was "Pinteresque." He claimed not to know what his plays were about, or, rather, declined to say. No matter. There were dozens of critics and hundreds of academics more than ready to dissect the core of Pinter's plays, and what they said of the author, the theatre, society, and the anxiety ridden, wary post-modern world. One thing was sure: If we didn't know exactly what he was saying all the time, we felt what he felt. ***
People say the New York Times doesn't have the power it once did to influence the theatre. Don't you believe it.
A few weeks age, Times critic Charles Isherwood wrote an admiring story about little-known Chicago-based director, David Cromer. Since then, news has come that producer Scott Morfee hopes to bring Cromer's production of Our Town to Off-Broadway. Now we hear that Cromer has been tapped to direct the upcoming Broadway revivals of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
Now that's quite a jump in class, isn't it? Cromer replaces the previously announced Daniel Sullivan, according to Variety. No reason for the change in directors was given. The Simon plays, which will be produced by Emanuel Azenberg and Ira Pittelman, will play in repertory. Rehearsals are scheduled to begin in summer 2009 with a fall opening on Broadway; Brighton Beach Memoirs will likely be the first of the two plays to open. No casting has been announced.
For five-and-a-half years now, the Broadway musical Avenue Q has ended each show with the song, "For Now," that states, "George Bush!" is only "for now." Thousands of left-leaning belly laughs have been wrought from the line. Back in 2004, it was thought (hoped) that maybe the line would have to be changed after the election. That did not prove to be the case.
But now, Bush really is going. He's not "for now." He's history. So the show is holding a contest. It is inviting all and sundry to enter "their suggestion for a new person (not necessarily a political figure), place, thing, event, fad, etc. to be considered as a substitute for the soon-to-be-outdated reference to 'George Bush' in the musical's finale."
The winner will be announced Jan. 15, 2009, and the new lyric will be performed in Broadway's Avenue Q at the Golden Theatre beginning Jan. 20, 2009, the day Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States.
The contest began Dec. 22 and runs through Jan. 12, 2009. To enter visit www.avenueq.com.
Should be a fun competition. But, honestly, what's funnier than George W. Bush?