30 November, 2011

A 'Quick 5' with The Maryland Theatre Guide

A great, thought-provoking Q & A with The Maryland Theatre Guide. See you Friday!

Alexandra Silber will be back performing at The Kennedy Center on Dec 2, 2011, at 7:30 PM as part of The Barbara Cook Spotlight Series. She was last seen there in Master Class starring Tyne Daly. Alexandra’s London theatre credits include Carousel, Fiddler on The Roof and The Woman in White. She recently made her NYC debut in Hello Again at The Transport Group.

You will be performing at The Kennedy Center on Dec 2nd in the Barbara Cook Spotlight Series. Can you give us a hint of what you will be singing at your concert?

©dan wooller
It feels odd to call my cabaret act London Still a concert because it feels like more of a theatre-piece. Probably because it tells a linear story; the tale of why I left America as a teenager, and why I returned. It is a classic tale of ‘there and back again’’- from Odysseus to Bilbo Baggins to Dorothy – we all return to the place where we began and are changed. It is a universal human experience.

That said, I pepper it with my own details, from the serious to the utterly self-deprecating (one of my very favorite things to do). You’ll hear a great deal of Kander and Ebb, Kurt Weill, and of course Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it is also peppered with some jazz, pop and even some opera.

What are your earliest memories of performing?

I remember my very first Ballet recital when I was 5 – my class ran across the stage flapping our arms. My mom made everyone’s wings. I had bangs. There was cuteness. I also cut my teeth in the third grade in a production of Annie at El Rodeo School in Beverly Hills. No, not what you are thinking, I circumvented ever playing the title character and in fact played Miss Hannigan. Thaaaat’s right. I was fierce and mean and convinced myself for years that she behaved so badly because of her drinking. I took it really seriously.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the opening of the Kennedy Center’s beautiful production of Follies on Broadway. I was pleased to casually drop the following piece of trivia:
“I really don’t know this musical at all. I know the premise and some of the songs, but mostly I’m a Follies virgin. Though, I would be totally lying if I said that I didn’t close the 5th grade talent show with “Broadway Baby.”
Well, I did.
I want to say I closed the 5th grade talent show with “Losing My Mind,” but it would be a lie.
A great, funny lie, but a lie nonetheless.
Anyhow I had a full-on period suitcase and concept costume.

You have won critical acclaim in London for your performances in Carousel and Fiddler on the Roof. Why do you think British audiences love American musicals and are British audiences similar or different than American audiences?

Why do they love American musicals? For the same reasons we revere Shakespeare – because we invented the genre! There is nothing like seeing American musicals performed by Americans, but what I love about the British relationship to American musicals is that they do not have the same cultural references to the pieces that Americans do, as well as a completely different sociological relationship to class structures and emotional expression – all of that is very real.

An interesting example: when we began initially working on Fiddler on the Roof we were met with a perplexing issue about accents that went on for weeks. Fiddler is, to us, an American musical, possibly one of the best every written and a classic. Everyone played Lazar Wolf in High School. Everyone has been to at least one wedding where “Sunrise Sunset” made everyone melt.

But in Britain, they do not have that relationship with the piece, the characters, the story. As an officially Christian country they are less generally familiar with Judaism as a widespread cultural attribute.To them, it is a European story… because it technically is. But most fascinating of all? Why in the world would these people speak in American accents in Europe? As American theatre-goers we do not hear American accents as “accents,” for us it is the neutral sound. It makes perfect sense that everyone is stomping around the shtetl sounding like they are from various parts of Jewish America because to Americans that is a relevant parallel.

Not for the British.
So. We started with the concept of “neutral accents” – all the Jews in Anatevka had the accent we all hear on BBC News called “Received Pronunciation” (or “RP”). That didn’t work because of RP’s projection of higher-class and education – all of a sudden Tevye’s daughters sounded like they were from private schools rather than ready to milk cows in the dead of winter. Weeks of trial and error later we decided upon a European Yiddish accent (ie, Eastern Europeans that learned to speak English in England), the Russians, in contrast, used RP. It worked. A completely unique issue to the British approach to the American musical and here is my ultimate point: Americans write wonderful musicals. The British re-interpret them, wonderfully. As a British actress (up until a couple of years ago) I am proud to have cut my professional teeth there.
AND: Let’s not forget how much Americans love popular British musical theatre in return – thank you The Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia!. Just saying.

I have to say, I truly believe that people love great theatre no matter what the geography.

You were in Master Class here at the Kennedy Center with Tyne Daly. What were some of your fondest memories of that experience?

For the 2009–10 theater season, the Kennedy Center presented Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera including The Lisbon Traviata, Master Class, and Golden Age, a special collection of three McNally plays on one of his favorite subjects – the opera. Without any exaggeration, being a part of that triptych of McNally plays was one of the most fulfilling artistic experiences of my life.
So often as an actor, one can feel as though their contributions are limited – of course ideally theatre is collaborative, but we often have to take the visions of the director, the playwright, the designers into account, and though we hopefully are able to reach deep within ourselves and give, the greater principles as to why or what we are giving to can get muddled. It is rare that we get a chance to reach to offer something beyond “a great night at the theatre” and contribute to a Greater and Universal veneration of Art Itself.

But sometimes experiences come along that make you feel as though you are making a contribution not only to the piece you are involved in, to your playwright, fellow actors, or the immediate audience members who will be in attendance, but to a greater cause – sometimes you get the opportunity to be a part of a contribution to art itself. That is what the Terrence McNally Triptych was: a celebratory contribution to the world of interpretive art itself, and I felt as though I was allowed and able to weave myself deeply into that experience on every level. I made lifelong friends across all three productions, and became reacquainted with myself and my life as an American (in my nation’s Capital nonetheless!)

It was not just a “gig” (I mean, of course not, I was sharing a stage with Tyne Daly in one of the most important venues in the world). The point is: I was a part of something I believed mattered on a cosmic scale.

My time in D.C. that spring also was a period of real transition and personal healing, not to mention the fact that Sophie DePalma went on to be the role in which I made my Broadway debut. But it all began here at the Kennedy Center.
May every national artistic institution be so inspired.

I remember spending time in the Green Room we all shared – every one of us playing cards and laughing in an array of different period costumes. I remember sneaking backstage to the Family Theater from the Eisenhower to watch the second act of Golden Age from the wings (because I was only in the first act of Master Class!).
And best of all? I remember singing at Terrence and (his now husband) Tom’s wedding just outside the stage door along the banks of the Potomac on the most perfect spring day in the history of the world.

Are there any roles on Broadway now that you would like to play?  

I have always strived to do great work with gifted people regardless of the location, but some dreams/itchings include Nora in A Doll’s House, Rosalind in As You Like It, Anna in The King and I, Irene Malloy in (either!) The Matchmaker or Hello Dolly!, and an absolute dream would be to play Amalia Balash in She Loves Me (which, of course, Barbara Cook, the curator of the Spotlight Series in which I am appearing, originated herself).

But truly, there would be no greater dream than getting to revisit Julie Jordan (of Carousel) at home on Broadway. I have been so fortunate to portray her in the West End, in my birthplace of Los Angeles, California, and bringing it to New York would be a dream.

Watch Alexandra Silber as Julie Jordan in Carousel at Reprise Theater Company in LA, singing “If Loved You” & “What’s the Use of Wonderin’"

Go behind the scenes with Alexandra Silber, as she prepares at the half hour call to play Julie Jordan in the West End production of Carousel.

Alexandra Silber’s website.

29 November, 2011

27 November, 2011

A Letter

Dear Peanut Butter,

It's time.



18 November, 2011

Portrait of a Friend: Lilly

land of the stately pines [de-dah-de-dah]
I remember, probably more vividly than any other call, the moment Lilly heard the news. Kent and I were seated on my bed, still in pajamas and both totally stoic. I remember wanting to “be” there when he told her, but not wanting to do it myself.

So he told her.
I don’t recall what he said, what I do recall was the depth and ferocity of her wail, and how much I envied it.

She loved him. Everyone did.


Meet Lillian Townsend Copeland.

No, she is not related to Aaron Copland (though she enjoys referring to him as “Uncle Aaron”). Townsend is her mother’s maiden name.
Lilly is from Virginia.
Her parents are both doctors (her Dad, in fact, saved my eye from extinction in 1999 when a corneal cut turned into a very infected corneal ulcer and I nearly lost the whole darn thing…but that’s another story…). Her little brother William is a swimming sensation.

Lilly and I met at Interlochen Arts Camp in 1996, we weren’t always close but we were around one another a lot (in fact I think we took a Modern Dance class together somewhere in the mid-nineties). We became close Junior year of High School once we’d both made the leap from spending our summers in the North woods of Interlochen to attending the year-long Interlochen Arts Academy full time, Lilly majoring in oboe performance and I, in Theatre. By the end of Junior year we had resolved to fill a four person suite in Thor Johnson House, the senior girls dormitory, with two of my fellow theatre majors (Chrissy and Katie).

Thor Johnson House (also known as “TJ”) was shaped like an “L” and divided into six areas— four dorm hallways named according to their location— Lower Short, Lower Long, Upper Short and Upper Long. There was enough friendly rivalry and Hall Pride for a Big Ten Conference (and by 'friendly rivalry,' I mean, 'a total lack of tension,' and by 'Hall Pride,' I mean ‘none’). Still, we presided over the mustering of a you’re-in-boarding-school-now-ladies kind of enthusiasm that some eating dancers and/or people who weren’t in a practice room for seven hours a day, appeared to enjoy.

There was a main lobby with a front desk, a toaster (with a magically endless supply of toast with all the fixings), student cubby-hole mailboxes, and fluffy sofas some people sat and spoke on well into the night. There was also a downstairs greenroom where we would have our house meetings, complete with an “adult approved” and “highly voted upon” television for movie nights and the watching of “Friends,” and off this downstairs area were two long corridors of practice rooms and the offices of the woodwind and accompaniment departments.

Lilly and I were both the über official “HAs” (as in, Hall Assistants) for Upper Long. At this, we inarguably left a little something to be desired. I'm not saying we were abysmal or anything like that. I am merely saying that one could take a convicted arsonist, and give them a pack of complimentary matches, escort him to the log cabin of his childhood nemesis where you are to be spending the night,  instruct him to “have a good time,” and your predictably charred evening would be preferable to having Lilly and I be responsible for you in High School.
That's all.

We were likely candidates I suppose, returning “lifers” who “bled blue”— terms used for students that had been at Interlochen as long as anyone could remember, and thus bled the uniform colors— light blue on top (with a visible collar), navy on the bottom (the intricacies of which became more and more creative as the school year progressed). As HAs Lilly and I were supposed to make certain everyone was comfortable, felt at home, felt like they had a place to talk if they needed to. That was the part we were good at. The social, caring big sister stuff. The helping to plan the hall party stuff, the making sure the Chinese piano major who doesn’t speak English gets everything she needs in order to find her way to class (in classrooms located in the forest) on Monday stuff, the “I-just-moved-from-South-Africa-and-my-childhood-boyfriend-and-I-are-apart-for-the-first-time-ever” stuff.
That stuff.

But we were also there to attend HA meetings about house life, we had to make certain everyone in our hall attended the big school “community meetings” held every Thursday before lunch. We had to clean things and organize community service. We had to make sure everyone was “there” in a fire drill. We had to attend the fire drill.  We had to have not pulled the fire alarm ourselves. We had to be good examples. We had to be quiet. We had to obey the freaking rules—all of them. And that part, we were crap at. Lilly and I, after all, shared with Chrissy and Katie, both of whom were really, really fun, and the four of us were cool, and boisterous and had an illegal television (with a VHS player!) hidden in a giant Tupperware that we watched movies on after we were all supposed to be in bed.

One time [1], in a rousing flurry of Senior-itus, Chrissy and our next-door-neighbor Essie decided to
    1. paint their naked torsos with tempera paint
    2. Walk around the entire dorm (during school hours—so even teachers and boys might see them) and
    3. Video tape it.

And who video taped it? Lilly and I.
And who tagged along? All of Upper Long.
And how does this video tape end? With our (incredibly cool, but also incredible adult) Dorm Leader (and fabulous human) Angela Duncan, staring deadpan into the camera and simply saying

    “Um: NO.” Then she looks at Chrissy and Essie and our entire entourage and repeats, “NO—no no no.”

And it cuts out. Oops.

Five minutes later we are all in our room, the sun is setting on Green Lake outside our window. Chrissy and Essie have on both t-shirts and looks of mild shame. Katie is crumpled into our womb chair in the corner and Lilly and I are standing, military-style in front of Angela as she explains that she knows we have 6 weeks of Senior Year left but we all really need to get a freaking grip on ourselves.

    “I love all of you so much but seriously: COME. ON.”

We all nod. It is ridiculous.

    “Additionally: Alexandra Michelle and Lillian Townsend you are HALL ASSISTANTS!! You are supposed to be leaders, set examples, you are supposed to be the first line of defense when all the parents paying thousands of dollars and visiting from Asia for the four concerts this week alone want to know where on earth they have sent their children.”

She was right. Double oops. Actually, quintuple oops— for good measure.

    “I can’t believe I am about to say this, I literally cannot believe I am about to say the following sentence but; PLEASE, dear women of Upper Long, please do not cover your naked bodies in paint, roam the public hallways during working (OR non-working hours for that matter), and above all, please, please do not video tape it.”

We nodded again, with even more shame.

    “Dunc?” Chrissy said, lifting her head. “Please, there is just something I want to get off my chest.”
    “Please: say it is not your shirt.”
    “Yes!—I mean no! I just—” she grappled, “we’re sorry.”

We were. [2]

    “Accepted. We all got it?” she said, her hands in the prayer-position, “I’m gonna go now.”

Remember the last five minutes of every sports film in the history of cinema where you are inexplicably filled with the exultant joy of a game well played and a life well lived in a those-sure-were-the-best-of-times sort of a way? —We felt the opposite of that.

But man, did we have a great year. Some people might be intimidated to share their dorm life with three boisterous theatre majors, but not Lilly. Lilly was honorary, she was drama and flair, she was theatrical and powerful and loved it. Sure, sometimes she didn’t want to talk about Tennessee Williams anymore. And the sounds of Chrissy and I warming up in our communal shower must have been unpleasant at times, and I’m certain there were times where if she heard us talk about Theatre Department politics one. more. time. she was probably gonna kill us. Oh alright, and sometimes she had to explain the basics to us. Like the time Katie stared at “The Beeping Box” in total, wonder:
    “Listen guys” she said, shoving her face ever closer, “…it's like Morse Code…"
Lilly just stared, eyebrow cocked, voice ever-patient.
    "Actually, it's called a metronome…"
But if she ever truly contemplated roomaticide, she never showed it. "Do your theatre stuff" she would say, and Lilly just kept on making her reeds and doing her homework and more often that not, joining right in—picking out our outfits before auditions, expressing her monologue preferences, and, most memorable of all (with her signature scrupulous exactness), helping me learn every single line and lyric as I prepared to play Amalia Balash in She Loves Me. Lilly got so involved in the process she would often ask to “work” long after I was memorized, she would talk through the notes I got from the director.
    “I think you need to be a little ‘sobbier.’”
    “Lilly, if I got any ‘sobbier’ I'd be Meg Ryan."
    “Well then sob away—you’d have a cute haircut. And quite a career.”
Oh how she belted “Where’s My Shoe?” with all her heart! How she melted just like “Vanilla Ice Cream,” and how she detested the title song (which she referred to scathingly as the “Well, well, well” song— Adorable).

How we loved her. And how could we not? Her bewitchingly piping voice, her short hair she sometimes wore in spriggy little pigtails that looked something like a cross between broccoli and the thing on top of Bam-Bam’s head, her Southern accent that only came out when she was exhausted, how much she hated making reeds but dutifully made them anyway. She was a foreign creature to us theatre people and we were happy to be amused by her music-major culture.

In the first week of school all of the auditions for the coming year take place— theatre majors audition for the first two shows of the season (in our case, Lysistrata and She Loves Me [3]), voice majors get placed in their studios, dance majors are placed in their level classes and cast in the coming Winter ballet (Coppélia our senior year. Snore), and most stressful of all on our predominantly orchestrally-minded campus, all of the instrumental majors audition for the entire week for their “chair” in the orchestra.

I suppose this is the point where I tell you a little secret: Lilly is so insanely talented a musician, and so gifted at the oboe some might call it unjust. To listen to Lilly play is like listening to a person sing— actually sing through their instrument, with all of the individuality and soulfulness of a raw, vital, pulsing human voice which manages to capture the beauty of existence just as film captures an image. Or honey captures light. One can hear her own expressive soul come through the instrument and, though I know I am biased, I have never heard her bettered. Listening to Lilly play is like watching Ann Reinking dance next to other dancers: flat out unfair to others.

So it was no surprise to the rest of us the day the chairs were posted. Lilly lay in, buried in her duvet distraught that she had “blown it,” thus ruining her senior year, her chances at getting into college and possibly her entire life. The rest of us woke up early and looked at the posting for her—certain.

And as we screamed and celebrated in the main lobby, jumping up and down in characteristically un-music-major-like fashion, we flew upstairs, burst in and jumped on Lilly screaming like the lunatics we were
    “First chair, Lilly! First freakin' chair!

Lilly sat up and beamed. She laughed her Southern sun-shiney laugh and eventually, after Chrissy decided party music (in the form of Simon and Garfunkle’s "Cecelia") was “called for,” joined in our carousing dance of celebration.

Lilly might have slept through her concerto competition final were it not for Katie and I keeping track of the time, throwing her in the shower and running her to the recital hall with minutes to spare.

And (prepare your thesaurus) just imagine what our respective language lexicons would be like were it not for the nocturnally concocted memory tricks we cogitated for every word of Mr. Hintze’s notoriously (some might say opprobriously) formidable vocabulary assessments?

And maybe we all went to MORP [4] on a great big yellow school bus.
Chrissy and I chose vintage picks.
Lilly in a Catherine Silber original.
Katie made her own dress—out of duct tape.

Yes, we had a lot of adventures.
And it was, without question, a collection of favorite memories I shall hoard forever, like jewelry, or marbles, or the very last Double Stuff Oreo.

But all this being said, Lilly was something else.
Despite not being a theatre major, Lilly “played a different role:” She was my very closest friend.
She was the only one I really spoke to about my Dad’s increasingly concerning illness when the going got tough.
And it did.
Get tough.

Dad started out the year with his fifth (or so) round of regular ol’ chemo (in nine years). If there is such a thing. A bald head was the only giveaway, Dad was an ox: six foot three inches of pure, Herculean, I-have-cancer-but-remain-symptom-free-for-a-decade type strength. No one saw the end coming. No one.
That somehow made it all the more ruthless.

Previously-mentioned virtuosic musical gift aside [5], Lilly is rife with what I like to call “goods.” And I will now list them (because as we know, I love both Lilly and lists). It doesn’t take a genius to notice that Lillian Copeland has the biggest, most gorgeous hazel eyes you’ve ever seen. But let me tell you something else: this girl is compassionate, capable, and feisty. She looks right at you and waves sneakily with her oboe during the orchestral bow when you are standing and screaming for her solo (…from the front row of the stalls…with signs…) She is delightfully kooky; for example, she doesn’t refer to her oboe as “the oboe” but rather as, “Oboe,” the proper noun, as if “Oboe” is “his/her” name [6] — both delightful and kooky, you see! She is the just right amount of perfectionist and sees the great virtue in “being cute.” Yes, OKAY, fine: she has killer legs with perfect ankles that look amazing in heels.

But reader?
Lilly is the kind of solid you only think is possible in prairie people. With a sense of empathy so intuitive it makes you ache.

She would drive to-and-from Ohio more times than anyone could count. [7]
She would entertain the less-desirable members of my extended family. [8]
She would visit me in every exotic city I would ever come to live in. [9]
She would hold me while I couldn’t cry.

This is one phenomenal friend.


Of the central circle, Lilly was the last to arrive.

She arranged a leave of absence, caught a Greyhound Bus up from Oberlin the following morning set to arrive around lunch time, though she didn’t arrive at the house until dinner time because despite our Black-Ops-worthy planning, somehow, we forgot to pick her up. For hours.
    “I’m so sorry,” Grey said when he finally arrived in his Rav 4 after driving nearly 150 miles that day alone, “I don’t know how we missed you Lil. We had everything planned down to the mili-second.”
    “It’s okay,” Lilly laughed, tired, but not even the tiniest bit irked, “I understand. I was just a little freaked out.”
    “Because you were young woman alone in the Detroit Greyhound Station? No worries there.”
    “Right” she said. Even her laugh was still sunny and Southern. [10])

Lilly rang the bell at 1367.
    “Hi” she said “I brought Oboe.” Obviously Lilly was going to play at the funeral. Obviously.
    “Come in” I said. And she did.

We arranged the sleeping situation: Grey and Kent opted to sleep downstairs in the lower guest room (which had previously doubled as my mom’s design studio)— it had its own bathroom (which seemed to be a masculine virtue), a dark window facing the Rouge River, and a trundle bed below the day bed we bought when we moved to Michigan because I had seen one once on “The Price is Right” and thought the overly enthusiastic models made it appear outstanding. Lilly and I shared my room— also on twin trundles amidst what suddenly felt to be the fragmented souvenirs of a now forever-lost childhood, and Mom, felt understandably un-enthused about sleeping in The Bed of Death and thus took the spare bed in my Dad’s former office (an office he hadn’t used in months as the disease took full control of him), which Mom would remain in for weeks, until we all sojourned out to Art Van to get her a new bed.

Lil and I settled into my room, she put her bags down, pushed the hair off of her weary face and sat next to me on the bed.
    “Al?” she said.
    “Yeah Lil?”
There was a pause so gorged with meaning the air almost went opaque. Her voice was quiet. Sure.
    “I’ve got this. We’ve got this.”
    “I know…” I replied.
    “You’ve got this.”
    “Thank you, Lilly.”

She hugged me. That said it all. 
We immediately went downstairs and got to work.

There was  an entire extended family of unhelpful people to play offense with. There were 7000 people to pick up from Wayne County Airport, The Greyhound station (which we later discovered to in fact, be three Greyhound stations, all sixteen miles apart). There were people to call, housing to arrange, people to feed.
And of yes: a funeral to plan.
And three eighteen-year-olds would do it all.
All of it.

Because some people can plan funerals when they are eighteen.

[1] at band—school? Literally…
[2] Stir-crazy iiiiiidioooooots.
[3] Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s glorious musical take on The Shop Around the Corner
[4] the Interlochen version of Prom—MORP is “Prom” backwards
[5] …like it can be placed to the side. But you if you will, I would like it, for now, to be placed to the side
[6] I am not certain if Oboe has a gender.
[7] Now that’s love. Plus a lot of unnecessary time on The Turnpike…
[8] Often.
[9] Including Alpena. That’s real love. More on that later.
[10] Okay, we actually were

15 November, 2011

Things I love about... Part 2: New Gal-Pals

New Friends!

- she is the 'el stans' to my 'al silbs' and that is pretty damn adorable if you ask me (and you are)
- we are like a Midwestern blonde/brunette team of pure *awesome*
- we do fun things together: like go to the farmers market, have "kamikaze-scary-early-morning-coffee," and late night impromptu wine. Fabulous.
- there is nothing we can't talk about
- Taxi Time! ["Luuuuuucy 'splain" I hear you say...] We bonded taking taxis home to Astoria together during late-night (5pm-2am!!) crazy tech for Hello Again. Hellooooo! And thus, "Taxi Time" was born.
- she has the kind of adorable speaking voice you can do really great impressions of [see 'nikka,' below]
- so deep. so smart. always searching and growing.
- she cries when you tell her good stories.

- she also lives in astoria (how do you like them apples?!)
- she is a do-er
- she makes me feel like I am some sort of Life Rockstar... which is pretty awesome, especially when we all have our doubts--don't you love pals like that? The ones that don't even have to try to make you feel awesome that is just how they see you?
- we literally met on a friend date that began on the internet. like as in "hi we should be pals" on the internet. and then met in a Greek cafe for brunch because brunch is the very best. Duh. In the friend dating circuit? We are now "going steady." Score.
- she doesn't wear makeup unless she is paid and still out of control beautiful.
- she really believes in true love.

- the first time we talked we "went there" and have never gone back
- she pulls out witty one liners like no other:
     - "but I want to be in the show"
     - "things i was not kidding about"
     - "it is not fair to others..."
     - and a strategic use of "too soon?" is included here... out of homage to her genius. and timing.
- i don't even think i need to mention the sense of style thing. or the high fashion kind of beauty thing. or the dancing like a goddess thing. So i won't.
- she does one a-ma-zing impression of el stans
- sometimes she gets so upset about the world and how much she cares about and loves it that she weeps. and she makes you care more.
- she is a poster child for only children gone sooooo right.

13 November, 2011

04 November, 2011

What About Bob and The Dying (a memoir)

I am sleeping downstairs tonight. I am in a pair of light and dark blue checkered pajamas with a moth-eaten teal wool sweater I acquired from the share box at Interlochen last spring. JNF is asleep next to me, the very fact of which is off because if my Dad were not upstairs dying he would not be happy that his teenage daughter was lying in bed next to her teenage boyfriend. But there is nothing funny going on. JNF is asleep and I am wide awake and thinking about what must be going on upstairs. The Dying. 


What About Bob? is my undisputed favorite film of all time. In a top ten list of favorite films, Bob would take up the top three slots. I could watch it on repeat, I could probably quote the entire thing from beginning to end (with intonations and pauses, inflections, music cues and everything) if you challenged me to. In fact I dare you: challenge me to. Go on. [1]

First things first: 

[**Old World Hollywood cinematic entrance music!!**]

What About Bob? is a 1991 film directed by Frank Oz about a doctor-patient relationship pushed way beyond the office.

Bob Wiley (played brilliantly by Bill Murray), a neurotic New York psychiatric patient struggling with a whirlwind of paralyzing phobias who takes to Dr. Leo Marvin's (the equally astonishing Richard Dreyfuss) latest bestselling book "Baby Steps" like no therapy before it; and in one session alone bonds with, depends upon, and in the most charming way conceivable, subsequently follows his successful and (beyond) egotistical, callous, self-absorbed, S.O.B. psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin north to New Hampshire on a month's vacation.

But Dr. Marvin, is not only seeking a few weeks of rest and relaxation, he is preparing for a highly anticipated interview on Good Morning America and viewing Bob's stalking as highly inappropriate, he demands Bob return to New York. (In fact, Dr. Marvin’s unprecedented success with a patient is all the more ironic, because it would massage his massive ego if it weren't such an intolerable disruption to his vacation.) But Bob can't take a hint, and decides to indulge in his very own "vacation from his problems” in the area!  Bob is here to stay!

Meanwhile, Marvin's wife Fay (Julie Hagerty), death-obsessed son Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), and teenage-daughter Anna (Kathryn Erbe) all take to Bob's openness, loopy charm, and sense of “fun,” none of which Dr. Marvin himself possesses and he views as an infuriating threat. Marvin's temperature rises as Bob insinuates his way into the hearts of the Marvin family— flattering Fay, counseling the previously ignored Anna and most profoundly, helping Sigmund overcome his greatest fears.

Next. Let’s get a few things clear:

    - I did not, I repeat did NOT play it so many times on VHS that it began to skip.
    - I have never claimed that “Bob” [2] is the “I Ching.” Not ever.
    - I have not quoted “Bob” to total strangers on public transportation.
    - I do not love it so much that sometimes I put it on just as “wallpaper” while I clean the house or do my taxes.
    - And above all, I did not get so frustrated by my inability to have access to Bob’s amusement and wisdom at all times that I resorted to holding a professional (purpose bought) microphone up to the television speaker in order to record the entire film on a 120 minute cassette-tape so that I might listen to it on my Walkman…or in the car… or at summer camp…

Saying any of that were true might mean that I was an obsessive crazy fool.
So… yeah…OKAY,
[*she waves her hands in the air, rolls her eyes, exhales and makes the ‘come clean’ face*]
The truth is this: I am an obsessive crazy fool!
A fool for What About Bob? and I don’t even really know why!

When listing ones favorite films I have always considered it important to designate and divide into separate categories: The Favorite Films That Are Legitimate Works of Art and Really Challenge You List— Citizen Kane and Schindler’s List type movies that are in-arguably brilliant but require focus and discipline and serious-mindedness even if the film is amusing. And The Special Favorite Films You Could Watch Again and Again Because They Make You Feel Amazing List—which includes things resembling The Great Muppet Caper and Turner and Hooch. Sometimes there is a cross-over (Amalie?), but pah! Why get into nitty-grittys? The point is I think everybody has a film or two like this: the kind of “favorite movie” where, the second it is over, you loved it so much you could press-rewind-and-watch-the-whole-damn-thing-again kind of love.

I know people who irrationally love Big.
I know other families spend entire mealtimes quoting and guffawing over National Lampoon’s European Adventure.
Or a handful of people who can’t get enough of The Jerk.

Well, for our family, it was What About Bob? and it all started with my dad. I remember the first time we ever watched it in the last home we ever had in Los Angeles. He practically sprinted out to purchase that VHS; and we watched it twice— back to back.

Dad loved this movie for reasons I may never fully know, and desperately wish I did. Perhaps it had something to do with the odd take on psychotherapy. Perhaps it had to do with Bob’s innocence or Bill Murray’s irreverent but child-like sense of humor (that actually reminded me so much of his). Perhaps it was because the film, at it’s core, has a really touching central message without taking itself too seriously. Perhaps it was just amusing, I truly don’t know, but what I am realizing as I type this is that the film became important to me because it was important to him. We would watch it together, laugh, quote, laugh some more, and as I grew it took on it’s very own significance.

When I woke up in the morning he would often greet me with:
    “Good morning Gil… I said good morning Gil.

Or the casual greeting of:

Or if someone asked how he felt about something he might respond with:
    “There are two types of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

Or if someone were mean to me at school he would quote Bob’s wisdom:
    “You know, I treat people, as if they were telephones, If I meet somebody I think doesn't like me I say to myself, I say; ‘Bob, this one is temporarily out of order.’ You know, don't break the connection, just hang up and try again!”

Therein lies a great deal of the draw: Bob Wiley, it would seem, is oddly enlightened, and What About Bob? oddly profound. With every viewing I discovered another level of profundity in a manner in which only Bill Murray seems to be able to deliver on the knife’s edge of comic insanity (Groundhog Day and The Life Aquatic being perfect examples). And every time I watched Bob and found a new nugget of hilarious, but deeply perceptive human observation; I not only felt smarter, or wiser, but I felt closer to my Dad.

So, incongruous though it may seen, it is fitting that it all began there...

About two-thirds of the way into the film, we find Bob sleeping over at The Marvins’ Lake Winnapesawke home due to a torrential rainstorm. He shares a room with Siggy, Dr. Marvin’s 11-year-old son that Bob has, earlier in the day, helped to overcome his morbid fear of diving. They lie there in their PJs, in angled twin beds, staring at the ceiling into the darkness. Siggy looks terrified as his voice utters quietly, 
Siggy: Bob?
Bob: Yeah?
Siggy: Are you afraid of death?
Bob is caught off guard. He is suddenly frightened too— his eyes grown wide and searching, like a child trying to keep their cool.
Bob: Yeah.
Bob answers, as in a “Yeah, so?!” kind of way particular to children one-upping each other. It's cute.
Siggy: Me too. And there’s no way out of it. You’re going to die. I’m going to die. It’s going to happen.
Siggy blinks, clearly the fear is very, very real.
Siggy [cont]: …And who cares if it’s tomorrow or eighty years? ...much sooner in your case...Do you know how fast time goes? I was six, like, yesterday.
Bob: Me too.
Siggy: I’m going to die. You are going to die... what else is there to be afraid of...?

I think.
I think about The Dying.

And in this moment, as I lay downstairs in ratty checkered 'share box' pajamas beside the love of my youth, that very scene from that very stupid, over-quoted, over-played, trivial and pathetically beloved movie, is all I can think of.
My Dad is going to die.
There is no way out of it.
And who cares if it really is tomorrow or in eighty years?
It is going to happen.
And if he dies I am very certain I might die too.
Siggy is right:
    what else is there to be afraid of?

[1] I will do it…
[2] which is the term I give the entire film, not merely the character of Bob Wiley himself

02 November, 2011

A Letter

Dear John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,

We have the same name.
Small World.

Sincerely Yours,

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt


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