Saturday, March 23, 2013

Composing Music for Theatre

Once upon a time, I worked in the theatre. 

I'd like to think I still do.  Every once in a while I dip my toe back into it.  I definitely miss it, but my work as a novelist and film studies instructor and lecturer and freelance scribbler takes up 110% of my time these days. 

I majored in theatre, actually in Directing, to be precise, for at the University of Texas at Austin we could focus on specific disciplines--acting, playwriting, design... and I chose directing.  After I received my degree, I moved to New York City and did the off- and off-off and WAY off-off-off-off-Broadway thing for many years.  Besides directing numerous productions, I also composed music.  Usually, I collaborated with playwrights who had lyrics that needed tunes.  I began this process while I was in school and did a number of  musicals that followed me to New York. 

I loved the challenge of taking what was essentially a poem and making a song out of it.  I was the Elton John to the playwright's Bernie Taupin.  It came naturally to me, and although I haven't done it in a while, I'm sure I could easily slip back into the groove (anyone out there who needs music to their lyrics?). 

One of my better-known works (believe me, very few of my musicals were known at all!) was The Resurrection of Jackie Cramer.  This was an entirely-sung "rock opera" written by playwright Frank Gagliano.  I first met Frank at UT Austin, where he was a playwriting professor.  We wrote the first version of the piece in 1974-75, and it was performed at UT during the summer of '75 at the E. P. Conkle Workshop for Playwrights.  It was a crowd-pleaser, and the director, J Ranelli, made the effort to get a production going at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, where he was on the faculty.  He was successful, so I ended up taking the spring semester of 1976 off from school so I could be a "guest artist" at URI for a production of Jackie Cramer.  This led to a production off-off-Broadway at the New Dramatists Inc. a couple of months later.  Then it was done at West Virginia University, and, after I moved to New York, a couple more times in Manhattan, culminating in a big-budget (more or less) off-Broadway production that I directed myself.  Frank and I continued to re-write, add, delete, and mess with the script and music with each successive mounting of the piece.  It was always in a state of flux, but it always seemed to work, no matter what we'd added or taken away. 

Someday Frank and I want to "resurrect" Jackie Cramer.  We're not getting any younger.

Recently I put together a concert of some of my music.  I dragged out pieces from as far back as the 70s.  Here's a song from a musical called Deirdre that I wrote with the late playwright Norman Morrow.  The Right and Wrong Song   It's sung by the very talented front-ladies of the Chicago band, Honey and the 45s--Kristina Cottone and Kim Kozel. 

Music will always be a part of me and I'll always be thankful to the powers-that-be that I was blessed with a talent to play piano and compose. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Oscars

(Note: This blog was originally written and posted on my original blog, on another site, on February 23, 2013, PRIOR to the Oscar Awards.)

The Oscar Awards show is the equivalent of the Superbowl in our house. We love the Oscars. Both my wife and I are people of the arts--we were both theatre majors and worked in that medium for many years. We're avid movie-goers, and I'm a film historian and teach Film History at the College of DuPage. We admit it--we enjoy the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood Dream Factory. Frankly, it's fun. We like to see the stars all dolled up and either deliver eloquent and inspiring acceptance speeches or they make fools of themselves. We have our favorite films and like to see them honored--or not--and much of the enjoyment is in the shock and awe when a title or star is or is not nominated, or wins or not. A lot of folks poo-poo the Oscars; they say it's a long, boring self-indulgent show and that Hollywood is just patting itself on the back. Well, one could say the same thing about the Superbowl.

The world puts a lot of stock in the winning of an Oscar, but it's really just the result of the opinion of a little over 6,000 people. That's not very many, compared to the millions of viewers who go to see movies. But that's the membership of the Academy--roughly 6,000. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was founded by Louis B. Mayer in 1926, mostly to combat the rise of unions. He thought by forming the Academy, Hollywood would have its own happy family of producers, directors, actors, writers, and technicians, and they wouldn't need to organize. Well, we know how that turned out. The unions were formed anyway. The Academy was also created to recognize technical advancements in the motion picture industry, and the awards were an afterthought. The first Oscar Awards ceremony was held in early 1929, covering the years 1927-1928. The second ceremony was later in 1929, covering 1928-1929. From then on, it's been held once a year. The Academy is broken out into the various branches--the actors branch, the directors branch, the writers branch, and so on. Each branch selects the nominees for their particular discipline. The actors nominate the actors, the directors nominate the directors. Then, when all the nominations have been announced, the entire Academy votes on all the categories. The only exceptions are the various Short Film categories (animated short, live action short, documentary short), Documentary Feature, and Foreign Language Feature--these are designated to special committees that view the submissions privately, make the nominations, and vote on the winners.

So, the next time you get angry and frustrated that your favorite film didn't win or even get nominated, don't feel bad. It's only the opinion of around 6,000 people. Another thing--you always hear folks say, "Oh, they'll give it to so-and-so because it's a sympathy vote," or "They won't vote on that film because it made too much money," or "They snubbed so-and-so." Well, guess what. They don't get together as a group in one big room and decide these things. The voters are individuals and they vote in the privacy of their homes. The members of the directors branch don't assemble in a big meeting and collectively decide to snub Ben Affleck for the Best Director award. It doesn't work that way. The so-called "snubs" are accidents. Pure and simple. It's simply a tally of the votes. I have a feeling that the reason Affleck, or Kathryn Bigelow, weren't nominated for Best Director (they should have been) was because most of the voters figured, "Oh, they're shoo-ins to be nominated, so I'll tick off some of these other names and give them a chance." Maybe. Who knows.

This year it seems that the Oscars will be all over the map. There is no clear-cut front-runner. I predict that several films will be honored, and no one title will dominate the proceedings.
Lately, the Academy has allowed more than five films to be nominated for Best Picture. For 2009 and 2010, there were ten nominees. For 2011 and 2012, only nine. I'm not sure why there wasn't a tenth nominee this year or last, but there could have been. My favorite film of 2012 was Moonrise Kingdom, a beautifully-written and acted, charming story of young love. I was certain it would get a Best Picture nomination, but it didn't. It had to settle for an Original Screenplay nomination, and I'm afraid it won't win that because it's the only nomination the picture received. I also thought Skyfall might squeeze in to get a Best Picture nomination. Since 2012 was the 50th anniversary of the Bond films, and because Skyfall is the biggest money-maker of them all, and because it is such a crowd-pleaser, that it might get honored. But, no, it had to settle for five lesser-category nominations, although that's the most nominations a Bond film has ever received. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to the big tribute to the 007 films that the ceremony has promised this year. The rumors were that all six Bond actors would appear on stage together. That ain't gonna happen, so we'll have to settle for hearing Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones sing old theme songs (and if Adele doesn't win Best Song for "Skyfall," there will be a lot of embarrassed people at the show.)

So here are my predictions and preferences, for anyone who cares.

Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables will win. This is perhaps the only sure bet of the whole ceremony. I wasn't a fan of the movie itself, but I admired the performances, and hers especially. When her character died, the movie ended for me.

Supporting Actor: Tough one to call. Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) won the SAG award and will probably take home the prize. I'm rooting for Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) because I feel his was the more challenging role. De Niro hasn't been nominated since 1991, and his was a terrific, nuanced performance. In fact, all five nominees in this category deserve the award, but this is a battle between the two elder statesmen.

Actress: Another tough one to call. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) appears to be the favorite, having won the SAG and other awards. I love Jennifer and think she's terrific, but I believe this role was a success mostly due to the snappy dialogue written for her by David O. Russell. It was practically a role that couldn't fail. I also love Jessica Chastain--she's going to be the next Meryl Streep, I think--but her role in Zero Dark Thirty, while good, is not an Oscar performance. I think the two most impressive performances were that of Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) and Naomi Watts (The Impossible), and I would be very happy if one of them gets it.

Actor: This is probably a sure bet, too. Daniel Day-Lewis will win his third Oscar for Lincoln, although I feel the best performance of the year was Joaquin Phoenix's eccentric, out-of-the-box characterization in The Master.

Director: Since Affleck and Bigelow weren't nominated (both of whom deserve the award over any of the five official nominees), the winner will probably be Steven Spielberg for Lincoln. But of the five who were nominated, I feel that Ang Lee deserves it more for the technically-challenging and inventive Life of Pi.

Picture: Since Moonrise Kingdom wasn't nominated, I have to settle on my second favorite film of the year, and it's the one I think will win-- Argo. Even though it's received some late criticism on historical accuracy (what? Hollywood doesn't always tell the truth when it makes a "factual" film???), it's a huge crowd-pleaser...and it gives Hollywood itself a positive role in the story. Ben Affleck will get his consolation prize by taking home the Best Picture award.

As always, there could be some upsets and surprises... and that's where the real fun of the Oscars lies. Many times I've had the inclination to throw my shoe at the television, and I hope I'll have that wonderful emotional reaction come Sunday night.

I can't wait.

Hooray for Hollywood.

50 Years Ago - 1963

(NOTE: This blog was originally written and published on my original blogging site on February 9, 2013.)

Since everybody's talking about 50th anniversaries (this year it's the Kennedy assassination and last fall it was the James Bond film franchise), I thought I'd try and reminisce about 1963, at least what I *can* remember about that year.

Isn't it interesting how we only remember "flashes" of events from our childhood? We just don't possess the complete cut of a scene: only a few seconds of some imagery, a bit of dialogue, and suggestions of the setting. For example, can *you* remember your 8th birthday party? Of course not. But I have a *flash* of memory, as if a few seconds of footage from a film remained in my brain. The party was held in the back yard of our house in Odessa, Texas, with a bunch of kids from my grade school and neighborhood friends in attendance. I want to say we went to see "Jack the Giant Killer" or "Pinocchio" at the theater, but I could be wrong. "Jack the Giant Killer" was released in 1962, and so was the re-issue of "Pinocchio." So maybe I saw one of those pictures the year before when I turned seven. At any rate, that *flash* is of me with a blindfold on and the other kids laughing and screaming with delight as I tried to do something in a game (Pin the Tail on the Donkey, maybe? Who knows!).

My birthday is in September, so for the first half and summer of '63, I was indeed seven years old. That spring I was in second grade at Gonzales Elementary School. My teacher was Mrs. Gaines, and I had a big crush on her. I thought she was very pretty. There was also a girl in class named Camille that I liked. I pretended she was my girlfriend, although that was the furthest thing from the truth. The one flash of memory from second grade, though, was when I got up in front of the class and lip-synched "Hawaiian War Chant" by Spike Jones, acting out the wacky song. The response I received was tremendous. I'm actually still in touch with a handful of people from my elementary school days. Here's a shout out to Thomas, John D., and Deborah, to name a few.

Summers were always reserved for a trip to Oklahoma to see relatives. My mom's huge extended family lived around Tulsa, Cleveland, and Oklahoma City. I think we went to Oklahoma every summer--and never anywhere else. I always wondered why we didn't go to Disneyland or some place cooler than Oklahoma, but we didn't. Nevertheless, I always had a great time visiting my cousins, uncles, and aunts. It seemed that the road trip lasted forever. My dad always drove, and my sister Judy and I sat in the back seat. No seat belts. I'd have my half of the seat, and she'd have hers. I usually brought along comic books and toys to keep me occupied. Stopping at Howard Johnson's was always a highlight.

In the fall of '63, I turned eight and started third grade. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Weir, but nothing much else about the class. The one big flash of memory I have, of course, is from Novemer 22. "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" It's a question that we Baby Boomers can always answer. Well, I was sitting in third grade. The loud speaker came on and the principal told us the news that the president had been shot in Dallas. Even at our young ages, we were shocked. We tried to continue with class, but an hour later, the principal came back on and told everyone that Kennedy had died. With that, we were released. No more school that day. I walked home, stepped into the house (my mother was home), and said, "Mom, guess what happened!" She was already upset, of course, and had the television set on (still a black and white box-like thing with only three channels).
All of that I remember vividly.

Trivial things from the year are less lucid, but I remember being into books (my reading level was at least a couple of years advanced over my peers). I loved movies and tried to see most everything that a seven- or eight-year-old could view. I've gone over a list of films released in 1963 and can pick out the titles I know I saw that year, the more grown-up pictures with my parents, the kids' movies with friends: "How the West Was Won" (loved it, and I got the soundtrack record at some point), "Jason and the Argonauts" (wow!), "The Great Escape", "Cleopatra" (I was bored to death, and am still bored to death by this one, despite the brief glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor's skin), "Call Me Bwana", "Donovan's Reef", "Flipper", "Four for Texas", "Fun in Acapulco", "The Incredible Journey", "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World", "McLintock!", "The Nutty Professor", "Son of Flubber", "The Sword in the Stone", "Who's Minding the Store?", and "Spencer's Mountain". I do remember "The Birds" coming out, but it was deemed too scary for me to see at that time.

Speaking of "flubber," I remember a toy coming out that year that every kid wanted-- flubber! It was a glob of gooey, rubbery stuff that you could mold with your hands into a ball, and it would bounce pretty high. The flubber was green and pretty when it first came out of the package, but after a day of playing with it, it was all black and gross. Other toys of the year that I recall were: Big Loo (a robot that shot a ping pong ball out of its arm and also talked ), Mattel's Vac-U-Form machine , which allowed you to create plastic cars and things--it would never pass a safety code today because of the exposed hot oven!, and an 8mm toy movie projector that you hand-cranked. It included 3-5 minute reels of excerpts from cartoons, monster movies, and comedies.

Mostly, though, 1963 was the year I discovered Marvel Comics. "The Amazing Spider-Man" #1 came out at the beginning of the year, but I didn't notice Spidey until that fall, after a few issues had been out. The first one I bought on the newstand was #8 ("The Living Brain"), but I was able to find earlier issues at used comic stores. I had a Spider-Man #1 for many, many years--but I didn't take care of it and it was in pieces when I sold it in 1993 for a surprising $350, despite its extremely poor condition (if it had been mint, I'd have been able to put my son through college with the proceeds). I did love those Marvel Comics. I immediately latched on to Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Thor, and Iron Man.

And then there were the classic television shows-- "The Twilight Zone" was my favorite. I also liked "The Dick Van Dyke Show", "The Andy Griffith Show", "The Flintstones", "The Jetsons", "The Outer Limits", "The Beverly Hillbillies", "My Three Sons", "Mister Ed", "Lassie", "Bonanza", and "Gunsmoke". All black and white. No remote.

I suppose I was just a typical eight-year-old nerd.

And as Bob Hope would say, "Thanks for the memories!"

Moms With Stilettos

(NOTE: This blog was originally written and published on my original blogging site on February 16, 2013.)

This week's blog is a reprint of an article I wrote for COLLIER's Magazine last summer about my Black Stiletto series and how I've often used MOMs as protagonists in my novels. The link to the complete article is here: But here's the beginning...


Mothers make wonderful protagonists. I’ve often used them in my thrillers. The lead characters in several of my novels are indeed women, and many are moms, despite the fact that once upon a time I wrote guy-oriented stuff like continuation James Bond adventures.

By the way, the title of this article refers to knives, not shoes. That’s right, my latest series features a mother with Alzheimer’s who many years ago was a mysterious stiletto-wielding, costumed vigilante operating in Eisenhower/Kennedy-era Manhattan and L.A. She was known as the Black Stiletto, and she took on common crooks, the mafia, and Commie spies—but her identity has been a secret for fifty years.

This is my new mom.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my real mother. We have a great relationship and she’s the best mom in the world, but, apparently, judging by my work, I enjoy creating fictional moms whose dark secrets are uncovered by their children. I’ll leave it for the psychoanalysts to determine why this might be a recurring theme in my novels, but consider this—could it be that when one gets to be a certain age, the story of our parents’ lives prior to raising children becomes more interesting?

(Continued at... )

In Praise of Stanley Kubrick

(NOTE: This blog was originally written and published on my original blogging site on February 4, 2013.)

Hello and welcome to Blog Benson. This is my second post. I deleted the first one. I'm experimenting. I want to get comfortable with this blogging thing.

So for this attempt I thought I'd play it safe and simply talk off the cuff about a guy who was a huge influence on me, and still is. Film director Stanley Kubrick quite simply changed my life. In late 1968 (or possibly January 1969), I saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" with my father. I was thirteen-years-old at the time. I couldn't believe what I saw on that 70mm screen. Tomes have been written about this landmark film and how influential it is in the history of cinema, but for me, living in the small West Texas town of Odessa, it was a revelation. It illustrated to me what a "director" does. I suddenly understood what auteur theory was and I'd never heard the term.

Kubrick's films were never "easy." In fact, most of them require more than one viewing to fully appreciate. They all have hidden meanings, deeper levels of subtext, and room for interpretation. He liked ambiguity. He wanted his audiences to think, to question, and to argue. He wanted to titillate and challenge the viewer with existential subjects that examined the human condition and its place in the universe. Kubrick also liked to make intelligent audiences laugh. His humor was blacker than just about anyone in the motion picture business. ("Dr. Strangelove" anyone?)

The filmmaker didn't make many movies. Only thirteen. Eleven of them could be considered classics, and at least six or seven of them are now called "masterpieces." The Stanley Kubrick Exhibition, currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through June 2013, demonstrates how Kubrick's perfection in craftsmanship elevated his pictures from the norm. He was always striving for a better shot, a better performance, and a better product. I encourage anyone in the LA vicinity to pay a visit. It's a remarkable collection of Kubrick's "stuff"--props, scripts, costumes, cameras, notebooks, photos--all of which sheds a little light on the creative mind of a genius.

I've always admired artists who buck the system and do it "their" way. Kubrick, who purposefully developed a personalized mystique around himself, had an unprecedented deal with his studio, Warner Brothers. He could make any movie he wanted, with whatever budget he wanted, and he had final cut to boot. He didn't have to show the executives a frame of film until the picture was completed. Then, when most directors sit back and wait to see how it does at the box office, Kubrick had a hand in the marketing of his pictures, determining what theaters they should play in and how the ads should look. He created a film the way a writer pens a novel. He was always the sole author of his films, despite working with teams of extremely talented craftsmen and actors.

My family and I were fortunate to attend the opening night gala of LACMA's exhibition in October 2012. While I already personally knew members of the Kubrick family, I was privileged to meet several key individuals associated with the man's oeuvre. For me, the most exciting moment was shaking hands with Daniel Richter. He was the actor who played "Moonwatcher," the man-ape in "2001: A Space Odyssey" that threw the bone up in the air--an ingredient of what is arguably cinema's most famous match cut 2001 Match Cut. That short, iconic sequence represents what Kubrick was saying in all his films--that man does have the ability to reach for the stars... as long as he doesn't screw it up.

I still live by that adage.