Monday, December 19, 2005

Stephen Sondheim has something, but not much of it

I spent $51 on a ticket to see "Into the Woods" with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. This is my fourth Sondheim musical. I hope it is the last.

Here is what I conclude:

Stephen Sondheim:
- does not know how to tell a story
- has a somewhat despairing outlook on life
- has way too many words compressed in a short space of time
- oddly couples these supremely compressed intellectual lyrics with trite, cutesy, but forgettable tunes

Will the theatre of the future, 100 years from now, be performing Stephen Sondheim? I don't think so. I don't understand why theatres today perform his work.

"Into the Woods" is a very confused story. It does have a beginning and a conclusion, which is an improvement over the other Sondheim musicals that I have seen. However, all the events occuring in the middle are extremely confused.

The Sondheim fans tell me, breathlessly, "that's because life is confusing". I can agree with that statement. I cannot agree that the confusion of life justifies creating a work of art. Instead of art imitating life, we've got life imitating life here. In other words, "Into The Woods" is confused and aspires to imitate life which is confusing. In this case, why spend $51 per ticket? Why not watch someone's life for two hours? Or watch one's own life for two hours?

But let's move on to the play itself.

Sondheim's lyrics are very often clever, eclectic, and unusual. Perhaps he should have been a poet. The actors and actresses sing these lyrics in a compressed amount of time. Their ability to do is impeded by their lack of diction. As a result, the audience cannot hear the actual lyrics in real time. About the only way to follow the story is to read the musical in advance.

The audience hears an actress sing "Chow Doon". We attempt to mentally translate what we heard into something meaningful. Even though it sounds like Chinese we want to understand how that fits into the story. However, the actress intended to say "What are you doing?" But if you say "What are you doing?" over and over again as fast as possible, it comes out sounding like "Chow Doon".

This is a key problem with Sondheim. Either his work is simply unsingable, or there are not enough singers with sufficient diction to perform Sondheim. Either way, this is a big problem.

So why is Sondheim popular? Why is his work performed?

I believe that two phenomena work in his favor: (1) His relationship with Oscar Hammerstein, and (2) The lack of evolutionary direction in the American musical.

(1) Due to a set of circumstances, the well-known lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein became a surrogate father to Sondheim. This connection opened doors and opportunities for Sondheim in the American musical theatre that other lyricists and composers could only dream about.

(2) There seems to be a paucity of break-through ideas for the American musical theatre. The art form had its golden age in the 1960's and since then has been thrashing about for a new direction and a new inspiration. The musical needs to evolve as an art form. It has become derivative. The only new ideas apart from Sondheim are with the mega-musicals, like Les Mis.

Yes ... Stephen Sondheim has new ideas. His supremely compressed intellectual lyrics are thought provoking, even unusual. What a pity they are not performable.

What group of young artists, composers, lyricists can now come forward and fill the void to help musical theatre evolve?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Winning the Iraq War

How do you win a war? This is a serious question I've been pondering. I think the use of language or the rhetoric of the question is flawed. "Win" is defined as:

1. To achieve victory or finish first in a competition.

So we could rephrase the question substituting the definition above for the word "win":

How do you achieve victory or finish first in a competition in Iraq?

I don't think the Iraqi insurgents consider the presence of U.S. troops in their country a "competition". I don't think they are interested in "testing their skill or ability against a rival" (the definition of compete). I think the insurgents want the U.S. out of their country so they can take control again.

Normally when we use words like "winning" and "competing" we have a mental model of a sporting event like a soccer game or baseball game. In these tests of skills, both sides agree to follow a certain set of rules, there are referrees, and there is an outcome. Both sides accept the outcome or result and there is a clear winner and a clear loser. The matter is settled and the game is over.

The Iraqi insurgents, however, never agreed to "play a game". They never agreed to "test their ability against a rival". They are not participating according to time intervals like innings or 45-minute halves. They are not paying any attention to rules, referrees or outcomes. Especially outcomes. The Iraqi insurgents are not going to agree on the outcome; in other words, that they lost. No matter how the facts of the war appear to the U.S., it does not seem likely that Iraqi insurgents would forfeit, wave a white flag, resign, or admit defeat, regardless of the circumstances.

So when I hear Republicans saying things like "we are going to kick their butts in Iraq" or "we are winning this war", or "we're going to win this one and show them", these expressions sound like fans at a sporting event cheering for their team. In the case of Iraq, the fan is going to be disappointed because "the game" is not going to end.

The trouble is that the U.S. presence in Iraq is not a sporting event. It is not even clear that it is a war, since technically the U.S. has not declared war on Iraq. Most importantly, it is not clear that the Iraqi insurgents are interested or even paying attention to an outcome or result. It seems more likely that the Iraqi insurgents will continue fighting and lose their lives if required to get control over the country. They are not on any kind of time table. It seems they have infinite time and are willing to lose their lives for their cause.

I propose that our rhetoric is all wrong and that we as a nation have phrased the question very badly when we say "winning the Iraq war". We should take a step back, look at the big picture, and ask these questions:

(1) What does the U.S. want from Iraq?
(2) How can this be achieved?
(3) What are the benefits?
(4) What is the return on investment?

In reading the White House web site (, it appears there is some hope that the administration has shifted its focus away from the win/lose war rhetoric to the questions above. I hope this continues.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Let's Ban Cinderella

Banned Books Week is September 24 to October 1, 2005. This is an event promoted by the American Library Association (ALA) with the positive message that "Free People Read Freely". Nevertheless, the American Library Association receives "challenges". These are requests to remove or restrict materials from a curriculum or library based upon the objections of a person or a group. Last year the ALA received 574 challenges. Challenges differ from banning in that banning is the removal of those materials.

The challenged books are most often challenged for offensive language, homosexuality, witchcraft, and sexual content. Among the books that were challenged in the last ten years are: "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck. "Harry Potter" by J.K. Rowling. "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker. "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding. "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. I have read all of these books. Most of the books were on my list of "books that must be read before enrolling in college". The list was compiled by my middle school English teacher in the 1970's. I wonder how it is possible that a list of books considered required reading for those seeking higher education has now become a list of books that many would like to see banned? I wonder, who are these people?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, including me. So if a large group of people want to ban books that are considered classics, then it is only right that I should pick some books that I believe should be banned. As a hypothetical exercise, I thought about the book that has done the most damage to society over time, and should therefore, in the interest of public policy, be banned. It seems right to me that we should have some reason for banning books.

My reason is public policy. My book to be banned is "Cinderella".

Cinderella is in the public domain. Cinderella is folklore, a fairy tale. There are some 345 variations on the Cinderella story. Cinderella is multimedia; Disney has a Cinderella film. There are two Cinderella ballets; there are even more Cinderella operas. So banning all instances of Cinderella will be a monumental undertaking. Considering all the damage Cinderella has done, though, it must be eradicated.

What are the fundamental messages of Cinderella?

(1) If your mother dies when you are a young girl, and your father remarries, you will have big problems.

(2) Your new mother and her offspring will treat you as a servant and abuse you in other ways and your father will do nothing.

(3) If you are a young woman, your goal in life is to marry a prince. If that means cutting off your toe or cutting off your heel so that you can meet the prince's requirements, then you need to maim yourself.

(4) It is the natural course of young women to fight and abuse each other in order to win over the most desirable man.

(5) If you marry a young man of very high rank, you will be set up for life.

I find all of these messages objectionable for all sorts of reasons. The clear amalgamation of the messages: give up control of your life to a man who will take care of everything for you.

No one should give up control of their life to another person.

Although there are certainly many men who would do their best to love and provide for the woman in their life, it is best to have a back-up plan and an exit strategy in case things don't work out.

Sadly, many women have believed in the Cinderella story and found themselves:

  • Pregnant and alone.
  • Homeless.
  • Responsible for small children as a result of desertion.
  • Physically and/or sexually abused.

Now... how did this happen? Where was that prince?

It seems apparent that most men are not familiar with the Cinderella story, or, they don't identify with and model their behavior after the prince. Or, they don't relate to the story at all because the prince has such a tiny role and the story is primarily about Cinderella and the injustices done to her.

Cinderella's problem is not so much the wicked stepmother and step sisters, but rather her own father who has no backbone and will not defend her and stand up for her with the stepmother and step sisters. Given that her own father has let her down, it seems irrational that Cinderella should be so quick to hook up with the prince. Who knows if the prince is going to love and protect her? Perhaps the prince will be as weak as her father.

Although the story ends with Cinderella marrying the prince, if the story were to continue, I think we would find Cinderella has traded in one bad situation for another. If we examine her character we see that she is passive and depressed (over the death of her mother). She is not standing up for herself. She is not setting boundaries. She has not even asked her father to intercede. She goes to a ball and is swept off her feet by a handsome man. She knows nothing about him. She completely trusts that he will take care of her. In short, Cinderella is stupid. The definition of stupidity is engaging in the same behavior twice and expecting different results. The first time was with her father; the second time with the prince. If and when she finds herself in another abusive situation, what is Cinderella's back-up plan? What is her exit strategy?

There are no answers to that question in the Cinderella story and that is our public policy problem.

If Cinderella had a good education, some experience, some marketable skills, and some connections, she could probably take care of herself. She would not have to be dependent on the prince. She would have more self-esteem and confidence.

The public policy message we need to promote is: learn how to take care of yourself and then take care of yourself! When young women get the opposite message: give up control of your life to a man who will take care of everything for you -- the result is a public policy failure. When things do not work out, our society pays the price for the non-existent prince. These women need public assistance or get low paying jobs. They cannot provide for their children. They cannot control their children who get into trouble. They get caught in the downward spiral of poverty and crime. All the while obsessing and dreaming about a fairytale prince who is simply that -- a fairytale.

So let's ban Cinderella. Let's print some extra copies of the essay "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Complaint letter to the FCC regarding the SuperBowl

February 21, 2005

The Honorable Michael Powell
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street SW
Washington, DC 20554

Dear Mr. Powell,

I am writing to complain to you about the television coverage of the "Super Bowl 39" on February 6, 2005. I was extremely offended by what I saw and I think this programming is totally unsuitable for Christians and children.

This program graphically depicted explicit violence between gangs of young men. Even worse, older men in striped shirts, who should have known better, actually seemed to be directing the gratituous violence with whistles and hand gestures. The hitting and tackling between the groups of men could only result in serious injuries and bodily harm. These injuries appear to warrant medical attention. I fear that most of the injuries will not be easily treated and will require additional doctor's visits, xrays, casts, and physical therapy. Some of these injuries may even produce chronic pain that will affect these men for the rest of their lives.

Please work to have this type of programming removed from the airwaves. I am sure that there are may alternatives that are non-violent and non-destructive to the human body.

Sincerely yours,

Chris Wellens

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Devil Wore Prada -- the Devil Responds

A fun and breezy read, The Devil Wore Prada, a novel by Lauren Weisberger, topped the best seller lists for months. What's it about? In three words: the fashion industry. This book delivers an inside look at the fashion industry and the chokehold that a prominent fashion magazine can put on fashion designers and retailers. There's also a storyline about Andrea, a recent college graduate who randomly finds a job as the assistant to the president of the fashion magazine. The pay is lousy and the president is incredibly abusive, but the prestige of the job is supposed to compensate for the low pay and abuse.

Most everyone has endured a horrible boss, so the popularity of the book with readers has a lot to do with their empathy for the heroine, Andrea. However, the book fails to illuminate the real truth of the story, that Andrea is an incompetent administrator.

We read about all the terrible demands and verbal abuse Andrea suffers while working for her devil boss. The only problem with the novel, and, this is a big problem, is that the real devil is Andrea.

The devil boss has an important job -- to create the vision and direction for the magazine. She has more challenges every day than she can possibly confront and meet. She is overworked, middle aged, and surrounded by incompetent staff. Like many women managers in their 40's and 50's, the devil boss also has to run a household with a husband and two children. She also must exercise hard to maintain her dress size of zero. The devil boss tries to delegate. She hires assistants to do things like get her coffee, get her lunch, take care of her dry cleaning, and so on.

One would expect that her assistants would recognize their role in supporting the goals and vision of the executive of the magazine, but they do not. In fact, Andrea is a pretty awful assistant. Andrea fails to:

* See the big picture goals of the organization and support those goals.
* Establish a communication and follow up process with her boss.
* Create checkoff lists to properly track details.

All of these are standard activities that one expects of an administrator. So why did Andrea have so much trouble performing them? What did Andrea think she was supposed to be doing at the magazine? Part of the responsibility lies with the magazine management; the human resources department failed to set expectations properly with Andrea. There was no job description, no training, no books to read. The assumption that the previous assistant would "train" Andrea on how to do "the job" was incorrect; the previous assistant had merely developed some adaptation strategies to survive in a culture that was largely based on fear. The fear comes from the devil boss who is in a perpetually irritable mood caused in part from the lack of proper administrative support.

Andrea never speaks up or defends herself when the boss is abusive. She never requests an appointment to discuss the matter and she never reports it to the human resources department. It is possible that nothing could be done and the board of directors sanctions the behavior of the devil boss in order to get results. However, Andrea will never know unless she tries to speak up for herself.

Andrea fails to realize that the president does not have the option or opportunity to separate her personal life from her professional life. Presidents must live the culture of their company. If you run a fashion magazine, you have to wear designer clothes. This will require a lot of coming and going to the dry cleaners. It makes sense to have an assistant oversee the operation. Andrea looks upon this task as demeaning and something that should be done by a housekeeper. So why doesn't she do something about it? Why doesn't she look for options and alternatives? Why doesn't she talk to the housekeeper about it? Perhaps find a dry cleaner that does pick up and delivery. Andrea failed to do any research and create a proposal with a cost-benefit analysis advocating this change to her boss. Instead she just becomes resentful -- which does not benefit anyone concerned.

Andrea is also angry and resentful when the devil boss demands that Andrea attend a social function to serve as a greeter for the all guests. The devil boss had been planning the social function for months. Andrea had many opportunities to create a list of all the requirements for the social function to help manage the party for the devil boss, but she did not. So, the over-worked boss finds at the last moment that she has forgotten this detail and presses Andrea into service. It should have been Andrea that identified this requirement for the party months in advance so that the devil boss would not have had to worry about it.

Andrea had a great opportunity to study the business operations of a successful magazine. Yes she did have to order lunch, pick it up, wait in line at Starbuck's, etc. All jobs have their good points and bad points. Andrea chose to focus on the bad and indulge in a lot of self-pity without taking any constructive action to ameliorate her situation. Worst of all she failed to seize the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the operation of a successful magazine -- an extremely valuable source of knowledge available from the devil boss.