Thursday, June 25, 2009

Show Me

Last night we had a wonderful time at a Smithsonian presentation by a music historian named Robert Wyatt who did about a 2 1/2 hour lecture, with film clips and many musical recordings, of the saga of Lerner & Loewe. He's previously done Rodgers & Hammerstein and Cole Porter, and will end with Irving Berlin.

I hadn't realized that as with so many partners, L & L disliked each other and broke up repeatedly. (Lerner also broke up with his other partners; he was married eight times.) But what incredible music and lyrics! And what memories the whole evening conjured up!

First, I did learn a few things. Moss Hart had been the key catalyst of My Fair Lady. Yes, Shaw's words were perfectly suited to Lerner's lyrical talents, but Hart made everything work, including holding Rex Harrison's hand as Hart personally coached the young Julie Andrews to grow rapidly into the consummate professional she had been bred to be by music-hall performing parents. Hart had been out of action (he soon after tragically died at 52) when Camelot opened without benefit of his brilliant show-doctoring. He eventually came back, totally revamped the show (which was still running by dint of its huge advance sale), got it 20 minutes exposure on Ed Sullivan's show, and left it a success, even if the critics didn't come back to see what he had wrought.

The lecturer, however, roused my ire right at the start. He mentioned that L & L had met at the Lambs in 1942. But he misplaced the location of the Lambs (in its last sad days it had moved uptown to share quarters with some women's club) which was actually in a Stanford White building on West 44th Street (they had been there at least since soon after the turn of the 20th century, when the theater district--along with the Times-- moved north to its present location). Last month I walked by as the interior was being razed for new construction--another tragedy because White had designed that too, including the wonderful theater in the clubhouse.

More on the topic, I remembered when my dad introduced me to Fritz Loewe, who was dining solo at the club's Round Table, a hangout for long-time theatrical veterans. Because I was probably in high school, I don't recall noticing that he was especially short, which he was. He did have a Viennese accent and that leads me to note that I loved Loewe's lilting Viennese melodies before warming to Lerner's clever words. And then I heard about the Lambs' salute to L & L, where most of the cast performed before their peers. When Andrews started to sing, the assemblage as if one demanded one song above all others: "Show Me".

It's always been my favorite in the show, too. Yes, "The Rain in Spain" is the dramatic climax of the musical, but "Show Me" was where Loewe's most delightful tune and Lerner's sharp lyrics hit their peak. The pair wrote several shows before hitting it big with Brigadoon. It was fun watching a clip of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse starring in the movie, because their voices were nothing special--Kelly just a few notes stronger vocally than Fred Astaire, for whom Cole Porter wrote all those great songs--but when they started to dance, wow! And the first L & L show had been a flop but again, the dancing must have been something else because the director was none other than George Balanchine.

Two more memories: at a Lambs show where I heard Lee Sullivan, whose delightful Irish tenor originated "I'll Go Home With Bonny Jean" and "Come to Me, Bend to Me" in Brigadoon and never managed to get a similar casting. And seeing that James Barton had been the original lead in Paint Your Wagon brought back a moment at the Lambs' summer picnic (naturally called the "Washing") at the old Percy Williams estate on Long Island where they convinced the by-then legendary Barton to do a brief song-and-dance: he'd been most famous in Tobacco Road in the 30s.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wall Street Lays An Egg

When I hear so-called financial "experts" on the radio (or even worse, on tv) fret about whether we now will have too much regulation on Wall St., the famous 1929 Variety headline (see title) comes to mind. Once again, capitalism has to be saved from itself. At least one intelligent voice suggested that the problem was not too much or too little regulation but the wrong kind of regulation.

It strikes me that for 25 years our economic gurus preached de-regulation and now we reaped the results. I learned in my Securities Reg class umpty-ump years ago from Louis Loss, who wrote half the original SEC regs, that the whole spirit and theory of SEC regulation was disclosure. But that wasn't entirely the story as we now see that specific bars--such as the Glass-Steagall Act's separation of investment and commercial banks--made a heck of a lot more sense than anyone ever acknowledged when they did away with them.

Derivatives were the perfect place where we went off the diving board. Who understood them? Even people who know a stock from a bond hadn't a clue as to what they were being sold. The old principle about not buying something that you can't define went by the wayside. Orange County's crash was the distant early warning (remember the DEW line?) that nobody heeded.

I worked on the Street long ago as a lawyer and learned quickly that the denizens would take anything that wasn't nailed down and they would drive fleets of Mack trucks through any loophole they could find. But it was the wrong kind of regulation that was in force: first, the SEC focused mostly on disclosure. But somehow derivatives--the crazy kind of product that was then called innovative--slipped through without anyone requiring disclosure because they were excluded from regulation altogether. Absolutely nuts. Instead of focusing on the big picture, I recall the SEC intervening in what were then Chapter X reorganizations and making them unfeasible. This made people turn to Chapter XIs, now Chapter 11s under the new bankruptcy law--the one that gave everything away to the credit card operators. I also recall some guy at the SEC who told me I couldn't say "patent pending" in a prospectus rather than "patent filed"--that's what they were focusing on in those days.

Meanwhile they let the ultimate insider, Bernie Madoff, fleece everyone but heck, he was head of NASD and on SEC committees; how could such a dignitary be an out-and-out crook? You could see that the Boston man who had Madoff dead to rights years ahead of the Ponzi scheme's collapse was totally ignored because he hadn't been on SEC committees or been a mucky-muck honcho at "the Commission" before leaving to make a mint in practice. I saw him on TV, noted his loud sport jacket, and thought that they wouldn't ever listen to this guy because he wasn't one of them.

So yes, we need the right kind of regulation and it has to be more than disclosure. Yes, separation of ownership and management is so complete that we have to regulate CEO salaries because the system cannot do it. The CEOs control their boards or they have made it an accepted bit of practice that there really is a market for their breed and they are worth what they get no matter how badly their company performs.

Let's just look at the whole business in this light: we gave them all the rope they wanted and they hanged us, not them, because the CEOs and the hedge fund guys got away with their ill-gotten pelf for the most part and are laughing out in their McMansions. Remember what Goldfinger told James Bond, "...once is happenstance, twice coincidence; the third time, it's enemy action." In terms of jobs lost and businesses gone, and savings wrecked, this one could compare with the 1930s. If we let the system get rebuilt so there aren't sufficient safeguards against the same thing happening in slightly different form (remember the 1929 calls for margin?), we will be the enemy. Everyone forgot that FDR saved capitalism from itself; what bothers me is that while Obama will end up doing the same thing, he may not go far enough to ensure that we are spared the third round.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Supremes

Aside from the satisfaction of predicting a Supreme Court decision, which I did in the case decided the other day that reversed the West Virginia Supreme Court decision, in which the deciding vote was cast by a judge who had received a huge contribution ($3 million) from the party in whose favor he ruled, I realized that we are hanging by 5-4, and Justice Kennedy is clearly a true man of the middle.

I suppose my view has been a tempered one but the unflinching reactionary cadre of Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito make one recall the 1930s court with the Four Horsemen of Reaction: VanDevanter, Sutherland, Butler and McReynolds. I came of age with the Warren Court and despite the attacks on it by legal purists, I defy anyone to show that we are not better off because of Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona, to name just two of their forward-looking decisions. Of course it would have been better for the legislatures, federal and state, to have made those rulings but does anyone truly believe that they ever would have done so? Today, we cannot even get changes made in our labor law that is so tilted in favor of management.

Roosevelt got to name nine justices and his choices stand the test of history, beginning with Hugo Black, sent up because he would be confirmed through Senatorial courtesy but with a Klansman's robe in his past. He turned out to be a leader and mostly a progressive one. William O. Douglas was an even more inspired progressive, if personally careless in his writing. FDR did make a choice that was probably too easy to be wise when he promoted Stanley Reed from the Solicitor General's post. Reed at best was a follower and not terribly progressive. Frankfurter will always be controversial and the man can annoy one so much with his false modesty embodied in the judicial restraint approach. However, today's conservatives are far more conservative and intellectually deprived compared to him. Roosevelt realized the integrity and general wisdom of Harlan Stone in promoting him to Chief Justice even though he was a Republican.

Leaving out Jimmy Byrnes, who fortunately left the court midwar to become "Assistant President", Roosevelt's last appointments were superb. Robert H. Jackson was not only one of the greatest of lawyers but he thought for the ages. And he did not fit into easily political categories. Today, some see him as conservative, but mostly he comes across as amazingly perceptive and wise, as befitted his career as a lawyer who made his way to leading the bar, not only as Attorney General and Solicitor General, from a log cabin in far Western New York. The only negative aspect of his service as Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials is that others less exceedingly able might seize on his leave of absence as a useful precedent, while he was one in a million. Rehnquist's attempt to color Jackson, when serving as his law clerk, as a reactionary of Rehnquist's sort was more than despicable.

The final two Roosevelt appointees were the most progressive: Frank Murphy of Michigan and Wiley B. Rutledge of Iowa. Both were the strongest defenders of our civil liberties we have ever had--consider only their dissents in the Yamashita case, citing Thomas Paine, about guaranteeing rights even to those who would have oppressed us.

I hope Obama's appointments rise to the level of almost all of the Roosevelt nine. Despite popular belief to the contrary, it does make one wish to have known who else might have been named had the "court-packing" proposal been adopted in 1936. Perhaps one of the present four backward-lookers may have the revelation that caused Owen J. Roberts to shift his vote in a few cases at the time of the 1936 embroglio. This was key to the defeat of the proposal to add justices, and Roberts's shift labelled "the switch in time that saved nine." But Roberts had some high points in his otherwise traditionally Republican career that presaged his behavior. He had been the outmanned prosecutor for the U.S. Government at Teapot Dome who succeeded in nailing those oil company miscreants against the odds.

No More Waiting

Last week while briefly in New York, we saw Waiting for Godot, the Samuel Beckett opus that has been heralded by some as the greatest play of the 20th century. As always, a great production and terrific cast have much to do with how well the play comes across--especially one as determindely obscure as this one can be at times--but I left feeling that the argument for this being the best--or surely one of the best--was a strong one.

The two tramps are played by Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin to perfection. Some disagree about John Goodman, who takes over the stage when he appears midway through each act, if only because of his sheer size. I found Goodman fabulously entrancing as Pozzo, the master who returns in the next act as subdued as his slave, Lucky. The production decisions made by Anthony Page, the director, all worked well. The set, which allows little imagination, was well conceived and allowed the characters to move about when appropriate.

Aside from learning--at least from this presentation--that Godot is meant to be accented on the first syllable not the last, the play permits you to learn a zillion and one things about human life and your life. It does what theatre too rarely manages to do: open your mind to wander about and speculate on the meaning of all kinds of things. Is there meaning in the purported meaninglessness? Beckett, for all the sparseness for which he is renowned, is full of human feelings and allows his characters to express them in the most original manner.

It was satisfying to see this play produced in the way it was always meant to be or needed to be. One recalls the idiocy of the early U.S. production in the 50s which premiered in Florida, because some crazed producer thought "the comedy sensation of the age" would appeal to retirees. It also led to many patrons walking out even in New York, mostly because it was hawked as a comedy like any other comedy, which surely it is not. That said, I'm sure Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall were superb back then as Gogo and Didi.