The end of the calendar year means a lot of things to me. It means good times with my family (all of us together, on Christmas) and good times with the Tiny Goddess (the two of us alone, on New Year's Eve.)
It's also an appropriate time to stop and take stock: look back at the year that has passed, and look forward to the year ahead. This has been an amazing year for me – the Book and the Baby – and the Tiny Goddess cautions me against always comparing things.
"Comparison is the thief of joy." – Theodore Roosevelt
But I will take a shot at a Top Ten of 2014 for me. It won't be ten of any one thing. It's just ten of the best things I've seen in the past twelve months. Some of them aren't even from 2014. It's just that I encountered them this year.
FILM – I've seen quite a few of the movies this year, and my favorites are "Boyhood" (hail Richard Linklater for his 'process' with this and the trilogy of Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpy movies) ... "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (the first time, for me, that Wes Anderson's style really matched his subject) ... "Still Alice" (honest yet gently whitewashed; the reality would be too painful) ... "Mr. Turner" (so good that I wanted it to be better; Turner is one of my favorites, and Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall have done stunning work in the past) ... and "Nightcrawler" (a dark "Taxi Driver"-like trip into the Los Angeles night that just loses it at the end.) I haven't seen "Birdman" yet and a few others. It was a year of good movies, but nothing where I felt that running up to people and saying, "You gotta see this!"
THEATRE – I grew up loving great theatre, and I need to see it in order to be fully happy. That's only a slight exaggeration. As such, living in Los Angeles is a mixed bag. I did manage to see some great theatre in 2014. Unfortunately, not much of it was in LA. But I did catch some magical moments:
"Cabaret" in New York City – I saw the original "Cabaret" with Joel Grey in 1966 four times. That's back when tickets were cheap, and I was an obsessed teenager. That Hal Prince production stands as one of the key inspirational works of art of my youth. While this new, revived Sam Mendes production with Alan Cumming as the MC did not supplant the Prince original, it boldly stands as an equal in its power to entertain and, finally, astonish. It proved once and for all, if there had been any question previously, that "Cabaret" is a stone classic. It can be done in many different ways and still satisfy the audience mightily.
"I'll Go On" in Culver City – If I haven't said it before, I'll say it again. I'm a huge Samuel Beckett fan. Beckett is the writer I wrote papers on in college. Beckett's autograph hangs on my wall. The title of my novel is, at least partially, a nod to Beckett's HOW IT IS. "I'll Go On" is a one-man show by the Irish actor Barry McGovern, a master Beckett interpreter, which blends the 'greatest hits' from Beckett's trilogy of novels into a seamless night of theatre in Beckettland. I'd seen McGovern before, in a production of "Waiting For Godot" at UCLA a few years ago, but he really knocked me out in this one.
"Showboat" in San Francisco – For some reason, I'd never seen a production of "Showboat" onstage. I love the 1938 James Whale movie with Irene Dunne and Paul Robeson, and I like the 1950 movie with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel. I do listen frequently to the fantastic John McGlynn "complete" recording with Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, and the sainted Teresa Stratas. But I passed on the Barbara Cook-Stephen Douglass production in the 1960s and the Hal Prince production in the 90s. (You can't see everything, right?) So when I saw that the San Francisco Opera was going to mount a full-scale production of "Showboat," it gave us a perfect excuse to build a San Francisco weekend around a Saturday night performance.
Was that a good idea! The production was big, traditional, and opulent. The director Francesca Zambello is very good at not screwing up the proceedings. She knows enough to let Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein be the stars. It's such a "greatest hits" show – one great song after another. It pounds you into submission with one "Ol' Man River" reprise after another, until you're a seatful of happy tears.
"Into the Woods" Reunion in Costa Mesa – We had to venture across the Orange Curtain on a Sunday night to see this one-time-only reunion of the original principals of the musical "Into the Woods." I never saw the original. It opened in New York in 1987, the year that my daughter The Flower was born. Since we already had a four year-old boy running around, theatre-going was not on our menu at the time. I know "Children Will Listen." Obviously, a great song; but I really don't know the show.
I went to see and pay my respects to Sondheim, just as we've gone to similar in-person tributes to Billy Wilder and John Updike, two more of my idols. We were rewarded with a lovely little mini-performance with Q-and-A beforehand. It was a total lovefest. I was really glad that we went. In many ways, Sondheim is the gold standard today.
MUSIC – Music, as you know, is a constant in my life. (See my previous blog entitled "Constant Music" for additional testimony.) First, I'll go over the live music.
We have subscriptions to both the Los Angeles Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We enjoyed many wonderful nights at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Walt Disney Concert Hall respectively. But I think that our best moments this year were at the rehearsals for the LA Philharmonic that we saw at the Hollywood Bowl on a few lovely mornings. As with any Bowl experience, we brought a picnic basket of food and drink, and we brunched as Dudamel put his musicians through their paces. It was pretty heavenly. Sunny and calm and almost private.
But man does not live by classical music alone. Occasionally I have to see something that rocks or swings or something loud. In that category, the best thing I saw this year was Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at the Wiltern Theatre. I'd seen Sharon before, but this time I had to take the Tiny Goddess who loves soul music. Sharon has recently recovered from a bout with cancer and is entertaining more fiercely and joyously than ever ... if that were possible. I love the sound of a great soul band live: the Dap- Kings are that. And is there a better rock-and-roll name than that of guitarist Binky Griptite?
As far as recorded music, my favorite album actually came out in 2013: Jason Isbell's "Southeastern." It's the best album I've heard in a long, long time. Next time he comes to LA, I am there.
The other standout is Sturgill Simpson's "Meta-Modern Sounds In Country Music."
RADIO – I am a radio junkie. Mostly, it's Sirius radio: the Metropolitan Opera, Outlaw Country, Siriusly Sinatra, etc. I try not to miss Steve Earle's "Hardcore Troubadour" show on Saturday night. But sometimes I'll go "terrestrial" for KUSC-FM's "The Opera Show" with Duff Murphy on Saturday mornings or "Breakfast with the Beatles" on KLOS-FM on Sunday mornings: two southern California institutions.
And, among my darkest secrets, I listen to Dr. Laura all the time. I've listened to her for many years. Sometimes she's wacky and mean, but often she's right and mean. Good listening.
Also I admire Thom Hartmann and learn from him almost every time I listen.
But my favorite radio listening of 2014? Howard Stern's long interviews.
TELEVISION – There is too much television on!! I can't keep up with all these great series!! And we have a lot of sports to watch on TV. In the winter, there are the Lakers and now the Clippers (if we want to watch a winning team.) Last spring and summer, we were screwed out of the Dodgers because of a fight between Time-Warner and the Dodgers, but I still managed to watch some baseball. The Angels are watchable. And the post-season was amazing!
Thank goodness that I am NFL-free. That's probably worth a whole blog someday.
The best television I watched in 2014? Probably it was the British series "Luther" from a couple of years ago. It starred Idris Elba and, in the early episodes, Ruth Wilson. The Brits just know how to do this stuff. The series kind of fell apart at the end, but the first episodes were excellent.
My most frequently watched TV show in 2014? Maybe Tivoed episodes "Rick Steves' Europe" as I eat lunch. Very calming for the digestion.
(Part 2 – on Friday)