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Posts Tagged ‘musicals’

The books (and the rest of life) are coming thick and fast this month, friends. (Photo from the wonderful Dogtown Books in Gloucester.)

Here’s what I have been reading:

Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis
Lewis is a minister and speaker dedicated to ubuntu – the Zulu concept of interdependence, humanity and compassion. She shares her own experience as a Black woman and a minister, and calls repeatedly for her readers to pursue both joy and justice. The parts about her own story resonated with me the most. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 9).

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story: Remaking a Life from Scratch, Erin French
Annie recommended this memoir about food and love and mistakes and finding one’s way to a calling. I read it in two days – French’s writing is compelling, with lots of gorgeous food descriptions and some hard, honest reflection on her family and herself. Lovely.

The Parker Inheritance, Varian Johnson
I loved Johnson’s YA novel The Great Greene Heist. This (much more serious) middle-grade story follows two Black kids in a small Southern town who stumble on a mystery. What they dig up deals with sports, pervasive racism, an heirloom bracelet and a former tennis coach and his family who got run out of town decades ago. Compelling, though a bit confusing at times.

Castle Shade, Laurie R. King
Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes find themselves in the depths of Roumania, investigating rumors of vampires (as one does). I loved this 17th installment in the series; it deals with village secrets, the effects of war and the challenge (for Russell and Holmes) of being married to a prickly, independent person. So fun.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears, Meg Medina
Sixth grade is no joke for Merci Suarez – homework is getting tougher, the school’s queen bee has it out for her, and she can’t play soccer this year. Her beloved Lolo is also acting strange lately. I loved this warm, funny, thoughtful middle-grade novel about family and change and growing up.

Life is Like a Musical: How to Live, Love, and Lead Like a Star, Tim Federle
Former dancer and current writer/screenwriter Federle shares the wisdom he’s gained from a life in the theater. These bite-size essays are full of fun anecdotes and musical references, and basically boil down to: work hard, be a good person and celebrate when you can. Lots of fun.

The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World, Kaya Oakes
Women often find themselves caught between conflicting expectations and even more complicated realities. Journalist Oakes examines the lives of women of faith – mostly women from the Bible, and saints – to make the point that feminine identity has always been transgressive and complicated. Thought-provoking– the chapters on “Barren” and “Alone” struck me especially. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 30).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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katie lin-manuel miranda interview microphone

It’s been ten days and I still can’t believe I get to say this: I got to interview Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I do not, generally, get starstruck very often. The exceptions to that rule tend to be the authors I love (like Alice Hoffman, who was very kind when I spoke to her on the phone last fall). But I am a musical theatre geek from way back, and I have spent untold hours over the past two years listening to Hamilton.

So when I found out Lin-Manuel was coming to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School (where I work), I just about hit the ceiling. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one.

Lin-Manuel flew in for a Thursday evening to kick off America Adelante, a conference for Latino students and leaders. I begged everyone I had to beg – namely, my editors at the Harvard Gazette and my colleagues who organized the conference – to let me be the one to write the story. I’d have begged Drew Faust herself (Harvard’s president) if I had to.

All I was expecting was a seat at Lin’s keynote – a literal seat in the room where it happened. I did not dream of what you see above: ten minutes, give or take, with the man himself.

I’d scribbled notes all through his keynote, which was fantastic, then listened in as my colleague Matt interviewed him for the HKS podcast. When he turned to me with that grin after wrapping up with Matt and said, “Who are you writing for?,” I nearly lost all my words. (But I managed to recover a few of them.)

katie lin manuel miranda

I asked him first about democracy. Hamilton is the origin story of democracy, and some of Lin’s prolific activism on Twitter is about urging people to get involved in democracy today: registering to vote, calling their reps, making their voices heard. “We’re seeing such an accumulation of ordinary voices,” he said.

We talked, too, about art and activism: both are vital parts of his work. He mentioned being inspired by the Parkland students, and making “the Marvel/DC crossover” with Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen to encourage them. (Their collaborative song, Found Tonight, gives me chills.)

I admire Lin’s creative genius, but I also love how generous he is, how much he cares about making a difference in the world. He was funny and engaging, and even though I’m sure he was tired, he really listened to my questions and offered thoughtful answers. (And he talks with his hands! So do I.)

katie lin manuel miranda hand gesture

My favorite question was the last one I asked: “What’s the last great book you read?”

He paused – “Ooooh!” – then admitted, “I’m sort of in a prison of my own making.”

The reason? His New Year’s resolution was to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and “I’m so behind,” he confessed. “I’ve had a busy few months!” That was the understatement of the night.

But then – then! – he waxed eloquent about reading the sonnets, and “the freedom he [Shakespeare] finds within the form.” In classic Lin fashion, he concluded, “Reading the sonnets was pretty dope.” I nearly died of English-major nerd bliss.

I’d forgotten my copy of the Hamiltome, but I asked Lin to sign my journal, and he graciously complied. The inscription, under my name and above his signature?

“See you in the room where it happens.”

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hamilton book mug

Last week, on my way to the kitchen at work, I passed by a colleague’s office and heard – or thought I heard – a familiar snippet of music. When I walked back by a few minutes later, I stuck my head in the door. “Is that Hamilton?”

My colleague looked up with a grin. “I cannot stop listening to this musical,” he confessed.

I laughed, and made a confession of my own: I downloaded the soundtrack at the end of May. And I can’t stop listening either.

If you’re a Broadway fan – or a hip-hop fan, a Twitter user, or someone who pays attention to trends in pop culture – you don’t need me to tell you about Hamilton, the smash musical about the life of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton that has taken the world by storm. If you (somehow) haven’t heard about it by now, I am both amazed (how?) and here to tell you: it is incredible.

My friend Valerie, she of the impeccable taste in TV shows (and the person responsible for introducing me to Harry Potter), raved about Hamilton when she saw it in New York last summer. I’d heard about it all over the Internet, especially since the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a prolific and highly entertaining Twitter user, and since I have a lot of friends who share my love of Broadway musicals. But I’m not really a hip-hop fan – or I didn’t think I was – and so I shrugged off the show’s popularity for a while, thinking it wasn’t for me.

As you may have guessed, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve been living with Hamilton for three months now, and I mean that literally: I have memorized nearly the entire first act and significant chunks of the second. The songs run through my head from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night. I listened to it for hours walking around NYC last weekend, and I entered (and lost) the lottery to see the show three times. My consolation prize was the small but fascinating Hamilton exhibit at the New York Public Library.

hamilton exhibit nypl

I’ve spent days listening to the whole cast album and also replaying three- and four-song sets over and over again, marveling at the multiple layers of history, politics, love and ambition that intertwine to form the show’s narrative. My ear has become attuned to the vocal nuances of Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson, Renée Elise Goldsberry and the rest of the original Broadway cast, who perform on the album. I watched the TV broadcast of the Tonys just so I could see the cast perform live. (I cried.) And I am ridiculously proud that I can rap (almost) as fast as Daveed Diggs, who spits rapid-fire lyrics as the Marquis de Lafayette. (“I never pegged you for a rapper,” my husband said recently. Trust me: I didn’t either.)

Hamilton has generated a lot of ink (online and off) about its origins, its racially diverse cast, its mind-blowingly complex marriage of musical forms, its unflinchingly honest take on the story of a nation that continues to struggle with its own complicated history. My friend Alissa Wilkinson wrote a fantastic piece for Books & Culture about the show, and there are hundreds of other articles out there. I’ve struggled, myself, to explain what keeps me coming back to it – and the answer, like the show, has multiple layers.

Like any great narrative, Hamilton contains multitudes: love, ambition, honor, jealousy, revenge, the bloody founding of a nation and its messy first few years of self-governance. But it’s also a wonderfully particular human story. Miranda’s lyrics bring Hamilton, George Washington, Aaron Burr, the Schuyler sisters and other characters to vivid, precise, colorful life.

Instead of marble busts or engraved portraits on our currency, these are people: flawed, hopeful, impulsive, gloriously brave. They fall in love; they wrestle their own demons (and fight with each other, sometimes fatally). They aim to give their children a better life than the one they had. They grapple with big ideas: independence, friendship, legacy. They do their best to build something that will outlive them. They are towering historical figures, and they are also us. Their story, especially for Americans, is ours.

During these crazy, turbulent months of job changes and moving, I’ve had Hamilton in my earbuds and in my head almost constantly. I haven’t been this obsessed with a musical since I fell in love with Les Misérables back in high school. In addition to asking important questions and sparking much-needed conversations, this show tells a damn good story. And it is so much fun.

Have you listened to Hamilton? (Or read the book about the show, above?) I’m always up for geeking out with fellow Hamilfans.

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buddha book stack

I’ve been running hither and yon this month: starting a new job, packing up my apartment, hopping down to Texas for a quick visit with my family. Here, the books that are keeping me (moderately) sane:

I Shot the Buddha, Colin Cotterill
Dr. Siri Paiboun, retired coroner of Laos, and his wife, Madam Daeng, stumble onto a mystery when their friend Noo, a Buddhist monk, disappears. A slightly wacky mystery with quirky, entertaining characters and occasional paranormal elements, set in 1970s Laos (a brand-new location for me). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 2).

The Atomic Weight of Love, Elizabeth J. Church
Meridian Wallace, an aspiring ornithologist, moves to Los Alamos, N.M., with her scientist husband as he works on a top-secret government project (the atomic bomb). Over several decades, Meri wrestles with her own choices and the realities of womanhood and marriage, while observing a certain group of crows in a nearby canyon. Church’s writing is gorgeous and I loved Meri’s narrative voice. Beautiful.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book needs no introduction from me; I’m late to the game here, but very glad I finally read it. Coates writes a searing indictment of the way black people have been treated in this country since its inception, in the form of a letter to his son. Powerful and thought-provoking.

To Catch a Cheat, Varian Johnson
The gang from The Great Greene Heist is back, and this time they’re on a mission to stop a blackmail plot. A smart, funny middle-grade novel with highly entertaining characters (and pretty believable teenage bickering). Like Ocean’s 12 for teens, with lots of computer hacking.

Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Hamilton has taken the country by storm – count me among its legions of fans. The “Hamiltome” combines the show’s complete libretto with stunning color photos and richly layered essays about Hamilton’s origins, its cast and crew, and the conversations it is sparking. A treat from start to finish.

Finding Audrey, Sophie Kinsella
Audrey is struggling with serious anxiety after a bullying incident at school. With the help of her therapist, her wacky family and her brother’s friend Linus, she gradually finds her way out of the dark. Sweet, poignant and often hilarious (Audrey’s mom is particularly funny). My sister loves Kinsella, but this – her first YA novel – is the only one of her books I’ve read. Recommended by Anne.

Ashes of Fiery Weather, Kathleen Donohoe
The O’Reilly men have been firefighters in Brooklyn for decades – which means the O’Reilly women know a thing or two about grief and sacrifice. A sweeping family saga, told from the perspectives of seven different women, moving back and forth in time. Well written and powerful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 30).

The Book of Lost and Found, Lucy Foley
I picked up this novel (Foley’s debut) after loving her second book, The Invitation. This story follows Kate, the daughter of an orphaned ballerina, and her quest to discover more about her mother’s history. Foley weaves together art, love, war and self-sacrifice. Beautifully told (and now I want to go to Corsica, where the book is partly set).

Outrun the Moon, Stacey Lee
Mercy Wong isn’t like most girls in Chinatown: her “bossy cheeks” mark her as a woman of action. She talks her way into an exclusive boarding school, hoping to gain important business connections. But the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 changes everything. A fast-paced story with an engaging heroine and wonderful supporting characters (I loved Mercy’s friend Francesca). I also enjoyed Lee’s debut, Under a Painted Sky.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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brooklyn brownstones light

Recently, the hubs and I hopped down to New York for the weekend. The reason (or excuse)? A college friend of ours was performing in Carmen, and we both were hankering for a getaway. (Not that we really need a reason to head to New York – but it helped galvanize us.)

This trip was a short one – almost exactly 48 hours long – but we packed in a lot of fun and good food.

subway public art nyc

Right after getting off the train, we met our buddy Isaac for lunch at Bareburger in Midtown. I’d been there before, but J never had. Their burgers (beef, bison and other varieties) are so fresh and tasty.

We returned to a neighborhood we love: Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where we stayed a couple of years ago. This time, we rented a charming third-floor walk-up near Fort Greene Park, comfortable and flooded with light.

brooklyn apartment living room

After dropping off our bags, we wandered the neighborhood, popping into a few shops and visiting the Greene Grape, which stocks all kinds of delicious food and drink. Then we tried a restaurant around the corner (recommended by our Airbnb hosts): Madiba.

madiba wall tapestry mandela

Madiba is often used as a name for Nelson Mandela, and fittingly, this restaurant has a funky, welcoming South African vibe. I loved the art prints, textiles, tribal masks and the music. And the food – as you can see from J’s expression – was amazing.

jer bunny chow madiba

We both ordered curry dishes – I had lamb curry with saffron rice, and J opted for the chicken “bunny chow” version in a hollowed-out heel of bread. We split a rich, creamy malva pudding (with apricot jam) for dessert. Every bite was perfection.

malva pudding

After dinner, we caught the subway to Brooklyn Heights, where we saw Theater 2020’s production of A Little Night Music. I don’t have any photos from the show, but it was fantastic – minimally staged in a spare Gothic chapel, and beautifully sung. I’ve been humming “Send in the Clowns” for over a week now. (I particularly loved Charlotte, the scheming wife with a dry wit and impeccable delivery.)

The next morning dawned sunny and cool, and we ended up grabbing breakfast at the Fort Greene Park farmers’ market. Because I could not resist a cherry pie muffin.

cherry pie muffin

Delectable – plus it matches my gloves. (Not pictured: the hot apple cider I bought to go with it. Also wonderful.)

We strolled the neighborhood, and of course we had to visit Greenlight Bookstore. (J kindly indulges my bookstore obsession when we travel.)

greenlight bookstore window brooklyn

Lunch was fish tacos at Cafe Habana – not quite Tex-Mex, but pretty darn close.

We hopped a train into Manhattan after that, and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the Upper West Side. A Shakespeare exhibit at the NYPL branch at Lincoln Center, a visit to Book Culture on Columbus Avenue, chai lattes from a tiny shop called The Sensuous Bean. I adore the Upper West Side (where I stayed last fall), and it was a brisk but mostly sunny afternoon. Perfect for strolling with my love.

upper west side nyc

Later, we enjoyed dinner at Hourglass Tavern in Hell’s Kitchen – so named because they pride themselves on getting patrons to the theatre on time. We had time to savor our pasta and wine (without feeling rushed), and then headed to our evening at the opera.

diamond horseshoe lights

The Diamond Horseshoe, where this production of Carmen was staged, is a performance space in the basement of the Paramount Hotel on West 46th. It’s a cross between a swanky hotel bar, the opera house from Phantom of the Opera, and a scene straight out of Moulin Rouge – a wild, glitzy mix of opulence and decay. But the opera was excellent. (Though we were partial to the tall Texan playing two different roles – a soldier and a gypsy.)

jer isaac carmen

Sunday morning found us brunching at Walter’s in Fort Greene (another host recommendation and apparently a popular neighborhood spot). I had the huevos rancheros, which were delicious. And the people-watching was so fun. (It always is in New York.)

huevos rancheros walters brooklyn

We caught the subway into Midtown to drop our bags off at Penn Station, then grabbed some chai at Think Coffee and headed for the High Line, which I had visited but J had not. Most of the plants are dormant right now, but it was a gorgeous day and the views are stunning.

high line bridge nyc

After strolling the length of the park, we wandered around Greenwich Village, split a pizza at Ribalta, and hopped back on the subway to catch our train home.

high line selfie nyc

Two days in NYC is never enough, but I’d say we made the most of it. We came home with tired feet, a few new books (of course) and a slew of lovely memories.

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Like millions of fellow fans, I recently saw Les Miserables in the theatre. Despite a few flaws, I loved the film – I teared up half a dozen times, and both my husband and I wept at the end. (I fully expected to do so, but he never cries at movies.) But as I stood in the darkened theatre afterward watching the credits, I was thinking about Kate.

les miserables 10th anniversary concert soundtrack

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Kate lived down the street from me when we were growing up, and she and her big sister, Brooke, introduced me to (among other things) Ace of Base, Rent, Chinese food, and Les Mis. When Kate played Brooke’s copy of the soundtrack for me one day, I was enthralled by the story of Valjean and Fantine and Javert. I begged to borrow the double CD, and kept it for weeks, even taking it on the youth group ski trip over Christmas break. I spent hours on the bus with my Discman in my lap, staring out the window, absorbed in the music, swept up in its power.

Later, I bought my own copy of the soundtrack: the same version Brooke owned, the 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (This means I was thrilled to see Colm Wilkinson, who plays Jean Valjean in that performance, reappear as the Bishop in the film.) During my first semester in Oxford, two girlfriends and I squeezed into a box in a London theatre and watched the stage musical, leaning over the edge to catch every word.

The story of Les Mis is powerful in its own right. But it takes on additional significance when I remember how I came to it in the first place, who introduced it to me, the memories associated with hearing and seeing it for the first time. It’s inextricably tied up with dear friends, a city I love, and that delicious sense of discovering a story you can live in.

Not all my favorite stories have such specific memories attached to them: many of them simply came to me from my parents or were discovered at school or in a bookstore. But I’ve talked at length about how Valerie was responsible for my introduction to Harry Potter. My dad, and the first brilliant film, catapulted me into a deep love of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I found an advance copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in an Oxford bookshop, before I really knew what advance copies were and before the book became a fan favorite. And a dear friend handed me Winter Solstice at just the right time, six Christmases ago.

When I write my frequent book roundups, I find myself noting where I discovered a book, or who told me about it, or whose review convinced me to pick it up. I believe those “origin stories” can deepen our enjoyment of books and films and music, while we still appreciate the things for themselves. My attachment to Les Mis began, and has certainly been enriched, because of Kate and Brooke, and that long-ago afternoon lounging in Kate’s room, listening to the people sing.

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We saw The Fantasticks on our trip to NYC in early October. It’s one of the longest-running shows around, but I’d never seen it and wasn’t familiar with the music. After seeing it, though, I bought the soundtrack, and have been humming “Try to Remember,” the theme song, ever since.

Image from Wikipedia

The Fantasticks is a small-scale show, with a cast of eight (and one of the roles is a mute). The “set” is a curtain, plus a cardboard circle that serves as sun and moon, and a trunk to conceal two traveling bums/actors who pop up when needed. On one level, the story is simply a charming take on the star-crossed young lovers trope. (There’s a wall between their houses, but it turns out their fathers put it up to encourage them to fall in love. Reverse psychology!)

The plot includes a staged abduction (which allows the young “Romeo” to be a hero), several arguments, and plenty of bumbling fun from the traveling actors. The narrator, El Gallo, as wickedly handsome and wryly humorous as Captain Jack Sparrow, spends half his time addressing the audience and half his time acting as chief bandit/architect of the love story.

Part of me is tempted to dismiss The Fantasticks as merely a frothy, whimsical, sparkling piece of musical theatre. There’s a lot of exaggeration and then lampooning of musical-theatre stereotypes (the young lovers, in particular, are so wide-eyed they’re a bit annoying). The dads are highly amusing, with their sly wit and irritable tempers. There’s only a little “real” violence, and all’s well that ends well. Simple, right?

Not quite. The plot’s deeper meaning has nothing at all to do with falling in love, or reverse psychology, or the questionable morality of staging your daughter’s fake abduction. It hides in plain sight, and it only comes to light near the end, when the narrator explains why he pulled the puppet strings to separate the young lovers for a while:

There is a curious paradox that no one can explain:
Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain,
or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?

I do not know the answer; I merely know it’s true.
I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little bit too.

El Gallo would never admit it, but he’s a little sad to end up alone, as he has been the whole time. He’s a romantic but lonely figure, riding off into the sunset. However, he’s stumbled on a bit of wisdom, which reappears in the final song and takes on a new gravity after the lines above: “without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”

While I don’t believe in a narrator (or anyone else) pulling my strings like a puppet, I do believe this: sorrow can deepen us, make us into better, braver and more compassionate people. When I was a college student grieving the loss of a friend who had died suddenly in a car crash, one of my professors put it this way: sorrow digs a well inside us.

The young lovers, before their struggle, were sweet but shallow: they needed the separation to make them appreciate one another, and to draw on their own reserves of courage and strength. (After they’re reunited, El Gallo urges the fathers not to take down the wall. One set of obstacles is gone, but others will remain.)

The Fantasticks isn’t a morality tale, and it would be dangerous to view it as a blueprint for life. But these lines about grief and love have lodged in my heart, and I think the show needs this bittersweet reminder. There must always be some darkness to balance the light, a bit of grief to balance out the joy – even in the world of musical fantasy, where anything can happen.

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“I’m singin’ in the rain…”

Or I will be about 8:00 tonight, when I go with my parents, Jeremiah, Betsy and her Jake to see ACU’s Homecoming musical at the Civic Center. Jason Kennedy as Don Lockwood; Jessica Patterson as Kathy Selden; Ryan Massie as (my favourite) Cosmo Brown…I can’t wait!

It’s Homecoming and that means a parade full of tired-eyed pledges with brightly painted faces, a game with stands full of purple-clad fans, a Homecoming Queen’s Court (including Betsy!) full of nervous expectancy, a flat full of people (as we cook dinner there tonight and Kara spends the weekend with me), and two days full of ACU pride. And I’m wearing a new plum-coloured sweater to boot. Go Wildcats! I do love my alma mater. Happy Homecoming, everyone!

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