“They don’t put people like us on television – except to be laughed at.” #HairsprayLive

“They don’t put people like us on television – except to be laughed at.” – Edna Turnblad

This line from the musical Hairspray has always haunted me. I’m not a huge fan of the show, though I’ve always admired Harvey Fierstein and Marc Shaiman’s moxie turning John Waters’ bruise black 1988 satirical film about the horrors and sadness of socio economic marginalization, body shaming, and racial segregation into a bright, frothy Broadway musical. Damn if Shaiman’s tunes aren’t catchy!

But back to that line. Matriarch Edna – played on stage by Fierstein, and the original film by Divine and in the first musical film version by John Travolta – declares this brutal truth to her husband as their relentlessly optimistic daughter chooses to head forth and audition for an American Bandstand-style local teen dance show. 

The Turnblads are anything but the typical Eisenhower Era, squeaky clean, nuclear family. With their rough hewn edges, “life is a banquet but don’t take too much” joie de vivre, economic challenges and “less than Greek” figures, this loving and relatable model of the typical American family does not fit the stylized mold of the typical American family that typical American families like to see on television. And this crucial line is the heartbreaking thesis of the show … and one might argue for daily life in these United States for 99% of us.

The timing of this particular NBC live holiday musical couldn’t be stranger or more appropriate. Fifteen years ago when the musical first hit with its early 1960s setting and focus on the ugly racist/sexist bile concealed under Dippity-do and crinolines, it seemed like a quaint reminder of another era, one which many of us knew we hadn’t actually escaped, but about which we blithely, mindlessly lived in denial anyway. Now that we are making America great again, which may be code for going back to this oppressive, regimented, candy colored era, Hairspray Live felt like a haunting, sickening, Orwellian cautionary tale.

Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, working with Fox’s Grease Live director Kenny Leon, seem to have finally landed, more or less, on a successful formula for these social media teasing live events. Other than the unnecessary commercial breaks, with hyperventilating Darren Criss and an army of golf carts hustling panicked actors visibly from set to set, the show was pretty seamless. (Well, there was also the cluttered, confusing, and chaotic camera work… But you can’t have everything.)

Wisely, they stacked the deck with an army of pros in the adult roles, from Fierstein himself revisiting his Tony award-winning part in a winning mix of pea gravel, bombast, and the milk of human kindness to insanely annoying but sharply talented and utterly typecast Kristin Chenowith as race-baiting Cruella de Vil knock off Velma Von Tussle. SCTV vets Martin Short and Andrea Martin added some sweet-natured depth and color as Wilbur Turnblad and Mrs. Pingleton respectively but were often lost in the manic shuffle.

Jennifer Hudson has a miraculous voice – which is her chief super power – but I find her generally overrated as an actor. Regardless, her arrival as Motormouth Maybelle at the midpoint gave the production its finest musical moments and its most heart wrenching reminders of how far we have yet to go – quite literally, in fact, with the number “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Dancing With The Stars’ Derek Hough was the night’s most pleasant surprise, seizing the national spotlight the show provided to plant his flag firmly in Mt. Musical Theatre. His unquestionable technique paired with his slightly skeezy “toot sweets” charm was perfect for the role of Corny Collins, and he made the most of every moment, including what was either a wildly inappropriate or brilliantly meta embedded commercial for Oreo cookies.

The “nicest kids in town” – including newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy, Ariana Grande as Penny, Dove Cameron as Amber, and Garrett Clayton as Link fared less successfully. It’s not that their performances were bad, but they were bland in the face of their scenery chewing elders. It felt like the cast could’ve used another week of rehearsals. However, that has been pretty much the case for every one of these live productions. So be it. Ephraim Sykes as Seaweed was the exception that proved the rule, however. He was a bolt of lightning across the screen, and I wished he’d had more to do.

In short, this particular musical always just seems to exist chiefly as a delivery mechanism for buoyant, electrifying, raucous “anthem for the oddballs” finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” and Hairspray Live stuck the landing. I question how “family friendly” a musical that opens with a flasher on the streets and includes double and triple entendres in every other line might be. I chuckled when Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth implored us to “gather the family” in the show’s opening moments. 

That said, the show’s message couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. For all American families. Great and small.

“You can’t stop today/As it comes speeding ’round the track/Yesterday is history/And it’s never comin’ back!”

Not nearly enough Band-Aids and aspirin: Bad Santa 2

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s a rare and dubious accomplishment when a film is so bad it makes you want to swear off movies forever. There is Showgirls bad. There is Battlefield Earth bad. There is even English Patient bad. (Sorry, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) But there is a whole new level of bad now: Bad Santa 2 bad.

Bad Santa 2 is truly atrocious. I am as embarrassed to admit I watched it, with my parents no less, as I am embarrassed for the people involved in putting this piece of crap together. I usually try to find some redeeming value in a film or to try to find some scientific or artistic rationale for why peculiar choices were made in cinema. I have neither the ability nor the desire in this instance.

The original film was like a tobacco and rotgut flavored soufflé. It struck a tricky balance between exposing the fraudulent and demoralizing self-righteousness that commercialized Christmas in America has become with the desire to redeem and celebrate those most marginalized by our rampant and shallow pursuit of jolly holidays.

I used to love this most wonderful time of the year because it was a fair excuse to put blinders on, wallow in excess, and mainline jangly music and stop-motion mid century television specials as a wholesome narcotic to forget how screwed up everything is. The first Bad Santa, benefiting from the deftly sardonic touch of Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World), blew the doors off that hollow fantasy, but rebuilt a new, more relatable holiday out of the detritus, much like the pathetic advent calendar full of Band-Aids and aspirin Billy Bob Thorton presents to his young charge in the film. In its post 9/11 moment, the first film, embracing its own cynicism in a strong-armed, warm-hearted, wide-eyed bear hug, was a tonic for the creeping cynicism that afflicted us all.

The sequel? Not so much. Director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls – dude, you are capable of so much more – what gives?) jettisons any appreciation for humanity, and gives us a sour sludge of a holiday fruitcake. Narrative beats from the first flick are robotically replicated wholesale, sans emotional context, and the whole enterprise seems to be engineered as a base, puerile, sophomoric gross out cash grab (yeah, those adjectives are pretty redundant, which shows how much I reviled this). The sequel seems reverse-engineered to make you completely loathe anything you might have ever liked in the original film.

The plot is a thin whisper, involving another heist, this time a children’s charity substituting for a shopping mall. Any characters from the first installment you loved or held in any affection – Cloris Leachman, Lauren Graham – are not only missing but vilified when mentioned in the second film.  And the two new characters introduced – the titular antihero’s mother (Kathy Bates) and a new “love” interest (Christina Hendricks) – are painted with such a reprehensibly broad brush, treated so heinously,  and framed with the ugliest of stereotypes, that they might as well be leftover political propaganda from our 2016 presidential election. To say the film is misogynist would be an understatement. To say the flick is utterly misanthropic would be right on the money.

Furthermore, it is an even rarer film that makes me dislike an actor so much that I will likely skip their future output. Congratulations, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Christina Hendricks – you have pretty much fallen into the category of that obnoxious, foul-mouthed, drunken relative everybody avoids at the holiday dinner table.  I will give you three “thespians” this one thing: your commitment to ugliness and to contempt is astounding and thorough. Congratulations.

I really hated this movie. Bah humbug.

______________________

img_6741-1

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

I was a teenage quiz bowl werewolf

Congratulations to the Columbia City High School (my alma mater) Spell Bowl team which won the state championship for the first time in a few decades. Below is a blast from the past, celebrating the wins – Academic Super and Spell Bowls – from a generation or so ago.





Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

My wonderful mom the exceptional author 

Love this coverage of my talented mom Susie Duncan Sexton at the recent Whitley County Historical Museum’s Author fair! Thanks to Linda Thomson and The Post & Mail. Find out more about my mom and her wonderful books at www.susieduncansexton.com

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Pleased as punch: Columbia City’s historic Blue Bell Lofts 


Check out this wonderful coverage from The Post and Mail of the ongoing development at Columbia City’s former Blue Bell (Wrangler) factory. So nice to see history restored and brought to modern use. My mother Susie Duncan Sexton’s father Roy Duncan, who ran this facility for years providing jobs and security to so many citizens, would be pleased as punch.


AND … The Whitley County Historical Museum will be hosting the Whitley County Author Fair on November 19 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the museum followed by a Creative Writer’s Workshop at 2:30 p.m. If you’ve always wanted to write, but didn’t think you could, here’s your chance to see firsthand how to go about honing your craft. 

Some of the authors include local favorites: Jan Coverstone and Susie Duncan Sexton along with authors Gary Buettner, Nathan Marchand, Jon Anderson – editor of the book titled “The Midwestern Caliphate” about the American culture and faith in our society today, and speaker/published author of two novels, Monica Koldyke Miller. 

The fair will be a wonderful opportunity to pick up a personalized signed book for Christmas gifts for those readers on your list. Admission to this event is free.

The Whitley County Historical Museum, housed in the home of Thomas Riley Marshall, is dedicated to preserving the history of Whitley County. This is achieved through educational programs, artifact preservation and collection, exhibits, publications, and collaboration with related groups. The museum is located at 108 West Jefferson Street in Columbia City. Hours are Tuesday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. Admission is free.

More info here.


Oh, to be like Maxwell Perkins …

Thanks, Legal Marketing Association! It was an honor to help edit the latest issue of Strategies. Fabulous company here.

(If you don’t know who Maxwell Perkins is … find out.)

Dreaming Dreams Book Is Now Available!

Includes a piece by my talented ma Susie Duncan Sexton

 

The book, Dreaming Dreams No Mortal Ever Dared to Dream Before, is now available! Please spread the word. In this collection of Poe inspired stories and poems, you will find dreams (and nightmares), ghost stories, horror, madness, mystery, imagination, and even some humor. It is about 450 pages long and has works from over 150 authors. More info, including link to order, here

Source: Dreaming Dreams Book Is Now Available!

WCBN’s “It’s Hot in Here” features “Xanadu”! WE NEEDED THE WORLD TO KNOW: WE ARE IN XANADU

Thanks, Rebecca Hardin, for having the Xanadu cast on your WCBN radio show “It’s Hot in Here.” Such fun and such an honor! “We were delighted once again to welcome members of Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats Theatre Company to talk theater in the parks and perform a few tunes from their ongoing show. Xanadu is an outrageous show that defies simple explanation: suffice it to say the Muses go to Venice Beach to inspire a sidewalk chalk artist to open a roller disco. You really have to see it to believe, but hearing them sing a few numbers and talk about their process on today’s show is sure to pique your interest.”

Listen here: http://www.hotinhere.us/podcast/we-are-in-xanadu/

Enjoy!

“Now, we are here. In Xanadu.” Penny Seats’ production opens July 14 at Ann Arbor’s West Park

Yes, this is actually happening. Xanadu opens in Ann Arbor’s West Park on Thursday, July 14. Tickets at www.pennyseats.org. Thanks, Ann Arbor Observer for this listing! 

Elephant ears optional: My strange life with Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall

Tempus fugit. Carpe diem. Time waits for no man. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

There are so many clichés associated with the concept of time, which is as much an indicator of the shallowness of humankind as it is our own internal wrestling match with existentialism. For 26 years(!), I happily have portrayed a footnote in American history, Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson during World War I. He is a hometown legend where I grew up, Columbia City, Indiana, and my life and his have been peculiarly intertwined.


Marshall is perhaps best known for his quote, “What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar.” Oh, and he was a Democrat, praise be. They do exist in Indiana!

While he was born in nearby North Manchester, he resided in Columbia City, and his home was just a few blocks from where my mother grew up, a house my parents then later purchased, prompting a move from Fort Wayne 30 years ago. In fact, as a child, my mother had spent a glorious afternoon once with Marshall’s former secretary, looking through sheet music, but, indicative of the nature of any small town that can fixate on the most meaningless of gossip to the detriment of a bigger picture, no one bothered to tell my mother of this woman’s notoriety.

Decades later, my mother would find herself one of the curators of The Whitley County Historical Museum, which you may have guessed is housed in Marshall’s former home, restored to its Italianate glory. Because my family has always been a creative and resourceful clan, my mother recruited me, in my freshman year of high school, to spray silver in my hair and clip a fake homemade mustache under my nose (to this day, I couldn’t grow a mustache if my life depended on it, and I’m fine with that) and eat soup and break bread at a holiday dinner with a small but plucky crew who had an appreciation for northern Indiana history.

While that first mustache fell into my soup more times than I could count, and I found myself faced with questions I had no idea how to answer (I am genetically incapable of historical reenactment, and I would be an epic failure as a cast member at Greenfield Village or colonial Williamsburg, as I have no capacity to pretend that I don’t know what a television is or to extemporaneously expound on what life was like 100 years earlier without devolving into uncontrollable giggles), it was an auspicious beginning to the longest-running role I’ve ever held.


It was at that time that I fell in love with having a script, and in a great desire to avoid ever awkwardly eating dinner with people who knew more about the character I was playing then I did, I wrote a 20 minute speech, borrowing liberally from Marshall’s autobiography A Hoosier Salad. He was a funny man, not Mark Twain clever, but the Hoosier equivalent, and the speech was peppered with one Neil Simon-esque zinger after another. You know the kind? Set up, set up, punchline. Set up, set up, punchline.

My parents bought me a better mustache, and introduced me to the joys of spirit gum, though the likely-carcinogenic silver hairspray remained. I borrowed, and never returned – sorry about that – a tuxedo from some family friends, and after honing my craft at one women’s literary circle after another, my nascent impersonation career took off. And sputtered. And took off again. I suspect it was in those days that I began to appreciate cucumber sandwiches and pineapple upside down cake and how to successfully dodge and parry through invasive, yet well/meaning, inquisitions from blue-haired octogenarians. I would find myself presenting in the unlikeliest of circumstances, repeatedly giving the speech to Governor, later Senator, Evan Bayh, for example, who probably knew it better than I did after certain point.

Like Marshall, I would end up attending small, eccentric, insular, provocative Wabash College, a liberal arts institution that, to this day, stubbornly hangs on to its all male status, like a gilded beer keg at a caveman drum circle. It’s a charming place, filled with enough memories and shenanigans to last a lifetime; coupled with the tender yet firm guidance of intellectually insatiable parents who afforded me every opportunity, my college years set me on a path for success and even more importantly toward open-mindedness.

Just when I would hope I had shaken off the specter of Marshall, somebody from the College or from my hometown or from a neighboring burg, would recall that I did this bizarre thing, and they would summon me back, not unlike Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin screaming “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” And, poof, I would show up, hat in hand, with the same tired anecdotes that still delighted people as if they had never heard them before.

As I am careening now through middle-age, I had filed the speech away and hidden that yellowed, crusty mustache under the bathroom sink, believing I would never be asked to do this again. In fact, that tuxedo buckles under my newfound girth, and I had hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with the mortification of trying to zip up those pants again. But, mere months ago, Mary Ann Anderson on a sojourn from the Historical Society board, emailed me at the law office where I work, betraying whatever over-the-hill actor protection program I thought I had fallen into, and asked me and Tom to return.

And I’m so glad she did.


Columbia City has a summer festival every year called Old Settlers. And in the summer of 1986, before I entered eighth grade at a new junior high in a strange yet familiar town, this street fair was my Disneyland. The downtown was taken over by the kind of carnival rides that anyone with a couple of screwdrivers and a hammer might be able to assemble, and for a week solid I would walk a handful of blocks to ride the tilt-a-whirl until my face was blue, shoveling elephant ears down a gullet queasy from the experience. I didn’t know nor care what an “Old Settler” was nor why the town’s self-appointed illuminati donned red blazers to celebrate the occasion. I just wanted carny distraction!

Thirty years later, the same rickety rides still appear and the red jackets are omnipresent. But this time I was among them, not as an impetuous teenager, but as an anxious adult, worried about a world spinning off its axis a little more every day and newly appreciative of one’s own heritage and mythology. What once seemed tangential to the celebration now seems essential: tracking and inventorying the number and ages of the attendees, where they live, and how far they may have traveled.

As part of a specific event – “History Alive!” – centered around this particular cataloging activity, Anderson asked me, a couple of Civil War reenact-ors (one for each side of the War Between the States apparently), some local artisans, and a handful of pioneer-garbed volunteers to mill about the museum grounds through the afternoon, greeting the “old settlers” as they arrived.

I found myself panicked. No script? I have to answer strange questions again? No quips? But once I settled in – somewhere around hour three – and my ever-loving and supportive parents stopped by (we never grow out of that, thank goodness), I started to have, well, fun. And even more I appreciated the purpose of this festival to celebrate people and our connection with one another and our history. Not all of us can be vice president of United States, nor would likely want to be, but we make our own history every day.

Sitting on Marshall’s front porch, dressed like a lunatic, I caught up with a steady stream of faces, half-remembered but fully loved. Looks like I just grew up a little bit. How about that? You can now call me an Old Settler. Elephant ears optional.

“No, there is no world-wide standard for the determination of provincialism. There is only one standard by which to judge men and women, and that standard is not so much one of brains and education as it is of culture and heart. Kindness seems to be the one golden metewand by which to measure how really civilized and catholic one may be.” – Thomas Marshall


_______________

Roy Sexton tells about growing up in Columbia City, favorite teachers, pastimes, and unique opportunities he was privileged to experience living in a small town.

 

Susie Sexton’s father, Roy Duncan, was in charge of the Columbia City Blue Bell factory for many years. Susie herself grew up in Columbia City and lives today in the same home she was brought to as a baby. In this interview, Susie reminisces about Columbia City, her parents, the Blue Bell factory, the local theater and churches, and life in general.