Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 5, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Bunnies, Quizno's, La Mancha, and Men's Mags
I hear people talking about online comics like Home Star Runner and it
never sounds funny to me. Maybe that's because the people who talk about it
are usually of the same age group that doesn't run screaming from the room
when Spongebob Squarepants appears on the tv screen.
But my niece -- a grownup, by the way -- just sent me a link to what
may be the funniest website ever.
At www.angryalien.com, you can watch, for free, 30-second movies ...
re-enacted by bunnies.
Yep. That's Titanic in 30 seconds, starring bunnies. The Shining in 30
seconds, reenacted by bunnies. Jaws in 30 seconds ... Alien, with bunnies.
It helps if you know the movies. The ones I had seen were so funny I
could hardly stay in my chair. With the one I hadn't seen, I missed a lot of the
gags, I'm sure. But ... still funny.
And, you can follow the link to Cafepress.com where you can buy 30
Second Bunnies Theatre t-shirts and tote bags and stuff. I know I need some.
As a longtime fan of Subway sandwiches, I ignored Quizno's for many
years. After all, there's always a Subway close by, so why try anything else?
On Labor Day, though, between run-throughs of my play, the cast and I
went to the Quizno's across the street from the Whitefire Theatre and had
lunch. To my surprise, Quizno's sandwiches are markedly better than
Subway's, at least at that particular restaurant. Better bread, better meat,
Which doesn't mean I'll stop eating at Subway. They still have outlets
everywhere and on the road, it's way better than any burger place.
But if there's a Quizno's just as close, I'd be silly to settle for anything
When I was a teenager, I remember Richard Kiley appearing on a variety
show on tv, where he sang "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. It
was the first time I'd heard the music, but it struck me to the heart.
I was young and ripe for an idealistic vision -- as were many other people
at that time, because the musical was a hit. My family listened to the cast
album over and over.
Later, in college, I saw a production for the first time, and even with
young, semi-trained actors, it was powerful. My favorite song turned out to be
one that wasn't on the album: "To Each His Dulcinea," sung by the priest.
Later, in a production by High Point Community Theatre, I was able to play the
priest and sing that song myself.
When our older children were young, we took them to New York for the
first time to see Broadway plays. Crazy for You, a new musical built around
songs of George Gershwin, was getting all the attention of the critics. But, to
fill in the other nights, we got tickets to a couple more shows -- including the
production of Man of La Mancha that starred Raul Julia and Sheena Easton.
My kids thought Crazy for You was fine. What they loved was the
musical about Cervantes and his trial before a group of prisoners, for which he
"improvised" the story of Don Quixote. They cried. They listened to the album
over and over, as I had done. It became part of their life.
But to me, the people who created the musical remained ciphers. I had
never heard of Dale Wasserman, and the song-writing team of Joe Darion and
Mitch Leigh never wrote anything else that I'd heard of. This was no Lerner &
Loewe or Rodgers & Hammerstein or even Schmidt & Jones, churning out hit
after hit. There was just this one play, with music that was nothing like any
other Broadway show, and songs that embodied an idealism that in our cynical
age seems anachronistic.
It's no accident that all reviewers of any production of Man of La Mancha
seem to feel obliged to ridicule the simple-minded idealism of the story, even if
they praise the production. We live in an age when idealism and self-sacrifice
are considered mawkish -- or dangerous.
Now comes a book that I didn't know I was waiting for -- but I was. Dale
Wasserman's The Impossible Musical is the author's account of how Man of
La Mancha came to be and what it means, in his life and to the world at large.
I hadn't realized that the musical was born of a play written for
television. Wasserman was not trying to adapt Don Quixote -- as he points out
in his book, Don Quixote, a picaresque that is incoherent and repetitive as a
story, simply can't be adapted well to stage or screen, as many attempts have
Instead, Wasserman, already a noted writer of his time, was telling the
story of Miguel de Cervantes, using vignettes from Don Quixote in a play-within-the-play as a device to tell us something about the playwright who created this
greatest work of Spanish literature.
The television play -- which in those days was performed live, and
probably was not recorded in any medium -- starred Lee J. Cobb and already
included many lines that showed up in the musical as songs. Wasserman
praises lyricist Joe Darion highly in his book, but he is justified in pointing out
that the phrases "To dream the impossible dream" and "to fight the unbeatable
foe" were already there in that nonmusical tv play, as were other key lyrics.
Man of La Mancha was Wasserman's creation, and while the
contributions of Leigh and Darion were remarkable, the fact remains that it is
only in the service of Wasserman's script that they did such memorable work.
Oddly enough, some of the most interesting information in this book is
about another play entirely: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It was
Wasserman who adapted Ken Kesey's book for the stage, and despite Kirk
Douglas's destruction of the script for the first production, Wasserman's
version was the one that has since become the classic that is performed
In other words, Wasserman's contributions to American theatre are
undeniable, even if we have to learn about them from his own book. Perhaps
it's because Man of La Mancha is so scorned by the intelligentsia that he is
overlooked in our catalogue of excellent playwrights.
Near the end of his account, however, he talks about that Raul Julia
production of Man of La Mancha that my kids saw in New York all those years
He hated it. He thought that while Julia was an excellent actor, he
couldn't sing the part; and in his view, Sheena Easton was a disaster.
Well, Easton was out of her depth, that's true. The night we saw it, she
was so hoarse she could hardly speak. Clearly, pop singing didn't prepare her
for the rigors of a nightly run.
But Raul Julia sang the part very well, and acted it beautifully. He
moved us. He brought Cervantes to life.
Not long ago, we saw a revival of the musical with Brian Stokes Mitchell
in the lead, and Mary-Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza. Wasserman loved
this production, and indeed it was good. But while Mitchell sang it gorgeously,
he seemed soulless. He actually found a way to make Cervantes/Don Quixote
seem cold. Fortunately, Mary-Elizabeth Mastrantonio not only has a
magnificent singing voice (who knew?), but also acted her part with such fire
that it made up for the shallowness of Mitchell's performance.
It just goes to show: Man of La Mancha is so good that even a weak
production, or weak performances, can't stop it from reaching its audience.
And it shows another thing: The author isn't always the best judge of the
effectiveness of a performance of his work.
In recent years a clutch of men's magazines has been introduced to
There were the fitness mags, the best of which, Men's Health, I've already
There were also adventure and outdoors magazines that did nothing for
me, but only because I'm a natural couch potato who likes to keep glass
between himself and the great outdoors.
There are also a group of magazines like Maxim and Stuff and FHM that
have been putting half-dressed women on their covers and selling enough
copies that they are thick with ads aimed at the brandable market of males
from 18 to 35.
I'm not in that group. But I remember that I used to be.
That was back when Playboy and Penthouse seemed cool. But as Hustler
and many other quite vile skin magazines came along, Hefner and Guccione
responded by making their magazines more and more explicitly pornographic.
The fun was over; the pictures mostly made me sick or embarrassed, and the
articles got stupider and stupider. I stopped reading them.
And apparently so did a lot of other men. The old men's magazines'
circulation fell off drastically since their glory days.
But with these new men's magazines doing so well, I decided to pick one
up and see what they're doing right.
Apparently, somebody realized that there is still a huge market for men's
magazines that are sexy without being repulsive. After all, most men are not
studying to be gynecologists, and only sick people are aroused by anatomy
In short, the sexy-pictures element of these magazines, while it's still an
important part of the mix, is not out of control. True, all the women are
obviously walking advertisements for plastic surgery, and there's a cheap look
about the women (created by the way they do their hair and makeup) that I
find singularly unappealing. But the editors know what they're doing, and
whom they're appealing to.
The writing is aimed at an audience of men who like to think they're
smart, but aren't up to the challenge of actually learning anything that might
make them smart. So, like Playboy in its early days, there's an attitude of
worldliness and knowingness that makes everything a joke or a sneer. The
reader is flattered that he's in on the joke -- though I know the publishing
business well enough to be quite aware that the reader is actually the butt of
Still, I'll take Stuff over the pornzines any day. Nobody buys these
magazines to get smart anyway, right? They read them to feel ... cool. Sexy.
And for a certain portion of the American male public, they probably do the job.
The funny thing is, the editors of the issues I looked at, being New York
intellectuals in their off-the-job lives, couldn't resist taking sneering jabs at
Bush and Republicans.
What they seem not to have noticed is that American men are way, way
more conservative than American women.
Here's the relevant statistic: If men were the only voters, there would not
have been a Democrat as President since Lyndon Johnson.
So a healthy impartiality in politics, at the very least, would be a more
prudent choice for the editors of magazines whose sole purpose is to sell stuff
to American men.
Of course, the editors might think that conservative men would never
pick up a copy of a magazine with a half-naked woman on the cover.
Think again! Conservative men are still male. They may drive to a
neighborhood where no one knows them in order to buy their copies, and they
may not take them home and leave them out on the coffee table, but it ain't
just Democrats buying Stuff, FHM, and Maxim.
After all, there are reviewers for conservative weeklies picking up copies
in order to analyze their role in contemporary society and the demographic
appeal of their content. And to look at the photographs.