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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, better everything.

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 less.

*

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 shown.

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 everywhere.

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 ago.

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 American's newsstands.

There were the fitness mags, the best of which, Men's Health, I've already reviewed here.

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 class.

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 the joke.

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.


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