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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 10, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Prequel to Peter Pan, Wicked, CDs, Mr. 3000

I absolutely detested the abominable "sequel" to Gone with the Wind that was published a few years ago. But not because I think there's something morally wrong with creating sequels to classics.

No, what I detest is making bad sequels to classics. With Scarlett, the problem was that they hired a romance writer to do the sequel. But Gone with the Wind, while it certainly contained romantic elements, was a serious historical novel that won the Pulitzer the year it came out.

And when the sequel began by erasing Scarlett's entire character arc in the original novel, I knew there was no hope. It was a botched job.

On the other hand, when I saw Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to Peter Pan written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, I was willing to give it a chance. My main concern was this: Would this be a prequel to the cutesy all-in-fun Disney version of Peter Pan, or would it be a prequel to J.M. Barrie's magical play (and Hogan's brilliant live-action film version of last year)?

With Dave Barry, you have to assume that it'll be played all for laughs, and story be hanged.

So congratulations to Barry for resisting that temptation. This novel is in earnest, and one or both of the authors understood enough about how to write fantasy that the internal logic is well crafted and flows wonderfully into the magical universe of Peter Pan.

Which author? I have no idea. Neither of them writes children's books or fantasy on a regular basis. Pearson writes crime novels and Barry writes absurdist humor. Who knew that either of them had a book like this in them?

But I'm not going to tell you a thing about the story. Just trust me that it is compellingly well written, it races through the story, and it's great fun to watch Peter becoming the hero we know from the play and the movies.

There's room for another prequel between this one and the main Peter Pan story. I hope they write one.

In fact, now I hope somebody suggests that these guys write a new sequel to Gone with the Wind.

*

Speaking of prequels to classics by long-dead writers, I have now listened to the CD of the original cast recording of the Broadway musical Wicked, and I have to report that it is far and away the best score for a new musical since ... since ...

Well, for a long, long time. I haven't seen the show yet, but I've read the delightful Gregory Maguire novel it's based on, and composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz nailed it.

The songs show an obvious debt to Stephen Sondheim, but that's only as it should be. (Sondheim's music and lyrics have almost all been crippled by being attached to miserably failed books, but that doesn't mean that a good composer shouldn't steal any motif from Sondheim that seems to work.)

Still, the songs are not derivative. They show an awareness of Broadway tradition, but they are absolutely original. There are fillips that made me laugh with delight -- for instance, the yodel effect in the song "Popular."

"Defying Gravity" is a potential breakout song -- it works as a thrilling anthem.

Schwartz is the composer-lyricist of several previous musicals that I don't like very much, but so what? Mitch Leigh wrote marvelous music for Man of La Mancha, and everything else he did kind of stank. (Schwartz's average is way higher than Leigh's.) And one of Schwartz's previous works was the excellent Working, based on the book by Studs Terkel, which I saw on PBS back in the early 80s and have never been able to find recorded, anywhere.

It's not just the writing that's great, though. The voices on the cast album are absolutely fantastic. And while it sounds like one of them is channeling Hermione Gingold from the original recording of Sondheim's A Little Night Music -- again, echoing Sondheim is rarely a mistake.

So after years of pretty much giving up on the new Broadway musicals, I'm headed back to New York this year to see Wicked. Meanwhile, I'll listen to the cd another dozen times in the next few weeks, I'm sure.

*

A few more cds that have recently come out:

Bruce Hornsby's new album, Halcyon Days, is quirky -- sometimes even funny, in a Randy Newman kind of way ("What the H---- Happened?" and "Hooray for Tom"). Musically, you recognize familiar Hornsby riffs, but he also offers a lot of new sounds and, above all, a kind of relaxed intensity in both the music and lyrics that make it worth listening to over and over.

Jane Monheit's new album, Honeysuckle Rose, is a jazzy take on standards from the Great American Songbook. It includes a duet with Michael Bublé ("I Won't Dance"), but that's not even the best cut on the album.

I had never heard of Chris Botti until I bought his album When I Fall in Love. Normally I don't care for instrumental versions of pop standards -- why should I listen to a saxophonist or trumpeter play "When I Fall in Love" or "What'll I Do" when I can get a recording of a great singer whose performance will include the words, too?

But Botti gets the sweetest sound from a trumpet that I've ever heard. I remember Joni Mitchell's thrilling duet with Tom Scott, where her voice and his sax are perfectly matched, but I never thought I'd hear a trumpet get such a sensitive sound.

It's definitely a jazz album, but it's not bebop -- it's not about the decorations, it's about the melodies, swinging but clear.

Because I was selecting music to play before and after the play I directed in LA, I had occasion to listen again to several of Janis Ian's more recent albums, most notably Revenge and Billie's Bones. She was great back in the sixties, but believe me, she hasn't faded, she's grown better and deeper and truer with age. "Take Me Walking in the Rain," "Mockingbird," "Mary's Eyes," the anthem "Take No Prisoners," and the haunting "When the Silence Falls" and "When Angels Cry" -- nobody does it better.

Not even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on their new album, America's Choir. Maybe that's kind of a vain title to put on an album, but the Tab Choir's nationally broadcast nondenominational Sunday morning programs have been going on for longer than I've been alive, and this album is a complete explanation of why.

The new thing on this album is that instead of recording with a famous national orchestra, they now have their own -- and the arrangements and performances are very, very good. The album is eclectic -- hymns like "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" and "Come, Let Us Anew" are mingled with Americana like "Bound for the Promised Land," "Shenandoah," and the ever-annoying (but well performed) "Cindy."

And how can I pass up the chance to mention Queen Latifah's Dana Owens Album? To those not recently on planet Earth, "Dana Owens" is Queen Latifah's real name (and I've heard people who know her well refer to her by either name with equal ease).

Now, we already knew Latifah could sing. Though she first achieved fame as a rapper, she sang gorgeously in the film Set It Off, proving that rappers don't necessarily rap because they have no choice.

But this album has a great big-band sound that has been missing from the American music scene for years. Yet her interpretations of the songs are fresh and wonderful, from the witty "Baby Get Lost" to the gorgeous "If I Had You," visiting "California Dreamin'" and "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" on the way.

We've spent a lot of years with anti-musical pop music dominating the scene. It's so nice to have performers like these giving us truth and beauty, power and sweetness.

The music industry might be worried about how much money they're losing, but I think this is a golden age for popular music -- because every kind of music and music from every period is available to everyone, everywhere, all the time. So hip your hop, rip your rap, crank your metal, or grind your grunge -- we can happily coexist.

And some musicians are finding that between live concerts and selling their CDs, DVDs, and t-shirts online, they can make a good living without any help from the big record companies. To see what I mean, take a look at http://store.yahoo.com/janisian.

*

I was in Germany when Mr. 3000 came out. I only got to see it this past Monday; my wife and I had the theater all to ourselves.

And you know what? Bernie Mac has the magic. Sure, he lost some weight for the part, but not all of it. It didn't matter. He looks great. He knows how to give a dead-on line reading every time. And when his eyes twinkle into the camera, he owns the audience.

The story is silly, as with most sports movies -- you know that everything is building up to an emotional moment where the hero will bravely accomplish what seemed impossible; or will fail to accomplish it, but for reasons that have to do with love of the game or sportsmanship or nobility of soul.

The thing is, formulas like that exist because they work. And it worked again in this movie. It was funny, Bernie Mac is a real star who is a delight to watch, and I enjoyed almost every minute.

What I didn't enjoy was that Mr. 3000 wins the Starship Troopers award for gratuitous sex that needlessly limits the potential audience. Sports movies like this have a potentially huge audience of kids. I thought the PG-13 rating was too mild, primarily because that usually suggests a little rough language or violence or scariness -- not the sports star character talking randily about sex and hopping into the sack with an old flame to whom he's not married.

There was no need for it. The whole relationship between them would have been better -- realer and funnier -- without dealing with the sex so openly.

Am I becoming a prude? Not a chance. The sex-centered Two and a Half Men is one of my favorite shows this year. But it's not aimed at kids.

I can't help shaking my head at the sheer stupidity of movie makers who don't stop to think: This is a movie that kids will like. So if we can do it without sex or nudity (e.g., Bernie Mac's nether cleavage), let's make that choice and let whole families enjoy this movie together.

*

Back to Smallville. In this week's episode, the "girl on girl" action they were promoting turned out to have a barely plausible plot excuse and was, in fact, watchable by a child.

However, an earlier scene in a shower, which involved the removal of a girl's top and the view of a breast, mostly from behind, was not -- primarily because it showed children that when high school students are attracted to each other, they should immediately start taking off their clothes.

Not a lesson that kids need to be taught on television.

Still, the main problem with Smallville this season is bad, bad, bad writing.

This is a series that depends on giving us a step-by-step logical progression in order to overcome the fundamental irrationality of the magic in the story.

For the first three seasons, the writers did a superb job. This season, the logic ranges from perfunctory to nonexistent.

Got to move the plot forward? In the old days, Chloe (or others) would follow a clue onto the Internet and gradually discover information that led inexorably to enough of the truth that it would get Clark (or others) to the right place at the right time.

Now, they don't waste time letting Chloe find a clue, she just makes off-the-wall guesses that everyone immediately recognizes as true -- and, of course, she's always exactly right.

They didn't even bother, in the "Kryp-Tuck" episode, to show us Lana and another kid getting the antidote for the condition that got them hospitalized. Nor did we see any of the people who solved the problem ever finding out exactly what their condition was.

That was the perfunctory part.

Where logic completely falls apart is in the area of character motivation and reaction. "Scabby Abby" seems completely surprised by what her plastic-surgeon mother's makeover gives her the power to do to anyone she kisses. Yet she is suddenly in on everything when her mother tells her that Lana now "knows" too much and has to be stopped.

Naturally, Abby sneaks in and does precisely the thing that will tell Lana everything.

So why doesn't Lana tell somebody: I look ugly in the mirror! Then they could tell her: But there's nothing actually wrong with you, you're hallucinating! So Lana would say: It happened when Abby snuck in and kissed me when the assistant coach had me blindfolded in the ...

And there we have even deeper illogic. This guy is in love with Lana, so he comes to be assistant coach at her high school and takes every opportunity to make out with her, and she goes along with it. What happened to common sense and even a modicum of self-control? I don't believe these people acting like this. They no longer live in Smallville -- they live in Beverly Hills.

Nothing holds together. It feels like random scenes, barely connected.

Whereas in the first three years, they wove a complicated web where everything felt connected and part of a meaningful, powerful whole.

The writers still think they're being clever and subtle. But it's the cleverness and subtlety of the incompetent. They think that by leaving out connecting material they're being "smart," when actually they're being uncommunicative. They think that by sexing it up, they're being "edgy," when actually they're just being cheap.

Cheap and stupid. They get this year's Starship Troopers award in the TV series category for adding meaningless sexual content that will block out a significant portion of their natural audience. Bad writing and bad business.

When this kind of thing happens to a TV series, it's usually because of two reasons. Either the original writers left (or were fired) and new writers are brought in who have no idea how the stories work, or the original writers are still there but they're bored and start parodying or dissing their own previous work.

Interference from network suits can cause the sexing up of the episodes for promotional purposes. But the network suits don't cause bad writing. They just allow it. The bad writing originates with the writers. Shame on them.


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