Tag: theatre

Damon Runyon: More than Somewhat a Fascinating Author

It is a fascinating thing to watch as a piece of fiction grows in popularity and ingrains itself into the public consciousness. It is more interesting, in a way, when it grows such that the source behind the story might be lost to the public eye. Take, for instance, the classic musical Guys and Dolls. First premiering on Broadway back in 1950, the show has remained a classic thanks to its infectious score and delightful tale of love and gambling. Its popularity has endured and cemented the show among the musical classics, from a film adaptation back in 1955 to numerous stage revivals on Broadway and the West End that have cropped up to this day.  What most people these days might not remember, however, are the stories which inspired the musical. Specifically, the show is based on two short stories known as “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. Both stories are the creation of Damon Runyon, a journalist who would gain fame with his short story writing. So, just who is this man and how did his writing light the spark for such a hit musical? Let us begin with a peek into the life of Mr. Runyon.

Born on October 4, 1880 with the name “Alfred Damon Runyan”, Runyon’s family was one involved in the newspaper business. After moving from Kansas to Colorado as a result of his father selling their paper, he spent his days in school until the fourth grade. After that, he began working under his father and learning the ways of the business. There was a break in this work when he joined the military in his late teens, but he became a full journalist of his own after the military service. He worked across a variety of papers, before eventually moving out to New York City in 1910. His byline at the time presented his name as “Damon Runyon”, which would stick for the rest of his life.  From there, he found himself a life covering baseball and boxing for the papers. His writing quickly earned him notice, thanks to his keen eye for the weird and eccentric. In fact, he is the man who nicknamed the famous heavyweight boxer James Braddock as the “Cinderella Man”. Of course, his memorable writing is not only limited to the world of the newspaper column. He would also go on to write numerous short stories.

Within the world of Runyon’s stories, he paints a picture of a wicked yet playful underside to New York City. His tales found themselves centered around criminals, gamblers, and actors, all hustling and bustling amid crazy adventures. Oftentimes, they possess colorful names like Nathan Detroit, Good Time Charley, and Dave the Dude. Their escapades are frequently presented through the lens of an unnamed narrator, a character who seems to not be a criminal yet knows the company of shady characters well. He orchestrates his yarns with a carefully constructed sense of heart and humor, but one of the most unique parts of Runyon’s stories is how he writes them. Firstly, he almost totally avoids using the past or future tense, preferring to unfold his writing in the present tense. Secondly, he writes with an interesting mixture of street slang and a mocking sense of pomposity. In his stories, a lady is just as likely to be called a “doll” as she would a “character of a feminine nature”. That odd mixture is further enhanced by a lack of contractions, giving a precise rhythm to his pacing. The overall result is a writing style that brings pompous airs to street-level energy. This style, in conjunction with the colorful characters and criminal atmosphere he wrote about, is what helped make him such a big name.

Though his name might not be as well-known these days, Runyon had earned himself quite a popular following in his time and the years after. In addition to the stage musical adaptation of his stories in Guys and Dolls and its film adaptation, there have been nineteen other movies based on his work. A few of these other films include Lady for a Day (released in 1933 and directed by Frank Capra), Little Miss Marker (released in 1934 and launching the career of Shirley Temple), and The Lemon Drop Kid (first adapted in 1934, then remade in 1951 with Bob Hope). His short stories even had a home in anthology programming with Damon Runyon Theater, first as a radio program and then a television series. Clearly, his colorful tales about criminals and their schemes have earned him a solid spot in American literary history, yet his name has unfortunately fallen into obscurity these days. Personally, I feel his work is worth revisiting, his sharp writing style bringing an energy and feel that is still as effective as when his work was first printed. If one is interested in getting a taste of his stories, I would recommend Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Published by Penguin Classics in 2008, the collection serves as a good starting point with Runyon’s writing. In addition to the two stories that would serve as the basis for Guys and Dolls, the book features plenty of his other short stories, along with poems, newspaper articles, and other pieces of his writing. It is just the right collection to introduce someone to Damon Runyon and the colorful underworld he brought to life with his words.

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Roald Dahl: Macabre Sensibilities, for Young and Old

Plenty of children’s stories tend to be thought of as light and fun. In truth, they are not all fun and games. There is normally some darkness that lurks within these stories, darkness that helps to make the light and its messages shine brighter. Even the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, regarded as some of the original tellers of children’s stories, contain plenty of mentions of cruelty and violence. Now, some might feel that this could be too intense for children, that these should be scrubbed clean according to a certain set of standards. In truth, there is a certain value in not talking down to children about this. One such author who understood this was Roald Dahl. His stories for children, remembered for whimsical touches and adapted in plenty of media, also possess plenty of darker elements. Perhaps it might be worth looking at what inspires an author to not shy away from these darker elements.

Born on September 13th, 1916 in the town of Cardiff, Roald Dahl was the son of Norwegian parents. When his sister and father had both died when he was three, his mother had the choice to remain in Wales after their passing, even when she had the option to return to Norway. Dahl first began the life of a schoolboy at the Cathedral School in the district of Llandarff. It was that time that he and his friends had gotten into trouble for putting a dead mouse into a jar of gobstoppers (also known as jawbreakers) owned by Mrs. Pratchett, a local sweetshop owner who was mean to the boys. He would go on to be transferred to St. Peter’s boarding school, where he and other students endured a fierce faculty. However, the school which would be a pivotal place to Dahl was Repton School in Derbyshire. Beginning his time there at age 13, he endured cruel treatment at the hands of both students and teachers. From the brutal corporal punishment he suffered and witnessed dealt out by the teachers to the demeaning work of having to serve senior students, Dahl’s experiences there would develop a definite cynicism in him about humanity. His main joy in that time were the candies and chocolates that the chocolate company Cadbury would send to the school for students to test.

As Roald Dahl got older and World War II began to roll in, he would come to join in the Royal Air Force as a pilot. Among the many missions that he flew in, one flight would bring him to Libya. Having trouble finding the airstrip as night approached, He was forced to make a landing in the desert. The result was a crash, one that landed him in the hospital with a fractured skull and blindness. Eventually, he would regain his sight and continued to serve as a pilot, until he was grounded for suffering from a series of headaches serious enough to cause blackouts. After that, he was made an attache to serve in the British Embassy in Washington D.C. From there, he would come to serve in the intelligence division alongside such noted officers as David Ogilvy and Ian Fleming (best known as the creator of James Bond). During this time, Dahl would come to meet the famed novelist C. S. Forester. Forester had been approached by The Saturday Evening Post with writing a story, and he in turn wanted to write a story about Dahl’s experiences as a pilot. Dahl wrote and compiled a number of anecdotes from that time, then provided them to Forester to work from. Instead, Forester provided the story exactly as Dahl wrote it. Thus was born Roald Dahl’s first story, “A Piece of Cake”, which The Saturday Evening Post had published as “Shot Down Over Libya” in order to have a more exciting title. It was also the story that would go on to launch Roald Dahl’s writing career.

Before he became renowned as a writer of children’s stories, Roald Dahl first began as an author for adults. Most of his early work came in the form of short stories. Plenty of these stories concerned deadly gambles, acts of revenge, and bitter spouses. Most of all, they frequently came with endings that served as a macabre punch line to the proceedings. There is no doubt that Dahl’s more cynical view of humanity comes through in stories like “Lamb to the Slaughter”, about a wife who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and tries to cover up the deed, or “Parson’s Pleasure”, about a deceitful antiques dealer who poses as a clergyman for his cheats. However, it is actually his children’s novels where Dahl really cranks up this cynical attitude. While a few stories concern monsters like witches or giants, nearly all of the villains in his children’s novels are rotten, vile adults.

Sometimes they may lord their wealth over others, sometimes they may be verbally abusive to those they see as weaker or lesser, and sometimes they may simply be sadistic with physical cruelty. In any case, these parents are the sort of commonplace evils of which even children are familiar. As dark and imposing as such cruelty may seem, Dahl balances things out with how he presents goodness. The children that serve as the heroes in his stories are not generally portrayed as extraordinary. In fact, they frequently are presented as rather average. Instead, they possess an innate goodness, recognizing the wickedness around them and rising above it. In that way, Dahl offers a way to challenge and overcome the commonplace evil in their own lives. He also delivers it in a more playful, slightly morbid manner than the squeaky-cleaned stories that some believe children should be given. The result is a more naturalistic approach to teaching children about the cruelty of the world and preparing them for it, treating them with respect and understanding they can grasp it without being directly moralized.

For those who have never read any of Roald Dahl’s stories, there are two avenue I might offer, depending on if you wish to try his adult work or his children’s stories. For those who wish to explore his more adult-oriented work, Tales of the Unexpected is an anthology that collects some of his yarns of the macabre. With such stories as “Lamb to the Slaughter”, “The Man Down South”, and “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat”, this collection will help to show how Dahl’s writing career was launched thanks to his clever writing. As for his work for children, the best example I would guide new readers to would be Matilda. Centered around an intelligent and kind-hearted girl named Matilda and her challenges overcoming her obnoxious parents and a cruel headmistress named Agatha Trunchbull, this novel stands to me as a great example of the kind of whimsical yet morbid stories that he crafted for children.

A Christmas Carol and Endless Adaptability: The Hallmark of Humbug

When it comes to stories involving Christmastime, no story has had quite the impact as that of A Christmas Carol. Who hasn’t heard the classic tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, a rich man visited by three ghosts of Christmas who help him to see the error of his ways and become a better human being? Not only is this classic piece of literature still remembered, it has become fodder for numerous adaptations. From films to live theatre, television shows to comic books, nearly every medium has had some take of A Christmas Carol. Of course, with all of these numerous adaptations, there is something interesting to consider: why? After all, there are plenty of great works of literature that only possess a few adaptations to their name, or even none at all. What inspires people to turn to the story of Scrooge and craft a new telling of the familiar story, when plenty of other storytellers have trod down the familiar path? Before I discuss the elements of the story itself, I feel it would be worth discussing the world from which this story emerged. After all, context can offer an interesting viewpoint.

In the early 1800s, Christmas was not the widely celebrated holiday that it is today. In fact, it seemed to be on its way out. The Puritan era had possessed a displeasure in Christmas, seeing it as a Pagan holiday due to the elements that had been incorporated into the holiday. Likewise, Protestant reformations shared a similar dislike in these Pagan elements, leading to infighting among how best to handle the holiday. As for Christmas itself, it was seen as a secondary holiday, merely a religious celebration for churches and communities that was second to Easter. That would change in 1843, with author Charles Dickens. Horrified by the reports of the conditions endured by children in factories and mines, he sought to write a story that would serve as a sledgehammer to the public consciousness. To that end, he had turned to nostalgic thoughts about the past of Christmas and its traditions, merging them with his concerns for the poor. With this combination, he crafted a narrative that not only moved the hearts and minds of his readers, it fundamentally reshaped how Christmas was seen. No longer was it merely a community holiday. Instead, it was reformed into a time about good will and helping out the fellow man. In fact, this story ended up inspiring a movement to revive Christmas, setting into place many of the traditions and philosophies that remain entwined with the holiday to this very day.

The impact when it was first written cannot be doubted, but there is still the question of why it is so adapted. Part of it, I believe, stems from its structure. The story is written in five parts, which can easily be translated into a three-act structure. Its first act lays down the introduction of Scrooge, along with the ghostly visitation of Jacob Marley. Its second act brings the visits from the Ghost of Christmas Past (who presents Scrooge’s past and shows how much he has changed) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (who shows the meager home life of Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit). Finally, the third act brings the Ghost of Christmas Future (who offers a haunting vision of a potential future) and Scrooge’s redemption into a more caring person. It is a lean structure, but an effective one. It offers a core structure that is steady in the trajectory of its character arcs, while offering plenty of room for tailoring and adjustments when it comes to exploring Scrooge. The story can be adapted into a darker tone that captures the ghost story nature of Dickens’s literary sledgehammer, or a lighter tone that leans into the heart and appeal for the betterment of humanity. Really, the overall structure and flow of the story is incredibly well-crafted. Paired up with the memorable characters and evocative imagery that flow from Dickens’s words, it is no wonder how it would catch the eye. However, the structure is only part of it. The other part is its heart.

Charles Dickens had seen firsthand how terrible life was for the poor. At a young age, he had to endure harsh working conditions to help his family survive. The harmful and humiliating conditions he had to go through planted that formative seed which would become a recurring theme in his work, namely the conditions and suffering that the poor endured. It was not until that report on labor conditions, along with witnessing conditions in a Manchester factory and a ragged school (a charitable organization that offered free education to poor children), that finally launched Dickens to craft this literary sledgehammer and swing. The passion in wanting people to look towards helping out those less fortunate can be felt all throughout the story, such as in Scrooge’s growing change as he sees the misfortunes that plague Bob Cratchit and his son Tiny Tim. In fact, that growing change is a fundamental key here. That potential of change, that idea that people can grow past their flaws and see beyond their selfish desires, is a powerful ideal. People want to believe that individuals can change for the better. Whether in the bitter stings of the past or the concerns of the present, they want to see things improve. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his change from cold miser to big-hearted gentleman is a powerful story that takes this nebulous idea and paints a very personal picture of it. It offers a face to this idea, giving it life and a tangible form. In that way, a general desire to see things change for the better is granted a sharper clarity and thus makes for a stronger impact.

Ever since Charles Dickens first crafted his immortal tale back in 1843, A Christmas Carol has found its way into nearly every form of media with a multitude of adaptations. With its well-founded structure and a powerful appeal to helping others, it is no wonder why the story still moves the hearts of many to this very day.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Let the Bells of Revision Ring

When a story from one medium is adapted to another, it offers many opportunities. Prominent among these opportunities is the change to fix or address problems in the first take on the story. Of course, some adaptations may find themselves with flaws of their own in their translation of a story. For instance, there was Disney’s animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. On the one hand, it was a rather daring experiment on Disney’s part to adapt a more mature-oriented work like Victor Hugo’s novel into an animated musical. The score of the film was good and Judge Frollo remains one of the most interesting Disney villains as a result. However, the film was hampered by terrible comic relief and, in general, attempts to make the story more accessible for a family audience. In short, the result is something I would consider a noble if flawed experiment. Well, Disney has taken a second crack at adapting The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This time, it was adapted as a stage musical. This second chance proves to be the stronger one, crafted for more of an adult audience while still bringing some of the strengths of the Disney animated film.

Living within the bell tower of Notre Dame de Paris is a lonely and tragic figure. He is the bell ringer Quasimodo, a deformed man who has lived under the strict eye of the pious and cruel Archdeacon Claude Frollo. With only the statues and gargoyles of Notre Dame to keep him company, Quasimodo longs to leave those stone walls and see the outside world. One day, he decides to do just that and escapes to witness the Feast of Fools for himself. Though the many sights capture his attention, none get him quite as much as the beautiful and kind gypsy woman Esmeralda. Quasimodo is not the only one to fall for her, however. She also captures the attention of Phoebus, the new captain of the guard, and Archdeacon Frollo. While Quasimodo’s desire for Esmeralda stems from a pure need for love, Frollo’s desire is twisted by lust into obsession. A fracture grows between these two men, as Quasimodo does what he can to help Esmeralda while Frollo tears Paris apart in a desperate bid to find her and force her to be with him. It all leads to the answer of a classic riddle, one posed at the beginning of this story: what makes a monster and what makes a man?

As I mentioned before, one of the strengths of Disney’s animated take on this classic story was the musical score. With lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and music by Alan Menken, the pair conceived a score that works well in telling the tragic story of Quasimodo. From “The Bells of Notre Dame”, which masterfully works through the backstory of Frollo and Quasimodo, to “God Help the Outcasts”, Esmeralda’s plea to God for Him to help the less fortunate, the songs capture each moment of emotion with wonder. A good example of this fine craftmanship can be seen with the song “Hellfire”. Sung by Archdeacon Frollo, the song follows him as he grows frustrated by his conflict of lusting for Esmeralda yet seeking to expel the gypsys from Paris. It reaches a pitch, as he settles on his solution: force her to be with him, or burn her at the stake. It captures his refusal to accept responsibility for his own lust and growing obsession amid heavy intonations that recall a stern choir call. It is no wonder that the pair returned for the stage adaptation, though they did not simply bring the same score back. They made use of songs cut out from the animated film, along with crafting new material. The result is another great score, though it is not only their music that works so well with this musical.

In translating the animated film to stage, there was something recognized: they need not simply be bound to the family audience expectations that had shackled the animated film. Recognizing this, James Lapine wrote the book for the show making several changes. For one, he removed the trio of gargoyles who were present in the animated film. They had served as comedic relief, but frankly were one of the weakest parts of the animated film. In their place, he instead made the statues of Notre Dame the companions of Quasimodo. Heard only by Quasimodo, these statues of saints served as personifications of his thoughts and feelings. The show also makes the choice of going for a darker ending, rather than the more bittersweet ending of the animated film. This is a choice that works, capturing more of the poignancy and sadness of Victor Hugo’s original novel. In fact, there are plenty of moments that draw more inspiration from the original novel. That is a wise choice to make as part of embracing a more adult audience as their target. It means that there is a bolder mixture at work for this show. The story roots itself plenty in the masterful tale first told by Victor Hugo, while its music comes from the fine craftsmanship that Disney can bring. The result is a strong mixture that shows the benefits that can come from a second chance and a new adaptation.

Though the stage adaptation’s run has ended, an original cast recording soundtrack has new been released. It is worth a listen, to hear this classic story captured well in a new musical coat.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Madcap Music Hall with a Dash of Murder

If one were to bring up the subject of Victorian literature, you would almost undoubtedly hear someone bring up the name of Charles Dickens. First exposed to the rough elements and harsh treatment of the poor when he was young, Dickens rose up to become a popular literary figure in his time and an enduring literary force to this day. His stories, which offer fascinating and memorable characters along with sharp critiques of the social conditions in his day, have endured thanks to his skillful writing and powerful plots. In fact, many of his works are still adapted to different media these days, most frequently with A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. However, one story that is not as adapted is his last work, a mystery called The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Written in his final years, Dickens had died before he could complete the story. However, there is one adaptation that deals with the problem in a unique way and that is in the form of a stage musical.

Based upon the Dickens story, this adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood keeps most of the original tale of Edwin Drood and his arrival to Cloisterham intact. There with his fiancee Rosa Bud, they become wrapped in trouble and turmoil. For one, Rosa is the subject of an obsession for John Jasper, Drood’s uncle and her musical teacher. For another, an emigrant named Neville Landless falls for Rosa and wants her free from Drood. After a bitter fight that sparks at a Christmas party, Drood departs and ends up disappearing. From there, it becomes a search to find the murderer, something added to with the mysterious appearance of a detective named Dick Datchery. Now, that is only part of the story, for there is an additional layer to it. Namely, the show is done as if it were a Victorian music hall show, with Victorian actors playing the parts in their telling of Dickens’ story. As a result, you also have a side story of the actors as they perform this show, along with all of the issues that come in the world of theatre.

The result is a rather inspired approach to tackling an unfinished work. Rather than try to figure out how Dickens might have ended his story, the show takes on a different tactic by instead using audience participation to determine some of the key mysteries in the plot, namely who murdered Edwin Drood and what is the true identity of Dick Datchery. It offers a more engaging method, allowing the audience to determine some of the story while allowing the show’s writers to sidestep the issue of determining for themselves what Dickens would have written. It’s a method that works for the stage and goes along with its music hall style. As for the overall music hall approach, it is used to full effect. It allows the show to inject some humor and fun into a story that is one of Dickens’ bleaker works, and makes use of techniques of the time to reinforce the time period. For example, the part of Edwin Drood is that of a principal boy, which was a type of role from Victorian pantomime which would have an actress play a lead young male role. It is the sort of role that is all but gone in today’s theatre world, but was a major presence in the Victorian Era.

Even the music goes along with helping to reinforce the time period of this show. The songs take two different approaches throughout. Some are songs that fit within the show within the show, pushing the plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and its characters forward. The other style is that of bawdy music hall numbers, designed as crowd-pleasers with a touch of naughty humor straight from the Victorian stage. This double-sided style works well, offering a fun soundtrack that helps to push the story along with the occasional break for a bawdy music hall tune. Over all, the show is an inspired idea for not only adapting a story to the stage, but for adapting an unfinished one at that. It not only takes a classic work of literature and transfers it to the stage, but it uses theatrical elements and styles of the time to both reinforce its time period and to add upon the experience. More than that, it uses the medium of theatre to sidestep challenges in adapting an unfinished work by allowing the audience to vote on the answer to the story’s mystery. The result is a fun musical that is worth seeing if it plays around your area. In the meantime, there are soundtracks available of the 1985 original Broadway cast and the 2012 Broadway revival cast.

An Introduction and a Proposal

Hello there, ladies and gentlemen. I thank you for taking a little time out from all the numerous things the internet can grant you to read this first entry.

Who am I? Well, I suppose we can settle for you knowing me as the Watcher. Why the Watcher? It is I because I enjoy watching movies, television shows, and theatrical performances. Of course, I also read plenty of literature and graphic novels, listen to a lot of music, and play video games. Calling myself the Media Consumer, however, just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Besides, movies are a specialty of mine. Thus, I am the Watcher.

Now, why am I here, posting a blog in the hope of someone reading? Simple. I, like many folks on the internet, have opinions. For me, my main opinions are about media. We have so many forms of media, all of which serve as methods of storytelling. Stories, that one thing that can be shared across all of humanity. No matter what the medium, no matter what the genre, stories have a way of transporting us to another world. They can allow us to access the life of another person, to gain understanding or insight through its lessons, or even just provide a wonderful escape from our normal world for just a moment. There is always a story to tell.

I want to help you all when it comes to stories. Perhaps I can shed light on works you may not be familiar with, or offer my opinions on current tales or familiar yarns. Maybe I could even talk about the storytellers, offering you a new insight and appreciation for how their stories are told. Either way, I believe that my opinions on media can allow me to give you all a gateway to stories.

Thus, I have for you a proposal. Every Monday through Friday, I will write entries for this blog, covering a variety of things. I can offer reviews, discuss current media-related news, or even just give my thoughts or recommendations on certain subjects. I’ll cover a variety of media, from movies to literature to video games. I’ll give my thoughts on all of them, and I hope that you will read these thoughts. I hope you’ll read these entries and that maybe, just maybe, you might walk away with a desire to revisit an old story, hunt down a new tale you had not seen or considered, or even just weigh my opinions against your own.

So, what do you say? Shall we read on?