The Aggies of 2012
BY DAVID NOH | With imperiously crossed arms and a dramatic toss of the head, Endora-style, we are once again giving out our annual Agnes Moorehead Awards for the best of 2012.
Theater-wise it was, frankly, pretty abysmal, with the worst Broadway season in years — which is really saying something — beginning with the wholly unnecessary revival of that community theater warhorse “Harvey” and the inane musical “Bring It On” kicking things off last summer. “One Man, Two Guvnors” was, therefore, a real godsend, smashingly directed and acted, especially by its hilariously protean star James Corden, whose performance could easily qualify as “legendary.”
“The Best Man” simply screamed luxury, from its stellar cast to its lavishly galvanizing production and, especially, the late Gore Vidal’s powerful script, which, powered by some ferociously good acting, emerged as trenchant and relevant as it was in 1960. That “Mad Men”-era guilty pleasure stage adaptation, “The Best of Everything,” was an Off-Broadway gem, marvelously entertaining — funny and moving — and done with a perfect sense of period.
The Paper Mill Playhouse production of “The Sound of Music” was handsomely done and excellently cast, proving again what a very strong, cannily crafted, surefire crowd-pleaser this schmaltz-fest is. And I want to give a special shout-out to Laura Osnes, who illuminated the Carnegie Hall concert version of it, proving herself an eminently worthy line successor to Mary Martin and Julie Andrews.
Di Capo Opera’s “The Most Happy Fella” was another spiritedly good revival, sparked by the electrifying talent of Lauren Hoffmeier, who simply needs to be seen by anyone interested in the future of musical comedy.
Dance-wise, I adored “The Jack Cole Project,” an ultra-generous, lovingly done tribute to this incredibly influential, but not celebrated enough, choreographer.
Kudos go to the multi-media happening that was “Art Takes Seoul” at the wonderful Knox Gallery in Harlem. It was an utterly unique collaboration between artists Mira Gandy and Ahrum Claiborne. Out, proud lesbian Gandy’s words and visual art vividly evoked growing up in the 1970s and all the iconically undying inspirations of that era, from Michael Jackson to Kurtis Blow. Her childhood, as the daughter of pioneering black female Broadway publicist Irene Gandy, was spent romping among the stars at Sardi’s opening nights, and couldn’t have been more different from Claiborne’s.
The Korean-American playwright, for her part, gave a riveting account of being chased by the police for selling jewelry on Harlem streets as a child, after being abandoned by her mother — who turned out to be her grandmother — in front of Macy’s once the cops began to close in.
After all these years, I finally saw Judy Collins, at Town Hall, and was swept away by her timelessly sweet talent, rich personality. and uncannily warm audience rapport. Tituss Burgess’ release concert at New World Stages for his self-penned CD, “Comfortable,” totally rocked, with the kind of joyously interpreted, soulful songs that stuck in your head at their first hearing, in a good way.
For me, the most exciting cultural event of the year was the opening of 54 Below, the perfect, elegantly designed (John Lee Beatty) performance haven, created by a group of men who truly love cabaret — free of any anachronistic taint. The club has really helped Manhattan sparkle again and gave me more unforgettable moments in 2012 than anything else. Patti LuPone delivered a spectacular opening night — everything and more than one could wish for.
She’s been followed by thrilling performers like Jenifer Lewis, whose uproarious, take-no-prisoners Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman-created show evoked Bette Midler in her flamboyant 1970s heyday (and, indeed, had the Divine Miss M. in attendance, literally weeping with joy). Telly Leung delivered the very model of what a cabaret show should be for our day — hiply funny, personal, touching, and sparked with a ravishing musicality that had his audience (especially when he did a meltingly slow version of Katy Perry’s “Firework”) gagging.
And then there was the ageless phenomenon of our time, Leslie Uggams, who has played Lena Horne in a show that absolutely must come into New York. I’ve always considered Horne’s “The Lady and Her Music” probably the greatest solo show I’ve ever seen, but every time I see Uggams, her radiantly undiminished grace and voice and total performer’s generosity convince me she is, indeed, La Horne’s equal.
Maurice Hines — resplendent in striped Armani, the price of which should have included a trip to Rome, he confided — closed out my live performance year with his triple-threat dazzle, backed by the all-female Diva Orchestra. In his Sinatra tribute, recalling the great years with the Rat Pack in Vegas, they all did full justice to the famous Nelson Riddle arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” probably the greatest song setting of them all (closest rival: Mort Lindsey’s for Judy Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine”).
Hines sang “Get Me to the Church on Time” as an ode to gay marriage, and told me, “I was in LA, teaching at Debbie Allen’s school, when they wouldn’t pass it. This buddy of mine said, ‘I’m going up to Schwarzenegger’s house and I’m gonna tell him off.’ I said, ‘He’s the Terminator, baby, he gonna terminate you!’ ‘I don’t care. I got something to tell him: I’m getting married in the morning!’
“This is my second appearance at 54 Below. I came to see my friend Ben Vereen and just fell in love with the room because my brother Gregory and I opened for Ella Fitzgerald at the Flamingo Hotel and this looked exactly like that room, only smaller.
“I got verklempt. My brother, father, and mother have all made the transition, and I thought, ‘I’ve gotta work this room!’ I sold out, and all my friends said, ‘Maurice, what happened? You’re always good, but you were on another level!’
“I said I was channeling my family, and it was emotional, tapping through my life, showing pictures of them. I do a number as if Gregory was right next to me, with a spot, and people came up to me crying.”
Hines has been performing since he was five, and had an act Hines, Hines & Dad, in which he was featured with his father and brother: “Johnny Carson was the one who really made us. We were doing the Playboy Club in Chicago and he saw us and said we were fabulous and he was going to put us on. We did five shows, and on the fifth one he brought us over to the couch to talk. If you made him laugh, that was it. You were made, and we were booked everywhere after that.
“Our dancing style was different — close floor work, which was what the African-American tap dancers did. John Bubbles was the one who really made that, and Savion [Glover] does it. It bothers me that there’s only one style of tap on Broadway, up in the air and airy. That’s fine, but for some reason, Savion can’t get his show on and neither can I with ‘Sophisticated Ladies.’
Maurice and Gregory both sparkled in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club”: “I had this scene where my brother gets the solo number. Francis said, ‘I don’t want you to cry. Let the audience cry. Can you just well your eyes up?’ I said, ‘I’ll try,’ and I did it, although I’d never done a movie before. He was so proud of me and called me Marlon Brando Hines. I said, ‘Oh, don’t start!’ but he said when I made a mistake, I did it in character, like Brando.
“Richard Gere said to my brother, ‘Boy, Maurice is good! I’m gonna ask him how he did that.’ Gregory said, ‘Richard, don’t play with Maurice. Maurice does not play. I play around, but Maurice is very serious and nervous about the movie.’ Richard said, ‘I’m gonna mess with Maurice.’ ‘Well, go ahead!’ Richard came over and said, ‘How did you do that?’ I said, ‘I used motivation.’ ‘Oh yeah, what motivation?’ ‘I just thought about what you were making for this movie and what I was making, and I automatically started crying.’ He had to laugh at that, and Gregory said, ‘I told you not to mess with him. He’s my older brother. I don’t know him!’
About being gay, Hines said, “My mother always told me to ‘Be careful.’ I said, ‘Why? I’m a gay man and happy to be gay, from the minute I discovered it, by myself. I never wanted to hide it. If you want to, that’s fine, but I am happy being gay.’
“I never had to officially come out because I thought anybody who doesn’t know I’m gay must have had a lobotomy, because of the way I come off. Gregory used to say, ‘Maurice is Maurice. You can label him if you want, but he’s gonna be himself.’
“I always loved being who I was. That’s why I was never good at acting — I didn’t want to be other people. I once ran into Laurence Fishburne in DC, and he said Francis wanted me to be in this film, playing a guy who’s at the Plaza Hotel. I said, ‘I don’t wanna do it. I’m in this show with Jennifer Holliday.’ He said, ‘You don’t like acting, do you?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t wanna be other people.’ I want to be happy in my life. Acting is great and my brother loved it, but he said, ‘Maurice just loves being himself.’
“Gregory used to tell [the deeply closeted] Luther Vandross, ‘Luther, you got to be more like Maurice! Come on, life is too short! Maurice always says that.’ I was with somebody for 16 years. We raised his sister’s daughter. She’s getting her master’s in Washington. I just met someone new and he’s a wonderful man, evolved, and he kissed me for the first time last night. It’s wonderful — very new and sweet.
“I was happy with my former lover for years, and we just went our separate ways. But we’re still great friends and love each other. I loved raising our daughter. My mother once called me from Las Vegas, and I said I was powdering her with Johnson’s baby powder: ‘Oh, she’s loving it!’ She asked, ‘How much powder are you putting on that child?’ ‘Oh, mother, she’s so happy! Her little arms are waving!’ ‘Let me ask you, can you see her vagina?’ ‘No, but she’s loving it!’ ‘Too much!’”
And my ten best films of 2012 (in no particular order) are:
“Zero Dark Thirty”
“How to Survive a Plague”
“Farewell, My Queen”
“Any Day Now”
“Sleepwalk with Me”
“North Sea Texas “