Aussie Power in the Pit

If you look over to stage left during “American Idiot,” you will see a very cool-looking female on keyboards who happens to be the show’s music director.

Her name is Carmel Dean, whom I first met ten years ago when she was accompanist to a fellow Australian cabaret performer, Trevor Ashley, at Don’t Tell Mama. She was amazingly talented back then, but even I couldn’t have envisioned the amazing career she’s had in the decade since.

I met her again at Angus McIndoe, next door to the St. James, where the hit musical plays, and she told me how she got involved with “Idiot”: Composer “Tom Kitt I met very briefly at a concert. We had mutual friends and knew each other’s work — and he called me out of the blue and said he was working on this untitled punk project using the music of Green Day’s “American Idiot,” which Michael Mann was directing. They were putting together a reading of just the music without any staging. Green Day came to it and loved everything even at that early stage and said, ‘Go ahead.’

Magnifica Magnani, Lenny’s legacy, a tiny classic

“The next workshop didn’t happen for another six months, but then we had choreography by Steven Hoggett and Green Day loved it, and have been from day one completely supportive. They’ve really embraced this crossover of genres and opened up their world to us and likewise us to them. [Frontman] Billie Joe Armstrong’s wife Adrienne has been married to him since they were in their 20s, and they have these two gorgeous kids, and she said this is the most exciting thing they’ve ever done. How can that be true after countless Grammies and amazing experiences all over the world? But I guess there’s something so special about the Broadway community and putting on a show. You become part of a family.

“I’d always loved Green Day, and every time I heard them I was reminded of Heath Ledger because we were in a high school production together in Perth, and he came into rehearsal one day and said, ‘You gotta listen to this CD.’ It was Green Day’s ‘Dookie,’ which we all became obsessed by. I told Billie Joe that story and he got a big kick out of it. Heath was a great guy and, oh yeah, you could see the talent, but more than anything the charm. All the girls had crushes on him, and I knew one who had made out with him one night and, boy, was she the luckiest!”

Explaining the path of her career, Dean said it grew out of “the smartest thing I ever did. I was in the NYU graduate school program and one of my advisors was William Finn, who taught lyrics. One of the first days, I told him I loved his work — borderline crazy fan stalkerish — but if he ever needed anyone to help him with anything, I’d love to do it. And that started it because it was through him that I was at Great Barrington with Finn’s ‘Spelling Bee’ that summer I met Tom Kitt, who called me to do ‘Idiot.’ I’ve been really lucky.”

Dean also music-directed shows for Chita Rivera, with whom she went on several Atlantis gay cruises: “The most fun I’ve ever had in my life — and talk about feeling like royalty — when you walked into the dining room with Chita, everyone would literally stop and clink-clink their glasses, screaming ‘Chita! Chita!’ from every corner. She’d be like, ‘My people are here!’ She’s maybe the greatest performer I’ve ever worked with, such a genuine triple threat and so gracious and generous — and very little ego. Just enough of ego which makes her the performer she is, but it’s about sharing herself with everybody, and she never forgets where she came from — the chorus — and treats everyone accordingly.”

It has not escaped Dean that “there are not that many women orchestra conductors. The image of one is a white man in tails in the pit with a baton. A lot of people mention this to me, and I don’t know of any other lesbian conductors. I’m actually technically bi, because I’ve always had boyfriends, since my first at 19, who totally broke my heart. It’s a cliché, but true — I fall in love with the person, and have had great relationships with men and women.

“I met my first girlfriend at 22, and I called my parents in Perth and told them. My Mom said the greatest thing: ‘As long as you’re happy, it’s fine with us,’ and they’ve been supportive in whatever choices I’ve made — very lucky because so many people don’t have that. I’m with an amazing woman now, she’s in the business but behind the scenes. I had met her before, but we hooked up at the Tonys, so thank you, Antoinette Perry!”

Dean’s true ambition is to compose: “I mean, I went to grad school for that, but it’s crazy and wonderful that a music direction career evolved so quickly, and I haven’t been able to figure out how to do both at once. Although the show is up, there are always understudy rehearsals and new cast auditions or somebody’s sick. I’ll probably have to take a break from directing to write a Broadway show. I have a couple of ideas and am not afraid to write melody. I love Sondheim, but love a good, singable tune, too.”

Whatever happens, Dean has an eternal souvenir from the show, her first tattoo: “I got it in LA, when Green Day invited us to perform with them on the Grammies and, unbelievably, we followed Elton and Lady Gaga. I’d always wanted one, and during rehearsals, I approached Billie Joe and asked him if he knew of a good tattoo artist. He looked at me like, ‘Are you serious?,’ as he’s covered in them, and said as a matter of fact his personal guy was coming over that night to do one of the band members. So I got it that night, and we celebrated with champagne!”

The tat itself? The coolest vintage Aussie matchbox with a 1940s redheaded chick on the cover.

In any consideration of the greatest film actresses of the past century — Lillian Gish, Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman, Simone Signoret, Jeanne Moreau — Anna Magnani holds a special place for the sheer life-loving magnetism she brought to every role, consummately delivering joy to the viewer. She’s at her irrepressible best in “The Passionate Thief” (1960), which Lincoln Center’s Film Society (Walter Reade Theater, 65th St. near Amsterdam Ave., is showing on November 26 and 30, in tribute to Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico.

Magnani plays Gioia, a bombastic actress who endures the most disastrous Roman New Year’s Eve in which she’s dumped by fake friends, duped by a sexy hustler (a young, devastating Ben Gazzara), and even thrown into jail. None of this gets her down for long, and from her first scene, hilariously dressed as an ancient Roman matron shrieking “Miracolo!” while filming a tawdry Cinecittà biblical epic, she thoroughly delights and, of course, breaks your heart. Watching her antics — entering a party with startling blonde hair someone says makes her look like Kim Novak, chanting “Chachacha” — and sudden explosions, there will be a permanent smile on your face — especially when she delivers choice putdowns to bothersome creatures: “There are four compass points. Choose one and start walking!,” or “Listen horseface, if you sunk any lower you’d strike oil.”

City Opera threw open its doors to our community on November 6 with “Glitter and Be Gay,” a festive event in connection with the concert “Lucky to Be Me: The Music of Leonard Bernstein.” After sitting dutifully through the largely classical first half (which could have used surtitles, as much of the music was decidedly unfamiliar, even sung in English), we were treated to Bernstein’s Broadway work, which had the effect of igniting fires under every seat.

Donna Murphy walked away with much of it, redeeming herself after her unimaginative bucktoothed stridency as Lotte Lenya in the execrable “Love/ Musik.” She sang “100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” which she now owns as surely as Roz Russell ever did. During the evening’s inescapable highlight, the “Tonight” quartet from “West Side Story,” she stalked onstage as Anita (a role she must have died to play), sang sizzlingly about her “kicks,” and then struck a high diva pose, hand on hip, back to the audience.

Christine Ebersole was charming as the female cabbie in “On the Town”(opposite a fetchingly cornpone Michael Urie), but could definitely have used a stylist. Cheyenne Jackson (no surprise) was swoon-inducing on “Lucky to Be Me,” and made an ideal Tony to Kelli O’Hara’s “West Side Story” Maria. An absolutely splendiferous-looking Shequida regaled the queer crowd afterwards with her trademark high notes and low jokes.

The tenth annual Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival brought bracing creative energy and color to Chelsea at the SVA Theater, which was awash with fascinating Indian film personalities and offered a non-stop open bar during the screenings. I loved the closing night feature, Dilip Mehta’s delightful “Cooking with Stella,” which zeroed in on the tricky relationship between a diplomatic couple and the hired help, namely their chef (Seema Biswas) who teaches her boss man how to cook New Delhi-style while hilariously padding her salary.

I also caught Sanjoy Nag’s “Memories in March,” which dealt with a bereaved mother (Deepti Naval) discovering that her dead son was gay, still quite bold subject matter for Indian cinema.

Both Biswas and Naval (who told me she is directing a feature with more gay content) were in attendance, and it was startling to note how young and glamorous they looked, after ruthlessly shedding themselves of all vanity to play their older characters. (Hey, Hollywood girls: when these actresses were worried, their foreheads actually moved!)

Although our own Steve Erickson did not care for it, Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” is such a special film in my opinion that I want to add my three cents. I found it a real chick flick in the rarest but best sense of the word, a small classic that nails a certain segment of Manhattan life, particularly 20-somethings, cast adrift after college, as we all were at that age.

The kids depicted here are as privileged as those in “The Social Network,” but where those characters were almost uniformly odious, these are really endearing, all the more so for their foibles. Remember those nowhere jobs we all had to take at some point, undiminished sibling rivalry, remote parents, completely insensitive guys we were besotted by — living in the very hope —and friends who could be as annoying as they were necessary?

“Tiny Furniture” features all of these, with perfect pitch and timing and a star-making performance by the irresistible Jemima Kirke, all beautifully shot on a Canon EOS 7D HDSLR camera with such elegance that many other filmmakers are rushing to do the same.

Small wonder that achingly young Dunham has already been signed up by HBO.

Contact David Noh at and check out his new blog at