Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Macintosh in Tick, Tick…Boom!

In the first couple of minutes of the film, the character of famous theatre writer, Jonathan Larson, introduces us to the year (a pan shot of a Calvin and Hobbes calendar that reveals it is January 1990) and a lot of his stuff. He tells us about his two keyboards, his music collection and his Macintosh computer. My brain did a little record scratch of “Huh?” at this but I had a movie to watch so I watched it, occasionally squinting my eyes at his machine when he’d type a single word on that computer, throughout the film. Then I went to bed. And I started thinking about the Macintosh computer. I thought about how odd it was for a struggling musical theatre writer to own a computer at all in 1990 and how extra odd it would be if he had one that was new like that. I mean, I didn’t know the exact dates, but I knew most people didn’t start really getting these things for another couple of years.

So this computer in his apartment in 1990 could only mean two things. One – Jonathan Larson was also a computer nerd, in addition to being a musical theatre nerd. And in 1990, this was just highly unlikely. Like, it’s like a computer nerd and musical theatre nerd could not have been the same person. They might meet at a party and make out but those two circles of being were probably closed at that time. I knew both of those types of people then and they were not the same. You could find one now, no problem. But in 1990? No way. So – given that this musical theatre nerd was not likely to also be a computer nerd, the only other reason a man who cannot afford to pay his electric bill would have a fancy new computer was that his parents bought it for him. This would mean that his parents had some cash to burn and the other evidence for the privilege his family must have returned to me as I went over some facts I learned from the film. His family lived in White Plains (a wealthy suburb of NYC) and they have a summer place on Rhode Island. This would mean that this composer cannot pay his electric bill, not because he has no access to money but because, very likely, mostly others had taken care of those things for him before. (Again, there is evidence for this in the film when it is suggested that his friend and former roommate, who had only recently moved out, used to take care of these things.) Suddenly a story about a struggling artist becomes the story of a man with a certain amount of privilege, carelessness and entitlement. I have a feeling this is not the myth the filmmakers wanted to make.

Anyway – the next morning I looked up when the Mac Classic came out because the (two second long) shots of it made me think it was like the computer in the 90s I knew best. I wanted to find out how weird a choice it would be for a musical theatre guy to get a Mac and when I saw that the Mac Classic came out in October of 1990, when the movie takes place in January of 1990, well, now I had a THIRD explanation for how Jonathan Larson, a musical theatre writer, had a Macintosh computer in his struggling artist apartment so many months before they came out. He’s a time traveler. He went to the future, not super far, just far enough to pick up one of the first Macs and brought it back to his present moment in January 1990. I’m sure he could have probably done some more useful stuff than picking up a computer a year before other people got them – but that’s like, a whole other movie.

I sort of liked this explanation best, fantasist that I am, but then I looked at the film again to grab a little screen shot of the computer and it turns out the model in the film is NOT the Mac Classic but the earlier, more expensive model, the Macintosh Plus. So at least it’s clear that this character is not a time traveler. (Alas!) But now I know that someone spent $2,599 on this computer in 1990 or before. And that’s almost six grand in today dollars. This becomes an even more unlikely item for a struggling composer to have in his apartment.

What is he using it for? Ain’t no internet on that thing. He’s not emailing his agent from it. He COULD be using FINALE, the music software, which was invented in 1988, but if so, he’s a really early adopter. Like – is a waiter at a diner likely to be using cutting edge software to write his rock musical? In 1990? I’m gonna guess no.

I know what those 90s Macs were like. It’s not a thing you want to write a song on. Not in the early 90s anyway. I can say that as a person who was starting to write songs at about the same time as I got my hands on a Mac. You can check my floppy discs; I didn’t do my songwriting on the Mac.

Based on the screens on the Mac in the film, he’s not using any kind of music software. He’s using that Mac as a word processor. Just like I did at the time. He’s using it to type “Your” and “You’re.” This movie did not need a computer of any kind. Pen and paper would have done the same job.

I’m trying like hell to understand why this Mac is in this movie. Like, was this in Larson’s original show? Did HE want us to know he had a Macintosh in 1990? If so, why? Well, I looked at the script for the 2001 version of this thing (This is the version that’s available to the public. It’s adapted by another playwright.) and there’s no mention of the Macintosh. It’s possible that in earlier editions that the screenwriter had access to, Larson mentioned his computer but I think it’s most likely that the screenwriter made this call. The screenwriter (Steven Levenson, writer of Dear Evan Hanson) was born the same year as the Macintosh, 1984. He has never known a Mac-less world. Perhaps he cannot imagine a world where someone could write a musical without one. So maybe he’s added this Macintosh without realizing. It’s understandable. It’s just a mistake then. That gave me a kind of peace.

I thought I’d hit the bottom of this rabbit hole and just found a mistake but then I happened to see some production research for Larson’s apartment and there is a photo of Larson’s actual desk from the 90s. There IS a computer on that desk. It’s not a Macintosh Plus, though. It’s not even clear that it’s a Mac. But the actual person had a computer. It was not just added by a young contemporary screenwriter who hadn’t done historical research.

Screenshot of the Macintosh Plus which occupied my thoughts more than, perhaps, it should.

Emily, you seem really worked up about this tiny detail in a sweet little movie about a fellow struggling artist theatre guy. What’s your problem? Are you trying to get a job as an historian for films or something?

Meanwhile, I know there are several among you who would like to know my thoughts about this film. I would like to know my thoughts about this film but all I can focus on is that Macintosh and why they thought they needed it. Did Lin Manuel Miranda get a Mac as a young theatre dude and he wrote his stuff on it, so it’s like, meaningful for him in tying his own legacy to the legacy of Jonathan Larson? I’m making stuff up here because that little Mac is just sitting in the middle of this whole experience for me.

Did this movie give me some feelings I might be just funneling into this silly prop and I’m making a big deal of nothing? Possibly. Maybe I’m just reeling from some nostalgia for the period? Could be. But I also think that details like this ARE important because of all the side stories they tell that we, as storytellers, might not be aware that we are telling. Others might have seen a loving tribute of a bio pic musical. I saw a confusing movie about a Macintosh.

Oh why do I care about this? I guess I know something about being a struggling theatre artist. I’ve done it a long ass time. The lesson he learns in the movie is that he should write what he knows and the stuff he knows, I know, too. Having watched the rise and fall of many struggling theatre artists, my eye is pretty finely focused for spotting the secret advantage someone has. The reality is that this guy is not doing nearly as badly as this movie would like us to believe. Sure, he forgets to pay his electric bill but he clearly has a financial safety net, he has the phone numbers for fancy famous people and they take his calls. He has an agent, two keyboards, a mixer, a microphone and, I’m sure you haven’t forgotten, a Macintosh computer. The actual person has, at the point that this play takes place, won an extremely prestigious award, though the film NEVER mentions it. For a 29 year old, he’s actually doing amazing. Like, really super well. The film wants to make us think it’s a super sad struggling difficult life and from this struggling artist’s perspective, his “terrible life” is actually as good as it gets for some folks. To see a film romanticizing the struggle, made by a bunch of guys who are multi-millionaires, is just a little hard to swallow when their vision of the hard life is way better than my actual life.

I mean, sure, I currently have a Macintosh computer, too. It’s nicer than any computer Larson ever had his hands on – but that’s because technology gets cheaper and better as time goes by. A Macintosh in 2022 means something very different than it did in 1990.

We now live in a world where a computer is a necessity to do most any job but particularly any job in freelancing arts. In Larson’s time, it was still a rarity. You might find one in a family’s house, with parents trying to give their kids a leg up in the coming computer age. But struggling artists would mostly have had other priorities then.

I’m still confused by the discrepancy in the computer from the research photo and the set they came up with. I watched a video interview with the set design team and I gotta tell you, these folks cared about the details. They got the sag in the bookshelf. They searched for just the right model of Yamaha keyboard. Why would the computer be any different? I mean – these people got their hands on Larson’s cassette tapes and they didn’t put the actual tapes on the set, no, they scanned the covers so they wouldn’t lose, or damage, his originals. They cared about getting his exact copy of Led Zeppelin IV.

And maybe this is part of what gets under my skin about all this. Like, we all had that Led Zeppelin tape in 1990. I’m pretty sure I still have mine in a box in my mom’s house somewhere. To watch a dude, who is basically like a lot of people I know, get canonized like this is super disconcerting. I have known many musical theatre writers more skilled than this guy who will never have their tapes lovingly scanned by a set decoration team. Nor would they like to, really – they’d just like to have gotten even a hint of some of the opportunities that Larson got, or to have started out with some of his privileges. Obviously, this Macintosh in the movie is standing in for more than just a computer. I know it. You know it. But I really do want to know what it’s doing there.

I was sent the booklet with this page in it. Little did I know, this piece about the production design would lead me further down the Mac rabbit hole. I mean, look at that research photo. If it’s a Mac, it’s one of the few models that didn’t look like a Mac.

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Something About Juliet, Naked

Despite generally being a Nick Hornby fan, I resisted reading Juliet, Naked for a while because of the title. When I finally read it, I remember being glad that it wasn’t actually about a naked woman. I remember liking it but I’m fairly certain I was in a different decade of my life then.

After watching the film version, I find I’m curious to re-read the book – to find out if it’s as problematic as I found the movie. I was going to say “sexist” instead of “problematic” but I’m not sure if the movie is as sexist as the world is. It just highlights some of the ways the world is sexist and it’s problematic for me because it’s also a bit seductive.

Ethan Hawke plays a rock star who has gone full Salinger and fallen off the map. Chris O’Dowd plays the leader of his fan club and Rose Byrne plays Chris O’Dowd’s girlfriend. It’s a funny little music love triangle, that deals with fandom, art and change. Chris O’Dowd is clearly the Baxter and Ethan Hawke is the sexy grandpa and who will Rose Byrne choose? Spoiler Alert: It’s Ethan Hawke. As every Gen X-er knew she would. Because Ethan Hawke is the Gen X dream man, even as he lies in his hospital bed, surrounded by all his ex wives and neglected children as a man who has always been a troubled cad. He’s just become a grandpa and he’s grappling with all his past mistakes and boy, does that guy come with a whole train full of baggage. As a woman who is only a few years younger than Ethan Hawke, I found myself wanting to warn the younger Rose Byrne character to steer clear. Don’t do it, Rose! All that baggage might seem like it’s fun to overcome from where you’re standing now – but you’re not going to change him!

But it’s Ethan Hawke. So you sort of get it. Yes that guy is trouble but he’s trouble in a way that seems fun. He has a heart attack and terrible relationships with all but one family member but still a charmer. He’s a heck of a project for a guy in his late 40s.

But the thing that troubles me is that there is no comparable story with a woman in her late 40s. No younger man comes along to absolve her of all her past sins and to help her make a come-back.

In the Juliet, Naked film, there was nary a woman over 35, as far as I could tell. Maybe one of his exes for a few seconds but mostly not. The lead romantic interest had to be young because she wants to have a baby and the drive to have a child is what drives a large portion of the plot.

And I don’t know, I guess I agreed with cranky grumpy face O’Dowd’s character who’d just rather not have kids. And I’m mad that there are never female characters who feel that way. There’s something in the way movies always talk about this that makes it feel like it is a woman’s innate natural desire to reproduce and if she doesn’t, it’s because some uptight man, like Cranky Grumpy Face, is in the way.

The movie of Juliet, Naked tweaks the standard romantic comedy story just enough to feel like it’s subverting the genre while it actually reinforces it. There’s just no way we could ever see its opposite. It’s the same reason the gender swap of High Fidelity doesn’t really work. Because those types are so strongly gendered and any reversal just makes it clear that is not a world we live in.

There are so many barriers in the way of gender swapping Juliet, Naked. Let me pitch it to you and notice where all the stops are. In it, I’ve recast Ethan Hawk’s character as Parker Posey, an indie Gen X dream girl. Byrne and O’Dowd have just switched roles here. SPOILERS implied.

Chris O’Dowd is feeling unfulfilled in his life and relationship. He wants kids but his long term girlfriend, Rose Byrne, doesn’t. Rose Byrne is a mega fan of a Patti Smith-like reclusive rock star, played by Parker Posey. Parker Posey had a number of artistically successful albums and then disappeared. The mystery of what might have caused the disappearance keeps Rose and her fellow fans very busy on message boards. Then someone sends a demo copy of Posey’s hit album to Byrne – but O’Dowd hears it first. He listens to it before Byrne and declares it not as good as the finished album. Then Byrne hears it and falls in love with the rawness of it. There is conflict – but they both write reviews of it and Posey emails O’Dowd to tell him he’s right.

Posey and O’Dowd start an email relationship wherein they confess their baggage. Posey’s is that she has had and abandoned four children, and is finally giving motherhood a go with her 5th. She becomes a grandma when one of her erstwhile kids has a kid and so she comes to the country O’Dowd is in. Then she promptly has a heart attack.

O’Dowd comes to the hospital and discovers the noisy family who have come to see her. Posey invites herself to his house to recover from her heart attack. A romance blooms between the young O’Dowd and the aging Posey.

Do you see how this movie is sort of impossible? I mean, I’d watch it – because I love Parker Posey and it would be super weird but also, it would be super weird!

But whatever, you know, man, whatever. The movie is problematic, so what? So what? I don’t know so what. For me the so what is that there are so many things about this movie that I liked, so many twists on the romantic comedy structure that I found it very compelling and it is its compellingness that makes it especially problematic for me. I felt sucked in by it and melancholy when it was over. I wanted those crazy kids to get together! Do they?

But should they get together? No. I don’t think so, actually. I think Ethan Hawk’s character should get together with a woman his own age and not go around fathering any more children.

And Rose Byrne’s character should hook up with some nice man who’ll make her dinner and worship the ground she gorgeously walks on. I mean. I don’t know. There was just something about this movie that so insidiously cracked open the seams of the genre while also making me feel the usual things this genre makes a susceptible person feel. I don’t like being a susceptible person and I felt like this movie made me succumb to its charms – and then left me in the record bin, nostalgic for some lost time and also like, disappointed.

I can’t recommend this movie, obviously. But if you watch it, please tell me. I feel like I need help sorting out the box of problematic things it revealed. And by problematic, I might mean sexist. 

Here’s Parker Posey in a photo via WikiCommons by Tabercil. Don’t you want to see her play Ethan Hawke’s part just to see what would happen?

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Be Quiet. You’re Disturbing the Movie.

They were doing a screening of Roma in my neighborhood so I went. The theatre was dotted with audience members – so everyone sort of had a little bubble of space for themselves.

About two rows behind me sat two elderly Latino men. They were possibly the only Latinx people in the place. Once the movie began, they spoke to each other in Spanish. In a movie that is so much about atmosphere, their voices added to the experience. I was only sorry that my Spanish is not good enough to eavesdrop a little.

But some guy on the other side of their row was not happy about their conversation. He shouted at them to be quiet. His shouting was very jarring. And he did it again about ten minutes later. He was really mad about those old guys talking. The third time, he shouted “Be quiet. You’re disturbing the movie.” Which was ironic because to my mind, it was him who was disturbing the movie. (Also – it’s a movie. It doesn’t care what happens out in the audience. I think you mean the movie going experience.) I turned around to glare at him and of course he was a white guy. He was a white guy who was convinced he was being a white guy hero. However, I’m a white lady so I used my disapproving white lady glare to hopefully disabuse him of that position.

I don’t know if it worked or it didn’t work. He shut up after that. If it was my glare, I wish I’d used it sooner. And I don’t know if I ought to have said something to the shouter who was disturbing the movie by declaring the movie disturbed, I somehow didn’t feel like more white people shouting would help the situation.

But I did find it ironic that this white guy had decided to come to this movie about a working class Latina and did not want his experience disturbed by actual (I’m assuming) working class Latinos in the theatre. It felt a bit like all the folks who love tacos and nachos and celebrate Cinco de Mayo but are fine with separating Latinx children from their parents at the border.

It’s all of a piece, it feels to me. It is a control of the space, any space. This attempt to keep spaces like theatres and movie houses quiet and in control is an attempt to exclude, to state who is welcome and who is not. The attempt to dictate how we experience culture is generally classist if not explicitly racist. I’m thinking of that story I just heard on This American Life about a group of kids going to see a movie on a field trip and getting kicked out of the theatre because they had a visceral response to what they were seeing and no context for it. And the racism that they encountered on their way to their seats didn’t help either.

I’m particularly sensitive to this because of my previous work as an arts educator wherein it was my job to prepare students for whatever they were about to see in a theatre or on a screen. Performers loved our audiences because they were vocal and responsive. But if they were ever mixed in with a general audience, the general audience became a problem. It’s almost as if we ought to have been leading workshops for the adults in how to be less classist, racist or uptight before we let them watch a show with a bunch of kids. (Watching shows with bunches of kids is great. People should pay extra to do it.) The kids generally just need a little context and a heads up about stuff that’s going to be new for them. Adults usually need far reaching lessons in cultural imperialism.

In the end, back at Roma, I was more interested in what the two old guys thought of the movie than the movie itself (that’s another post, coming soon) and I definitely hoped to never have to see (or more importantly, hear) Mr. White Savior again – especially at the movies. He very definitely disturbed that movie for me.

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Harry Potter and The Hangover

We watched The Hangover one night, when it seemed like a couple of dumb laughs might be just the remedy for the world’s cruelties. A couple of dumb laughs were about all we got out of it in the end and half of them were from us about what extraordinary stereotypes all the “killjoy” women were. We cracked ourselves up adding lines, “That no-fun bride is mad we lost her fiancé right before her wedding. God! Women are so annoying!”

My friend could not get over how conventional and conservative it was. It seems like it’s this crazy hair-brained tale of wild excess – but in the end (I don’t think this needs a spoiler alert,) really all that happened is that the guys got super drunk and gambled. Sure, they also stole a tiger and one of them got married but the crazy things were all sort of socially fine. All sexual behaviors were within appropriate Hollywood bounds – that is, they ogled and groped the strippers but didn’t have sex with them. Even the one who got married to a stripper only cuddled with her. It was a crazy night in Vegas for which there was always a sort of reasonable explanation. When it’s all over, everyone could return to his conventional suburban life without incident. It’s just a little release for a couple of days in Vegas.

The most transgressive thing that happened, really, was that Zach Galifinakis’ character carried a purse and was not bothered about it’s not being manly.

It made me think about one of the theories of comedies that I studied in college. The Hangover wants to be one of these pastoral comedies where the protagonists go into the woods and lose all social convention and then can return to their more conventional lives with new information, having shifted what may have previously seemed unshiftable. Rosalind has to go into the Forest of Arden dressed as a boy to get the man she loves. And by the time she’s done, the rightful Duke has been restored to the throne and four marriages have been performed. The Hangover apes this sort of structure in that four guys go into the woods (Las Vegas) and by the time they emerge – one of them has broken up with his abusive girlfriend. Otherwise – everyone’s lives are pretty much the same. There’s no real release in this release comedy. Back to the Suburbs everyone – until the next time we get drunk! Conventional. Conservative.

Which brings me to the Harry Potter play. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a lot better a play than The Hangover is a movie. It’s funnier, too. But like The Hangover, it is remarkably conventional and conservative.

There are a lot of reasons this is surprising. 1) It’s about magical people. With magic powers! In a magical land! They could be so much more interesting than us! 2) It was made by some of the most skilled, creative theatre makers we have. 3) The author of the books (and the story on which the show was based) is in a position wherein she does not need the money or the prestige from this show. She can afford to take some risks that the rest of us might not.
And yet. And yet.

Now before I break down how/why this show is conventional and conservative – I want to acknowledge some of the ways it was successful for me.

1) Cape choreography (Note to my theatre-making self: All future set changes will now require cape swirling. It is a very satisfying way to disappear a chair.)
2) Whatever that time shift tech was, it blew my mind. If I’d seen it on screen I’d have thought nothing of it – onstage it was miraculous
3) It is no small accomplishment to keep an audience interested for over five hours of theatre.
4) The staging was A+, likewise the design, performances were on point.

If you’re going, I think you’ll find something of merit. It’s a better time in the theatre than a lot of things I see. However – fundamentally – it is the story of a father and son who just don’t seem to understand each other. This is perhaps the most common story in the Western Canon. Honestly, plays about fathers and sons trying to negotiate their differences are the top of the most produced stories. And in this case, there really wasn’t even any clear reason for this difference between father and son. It seemed to just be that Harry Potter’s son got sorted into Slytherin and wasn’t as popular as his dad. That’s it. At the heart of the play is just a difference in …fraternities?

The other important relationship in the play is the friendship between Potter’s kid, and Malfoy’s kid. They’re best friends and even though the play sometimes hints that there may be more there, it never allows these two boys to actually be gay, or even entertain the possibility.

It feels like, the whole time, cranky old middle aged Harry Potter is just reacting to his son’s gayness without his son ever actually being gay. A play like this has the potential to open up worlds of possibility and it pretty much just said, nah, they’re two best friends who fight through time and space to stay together – but they’re just best friends. And you know – I’m hip to that sort of story, too, for sure. My best friendships are really important and I like the idea of a play about that sort of dedication. But I didn’t buy that in this story. I felt like they were gay and the writers just didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t want to alienate the anti-gay Potter fans!

Conservative. Conventional.

Also. This was a man’s story all the way through. Sure we had a few women in it – but we basically had an old conventional daddy issue play with some magic tricks. All the women were sidelined.

Hermione was particularly hung out to dry. Despite having the most prestigious job in the magical world, she can seemingly get no one to listen to her and is constantly interrupted by men. In an alternate time line (spoiler: There’s time travel!) she has become a nasty old maid spinster teacher stereotype just because she failed to marry a man she loved. O boy. It’s only the love of a man that keeps a witch from turning into a mean old witch apparently. Conventional. So conservative.

Listen – if your play has the ability to travel in time…why not entertain truly exciting other possibilities? You don’t have to hop from one conservative time line to another. There has to be some time line where things can be truly shocking and maybe even queer, in more ways than one.

I’m 100% sure that there is some very daring fan fiction in this vein and how I wish I’d seen even a hint of it in this production.

It’s interesting to see a play that has such a long reach of a following. The generation behind me grew up on Harry Potter and the commonality of experience they have around it is extraordinary. There’s nothing like it from my childhood. The amazing thing about making a play about a series of stories that everyone knows is that everyone’s an insider. It is actually very exciting to be in a room full of people who are so pumped up and so uniform in their responses. Any references to the characters or events in the book get giant responses from the audience. It’s the “I know what you’re talking about” laugh. I mean, just a mention of Neville Longbottom drew applause from the audience. He makes no appearance in the play but he got applause anyway. It’s like a band playing a phrase from their hit song in the middle of a new one. I guess it’s bound to be a hit. There’s no real risk there.

And speaking of phrases from a hit song – almost all of the music in the Cursed Child was actually bits of the instrumental tracks of Imogen Heap’s hit songs. Now – I love Imogen Heap. I want her to make all the heaps of money she’ll get from being the composer of this show. But it seems to me they just used her instrumental tracks for their early movement rehearsals and just decided to keep them. That’s not so much composing as recycling old hits in a new remix.

And that’s sort of what this show was – a recycling of old hits in a new frame. Using theatrical techniques pulled from more experimental works to tell a conventional story with a recycled soundtrack.

I mean. It was a reasonable day in the theatre. It knew what it was doing and made use of some of the best theatrical tricks in the book. But it made me think of The Hangover.

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