BAD MONDAY COMES
BY ANDY IHNATKO
Folks, I'm going to tell you about the night I had last Monday.
The Flying Karamazov Brothers, comedy-juggling troupe made legend on stage, television and in a major motion picture, were in town to perform with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and as Sam Williams (Smerdyakov Karamazov) is a good pal of mine, when 5:30 rolled around I finished up the manuscript I was writing and headed into town to Symphony Hall, where complimentary tickets awaited.
Complimentary? So complimentary I verily blushed as I was lead to my seat, utterly front-row center. Visible daggers of intense hate were lobbed from the eyeballs of the folks ten, twenty and forty feet behind me, as those men and women clad in suits and dresses which cost more than the collision coverage on my Gran Fury wondered just how the hell an unshaven bum in jeans and sneakers wearing a Star Wars Rebel Alliance pin on his vest managed to snag the best damned seats in the house.
Actually, I doubt that they recognized my brass pin as the official emblem of the Rebel Alliance, but I know that their thoughts were genuine. They did, after all, scream it over and over again after I was thrown to the ground, as the women beat and beat and beat me with their purses, leaving my back covered with welts the shape of the Gucci logo.
But after a few minutes of such thoughts I recovered my base-level arrogance and ordered a turkey sandwich and a pitcher of lemonade, which were delivered to my table five minutes later. Always puzzled me, this mix. It's just a holdover from the earliest traditions of the century-old Pops, in which food at an orchestra concert was just along the same lines as smuggling a knapsack full of cheeseburgers into the multiplex today. But nonetheless, it's a point to ponder. The orchestra is one of the best in the world, playing some of the most massively stirring works ever wrought by the hand of mankind; and amid all this, you're eating luncheonette fare atop pistachio-green Formica tables shaped like home plate. It's an expensive meal, but my first of the day, so I tuck in eagerly.
And then the music started. A big fan of the classics is Andy Ihnatko. Call me overly sentimental, but when they struck up The Rite Of Spring I was so taken by the music that I actually had to put down my sandwich. As the entire evening's performance was being taped for a future Evening At Pops show on PBS, they went and played it a second time all the way through. During the sejond performance I put down my drink, too, and simply leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes, making a mental note to actually pay to attend some more of these concerts. God bless the compact disc, but nothing can possibly compare to a live performance by a full orchestra. The Rite Of Spring, designed to cause those most primitive filaments of the human genetic helix to resonate and hum, is borderline intoxicating when fired at your breastbone at point-blank range from an orchestra firing twenty feet away.
A brief intermission, and then it was time for the Karamazovs. Like I said, Sam's a good pal, and we get together whenever he's in town. Folks, the Karamazovs are just money in the bank, that's all, and to live a life in which spotting an ad in the local paper for an upcoming performance does not immediately lead to a fumbling for the phone and the reading of credit-card numbers to a courteous Ticketron operator is a life which needs to be re-examined with a critical eye. I've seen them perform more times than I can count. Even when they're performing a bit I've seen them do a dozen times before (like "Jazz," a completely improvisational and thoroughly amazing four-man passing routine), they kill.
I'd been disappointed to learn that the Karamazovs wouldn't be staging their famous Gamble. I could understand why they decided it wasn't quite the thing for the Pops stage. In it, Ivan wagers a standing ovation against a pie in the face that he can juggle any three objects the audience brings to the stage. Over the years, this has forced Howard Patterson to master the arcane art of juggling octopi, balls of ice cream, remote-controlled race cars, lengths of ventilation hose doused in Crisco, etc. Over the years, this has also forced the crews at the venues in which they've performed to learn how to get a wide variety of exotic stains out of their stages.
But anyway. This disappointment was quickly dashed aside with the revelation of two major routines I'd never seen before. Well, the less said the better. Like I said, I mean, just go and see them, dammit! Okay? Would that be so hard to tune in to your local PBS station for Evening At Pops? (First week in July, I think. Check your local listings.)
Another error. I was there to see the Karamazovs (and had been entertained from the bottom of my lungs, sore from laughing, to the palms of my hands, sore from applauding. Honestly, I was thinking of bailing out early, the better to get home before midnight.
And then I looked in the program, and saw who was going to be on next: Elaine Paige. Elaine Paige?
The original Evita, from EVITA.
The original Grizabella, from CATS.
The original Nora Desmond, from SUNSET BOULEVARD.
In short, A Stunning Broadway Legend. I'll admit that I didn't recognize her name straight away, but I was an enormous fan of her work. When the movie version of EVITA came out, I drew lots of raised eyebrows when I kept honking on and on about how the worst thing about it was Madonna's singing, which all of my friends thought was the bee's knees. Nuh-uh; I kept hoping for a performance as good as the original London recording which I'd owned forever.
So in short order, I found myself standing roughly ten feet away from Ms. Paige as she opened with "As If We Never Said Goodbye," the showstopper from SUNSET BOULEVARD. I'd been impressed with Glenn Close's rendition, which was a capable effort, no question.
Oh, but good God, what Elaine Paige did with that same piece of music. It's like the difference between a photograph of a Paris street and a Renoir oil of the same scene. The first is pretty to look at, but the second draws you into the work's entire universe, existing in entire dimensions of emotion, not just sight. A part of you wants to climb the stage and put a hand on her shoulder and tell her that it'll all turn out all right, really.
As it was, the audience could barely wait until the end of the song to leap into a roundly-deserved standing ovation.
Her eyes were welled-up with tears by the final lines. Was this a genuine reaction, or performance? I couldn't tell, and that means that it really doesn't matter.
She sang five more numbers, and again thanks to the magical technical misadventures of television, we were treated to two encores before conductor Keith Lockhart roused the Pops into their traditional closing performance of "The Stars And Stripes Forever" and thanked us for showing up.
It was, I can say with sincerity, A Good Night.
Sam and I hadn't made any specific plans to get together after the show. I certainly did want to say hi and thank him and the guys for the tickets, but after having spent a whole day with him in Harvard Square I wasn't about to presume that spending another evening with me was more important to him than getting some sleep in preparation for an early-morning departure or something. Nonetheless, I joined the crowd massed outside the stage door. Presently, the door opened, Sam's head scanned faces, and then he beckoned me to enter.
(An aside: one of the eight fundamental building blocks required for a solid psychological foundation is having at least one Mr. Big Shot moment per year. What precisely is a Mr. Big Shot moment? Well, the definition is broad and nebulous, but here's an example: After a public performance, you have joined a large throng of people massed at the stage door, hoping to get a glimpse of one of the performers. One of the performers eventually sticks his head out of the door, scans the crowd, sees you, and beckons for you to enter. All heads turn toward your direction and then throng parts: The Chosen One approaches. We desire access, but cannot have it; who is this man who has been deemed Worthy, and what might I do to become more like Him?
Oh, sure, I'm supposed to pretend that I'm above such pettiness, but you know, I had sort of a rough adolescence, and on those rare occasions when the Universe grants me a Mr. Big Shot moment, I can't help but consider it just compensation for one of the countless indignities which Society suffered upon me in the past. So deal with it. End of aside.)
Two minutes later, I found myself in Ms. Paige's dressing room, drinking a coffee cup filled with her champagne, wondering how the hell I'd gotten there and what the hell I was going to say to her.
The answers were, respectively, "Because I my good pal Sam was kind enough to take me in there," and "Ms. Paige, I just wanted to say how delightful your performance was tonight. I am such a tremendous fan of your work and it was an incredible thrill to finally get to hear you perform live. I wonder if I could trouble you to sign my program?"
This was accompanied by what at the time I thought was a gentlemanly, rather Continental, and warm two-handed handshake, but which in retrospect might have been the same sort of thing which Jethro tended to inflict on visiting dignitaries in The Beverly Hillbillies.
My goodbye was a warm one, matched in intensity only by my embarrassment when a minute later I had to go back in to retrieve my hat (doffing it upon entry, of course, I'd put it on the sofa to leave both hands free for the Jethro shake).
After all of this I felt the only way I could re-pay Sam for his kindless would be to co-sign a loan for him. As I knew that he already had as much property as he could stand to own, I settled for offering to help the Karamazovs pack up their gear.
Oh, and afterwards I had dinner with the Karamazovs, the conductor of the Pops, and his wife. But I've already taken up enough of your time. The point of telling you all about how great my Monday evening was is that this is the only way I can properly convey to you all how truly awful my Monday morning and afternoon was.
I'd spent it in a desperate frenzy. Due to a tragic miscalculation, I was laboring under the incorrect impression that MacUser's graphical makeover had reduced my column's word count to a piddling 700 words. That column on the Newton MessagePad was originally going to weigh in at around 1300 words, and by the time my final day to hand in the column had creeped into the final hour, I was reduced to deleting every third sentence and hoping that I could pass it off as a salute to the style of the legendary (and recently deceased) beat poet Alan Ginsburg. When I finally caught a moment in which the column was the required length and had some trace elements of a beginning, a middle, and an end, I slammed the lid closed on that sumbitch and shipped it before it had the chance to metamorphosize into something even more improbable.
And so I can finally bring in the point of this entire story:
As rhapsodic an evening as I had, as glorious a time as it was, as much as I laughed at the Karamazovs and wept at the performance of Ms. Elaine Paige, as treasured as those memories and that autographed program are, and even given the fact that I managed to stick Keith Lockhart with the bill for my dinner, this evening managed only to cancel out the psychic damage inflicted by the writing day I'd had.
Improbable as it may sound, May 12, 1997 is entered in the logbook as nothing more than An OK Day overall.
Mommas, don't let your babies grow up to be writers.