No matter which side you're on, this SNL election sketch threads the pre-midterms anxiety needle beautifully.
Oct. 3 is big in Mean Girls lore, so the show had a number of things lined up to celebrate the day, starting on Monday with the appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers and continuing with a supersized media blitz.
First up: My son can certainly tap a pencil.
A feature was posted on Broadway.com featuring photos and biographical information on the show's 15-member ensemble. The idea behind the feature was "a take on OG mean girl, Marie Antoinette."
Here is a behind-the-scenes video that includes a brief interview with the boy toward the end:
Meanwhile, another video from the MathLit trio was posted in honor of the Oct. 3 celebration, featuring a special guest appearance. It's hysterical.
And finally, before last night's show, the cast was joined by Tina Fey and Jonathan Bennett, who played Aaron Samuels in the 2004 movie to unveil West Fetch Street to the world.
RIP, Aretha, and on the anniversary of Elvis' death too. Wow...
The Mathletes are at it again.
I loved watching Carole Shelley, in a single song, “give them the finger” and provide a master class in acting to a bunch of boys and girls every night in "Billy Elliot."
She died last night at age 79. RIP.
Such a beautiful song. I will never forget seeing Christiane Noll and Robert Petkoff perform this the night that Ben made his Broadway debut in the Ragtime revival. It brought — and still brings — tears to my eyes. Wish I had seen Marin Mazzie and Peter Friedman do this in the original production. RIP, Ms. Mazzie.
Happy anniversary to Jill, the love of my life. Had brunch at a winery and then have some appointment TV viewing this evening. It’s a little show called the Tony Awards.
Speaking of which, Mean Girls posted this video today about the show’s journey. Love it.
Here's a screenshot from The Today Show, where the “Mean Girls” cast performed “Apex Predator” from the show today. Check out the performance below.
I’ve always said Emma is the best writer in the family, and her storytelling skills are in evidence both in this beautiful video and in the short blurb she posted tonight about her year as a resident educator (RE) at Point Park. Congratulations, sweetheart! Your mom and I are so proud of you!
One of my favorite songs from the show. Great performance. (And yes, you can raise your right finger on late night TV.)
Anyone who knows me — well or not — knows I'm a huge music fan. I love nothing more than discovering new artists, revisiting established ones, and learning what makes writers and creators of some of my favorite sounds tick. Here are two videos worth your time, with memories of my own attached.
This is one of my all-time favorite songs, part of a live album that came out a couple of months before my dad died. "For Jack Tymon" by Scott Miller is a song that tells the story of my love for Nick, Kate, Ben, and Emma in a mere 2:59. Definitely worth a listen.
Somewhere around the one hour, 13-minute mark in this recording, Paul Westerberg makes my all-time favorite live show a classic. At the end of "Love You in the Fall," a song from the animated movie Open Season, Tommy Stinson talks about the project and tries to give a nonessential piece of The Replacements canon a boost.
At which point Westerberg says, "This one's better," and launches into "Can't Hardly Wait." 15,000 fans roared and sang along. It was a moment I will never forget.
(BTW: The photo on this video is one I took, which makes it even better.)
Three videos well worth your time, given our current political climate...
Remember when Ronald Reagan used "Born in the U.S.A." as an introduction for his speeches because, not listening to the lyrics, he thought it would be a rallying call? I wish our current president would do the same with this song.
Speaking of our (expletive deleted) leader and Jason Isbell songs, I'm waiting for Weird Al or "Saturday Night Live" to do a parody replacing "Anxiety" with "Insanity."And finally, here's an older one that applies to some government officials I know...
"Nothing there to corrupt you
Nothing there to live up to
There's no place further down
Turn it off or turn around"
Each Scott Miller release has a number of great songs on it. I've been a huge fan since the V-Roys days, and have everything he's done. Looking for a song to get stuck in your head? Check this one out...
This is a beautiful way to end a LOOONNGG week.
It’s gonna be fun…
Also, the boy has finally made it to Netflix. Catch it while you can.
This is a beautiful performance by a lovely young man we are fortunate to know. Given everything from the past few days, take a moment to listen to DeMarius R. Copes cover this song by John Legend.
Random memories after hearing the news of Glen Campbell’s death: Small snippets of his variety show on my parents’ TV. Seeing his albums in my dad’s record collection. Hearing of his friendship with Elvis, who covered many of Campbell’s biggest tracks, and his association with the fabled Wrecking Crew.
Telling people that I wasn’t named after him, noting that my first name had two n’s and not one. Thinking it was a big deal that Galveston, just a few miles away from Texas City, was immortalized in a song. True Grit, Rhinestone Cowboy, Southern Nights. And of course, Wichita Lineman and Gentle on My Mind.
The demons and drugs that bedevil so many artists, leading to his four marriages, eight children, and DUI arrests. The Alzheimer’s diagnosis that, like ALS and other diseases, rot your mind and/or rob your body.
The poignancy of his final years. A biography that would make a great country song.
As many of you know, I’m a huge Paul Westerberg and The Replacements fan. Campbell’s last album — Ghost on the Canvas — is named after a Westerberg song that he covers. I’ve shared the video, in which Westerberg appears, at other times. But it’s appropriate to share again.
To the members of Congress who stubbornly refuse to believe climate change exists, I'd like to have you over for dinner at my place tonight. We can all sit in my 86-degree home and expose our beliefs while the floor fan struggles to keep up.
Conference photography is a growing — and highly enjoyable — part of my business. Earlier this month, I shot the APMP Bid and Proposal Conference in New Orleans and the Graduate Management Admission Council’s annual conference in San Francisco. I already have three more conferences scheduled in November and December and am bidding on several others.
The best conference photos, in my opinion, tell stories using visuals rather than words. Nothing bothers me more than the photographer obstructing the views of both the speaker and audience, so I try to remain as unobtrusive as possible. Unless it is absolutely necessary, I do not use flash during sessions, because this has the same disrupting effect on the speakers and audience at a live performance or show.
APMP, which serves professionals dedicated to winning business through proposals, bids, tenders, and presentations, holds a three-day professional conference for its members. More than 900 attended this year’s June 13-15 event, the largest in the association’s history. Over three-plus days (including preconference sessions and portraits for the board of directors before the meeting started), I shot and edited more than 600 photos, completing the task before leaving New Orleans to visit family in Texas.
This marked the fourth time I’ve shot the GMAC annual conference, held June 21-23 in San Francisco. Each time, I cull through the edited photos to produce a 2- to 3-minute slideshow of highlights that is aired during the final general session.
An aspect of my journalism career — working on deadline — also has helped in my approach to conference photography. I carve out time during breaks and in between sessions to dump and edit what I’ve shot. Typically, you shoot three to five photos for every one you keep, so this approach gives me a running tally of what I’ve got, and allows time for more shooting if necessary.
This year, for the first time, the slideshow came as close to real time as possible. I had a backup from the first two days already completed, but wanted to see if I could push the envelope. I took photos from the final morning of presentations, went out, picked the best, and edited them. I then shot photos at the start of the 90-minute final general session, edited the best, and added those to the slideshow as well.
When the slideshow — see below — aired, audience members saw about 15 photos that had been taken that morning. In that respect, the photos told the whole story of the meeting.
In her role with the American School Counselor Association, my wife Jill has been fielding a number of calls about the ongoing controversy surrounding Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” the TV series about a teen girl’s suicide.
Earlier this week, she appeared on the National Public Radio show On Point, which you can stream here. Last week, Jill was part of a webinar that included representatives from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Association of School Psychologists.
The webinar, titled “A Teachable Moment: Using 13 Reasons Why to Initiate a Helpful Conversation about Suicide Prevention and Mental Health,” drew more than 1,500 participants. You can stream it here.
Very proud of my spouse and the work she is doing on this extremely important topic!
The circle is complete, three years after Ben's first series of auditions. "Newsies" the movie is now available for purchase on iTunes and other digital services. (I'm waiting to see the trend post on the large number of musical theatre fans skipping school today...)
A few from the “It’s Not Spring Yet (!) Random Thoughts” file….
• Welcome, my friends, to the day that never ends. All I want to do is go outside, go outside...
• Spring-like weather. Spring-like allergies. And then the temperature drops 60 degrees. It’s a rollercoaster ride that never ends.
• Why I don't like Duke basketball...
• Professor Chris Poulos touts a word he learned at a dinner in 2013: exhaustipated — too tired to give a crap. (Courtesy of my friend Mike Clark)
• The new PP: Potty Police.
• I interrupt this political commentary hiatus for a moment to note a contradiction. Our president puts his name on everything ... everything. And yet, he doesn't seem to want the health care bill to bear his name. Of course, as another friend noted, the phrase "Trumpcare" is an oxymoron in and of itself.
• And finally, you gotta wonder if Steve Earle would be on Jeff Sessions' iPod...
Back to our regularly scheduled programming.
I’ve always enjoyed the music of X, which straddled the world between punk and country and remains incredibly relevant. They were part of the great Sire Records roster in the 1980s that also included Lou Reed, Talking Heads, The Replacements, The Blasters, and Los Lobos, among others, and X’s first four albums are considered classics.
As much as I like those albums, which featured the original lineup, I’ve always had a soft spot for “See How We Are,” the 1987 album that includes Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July” and the terrific title track. In the wake of the election, “See How We Are” has become my earworm.
Recently, on Facebook, I decided to ask my friends which hit song best describes the Cold War flashbacks we’ve been having since January 20. My suggestions were R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but they came up with a fascinating playlist that includes:
• Sting: “Russians”
• Billy Joel: “You May Be Right” and “Big Shot”
• Gary Jules: “Mad World”
• Gus Black: “Today is Not the Day to F--- With Me”
• Eurythmics: “Sex Crime”
• The Clash: “Rock the Casbah”
• Nena: “99 Red Balloons”
• Tears for Fears: “Everbody Wants to Rule the World”
• David Bowie: “This is Not America”
• Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime”
The more I thought about it, I realized X had another appropriately titled song — “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.”
Another video promoting the “Newsies” movie. Just three weeks until it lands in theaters!
Each winter, the Workhouse Arts Foundation holds its Collectors Showcase exhibition and fundraiser, featuring donated pieces from each of the 90-plus studio and the Arches Gallery artists. Last year, one of my photos was selected as “Best in Show” by Sarah Newman, an independent curator with past exhibits at the National Gallery of Art and Corcoran Gallery of Art.
As a result, I was invited to have my own exhibit at the entrance to this year’s showcase, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. on March 4. The exhibit, dubbed “Road Show,” features 12 photographs taken during 2016, a year in which I traveled to 18 states and three countries.
All 12 photos are for sale, with 30% of the proceeds benefitting the Workhouse’s art, education and history programs. This teaser video gives you a sneak peek at the show, which was installed yesterday. I also will feature selected images from the show — with the stories behind each — in upcoming "Daily Photos" here and on my blog.
Starting this weekend, you can see the photos for yourself during the gallery’s regular hours (11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays) and at the second Saturday event on Feb. 11.
For more information about the Collectors Showcase and art lottery, visit www.workhousearts.org. And stop by Building 9 to see three more of my photos and the work of the other Arches Gallery artists.
This is cool. The movie will be shown in theatres on Feb. 16, 18 and 22. The list of places showing it has grown quite a bit, and you can get tickets now.
Watch this. One of the most intense performances I've ever seen on SNL. Damn...
The boy singing "Top of the World" from Tuck last week at 54 Below. The "Not At This Performance" cabaret featured understudies who never had the chance to perform on stage.
Another promo for the movie: Two weeks away!
Meanwhile, it’s 8 days until showtime, folks…
Best timing of the year: "Humble and Kind" wins a Grammy for Lori McKenna! #lorimckenna
A personal invitation from Ben to the Newsies universe to see the movie starting tomorrow!
From Little Boy to the Big Screen: I was thrilled to be at the taping of the Newsies movie with my mom in Hollywood last September. Tonight, as #BenCookWeek — Nick gave him the hashtag — continues, I'm going with Jill, Kate, and a bunch of our extended family and friends to see it on the big screen. Congrats, son!
To quote Jill, "Our son found a way to deal with his post-election angst."
In just under the wire, here's a video I made 7 years ago to commemorate Ben's Broadway debut in Ragtime. Ahh, the memories.
Ben and Josh Burrage performing "Unemployed" to the music of "I'm Alive" from Next to Normal during Sunday's variety show at 54 Below in New York. The boys, who are roommates, wrote the lyrics to the tune.
Take a look. You might see someone you know...
After a week of illness in the family, a Facebook hack, and the final flurry of shopping, here are a few pre-Christmas random thoughts:
• USPS at the holidays: On the last Monday before Christmas, the 8:30 a.m. line at the post office rivals that of the DMV next door.
• Ben truism: You know you're in a theater family when you "call out" sick rather than "call in" sick.
• Memo to the alien bug that invaded our bodies last week: This is your formal eviction notice. Despite the cold and windy weather, please seek shelter outside our home effective immediately.
• More cold commentary: I hear the roar of the ocean. Unfortunately it's inside my head. #hatethissnotshit
• After my Facebook was briefly hacked: If you get a friend request from me, don't accept it. As far as I can tell, we're already friends... Or, in political speak: Damn those Russians.
• Finally, here’s one worth watching. In the spirit of the holidays, we were so glad to see Walter White come back from the dead.
I recoiled the first time I saw the video of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.”
One of the best songs off of one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, the video tells the story of a couple who becomes entangled in the throes of the woman’s mental illness. It ends, as do too many of these stories, tragically, leaving the survivors to cope with unspeakable grief.
“The song is about loving someone unconditionally through not so easy times. The concept of the video came to me as that would be the hardest possible space in which to love somebody,” Stapleton says in an interview on the Campaign to Change Direction website.
Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. It won two Grammys and drew attention for its mix of old-school country and Southern rock. The video for “Fire Away” has been viewed almost 15 million times, creating awareness around an issue — mental illness — that is too rarely mentioned or not seen at all.
Until it’s too late.
I’m a lucky man.
I’ve known two people — one a close friend; the other the daughter of family friends — who have died by suicide. I have a daughter who is ADHD/bipolar and struggles to maintain her equilibrium at times. An uncle and an aunt also have suffered from severe mental illness.
Their experiences have helped shape me as a person and as a father. I feel fortunate to have known these people, and lucky to have a daughter as kind at heart as Kate is. And I’m committed to sharing our family’s struggles in an effort to draw some attention to mental health issues.
Hearing that Stapleton would be performing in D.C., I noted the show was scheduled during an intense period of travel and was unsure if I could make it on a Sunday night after returning from a second trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks. Then, when I went to buy a ticket, all that was left was a single seat in the upper nosebleed section.
Jill had a dinner to attend that night, so she told me to go ahead. The cause is the right one, and that’s what’s most important.
The Campaign to Change Direction is a national initiative designed “change the culture of mental health in America.” Its goal is to get people to learn and share the five signs of emotional suffering — change in personality; agitation; withdrawal; decline in personal care; and hopelessness — so that we can prevent tragedies and help others to heal.
When Stapleton had the idea for the video, he didn’t work with a specific charity on mental health issues. Actor Ben Foster, who is in the video, suggested the campaign, which has received the support of Prince William, First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Richard Gere, among others.
Stapleton agreed to work with the organization, although he had no idea about the video’s potential impact on his audience. He also had to get his record company to buy into the project, noting that label executives “looked at me like I had three heads” when he told them the idea.
“I didn’t want to be in the video. I wanted to make it with these actors because it felt more artful and meaningful,” Stapleton says. “It was just a notion, but then we made it and it became real and useful and something that hopefully can make the world a better place. … That notion became a good thing.”
The DAR Constitution Hall is a great place to hear a show, but a tough venue to maneuver. The lines are long. The bathrooms are in inconvenient places. The seats, especially in the upper reaches, have extremely limited legroom.
Having driven more than 500 miles over the previous two days, I had to get up midway through the show and walk around a bit, so I went down to the restroom and saw an usher I had talked to while waiting in line earlier. Listening to the music, we made momentary small talk about the show and I mentioned my connections to the cause, then told him I had to go back up. I didn’t want to miss “Fire Away.”
At that point, the usher opened the door and said, “Go on in,” pointing me to an empty seat in the orchestra section. “Wait a few minutes,” this random stranger said, “and I’ll take you up a little further if I can.”
After standing in the back of the orchestra for a few minutes — by this point no one was sitting — the usher tapped me on the arm and escorted me up toward the front, just five rows from the stage. “Stand here,” he said. “You won’t have a problem.”
And then he left without a trace. Two minutes later, Stapleton started playing “Fire Away,” just in time for me to pull out my phone and record it. At the end, he asked the boisterous crowd to repeat the last chorus, holding up their phones to shine a light on issues that are underreported and often unseen.
The audience complied. Here is the video I took of the performance.
On Saturday, Lindsay’s family will participate — as they do every year — in one of the Out of the Darkness walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you would like to help, go to the team page here.
Pay it forward. It's the least we can do.
I think I may have found the official theme song of the 2016 election.
Two more election-related items:
• I turned on the TV last night during the debate and heard someone say, "Look at those hands!" Fortunately, the channel was ESPN.
• The "Well, duh" headline I saw last week: "Election is turning out to be unhealthy source of stress for many Americans."
Two legends who have passed away. I resisted the "Willy Wonka" and "Blazing Saddles" shares in honor of this...
With only thirtysomething days until the election (thank goodness), I guess it’s not surprising that this edition of “Random Thoughts” is heavily tilted toward politics in some way. So here are some observations from the past month or so.
• Pronoun Trouble: As the son of a middle school history teacher, I think I've finally figured out one of our country's biggest problems: We have pronoun trouble.
Every time I try to make a seemingly rational comment about this election, or one that at least merits more discussion, I get lumped into the "you people" group. But if I remember my history lessons correctly, "We the people" is how it should work.
• What Matters: Several weeks ago, I made a "mistake" when I said "all lives matter." And while I believe that to be true (as we all should), there's no question that the antagonism and, at times, outright hatred that folks in power display toward African-Americans is just wrong.
Just because you have an itchy trigger finger, or are afraid of a person just because the color of their skin, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation frightens you does not give you or anyone else the right to do what is done over and over and over.
Put the damn guns down. Stop this uninformed hatred. Take 60 seconds and use the brain you were given before you hit "Post."
For God's sake, this has to end now. Please.
• Wise Advice: Courtesy of the Internet, here are some things to think about:
• Drop the Mic: No matter how you feel about the issue, this is campaign ad is one of the best I've seen in years.
•Dear Former Gov. Perry: Charles Durning did it better. Sincerely, Cast and Crew of "So You Think You Can Dance"
• Mr. Breathed Continues to Hit it Out of the Park: Rather than watch the first presidential debate, Jill and I went to watch a somewhat meaningless major league baseball game. What did you do?
• Post Debate Observation: Fact averse (n., adj.): Epidemic affecting voters across the nation.
• And finally…: Perhaps my eyes deceive me, but doesn't Kathy Bates look like she's auditioning to play David Bowie's role in the "Labyrinth" sequel?
Elvis can have Dairy Queen. Dick just conquered Denny's.
This song is best known because of Tim McGraw's version, but it was written by one of my favorite musicians — Lori McKenna (check out her stuff now!) — and will be on her new album that comes out in a couple of weeks.
If you have 4 minutes and 18 seconds, please give this a listen. It's something Jill and I have tried to teach our kids, and given all of the unrest in our country and in the world right now, it's a lesson well worth sharing to any and all.
"Elvis Presley wouldn't have been Elvis Presley without Scotty Moore."
Of all the musicians who've died this year, this may be the toughest one yet. Scotty Moore, who played lead guitar on all of Presley’s biggest hits of the 1950s and early 1960s, died yesterday In Nashville at age 84.
Moore and bassist Bill Black were part of Presley’s original band that started on Sun Records and moved over to RCA in 1956 after cutting a string of singles that are now considered the foundation of rock and roll. Even though the two left in a money dispute in 1958, Moore returned after Presley’s Army stint ended in 1960 and continued to play for him all the way through to Elvis’ comeback special in 1968.
The following year, Presley (without Moore) recorded “From Elvis in Memphis” and started touring again regularly for the first time in almost a decade. Ironically, his “From Elvis in Memphis” producer, Chips Moman, also died earlier this year.
The list of musicians that Moore influenced and the genre he helped develop is staggering. Among the guitarists who cite him as a direct influence: Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and the White Stripes’ Jack White.
Take a moment and watch Presley perform “Trying to Get to You” with Moore in this clip from the 68 Comeback Special. Presley started off acoustic, then traded guitars with Moore and lit the place on fire.
Beautifully done. Never thought I'd call myself a John Cena fan, but between Trainwreck and this wonderful #WeAreAmerica ad, I'm a convert.
So Jill and I spent our wet and humid 4th in the best, most celebratory way possible. She had her bottle of wine, I had my beer, and we watched several episodes of "Justified" together in the living room.
Bliss and bless. That is all for now...
Here is a 3-minute slideshow of photos I took at the Graduate Management Admissions Council's annual conference last week in Washington, D.C. The slideshow aired at the beginning of the conference's final general session.
GMAC has been an outstanding client. I've shot the council's last three annual meetings as well as other events and staff portraits.
Send me an email or give me a call if you are interested in having me shoot your conference or event. Hourly, half-day, daily, and multiple day rates are available.
Beth Howland's death was announced today and, due to her wishes, it was almost six months after it happened. That's a remarkable feat in today's 24/7 news world, but nothing compared to the prospect of performing this song eight times a week on a Broadway stage. You might remember Howland as the ditzy waitress on the long-running show "Alice," but she also was an original cast member of "Company."
The imminent closing of "Tuck" aside, this video featuring the boy shows there's nothing he can't do ... even with a bunch of marshmellows stuffed in his mouth.
After three postponements due to rain, the cast of "Tuck Everlasting" performed yesterday on the "Today Show." It was a long morning, but a great opportunity, as cast members arrived at 5:30 a.m. and ran through the difficult number several times before performing it live in front of the cameras.
Unfortunately, the performance and imminent release of the soundtrack to the show was not enough to save it, as the producers announced today that "Tuck" will close this weekend. So watch this and relive briefly what has been a wonderful experience for Ben.
Guy Clark leads an all-star cast in a performance of his "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" on the Letterman show. Clark, the de facto songwriting leader of so many people I like, died Tuesday following a long illness.
And the world just got a little smaller ... again.
For some reason, I’ve been having trouble writing about the death of Prince. So many words have been said and so much purple ink spilled that there really isn’t much more that I can contribute.
But damn, that dude was talented. All you have to do is watch his Super Bowl halftime show.
No matter what you thought about Prince, he was a visionary in the music world. Like David Bowie, he mixed fashion, androgyny, funk, and throwback rock and roll into an always fascinating stew.
The results pushed the entire music industry in directions it did not anticipate; who would have thought he could almost turn Tipper Gore into a Republican? (If you don’t believe me, look it up.)
I wish 2016 would just let up when it comes to the deaths of people I’ve admired and appreciated as a fan of music and the performing arts. If I was a popular performer in the 1970s and '80s, I'd be more than a little scared. (Unless my name was Keith Richards, of course.)
Here are some excerpts from a Rolling Stone interview with Paul Westerberg after Prince’s death. The two were acquaintances who played the same clubs in Minneapolis; Westerberg also recorded at Prince’s studio, Paisley Park, after The Replacements broke up.
• He was like a ray of light in a very cautious place. He was a star. He made no bones about it. He was glitz to a place that wasn't used to it. I remember a little scuffle broke out in front of the stage one night and Prince said, "Stop fighting, you'll mess up your clothes."
• People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I'm gonna cry.
• I've spent more time with Bob Dylan, and I've got to say that I was more in awe of Prince. I can't think of anyone better – an all-around composer, musician, guitarist, star, showman, the whole package, anyone better. If Elvis wrote all of his songs and played guitar, it still wouldn't quite be there.
• When I got word today, I was trying to write a song. I put it down. I found myself walking up to the store, and I bought myself a handful of colorful clothes. I was just drawn to do something that he would have done.
My favorite post on this topic:
If you give us back Prince, Merle Haggard, David Bowie and Alan Rickman we will gladly give you the top 4 presidential candidates in return.
An appropriate song, given the type of year we’ve been having.
Anyone who has ever struggled with weight or been ridiculed for not fitting in should smile at the outcome of this story about the "Dancing Man." It definitely made me tear up and have middle school flashbacks...
Here is a 25-minute documentary that tells the story in more detail. Incredibly inspiring.
See the boy and a host of others in this video preview of Tuck Everlasting, which has its Broadway opening night tomorrow at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Congrats to Ben and the entire cast and creative team! Can't wait to be there...
My grandfather liked to say he was an “Okie from Muskogee,” having lived in the Oklahoma town for a period before moving to East Texas with my grandmother. I remember him telling me this numerous times, especially when Merle Haggard’s signature song came on the radio.
Haggard, who died last week at age 79, wrote “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969 after he became frustrated with anti-military, pro-sex and drugs protests that helped define the Vietnam era. The song, released three weeks after Woodstock, became a Number One hit as angry, proud conservatives embraced and latched on to its lyrics.
I’m not a huge Haggard fan, although I greatly admire his body of work and his ability to write about a hard scrabble life that included a stint at San Quentin, five wives, alcohol, drugs, bad business decisions, and battles with the IRS. Reading the many tributes written in the wake of his death, what I find most interesting is how he constantly evolved in his stances while tapping into the frustration of conservative whites piqued by changing morals and values.
Interestingly, Haggard’s death came just a couple of days before Bruce Springsteen decided to cancel a concert in Greensboro, N.C., to protest the state’s passage of HB2 – or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The law, passed during a hastily scheduled legislative session by an increasingly conservative General Assembly, discriminates against transgender people and the LGBT community.
"To my mind, it's an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress," Springsteen said in a statement announcing the cancellation. "No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden."
Driving through North Carolina earlier this week in a truck that had only AM radio, I heard “Okie from Muskogee” in tribute to Haggard and wondered what he would have thought of the state’s latest legal action. After all, U.S. politics are the most strident they’ve been since Vietnam, and Haggard already had come too close to the flames of controversy more than once.
“I write from common knowledge, current knowledge, collective intelligence,” Haggard told author R.J. Smith about “Okie from Muskogee” in 2000. “At the time I wrote that song, I was just about as intelligent as the American public was. And they was about as dumb as a rock.”
I wish everyone could evolve like that over time…
The photos above are of my grandparents around the time "Okie from Muskogee" was released. The video below is of my favorite Haggard song, a duet with Willie Nelson on "Poncho & Lefty." (Seeing Townes Van Zandt, who wrote the song, in the video is a nice touch.)
Satire: The best stings the most when it's true.
Exhibit A: This video, in which Mean Girls read the tweets of Mr. Trump.
Now here's a chance to vote for something truly worthwhile...
Emma is competing in the 8th annual Black&Blue Student Choreography Showcase at Fairfax Academy. If she receives the most votes, she will get to perform her piece for the school in May. Cast a vote for her piece, “Don’t Look Back,” by clicking here and submitting your name/comments in the comment section.
Your vote for my lovely high school senior is greatly appreciated. Voting closes at midnight on March 31.
Nicholas is featured in a short video promoting "Elon Day," the university's annual fundraising event. It's good to see he's putting his degree to use, and pretty clever, too...
"Tuck Everlasting" held its press preview on Monday at New 42nd Street Studios as cast members performed a selection of numbers from the show, which opens in previews on March 31. The top photo is from Broadway.com, which has a 15-minute video clip in HD on its site. The other photos are by Playbill photographer Monica Simoes.
Also, here is a shorter clip from Playbill.com that I was able to embed. Enjoy...
In a continuing quest to show — from afar — the process of rehearsals for "Tuck Everlasting" (and the boy who is in it), here's a short video on the unveiling of the marquee. The show opens in previews on March 31, with opening night set for April 26.
Jordan Roth, CEO and founder of the Culturalist website and president of the Jujamcyn Theaters chain in New York, went behind the scenes for an hour to watch the creation of the opening number of “Tuck Everlasting.” You can watch the video here.
A bonus: A screenshot of the video makes it on to the Tony Awards Twitter feed, and look who's front and center...
This video was taped shortly before Ben left the "Newsies" tour last month. It asks the cast members to describe the show in 30 seconds. Worth the watch...
Jordan Samuels, one of the cast members of "Newsies," conducted his video "exit interview" with Ben prior to last show in St. Louis and posted it to his YouTube page. Both guys did a great job.
This was shot last December while the tour was in Chicago. It's amazing how fast 2015 has gone by, and how good "Newsies" — now in its second year on the road — remains. Worth a look...
Given the craziness that surrounds the month of December in our family, it should come as no surprise that I’m not the most sentimental person when it comes to Christmas. Between the political rhetoric we are seeing on the election trail, the warm weather and the release of the new “Star Wars” movie, it feels a lot more like summer than winter.
Except for the birthdays, that is.
Still, that hasn’t stopped me from a new edition of “Random Thoughts: Holiday Edition.” This one collects my favorite randoms from Facebook and Twitter and includes a couple of NSFW photos that you might enjoy.
Let’s start with the photos… Each illustrates a thought or two below.
• Donald Trump on the eve of Christmas Eve: "Peace on Earth and goodwill toward ... HA! Who am I fooling?!?"
• I'm starting to think Mother Nature's timeline was thrown off by the fact that the Hallmark Channel starts showing Christmas movies in July. If Hallmark starts showing college football bowl games, I’m cutting the chord completely on cable.
• This “Saturday Night Live” skit reminds me of my father. Sad thing is, Dad couldn't decide whether to stare at his action figures or play with them, making him the eternal tweener when it came to toys. (BTW: The teen in the blue sweater in the commercial is Jeremy Zorek, who was small boy on the “Billy Elliot” tour. Time flies.)
• Which is the fantasy here: Santa or better presidential candidates? I think it's the latter.
• Pre-Christmas Saturday: When running a few errands takes on a whole new meaning.
• Note to the guy mulling a Home Depot gift card purchase for his spouse: Don't do it.
• What's the difference between Stump and Trump? One has been chopped down, while the other needs to be...
• If parenting is survival of the fittest, then I really should go to the gym more...
• Not a Christmas song. Just one I can’t get out of my head — “Still Trying” by Nathaniel Rateliff.
• Want to see some cool pics? Check out my FB page at www.facebook.com/ourrealityshow. (Yes, kids, some of us old people still use Facebook.)
• All fall, something was missing. Turns out it was the master's degree I need to help my kid survive the college app/audition process. (She's doing fine, BTW.)
• These posts brought to you by Procrastination (aka a writer stalling while trying to figure out the lead for a freelance story). Grr.
Thanks to all who've followed my stream of nothingness. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. #stoptheholidaymadness.
The Bi-Annual "Musical Theatre Bookstore" Commercial, performed by members of the "Newsies" cast after a show. Hysterical...
Jill is featured in this video with Tim Gunn and others discussing domestic violence and teen dating abuse. The video was put together as part of Liz Claiborne’s “A Time to Talk Day,” which was focused on the company’s “Love Is Not Abuse” curriculum available to schools. For more information, go to www.breakthecycle.org.
Few things are sadder than seeing a stage, full of such life and vibrancy just a few days ago, empty except for the crew loading out.
But that’s what happens when a show closes. For those not familiar with the lingo, it’s called the “strike.” (Ironically appropriate, in this case…)
This morning, after dropping Ben off for school, I walked past the Neil Simon for the first time since Sunday’s closing performance, seeing the crates and the crew working in what seemed like organized chaos to me. It’s yet another difference between community and professional theatre; in this case, you have a lot of people who are paid good money to clean up afterward.
It’s still sad, however. And it made me do my own version of a circle back.
I circled back to last week, when suddenly people who thought the show would run for a lot longer raced to the theatre to see “Ragtime.” Several times, waiting after the show, I looked at the crowd standing outside in the frigid cold to get autographs and wondered: WHY?
In the short, three-plus block walk from the theatre to our apartment, I also thought of Alejando Escovedo’s song “The End,” written about the dissolution of a relationship. As the guitars build, Escovedo almost shouts, “Is this really the end?” repeatedly during the chorus.
I use music (along with writing) to process my thoughts and this was the song I played walking around the hospital in the final night before my father passed away. Sadly, the feelings were the same.
This show is not coming back; it really is the end.
If you have the time, take a look at this video of “Gene” the puppet, a creation by cast member Benjamin Schrader, talking to cast members about the show’s closing. It will make you smile.
Ben had the opportunity to perform as Billy with cast members from “Billy Elliot” during the 25th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “Billy Elliot” raised more than $150,000 during the six-week fundraiser, finishing as the second runner-up in the competition among all Broadway shows.
With Neil McCaffrey as Michael and the show’s Ballet Girls, the group performed a hysterically funny mashup of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” in two shows at the Minskoff Theatre.
The six-week fundraiser by 52 Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring companies raised $3.7 million. Seventeen productions participated in the benefit at the Minskoff (home of “The Lion King”).
To see a six-minute compilation of clips from the show, go to this link.
The performance also gave us an opportunity to spend time together as a family over the Easter weekend, an event that featured a visit from Nicholas as well as a subway trip to Coney Island. Below are photos that illustrate the always "interesting" time we have together.
New York has almost 40,000 homeless people — the population of my hometown — living in shelters around the city. After seeing a number of people sleeping on benches at the entrance to the Staten Island Ferry, I decided to see what I could do to chronicle the state of the homeless here.
As New York becomes more and more expensive to visit, much less live, the number of panhandlers continues to grow. You can’t walk down the street without seeing someone asking for money.
But you can help. Got two minutes? Have $1? Then take a look at the website, www.doyouhaveonedollar.org. It's a philanthropic social challenge to see if 1 million New Yorkers can give just $1 each to help the homeless, poor, and hungry of NYC in 40 days, 11/22/2011 to 12/31/2011.
I donated these and other photos to the cause, and several are featured in a video promoting the project (see below). Please consider a donation of your own.
So this has been a big week for baseball for our twins, Ben and Emma.
First, on Wednesday afternoon, Ben had the chance to sing the National Anthem at the Milwaukee Brewers-St. Louis Cardinals game with other cast members from Billy Elliot. The touring cast is in Milwaukee this week, and they had a chance to sit back and watch the game before performing that night.
Check out the sign Ben is carrying in the photo above, and watch the video of the performance below.
Emma is even a bigger baseball fan than her brother, and with Jill in Minneapolis and Kate in New Orleans, it gave us a chance to spend some father/daughter time at Nationals Park with her friend, Ashley Frey.
The game got off to a great start, with the Nationals taking a 9-0 lead over their hated rivals, the Atlanta Braves. Given that it’s summer in D.C., however, we had to endure a rain delay, and it didn’t end well.
The Nationals gave up the nine-run lead and went into extra innings tied 10-10. Before long, fans started chanting “Sell more beer! Sell more beer!" As an Astros fan, that’s an all-too-familiar chant in games like this.
Of course, the Nats lost 11-10, but we had a good time together…
Check out this short film — 4 ½ minutes — that Nicholas appears in with Molly Dougherty. The movie, “Ever After,” looks at whether a couple that has been broken up for three months should try to get back together. Congrats, Nick!
What a night. The 2nd Annual Born for Broadway benefit also served as a mini-Ragtime reunion, with performances by Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert, Stephanie Umoh, and Leigh Ann Larkin (from the D.C. cast), plus Ben and the other kids from the show.
The kids performed “Alone in the Universe” from “Seussical.” The video combines footage from the rehearsal and performance.
Directed by Ragtime's Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the evening of pop songs, showtunes, and standards also featured Lesley Gore, Glee's Jenna Ushkowitz, Memphis' Chad Kimball, Malcolm Gets, Jim Brochu and many, many more. Thanks to Marcia and organizer/event founder Sarah Galli for allowing me to take pictures.
Jill is featured in this anti-bullying piece that was produced by NBC News. The piece aired on a number of NBC-owned stations this week.
A short (relatively) video that pays tribute to the moms in our lives: Betty, Olivia, and, of course, Jill.
Santa came to visit the kids of "Ragtime" backstage this year, thanks to the efforts of wrangler John Mara. Great time for everyone involved.
Now this is a way to start the new year. Here are Ben and Chris singing "Bad Romance" during a dinner break between shows, with a short cameo from Josh Walden. Enjoy...
Ben is used to performing, so serving as an understudy was a bit of a challenge at first when he started work on Ragtime at the Kennedy Center several months ago.
Also, given that he is in fifth grade, he had to do something to show his teachers at Lorton Station what he was learning during the experience. So why not combine the two?
The result is this 17-minute video, which includes audio interviews Ben did with members of the cast of "Ragtime." The interviews are accompanied by stills from the show. Special thanks to Eric Jordan Young, Quentin Earl Darrington, Bobby Steggert, Sumayya Ali, Dan Manning, and Manoel Felciano for participating.
(Also, look for video at the end of Ben dancing with Chita Rivera...!)
Members of the "Newsies" cast celebrated "National Dance Day" the best way they know how — by going to a rooftop in Toronto and dancing to their version of "Shut Up and Dance." They also celebrate the tour's 300th performance this weekend.
At one point in my journalism career, I wrote obituaries for a living. This one, written today, is more difficult than I thought:
The Cook Family Honda Odyssey, age 8, died Wednesday after a lengthy and valiant fight with mileage, age, and excessive schlepping. It had 151,404 miles.
Purchased while our children were participating in a dance recital, the Odyssey was preceded in death by a Ford Galaxy and a Nissan Quest, the latter of which carried the four Cook children for more than 100,000 miles as well. Appropriately named, the Odyssey saw much of the United States during its lifetime, traveling up and down the East Coast from North Carolina to New York. During its final year, it made last gasp trips to Chicago, Cleveland, Manhattan, and Orlando, loyally carrying its cargo despite the failure of multiple organs/parts/pieces.
The family decided not to pursue further life-saving measures when it became obvious that the cost of doing so would greatly outweigh the benefits. Given the fact that the children have, are, or will be moving on in the next year or so, the owners decided it was time to downsize and put the vehicle out of its misery.
A brief goodbye was held Wednesday afternoon in the parking lot of Hendrick Honda as Jill Cook, primary driver of family vans over the past 18 years, delivered a short but touching eulogy. She was last seen driving off in a new CR-V, singing aloud to a Maroon 5 song on Sirius XM radio.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to a special fund set up to pay off said CR-V. Contact the Cook family if you are interested in making a donation to offset the replacement costs incurred during this exhaustive process.
Glenn Cook, Lorton, Va.
Several members of the “Newsies” cast invaded the Newseum on Friday to promote fun and different ways that students can lead healthier lifestyles through dance. Part of Disney’s “Get Up and Go” initiative, cast members taught middle school and high school students parts from the “Seize the Day” number and participated in the making of a short video that captured their day at the beautiful Washington, D.C., museum.
The cast also was interviewed on Fox5, which broadcast live from the Newseum for three hours. Dan DeLuca and Stephanie Styles performed a number and cast members taught the anchors part of the dance as well.
“Newsies” is based on 1899 strike by newsboys against Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. The show is at the National Theatre through June 21.
Check out this video shot by the Newseum:
For Fox 5's coverage of the event, go to this link.
For more of my photos, check out my Facebook page here.
Realizing I've been on a Jon Dee Graham kick recently, this song has been been stuck in my head for days. Any father/son (or parent, for that matter) should be able to identify... Just great.
BTW, Graham will perform — solo, I think — at Hill Country BBQ in DC on June 16 and in NYC the following evening. Jill has agreed to go again with me to the DC show; would love it if friends would join us. And NYC peeps, you'll be hearing some great stuff...
Meanwhile, Graham and his son, William, have donated a song to the Hallman Flood Relief mixtape, now available here on Bandcamp for a minimum donation of $15. It’s great music — 36 songs in all — for a great cause: Austin musicians helping one of their own faced with terrible damage from last month’s flooding.
Mark Hallman is a “renowned and loved” producer/musician/mastering engineer/studio owner whose home suffered severe flooding when storms struck Texas and Oklahoma in May. About 90 percent of the songs on the mixtape were produced, recorded, mixed and/or mastered by Hallman and Andre Moran at Hallman’s Congress House studio.
Artists on the mixtape include The Painted Redstarts, the band led by Graham’s son, William; Eliza Gilkyson, Betty Soo, Danny Schmidt, Charlie Faye, Randy Weeks, Sara Hickman, Will Sexton, and The Belle Sounds. Unlike most of these compilations, there’s not really a bad song in the bunch, and it’s a terrific primer for anyone interested in the music being made in the Live Music Capital of the World.
So very freaking proud of this young man, covering Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars." Part of a weekly series of videos that Elon University's Vital Signs group is posting to promote its Member Highlight Monday series.
The group has worked on the project since January to highlight the individual talents of current members and alumni. Each group member covered a song of his/her choice and filmed a video to go with it. The videos will be released each Monday for the next 15 weeks.
To check out more videos, go to Vital Signs' Facebook page here and give them a like!
On Wednesday, the cast of the first national tour of “Newsies” performed two numbers in a surprise appearance at Disney’s El Capitan Theatre following a screening of the 1992 cult film that gave the musical its start.
The cast, which had just completed a show at The Pantages several blocks away, took a bus down Hollywood Boulevard and performed “King of New York” and “Santa Fe” for a surprised crowd of 1,000 fans, stars from the film, and original director/choreographer Kenny Ortega.
For more of my photos from the performance, go to my Facebook page here. Click on the clip below to see a Disney-produced video clip from the performance.
You also can see video shot by a fan in the audience here.
This is pretty freaking cool. Check out the boy tapping in this cover of "Shut Up & Dance," performed by members of the "Newsies" tour cast as part of the Disney Playlist Sessions. The session was taped during the tour's stop at the Smith Center in Las Vegas last week.
Every parent of every teen encounters this on a semi-regular basis: Pronoun trouble.
In case you're wondering, yesterday was pretty special. Jill out did herself in planning a wonderful 50th birthday celebration — from breakfast and a cake to a personal trainer session to a massage to a lunch and nap followed by a celebration with friends at a nearby bar.
I am truly grateful to her, my mom (who came from Texas as a surprise) and the kids. And thanks to everyone who took the time to post and send messages. It's a little overwhelming.
This 50 thing is a little overwhelming, too, not because of fears of growing old, but because it's hard to believe I've spent a half century on this earth. Twenty years ago, right around this time of year (and in the prehistoric era of fax machines-voice mails-AOL-and this thing called dialup Internet), I had what I called my one-third life crisis. No such thing as a midlife for me.
Now that I'm 5/9ths on my way to the ripe old age of 90, I can safely say that many things did not turn out as I would have expected. In fact, few things have turned out the way I would have predicted 20 years ago. But I'm reminded daily of how lucky I am, and am anxious to see what's in store for the next 40 or so years.
One of my favorite songs. Seems appropriate as the big 5-0 arrives.
Want to watch something cool? Check out this video of Kate showing her artistic talent as she creates a piece using spray paint on canvas, and it's done in just under 5 minutes.
The video was made for a school project that Kate will be featured in next week. Ben, who is home this week on a "Newsies" break, resurrected some recently dormant video skills for the project.
Great job, Kate!
It’s been a big day in Newsies promotional land. Today, Disney Theatrical released a video that will be used in promoting the tour, plus the tour’s own program, featuring a certain kid we know.
This type of promotion is somewhat unusual for national tours, but shows the commitment Disney has made to giving audiences the Broadway version of one of its biggest hits. It’s another reason we’re so proud to have Ben be part of this experience.
In addition to photography, blogging and consulting, I also write freelance stories for a number of state and national organizations.
My most recent article is about a subject close to my heart and family: school counselors. The piece, “Not Your Mother’s School Counselor,” is published in the October edition of ASCD’s Education Update.
The story looks at how three major changes have altered the course of the profession over the past 15 years: a national model that aligns the work of counselors with school improvement efforts; a movement away from direct services to individual students and toward comprehensive schoolwide programs; and the acknowledgement of the counselor’s role in expanding college access for all students.
As many of you know, my wife Jill works for the American School Counselor Association, and was a huge help in gathering sources for the article, which is now available for purchase from the ASCD website. You can find more information about the story here, and read many of my other 2014 articles by going to the Freelance Articles and Columns section of this website.
If you’d like to see some of the good work my spouse has been doing on behalf of her profession, check out this Comcast Newsmakers interview she did last month.
Here's a nice flashback: The Folger Shakespeare Theatre's version of "Macbeth" (Ben's second show way back in 2008) is being shown at the Carter Baron Amphitheatre in D.C. this weekend. Here is the trailer teasing the filmed version of the stage show, which is available on DVD.
The Scottish play, directed by Aaron Posner and Teller, is one of the experiences Jill and I credit for Ben's desire to become a performer. Only 10 years old, surrounded by seasoned actors who had much more experience, he soaked up everything like a sponge. The production was outstanding, spooky, and unforgettable — for more reasons than one.
Students participating in Metropolitan School of the Arts' summer ballet intensive camp performed in a 45-minute showcase for parents and friends at the end of the first week of classes on Friday, August 15. The students performed several excerpts from famous works as well as some lesser-known numbers.
You can see more photos by visiting my Facebook album here. You also can purchase any of the photos from the event by visiting my E-store. Just click on the link at the top right corner of this page.
In honor of this week's "Newsies" casting announcement, it's time to share this tribute that Emma choreographed and danced to in honor of her twin brother during the Fly performance. Shot on an iPhone, the quality is not the best, but you can see the beauty and genuine emotion that Emma brings to her dance, set to the song "Farewell."
Having Ben at home the past 14 months, after being away for almost four years, has been special for our family and especially for Emma. During the period when he was gone, she grew up, stepped out of his shadow, and became the independent, beautiful young woman we are fortunate to know today. When Ben returned, Jill and I noted several times that they were more "twin-like" than before he left in 2009.
I'm proud of all of my children, but Emma's performance — when we knew Ben was leaving but could not publicly announce it to the world — brought tears to my eyes. I'll never understand fully what it must be like to be in her shoes (or his, for that matter) but seeing this duet gave me some insight into how hard it is for them to be apart.
Watch it and you'll tear up, I promise. And you'll smile, too...
Ben and Emma performing part of the choreography to "Carrying the Banner" from "Newsies." Emma more than holds her own in this one. She used the video to announce her brother's casting in the national tour of the show.
The quality of this video isn't great, but the content is. It's a final duet by Ben and his frequent dance partner, Courtney Lapenta, during Fly last month.
The two choreographed and performed to "Mercy" by the Dave Matthews Band. It was a tribute to Melissa Dobbs — the founder of the dance studio my kids attend — and her husband, Matt Armstrong.
Melissa and Matt celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary this past month. "Mercy" was the song performed at their wedding. At summer's end, Ben and Courtney left Metropolitan School of the Arts — he's off to do the "Newsies" tour and she's going to college in California — and Fly was their last opportunity to perform together.
Melissa asked the kids to do the duet as a surprise to her husband. This is what they came up with. Think of it as scenes from a relationship, set to dance.
You can see one of the photos I took during the performance in my Art & Dance 3.3 post.
One last plug for "Footloose." This was a huge undertaking — shooting and editing more than 2,500 photos taken over four days. The pictures are available for purchase and/or download in low- and high-res format at my e-store.
If you'd like to take a visual tour, check out this video that I compiled of stills from the Sunday performances. I think you'll enjoy it...
Metropolitan School of the Arts' production of "Footloose" had an unprecedented number of boys participating in the annual production. These stills, set to a video slideshow, pay tribute to their performance.
You can purchase these photos at my e-store. Photos are priced at a reasonable $2 each for 4x6 images, plus shipping, and 5x7, 8x10, and 8x12 prints are also available. You also can download low-res images suitable for sharing on social media as well as high-resolution images.
Ben in mid-air during Footloose — June 2014
Below is a video of stills set to music and highlighting performances from the Saturday show. You can purchase any of the stills at my e-store.
A video focusing on Sunday's show will be posted tomorrow.
This is from a photo shoot at Williford Farms in White Plains, Md., of the principal cast of the Metropolitan School of the Arts' production of "Footloose," to be performed June 28-29, 2014 at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Va.
I took the stills and compiled a video essay, "Footloose: A Day on the Farm," that is being used to promote the show. The video is on YouTube, but you can watch it below.
I was there on the first day of school, and I dropped off a child on the last.
In between, I had an opportunity to follow the students at the Metropolitan School of the Arts Academy with my camera, chronicling the first year of an exciting new venture that has impacted all of our lives.
The result is this video, titled “Year One.”
Our kids have taken classes at MSA (formerly the Metropolitan Fine Arts Center) since they were in kindergarten. The studio has been and remains a huge part of our children’s lives; Ben and Emma continue to dance there and Kate works in their after-school childcare program. The instruction and life skills they all have received at MFAC/MSA is second to none.
Last year, MSA founder Melissa Dobbs decided to open a private performing arts high school at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton. Despite its fine public schools, Northern Virginia is sadly lacking when it comes to instruction that has a performing arts focus, and I believe Dobbs is a true visionary.
In part because I was between jobs, and partly because Ben and Emma are satisfied with the mix of academics they receive in school and at MSA, we did not enroll them in the academy. However, I have been working with MSA for much of this year as a freelance photographer, taking promotional pictures at the studio, in various performances, and at the Academy. You can see many of those photos on my Facebook photo page.
As a journalist, I’ve always wanted to follow a particular group of people for an extended period and chronicle some aspect of their lives. What I realized several weeks ago was that I had done just that with the MSA students, a group of high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who come from all walks of life.
From that first day in September, when I asked them to line up for the standard class picture and was rewarded with a batch of nervous, sleepy smiles, to the final showcase performance last weekend, I saw a group of teenagers grow tremendously in the areas of acting, singing, and dance. They come from a variety of backgrounds and places, some with great talent in one area and no training in another. What they have in common is a desire to grow.
One of those students, in fact, is growing up with us in our home now.
Earlier this year, we took in Jeremiah Porter, one of Ben’s friends from New York, who started attending the Academy during the second semester. Jeremiah was a student at New York’s Professional Performing Arts School, but he has not had the training at the level that MSA offers.
Bringing a fourth teenager into our home is not something any of us thought we’d do, but we’ve navigated the transition successfully. In some respects, we’re paying it forward because so many people helped us when Ben was in New York and on the road.
What’s interesting, at least to me, is that New York — especially Manahattan — offers so many chances for performers, but it can be very daunting to find a focused environment if you don’t know where to get the necessary training. Places like Broadway Dance Center, while providing terrific instruction, are more a la carte, whereas MSA offers a continuous curriculum that starts in September and ends in June. And because a number of MSA kids want to eventually move into a career that will take them to places like New York, they are more likely to be focused here than if they were already in the city.
Jeremiah, who came into performing somewhat late, recognized that MSA offered him that opportunity for focus, although he did not understand at the beginning how difficult it would be to immerse himself as fully as the school and studio require. Our goal was to give him the chance; it was up to him to take advantage of it.
And fortunately, he has. After those initial transitional bumps, he’s become part of the extended reality show that is our life, and we’re happy that he’ll be returning to the academy and our home again in the fall.
MSA has gone through a few transitions of its own during the first year, something you also might expect given that it’s a start up that was just a dream about 18 months ago. But it has been fascinating to watch and follow that evolution, to see the various kids grow with the school. I feel fortunate to have been a small part of it.
Enjoy the photos and the video…
Ben was a co-star on the second episode of "Veep," the Emmy Award-winning comedy featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He played Walt, the stepson of the vice president's communications director, Mike (Matt Walsh), who recently married. Kathy Najimy is his mother in the scene, which included another series regular, Timothy Simons (Jonah).
The video is of the scene that aired and a brief snippet that was cut from the episode due to time constraints. The deleted scene is on HBO-GO.
"Veep" films all of its episodes before they start airing, which means Ben will not be featured again this season. This episode, in fact, was filmed last fall outside Baltimore. We hope Ben willl be cast again next year; the show recently was renewed for a fourth season by the pay network.
The photo above is one of my favorites of my oldest son, Nicholas, performing with Vital Signs in concert at Elon University. Nicholas just was re-elected to a second term as president of the growing a cappella group, which is hosting its first benefit for children with Down's Syndrome in February 2014.
Below is a video of Nicholas' beautiful solo at his fall concert. Here, he performs "Pompeii" by the group Bastille.
Metropolitan School of the Arts held its winter concert Saturday, with students performing in four shows at West Springfield High School. The above photo is from the Contemporary 6 class, which performed Tiffanie Carson’s choreography to “I’ll Keep You Safe” by the group Sleeping at Last. The class performed the number — one of the most beautiful I've seen in nearly a decade of watching Metropolitan dancers — during all four shows.
My photos from the performance are in an album on my Facebook page.
Here is a video as well.
The story goes something like this…
In early 1955, my 14-year-old father went over to his girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. A few minutes after he arrived, and was sitting on the girl’s living room couch with her parents in the other room, the phone rang in the hallway.
It was my grandmother, and she wanted to talk to Dad.
My father was mortified — the Methodist version of teenage guilt in the 1950s — but dutifully went to pick up the phone.
“Turn on the Louisiana Hayride,” my grandmother said. “I just heard this guy perform and he’s coming back in a little while. He’s going to change everything.”
The “guy” was Elvis Presley.
Music has always been a huge part of my life, even though I can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument. A good song, no matter the genre, appeals to my artistic sense as a writer and storyteller. Finding a compelling, talented new artist or group brings with it a sense of discovery and wonder.
I have a profound appreciation for artists of any kind who are willing to lay it on the line for their passion. This is true for my children, and is one reason I believe so strongly in being honest through my writing and imagery.
I get my love and appreciation of music from my father and paternal grandmother, who died in 1989 at age 83. In addition to being a packrat and chronicler of life, my grandmother was an explorer when it came to music. When she was almost 80, I came home from one day and found her watching “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 documentary of The Band’s final concert. She thought it sounded interesting, although she had trouble understanding Bob Dylan.
Grandmama could whistle a symphony or add a jazz-like hum to a country song. She loved to sing at church, and her cousin Bessie told me she loved to dance, especially during her single years in the 1920s that she rarely discussed.
In the 1950s, the radio was always on, and Saturday nights — with few exceptions — were devoted to the Louisiana Hayride. The show was broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, 60 miles from where my grandparents lived in East Texas.
For more than a decade, the Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry in importance among country and western singers. Elvis, who famously was rejected by the Opry for being too, well, out there, was signed by the Hayride and made numerous appearances on the show from late 1954 until December 1956.
Presley, as we all know by now, was different, and it was during this time that his fusion of country and western, gospel and rhythm and blues became early rock and roll. His presence and influence on teens, especially during the late 1950s, was undeniable. It certainly had a lasting effect on my father, who collected Presley’s music along with every other artist from that era that he could find.
Dad, especially in his later years, seemed to regress to his teenage days in his tastes. When I was growing up, his eclectic record collection was housed in a six-foot wide, coffin-like wooden cabinet that held the somewhat flimsy turntable on the right side.
The albums included some of the era’s more modern music — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, even AC/DC and Aerosmith — along with Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtracks and a little too much Mario Lanza and Johnny Mathis for my taste. After my Grandmother died, Dad begrudgingly moved into the CD era, but would still turn back to obscure 45s by singers and doo-wop groups from the late 1950s.
Still, Elvis seemed to top them all.
The first concert I remember attending — at age 6 — was an Elvis show with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle at Hofheinz Pavilion in November 1971. Three years later, for my second concert, the mom of a childhood friend took two of us to Rodeo Houston to see Presley perform before a then-record crowd of more than 44,000 in the Astrodome.
The first album I owned was the Camden budget release (remember those?) “Burning Love and Hits from His Movies, Vol. 2,” purchased in part because my father loved the single. (The movie cuts were not the best, hence the budget release.)
Like my dad, I was hooked by “Burning Love,” the last single Presley placed in the top 10 before his death, but sadly, I didn’t realize that publicly declaring my love for the song was cause for me to lose cool points on the elementary school playground. (In my defense, I was smart enough to know that jumpsuits are definitely not the fashion statement any second-grader wants to make, no matter the era.)
Several months later, seeing my growing interest in Elvis and wanting to bond with his son, Dad took me to Parker Music on Ninth Avenue in Texas City, thumbed through the albums on the rack, and pulled out Presley’s 1956 self-titled debut. He bought it that day and later gave it to me as a present.
To really understand what made Elvis the king, he said, I needed to go back to the very beginning.
1956 was a crazy year for the former truck driver from Memphis, between constant touring, multiple (and controversial) television appearances, and making the movie “Love Me Tender.” Even if you’re not a fan, watch the documentary Elvis ’56 and you'll see how that one year changed everything, both for Presley and for those who listened to him.
By year’s end, Presley had outgrown the Hayride, although he had one more show in his contract. The show, held at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds on Dec. 15, was attended by tons of screaming fans, including my father and then 51-year-old grandmother.
The story, like one about my grandmother’s Presley discovery, was somewhat legendary in my family. My grandmother went for the music; my dad went to look for girls. Because neither drove, my grandfather begrudgingly took them, complaining all the way.
My grandmother recalled the show fondly, although it was tough to hear amid the screaming. And apparently my dad found the girl, because her name is written inside the 50-cent program that my grandmother bought.
We still have the program, which would be worth about $200 except for the girl’s printed address in ink on the center spread, but my father could never remember what happened to her.
Twenty-one years later, on Aug. 16, 1977, I was sitting in the waiting room at the Tyler Chest Hospital when we got the news. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema and COPD that killed him four years later. My aunt and I were waiting for my grandmother to bring him to the lobby.
“Elvis is dead.”
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do or say. My grandmother and aunt took me to the Gibson’s in Longview that evening and we purchased “Moody Blue,” the blue LP that was Presley’s last major release. There were some decent songs on it, but it was nothing like the stuff I heard from 1956.
Over the years, I’ve remained an Elvis fan. If you can sift through the dreck, and there is plenty of that, you will find so much music that is worthwhile. In the earliest sides, going back to the beginning, you can see the influence that continues to resonate today.
There is so much to choose from, and it has all been packaged and repackaged so many times that it’s tough to find out where to start. But a couple of years ago, I found something special.
The five-disc box set, “Young Man With the Big Beat,” features the complete 1956 masters, as well as alternate takes and three short live shows, one of which was previously unreleased. That show happens to be the Dec. 15 concert at the Hirsch Youth Center in Shreveport.
The audio quality is not the best, but every once in a while, I put it on my CD player, close my eyes, and am transported to the auditorium with my dad and grandmother.
And that means more than you know.
About the Photos:
Top: Cracked plexiglass on top of the Elvis picture at Sun Studios in Memphis, September 2013. Upper middle: Photos taken of late 1920s programs saved by my grandmother. Middle: Photo of Presley in Dallas is part of an exhibit at Graceland, his Memphis mansion. Lower Middle: Elvis-related memorabilia collected by my family over the years. Bottom: The original 1956 program and the cover of RCA's "Young Man With the Big Beat."
Ben had a rare day off recently, so he decided to make a movie with Emma. Enjoy.
Ben's performing life in a 2-minute video (my present to him for his Broadway debut). It should be obvious quickly why he's here — performing is in his DNA.
One drawback to taking so many pictures is that, in this enhanced period of self-employment, I don't have time to edit them.
Much of this summer has revolved around my kids and their activities, which means I've been watching a lot of dancing. First it was Emma in "Mirror, Mirror," then it was musical theatre camp, then the two-week dance intensive known as Fly.
This shot, of Ben in mid-air, is from the annual performance that ends Fly, which ended almost two weeks ago. Perhaps you saw the rehearsal video from the performance that I posted earlier; if not, I've uploaded a better version from the performance.
The problem with editing the Fly pictures is that I took too many — a common problem when shooting a dance event — and had to edit them down to get the best. And because I don't like to take photos of just my children, I had to make sure the entire event was represented, much to their chagrin.
You can find the result here in the album on my Facebook photography page. In the end, I think it worked out just fine.
With apologies for the video quality — it was shot on an iPhone from a considerable distance — I wanted to share this special moment. Here, Ben is performing a solo to "Awake My Soul," a Mumford and Sons song covered by my oldest son, Nicholas. The performance was during "Fly," an annual summer camp that all of my children have participated in at some point. Nicholas' vocal was recorded last summer at Elon. The choreography, which has some familiar elements to "Billy Elliot" fans, was by Ben.
In our house, we don’t do dinner. We do dinner theater. Rarely can any of our kids get through a meal without some sort of visual demonstration or performance.
For two weeks this summer, we heard snippets of Ben singing “I’m Not That Smart,” his musical theatre camp solo that's from “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” (And yes, he performed a section of it one night during dinner.)
Here is the performance from the final day of musical theatre camp. The video, shot on my phone, is not the greatest, but you can see our son’s comedic timing in full display. And BTW, the last notes of the song are supposed to be botched; Ben, ever the perfectionist, didn’t like that, however.
This video, shot during the Boston run of "Billy Elliot," features Ben explaining his love for dance, what has inspired him, and what it feels like to be the title character in the show.