- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005


By John Lahr

Overlook, $27.95, 336 Pages


When John Lahr was a boy, he could not understand how his famous father, Bert, kept audiences alive with laughter, but the minute he “hit the wings the person who was bellowing and madcap and powerful on stage deflated like a tire.” In his new book, “Honky Tonk Parade,” Mr. Lahr sheds some light on this perplexing question. The book is a compilation of 14 profiles of show people which Mr. Lahr has written for the New Yorker.

The profiles are not new, yet they remain fresh. They are filled with insight and a generous lack of judgment. Each profile is the result of many hours of research and interviews with the subject and his or her family, friends, colleagues and companions. Each reads like a jewel-like mini-biography.

The reader is introduced to the dreams, ambitions, motivations, fears, triumphs and failures of each individual, be it Kenneth Tynan’s brilliance and self-loathing; Richard Rogers’ extraordinary musical prowess and his imperfections as friend, father and husband; Dame Edna’s need to avenge herself on her middle-class Australian miseducation at school; or Yip Harburg’s belief in the common man. All these show people are motivated by ambition and a powerful desire to succeed. Yet in almost all of them there exists the dichotomy of the outgoing public persona and the private, withdrawn inner self.

The longest profile is dedicated to Dame Edna Everage, that wonderfully zany character, the “dandy of delirium,” and her creator, Barry Humphries. Perhaps Dame Edna represents the greatest divide between the onstage persona of the outrageous Australian every-wife and the off-stage ladies’ man. Mr. Humphries grew up in Melbourne, “a church-going and well-bred young man,” who dreamed of becoming a magician as a child.

Dame Edna owes her paternity in part to Mr. Humphries’ disgust with “the blinkered conformity” of his school and teachers. She “originated as a totem of Humphries sense of displacement both from his milieu and from his parents.” Mr. Humphries’ creativity lies in his ability to make Dame Edna funny, rather than vindictive.

Dame Judi Dench, loved and encouraged by her family, began acting as a young girl and has always been successful. She does not read scripts in advance; she relies on instinct; she communicates warmth, “a palpable, deep-seated generosity.” Mr. Lahr describes her as a “deceptively sedate, suburban figure,” when in fact “she trolls her turbulent Celtic interior, a vast tragic-comic landscape that ranges between despair and indomitability.”

Yip Harburg, “the invisible man of the American musical,” was born in 1896, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in New York’s Lower East Side.

Harburg wrote “songs that moved Americans and gave words to their inarticulate longings and fears. He called himself variously, ‘a wheeler-dealer in stardust,’ ‘a rainbow hustler,’ and a revolutionist.’”

Mr. Lahr writes that the “theme of freedom — sexual, social, intellectual — runs through Harburg’s oeuvre and forms a kind of emotional signature to his work.” He wrote one of the first antiwar musicals (“Hooray for What?”); the first all-black Hollywood musical for general audiences (“Cabin in the Sky”); the first musical about feminism {“Bloomer Girl”), and his “Finian’s Rainbow” was the first fully integrated Broadway musical. Harburg wrote the lyrics to such classics as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” “April in Paris,” “Last Night When we Were Young.”

Harold Arlen, with whom he wrote 111 songs and collaborated on the score of the “Wizard of Oz,” called him the Lemon-Drop Kid. In 1934, Harburg and Arlen moved out to Hollywood. “By 1943, Harburg had grown disenchanted with being what he called ‘a metro-gnome for Metro-Goldwyn Nightmayer’” and returned to Broadway.

According to Mr. Lahr, he “was everywhere and nowhere, which is the fate of the spirit. Harburg, who set his wit against all injustice, gallantly tried to laugh even this one away: Mozart died a pauper, / Heine lived in dread, / Foster died in Bellevue. / Homer begged for bread. / Genius pays off handsomely — /After you are dead.”

Bazz Luhrmann, the Australian director of “Moulin Rouge” and “Strictly Ballroom,” “is the visionary, the director, the huckster who pitches the product.” His wife describes him as “the fire” whose productions “conjure a garish, whirligig world that is almost giddy with a combination of doom and delight.”

Actor Laurence Fishburne’s favorite word is “swing” “to describe the nuanced and dynamic force that he brings to his performances.” “The defining quality in Mr. Fishburne’s demeanor — and his performances — is stillness, a trick he says he learned from watching Clark Gable. His ability to meet the world without noise sharpens both his focus and the power of his presence.” Mr. Fishburne has been acting since he was 10 years old, growing up with his strong-willed and demanding mother, Hattie, in Brooklyn.

In the 1960s Mr. Fishburne got his chance and made his mark in the New Federal Theatre production of Charles Fuller’s play “In My Many Names and Days.” He never went to college or drama school. “I learned how to improvise from [Dennis Hopper] and from [Francis Ford] Coppola, because Coppola didn’t give me any words [in Apocalypse Now],” he says.

Mr. Lahr explains that to see clearly “the full audacity — of [Cole Porter’s] lightness and brightness — one must view him against the dowdy gravity of the America into which he emerged, in 1932, a country lumbered by the Depression, Prohibition, and social upheaval… . At a time when prosperity was imperiled, Porter … personified the myth of American abundance.”

British dramaturge Kenneth Tynan “[w]ith his hard-won intellectual precocity and his rebellious instincts … was the old Brit and the new rolled into one lanky, well-tailored package.” For his ninth Christmas, Tynan asked for and received 100 books from his parents. He spent three years at Oxford, became the drama critic of the Observer at age 27, and later became in-house critic and advisor to the National Theatre for 10 years. Tynan was not a loveable figure, despite his brilliance, and as he grew older, so did his “sense of regret and self-loathing.”

Included in “Honky Tonk Parade” are playwrights August Wilson and Tony Kushner. Wilson’s “characters often scrabble desperately, sometimes foolishly, for an opportunity that rarely comes. But when the opportunity knocked for Wilson, he seized it with a vengeance,” writes Mr. Lahr.

Tony Kushner is a “purveyor of what [Kushner himself] calls ‘brave art’ — ‘the best sense we can make of our times.’” Mr. Kushner was born into a musical family “dominated by an atmosphere of regret, disappointment, and, in the case of his older sister, murderous rage.” Mr. Lahr explores Mr. Kushner’s plays and his personality with intelligence.

Directors Mira Nair and Ang Lee (because he “doesn’t exude any of the imperialism of self associated with most directors of his stature, he is sometimes difficult to read”) are included, as are comedian Bill Hicks and composer Richard Rogers.

Mira Nair, the Indian film maker who made “Monsoon Wedding” and “Mississippi Masala,” “conveys on screen something that is palpable in Ms. Nair herself, what the Punjabis call masti — an intoxication with life,” writes Mr. Lahr. “Her approach is sometimes oblique: she doesn’t make political films, but she does make her films politically. Her gift, to which ‘Monsoon Wedding’ attests, is to make diversity irresistible.”

Comedian Bill Hicks “thinks against society and insists on the importance of this intellectual freedom as a way to inspire others to think for themselves.” A frequent guest on the Letterman show, Mr. Hicks “refers to the television set as Lucifer’s Dream Box.”

He’s a Texan, a maverick who “continues to mythologize his parents and his relationship with them, in comic routines that spoof their Southern propriety,” even though in reality he is grateful to them and stays in touch. “Hicks, like all comedians, picks at ancient wounds to keep open the soreness that feeds his laughter and to demonstrate his mastery over the past.”

Through his profiles, John Lahr has unlocked the secret of his father’s dual personality. For us, the readers, he has elegantly opened a fascinating world which sparkles with words that “pop and twist and deliver … little [unexpected] surprises.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer.

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