It was a fun con overall. I caught up with too many people to mention. However, I do think it's kind of funny that I went into Boston to bump into my next door neighbor.
My panels went well. I only had four so I wasn't busy as many people I knew. Seeing how harried they were, I'm glad I only had the four.
Time Travel panel 1 strayed seriously off-topic and I was mostly "the guy who injected examples to support or refute other people's points." However, I pretty much always remembered either the author or the title but not both. :(
The "30 Years of Mac" panel had a guy who was determined to talk about how horrible the Mac is. This might have worked out better for him except he never gave the impression that he'd ever seen, much less used, a Mac before. It's easy to hate something you have absolutely no experience with or knowledge about. It doesn't make your opinion particularly credible though. That said, the panel was not a love fest. It was a nice overview of Mac history, the lowlights and the highlights. I do think it's unfortunate that programming felt the need to put a person who knew nothing about the Mac on the panel, presumably for "conflict." A bunch of Mac-knowledgeable people can generate plenty of conflict all by themselves, thank you. Then we wouldn't have had to waste time correcting the misapprehensions of the guy who doesn't know anything about the Mac.
"Constructing Languages" was a lot of fun. Considering it was about linguistics and programmed opposite the Masquerade, way more people showed up for the panel than I'd expected. We had a knowledgeable audience to go with the knowledgeable panel. Certainly, the audience had read more linguistic SF than I have. Both the moderator and I lapsed into linguistic jargon at one point or another. However, we defined each other's terms so it all worked out.
The panel I moderated, Time Travel panel 2, went pretty smoothly. I had terrific panelists so it was easy to make sure everyone had space to say interesting things. More importantly, they all said things that led to interesting follow-up questions. However, perhaps asking whether time travel could be considered the reification of non-linear narrative in a way similar to how many fantastic elements are a literalization of metaphor was a step too far. That question didn't go well. I'd used Ted Chiang's "The Story of Your Life" as an example and no one else on the panel had read it. Also, "reification" may have been a bit much. Fortunately, by then, we had about 20 minutes left and I could throw to the audience. Yay!
[Oh, Justine Graykin and I got to make our pitch for a non-white, non-male Doctor. Hey, any show with a time machine as a standing set is totally on topic for a panel about time travel. However, I kept the DW discussion brief since the show has its own panels at Arisia.]
I went to a bunch of interesting panels. During "The Unheard Voices of SF/F/H", I was glad to hear the panelist give Tor.com credit for becoming a friendlier venue for traditionally unheard voices. As an example, they mentioned Ann VanderMeer and, in the the process, "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere." At this point, the panelists realize I'm in the audience. They point me out and ask me if they can talk about how awesome the story is.
This past weekend was the US Figure Skating Nationals. Lots of fun. The US has a bunch of really talented skaters. I'm also stunned at how knowledgeable the audience was. Also, I want a skate bug for home use. Given the current judging system, running technical commentary is extremely useful. It did lead to an anxious moment, though, when I realized what Jason Brown's technical mark had to be and wondered whether the judges would give him the (deserved) presentation marks that would keep him ahead of Max Aaron. (They did, BTW.)
This next weekend is Arisia. This year, I'm on program. Actually, not only am I on program, I'm moderating. Wish me luck.
Time Travel, Therapy, & the Quest for Redemption Faneuil Literature Sat 1:00 PM 01:15
Time travel allows writers to explore a fundamental human longing: to change what cannot be changed. Protagonists go back in order to fix the crucial moments that shaped their lives. Usually these attempts backfire - sometimes the past does not allow itself to be changed, sometimes changing the past creates a new range of problems, and sometimes changing the past does not cure the ache in the protagonist's soul. Is time travel a parable for the therapeutic mining of our personal histories?
30 Years of Macintosh Computing Alcott Science Sun 2:30 PM 01:15
Thirty years ago during the Super Bowl, in one of the most memorable televised commercials of all time (directed by Ridley Scott!), Apple Inc.'s Steve Jobs announced to the world the release of a new kind of personal computer: The Macintosh. The Mac has developed a rabidly loyal fanbase, has become a favorite among musicians and graphic designers. Come reminisce and discuss one of the most radical developments in the history of modern technology with Arisia.
Constructing Languages Independence Writing Sun 8:30 PM 01:15
Many SF/F worlds have their own languages, Elvish and Klingon being two of the best known. How do you create languages that make sense? From etymology to grammar to culture, there are many aspects to consider. How does a language reflect the identities of its speakers? How do we make our languages and vocabularies believable?
Looking Forward to Last Thursday Faneuil Writing Mon 10:00 AM 01:15
There have been myriad methods of portraying the time travel story. What specific challenges arise for the writer in portraying conflict and character development in chronologically displaced setting? Are some methods of time travel methods easier to portray and keep consistent than others? What of non-linear story narratives? Is the ending the best place to start? Can a time traveler be anything but an unreliable narrator?
At the start of 2013, knowing that I'd be nominating for the Hugos in 2014, I decided that whenever I read anything where I thought, "In a sane universe, this ought to be nominated for something", I'd jot it down. That way, when the silly season started, I'd have my ballot all done. (As it has turned out, I'm now also eligible to nominate for the Nebulas but I hadn't thought about that at the time. Fortunately, their eligibility windows now line up.)
Of course, it hasn't worked out that way. Being diligent about this list hasn't been my top priority. For example, I remember a Charlie Jane Anders time travel story in Asimov's that I really liked that I now realize I never jotted down. There have to be other stories that I don't remember which ave been similarly lost. I've made no attempt to read everything published this year. I read maybe one eligible novel this year and only a handful of novellas. Most of my reading has been short stories and novelettes but there are major venues still sitting on my book pile, in my ereader or in my Instapaper queue. (One has to wonder how the valiant editors who compose Year's Best anthologies do it.) Even with glaring omissions, my list has enough short stories to fill several ballots. So much for making it easier for me to nominate the stories I love.
Anyway, these are the stories I really enjoyed this year that I remembered to jot down. They reflect no particular order except when I had the chance to jot them down. Comments or the lack thereof reflect only how much time I had free when I added the story to my list:
In 2013, I narrated one story for Pseudopod, a couple for EscapePod and one for Lightspeed. Remember people, always back up your work in multiple physical locations and on multiple media. 1AM may not be your finest hour for editing audio, especially if you've already been editing non-stop for at least the past 6 hours or so. Sometimes, rather than trying to save it in the edit, you're better off recording it again.
As for podcasts of my own work, EscapePod narrated "Thirty Seconds from Now" This was originally published in Boston Review, Sept/Oct 2011.
I published two short stories in 2013:
Some things happen to me at every con I go to. If you know me, you know which things those are. Let's just say that LonestarCon 3 was not an exception and move on.
I didn't spent much time attending panels or readings. The panel I was on was fun though. I got to sit next to an astronaut, Cady Coleman, who must be one of the coolest people in the universe! So glad that I got the opportunity to do the panel. Thanks, Ann.
It was great to catch up with a bunch of people in person who I, otherwise, only get to talk to electronically. There are too many to mention, but I was especially happy that Ann VanderMeer could take time out of her overloaded schedule to come and that I got to spend some time with her. Also, party hopping with Nick Mamatas and Ellen Datlow(GoH!) was a lot of fun. I met a lot of people that I don't think I would have had the nerve to introduce myself to.
It was great to meet a bunch awesome people whom I hadn't known before this con and hope to know better over time. As I've said, as time has gone on, my con experience has gotten more and more social. I have to thank Emily Jiang for helping me navigate this.
Anyway, thoughts in no particular order:
I screwed up my elbows a couple months back. Since I know what's good for me, I'm being disciplined and lifting until they heal. Not lifting always makes me grouchy. Carrying luggage didn't help my elbows one bit but, otherwise, being on vacation did. (I'm still trying to figure out how to avoid stressing my elbows in real life.) Hopefully, I can go back to lifting in the next month… or I may go mad.
I've met my fan! I.e., that person who didn't know me, who didn't mistake me for someone else, and who both knows and likes my work. Also, some folks had actually heard of me when I introduced myself.
Someone else wants me to do more narration for Lightspeed. I'd love to but, of course, it's not up to me. If anyone wants me to do more Lightspeed narrations, the right person to inform is the talented and sonorous Stefan Rudnicki.
I melted into a puddle when I realized the hand I was shaking was Steven Brust's. Words, of course, instantly evaporated from my mind. Eventually, I did manage to eek out that I love his work, that I've read everything he's ever written and that I've prowled used book stores for the out-of-print work. He was extremely gracious about me making a spectacle of myself. Apparently, being told that someone loves your work never gets old. Who knew? (Teresa Nielsen Hayden's reaction to my implosion was a funny, but impossibly dry, “Oh, John, I didn't know that you're a Steven Brust fan.”)
Thanks to random con interaction, I now have the opportunity to translate the short fiction of a highly talented Chinese writer. This is a huge break for me and I'm really looking forward to the work.
I dropped my cellphone. It's not a big deal. The screen is fine. The back now has a web of cracks that radiate from the bottom right corner. The phone works just fine. I may still use this as an excuse to get a new one as I'm now off contract and the back is now in slow-motion decay.
A couple editors who publish awesome work suggested that I send stories to their markets. (Like a bunch of other things that happened during this con, this one has literally never happened to me before.)
The Wonderbook is truly full of wonder and very heavy. Can't wait for it to published.
People said “I saw you walking by and I was going to say hi but you looked like you needed to get somewhere right away” to me a lot during the con. Interestingly, none of those people have ever seen me when I actually was in a hurry. I've been told I walk quickly. (I actually never realized until I started doing improv. How you walk makes a difference for some exercises.) Seriously, I suspect a lot of people could walk much faster than I do if they wanted or needed to. (Because short legs.)
On the whole, I'm glad I went. I met for the first time or caught up with a lot of really cool people. Some business accidentally happened. Despite not getting a whole lot of sleep and spending a lot of time at parties, I managed to decompress some so this trip actually fulfilled it's intended purpose.
The plan right now is to go to London. Maybe not Spokane, but I hadn't planned on San Antonio either.
As I keep saying, my con experience keeps getting more and more social. This isn't necessary good or bad. Right now, it's just an observation.
Thursday night, some woman approached me and aggressively demanded my personal contact information. She refused to take no for an answer. She took it for granted that I spoken Mandarin. Her first words to me were "你講嗎?" Basically, the first thing she asked me, in Mandarin, was whether I spoke Mandarin but in a highly idiomatic way that assumes the object. (Basically, she asked me if I can speak.)
I found out later she spent the con doing the same to every person of Asian descent. Apparently, if you didn't speak Mandarin, she insisted that you actually must. *facepalm* When I realized she had a pattern of doing this I tried to find out her name because, ironically, she's one of those people who wear their name tag reversed.
I will point out that people assuming I speak Mandarin is not a uniquely Readercon experience. This has happened to me in the middle of Italy, for example.
Also, I had my obligatory "mistaken for Ken Liu" experience. This happens at every con I attend, even at cons that Ken doesn't attend. Of course, Ken was at Readercon, but so was Ted Chiang, Wesley Chu, and Curtis Chen, for example. I'm sure I haven't listed every Asian male at Readercon this year.
This is my first year on Readercon panels and they all went really well. Rose Fox and the rest of the program committee did an amazing job with selecting panels and stocking them with panelists. My fellow panelists all had interesting things to say.
"Nuances of Point of View" went well. We didn't get too far beyond taxonomy. However, panelists made some interesting points and Jim Kelly did his usual good job making sure everyone had a chance to express opinions.
The "Race As a Social Construct" panel could have been treacherous. On one hand, there's a lot of pseudoscience about race that needs to be refuted. That pseudoscience is unenlightening and ultimately harmful. On the other hand, the whole notion of "I don't see race" also needs to be refuted because that sustains the unequal status quo. I think we did a good job of threading the needle in no small part due to the pitch-perfect moderation of Andrea Hairston. As I've said many times, I want to grow up to be Andrea Hairston. She's made of awesome.
In retrospect, I may have over-prepared for the "Sociolinguistics in SF" panel. I had so many things that I wanted to say about areas that the panel never had time to explore. We did delve into lots of fascinating aspects of how language affects society and culture. If I had a quibble, it would be that the panel felt too short. I loved loved loved doing this panel.
Many more people showed up than I'd expected. (Standing room only!) So excited to see so many people as interested in this topic as I am.
As usual, I caught up with a lot of people I really like. I stayed at the con hotel this year. No lobby because it's under construction, but I did go to a bunch of parties. (And I help occupy a hallway!)
This Readercon has been quite inspiring. When I found out I was on the POV panel, my reaction to the panel description was to start a short story. Going to Readercon has inadvertently provided a lot of fodder for that story. We'll see how it turns out...
Obviously, I don't blog nearly enough. I may fix this some day. For now, here is my Readercon schedule:
[I'm especially thrilled that "Sociolinguistics and SF/F" made it onto the program.]
Thursday July 11
9:00 PM G The Nuances of POV. John Chu, Eileen Gunn, James Patrick Kelly (moderator), Darrell Schweitzer, John Stevens. When writing genre fiction, many authors begin with the approach that first-person point of view (POV) is useful for horror and heroic quests to bring immediacy to the story; third-person is necessary for epic world-building; and second-person is too confusing and best avoided. But POV is not so cut-and-dried. How can we deepen and expand our ideas of what constitutes POV to better understand and apply it in fiction? How can we broaden the discussion of POV to employ a more granular approach?
Suggested by John E.O. Stevens and Meriah Crawford.
Friday July 12
4:00 PM G Race as a Social Construct in Speculative Fiction. John Chu, Andrea Hairston (leader), Alaya Dawn Johnson, Daniel José Older, Vandana Singh. Race in speculative literature is often treated as a non-issue or grossly oversimplified: the Other is mapped onto elves and dwarves and aliens while all the human characters are white as milk, or human/Other hybrids inherit magical traits and boatloads of angst from their non-human parents in ways that parallel stereotypes about mixed-race people. How can we develop fantasy and science fiction that addresses race as a social construct (rather than a sub-species category), with all the messy complexities inherent in that?
Suggested by Gillian Daniels.
7:00 PM ME Sociolinguistics and SF/F. John Chu, Rose Lemberg (leader), Alex Dally MacFarlane, Anil Menon, Sabrina Vourvoulias. Sociolinguistics studies the ways in which language intersects with society. It looks at issues such as interactions of language with power, prestige, gender, hegemony, and literacy, bilingualism and multilingualism, translation, language birth, and language death to name but a few. We will look specifically at the kinds of tensions that are created in societies where people speak different languages or dialects depending on social and racial/ethnic status. We will also discuss genre books in which those topics have been explored, and consider sociolinguistics tools and concepts that may be useful to writers.
Proposed by Rose Lemberg.
Boskone was a blur. This is the first time I've done programming at any con so the time just flew by. Being on panels was actually a lot of fun. The topics were interesting and my fellow panelists had interesting things to say. I caught up with a bunch of friends I otherwise don't get to meet face to face. On balance, I had a fun time.
However, I've now heard about the harassment panel both via the internet and a friend who was there. I should point out that I did not attend that panel. I was interested but couldn't go. It was at the same time as the QUILTBAG panel and I was on the QUILTBAG panel. It didn't go unremarked at the QUILTBAG panel that the two were at the same time. Due to the overlap in interest, the scheduling forced some people into a hard decision on which panel to go.
My friend was literally shaking with fury over the harassment panel. For this and other related reasons, she may never go to Boskone again. Another friend called it "Arisia for old people" (after which we went to the net to study up on the history of Boskone and Arisia).
Ultimately, I can't really disagree with either of them. Boskone definitely has its issues. I'm sure the con committee is interested in addressing them. However, it does feel like the con gets smaller and smaller every year. (I have no idea if this is literally the case.) Boskone is actually one of the first cons I'd ever attended so I can't help but be concerned.
That said, I thought the panels I was on went well. The QUILTBAG panel explored how works that may not be problematic in isolation may read that way in conversation with the rest of the field. The Doctor Who panel was just plain fun. The genre in theater panel covered a surprising breadth and I got across in my contention that, in theater, genre is just another tool in the kit. Happily, I wasn't the only one who felt this way. I discovered that I could speak more cogently about translation than I'd expected. (Secretly, I don't know that I'm ready, but I'd love to do some for real some day.)
Some of the panels I attended were terrific. Lots of interesting people saying interesting things. The panelists on the "The Paper Menagerie" panel said unfailingly deep and insightful things about the story. It was a real education in why stories work and, in particular, why *that* story packs such a wallop.
Close to the end of the session, an audience member supplied the awkward, vaguely racist moment that I had spent much of the past hour fearing. He suggested that when a person of color or a woman wins an award, one should consider that the field was weak that year. Srsly? That story? Not to mention, for example, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"? I can't even begin to...
The panel called him on it. They were much nicer to him than I think I could have been. (Note that I'm saying this as a good thing. Incoherent foaming at the mouth rage is not generally useful.)
I witness (or am the recipient of) at least one awkward, vaguely racist moment at every con I go to. This was the only one I witnessed at Boskone this year. *shrugs*
Outside of that, someone approached Jennifer Pelland and me at the con suite on Sunday to tell us that both our names came up in the panel about who to nominate for the Hugo. This was immediately after my Doctor Who panel which I think he attended. Also, I always make sure that my name tag is clearly visible at all times. It's possible he might not have mistaken me for Ken Liu (who wasn't at Boskone but whose name surely came up and will surely and deservedly be nominated for at least one Hugo if not more). So that was cool. It's certainly a first.
Also, late Saturday night, a podcast I'm a big fan of queried me to narrate a story for them. I'm thrilled. Of course, I will narrate the story for them.
So, for me, Boskone certainly ended well. I also recognize though that some of my friends had a radically different con experience. *sigh*
I've been going to Boskone for years. This year, I'm on panels. This is the first time I'll be on any con panel. Wish me luck...
(Especially on Sunday where they've put me on 3 panels in 4 hours.)
Julia Rios (M), Joan Slonczewski, John Chu, Gillian Daniels
Colin Harris (M), Jennifer Pelland, John Chu, Jim Mann
Bob Kuhn (M), F. Brett Cox, James Patrick Kelly, John Chu, Gillian Daniels
David Anthony Durham (M), Jack M. Haringa, John Chu
I almost never do a state of year blog post because, for various reasons, state of year blog posts for me pretty much boil down to: I wrote a bunch of stories and I got rejected a lot.
So, in 2012, I wrote a bunch of stories and got rejected a lot.
So often, actually, that I'm on track to have the most rejections of anyone in my Clarion class for 2012. Yes, we have an informal contest. I'm at 49 rejections. The next most is at 44. Barring a sudden last minute surge, victory (for what it's worth) will be mine.
However, I also sold three stories: "Incomplete Proofs" to Bloody Fabulous, "Best of All Possible Worlds" to Asimov's (in the February 2012 issue, on newsstands now), and "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" to tor.com (forthcoming). In addition, I sold two reprints, both forthcoming. "Thirty Seconds from Now", originally published in Boston Review will be podcast at EscapePod and reprinted in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Time Traveler's Almanac.
I'm totally thrilled by all of these sales. I've sold more stories this year than every other year of my writing life combined. (Note: This isn't hard. Prior to this year, my only sale was to Boston Review in 2010. I'm just pointing out the anomaly.)
This is where I'm supposed to insert that inspirational message about how the way to double your success rate is to triple your failure rate. However, I've had years where I was rejected on average once a week before. During those years, I sold not a thing. I like to think the difference this time is that I've improved as a writer (not that I can't stand to improve more), but I can't really know. So, the inspirational moral is maybe more like "Don't get hung up on process. Just write the best stories you can."
[Oh, I think I'm supposed mention somewhere that "Incomplete Proofs" is eligible in the short story category of the Nebula, Hugo etc. (The other two stories are eligible for 2013.) Also, "Incomplete Proofs" started my Campbell clock. Not that I'm going to be nominated for the Campbell on the basis of one short story about gay mathematicians, in a world where proofs are reified into runway fashion, struggling over their relationship and whether P=NP. Surprise me. I dare you.]
I got to beta-read Ken Liu's translation of Liu Cixin's 三体 (which Ken has titled The Three Body Problem). For me, it was sort of like getting to translate with training wheels and a lot less pressure. I'm grateful for the opportunity and glad I got to read the translation and give him feedback. It was a terrific experience and, weirdly, I have to thank Facebook for making it possible. (This makes one more reason why I'm glad I went to Clarion since that's the reason why I'm on Facebook in the first place.)
I don't know when the translation will be published, but it'll be worth a look whenever it is. Ken's translation is both strikingly faithful and readable by someone without a grounding in Chinese history. The novel definitely has some cool stuff going on in it. (Note that it's a trilogy. Translations of the other two books are also in progress. I have the second book (in Chinese) but haven't read it yet.)
This year, I took Improv 402, aka Harold Boot Camp, at <a href="http://www.improvboston.com/>ImprovBoston</a>. That was a great class. I have a better understanding now of what it takes to improve a good scene. I also had the (unsurprising) realization that I will probably be improvising a lot of really awful scenes before I'm consistently good. I'm sure I have lots of problems as an improviser, but the one I'm focused on right now is getting myself on stage even if I have no idea what I will do. Part of me wants to know what I will be doing before I go on. (Yes, this may be missing the point of improv.) Part of being a good improviser is recognizing that it's okay to have no idea what you'll do when you get out there. You just need to be open to the possibilities you explore with your scene partner(s). Mostly, I need to stop worrying about it and just start doing it. Singing is fun as usual. The Brahms Requiem, The Bach St. John Passion, and Haydn's The Seasons earlier in the year. The Bach Magnificat and Cantata 191 recently. The Mozart Requiem and Orff's Carmina Burana to come. I'm still trying to get my voice under control. My voice is a little too high for many bass parts. It gets uncomfortable and I end up dropping out on some phrases because I just don't have the vocal power down there. It's also a little too low for some tenor parts. The tenor line of the Bach Magnificat actually fits beautifully in my voice. The same is true for The Seasons. However, the tenor line of Cantata 191 is a tad high and the tenor line of the Brahm's Requiem is just plain punishing. After the whole "Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg!" business, I'm relieved that the tenors are the fourth voice to enter the subsequent fugue. An entire page off before entering with "Herr, du bist würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre und Kraft." It starts on a high G, of course. I can get through the Brahms Requiem, but that seems like an awfully low bar. (In what may be a recurring refrain, high notes are much easier if I don't stress out over them and just sing them instead. For example, high As are actually fairly free and easy when I don't realize until after the fact that I'm singing them.) Every year, I tell myself to look for a voice teacher, but I haven't done it yet. It'd be nice to know where I belong. I don't really get to blog about the day job so I'll leave it at this: I've been placed with a lot more responsibility. It's still interesting. Not many people get to do the jobs they wanted when they were kids, so I'm glad I still have mine (both of them actually since writing is technically the night job). I still remember in 8th grade, we had to take this career assessment exam. You answered a bunch of questions about what you were good at and what you wanted to do. They reduced those answers to scores placed inside wedges of a hexagon. Each wedge represented some sort of skill or trait. Based on the wedges you scored the highest in, the guidance counselors would look up your ideal professions. The problem was that the test assumed everyone would score highest in adjacent (i.e., related) wedges. My two highest scores were in diametrically opposed wedges. I still have no idea if that said more about me or the exam. So, that's 2012. All things considered, it's gone well. With the writing, it's gone way better than I've had any right to expect.
Before I say anything about Pippin at the ART, I should probably list the mitigating circumstances: I thought Diane Paulus did a great job with Hair. Her Porgy and Bess annoyed me more than anything else. Pippin is probably closer to the former than the latter, so I was hopeful. However...
The woman next to me kept waving her hands as if she were a spectacularly arrhythmic conductor or maybe she thought she was calling cues. Either way, it was as if the show could not proceed without her doing something. The guy next to her apparently believed if he didn't sing along the show would be ruined. (The show actually asks you to sing along with to the chorus of "No Time at All." That's fine. He sang along whenever the fever struck him during the entire show.) The people behind me apparently know the guy playing Pippin. (They'd mentioned this before the show started.) They gave the "I'm in third row center and I know he can see me so I'm going to be especially appreciative" type of reaction. I'm all for people enjoying themselves at the theater, as long as it doesn't upstage the main event.
Also, I knew going in that the conceit here was that they would set Pippin in a circus. My bias is that I think this is a media studies major or theater major's idea of sophistication and edginess. It's what they do for their senior projects to prove they're real film or theater directors. Either that, or they re-set a work inside an insane asylum.
Pippin, however, has always been a play within a play. The story of Pippin's life is enacted by this wandering theater troupe. In this production, the wandering theater troupe is a circus. Setting Pippin inside a circus isn't intrinsically a bad idea. It's not like someone decided to do Juno (the musical based on Juno and the Paycock) as if it were performed by a circus troupe. If there is a musical (which isn't already set inside a circus) where this conceit could work, it's Pippin.
First, a quick overview of the changes for those who keep track of this sort of thing: Larry Hochman orchestrated for a pit of 12: 2 keyboards, violin/viola, cello, bass, guitar, 2 reeds, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussion. They cut "Welcome Home, Son." (I find it hard to care about this.) "War is a Science" has new lyrics so that it's now about how to keep the body count. "Glory" is missing at least one section (which shows up at the top of act two with new lyrics). In "No Time at All" has an extra time through the singalong chorus. i.e., Berthe doesn't interrupt us. "With You" has, I think, new dance music. "Spread a Little Sunshine" has a new dance arrangement. "Morning Glow" has a new ending, incorporating "Corner of the Sky", and makes reference to the fact that the show used to be a one act. (Yes, this means they cut the "hey, the crown doesn't fit" joke.)
There's now an entr'acte where the circus troupe does acrobatics. The missing part of "Glory" shows up at the top of act two with new lyrics about Pippin being king. "On the Right Track" has some minor changes, most notably the professions Pippin tries. "Extraordinary" has a bunch of new lyrics that, oddly, make it more ordinary. (I'm sad that the world of Pippin no longer has griffins.) They reconceived the finale, somewhat, about a decade ago. It now uses the lyrics on the cast album (which, AFAIK, were never used in the original production).
[Oh, and they honor the tradition of not listing "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" in the program. The Leading Player interjects during breaks but doesn't interrupt any of the singing. I think having the Leading Player literally say, "There isn't a song at this point in the show" is new though.]
No new songs. "Welcome Home, Son" is the only cut as far as I can tell. They even sang the rather stupid "Prayer for a Duck." I.e., if I haven't mentioned a song, it's because it seemed unchanged to me.
For all the changes, I can't really say whether the show is better or worse. It's just different. I guess some of the new lyrics are more pointed, perhaps more accomplished. They don't serve their dramatic function noticeably better than the originals though.
As for the conceit, I think it could have worked better. Ultimately, I don't know that it meshed well with the choreography. This production hired Chet Walker to choreograph in the style of Bob Fosse, and that he did. In some cases, he recreated the original choreography. The Manson Trio is explicitly credited in the program. In other case, it's a lovingly faithful pastiche. Portions of "Glory" looked like something out of Sweet Charity though.
Right away, though, there is a casting dilemma. The likelihood you can find people adept at both circus acrobatics and Fosse dance is pretty low. This cast has its acrobats and its Fosse dancers and the twain doesn't meet as often as one might like. Everyone does a little something but the serious dancing falls on only a few and the serious acrobats falls only a few others. They hide this well, but not well enough. (Part of this is so not their fault. One of the acrobats, well, mere mortals are not supposed to have bodies like that. I spent a lot of time watching what he was doing.)
The program has a short essay by Chet Walker where he talks about how Fosse's style "demanded that you interpret the written word and illustrate the lyric." That is, there was a meaning to everything he put on stage. Of the Fosse pieces that remained in the show, that was still true. However, the circus bits, while they were cool to watch, felt like distractions rather than anything that heightened the show in any meaningful sense. Some of the bits were breathtaking, but it felt like you could have replace any trick with any other breathtaking trick and the result would be the same. None of it was serving a dramatic function.
The result is rather than a synthesis of Fosse movement and circus movement, we got diluted Fosse. It's still a good time, but I was left wondering what the various feats of acrobatics had to do with anything. I'm not saying that circus acrobatics can't tell a story or further dramatic action. I'm saying that it didn't work for me in this case. Frankly, it might have worked better if they hadn't decided to choreography in the style of Fosse. If the acrobatics had been the entire movement vocabulary of the show, it might have worked better.
The cast, of course, is the dead giveaway that they have aspirations beyond a regional production. For the most part, they deliver.
Andrea Martin, as Berthe, only has the one scene and song, but she stops the show with it. She's amazing. Her part is too small to make it worth the price of the ticket, but it's also one of those few moments where the circus acrobatics really works.
Terrance Mann is terrific as Charlemagne. The gravitas and bluster are both there. It's a serious, grounded performance that's also utterly appropriate. He also makes a point of being someone completely different in the bits where he's merely a player in the circus.
Charlotte d'Amboise is ideal casting for Fastrada. Apparently, I only see her in roles where she has One Big Solo Dance Number. (I saw her Cassie in Chorus Line on Broadway.) She nails the role, doing just enough faux-innocent vamping that we get the idea, but not so much that we're annoyed.
Rache Bay Jones, as Catherine, is sweet and sympathetic. Her part, more than any other, has to function in both the inner story and the outer story at the same time. I.e., while the troupe is telling the story of Pippin, we are also getting a bit of the story of the troupe. The two intersect on her. Everything she does must make sense in the context of both stories and she succeeds admirably. (Incidentally, this is another place where the circus conceit actually works well, giving her a chance to build up the story of her position in the troupe in act one, in which she otherwise does not appear.)
Patina Miller is fine as the Leading Player. Unfortunately, she can't be a better Ben Vereen than Ben Vereen and his performance has been immortalized on DVD. Another reason, perhaps, not to choreograph in the style of Fosse. You'd think if the troupe is a circus, she'd be more of a ringmaster. However, her movement language is that Fosse and I'm surprised to realize how tightly choreographed the role is. The result is that she ends up looking like Ben Vereen's highly skilled and polished understudy. I have no idea what Patina Miller brings to the role.
Matthew James Thomas is my only disappointment. Unfortunately, he plays Pippin. His thin, high voice is fine for the part. (He may be the only Pippin in history to end "Extraordinary" on tonic rather than shouting the last note.) His scene with Terrance Mann at the end of act one plays probably about as well as it has ever been played. My only gripe with his performance is that it's whiny and makes Pippin look like an overentitled spoiled brat. (To be fair, he kind of is.)
Pippin, as he's written, is already a bit precious. For me, Matthew James Thomas overeggs the pudding. Whereas everyone else was giving these interesting, surprisingly nuanced performances, his felt one-note to me. I'm meant to be sympathetic to his yearning for something truly fulfilling and be disappointed along with him when everything he tries fails to live up to that. Instead, knowing that there was a revised ending, I was hoping he'd immolate himself in the fire. While that's an audacious acting choice to make me feel that way, I don't think it's the right one.
As for the revised ending, well, it's better than the revised ending to Porgy and Bess. (I saw that in early previews at the ART. By the time the production reached Broadway, they'd reinstated the original ending.) For me, it was an ending that worked better in theory than in practice. It satisfies the structure, but makes no sense.
[Pippin is 40 years old. I think the statute of limitations is up on spoilers. If you want to remain unspoiled, skip the next 7 paragraphs.]
Of course, Pippin is ultimately about this troupe of players who go around convincing young men to immolate themselves in this act of perfect fulfillment. The way they do this is they find someone idealistic enough to believe in such a thing, have him act the part of Pippin and by the end he's so broken down that he'll commit suicide. The musical is much more subtle than my description. So subtle, that some people fail to recognize that the story of Pippin's life is the play within the play. Also, the act of immolation is presented much more appealingly than I've have here.
In the performance we see, the suicide does not happen because the man playing Pippin and the woman playing Catherine have genuinely fallen in love with each other. It's through the recognition of that love that the man playing Pippin saves himself. (Yes, it's a bit trite, but no one claimed Pippin is great literature.) The Leading Player apologizes to the audience and says if there is someone who wants to experience, lights, sets, magic, and perfect fulfillment, they are right there in his mind. The entire cast except for Pippin, Catherine and her son essentially abandon the show. No lights, no set, no costumes (they've all been systematically stripped from the show as the finale proceeded) and finally no music.
The original non-ending ending was Pippin sings a bit a cappella, then Catherine asks Pippin if how he feels about his decision. He responds that he feels trapped, but that's not a bad ending for a musical comedy. Ta-da. Jazz hands. Curtain.
Yeah. That's rather unsatisfying.
The ending is musically more satisfying, but dramatically puzzling. That is, Pippin sings a bit a cappella. Pippin Catherine and her son go off stage. However, he comes back on and sings a bit of "Corner of the Sky" center stage. The circus troupe returns and we get one more reprise of the hit tune.
The implication is that the cycle has continued with the son taking the father's place. What has always been implicit with the show, that they would go on to find other young men to immolate is now explicit. That's fine. What makes no sense is that it's the son. You'd think the man playing Pippin and woman playing Catherine would march back on stage and drag the son away. Also, the son is way too young to play Pippin.
The show has been flirting with meta-theater all night. They make explicit references to the audience. They even crawl through the audience during the entr'acte. (The hot acrobat crawled over my armrest. I could have reached out to touch him but I decided he wouldn't appreciate that.) What would have both made sense and satisfy the dramatic structure is if some guy about the right age to play Pippin walked out of the audience onto center stage and started singing "Corner of the Sky" (and in the right key so that when the orchestra enters, there is no catastrophe.) Of course, no production can afford to hire a guy to sit in the audience for an entire show so that he can sing 8 bars of "Corner of the Sky" at the very end.
[Ok, I've stopped giving away the ending.]
On the whole, I enjoyed it. Pippin is an unfortunate vacuum within his own musical. (Even then, Matthew James Thomas does have his moments.) The cast that surrounds him is pretty awesome. If the circus bits feel like distractions more than anything else, they are at least breathtaking distractions. It's possible to go into the theater and have a really good time. (By contrast, I left Porgy and Bess somewhat grumpy.)
I've always liked the score and this cast does it justice. Right now, I'm hoping it continues to Broadway. That makes it more likely we'll get a cast album and the changes to the score will be documented.
[As an aside, as I was leaving, the conducting woman to my left was complaining about a cut song. For a moment, I thought I'd found the one person in the world who cares about "Welcome Home, Son." Nope, she was talking about "Kind of Woman," which Catherine did sing in the show. The conducting woman missed it entirely. Maybe she was too busy waving her arms around to keep the show in motion or something.]