The Influence of Movie Stars: Mae West and John Engtead Photos

MaewetitudeMy friend Christopher sent me a stack of books his grandmother had before she passed away. One of them was a thin book on the movies of Mae West. Immediately I recognized something about Cher in Mae West, a sort of Mae-Westitude. Did Cher borrowed anything from Mae West? It's an interesting idea. 

BreastdressFirst it was the dress from the movie I’m No Angel with the looks-more-revealing-than-it-is with its skin-tone material (so similar to Bob Mackie's dresses for Cher) and the cut-out breast plates similar to Cher's Take Me Home album cover.

Then it was Cher's Sadie Thompson but really Mae West impersonations (3:05).

It's also Cher's own sexual self confidence and personality.

Mae was said to be immediately recognizable and confident in her dresses, wigs and with her “insinuating sneer.”

Oh yes, and the wigs!

West is described in the book as tough, resilient, bold, self-mocking and good natured, all synonyms for Cher too.

Mae was also noted for her androgyny. Fans called her “Queen of the World.” The verb vamping was literally used in the book. So much in common.

Here are some other similar outfits...

Belle

Town

West

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



West in Belle of the Nineties / Going to Town / Go West Young Man 

Pretty provocative.

Mae West also had a multi-faceted career from vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood. And for those who bemoan Cher’s lack of commitment to any one facet of show business, Mae had something to say about that, too: "It wasn’t what I did but how I did it.” 

West was credited with bringing “an entirely new attitude toward sex on the silver screen. Before Mae, the Hollywood siren had been heavy and sinister, a wrench in spangles or clinging black velvet gown who lured men to their doom. With Mae, sex became breezy and humorous, a light-hearted activity without guilt, recriminations, or emotional involvement of any kind.”

I also recently found a book called “Movie Star Portraits of the 1940s” and there were some photos there by John Engstead. You might remember his photos of Cher photos circa 1975, when her promotional materials were black and white, very soft focus, glamorous and hearkening back to this very Hollywood era. 

Eng1 Cher-75

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black and whites with light and shadow, soft makeup similar to his work stars like Lana Turner, Marlene Dietrick and Loretta Young, whose photo with flowers reminded me of his portraits for Cher in 1975. 

Bergman-eng Bergman-eng Bergman-eng

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ingrid Bergman / Loretta Young / Lauren Bacall

There's something about these images that is not weak or vulnerable seeming, but headstrong…just straight on, and as the book states these images contain “allure and glamour imbued with intelligence.”


Cher Scholarship of 2019

Cher-joni Cher-joniThanks to all the Cher scholars out there who sussed these articles out, including super-scholars Michael, Tyler and Dishy. What an amazing year of Cher scholarship it's been. Lots of younger writers extolling the virtues of Cher!

The Guardian: It’s not always easy to be a Joni Mitchell Fan

Although not about Cher per se, Linda Grant has been a Joni Mitchell fan for over 50 years (I’m 5 years away from that and I'm sure some of you are more) and she's thinking about the death of her subject, how Mitchell doesn’t get the credit she deserves (Dylanesque credit, specifically).

She claims Mitchell has written her emotional biography. I don't feel that so much as the fact that Cher has been a soundtrack to the physical biography, and definitely an aesthetic biography.

But what I like about this article is mostly this well-written line:

“Perhaps the lifelong experience of being a fan, an admirer, an acolyte or a student of an artist will turn out to have been a fluke, a small window of privilege, and from now on careers will burn up in a year or two, the experience fleeting for the adorer and the adored alike. I don’t think she knows how much she’s venerated. Or maybe she knows and it doesn’t matter. It fulfils nothing. It makes no difference. She’s as alone with her music as we are.”

Thankfully Cher in her old age has not become bitter, her tone “autocratic, arrogant and angry.” I worry maybe Mitchell is bitter because she’s a music treasure not venerated as much as she should be, as much as Cher is starting to be, although their apples and oranges.

Remember their moment together living under the same roof with David Geffen while Mitchell was recording her classic Court and Spark album and Cher was recording and self-conscious of, Dark Lady? Giant ships crossing in the night.

Cosmo, a magazine I love more now than when I started reading it in the 1980s, publishes a lot of strong women stuff these days, interspersed with the celebrity fluff, including this interesting article “Decoding Beyonce and Jay-Z’s Relationship, It’s Complicated.” 

It reminds me of two things:

(1) Beyoncé does the accent thing and I never noticed that before. I wish Chér still did. Pink

(2) I wish this sort of laser-focus existed back in late 1972 through 1974 with Sonny & Cher were "decoupling," this decoding of the body positions: interlaced fingers, embraces.

This also reminds me of the ubiquitous breakout box of the 1980s and early 90s Cher magazine interviews, the list of Cher’s husbands and boyfriends with their pictures and maybe a sassy Cher quote about each of them. You couldn’t get through a magazine article without that breakout box of boyfriends. Thankfully, this era is over. But I can’t help but feel Katy Perry and Tyler Swift are in competition to have the longest breakout box of boyfriends to this day, as if they’re somehow modeling after Cher.

I recently watched a video of Pinks Funhouse Tour of 2009 and it’s got Cher’s Farewell Tour written all over it...although you might argue she does it even better. But it begs the question, remembering of those horrid reviews Cher got for “circus-i-fying” her concerts, why is this the style de rigueur now with young pop women. 

DarkhairedsCosmo also did a great essay this month by Shannon Carlin about the evil villains of Disney movies. Remember Cher’s lament that all the characters who looked like her in Disney movies were the evil women villains?

Carlin says “pretty princess types pitted against vengeful, aging antagonists. There’s no question who little girls are supposed to root for.” But aside from all the murderous plots and kidnappings,  “at least [they] take action instead of waiting around for someone [ahem, prince charming] to rescue [them].”

You could argue the raven-haired might have opted for that chance had they been offered it. Also, Cher was rescued by her prince and he did saver her from poverty (into the stratosphere)...but then what?

And that is the sublime part of the Cher story. Another important point: she never went villain. 

Carlin goes on to say that “complicated women are far more captivating than one-note damsels in distress. They’re just legit more human--even when they’re half octopus.” 

She then calls the Seven Dwarfs “groody men” which is entirely unfair. Happy and Bashful were real charmers. 

My favorite Disney movies was The Rescuers (because it was scary) and this action-still for years has been my icon at work. I feel it represents all three aspects of my personality: a somewhat misguided and insane Medusa, a very content little bear and a completely confused little girl.

Madame-medusa-top-disney-villains-la-11-1-12

Rolling Stone did a piece about how "Cher Stands Alone" by Rob Sheffield. He calls her “the one-woman embodiment of the whole gaudy story of pop music.” And this is very funny: he depicts “the battle of Cher versus Time turned out to be a mismatch. It’s Time that has trouble turning back Cher.”

He says, “There are no careers remotely like hers….she’s been on her farewell tour so long, it’s old enough to vote.” He says she invented red carpets and infomercials. "People said she couldn’t sing, yet she always sounds like herself...She’s part of every pop story,"

Chris Dondoros wrote about "Six decades of Cher" and said, "Cher’s creative risks have foreshadowed music industry trends." He mentions her Wall of Sound records (not really risky but trendy) and auto-tune (continues to be controversial). 

Pop-shapeshiftNick Levine produced, "A Guide to Getting into Cher, Pop Shapeshifter" with original art by Tara Jacoby.

He notes her "majestic voice" and ability to "reinvent herself repeatedly over the decades without losing her quintessential Cher-ness." He notes correctly that Sonny & Cher were the "family-friendly faces of the hippie movement" and that they showed in the 1970s "flawless comic timing" and "firecracker duets" and back to her voice, "it’s easy to forget what a dazzlingly distinctive vocalist she actually is." (thank you)

There are even suggested playlists for all her eras: kitschy folk-pop Cher, middle-of-the-road pop Cher, disco diva Cher, soft-rock Cher, (which he says, "made a strange kind of sense at the time...her voice wasn’t overshadowed by the cheesy metal riffs of 1989, camped-up Bon Jovi" which "essentially, appealed to your Dad and queer uncle alike") and wig-wearing, vocoder-loving dance-pop Cher (which he calls "Cher of Light").

He calls "Turn Back Time" , a song that taught us that no key change is too shameless." (thank you again)

In Nashville Scene, Ashley Spurgeon writes about how Cher continues to be an icon.

"At the disgusting, decrepit age of 43, [Cher] had the audacity to look really sexy and imply she was going to bone a boatful of sailors in the ["Turn Back Time"] music video….Authenticity is the byword of the age, and for all creative arts, music is held to its absolute highest standard….but the problem with centering this definition...in the realm of musical creativity is that it completely forgets that entertainers exist.  The Authentic Entertainer is an explosion, usually of glitter. Artifice is the point. And Cher is as authentic an entertainer as has ever graced the stage." (THANK YOU)

Spurgeon even acknowledges Cher's “SoCal” plastic surgery and her AutoTune and only says: “The sheer audacity, to this day!” Indeed.

Spurgeon continues,

"she was always going to tell those who had it coming to go fuck themselves....criticism can go fuck itself. She has been an LGBT icon for decades, and no small part of that work involves telling all manner of bigots [and bullies] to go fuck themselves.”

I think I'm hyperventilating I'm enjoying this so much.

"Basically, Cher has taken ever-more-insistent demands for authenticity and reflected them back in her own bedazzled, witty and wry image (not unlike her peer Dolly Parton). Making this contradiction work is how an icon stays an icon..."

BelieveincherLindsay Zoladz writes "Believe In Cher or Not" another kick-ass article with more original, unaccredited, artwork.

She calls Cher the ultimate millennial and explains why. She's "transgressed the laws of celebrity...in the past few years, though, she has ascended to an even more rarefied level of the celebrity stratosphere."

She continues,

"Part of the reason I think Cher is so beloved right now—especially for people whose lived memory of Cher begins just 20 years ago, with “Believe”—is that even her past makes sense through a modern cultural lens. She was famous for being famous decades before anybody knew what a Kardashian was. She has fluidly toyed with gender norms and sexual mores until they’ve looked stiflingly passé, and she has always been brazen about her hustle. She is very good at using emoji. And above all things, she evinces an odd combination of over-the-top artifice and gritty authenticity. Of course she’s had work done. But, as she so characteristically put it in an interview montage that aired right before her Kennedy Center Honor, “If I wanna put my tits on my back, that’s nobody’s business but my own.”

"Cher has always presented androgyny as a source of power. It’s part of the reason she’s always had such a devoted queer following. She was also one of the earliest proponents of drag culture….Cher would time and again wield this kind of gender fluidity as a superpower."

Zoladz calls Laverne a proto-Kristen Wiig character and toward the end of the piece says this very funny thing:

"This time her sparing partner wasn’t sonny, Peter Bogdanovich, or a nonbelieving recorde executive, but mortality itself--and Cher seemed to have it in a headlock.”

And as that article referenced Cher’s ass does indeed have a Facebook page.

CherbillboardAnd this article came out recently about LA’s Greatest Billboards. And just look at the company she keeps here. And she's the only woman!

A fan recently posted Sonny Bono's visit to The Bob Costas ShowIt's interesting to revisit this post The Cher Show revelations.

Sonny talks about how Sonny & Cher can cause a media frenzy together that they never can by themselves (even into the 1980s). "Ten times our impact when we're together," he says. He's talking about the frenzy they created on David Letterman's show. But there was also frenzies prior: when Cher attended the opening of his first restaurant, when they appeared on other show together. They did seem to be a sum bigger than their parts.

And that was probably true until the day he died. Then, as I’ve argued, you could see a shift in her personal impact, as if she inherited the Sonny & Cher brand fully and was creating the frenzy alone.

In one sentence, Sonny says Cher would have been a phenomenon without him (due to her drive) and then minutes later tells the media frenzy story. The truth is probably that Cher had superstar material organically but Sonny added something to make it really big.

He also talks about the pride he takes in "The Beat Goes On" and the legacy of hearing “the beat goes on” coined into phrase.


Cher Show Ends on Broadway But Biopics Continue

Final-chersAugust 18, 2019, was the final performance of The Cher Show on Broadway. As you know, my friend Christopher and I thought the Broadway show was looking pretty healthy. The final returns can be found here: https://www.broadwayworld.com/grosses/THE-CHER-SHOW 

Playbill reported that the show ended strongly: http://www.playbill.com/article/grosses-analysis-the-cher-show-ends-broadway-run-on-a-bang-bang

 

Here's the graphic of the run...

Chershowgraphic

 

I was indeed sad because I really wanted to see it again. My friend Coolia said not to worry; the show would hit the road. And it will in 2020. For more information on the touring version coming to your town: https://www.broadway.com/buzz/196276/the-beat-goes-on-the-cher-show-will-launch-a-national-tour-in-fall-2020/

The show continued to get positive vibes, like this one from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jerylbrunner/2019/04/09/the-cher-show-celebrates-the-ultimate-empowered-woman-cher

The author quotes Gloria Steinem and her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions to talk about "the incredible strength of non-conforming women:"

“I have met brave women who are exploring the outer edge of human possibility, with no history to guide them, and with a courage to make themselves vulnerable that I find moving beyond words,”

and says this show had a “unique perspective on a powerful female who continues to thrive without ever apologizing for who she is.”

(even if who that is...is very sparkly).

Emily Skinner (who plays Cher’s mom in the show) says “She has zero pretense and we love her for that.” Skinner also talks about how her mom swapped out her Barbie doll with a Cher doll. “My feminist mother must have thought, let me put somebody in front of my daughter who is beautiful in a completely different way.”

More to Come

Don't forget we have an autobiography coming and a 2020 movie in the works.

And the British documentary/biopic of Cher's life aired last Friday: The Greatest Showgirl. Where are all the reviews and screenshots of this?? Help a scholar out here! 

All I could find is this brief Guardian review: 

Cher was not actually born in the wagon of a travelling show, as this documentary proves, but she did have a tough childhood. There are more talking heads and dramatised scenes featuring unforgivable wigs than there are Cher interviews, but it’s still a reminder of her majesty. Hannah Verdier


Broadway's Cher Show Holding Its Own

Broadwaycher

Here's a Playbill video of Carol Burnett and Nancy Pelosi among others, talking about the larger meaning of the Cher Show. I found this clip really, really moving. Especially the Carol Burnett part.  Verklempt City!

This hilarious GQ article is called the "Real life diet of totally ripped Sonny Bono from the Cher Show" and it showed up on my Twitter feed. 

Jarrod Spector has been doing some really great interviews about how he captured the characterization of Sonny Bono without going campy or shallow. Here's a great video interview.  

And a positive review on the show from Forbes magazine.

The show receipts initially showed a fill capacity in the 90% and 80% range, recently dipping into the in low 80s and sometimes high 70%. My friend Christopher (an entertainment stats-tracker hobbyist) has been tracking the show with me to check on the health of the show. Originally he told me a show needs to hover in 80% to stay viable. So I was concerned with the recent dip. But he still thinks the show has legs due to the Tony nominations and the built-in fandom.

The show received three nominations, one for the elder-Cher, Stephanie Block (lead actress, musical), Bob Mackie (costume design) and on nomination for lighting design (musical).

BlockLast night both Bob Mackie and Stephanie Block did win Tony awards and the Cher Show performed:

Cher was recently on Today and Tonight Show promoting the Broadway Show (I guess her own tour needs no promotion!).

Today-show-jenna-bush Today-showOn The Today Show Jenna Bush Hager (daughter of former President George Bush II) interviewed a lovely looking Cher and commented that the interview was one of the best nights of her life. Which is pretty incredible.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6BVVVoQcv8 (first segment)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tf06M-SS86M&t=201s (later in the show, they aired an extended interview with Bob Mackie)

Bush remarked on how the Broadway show's depiction of Cher's vulnerability and Cher says parts were hard and painful to watch. They also talk about the theme of never giving up. "I’m not a tough woman truthfully. I’m a strong woman. I’m one of us." When asked about Sonny, Cher says it was "more than love."

The same day, Cher appeared on an incredible episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, who also appeared quite beside himself to be hosting Cher. This is a new generation of adulation and it's definitely intense.

Backstage Tonight-show In-chair

 

 

 

 

Backstage / Jimmy and Cher lip-syncing to Cher karaoke / Cher in the chair 

Some clips of the show:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEfWjCnwu1Q (the opening)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_ot8SvZJSE (the lip sync challenge) - Cher looked a bit disturbed by this, but always the trooper with the new style of games on these shows.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HLkCUd44iU (Cher talks about being shy)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wE-urfyC0CY (Cher talks about Cher impersonations)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVt40fhq6E8 (All the Chers on the couch) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJ3DoTuw6kg (All the Chers sing "Turn Back Time") 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5y_XT0tRow (this is adorable! Cher singing "IGUB" with the fake Sonny!)

Chers Cher-fake-sonny

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the Chers singing / Faux-Sonny & Cher

While looking up photos of the show, I found photos of Cher on The Tonight Show through the ages:

The-tonight-show-sonny-cher-1975-everett

1980-tonight-show

80s-tonight-show

Cher-anchor

 

 

 

 

Mid-70s / 1980 / Mid-80s / Current, Cher taking over the desk while Jimmy walks on with his Cher strut

 

 

Cast-recording

Most exciting, the cast recording is out! You can order it on CD or vinyl. 

(There are now only two albums missing from vinyl: Living Proof and It’s a Man’s World, two great albums!)

There's not much dialogue on the cast recording unless it happens inside of medleys. But I really wanted to hear the show again in order to think about how the show was constructed.

The song "TBT" was an obvious first song. Where else would you put it, unless Cher truely had regrets, which she doesn't seem to. It was illuminating to see "Half Breed" used to talk about Cher's childhood and feelings of otherness to the point of freakishness: her fatherlessness, trouble in school. Early on the theme of fear is developed and of not being accepted.

"Shoop Shoop" is put in for the 1960s ambiance. During the song, Cher meets sonny and we're shown an early relationship and, importantly, how Sonny’s acceptance of her as talented and worthy forged a very strong bond.

IGUB provides their Top of the Pops moment of breaking into show business. "When the Money’s Gone/All or Nothing" was also an interesting medley choice for their first career dive. Nice mashup, too.

I was surprised to hear "Ain’t Nobody’s Business," not a song famously associated with Cher but, if you're a fan, you've seen it as a Cher favorite (to get the press off her back and responding to criticism of her clothes and lifestyle). She's covered the song in live shows and TV specials from the late 70s to the early 80s. These lines are indicative of the tone: “It I took the notion to throw myself into the ocean, 'aint nobody's business if I do” and Cher sings the chorus with not a little bit of bite. It reminds me of her 1980s off-quoted quip in defense of plastic surgery rumors: “If I want to put tits on my back, it’s nobody’s business but my own.” This is the big Bob Mackie costume show-stopper, one-third of the way in. 

It's also the Cher hand-off from Micaela Diamond to Teal Wicks. "Living in a House Divided" is given different lyrics here to make the Sonny & Cher breakup more personal. And it's presented as a duet between Cher and Sonny and shows Cher's fear of leaving him.

"Bang Bang" is slotted here to illustrate Sonny's unwillingness to give Cher a 50/50 stake in their business. They also have slightly different lyrics. And this all begs the question: if these are not the same songs, is this purely a jukebox musical? At what point do they become the musical's music? Because you could stretch a song pretty far from its origins...

"Believe/Song for the Lonely" is a medley where all three Cher’s confer for a big halftime finish, while they debate Sonny's merits and flaws and the fear to persevere.

The second act returns with Sonny & Cher doing their unacknowledged Emmy-worthy performances as a happily married couple on TV, while they sing "All I Ever Need is You." 

"Heart of Stone" is used (along with the character of Lucille Ball, to show the parallel between their respective careers and relationships) to give Cher the guts to leave Sonny. Note how much time is given (and songs) to Cher's struggle to leave Sonny, which illustrates the importance of that in Cher's own depiction. Gregg Allman doesn't get nearly that much time and, in fact, I can't really remember their breakup in the show.

"Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" hands the show over to Block and depicts Cher's show TV solo. This pass-off seemed pre-mature to me. Cher was still clearly 70s Cher up until the late 70s, maybe even until the acting years.

"Midnight Rider/Ramblin Man" are two external songs (from Gregg Allman and The Allman Brothers) added in for the story of husband number two. It feels brave to add them next to Cher songs. And good.

"Dark Lady" is amazingly creative: a duet between Sonny & Gregg  (as Cher struggles between career vs. love). It shows Sonny's powerful presence as a continual contender for Cher's attention and respect. The duet between the men is genius. And brave, too.

"Strong Enough" is with Sonny, Wicks and Block. Allman gets dumped but again, I forget how this is referenced in the show.

Then we go into the Acting years. "The Way of Love" is a surprising choice to show Cher emoting to Robert Altman in her first audition. The show reminds us it was then two long years to Mask (in career time this was probably painful, but felt fast in fan time). Cher is scoring acting hits and reviews but no nominations because she is the “bad girl with the mouth.” The irony of actors thinking of Cher as a "bad girl" is that the rock establishment didn't consider Cher nearly bad enough to earn credibility there either.

During "The Beat Goes On" (so late in the timeline here!), megastar Block gives the show back to Diamond because she is the babe who always wanted to be an actress. The show allows young Cher to bask in the glow of good reviews and movie offers. This is one of the most touching moments of the show, which has also explores her fear of being bad at acting.

"I Found Someone" is all about Robert Cameletti and the evil paparazzi/press pressure. He disappears without much fanfare either. And I don't think these abbreviations are good. Cher did suffer greatly with these two breakups as well, maybe if not to a Sonny degree. They're weren't painless or easy and the show could have lingered on them a bit longer.

"You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me" finds Cher looking for solace in her work but she is beset with Eptstein Barr (and maybe a bit of depression?), The three Cher's support each other. Then Sonny dies and we get a bit too much of the recreation of the eulogy. 

And then boom, the finale. Her mid 50s and 70s are not covered. "Believe," "Strong Enough," "Woman’s World," and "All or Nothing" are given a good ending mashup.

I have to say, it wouldn't be a big deal if whole decades were missing in a show about a small piece of Cher's life. But in a review of all the years, it feels conspicuous. Something had to have happened in there. But these are small quibbles. The show pulls it off despite the gaps.

The cast recording comes with a booklet including a similar read-a-long synopsis of the show.


Stories on the Sleeve: Take Me Home

So earlier this year SleeveMr. Cher Scholar found out about a call for submissions from the New Mexico Humanities Council. They wanted stories appreciating record album covers. I knew I could do something good with a Cher cover. I literally starred at them for hours after purchase, memorizing all the names. Cher's first inner sleeve was produced for her Casablanca album Prisoner in 1979, the album after Take Me Home.

I chose Take Me Home and the entry had to be 100 words or less and I kept to that limit (although I noticed many other entries in the show did not). Here was my entry:

I was 9 years old in 1979 when Cher released her only disco album. My mother balked buying it for me, saying the cover was too risqué. Forget side boob; this cover was all boob! She relented and I spent hours perusing the cover and credits to search musicians, like members of the band Toto she usually worked with or whom she thanked. She gave boyfriends and kids affectionate nicknames. I loved the burst of green Barry Levine used for the background of the photographs. A make-up malfunction resulted in the airbrushing of her face. Her outfit was designed by Bob Mackie with inspiration from then-boyfriend Gene Simmons from KISS. It was less a costume than a set piece, Viking plates and capes of shining gold. This was the time of backlash against disco, where angry white boys were gleefully burning piles of records. Cher sat on her fabulous cape, quarter-turned to us with her devil-may-care stare, as if to say “I’m going to outlast your hate and go on to play “Take Me Home,”  (the title song went to #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100), to sold-out shows in big arenas well into my 70s. 
And so she did. -- Mary McCray, January 2019

 

Here are the front and back covers (click to enlarge):

Tmh-cher-front Tmh-cher-back
The reception was last Thursday. My entry was first in the display but last in the discussion. Surprisingly the show was SRO. Here's what the full spread looked like:

20190404_174238

20190404_174314

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Other albums were prestigious competition in record collecting: the obligatory Beatles, Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones covers, but also RUSH, Laura Nero, K.D. Lang, Simon & Garfunkel, Stan Getz, Jackson Browne, Iron Maiden, Jackson Browne, Deep Purple, Joy Division, Sufjan Stevens and two local New Mexican albums. There was thankfully one Dolly Parton album and one other disco album, Donna Summer's Greatest Hits

I paid close attention to what the girl record collectors were talking about.  The Dolly fan talked about growing up in rural New Mexico liking Dolly and feeling Dolly shame in front of her peers. The girl talking about Donna Summer also took pains to say her other cover submissions was a Doors cover.  Girls talked about the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Joy Division and Sufjan Stevens entries.

The wife of the Stan Getz collector told my friend he would only listen to cool jazz and so she was unable to play her Miles Davis records. The RUSH and Iron Maiden stories were a bit intimidating in subject matter and funny presentations. But since everyone went before me, I had a chance to reconfigure my speech. Here's me talking about Cher.

20190404_194822

I started by saying how I came from a record collecting family, including my Beatles-loving brothers and my country-and-western collecting Dad, and that when at 5 years old I decided to collect Cher records, this wasn't received well. I also retold the story of my mother not wanting to buy the album for me and what she said recently when I reminded her about it over email. She wrote me, "have I ever denied you anything?!" And I had to admit that was true...but what was the word she used? The word was "risque" and that was also true (considering I was only 9 years old and all). Anyway, I talked about the sexy viking costume design concept by Gene Simmons, who Cher was dating at the time, and how Bob Mackie made it. And how I had recently found a similar design on a Mae West dress so that cut-out boob-design wasn't anything new. Here it is from the 1933 Mae West movie, I'm No Angel:

West

I then talked about how record collecting wasn't easy after Take Me Home because Cher disappeared as a tab in the record bins for almost 10 years and how we all thought her career was over. But she came back to the stores in the mid-1980s and even last year at 72 her last album charted.

I talked about photographer (now movie producer) Barry Levine and the makeup snafu and how they had to do a bad, late-1970s airbrushing of her face. I also went on to talk about the musicians on the album, the three players who were part of the band Toto (and how they were also part of Sonny & Cher's backup band earlier in the 1970s and how Cher used them off and on through the early 1990s) and keyboardist Paul Shaffer.

I also talked about why I picked the album cover of all of Cher's over 40 album covers (I mentioned that every album but two have been released on vinyl). I talked about how Cher didn't want to do disco and how Casablanca talked her into it and how unpopular disco was at the time (for possibly homophobic and racist reasons in retrospect) and how looking back I think about the male gaze and how Cher is starring so strongly and defiantly back and how when I was nine (although I didn't know what the male gaze was at the time) I probably understood this as a model for how to be a confident and defiant Cher fan. 

Everyone had the chance to play a sample of a song from their album. So the show ended on the song "Take Me Home."

I was most interested in the women in the show who picked artists who were very unlike them in some way. The Laura Nero album was picked by an African American woman who talked about Nero's quality of whiteness and her facial expressions captured on the cover. The Dolly Parton album was picked by the Hispanic woman from rural New Mexico. These choices opened up conversations about identity and how you relate to each other as women. The Laura Nero woman told me later she really liked my presentation, as did the man who did the RUSH cover. I appreciated that. 

The Iron Maiden cover was picked by a man writing a book about Greek mythology in Heavy Metal. I will be sure to purchase it and discuss.


Cher Honored at the Kennedy Center

Cher-honors1I'm way overdue to be blogging about this. I watched this show with Coolia in Los Angeles on a 10x10 foot screen but it was something I wanted to watch twice.  (click all pics to view larger versions).

When the curtain came up there was an ear-to-ear grin on everyone but Wayne Shorter, who was probably conserving energy, and Cher, who seemed stoically uncertain about the whole thing. But by the end there are tears like this:

Cher-kennedy-center-honors-tears-1545950757and  smiles like this:

Cher-georganne-laughYou can see Cher's sister Georganne behind her. Very sweet to take your sister to the Kennedy Center Honors!

It's tempting to fast forward to all the Cher parts but that would be bad, bad. There was a lot of stuff on this show to experience. Gloria Estefan hosted and talked about the Kennedy Center mission statement, to break down barriers, be trailblazing, a cultural phenomenon and how after all the dust of wars settles it will be those who contributed to the human spirit we remember. (Something to ponder after Adam Lambert's performance). 

The Wayne Shorter tribute was a good lesson in American music history. E. Epatha Merkeson did an mesmerizing performance of Philip Glass' "Knee Play 5" from the 1975 opera Einstein on the Beach. All clips have been taken offline sadly.

Cher's tribute was last because she's...well, she's a showstopper. Remember when Cher won the Billboard Icon award in 2017,  Gwen Stefani called Cher "truly the definition of an icon," praising her inspiration as a musical trailblazer, cultural influencer, humanitarian and fashion trendsetter?"

This year Gloria Estefan described Cher as a world-wide superstar, an Academy Award winning actress and social activist. WhoopiWhoopi Goldberg quipped she raided Cher's closet ("and I'm award she wears it better") described Cher alongside Elivs and Sinatra, which seemed to surprise Cher herself but then Goldberg clarified that meant by one-name recognition. Oh. Almost a big compliment there. Then Goldberg went into a list of Cher's all the things, ending by saying not only does Cher "march to the tune of her own drummer, she's a one-woman band." Yeees.

The stage photos were a tryptic of Cher in 80s chainmail, a current ABBA performance, and a caricature I couldn't make out. No one has posted the montage yet. Those are always inspiring for Cher fans. In this one, Goldberg described Cher as "one of the coolest women who ever stood in shoes," an icon, a survivor, the mother of reinvention, a master of TV variety, an actress with one of the "biggest breakthrough film careers in history." Whoopi called out the powerful trio of Cher, her mother and her sister. Great, great stuff. 

Little-big-townThe band Little Big Town countrified Cher's hits, "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves," and "I Found Someone." Women in the audience can be seen singing along, including Kristin Chenoweth. They also sang "Baby Don't Go" and the Hamilton gang were clapping along.

Amanda Seyfried also gave a tribute, talking about working with Cher recently in the ABBA movie and mentioning her LGBTQ activism. "You make people feel the world is a safe place" Seyfried said.

Adam-cherThen, Adam Lambert stopped the show with his version of "Believe." There were two performances that riveted people: Lambert's and Merkerson's Philip Glass tribute.  This got Cher very teary and she showed visible appreciation for his big, big, big note at the end. What I love about Adam Lambert (all the way back to American Idol) is his sincere ability to move between Queen and Cher with real cajones. 

And they all stood up when he finished. Cyndi Lauper then did her show-stopping tribute to "Turn Back Time." Girls really got up for this one, most notably a trio of gleefully dancing women which included Reba McEntire presenter Kristin Chenoweth and Philip Glass presenter, Angélique Kidjo. They all high-fived at the end.

Dancinggirls

There was also this strange former honoree clapping very affectedly. Does anybody recognize her?

Strange-clapper

And Lauper and Lambert closed the show with "I Got You Babe" complete with replicas of the iconic Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour set. Reba McEntire sang along and couples danced together and it was really sweet although very few covers of that song work, including this one.

Adam-cyndi

More links:

The Hamilton guys and Phillip Glass meeting Cher beforehand. Look how smiley meeting Cher makes Philip Glass. Philip Fucking Glass!

Meetingcher

42682efd4b239297_114058_3806
Congratulations Cher. You deserve this.


My Essay: Cher and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Tour2I’ve never been sure to have such a personal response to Cher. It’s probably in there somewhere. I’ve been a fan since I was 4 or 5 and I’m now 50 so...psychologically speaking...

Recently an interviewer asked me what I’ve learned personally from Cher. This was hard for me to answer. I tend to think about Cher in terms of the stuff, or more recently in terms of her impact on culture. I struggled to find something to say, like maybe a lesson about letting small things go, (from Cher’s mother’s edict: “If it doesn’t matter in five years, it doesn’t matter”) or that you should always stay friends with your exes. (If Cher can do it…) Oh, and how to fluff my hair by flipping it upside down. Yes...that I did learn from the Cher show. But that’s it.

And when I think about any Cher essay (something for formal than a blog post), it always wraps around the idea of Cher lacking proper respect in pop culture. And maybe that’s personal in some way, like maybe I had two 70s-rock-loving older brothers who disparaged my taste in Cher or all those years being self-conscious about liking the things I like. This digs to the very concept about what rock and roll is, of which the Hall of Fame in Cleveland is but a part. Whether or not Cher is in the Hall is secondary, symptomatic. She’s not part of the insider’s club and that’s the issue, Chronically snubbed. The perpetual underdog. And this has been the case for much longer than the Hall of Fame has existed.

Cher is bigger than her sequins and Cher impersonations often fail for the lack of Cher’s personality embodied in them. You can slap a gowns on very talented boys and girls, but no dice. Cher is not, as previously claimed (over the last half a century), merely a clothes horse, a hanger, a shallow tower of sequins. She embodies those things and makes meaning of them. But shallow people do not look very deep. And they see shallowness everywhere.

What gives someone rock and roll credibility? Is it an outfit? Tight pants? A scarf? A stance? Is it creation of material? Is it hit-making? Is it breaking Billboard records? Is it a greatest hits compilations? Is it longevity with live shows and ticket sales? Is it respect from critics? Is it longevity across mediums and genres? Some would say it is this idea of authenticity. But can that be possible when so much of rock and roll is a pose and a cliché, a posture of coolness, a sales job.  

To me the idea of "authenticity" is a code for the real judgement: is it "cool."

Sonny & Cher weren’t accepted as authentically folk, authentically hippies, or authentically rock and roll. Maybe Sonny wasn’t but Cher was. Sonny wasn’t even considered to be a legitimate Hollywood mogul and now, ironically, Cher is considered powerful in Hollywood. What that really means though is they were uncool.

And who determines cool? Is it popular audiences, critics, cult followings? Is it a roundtable of select few who decide?

Cher has had Billboard hits in give decades, arena shows in multiple decades AND a cult, gay following, records sold, popularization of a music style (the controversial auto-tune), hits that have bled into our mainstream idioms ("the beat goes on"), a subversive influence in fashion, both in the 60s (flares and furs), the 70s (long, straight hair that thousands of young girls took to emulating with hair ironed on real ironing boards), red carpet fashion, her big circus shows are now imitated by younger pop stars, her tattoos are now ubiquitous on the ass of America...and so on.

But to me what makes Cher really cool is her otherness, her inclusion of various underrepresented cultures all in her one self. Not only did Sonny & Cher bring people of color and international cultures to their 70s television show, but Cher embodied those identities in her performances, and she did so with dignity and power.

She’s also a living example of a single woman taking control of her career in show business and having the audacity to survive and tell the story. She’s a survivor, making no apologies for any of it, crossing genres, moving from glitz to the realism (in shows and in movies). And that very realism that works in her movies is the same authenticity working in her music videos and in her live performances.

So can we stop with the authenticity thing?

Over the years my interest has gravitated to figuring out the gap between what Cher means and how she’s perceived by the rock-and-roll-establishment. Cher says it best herself: “Singers don’t think I’m a singer. Actors don’t think I’m an actor.”

Arguably there are fewer women at the top of the music business. Thus,  Brook Marine points out women make up only 13% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There should be more.

It’s been rumored there is this issue of Sonny at play: Cher might be resisting nomination herself, preferring to be inducted as Sonny & Cher. I don’t know if this is true, but she does reference Sonny & Cher whenever she’s confronted with the lack of a nomination. It would seem a likely holdup. Cher has always felt Sonny was entirely responsible for her career. “There would be no Cher without Sonny” has been Cher’s mantra since the mid-1980s.  And they didn’t call him a Svengali for nothing. He had ideas about their inception and architecture, he created their act, as well as writing some of their music.

But Cher brought things to the table, too. She had ideas about their look that Sonny was game to pursue.

Cher also had the budding charisma, the sex appeal and that “special something.”

But arguably Sonny not only discovered Cher but set her up to thrive for five decades. Can you get into the HoF for that? Orchestrating a Cher?

They were a recording team and his influence was life changing (as Cher illustrates in her Broadway musical) and life-testing (you could argue Sonny was her drug).

Cher loves rock and roll. Elvis is an obvious influence. (Someone recently called her Chelvis;  but I prefer to think of her as the female Fonz.) Imagine how easy it would be for Cher to stand over Sonny’s grave and say, “Hey, I tried. They wouldn’t let you in. But hey, I got in!”

As my grandfather used to say, “she’s got the courage of her convictions” if she is, in fact, holding out for Sonny in the face of the prime accolade of one’s pop recording career. To take a stand against the defining group exercising power over the rock canon and Meriam-Webster defines establishment as “an institution or group in a society exercising power and influence over policy or taste.” The Hall of Fame as it sits in Cleveland is by definition a rock-and-roll establishment.

Yeah, she knows you don’t like Sonny & Cher even if you might begrudgingly like Cher. Standing her ground as a Sonny & Cher inductee could be showing all of her integrity and authenticity and, you could argue, an almost heroic love against the pressures of the in-crowd. To stand up for someone you love, particularly someone not many others appreciate, takes monster balls and a big middle finger to the powers that be. And even if Sonny & Cher aren't the issue and Cher is simply suffering the eternal, hypocritical debates around authenticity, to stand up for your sequins, to be apologetically who you are...if that isn’t rock and roll, I don’t know WTF we’re talking out.


Cher Scholarship in the Wild

Cher-2019-tour

This is a photo of Cher's latest arena tour, fifty years into her concert career.

It’s curious how many essays there were last year’s about Cher. Women and gay men have been writing stories about how Cher helped them be more assertive or survive hard times. But now we're seeing a surge of people writing about Cher as a phenomenon. There have been a few reviewing a song here or there, some reviewing her entire oeuvre, some quite-personal essay about how Cher influenced them in some way, or about how they never thought about Cher much until recently and are discovering things about her they find profoundly misunderstood or inspiring.

No one can even get at what she’s doing, really. She’s flinty and strong, hard and soft, but can we really parse the craft of it? The mystery of the mechanics of Cher? Writers are trying to figure out what Cher means.

Recently a friend of mine found a local course on Cher from a catalog called Oasis.

OasisOasis offers programs for senior citizens. I’m was very bummed that I missed it, but the offering, you bet I am going to cajole one of my 55+ friends into sneaking me into it. This teacher runs courses on multiple acts including Neil Diamond, Harry Belafonte, Cole Porter, Dinah Washington, Oscar Levant, Carly Simon, Bobby Darin, Sting, Tina Turner, Hank Williams (called the Hillbilly Shakespeare), and on categories like showtunes, African American music history, music and the holocaust, among other interesting topics. In the class description, she calls Cher out as a super-diva activist and philanthropist who has sold over 110 million records and has had a #1 single in each decade.

The evolution of Cher” by Justin Elizabeth Sayre had great commentary around authenticity and bling.

“I’ve never disliked Cher or thought of her as anything other than a dynamic and talented performer. But I have long taken Cher for granted. I simply assumed that many artists have had multiple hits in multiple decades, won Oscars and Grammys and been cultural icons clad in Bob Mackie for over 40 years. Cher was just one person of note on a short but powerful list….But the truth is that there is no list. There is only Cher."

Things Sayre singled out for what makes Cher particularly authentic, her immediate sense of presence: 

"Even on film, this woman was the real thing, the genuine article, poised, gorgeous, talented, brilliant — all things that mean Cher."

This is an important point because Cher has always been accused of being a false front, a clothes hanger, a fake hippie, a false singer, a false folk act and that her bling has been used simply to hide the falseness.

Sayre claims it was Cher’s authenticity that actually saved scenes of the movie Burlesque for him:

“The scenes with Stanley Tucci, who plays just the sort of gay men I like, were all funny and touching. The relationship between two friends who are deeply committed to each other, slightly in love, trying to keep a part of the world for themselves, was so genuine that my friend choked up. For the rest of the movie, Cher became a life preserver. I relaxed when she was onscreen, knowing full well that I would no longer drown in a sea of the average. It wasn’t camp, but it was good. Camp needs more of a threat.  It’s always about the push and the pull; it has the frenetic energy of failure mixed with the knowing achievement of beautiful destruction. In a way, Cher can’t do camp. That may be a strange thing to say, seeing how much camp is inspired by her, but I think it’s true. There is such a sense of authority in her performing (she’s Cher, dammit!), but there is also her undeniable sense of truth. In Burlesque, the song may be outlandish, the setting bizarre, but she somehow comes off present and honest in the eye of this glittery storm...Things that would appear garish or over-the-top on a host of other divas seem absolutely appropriate on Cher, even demanded. Cher deserves lighting. And glitter. This is how her world should be. And there in that dream, Cher sits down and sings to you about the joys and sorrows of life that you both share. She’s just like you, even with all that surrounds her.  And you believe it, because Cher is something real.”

At first this is what I thought might the the problem with all Cher impersonations and (before I saw it) the Broadway show: glitter without Cher just doesn't fulfill the Cherness. Gitter doesn’t hold you up even if you’re adept at doing all the Cher ticks. Because the glitter is an add-on and not the architecture.

And for those who say authenticity is impossible to apply to a career involving auto-tune or plastic surgery, Sayre has a message for you too:

“Now, of course, there will be some who say that this is not an accurate assessment of Cher: How can you call someone “real” who has had that amount of plastic surgery, or used auto-tuning as she’s done? To that I would reply, “Who told you about those things? Cher did.” Cher has never denied having plastic surgery. She’s been upfront and honest about her “work.” She’s also been forthcoming about a desire to look good. And we love her for it, so why should we be upset when she does things to make herself look and feel great? As for the auto-tuning, she used it as an effect, not as a crutch. It was a sound, a look, almost, that turned “Believe” into a huge hit. The pipes are still there, trust.”

Anna Swanson did a movie survey with some great commentary, too.

“Cher’s work on the silver screen has reached across a wide variety of genres, from musicals and fantasy films to serious dramas. She’s worked with some of the most iconic directors in the industry, often portraying women who are difficult to pin down. Her roles frequently simultaneously play up her larger than life public persona and react against it, rendering it impossible to easily define her characters or to put them in a box.”

About Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean:

“The film, which also stars Sandy Dennis and Kathy Bates, has been frequently praised for its feminist themes and for its empathetic depiction of the character Joanne (Karen Black), a trans woman….Not only is Cher’s performance integral to the film, she also received acclaim for it and was nominated for a Golden Globe ”

About Silkwood:

In Silkwood she is stripped down and her performance is grounded in realism. In playing a lesbian character, Cher’s portrayal of Dolly offers an incredibly humane and nuanced look at the experiences of a marginalized woman.”

About Mask:

“Though the film is at times a touch schmaltzy, Cher’s performance is once again grounded and nuanced.”

About Moonstruck:

"In addition to being a romantic masterpiece, director Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is a vehicle for Cher’s best screen performance to date, and the one that won her an Oscar. ...Cher has heartfelt and witty material to work with and she knocks it out of the park….Moonstruck, though it has just the right amount of melodrama, is also honest and unpretentious, especially in scenes with Olympia Dukakis as Loretta’s mother. Between Jewison’s direction, Shanley’s script, and the performances, Moonstruck is pitch perfect. Simply put, they don’t make rom-coms like this anymore, and that is a goddamn shame.”

About Witches of Eastwick:

“What makes this film most memorable is the relationship between the three women. Just as Miller would famously go on to do with Mad Max: Fury Road, here he foregrounds these complex women and the strength of their bonds. The women have their struggles, but it’s never doubted that they are at their strongest and their best when they are committed to helping each other.”

Matthew Jacobs takes another tour through her movies...

“Of all the pop stars who have attempted to act, Cher’s track record is arguably the best…As her post-Sonny & Cher solo career waxed and waned in the ’80s and early ’90s, Cher’s movie career flourished ― a true achievement, given the ostentatious displays that had made her a walking glitter bomb since the mid-’60s.”

He breaks her acting career into eras, the beginning (1967-1985), the gold (1987), the wobble (1991-1999), the redemption (2000). 

About Chastity:

Chastity, released in June 1969, tried to be a gritty derivative of the French New Wave, packing big ideas ― Bono apparently said it was about society’s sudden “lack of manhood” and “the independence women have acquired but don’t necessarily want” ― into a whiplash-inducing downer involving a lesbian romance and childhood molestation...But bad movies can be testaments to good actors’ skills. Cher is at ease in front of the camera, never letting her fame announce itself before she opens her mouth. The same qualities accenting all her best film work — a scrappy confidence that reads as a proverbial middle finger to anyone who crosses her — become the highlight of “Chastity.””

About Mask:

Mask proved her acting was bankable…. The role earned her a third Golden Globe nomination and the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious best-actress prize, but she was snubbed by the Oscars...At the Academy Awards, she donned her infamous midriff-bearing Bob Mackie getup, complete with a cape and a spiky headdress. The look was more punk rock than Tinseltown elegance ― an oversized fuck-you to the fusty Academy and an ebullient reminder that she wouldn’t tidy up her image to appeal to Reagan-era conservatism.”

About Witches of Eastwick:

“In 1987, at the critical age of 41, Cher landed a troika of commercial hits in which she was the centerpiece, starting with the delicious lark The Witches of Eastwick,...she held her own against Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson.”

He calls her Moonstruck performance “career-defining.”

Of the [Witches, Suspect, Moonstruck 1987] trifectata:

“In each, Cher captured a quotidian version of American life ― and what’s more transformative than Cher pretending to be quotidian?”

All the while, Jacobs reminds us, Cher was making pop-rock hits like “I Found Someone,” “We All Sleep Alone,” and “Turn Back Time,” hits that would “place her in the same league as Madonna, Paula Abdul and Whitney Houston.”

About post-Mermaids work:

“She was too decadent to disappear into the same down-home movie roles, and Hollywood no longer saw her as a profitable actress. Cher played along with the joke, though, portraying exaggerated versions of herself (see: The Player, Will & Grace, Stuck on You) even when she wasn’t actually playing herself (see: Burlesque).

The Redemption Jacobs considers as her appearance on Will and Grace:

“There’s no movie-star move more powerful than playing yourself with an ironic wink, and Will & Grace, like The Player before it, let Cher poke fun at herself in a refreshing way. She is treated as an empire, at once pointedly self-aware and deliciously aloof ― a perfect way to master her own narrative without being beholden to it.”

He concludes,

“If pop stars are meant to be mythological and actors are meant to be aspirational, Cher has mastered both domains. She did so by never shying away from how the world metabolized her iconography, and by forever laughing at the absurdity of fame.”

Abby Aguirre in Elle Magazine wrote a very good interview piece (actually a long one) with Cher in November and I thought this exchange was very indicative of Cher's attitude about achieving this level of notoriety after so many lean spells:

“Before I leave, I ask Cher why she thinks following fun and acting on instinct has, in her case, produced so many pivotal moments. “It doesn’t always,” she says. “Look, I’ve had huge failures in my life. Huge dips and ‘Oh, you’re over. You’re over.’ This one guy once said, ‘You’re over,’ every year for I don’t know how many years. And I just said to him, ‘You know what? I will be here when you’re not doing what you do anymore.’ I had no idea if I was right or wrong. I was just tired of hearing him say it.””

 


The Cher Show on Broadway, Part 2

AdOk. I’ve seen the show and I’ve completely changed my mind. Hey, I would fully admit if I didn’t like it. I didn't really like Mama Mia. I really didn't like Burlesque. Didn't even find it to be lighthearted fun. But I liked this musical. Not only that, but the people I took with me liked it too, and one was a serious non-Cher-fan going in.

What I Experienced

At intermission I turned to my friends and said, "I actually like this" and then I bought some wine from a wine vendor, (to be honest, for the Cher cup it came in), and he asked me if I was enjoying the show. I responded with an enthusiastic “yeah” and asked him if audiences were liking it. His eyes went wide and he said “Oh yeah, people love it!”

We saw the show on the day of the Women's Marches in NYC. One of my friend's reviews: "I really enjoyed the Cher show. I thought it was quite feminist and a good bookend to the day that began with the women's march. I liked the device of 3 Chers at different ages having dialogue with herself and they did a good job showing her journey to becoming independent from Sonny. I liked the way they wove the songs from different eras out of order by matching them to the story line."

I also listened to comments as we excited the theater that night and the day after when we were taking pictures of the Neil Simon Theater when the matinee let out. Our evening crowd had been typical, elderly theater go-ers with a sprinkle of Cher fans. The matinee was almost solely young and middle-aged New York women. I overheard some great comments, my favorite being the very Brooklyn sounding, “It was better than Donnah Summah!”

And I personally didn’t enjoy it because it was light fun. I cried four times. That’s not fun. The complexity of its structure made me a little anxious because I wouldn’t be able to watch it over again to dissect it. The transitions were very interesting, the thread of the story unconventional and fluid, and the stage sets very creative. Mr. Cher Scholar and I talked about those things for hours the next day. A former playwright himself, he called the gaggle of Cher’s conferring with each other (which, alone, ranks the show high on a Bechdel Test) "psychologically sophisticated.”

And any Broadway show will have the best singers you’ll ever see so hearing Cher songs re-envisioned with these big voices was quite amazing, to hear an in-tune Sonny, and an even larger-note Cher! And unlike many impersonations of Cher, this time I didn’t miss her because these actresses weren’t trying to reproduce Big Cher. They were trying to unveil a Little Cher. And that was news. That was why I wasn’t bored hearing the 'same ole, same ole' plot points about her life. 

PlaybillWas it all about her boyfriends? Not really. It was about her love and her navigation around love and career, her struggles to be assertive in work and love. Her relationship with Sonny was given revealing nuance and exposure unlike we’ve ever seen. Worth the price right there. 

It was creative and thoughtful and useful in the present #metoo moment.

So W.T.F. with these reviews? As I reconsider them, and I was so inclined to agree with their ideas, they seem oddly harsh compared to the reality of the show. At best they want the show to be more Cher-like-bigness and yet more realism...at the same time. 

Feminism

Cher herself said there was no theme she could think of beyond having a good time. In retrospect I find this statement highly disingenuous. The theme was argued loud and clear and stated a handful of times by our "Old Cher" M.C. Don't give up gals when it gets tough or scary. Keep going. Walk through the great fear. If Cher can do it, you can do it. 

What I Was Anticipating

I was prepared for a big spectacle, a Cher spectacle. I was prepared to be off putt by too much glitz. And I like glitz but I also like substance. The stage was smaller than every other Broadway show I’ve ever seen with less emphasis on a blingy set, with a much more modest cast. And the costumes were a notch below Cher-bling, I thought. Reviewers made the outfits a bigger deal than they were. Not to say that there weren't a lot of them. The non-Cher fan asked me if she really wore all those outfits and I had to admit, yes...but her versions are even more outlandish.

I was prepared for bad jokes. What can I say? The audience laughed at all the jokes, which were Broadway-level jokes IMHO, not cutting-edge comedy club jokes. They landed. People clapped throughout the show and even stood up at the end.

I was prepared for a bad Sonny: and when I say nobody gets Sonny right, this one comes pretty close. They made him less of a boob and emphasized his creativity, but gave him a dash of meanness. And yes, the audience did applaud when  Jarrod Spector first captured that Sonny kind of nasal-twang while also singing very well.

I was prepared for oddly used songs but they were all creatively re-purposed. Come on: Gregg Allman and Sonny Bono singing "Dark Lady" to each other. I really love the balls it took to do that, on many levels. 

I was prepared for dissatisfaction with three Chers: Seeing "Young Cher" weave in and out of the story was very powerful. It explored what makes a person feel small and feel out of control.

I was prepared for a dull Festival of Brand and what kept it from being a total brand-fest was how self-deprecating the Chers were and how exposed they let themselves be.

OutsidePoint-by-Point Response to Bad Reviews

The New York Post claimed the show was full of "dopey dialogue" and "skin-deep dramatization" and that it wouldn't "surprise those with even a passing knowledge of Cher. Or access to Wikipedia.”

Ahem. I have more than a passing knowledge and have read Cher's Wikipedia page. I've seen more Cher documentaries than you, reviewer-guy. And since this show held "more than a passing interest" to me, I'm assuming you've been practicing that line ever since Funny Girl. 

And speaking of Funny Girl, Mr. Cher Scholar and I saw a few parallels: little girl not being taken seriously, trouble with husbands, struggle with fame and love. Did Funny Girl delve too deeply into Nicky Arnstein's gambling problem? No. Because it's a freakin' musical.

The first review of the New York Times called the show a "maddening mishmash...all gesture, no craft...dramatically threadbare, trying to solve the puzzle of its own concept, whitewash[ing] her most interesting problems."

Which problems were these? Nicky Arnstein's gambling problems again? I hope this isn't a double standard. 

But then NYT says there were "too many character arcs and agendas to serve  — three Chers, several careers, 35 songs or parts thereof — the show’s creators can serve none well."

Again, I was skeptical about a plot covering a 70-year life myself. But this show was more a weave of feelings and fears than it was a hero conquering a task. If they couldn't pick an emblematic episode of her life, than at least they did a good job pulling emotion through a series of life scenes. 

Variety said the show "lands as flat as the jokes."

Neither seemed to be the case at the show I saw. Shit was landing.

They go on to say, "the script never quite finds a satisfying style — or a genuine hear...rarely does is get real, despite the tell-it-like-it-is attitude of its subject. It only takes itself semi-seriously, keeping genuine emotion at arm’s length." 

I couldn't disagree more wholeheartedly. I found it much more revealing than Cher herself has historically ever been. She's a magician of straight-talking in interviews but never emotionally revealing. True, this wasn't a gush-fest but who wants that? 

Variety sensed a "cool aloofness of its protagonist"

...and self-deprecation is what I saw.

Entertainment Weekly disparaged "thin plotting" and "costumes changes subbing for character development."

This is a bell-ringing charge against Cher. She's a clothes hanger, she's all costume. Blah. Blah. Blah. There were a lot of clothes, don't be fooled. Don't be fooled. Or don't be unwilling to look deeper. 

They wondered "why not go see Real Cher who, at 72, looks and sounds at least as much like her younger self..."

Yes, it's hard to argue with this one except that the show was not about Big Cher. This is about Little Cher. They are not the same. That's exactly what the show is revealing, the difference. It's like you're saying the normal-person-Cher isn't big enough for you?

CastRolling Stone said "at times it feels like glitzy Las Vegas revue" 

First of all, have you been to Vegas? It feels ridiculous to compare this to that. But in a way, that's not an unfair comparison either. Cher is not unlike a glitzy Las Vegas revue sometimes.  

...they go on to say, "if you were to squint, could easily be the best drag show of all time — although it lacks any actual drag queens."

There’s so much going on culturally in a drag show, this oversimplification now strikes me as off and offensive. 

The Guardian said the show "highlights the lack of imagination elsewhere and the show’s need to gloss over – sequin over, brilliantine over – anything too uncomfortable or hard.”

Again, we're overstating the sequins by many yards and what hard stuff was missing? Going into what’s hard was the show's freakin' theme!

Vulture called the show "a garish, obvious pastiche, such an unabashedly soulless explosion of wigs and trite memoir wisdom."

This isn’t a biography. It’s a Broadway show. What wisdom do you get from them that is deeper than memoir wisdom? This isn't Samuel Beckett but than neither is it Rodgers and Hammerstein or Les Miserables (which I totally love). 

And then this: "I’ve gotten more real enjoyment out of watching old Cher videos as research than I did in the theater."

Well, duh. Big Cher is a joy to behold. But this is not that. Again, do you want exposure of the real person or the spectacle. These reviews argue for both at the same time.

The show is claimed to be "disappointingly guarded"

Again, I just didn’t see this. Maybe I'm so used to a guarded Cher, this felt spectacularly unguarded to me.

...and was  a "directionless attempt to squeeze Cher’s many lives into a bordered, formulaic dramatization of her career."

Point taken. Cher has had too many lives for the Aristotle arc. I don’t know how to solve that and neither do you.

ArtworkConclusions

Broadway musicals often remind me of silent films; the level of exaggeration demands actors play it big and simple. This is not a dramatic movie of realism or a documentary. Singing and dancing loosen up the energy. Not that you can't go deeper with song but a jukebox musical just isn't an intimate format. There is no original book of music where emotive themes could be created and carried through. And you either accept the form or you don't. Why send a reviewer who hates the horror genre to review the latest horror film? 

And here’s the real irony to this thing: here we have a show with a sub-theme about not being taken seriously, (...even the Robert Altman character explains in the show how he’s going to be skewered by reviewers of his first play, especially if he picks Cher to be in it. And he does; the man had balls) and critics fall right into their same-old complaints, failing to even acknowledge how the show self-references them. Cher has consistently been receiving bad reviews for reasons beyond the product (Stars, Believe, Sonny & Cher as a whole), getting snubbed for good, early performances (Silkwood, Mask),  getting laughed at in movie trailers, all before breaking records, gathering swarms of fans and maintaining longevity. Another set of bad reviews about a show about getting bad reviews becomes a loop of absurdity. Like it’s still f*%king happening!

It’s fascinating to see time rolling up on itself right now, Cher continuing to create new interesting things, while music and film historians are re-evaluating her past things. See Rolling Stones'  own review of her cover of "Mr. Soul."

What a crazy phenomenon it all is. And I'll be talking more about frustrations around Cher's perceived authenticity and credibility in my next post about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

In The Meantime

I talked to the merch vendor and he said a cast recording might be coming soon. 

Stephanie Block’s website has a great news feed on the show: https://www.stephaniejblock.com/news

And my mom sent me this article about how Cher stalked Rick Elice until he would work with her.

Anyway, I know what fluff is. I hate fluff. Cher stuff is not fluff. Stop saying that it is. I loved this and can’t wait to see it again.