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.


The Cher Show on Broadway

The-cher-show-chicago-opening-night-2018-06-hrI’m going to see this show in a few weeks (as well as Network with Bryan Cranston!) so I’ll probably have more to say about it then; but along with many other Cher things, the real impact of this remains to be seen. I, myself, love musicals. But jukebox musicals seems kind of odd to me so I’m not 100% the perfect audience for this. Regardless, any kind of Cher bio has the potential to reveal some aspect of the Cher phenomenon (so similar to the Tony Ferrino Phenomenon) that we haven't been able to pin down yet, although many new writers are trying (which is much appreciated in Cher scholarship).

I’ll talk about all that more next week or so when I get into all the Cher essays that have been pouring out. These have been very informative, especially in how they speak back to this Broadway show and how it fails or succeeds. 

But for the moment, let’s just deal with the initial reviews of the show and how it’s doing right now.

You can keep track of the show’s weekly grosses here: https://www.broadwayworld.com/grosses/THE-CHER-SHOW

Show merch is also available,

You can also follow the show on Facebook.

Jerrod Spector is also doing a video blog with very cool behind the scenes footage called It’s Always Sonny.

News

On opening night, Kayne West and Kim Kardashian made news at the show.

There was also red carpet videos with the cast and prominent audience members like Rosie O’Donnell, Kathy Griffin and Bernadette Peters doing a Cher impression (remember she was on The Sonny & Cher Show's Christmas episode of 1976). Young Cher says  that Cher is a planet with gravitational pull. Cher herself says she doesn’t know what the theme of her show is beyond just entertainment: 

Cher singing with the cast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vpo5bo-rqfw  (the cast looks starstruck performing with her).

More audience Q&A, Rosie O’Donnell calls out Cher’s Westside Story performance, Bernadette Peters says Cher took chances, is glamourous and down to earth), Tiny Fey says she watched the show growing up and wanted to work on a variety show like that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FQ4YWakLsE

Another AOL post show interview with Cher. 

A Rolling Stone piece on Chaz Bono’s recent visit and speculation about the lack of his transgendering story in the show. 


Cher-at-showReviews

One of the best early reviews was from The New York Post

“Granted, the jukebox musical that opened on Broadway Monday night has some clumsy and dopey dialogue. The story — a 50-50 mix of narration (yawn) and not-quite-skin-deep dramatization — tracing the pop goddess’s personal and professional ups and downs won’t surprise those with even a passing knowledge of Cher. Or access to Wikipedia.

Still, it’s thrilling watching the 72-year-old diva’s rags-to-riches-and-back-again life woven by wall-to-wall hits — “Bang Bang,” “The Beat Goes On,” “Half-Breed” and “Believe,” among them….Between director Jason Moore’s flashy, fleshy, fluid staging and choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s high-energy and ridiculously sexy dances — wait till you see the steamy “Dark Lady” — the production is light on its feet, too….“The Cher Show” merits a bright, shiny, bedazzling “B.” Joe Dziemianowicz

Weeks later, this better review appeared (as a second review) in The New York Times.

Laura Collins Hughes calls the show “analgesic fun” (analgesic means painkiller) and that it “doesn’t meant to be highbrow; the constraints of the genre don’t allow it….it’s a genre with a quantity of cheese baked in....[but the show] takes Cher seriously. She liked that the creators didn’t follow the colon template for jukebox musicals (i.e. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Tima: The Tina Turner Musical, Gloria: A Life). And although she can’t quite call it a feminist musical, she says  “women…[including the supportive mother] dominate.” And says it’s about “how a famous American came defiantly into her power in a culture that expected demure acquiescence, and who along the way discovered herself....[with] clothing being one of the ways that she rebelled.” She says the Cher musical is less tighter in focus than Beautiful but gives Cher Show props for being “spikier” with “more bantering humor.” And she likes the convention of the three women with their tender tributes between each other and the small moments of historical revisionism (baby Chastity being wrapped in a blue baby blanket). She claims the musical “strips away her masks to reveal a person underneath.”

But that said, most of the reviews have not been good. But not good for very interesting reasons (all involving what Cher brings to the table as a performer, but we’ll get into that on a later day). Biopics or bio-theater is really hard to pull off. The movie Bohemian Rhapsody is an exception and succeeding primarily for its exceptional casting and for the fact that it contained its narrative into a finite period of dramatic time. You still can’t argue with Aristotle. And arguably, the creators made their bio-story-challenge even harder than it had to be when they tried to run the gamut from Cher as little kid to Cher as old lady. But if you were to ask me what period or Cher-time or what story line in her life is indicative of the whole, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Big challenge this one. And quite possibly Cher’s life a survivor is due to the fact that her life was spread out over 50 years and not a flame-out or a salacious bit of gossip in a small set of time.

But anyway, here we go...

The New York Times  

“There’s a fine line between tacky and spectacular. In creating costumes for Cher over the years — costumes that often tell the story of a shy woman emerging triumphant from a chrysalis — the designer Bob Mackie has kept on the right side of the line by making sure the level of craft supports the extravagance of the gesture.

Sadly that’s not the case with “The Cher Show,” the maddening mishmash of a new musical that opened on Monday at the Neil Simon Theater. Except for the dozens of eye-popping outfits Mr. Mackie gorgeously recreates for the occasion, it’s all gesture, no craft: dramatically threadbare and surprisingly unrevealing. That’s too bad because, reading between the paillettes, you get the feeling that the 72-year-old singer-actress-survivor is a good egg: self-mocking, plain speaking and a hoot. Whether that’s enough to build a Broadway musical on is another question, one “The Cher Show,” striving to be agreeable, never gets close to answering. Rather, its energies are waylaid in trying to solve the puzzle of its own concept, of which weird vestiges remain after a tryout in Chicago. ...you can’t distinguish scenes meant to borrow comedy-hour elements from those meant to be taken at face value. Complicating matters is the decision to confine such an unconventional figure as Cher in the straitjacket of the biographical jukebox musical [Unlike Funny Girl] “The Cher Show” falls into all of them. It wastes so much time hammering its biographical bullet points and tunestack into place, despite logic or chronology, that it never seems to notice the unintelligible result...Though Jarrod Spector gets Sonny’s Napoleon complex just right, he also gives him an adenoidal honk so exaggerated as to render him cute and harmless. Must a musical intended for popular consumption defang the anger of its powerful subject and, in doing so, whitewash her most interesting problems?...This is where the jukebox problem and the star-splitting problem converge with the craft problem. With 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...Yes, it argues way too hard for Cher’s significance — a significance it would be better off merely assuming and then complicating. And yes, it gets whiny just when you want it to get fierce.”  Jesse Green

In all fairness, we find out in this review that the Jesse Green hates jukebox musicals and so was a very problematic choice to review this one. He duly notes this in his review and links to a conversation among theater critics about the flaws of the jukebox genre. It’s worth a read and a chance to note that Mr. Green hates jukebox musicals more than any of the other critic in the conversation: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/29/theater/jukebox-musicals-broadway.html

Variety 

“Choosing to recreate the spirit of the television variety shows that Sonny and Cher — and then Cher sans Sonny — headlined in the ‘70s is a choice that lands as flat as the jokes in Broadway’s latest jukebox bio... the script never quite finds a satisfying style — or a genuine heart — as a winning stage musical. As Cher might say: Broadway’s a bitch….echoing the threesome approach of the soon-to-be-shuttered Donna Summer musical. Here there’s a bit more banter in Rick Elice’s sketchy, every-scene-is-a song-cue script….What “The Cher Show” 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. The audience witnesses all of Cher’s struggles — including the dip into infomercial-land — and triumphs, but is not especially moved by them, since it’s filtered through the obviousness of the script and the cool aloofness of its protagonist….The pleasures in the show come from individual performances…” Frank Rizzo

Time Out

“...the show whirls through six decades at a dizzying pace that disguises, up to a point, that it doesn’t have much to stand on.” Adam Feldman who give it less than a star

Entertainment Weekly

 

“Into the jukebox musical tent pitched by Beatlemania, and since populated by pop stars from Frankie Valli to Gloria Estefan, comes The Cher Show….If you love Cher there is probably nothing I could write here that would keep you away from The Cher Show.  No discussion of thin plotting, of costumes changes subbing for character development, or of retro har-har jokes will dissuade true believers looking for a bedazzled good time. Except perhaps this: Why not go see Real Cher who, at 72, looks and sounds at least as much like her younger self as Block does?...the magnetic Block who, it is worth noting, got her break portraying Liza Minnelli inThe Boy From Oz)... At this moment The Cher Show feels less like storytelling than like the pop goddess staging her therapy sessions. Other times it seems like her Wikipedia page set to music. What it rarely achieves is becoming a fully realized evening of theater. But it is, in the tradition of the American jukebox musical, a fair simulation. B”  Allison Adato

The Daily Beast 

“And yet, and yet. Cher is one of the producers of this show, and so what we see on stage of her has been approved by her. This is a personal, curated musical. The dish, such as it is, is strictly portioned. The storylines and phoenix-from-ashes arcs are subject-approved. So, what would Cher like us to know about her life? This the musical, very truthfully, never resolves...relationships with Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik) and Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno) are also surfed through with TV-mini series speed….As this critic left the show, two people, uninvited, shared their views on the show. One older woman, with a friend, said, “I love Cher. I’ve grown up with Cher. That isn’t Cher.” I asked her why. “It was like watching a drag act,” she said. “And Cher is still alive. That wasn’t… Cher.” And then outside, a man said he had loved every minute, that is was a worthwhile and fun night out. It was all he had hoped it would be. Eyes lit up, he said he had loved the music, the spectacle, the camp, the jokes. Both were Cher fans, and both summed up my own split feelings about The Cher Show. It’s an enjoyable circus of spectacle and music and familiarity; and it’s also not the same as having the star itself in a big room entertaining everyone. In fact, the most lacking thing is the real story about how, after all the downturns and fallow periods, she did come back to fame. The actual mechanics of those career-re-energizing moments go unexplained” Tim Teeman

Rolling Stone

The link includes a video of Cher with cast.

“The tao of Cher runneth over...After having seen so many jukebox musicals over the years, I’ve inoculated myself to the knee-jerk criticisms that came easily with so many poor attempts to translate an iconic artist’s songbook and circuitous career to the stage. Up until this point, however, I’ve never witnessed such impressive impersonations — which is meant as a compliment. Because if the very talented women cast as Cher didn’t give us that, then there would be moms and millennials and a mob of gay men with pitchforks outside the theater calling for producers’ heads. But I’m still left wondering what The Cher Show is exactly. At times it feels like glitzy Las Vegas revue that, if you were to squint, could easily be the best drag show of all time — although it lacks any actual drag queens. And then, in the second act, it eventually veers into something resembling a clip reel as Cher’s Oscar looks are quickly ticked off and other poor decisions (yes, even the informercials) are exposed until it explodes into a joyous cacophony of sentimental, shameless nothingness. Maybe the production is just a vehicle intended to fulfill a desire to tour forever and to assure us Cher shall never disappear from our lives. Ultimately, I don’t hate The Cher Show since, despite all of the mess, it leaves you wanting to Believe!” Jerry Portwood

The Hollywood Reporter

The link includes a video montage.

“The indestructible Cher managed to escape with her dignity intact earlier this year from the Greek Island shipwreck that was Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, thanks largely to her powerful shield of self-irony. That armor, along with her talent and charisma, has cocooned the decades-defying supernova throughout her epic career, even helping her make the embarrassing sketch writing on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, back in the early '70s, pass for funny. Her characteristic sleepy-eyed drollery is all over The Cher Show...The Cher Show also has the distinct advantage of the boss being behind the beaded curtain as a producer, lending a personal investment that carries it through the rough patches and choppy storytelling of Rick Elice's uneven book. ...Is the show good? Certainly not in the sense of traditional musical-theater craft. Would I see it again? Duh, already planning on it. ...The baby gay millennial sitting a couple seats down from me could not stop fist-pumping, whooping and "yas kween"-ing through the entire performance. That was annoying for a minute but eventually became part of the experience. For all its flaws and unapologetic excesses, I had a blast at The Cher Show, as will any fan.” David Rooney

The Guardian

“Together they describe the evolution of Cherilyn Sarkisian from southern California ugly duckling to the black swan entertainment queen. This is a straightforward story of female empowerment, though, as crafted by an all-male creative team, it sometimes feels more like a compilation of girl-power pep talks than an individual woman’s singular journey.Mashing song and story together is the great problem of the genre. The Cher Show doesn’t solve it. Rick Elice’s book relies heavily on exposition, with Block often stepping out to narrate key moments or to summon her other selves for a consultation...It’s so garish and delirious and literally show-stopping, that it highlights the lack of imagination elsewhere and the show’s need to gloss over – sequin over, brilliantine over – anything too uncomfortable or hard.”

Towerload

“It’s a paradox of the biomusical that reducing an iconic life story into a tidy two acts necessarily flattens its subject. When that subject is a living producer of the show, experiencing a career renaissance at age 72, you can count on seeing the version of that story she would like you to consider her legacy….It’s a testament to the knockout talents assuming the lead role that the lavish designs don’t swallow them whole.It’s a testament to the knockout talents assuming the lead role that the lavish designs don’t swallow them whole...The Cher Show doesn’t venture too far outside the box — doing so runs counter to the project of self-mythologizing inherent to the form. By this point, celebrity narratives are familiar enough in their common course that we recognize the shorthand — from big break and the spotlight’s harsh glare to fall and final redemption. It’s all here, insofar as the musical’s subject wants to reveal more than what we already know, or may have guessed. As for a deeper understanding of the artist, it’s always been right there in the music.”  Naveen Kumar

(Wha???? Cher’s music is rarely biographical.)

Vulture 

This is the best written of the negative reviews so I’ve included a lot of it.

“Is it possible to be brainwashed by sequins? I was so addled by the finale of The Cher Show that I began to imagine a tiny, spandex-and-spangle-clad devil on my shoulder, poking me behind the ear with a diamond-studded pitchfork and murmuring, “Shhh … You’re having a good time. Just … believe.” Nice try, but not today, sparkly Satan. The Cher Show is not good. It’s extravagantly, almost triumphantly not good. It’s such a garish, obvious pastiche, such an unabashedly soulless explosion of wigs and trite memoir wisdom, that somewhere in the midst of its overinflated two and a half hours — probably during one of its dips into stodgy, life-lesson-y sentiment between showstoppers — you start to wonder: Is this gusher of shamelessness the only thing that could have happened here? Is the show so ludicrous that it’s somehow transcended itself? Is it a victory for camp? It’s Cher, after all. As one of her onstage iterations says to her second husband, the strung-out folk rocker Gregg Allman (or, as this millennial kept thinking of him, Legolas with sideburns), when he tells her she “doesn’t understand excess”: “Have you seen my costumes?” Yes, yes we have. And if the screams in the audience every time another Bob Mackie getup takes the stage are any measure, the clothes are 90 percent of what we came for. They’re like King Kong’s big monkey. Is it wrong — or at best, useless — to critique a fashion show with musical numbers as if it’s actually a play?...Is this three-body-diva thing like, a thing now? When are we getting the Madonna musical, complete with Blonde Ambition Madonna, Kabbalah Madonna, and Rebel Heart Madonna? But The Cher Show feels awkwardly stuck between blowout jukebox concert — a triple-your-pleasure cover act for one of the superstar’s endless farewell tours — and schmaltzy bio-play. And there’s way too much of the latter.  but the moments have a sappy, oddly insular effect, like watching someone else’s life-coaching session. That’s the thing about “Behind the Music” stories: It’s not actually as fun as we think, and it’s hardly ever revelatory, to have pop icons humanized. ..The funny thing is, I have no argument with the legend status of actual Cher. Her creative gambles, non-stop reinventions, and reigning queen status in a testosterone-soaked industry are incredible feats and speak of a human being with more than everyday ambition and endurance. ..It’s the show’s blithely formulaic nature that drags things down. Elice’s book is a string of easy punchlines and hoky teaching moments ...Jason Moore’s direction is blandly splashy, the paint-by-numbers approach to this kind of material. The ensemble throws themselves gamely into Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, though Gattelli’s work only comes to life intermittently, ...In the time I’ve been writing this, I’ve gotten more real enjoyment out of watching old Cher videos as research than I did in the theater. And I think I’d probably get a kick out of seeing her in concert, where I have a feeling the ceaseless, high-gear pop-splosion, unburdened by autobiographical platitudes or pretensions toward plot and character, would somehow feel more honest. I’m okay with the real thing, and even with nostalgia in YouTube-size bites — but not as the only fuel in the tank when you’re trying to do a play….you’ve also got to try to make her into, well, theater. And that requires more than costumes, even costumes by Bob Mackie. It requires more than several good Cher impressions (Diamond, Wicks, and Block are all doing their best Janice-from-the-Electric-Mayhem voices, and Block especially sounds great belting out the brassy, vibrato-heavy hits). It requires more than wigs and wings and sailors and celebrities and tango-ing gypsies and hoedown-ing cowboys. The problem isn’t that it’s all too much. It’s that, when all the glitter’s swept up, it’s not nearly enough.” Sara Holdren

The Fordham Observer

Another good one.

“Cher could never be contained in a Broadway musical. Let’s start there. If the makers of “The Cher Show,” among whom the real Cher is a producer, thought the pure divadom of its subject, dressed in all the gloriously gay, sequined and campy stylings of our favorite dark lady, could save the bio-musical from itself, they were holdin’ out for love.

[The show is]...disappointingly guarded and directionless attempt to squeeze Cher’s many lives into a bordered, formulaic dramatization of her career. Frantic in its attempt to distill five decades of stardom into three hours, “The Cher Show” careens from spotlight to spotlight, shag rug to shag rug, and speeds from striped bell bottoms to autotune, London to New York, Broadway to Hollywood, illegibly.

By the way, had the musical followed its inclination to focus on Sonny and Cher, choosing that narrative rather than some biopic haze, the musical may have saved itself from the depths of jukebox hell. [The Fanny Brice]

But I refuse to be a total cynic. We finally have a star-studded Broadway musical about Cher, and there are things to celebrate…

Stephanie J. Block, who is, as far as I’m now concerned, a Broadway treasure we must protect at all costs. Not one bit buried by her throaty evocation, that characteristic voice which Block pulls off with as little caricature as possible, she is ever a match for the dominating personality of Cherilyn Sarkisian, portraying the diva (or star, as her character name suggests) with grace, reverence, and the best voice you can hear on Broadway right now. Only a drag queen could do it better.  

...Micaela Diamond as Babe is an enthralling new actress,

...Bob Mackie, albeit a fashion show set to music, which doesn’t really equate to theater.

...The Cher Show” succeeds in inoculating its audience with a wistfulness for the sounds and fashions of this diva should be no gold star. Surely that’s the bare minimum.

But there’s something to be said for the first seconds of “I’ve Got You Babe,” Jarrod Spector’s Sonny a remarkably uncanny evocation of the iconic voice that’d be mostly hilarious if not braced by an incredible tenor. There’s something to be said for that loving feeling, returned to an audience however caked in glitter. Maybe it’s shmaltz and maybe I’m a fool, and it’s certainly not enough to make “The Cher Show” good theater. But it’s fine enough as the first chords of an iconic song ring in, a small comfort to be momentarily in the presence of what makes Cher great: her music, not some hopelessly humanizing Broadway creation.” Michael Appler

You can read more reviews here: 
http://www.playbill.com/article/read-reviews-for-the-cher-show-on-broadway

The Cast

There have also been stories about the cast, who everyone claims is the right stuff:

About the Three Chers: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/theater/the-cher-show-broadway-stephanie-j-block.html  

Below is an article about the actress playing young Cher and the actor playing Sonny, both from Philadelphia. Jarrod Spector is called the King of the Jukebox Musical, as he played Barry Mann in Beautiful and Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. This show was Micaela Dimond’s first part and she wasn’t even born until a year after Believe was a hit!

http://www.philly.com/arts/cher-show-broadway-micaela-diamond-margate-germantown-academy-jarrod-spector-20190103.html

Their review: “The show is a lot of loud, bright, over-the-top craziness, with tree-top performances.”

That's a lot to process. More to come...


Mixed Bag of Honors and Accomplishments


Moony2First of all Cher's Believe album will be out on vinyl in December.  

In Music

A few weeks ago Cher's album Dancing Queen made its debut on the Billboard album chart at #3. This felt disappointing as Cher and the fans were aiming for #2. Although the album did hit #1 in the list for Top Album Sales. And the song "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" reached #5 on the Dance Club Play chart. And the Gimme remixes were recently released

So it felt a bit short at the time but my Billboard guru friend tells me I was off my meds to think this way: Sos

"For me, I am super impressed with her position on the chart. The year is three-quarters done, so for her to have the largest week of sales for an album in 2018 by a female pop artist is a major achievement.  It means she sold more albums in her debut week than 20-something Ariana Grande, who is the hottest female pop star in the U.S. currently, when she released Sweetener a few months ago. It means that the only female in any genre to post a larger one week tally this year is Cardi B. Were this released four years ago, before they started incorporating streaming into chart calculations, she would have debuted at #1 on the Top 200 chart, rather than #3 (and #1 on the sales chart).  The last female pop artist to exceed this level of sales in a single week was none other than 20-something Taylor Swift who remains the biggest U.S. female artist of the last ten years.  Not shabby company to keep. The fact that it is a sales sum that has only been surpassed by one other pop artist this year (Justin Timberlake) is truly remarkable. 

Mary, please think of it this way--over 50,000 albums across genres are released in the U.S. each year and our 72-year-old beloved can in 2018 sell more in a single week than literally any other pop artist on Earth except one, and more than any other female artist on Earth except one.  That is stupendous."

So that perspective was great. But then in week two the album feel from #3 to #43. 

In Movies

Anyway, there was another Billboard list that made me feel better again: Billboards list of 100 top musician performances in movies. Cher ranks #1. J. Lynch has this to say:

Cher’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1987 romcom Moonstruck remains the standard by which you mentally check all others. Cher brings that mixture of reluctance and romantic recklessness to the screen with a self-effacing realism and millisecond-sharp comedic timing. Few performances are this irresistible, hysterical and believably low-key -- and the fact that it came from one of the 20th century’s biggest pop stars leaves us unable to snap out of loving Cher in her deservedly Oscar-winning performance more than 30 years later."

The Kennedy Honor

And then there's the incredible Kennedy Honor. Maybe not in and of itself but for the fact that fans and Cher-watchers have been lobbying so long for Cher's simple induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To be beset with yet a larger honor was fully unexpected. And a bit disorienting quite frankly. But what a big deal. As my friend Christopher described it, “the government's highest form of recognition for artists...its official intention is to identify and honor artists for their lifetime contribution to the culture of the United States. That is no small potatoes.”

Especially since nobody's been noticing Cher's lifetime contribution to the culture of the United States. 

The awards will be televised on December 26 on CBS at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Some articles about the honor:

Here is the 2016 batch with some unsmiling Eagles (I take that back, 2/3 unsmiling Eagles), James Taylor, Martha Argerich, Mavis Staples, and the incomparable Al Pacino. 

Last-year


Cher Summer 2018

JcMama Mia 2

The new release date I’m seeing for Mama Mia 2 is July 20 here in the U.S. I'm afraid I’m going to have to wing it because I doubt I’ll find time to watch Mama Mia, the first. She's started to promote the movie.

Entertainment Tongiht: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RSiR6Enovk

James Corden: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1I8IJ4PLlI - What charmers they are; this show caused a slew of media stories about Cher eating cow's tongue instead of saying something nice about Donald Trump. Note: Cher swallows. James doesn't.

Cher was also on Graham Norton. Here are some clips:

- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABG5GOoU_lQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gR9hI0lbWU 

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6mjfge (full show, but backwards)

Mama Mia 2 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MammaMiaMovie/

Cher’s version of Fernado was released and she sang the song live at Cinemacon. Article about it: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/cher-performs-mamma-mia-here-we-go-again-song-at-cinemacon-1105788

Cher Singing Fernando

Cher talks to Entertainment Tonight about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AK5QX2am-M

People Magazine: http://people.com/movies/new-mamma-mia-2-new-trailer-cher/

GnOn Graham Norton, Cher has confirmed she's working on a new album for the Australian tour. Rumors are it might be a full ABBA album.

Interviews from Australia

The Andrew Denton Australian interview was particularly good but it's hard to find online. How old fashioned of them. Good way to keep people from watching your good interviewing. See the trailer in any case: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StiKQPwTymY 

Another Australian piece: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-5720905/Cher-71-speaks-candidly-getting-older.html 

Cher Concerts:

Cher’s Vegas show continued to see news this spring and she scheduled dates for an Australian tour:

  1. Keyboardist D. Laurent Smith (Broadway World)
  2. Perth Show news
  3. Cher on iTunes Chart
  4. Tour Announcement

Cher in People Magazine

My friend Christopher sent me this happy Cher news. In his own words:

Mary--

You will be thrilled to know that in People's new "100 Reasons to Love America" issue, timed in celebration with the 4th of July, Cher finds herself ensconced on the list at #57 [reason:  "A living legend"]. It's worth pointing out that Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Madonna and Aretha Franklin did not make the cut; nor even Dolly Parton and Betty White (glaring omissions both)!  Then again, to keep things in perspective, #58 is "Lawn Flamingos" and other entries include "As Seen on TV Gadgets" [#31], Target's Opalhouse home decor line [#39] and Cardi B's catchphrase "Okuurt" ("'Okay' when spoken like a cold pigeon"--whatever the hell that means) [#88].  I, however, will choose to associate Cher's inclusion with the more luminous choices, such as 60 Minutes [#17], the National Spelling Bee [#41], the Liberty Bell [#43], the Rescue Dog movement [#71], Crayola Crayons [#79], the Parkland High School student activists [#82], and the best ice cream in the world [#100].   

Congratulations, Cher!!!

Christopher


The Cher Show Hits Chicago

Robbie-chicago-showThe prospect of a Cher Broadway show has never much filled my heart with glee. I think this is because Cher's not in it, which always takes the rest of pop culture in the universe down a notch for me. So talking about it last year felt kind of obligatory. But now that I've read about the actual details of the show, I feel a sense of new excitement about it. Because this is scholarship in action. This show is trying to make meaning of her life story. This isn't The Beat Goes On movie, part deux. Broadway artists are working on strategies to try to conceptualize Cher, structurally in a story and aesthetically with visuals and sounds. It's a cool thing for a Cher nerd after all.

The show opened a few weeks ago and there haven't been many reviews, mostly because this is a soft opening to a work in progress. A try out. Some Chicago papers have been doing feature stories on the show, like the Chicago Sun Times. Some interesting excerpts:

"...producer Jeffrey Seller, who is also the producer of “Hamilton” (playing a few blocks away at the CIBC Theatre), which tells the tale of, well, another iconic American. 'Who ever thought you could put Hamilton and Cher in the same sentence,' Seller said amid hearty laughter. 'America would not be the same were it not for Alexander Hamilton and Cher. And that is inarguably true. … People who are tenacious often are people who change the world. Alexander Hamilton unquestionably changed the world, and I think Cher, over the past 50-plus years, has absolutely changed the world"

Cast"'The idea of presenting Cher as a girl group was fascinating to me as a writer,' Elice said. 'You could have one of them argue with the other two, take sides against someone else, show how the three of them could support each other and evolve together over the course of the show. So, it’s not the cinema’s solution of here’s the young one, here’s the middle one, here’s the old one. They’re on all the time together so that we see sort of a refracted image of a personality onstage, which struck me as being a great way into a life that is so varied.'”

“'[The young ‘Babe’ Cher] is fearless but yet vulnerable and optimistic,' Block said of Elice’s unique character concept. '[Midlife ‘Star’ Cher] is confidence and poise. And I’m [as Lady] the wisdom of it all. I think the audience will really be taken aback that it’s not the young one who passes the torch to Lady who passes the torch to Star. We kind of liken it to a Russian nesting doll: There is the one doll, and then you open up and there’s the second and then the third. But yet when you put them all together it makes a complete Cher. And we’re hoping the audience really grasps and takes a hold of that because it’s not only theatrical but it’s very special and moving. … It’s this gorgeous, theatrical Cher therapy session.'”

There have also been interesting articles about the cast (ew.com and Playbill and CBS Local), the promo, Ru Paul's Drag Race put on an unauthorized Cher Rusical that was very smart and politically aware. Carol Burnett attended the opening show to support Bob Mackie.  We saw behind the scenes photos. 

I haven’t seen many official reviews yet (see one at the end of this article) but both Cher fans and theater fans have written some very good commentary on the show’s highlights and drawbacks.

Because these is long, I'm creating a post break for you.

Continue reading "The Cher Show Hits Chicago" »


Breaking the Band

BthbWhen I checked off the tags for this post, they were 'music' and then 'television." I also wished I had a tag for "reality television." Because Sonny & Cher were early music-television and reality-tv before its time. And reality TV with all its baggage of falsehoods. "Seemingly real" is what it is. And the more real it seems, the better its reenactors are.

Cher Scholar is suffering, dear friends, Cher chickadees and zombies. This is a high Cher tide and I'm so woefully behind with it. This whole year has been quite a shit show. First my department reorganized and the work seemed insurmountable. Then I hit a season of traveling that won't end until the end of July. And on top of all that, I'm spending the majority of my free time preparing the new book of poems, which involves endless rounds of editing, cover design work with an art designer, getting my photo done in a tintype theme, and taking care of all the business aspects of the book. 

Meanwhile, Cher is out there with concerts, planned tours, a Broadway show, TV docs, a new album in the works, a new movie and new publicity around all that. So much stuff I would love to indulge in and can't fully. So, so frustrating. 

But I will drop everything for a Cher documentary. And one came on last Sunday on the Reelz channel. I wasn't expecting much. It's the Reelz channel after all, full of shows like "Autopsy: [enter celebrity name]. Salacious and thin shows that seem exploitative. 

This was the first documentary on Cher that sprung for re-enactments, which was very funny. And reinforced for me why Cher and Sonny re-enactments always fail, and fail for all the same reasons. Bad impersonations. Bad outfits.

Let's start with the clothes. Seemingly a simple and innocuous thing. However, with Sonny & Cher these things are crucial. All of their cool cred was tied up in their clothes. You could say this is true for any music personality or band. The only difference between rock outfits and pop outfits is that rock singers try to play it off as authentic and organic and pop singers freely admit to using the device. The clothes on these impersonators, as in all Sonny & Cher re-enactments, looked cheap and ill-fitting. Save up all the money you would spend on a set and put it into the outfits. In comparison to these impersonators, you can see just how good Sonny & Cher looked.

The second issue is the faulty impersonations themselves. This is more complicated. Why is Cher, and surprisingly Sonny, so hard to impersonate well? They always cast for a 60s Cher and then expect her to be able to pull of 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. Cher. It's never been done. Not even professional Cher impersonators try this very often. And this is why the new Broadway show on Cher has split them up.

And then there's Sonny: he's always cast as a doofus. Just compare the Sonny re-enactor to the photos of Sonny in the documentary. The serious, competitive, intense Sonny staring back at us bears no relation to the impersonated buffoony Sonny, which tries to cast his TV persona (admitted dim) into their private scenes. The problem is the enactments are always cartoony, a caricature of the TV show characters. 

Maybe I'm just overly sensitive to a celebrity I know more about. Maybe all impersonations are bad everywhere. But I think the difficulty in impersonating Sonny or Cher (and often the discomfort we sometimes feel watching it) proves how multifaceted Sonny and Cher are as performers and people. This goes against the common critique of them since day one, that they are shallow and fluffy. But the problem of impersonation exposes problems in that theory.

The show also had some great new talking heads:

  • Don Peake, their guitarist during the Wrecking Crew days
  • Michel Rubini who was part of the Wrecking Crew and worked with Sonny & Cher into the 70s doing arrangement work and playing the piano and harpsichord
  • Cher biographers Randy Taraborrelli and Josiah Howard
  • Sonny's ex-wife and wife-after-Cher, Susie Coelho. Say what you want about Susie Coelho but she always provides eloquent, even-handed commentary and she has a unique perspective on Sonny right after he broke professionally with Cher.
  • Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour producer Allan Blye
  • Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour hairdresser Gary Chowen - hairdressers, they know stuff. 

I learned a few new things too. I didn't know, for instance, that Cher's unhappiness around their TV show was anything more than the quality of the music they were singing or the conditions of overwork. That Cher called herself Queen of a Mediocre Medium and wanted to be as big as the Rolling Stones is surprising. What boy-girl duet could ever have a shot at beating a rock band? It's inconceivable. But if anybody could have make a couple duo look cool, maybe it would have been Cher. But is she even that all-powerful?

The show also provided good commentary on what changing Cher's look and sound might mean to her soul, and her ability to grow out of Sonny, and how Sonny was smart enough to be aware of this. I was also surprised Cher offered to stay in the act for a deal of 50/50. We all know Sonny thought Cher's career would tailspin without his guidance.  And we all know how wrong he was. Gary Chowen's comments were good reinforcements around the idea of Cher’s growing up and standing up for herself. This is fresh new narrative that makes mince meat of the idea that Cher outgrew Sonny for ambition.

Chowen also illustrates an iconic irony about Cher when he comments how private Sonny and Cher were around their relationship struggles. Here they were pretending to be a reality-TV like open book onstage and in interviews, but that was all smoke and mirrors, not just their relationship status, but the entire facade of being candid performers to begin with. It was a fake intimacy Sonny had cultivated since their early days. And it's the same fake-frankness, or rather the "strategic frankness that distracts " which you can see Cher practicing even today. 

Inexplicably, the show kept calling David Geffen’s LA club On the Rox. On the Rox was the private lounge on top of his club, The Roxy. There's the club and the lounge within the club. 

 Check Reelz channel for future listings. Here's the trailer. 


Cher as Indian

20180106_150355So this story (finally) broke last year at Christmas, controversy about Bob Mackie and Cher's use of the Half Breed headdress and Cher's presentation as an Indigenous American or American Indian. And I knew I would need to address this story next but I've been putting it off, not because I didn’t want to talk about it, (because I do), but because there is so much to say, so much complexity in this social situation. Could I even sort through it? It involves liberals attacking liberals, it involves conservatives stirring the pot, cultural appropriation, contested appropriation and hundreds of years of history.

20180106_145347I took this image above of the Cher doll as I was taking down my Cher Christmas tree. Amazingly, one of the headdress feathers became caught in the hand of "out-of-the-box" Cher doll, and the image uncannily expresses my ambivalence and sadness around this issue. I'm calling the picture "VAMP with Cultural Feather." That lead me to take this "Sad Stack of Cultures" photo to the right.

I also thought about starting a poll on the controversy but got stumped imagining what question I could ask. Are you Indigenous American or American Indian and offended? Sounds kind of offensive and who would take a poll like that? I’m just hoping for some essay from Indian Country Today to surface on the issue.

So let’s begin with full disclosure, I’ve been a Cher fan for a long, long time and when I was a kid in the 1970s, I thought Cher was and American Indian until I was about 8 years old. I finally found her biography in the local library in St. Louis. And so since then I’ve considered Cher to be half Armenian and half 1950s blond bombshell (although her mom was not a natural blonde). Do most people even know Cher’s heritage? How many have read her biographies? Probably very few. And many may still assume she's Indigenous American (I'm going to stick with that term).

SNegraince the 1960s Cher has been interested in and wearing Indigenous-American-inspired clothing, sometimes on stage, sometimes to major events, sometimes at home. When Sonny & Cher started appearing on variety shows in the last 60s, they started theming their jokes around Sonny’s Italian-ness and Cher’s Indian-ness, to use their word. This was ramped up in their own television shows of the 70s. Cher also moved in and out of other culture areas in her TV performances, including French, Hispanic, American Indian, Japanese, Chinese and African American. Diane Negra talks about Cher’s fluid ethnicity in her book Off-White Hollywood, American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom. She essentially labels Cher as ethnically indeterminate and therefore map-able to many ethnicities. The cover of the book boldly advertises Cher in the Half Breed headdress.

This flexibility is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon if you want Cher representing your community or not. And the gravitas around the issue has evolved over the years. Before the 1970s, ethnicity was avoided on TV or un-apologetically appropriated. In the 1970s, consciousness was being “raised” about the value or “coolness” of ethic differences and this was often explored on hipper TV shows. Looking back now, from where an authentic identity has much more bitcoin, exploration and celebration look very similar to the earlier appropriations.

For years I’ve been wondering how Cher’s identification as Indigenous American and her choices to wear Indigenous-American-inspired clothing has landed from decade to decade. Older Native Americans seemed hesitant to weigh in. But younger activists seem to be taking more offense, but still below the level of what Paris Hilton (Halloween costume) and Wayne Coyne (stage costume) received a few years ago.

The issue is complicated for many reasons:

  1. There’s the song “Half Breed” from 1973 that no one seems to be taking issue with because a) it’s a song about harassment of minorities and b) it’s a bad song living nine lives due to its camp factor. On the one hand it has cheesy drum beats that might indeed be too ridiculous to offend. On the other hand, it showcases details like the offensiveness of calling an Indigenous woman a “squaw.”

  2. HeadlresslesscherThen there are Cher’s stage "costumes" which are the most visible element, the Half Breed headdress Cher has been wearing since 1974 is actually modeled after a male war bonnet and some in the Indigenous American community have equated it with wearing an unearned purple heart. And from their point of view, the bonnet is no more part of a “costume” than a Catholic clergy cassock is part of a “costume.” People don’t like to hear their religious objects demeaned by words with trivial connotations. Regardless, over the years this headdress became an “iconic outfit” for Cher, right up there with the Turn Back Time leather strap-on and the fur (possibly bobcat) vests of the mid 1960s. The controversy over the headdress exploded in December and Cher has since stopped wearing it in her Vegas shows (see a fan's picture to the right). Cher is still wearing the Bob Mackie design that goes with it. It’s interesting to me that the December scandal raised the issue again now when Cher has been wearing the headdress in her concerts since 1999. There may be a reason for that.

  3. Then there's the issue of Cher presenting herself as Indigenous American on her TV shows. And although Cher presented herself as many international and national archetypes on the shows, she was most notably "Indian." A clear story has never emerged with documented proof about Cher’s alleged Cherokee identity. And documented proof is itself a controversy (see below).

  4. And then there was the Twitter fight with the activists, starting from a statement coming out of Donald Trump’s camp. Conservative and liberal politics added another layer of frustrations and communication misfires between Cher and activists and you'd think there would have been a statement ready from Cher’s public relations team, like crafted 30 years ago.

The Trump connection further complicates the issue for sure. (from Jezebel.com)

“In 2017, nobody in their right mind would take this seriously as an emblem of Native American cultures......except Trump’s new Canadian/American pop star appointee for Native American Ambassador on the National Diversity Coalition! Former Pussycat Dolls member Kaya Jones!”

Some American Indian activists took issue with Jones’ claimed heritage:

“Since the December 8th announcement that she will represent Native Americans on the national stage, Jones has been tagging herself as a #Halfbreed along with claims that her father is Apache Native American. When asked, she can’t name the reservation her father lived on or his tribal origins...but what she can do to represent Native American peoples is channel Cher. So now people previously unfamiliar with “Half-Breed” are taking Cher to task.”

Those being millennial Indigenous Americans. I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with their feeling what they feel. Why should they remember cultural work that may or may not have happened in their lifetimes? All they see is Cher appropriating.

When Cher was on prime time American television she was a cool, hip superstar and giving airtime to images of minority women rarely seen elsewhere on prime-time, glamour television. Young girls and boys were seeing that and influenced by it. But that was cultural work done then, a perishable credential.  Some day we may look back on the cultural work of Will and Grace and see it as stereotypical, too. 

I’ve always had this gnawing feeling that Cher was somehow “getting a pass” on her “Indian look.” Why, over the last 50 years, was nobody was calling her out on it? That's not to say I didn't like it. But it’s impossible to believe that there have been no American Indian ticket-holders to the last two decades of live shows that have included the song and the headdress.

This was a bizarre related incident. I went to a show in 2013 with a white, Gen Y girl who became greatly offended by Cher’s Eastern Indian sari worn for the song “All or Nothing.” But she had no strong feelings whatsoever about the ceremonial Indigenous American headdress. (I've included a few existing articles below.)

I’m guessing here that Cher’s Indigenous American fans are older and this makes me think younger fans are feeling more offended because they have zero context to Cher’s persona in the 1970s. I could be wrong about this but there does seem to be a response difference in age groups. And newer kids have no context to “the way things were,” which has always been a thin-ice defense as it is.

Quite possibly the idea of Half Breed has outlived its previous pass. Which is making older fans feel very sad because they believe Cher as Indian was doing cultural work. (But maybe it’s also doing cultural damage now.) Older fans also feel the headdress is beautiful and they nostalgically love it and feel bad hearing that their love of something has been construed as bad or wrong. Do they then not have agency to love or appreciate? I feel for the fans here, too.

And that the whole issue beginning as a continuation of anger over Trumps position vis-a-vis Indigenous Americans just makes it all the more tragic, because the headdress issue has been lumped in with frustration over the status of the Keystone Pipeline struggle, Trumps dismissive Pocahontas comments, and his choice of an ambassador a woman with dubious claims to Indigenous American heritage.

And then there’s the very real issue of proving your Indigenous Americaness, which has controversy even within Indigenous American communities and leads to issues like blood quantum and time spent growing up on the reservation, how you get excluded and included even in your own communities.

“If you're Native American, there's a good chance that you've thought a lot about blood quantum — a highly controversial measurement of the amount of "Indian blood" you have. It can affect your identity, your relationships and whether or not you — or your children — may become a citizen of your tribe.” (NPR) 

So what a mess it all is. How can we even separate out all these issues for a second. Again, I keep waiting for a good essay on the Cher problem to appear somewhere. I want a method to proceed, guidelines, context, a way forward. But unfortunately life doesn’t always work that way.

As a word nerd, I’m inherently interested in the evolution of offensive words, including a word like “costume.” We learn in etymology class, that culture is impossible to promote, protect or contain. That’s why it’s so hard to get everyone to use a certain word or not use a certain word, like “costume” or "Native American" or even more offensive words like whore and retard. It’s also why we keep wanting to “dress up” like nuns and ceremonial chiefs for celebratory events. Sometimes when you’re trying to learn or appreciate another culture, you try to wear another man’s hat.

You can say tone means a lot, but quite often even the tone is all wrong. And policing tone is full of problems. It’s unfortunate but culture has a massive mind of its own. Not that we should just let that stand and endure. But we should recognize that not everyone gets the memo, literally. But even emotionally and intellectually. Teaching empathetic understanding takes work, much of it teaching concepts that are abstract and painful to deliver and receive.

The fact that many conservatives dismiss word politics has to be addressed here as well. I have no doubt that if Cher was a member of their circle, they would be defending the Half Breed headdress to the ends of the earth, as part of their ongoing fight against the “scourge of political correctness.” In this atmosphere, other liberals become easier targets because they care at all. Which makes the headdress another casualty of the recent heightened awareness of Trumpian offenses.

So yeah, it’s 2018 and we’re focusing on micro-aggressions, which should be a good thing. We’re finally getting to the micro stuff, unintentional but still hurtful stuff. Problem is we’re losing focus on the macro-aggressions, which in no way have been wrapped up: discrimination in marriage, jobs, housing, physical violence, bullying at an all time high. Our energy seems frayed and raw right now. Do we keep finishing work on the macro but not stop work on the micros?  Will the macro ever resolve itself? Will racism ever stop happening?

Another issue with liberal call-outs is when critics offer no way through. What is acceptable behavior between cultures? What are we working toward? We need examples of that and we need it on TV. What was so great about 1970s television as it began to integrate, (projects of which Cher was a part), was the fictionalization of race issues and examples of how to behave correctly. We’ve completely lost that with network and market-designed segregation of television programming and the self-segregation that occurs with too many segmented channel (and online) choices.

But if there’s no way through for offenders or victims, what could possibly change? Confusion and paralysis sets in. “I’m drowning here and you’re describing the water,” misogynistic Melvin Udall says in As Good as it Gets. At some point, calling out all the drownings becomes absurd. 

But I can hear the response: “it’s not my job to find a solution to the world’s problems.” I wonder whose job it is. And if it’s nobody’s job officially then it’s everybody’s job. So it is your job, long story short. And adding one more voice to the chorus of complaints will do nothing but ensure all our future suffering, and the suffering of all our friends.

 

Some discussion of the issue to date:

  • Native or Not (how controversial was “Half Breed” and were there protests?) (2008) From Mental Floss
  • "Is Cher Indian" (2013) from Waiting to Get There
  • "Cher in a Headdress Again" (2013) from Newspaper Rock
  • "The Controversy of Cher's Heritage" from Native Arts
  • Recap of the December 2017 drama on Jezebel.
  • "My Strange, Strange Holidays Arguing with Cher, yes, THAT Cher" (2017) from TiyospayeNow
  • "Why is Cher Arguing with Native Twitter" (2017) from Storify