May 18, 2011

Not Forgotten

by Sheila Packa

I learned to ride
the two wheel bicycle
with my father.
He oiled the chain
clothes-pinned playing cards
to the spokes, put on the basket
to carry my lunch.
By his side, I learned balance
and took on speed
centered behind the wide
handlebars, my hands
on the white grips
my feet pedaling.
One moment he was
holding me up
and the next moment
although I didn't know it
he had let go.
When I wobbled, suddenly
afraid, he yelled keep going—
keep going!
Beneath the trees in the driveway
the distance increasing between us
I eventually rode until he was out of sight.
I counted on him.

That he could hold me was a given
that he could release me was a gift.

"Not Forgotten" by Sheila Packa, from Cloud Birds. © Wildwood River Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1804, the French Senate proclaimed Napoleon Bonaparte emperor of France. History remembers Napoleon as a conqueror and tyrant, but he began his military career as a respected leader and an advocate for French freedom.

Napoleon was born in 1769, educated at military schools, and quickly climbed the ranks of the French army. He brokered several European peace deals as he gained more power in France. Before he conquered much of the rest of the continent, he centralized the French government, created the Bank of France, and introduced some legal reforms.

German composer Ludwig van Beethoven admired the French military genius before he was crowned emperor, and when the French ambassador to Austria asked Beethoven if he would write a symphony to honor Napoleon, the composer agreed. So Beethoven drafted a score he called “Bonaparte.” But when Napoleon was crowed emperor on this day, Beethoven had a flash of the future. He tore the score in half, proclaiming that Napoleon “would become a greater tyrant than anyone!” The piece — Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Opus 55 “Eroika” — was never associated with the Napoleon.

The third-longest-running show in Broadway history closed on this day in 2003, after more than 16 years and 6,680 performances. Les Misérables was based on the 1832 novel by Victor Hugo and composed by the French composer Claude-Michel Schonberg.

The Broadway show began as a French-language concept album that was turned into a stage production and put on at a sports arena for three months in Paris in 1980. But when the booking contract for the arena wasn’t renewed, the show ended. However, a French director named Peter Farago never forgot that stage production and, in 1982, he presented the idea of creating an English-language version of Les Misérables to the English producer Cameron Mackintosh, who had recently launched Cats in London. At first, Mackintosh refused, but he eventually changed his mind.

The show was in production for two years and it opened in London on October 8, 1985, at the Barbican Center. Critics hated it, but the public couldn’t get enough and the three-month engagement sold out almost immediately. The show opened on Broadway on March 12, 1987 and won seven Tony Awards that season, including Best Musical.

Set in 19th-century France, the story follows the main characters’ struggles for human rights, love, revolution, and redemption through a period of 18 years. At first, many English-speaking viewers wrongly thought the musical was about the French Revolution, when in fact it was about a later student insurrection.

The Broadway finale was a spectacular affair that included not only the current troupe of actors, but also featured 300 alumni who had appeared in the show throughout the years. Tours of Les Mis continued after the Broadway finale and a revival production of the show re-opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on November 9, 2006.

The Tony Award-winning song “I Dreamed a Dream” is sung by the character Fantine as she is dying:

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted

From the archives:

It is the birthday of comedy writer-cum-actress Tina Fey (books by this author), born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania (1970). Her mother, Jeanne, worked in a brokerage firm and her father, Donald, was a university grant proposal writer. She has one older brother, named Peter.

She was a high school honor student, a member of the drama club, and she performed in a summer theater group. She enrolled at the University of Virginia where she studied playwriting and acting, and after graduation in 1992 she moved to Chicago, where she took night classes at the improv training center The Second City, while working at a YMCA during the day. In 1994, she began performing with The Second City, traveling around the country and doing eight shows a week for two years. Three years later, she was hired as a sketch writer for Saturday Night Live and she quickly rose to head writer.

A while later, producer Lorne Michaels approached Fey to appear on SNL’s Weekend Edition alongside comedian Jimmy Fallon. Her performance was well received. A longtime glasses-wearer, she had wanted to wear contacts on camera, but when someone commented on how great her glasses looked during a run-through, she wore them instead. They became part of her signature look — and, as it would happen, enhanced her resemblance to the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. She played Palin in a series of sketches during the run-up to the 2008 election.

Today, Fey writes, produces and stars as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, a comedy she created in 2006, based on her experiences as head comedy writer at SNL. Her memoir, Bossypants, was released earlier this spring and quickly went to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

She said, “I like to crack jokes now and then, but it’s only because I struggle with math.”

On the ways in which comedy writing is like giving birth, she said:
Torturous experience with eventual release.
Once it’s out in the world, there’s very little you can do to change it.
Eventually it’ll want to borrow your car and go out on dates with boys.”

In response to people who claim that women are not funny, she said: “My hat goes off to them. It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.” 

On this day in 1897, Bram Stoker (books by this author) staged a live performance of Dracula at the Lyceum Theatre in London in order to protect the theatrical copyright.

Stoker was the overworked manager of the Lyceum, where he kept long hours planning the company’s seasons, organizing overseas tours, managing financial records, and undertaking secretarial duties for the Lyceum’s founder, the famed Shakespearean actor Henry Irving. (When Stoker died in 1912, obituaries predicted that he would be best remembered for his association with Irving.)

Yet Stoker worked on Dracula in his few spare moments over the course of six years. And on this day, just a few days before the book was published, Stoker hastily pieced together large sections of the book for a stage production. The play was billed as Dracula; Or the Undead and was performed for theater employees and lucky passerby. It lasted four hours. The final decision to call the book simply Dracula was made almost literally at the last minute.

It is the birthday of British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (books by this author), born in Ravenscroft, Monmouthsire (1872). He wrote Why I Am Not a Christian (1927), A History of Western Philosophy (1945), and The Principles of Mathematics (1903). He won the 1950 Nobel Prize in literature. He is one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century.

He said, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

And, “Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.”

And, “The place of the father in the modern suburban family is a very small one, particularly if he plays golf.”

At 8:32 a.m. this day — a Sunday — in 1980, an earthquake struck Mount St. Helens, causing a massive eruption of molten lava that killed 57 people and countless animals.

The region had experienced earthquakes for two months prior to the eruption, and the volcano had been venting steam. Concerned scientists pressured authorities to close Mount St. Helens to the public, a move that likely saved thousands of lives. The force of the earthquake caused the entire north face of the volcano to slide away, and that caused an explosion of rock and lava so powerful that it overtook the avalanche that was simultaneously occurring on the north face.

The erupting lava rose to 80,000 feet and ash drifted into 11 U.S. states. The heat caused nearby glaciers to melt, which formed large mudslides that spread as far as 50 miles from the volcano.

It’s the birthday of film producer, director, and three-time Academy Award winner Frank Capra, born in Bisacquino, Sicily (1897). He moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was a young boy, and he worked odd jobs until he finally landed work at Columbia studios. In 1928, he signed a contract with the studio and began making his signature films, which include It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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