MARY J. BLIGE
A SLICK CHICK
(ON THE MELLOW SIDE)
Photo by Ruven Afanador
I interviewed Mary J. Blige several years ago for a cover story for LA Confidential. This DIGITAL DIALOGUE is a bit fuzzy with background noise but if you concentrate – and Blige’s brilliance is her own ability to concentrate and cut through the noise and bullshit and pain of her life – you can hear her wisdom and how she has spun her pain into a kind of regal gentleness. She has been on a journey of self-forgiveness. Blige offers up that journey transformed into her artistry. She is not only a great singer and performer, but also a profoundly gifted actress. I look forward to director Liesl Tommy mining that gift with her and am thankful to Tommy for casting her as Dinah Washington in the upcoming biopic of Aretha Franklin in which Jennifer Hudson will play Franklin. It’s quite a cast, including Audra McDonnell as Aretha’s mother and Forest Whitaker as her father.
Click below to listen to our bit of curated conversation.
THE HOT & HUMBLE
Currently receiving raves as Seymour in the off-Broadway revival of "The Little Shop of Horrors," the actor has gained a whole new fan base on director David Fincher's Netflix series "Mindhunter" that does not conflate with the fan base he has as the voice of Kristoff in the "Frozen" franchise. Groff talks to sessumsMagazine about his varied career from those roles to Melchior in "Spring Awakening" to King George in "Hamilton " on Broadway to "Looking" on HBO, his being an out gay man, and why he has never been a part of social media.
Jonathan Groff photographed by Billy Kidd for GQ
Lismore photographed by Colin Gray
LOOK OF DANIEL
Daniel Lismore is a style icon and alchemist. A sculptor. A visionary. A conflation of the mystical and majestic. We talked to him in the tiny ornate anteroom of the King's bathroom at the London Coliseum before a performance of "The Mask of Orpheus" for which he conjured the costumes. What a journey he himself has been on although he only likes looking forward.
LONDON CULTURAL ROUNDUP: FREUD, BLAKE, PEYTON, OPERA, BALLET, AND LOTS OF PLAYS
In William Blake’s Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses, he wrote: “Degrade first the arts if you’d mankind degrade/Hire idiots to paint with cold light and hot shade.” He went on to insist that “the foundation of empire is art and science. Remove them or degrade them and the empire is no more – empire follows art and not vice versa, as Englishmen suppose.” Lucien Freud chimed in: “An artist should appear in his work no more than God in nature. The man is nothing; the work is everything.” Elizabeth Peyton: “I lived in London for a time in the ’90s and I love it here. You know, I just go and see shows and have great dinners and walk around.” I sort of combined all these quotes in my recent trip to London which included taking in the Freud exhibition of self-portraits at the Royal Academy. The William Blake show at the Tate. And the Elizabeth Peyton exhibition that carried on from the downstairs spaces at the National Portrait Gallery to be paired with other work in the Tudor and 17th Century and Victorian galleries. There was an exalted irony at the incongruous heart of all these shows, and in much of the theatre I saw. Freud and Blake and Peyton were all giving great performances-by-proxy with their art. Click below to read further about their shows. That’s one of Freud’s self-portraits on the left above, one by Blake in the center, and a Peyton portrait of Liam Gallagher that can viewed in the Tudor gallery. I also write about other performances that moved me during my latest month-long cultural sojourn to London; I will be the proxy for those. Click here.
Jordan Roth is the scion of a real estate mogul father and mother who is one of New York's most adventurous theatre producers. He has combined the professional acumen of both his parents to carve out a career all his own as the President and majority owner of Jujamcyn Theaters. Tony-Award-winning producer. Style icon. Philanthropist. Political activist. Father. Husband. Roth might be the reigning New York diva of the step-and-repeat these days, one who doesn't genuflect to gender, but he never repeats himself, never puts a false foot forward. There is something both bracingly new about him yet old-fashioned in his courtly manner. Jordan Roth can be rather ladylike in his fashion sense, but he is finally a true gentleman.
Roth’s portrait in Twelv Magazine
Richard Thomas, who gave me hope in his role as John-Boy on The Waltons, and who was my first crush. Here are a few of early photos that explain that crush. Also a family portrait of Thomas and his family, an Upper West Side Waltons. And finally a photo of his father in his dance school. There is a striking – even eerie – resemblance.
RICHARD THOMAS NEVER PHONES IT IN,
AND OTHER STORIES
This iteration of sessumsMagazine.com is about memory in many ways. I guess life itself is as well unless one is successful in being completely mindful of living in-the-moment and being present as one sheds the past and feels the future is but a temporal concept. The only reality we have finally is The Right Now.
My reality in many ways right now is this online magazine, a manifestation of my cultural interests and limited resources and hard work and a spirited, spiritual refusal to live a life of resignation. But it is also about culling memories, not shedding them as I hover here in this present form, digital and determined and daring to trust my instincts of survival.
We begin this latest iteration with a Digital Dialogue from my files. It is with the divine Mary J. Blige in which she shares her own memories about being molested and her journey toward recovery. Like all memories, it is a bit fuzzily conjured with all the background noise that accompanies it, but it is still discernible and deeply moving.
Michael Engler and I go back to our in-our-early-20s days in New York City when we were both struggling to make it in the theatre. His success has always moved me. He most recently directed the film version of Downton Abbey and is now embarking on his next project with Julian Fellows, Downton’s creator, which is a series for HBO set in the Gilded Age of New York City. I like it when kind people find a way to navigate what can be at times the unkind shoals of show business. He’s done it with a lot of grace and grit – which sort of is how I’d describe his description of Maggie Smith and what it is like to work with her.
I first met Jonathan Groff when he was starring in Spring Awakening. I guess you could say I stalked him. I prefer to think I cultivated him. We joke about it now. I consider him a friend. After seeing Spring Awakening, I sent him and the cast a collection of G.W. Pabst movies, including the director’s Lulu, an adaptation of Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Jon met me for a coffee before his curtain for The Little Shop of Horrors for which he has received raves as Seymour. We talk about that, his New Zealand boyfriend, and his Netflix series Mindhunter, among other subjects.
Amy Fine Collins and I go back to our Vanity Fair days. I think we met around 1990 when I was editing the Fanfair section there and she was one of the writers I inherited from David Kuhn who had edited it before I got there. I have always been her champion. I first met Thom Browne during his first few months in New York fresh from Notre Dame where I think he was a swimmer, if I’m recalling this memory correctly. He was the boyfriend of a friend. Again, I have loved watching him navigate the even trickier shoals of the fashion business and stay true to his talent and vision. I would even call him a visionary. Amy, a style icon who is in The International Best Dressed List’s Hall of Fame, has just co-authored with Graydon Carter Rizzoli’s International Best Dressed List: The Official Guide. She and Carter – along with Aimée Bell and Renaldo and Carolina Herrera – are co-owners of the International Best Dressed List. In this iteration of “The Chat” she and Thom chat with Thom’s partner, Andrew Bolton, the Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
No one in London is more singular regarding their sense of style than Daniel Lismore whom Vogue magazine heralded as “England’s Most Eccentric Dresser.” Lismore is also a gifted costume designer which was on display during my recent trip to London when I was mesmerized as I marveled at his creations for the English National Opera’s production of composer Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus. It was something I’ll never forget, a new memory.
Reeve Carney, who stars as Orpheus in the Tony-winning musical Hadestown, sat with me at the Walter Kerr Theatre before a performance to talk about his role and how he views acting as finding new “frequencies” in which to exist. I will never forget our conversation nor his striking lesbian-like beauty. There was a loveliness about him that went deeper than the expert way he art directs himself. We talked about his singular style, in fact. Reeve is finding his nightly frequencies as Orpheus in a Broadway theatre owned by producer Jordan Roth, a style icon all his own. My telephone interview with Jordan had a heightened frequency all its own, too. Jordan is putting such joy into the world with his producing acumen and making memories for a whole new generation of Broadway audiences. His sense of style is also joyous – even political.
My conversation with Jordan was a rare phone interview that worked on the intimacy-as-performance-art level that all good interviews must have. I seldom do phone interviews with people. Mainly because I think it is important to be in the same room with a subject to conjure the frequency of that heightened intimacy. The energy of a conversation is visceral and one loses that on the phone. Moreover, the technology for recording on an iPhone is rather difficult for some reason. Against my better judgment, I agreed to do a phoner with Richard Thomas because I have long been such a fan of his. He has a special place in my life. As a boy who longed to be a writer who was living out in the country in Mississippi and watching Thomas as John-Boy on The Waltons, I got my first sense of hope that such a longing were possible. Plus, I had my first crush on him.
I had the most amazing conversation with the actor, who is currently starring in the Lincoln Center Theatre production of The Great Society as Hubert Humphrey to Brian Cox’s LBJ. It is scheduled to close on November 30th. He was so smart and so fun. I could have talked to him about his New York City boyhood surrounded by New York City ballet dancers for the whole conversation. “I grew up sitting in Balanchine’s lap,” he told me. That is the one precise sentence I remember him saying, for all I have now is the memory of that conversation since none of it recorded on the phone. I can tell you that he thinks of Hubert Humphrey as the Fool to LBJ’s King Lear; he is his conscience. “Until he wasn’t,” I recall Thomas saying as he alluded to Humphrey’s sellout about Vietnam since he had been a voice of resistance to the Vietnam policy for much of his Vice Presidency.
Thomas is heading out on the road soon to play Atticus Finch in the first national tour of the Broadway production of Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Bartlett Sher. It is brilliant casting. Just as Atticus is part of the national consciousness as an avatar of decency, so too is Thomas in the role of John-Boy on The Waltons. The conflation of these two characters in this one fine and decent man and actor might just be another kind of avatar the country needs as Thomas out there in the hinterlands as Finch finds a way to help us out of the cultural morass we are suffering during this dark and indecent Trump interregnum. Indeed, Thomas loves touring. He led an ensemble that successfully toured the country in 12 Angry Men and, according to him, proved the financial viability of tours. But his love of touring is based on more than just proving his and a tour’s ability to make some big bucks for producers. It is about mining that decency out there in America that is hungry to see its decency reflected back instead of warped in the distorted carny sideshow mirror that Trump has been holding up for too long. “When Alfred Lunt died, Lynn Fontanne said that she received masses of heartfelt condolence letters,” Thomas told me, referencing the legendary acting couple. “Most of those letters were from people who were so grateful for having seen her and her husband on tour. I was so moved when I read that in the biography of them.”
But back to that boyhood spent with Balanchine. The actor’s father, Richard S. “Dicky” Thomas and his mother, Barbara Fallis, were dancers with NYCB from 1953 -1958 when they founded the New York Ballet School in the studio that George Balanchine offered them when he found a new space for the company. “I grew up backstage at New York City Ballet,” Thomas told me. “That company was my family. I remember being in the hotel in Copenhagen when Mr. B’s wife, the ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq – or Tanny, as she was known in the company – became so ill on tour and her polio began to cripple her. I was five at the time. But I have vivid memories of it. As I said, they were all my family at that point. I even played with Stravinsky – not in the orchestra but childhood games. Stravinsky and Balanchine were my playmates.” I confessed to Thomas that I grew up culturally when I moved to New York City and began to attend the New York City Ballet and was inculcated with the abstract dances of Balanchine. I never was able to develop a love of story ballet except for Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. “I sort of agree,” Thomas said. “But there are some great story ballets. Giselle. La Sylphide. But I do have loyalty to Balanchine ballets. I was the company’s mascot when I was child. But it wasn’t all ballet studios,” he said, referencing his duties registering students at his parents’ ballet school where Twyla Tharp and Cynthia Gregory took class. “My father was from the coal mining region of Kentucky, so every summer I’d head down there and have my barefoot John-Boy experiences.”
Thomas will combine that pastoral Kentucky country upbringing along with his erudite Manhattan courtly manner when he heads out to the country to bring audiences his Atticus Finch, whom he will embody finally as more deeply theirs, as ours. Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch – from the barre to the Bar – will be giving audiences new memories as the country out there coming to see him will have the opportunity to remember its better self and maybe rise again to embrace it. Let’s hope for that. But Richard Thomas has always given me hope. I still have that crush.
Ian McKellen as Edward II. 1969.
STARS IN BLACK TURTLENECKS
Ian McKellen long before the Sir was bestowed upon him and he came out of the closet and Gandalf gave him more fame and fuck-you money. "I often thought my gravestone would say, 'Here lies Gandalf. He came out,'" he has said. "But I've had enough of being a gay icon. I've had enough of all this hard work, because, since I came out, I keep getting all these parts, and my career's taken off. I want a quiet life. I'm going back into the closet. But I can't get back into the closet, because it's absolutely jam-packed full of other actors."
Ian McKellen photographed by Damon Baker for Attitude magazine.
IN THE COMING WEEKS ...
Laura Linney. Judith Light. Cara Buono. Ellen Barkin. Annette Bening. Jane Fonda. Parker Posey. Style icon and photographer Lisa Eisner. Producer Tom Kirdahy. Aaron Tveit. Ato Blankson-Wood. James Cusati-Moyer. Duane Michals. John Waters. Alan Cumming. And countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo
Churchill photographed by Marc Brenner
Smith photographed by Dominique Nabokov
THE DAILY DIVE
HERE ARE MY DAILY POSTS ABOUT POLITICS AND CULTURE. AND MY META-MEMOIR. SMALL-TOWN HUDSON. SMALL-TOWN NEW YORK. SMALL-TOWN LONDON. THIS IS WHERE WE ARE ALL A SMALL TOWN TOGETHER. WELCOME TO SESSUMSMAGAZINE.COM'S NEWEST FEATURE.
Sighing Over Cy
On my recent trip to London I happened into a room full of Cy Twombly’s work in the National Portrait Gallery. (Left: A detail from his self-portrait November 24, 1963) “He was never around assholes,” says John Waters, who was his friend and is his biggest fan. “And that is success. His work kept assholes away.”
Life of Riley
The Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre has a major retrospective of Bridget Riley’s work on display until January 26, 2020. (Left, Over, 1966) “For me nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces,” she once said. “I work with nature although in completely new terms.”
The Inheritance: A Review and A Remembrance. Seeing this remarkable play in all its 6 acts brought lots of narrative threads together not only in the play but also each of the lives sitting there in the theatre. Here are some of mine.
Orpheus is everywhere these days. At the Metropolitan Opera. At the English National Opera. This spring he will arrive at the Young Vic. Reeve Carney played him at The National Theatre in "Hadestown" before raising hell in the part on Broadway. He talks about his Greenwich Village upbringing, his singular style, and how he finds Orpheus's "frequency" in order so frequently to summon him forth.
Photo by Tyler Shields