A Cultural Detour Along the Way

Greetings, ladies and germs. I know it’s been awhile since TheCulturedTraveler has taken pen to paper (electronically speaking), and I apologize for being so missing in action.

There are extenuating circumstances and, before I tell you about the trip on which AAC CPA and I embarked just yesterday, I’ve decided to fess up and tell you know how I’ve been spending my time of late.

One might even say that I’ve been distracted with a different kind of culture, one that doesn’t necessarily pertain to travel except, perhaps, in one’s own mind.

Several months ago, I was invited to participate in the making of a Broadway show. While initially intrigued – but not really certain – at first I demurred. Eventually, the temptation was too great not to take a leap of faith and, so, I’ve just made my debut as a Broadway producer of a new production of David Henry Hwang’s groundbreaking play, M. Butterfly, now playing at the Cort Theatre.

Artwork

(Are you as astonished as I am?)

Before things get totally out of hand and you get the wrong impression, I am not THE producer but one of a group of them. One of our lead producers brought me aboard and it’s been an amazing journey so far.

You might be interested to know that the star of our play is the celebrated actor, Clive Owen, who I’m sure you’ll recognize from his many films including Gosford Park, The Bourne Identity, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Closer and the television series, The Knick.

Clive Owen - 03
Our star, Clive Owen

The production has been directed by the visionary Julie Taymor, who stunned audiences with her magnificent production of The Lion King, which just began its 21st year on Broadway.

David and Julie
Playwright David Henry Hwang with director Julie Taymor

If you are unfamiliar with the play, first produced in 1988, it’s based on an actual event about a low-level French diplomat in mid 1960s Peking who becomes intrigued and enamored with a beautiful and mysterious singer at the Peking Opera. They embark on a 20-year affair that ends up in Paris, where our diplomat learns that things are not as they appear to be when they are both charged with espionage and put on trial in a French court.

What’s amazing about David’s original play is that it was inspired by a one-column article he read in the New York Times in the mid-1980s. And because there was so little available information at the time, he had to make up just about the whole thing.

New York Times: The Real Story

As it turned out, almost everything he wrote turned out to have actually happened!

The original production, starring John Lithgow, caused a sensation, won that season’s Tony Award for best play and ran for nearly two years, before setting out on a national tour and was later adapted into a film starring Jeremy Irons. The play made an overnight star of B.D. Wong, who also won a Tony in his Broadway debut.

John Lithgow and BD Wong
BD Wong and John Lithgow in the original production

For this new production, David, with Julie’s encouragement, went back and decided to fill in some of the blanks from his original play by incorporating new information from actual court records and newspaper and magazine articles that had become available only after the original play had opened. He’s also deepened and created a more complex relationship between the diplomat and the singer.

The title of the play, M. Butterfly, is David’s metaphor. Using Puccini’s popular opera, Madama Butterfly, he challenges the audience to reconsider its assumptions regarding east versus west, gender identity and fluidity, and fantasy versus reality. The play is now more startling and revelatory than it was in its original form. It is also highly entertaining theater. At its very core, it’s a play about love, espionage and betrayal.

Jin and Ha - Flat
Jin Ha and Clive Owen

Our production of M. Butterfly went into rehearsal at the end of August, began previews on October 7th and opened on October 26th. I’ve seen the show about 9 times and I can tell you that audiences are riveted from the very opening moment until the play’s shattering conclusion two hours later.

Opening Night
David, Jin, Julie and Clive on Opening Night

Opening Night Playbill
Opening Night Playbill

Every element of the play has been carefully considered and brilliantly executed. Julie Taymor has assembled an extraordinary company of 11 truly gifted actors (Clive is backed up by Jin Ha (Broadway debut as Song Lilong), Murray Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Enid Graham, Clea Alsip, Celeste Den, Jess Fry, Jason Garcia Ignacio, Kristin Faith Dei and Scott Weber), creative designers – it’s a big play, with something like 60 scenes – and the work of Paul Steinberg (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting) is especially noteworthy, as are the wonderful contributions by composer Elliot Goldenthal and choreographer Ma Cong. As far as I’m concerned – tho’ I may be somewhat biased – M. Butterfly is a show that cannot be missed by anyone who loves provocative and challenging theatre. But, most of all, it will be an experience that you will not easily forget; it’s a play that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

Clive Owen
Clive Owen as Rene Gallamard

Jin Ha as Song Lilong
Jin Ha’s Broadway debut as Song Lilong

In fact, I’ve been told so many times that, after leaving the theatre, our audiences go home and immediately onto Google to get more information about the play and the true story.

Butterfly Lovers
Butterfly Lovers

And so, should you find yourself coming to New York this fall or winter, I hope you’ll pay a little visit to our little show. I promise you an evening you will not soon forget.

CULTURAL TIP: M. Butterfly on Broadway

PS. In my next post, to be published very soon, I’ll get back to our latest travel adventure, currently underway. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

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One Last Look At Where It All Began

In 1969, Stephen Sondheim was in a bind. He hadn’t been represented on Broadway since his collaboration with Richard Rodgers (a promise he’d made to his dying mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, several years prior) on the ill-fated 1965 musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? And he hadn’t been heard as both composer and lyricist since the 1964 Anyone Can Whistle, which lasted all of 9 performances.

For the past several years, he and his collaborator, James Goldman, had been working on a new musical entitled The Girls Upstairs, which had been optioned by producer Stuart Ostrow. More recently, Sondheim and George Furth had started work on a new musical to be produced and directed by Sondheims’s long time friend, Harold Prince. At that point, it seemed that Sondheim would have two shows opening on Broadway during the 1969-70 season.

And then Ostrow let his option lapse on The Girls Upstairs. Sondheim lamented to Prince that he saw years of work going down the drain, to which Prince made the following proposition: If Sondheim would agree to finish the show with George Furth first, Prince would agree to produce and direct The Girls Upstairs as his next project.

Ever the pragmatist, Sondheim agreed, which turned out to be a stroke of profound good luck. The Sondheim-Furth collaboration turned out to be Company, which opened in April 1970 to strong reviews and potent box office. More importantly, the collaboration between Sondheim and Prince became a turning point in the American musical. Over the next eleven years, they would present six shows, all of them distinctly different from each other and, until the last of them, considered to be a high-water mark of musical theatre creativity, if not always commercially successful.

But back to The Girls Upstairs, which – to that point – told a realistic story of a reunion of former showgirls and their husbands and what had happened to them over the 30 years they had all known each other. The show also had hints of a possible murder mystery: during the first act, it developed that each of the four central characters had cause to commit murder; the second act would reveal why and what happened. But Hal Prince had other ideas.

He recalled a photograph that had been taken of Gloria Swanson in the ruins of New York’s Roxy Theater, which had been razed in 1960. Swanson had been one of the greatest silent film actresses and had fallen into obscurity until 1949, when Billy Wilder offered her the role of Norma Desmond in his masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, which was released in 1950. As Norma herself said, it wasn’t a comeback, it was “a return”. Now, some 11 years later, she was immortalized in that photograph. And it occurred to Prince that he didn’t want to direct a realistic story about former showgirls with murder on their minds; he had something much bigger in mind. And that’s when Follies was born.

Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson amid the rubble of the Roxy Theater, 1960

As a result, James Goldman jettisoned most of the original plot and, instead, created a mood piece in which the former showgirls and their husbands were now obsessed with life-altering decisions they had made decades before and the ramifications of those actions. The play would now take place inside a theatre on the eve of its demolition. Goldman and Sondheim had discovered early on that, as they eliminated plot points, the play became more interesting. Additionally, in earlier drafts, the 4 central characters lapsed into behavior as if they were 30 years younger. Now a consequential decision was made, instead, to have their younger selves portrayed as characters in the play. They would, literally, be beside themselves with grief.

This was precisely the kind of theater that lit a fire in Hal Prince. Recognizing that this production would be bigger and more demanding than anything he had done before, he decided to elevate his choreographer on Company – a young man named Michael Bennett – to serve with him as co-director. As the score was now approaching 22 musical numbers, there would be plenty for both of them to do: Bennett would be responsible for the musical staging and Prince would direct the book scenes.

It was to be the most expensive show to date to open on Broadway with an $800,000 budget. The celebrated scenic designer, Boris Aronson, would create the magnificent sets, Florence Klotz, the hundreds of costumes required, and Tharon Musser the intricate lighting.

Set Model - Boris Aronson
Boris Aronson’s set model for Follies – note the apparitions on the upper levels

Loveland - B&W
The main set transformed into “Loveland”

Final Scene.JPG
The final set piece – the theater is now partially demolished

Loveland Beauties
Florence Klotz’s Loveland beauties

The set, in fact, was so complicated and challenging to work upon that Prince decided to rehearse the show at the scenic shop in the Bronx so that the cast, some of whom were already in their 60s and 70s, could grow accustomed to the stage, thus saving valuable time when the show moved out of town. So, every day, the cast would board a bus in midtown Manhattan and travel uptown for intensive rehearsals. (This move also created additional pressure on the scenic shop, as it reduced the time it had to build the sets.)

There was some anxiety over the fact that the musical score hadn’t been completed when the show went into rehearsal. With the show’s new structure, the last half hour consisted of a Follies-esque sequence entitled Loveland, during which the 4 principal characters would each confront their personal bête noir in a song or production number. But some of these numbers couldn’t be staged, because they hadn’t been written. It is said that Michael Bennett had to order costumes for two of these numbers without actually knowing what they were going to be. As the rehearsal period drew to a close, Sondheim delivered the missing numbers, which were quickly staged.

The company traveled to Boston for its out-of-town tryout and played its first performance by the seat of its pants on a Saturday night in February 1971. The physical production was so complex that it wasn’t until the first performance that the show could be run start to finish without stops. There were other problems. The opening sequence – a prologue in which all the characters and their “ghosts” were introduced – was confusing to the audience. A number written for Yvonne De Carlo, cast as a former showgirl now turned television star, was a one-joke song and much too long. As the show was intended to play in one act without intermission, pacing and flow became an issue. Alexis Smith, who had been cast at the regal Phyllis Rogers Stone, hadn’t yet asserted herself and lacked the confidence to take center stage and deliver a star performance.

And there was one other major problem bubbling up to the surface: Michael Bennett didn’t like Goldman’s book, feeling that it was too dark and depressing. While it couldn’t be argued that Follies was a dark show (it was intentionally so), it offered at least the possibility of hope at the end of the evening. Bennett wanted a play doctor (Neil Simon was rumored to be his choice) to come to Boston and add some lightness to the proceedings. But he was overruled by his co-director, Hal Prince, who (not insignificantly) was the show’s producer and, therefore, the “muscle”. He liked the doom and gloom and felt – along with Goldman and Sondheim – that it served a larger purpose. The theme of the show was that one must learn to live with the decisions that you’ve made in life, rather than to dwell upon the past and become paralyzed by the mistakes you may have made along the way. “The Road You Didn’t Take” is not the end of the line; it’s a detour to someplace else.

One of the brilliant aspects of the original production was that, as stated in the playbill, it took place “tonight” and was set at “a party on the stage of the Weismann Theatre” – meaning right now and in real time. It therefore gave the show an immediacy that cannot be reproduced in revival. The show looked back to 1941 – the last year of the fictional Weismann Follies – and, thus, created a context for its audience in 1971. Thus, the references in the score, which today’s audiences might not grasp: Benda Frazier, Windsor and Wally, Pinko and stinko, Beeby’s Bathysphere, heebie jeebies – would be recognizable to 1971 audiences. They would also recognize Prince’s original cast as names from their collective past: Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Yvonne De Carlo, Gene Nelson. And those with longer memories might dimly recall some of the supporting players: Ethel Shutta (herself a Ziegfeld girl), Fifi, D’Orsay, Mary McCarty. John McMartin, whose brilliant performance as Ben Stone has never been surpassed, was a journeyman actor but – at that point – didn’t have the name recognition of the other leading actors.

Dorothy Collins & Alexis Smith
Dorothy Collins and Alexis Smith

Gene Nelson and John McMartin
John McMartin and Gene Nelson

Yvonne De Carlo
Yvonne De Carlo

Ethel Shutta
Ethel Shutta, introducing and immortalizing “Broadway Baby” at age 74

Fifi D'Orsay - Ah! Paris
Fifi D’Orsay

Mary McCarty
Mary McCarty leads the ladies in “Who’s That Woman?”

During the four-week Boston tryout, many changes were made. It took Bennett until the very end of the Boston run to come up with the prologue that would stick and absolutely and unambiguously set the tone for the evening. Sondheim locked himself in his hotel room to come up with a replacement song for De Carlo, a little ditty called I’m Still Here, which is said to have been based on the life of Joan Crawford and has become an anthem for cabaret ladies of a certain age. The show was tightened and the production fine-tuned to the point that it became a very well-oiled machine.

More importantly, during the Boston run and as the show began previews in New York prior to its official opening, Alexis Smith began to deliver the performance Prince knew she was capable of. It started with a replacement production number for her in the Loveland sequence, along with a new costume, which was much more complimentary and showed off her fabulous gams. Things like that can make all the difference.

Lucy & Jessie - 02
Alexis Smith, new costume and new song, takes center stage

And so, on the evening of April 4, 1971 at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, the house lights dimmed, an ominous drumroll sounded followed by 4 somber chords from the brass section as the curtain rose on an empty and darkened stage. Downstage center was a spectral apparition, an impossibly tall and beautiful showgirl. She slowly raised her arms toward the audience – in welcome or in supplication? Imperceptibly at first, she started to move as if in slow motion, soon to be joined by other spectral figures: more showgirls, a dance team, and a line of 6 chorus girls, also in slow motion and silently mouthing the words to some forgotten tune as they strutted slowly around the stage. Suddenly, a major domo and a waiter or two strode through the scene in real time, as unaware of the apparitions all around them as the apparitions were of them. And then, breathlessly running onto the stage, appeared Dorothy Collins, as former showgirl Sally Durant Plummer, announcing to no one in particular how thrilled she was to be at this party tonight. As she began speaking, one of the chorus girl ghosts was wrenched from her position in the line and stopped dead in her tracks as her eyes bore into Dorothy Collins’ Sally – she was the ghost of the younger Sally observing what became of herself thirty years later and, perhaps, not liking what she saw. And that was how Follies began.

Follies Showgirls
Ghostly apparitions appearing during the prologue

Two hours and twenty minutes later, the curtain fell on the opening night performance. Amid many cheers, there were dissenters who didn’t go for the show feeling that, like Company the season before, it was cold and off-putting. I can well imagine that middle-aged audiences were certainly dismayed by the notion of characters who felt they had made wrong turns in their lives when younger and were now paying the price. And then there were others who, perhaps having been beguiled by the title of the show, thought they were attending a light entertainment. After all, No, No Nanette had opened to great acclaim just 3 months earlier – wasn’t Follies supposed to be more of the same?

Opening Night Relief
The cast immediately after the opening night curtain fell

Actually, anyone who took the trouble to take even a cursory look at the original poster for Follies – a somber face resembling simultaneously a Follies-type showgirl and the Statue of Liberty, with an enormous crack running down the right side – must have realized that No, No Nanette this wasn’t going to be.

Byrd Poster
David Edward Byrd’s brilliant poster design

The reviews ran the gamut from A to Z, as Sondheim might have said. Some critics loved it, some respected it, some even understood it; others dismissed it, except for the extraordinary physical production, which couldn’t be faulted.

When awards season came around, Follies was nominated in multiple categories and seemed to be the show to beat. It ultimately won seven Tony Awards: Alexis Smith (Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical), Stephen Sondheim (Best Score), Harold Prince and Michael Bennett (Best Direction of a Musical), Michael Bennett again (Best Choreography), Boris Aronson (Best Scenic Design), Florence Klotz (Best Costume Design) and Tharon Musser (Best Lighting Design). With seven Tony Awards in the bag, it seemed inevitable that Follies was perfectly positioned to take the award for Best Musical of the season which went, instead, to Two Gentlemen of Verona, produced by Joseph Papp and originally presented in Central Park and later moved to Broadway. It is instructive to note, when discussing the history of Follies, that the two major Tony Awards it lost were for Best Musical and for Book of a Musical (which, ironically, also went to Two Gentlemen of Verona).

The show ran in New York for 522 performances and then went on the road, with almost the entire original cast, first for a week in St. Louis, and then to Los Angeles for an open-ended run to inaugurate the Shubert Theatre in Century City. The LA engagement was intended to be the first stop of a national tour. In LA, the show got the kind of reviews of which a producer can only dream. And yet, the show lasted not even 3 months before closing. In spite of the rave reviews, the show couldn’t establish an audience. And so, on October 1, 1972, the original production of Follies came to an end.

The production lost its entire investment.

For those of us who fondly remember that original production, we’ve waited for a new production to recapture the magic we experienced almost half a century ago. After many near misses and disappointments, it seems that lightning has struck again, this time at the National Theatre in London.

To be continued.

 

 

Report from London – The First 24 Hours

Good morning and greetings from a gloomy, cool and wet London. Our first two days here were gorgeous, sunny and warm. Such is the weather in the UK, I suppose. But a little gloom and doom will not prevent us from having a marvelous time.

Here’s my account of our first 24 hours:

2017-08-27 01 - BA Check-In
Check in at JFK was nasty and very slow. BA reports being “woefully understaffed”

Fortunately, once past check-in and security, the Concorde Room awaited, where we had a lovely pre-flight dinner.

2017-08-27 02 - Heirloom Tomato Burrata
Heirloom tomato and burrata salad – very tasty

2017-08-27 03 - Steak
Perfectly roasted sirloin accompanied by vegetables and a lovely 2013 St. Emilion

Just as we finished dining, it was time to board our flight. Nothing much to report, except to say that BA took very good care of us. Once we reached cruising altitude, our beds were made and we drifted off for about 4 hours of sleep. Before landing, we enjoyed a hot breakfast to start the day.

Our flight arrived on time and, once past customs and baggage claim, we headed for the Heathrow Express, perhaps the best (and certainly fastest) way to get into London – it’s a 15 minute trip. And, by the way, you can get a nice discount if you book your trip online at least 30 days in advance of your travel date.

2017-08-28 04 - Heathrow Express
The Heathrow Express, comfortable and fast

TRAVEL TIP: HEATHROW EXPRESS

The train dropped us off at Paddington Station and, from there, it was a quick 15 minute taxi ride to our hotel, the Shangri-La at the Shard, across the river and a stone’s throw from London Bridge. (Normally, the trip can take longer, but it was a bank holiday, so the streets were pretty empty.)

Shangri-La Shard Logo

We arrived at the hotel at about 10:00 AM and, very fortunately for us, our room was available. Not only that but, because we had booked through the AmEx Fine Hotels and Resorts Program, we were given an upgrade to the Iconic City View Room, which has the best views in the hotel. Thanks, Veronica!!

Iconic City View Room
Our Iconic City View Room – they weren’t kidding about the views

2017-08-28 05 - St. Paul
View #1 – St. Paul’s Cathedral (to the left)

2017-08-28 06 - London Bridge
View #2 – London Bridge (to the right)

TRAVEL TIP: The Shangri-La at the Shard

TRAVEL TIP: AmEx Fine Hotels and Resorts Program

Once we unpacked and got settled in, we decided to walk off the jet lag and grab a bite of lunch. Because we’re across the river from most (if not all) of the action, we took the tube over to  Leicester Square (in the heart of the West End), and started strolling.

Leicester Square
The tube delivered us to Leicester Square in the West End

From there, we walked through Trafalgar Square and over to Piccadilly.

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square on a beautiful Monday morning in August

By the time we made our way over to Piccadilly, we were feeling a bit peckish, so we decided to stop in at one of our favorite restaurants in London, The Wolseley. 

A bit of history, courtesy of The Wolseley’s website: “In 1921, Wolseley Motors Limited commissioned the architect, William Curtis Green, to design a prestigious car showroom in London’s West End. He drew on Venetian and Florentine influences, as well as incorporating the Eastern exotic touches that were in fashion at the time. The grand, atmospheric interior with its towering pillars, arches and stairways was testament to the great ambitions of The Wolseley Car Company. The cars were displayed on the marble floor and cost between £225 – £1,300. Unfortunately, the cars did not sell well enough and by 1926 the Company was bankrupt.

Wolseley Showroom
The Wolseley Showroom, ca. 1921.

“Barclays Bank acquired the building and a new branch opened in April 1927. William Curtis Green was recalled to install managers’ offices on either side of the main entrance (now serving as a bar and salon) and a banking counter, further developing the Eastern lacquer theme. He also designed specialized furniture including a post box and stamp machine, still on display today.

“Chris Corbin and Jeremy King secured the site in July 2003 and its restoration and renovation was overseen by David Collins Architects. The Wolseley opened in November 2003.”

Wolseley Cafe
The Wolseley today

The great thing about The Wolseley is that it’s open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and post-theatre supper. So you can eat there just about any time of day.

We decided to share a couple of things:

2017-08-28 09 - Chicken Sandwich
AAC had a grilled chicken, bacon and avocado sandwich served on ciabatta

2017-08-28 08 - Salad Niçoise
I opted for the Salade Niçoise – a very sensible choice

The food at The Wolseley is always delicious and you’re in an unusual and beautiful dining room and, should you be interested, you’re directly across the street from the world-famous Ritz Hotel.

DINING TIP: The Wolseley

As we finished lunch, the jet lag hit us bigly. So we decided to tube it back to the hotel and take a substantial nap. It felt SO GOOD!

We awoke refreshed and ready to get cleaned up and changed and headed out for our first theatrical adventure of the trip: the West End revival of the 1963 musical, Half A Sixpence

On our way to the Noël Coward Theatre, we passed the Colisseum, home of ENO (the English National Opera). This fall, the company is presenting the world premiere of a new opera by Nico Muhly, Marnie. You may recognize the title from the 1960’s Hitchcock film of the same name, which starred Tippi Hedren (of The Birds fame) and the quintessential James Bond, Sean Connery. Well, ladies and gents, how lucky are we that AAC and I will be back in London for the 1st performance this coming November?

2017-08-28 10 - Marnie
AAC looks forward to Marnie – isn’t that an amazing poster?

Half A Sixpence is based, I kid you not, on the novel, Kipps, The Story of a Simple Soul, by none other than H.G. Wells. It has been said that some plot points in the novel are autobiographical. The musical was revived by Cameron Mackintosh and created a star with the astonishing peformance of 23-year old Charlie Stemp. The actor playing the leading role of Arthur Kipps must carry the show, as he is onstage almost nonstop and is featured in no less than 15 songs. Stemp’s performance is not only accomplished – he is an amazing dancer and constantly in motion – but he’s also genuinely charming in the role and the audience adores him. The show is a constant delight and has been given a lovely and very substantial production.

2017-08-28 11 - Half A Sixpence
AAC arrives for his first show of the trip: Half A Sixpence

Stemp - 01
A Star is Born: Charlie Stemp onstage as Arthur Kipps in Half A Sixpence

Stemp 3
Stemp and Company: Pick Out A Simple Tune

I only wish that I could recommend this delightful show to you as a CULTURAL TIP but, alas, the production closes this weekend. Oh well.

Following the performance, we were peckish again, and so we decided to drop in at another of our favorite culinary establishments (and one at which we dine every time we’re in town), The Ivy, which is celebrating its centenary this very year. Unusual for us, we arrived without a reservation, but we were very lucky to score a table.

The Ivy
The Ivy – a great place to sup post-theatre

DINING TIP: The Ivy

We had a lovely supper and The Ivy is always so friendly and welcoming. 

By the time we finished, it was almost midnight and our first day in London was drawing to a close. It was time to taxi back to the Shangri-La, take some lovely pharmaceuticals and drift off into a delightful sleep with visions of what we’d done that day dancing in our heads.

 

 

If You Blinked, You Might Have Missed It

Or: 8 Hours in London, including travel time!

So, it’s Friday morning and we’re just about to embark on our Etihad fantasy, and I thought I’d give you the details of our sprint through London yesterday. In a word, it was “perfect”.

Our flight from JFK arrived right on time and, because we were fast-tracked through border control, we sped down to baggage claim and, unlike all US baggage systems, our luggage was already on the carousel and ready for us to pickup. We were on the street moments later.

We had intended to take a taxi from Terminal 5/Heathrow to the Hilton London Heathrow, which is located at Terminal 4. As it turned out, our intrepid AAC, CPA saw a shuttle bus which would do the very same thing. Ten minutes later, we were dropped off at the hotel.

Hilton Exterior
AAC, CPA does the Hilton and does it well

We had requested an early check-in (for a nominal surcharge), so our room was ready upon arrival, rather than the usual 3:00 PM check-in. We chose a king junior suite to give us some extra room and it was more than adequate. And the bed was SENSATIONAL!

We got settled in, checked out the hotel – there are several different dining venues down at the lobby level and a nice bar. 

And then we were off to London. Remember how I mentioned that there is a 10-minute covered walkway directly from the hotel to Terminal 4, getting us to both the Piccadilly line for our trip into London and, also, to Etihad check-in for our flight to Abu Dhabi? Well, I wasn’t misinformed.

Hilton - Walkway
Follow the walkway!

We hopped onto the Piccadilly line and – an hour later – we were exiting at the Green Park Station. You may think that’s a long time to get from Point A to Point B, but with London traffic as heavy as it is, we arrived in London possibly faster than if we’d taken a taxi. All for 3.10GPB each!!

AAC Puts on The Ritz
AAC, CPA puttin’ on the Ritz

Strolling along Piccadilly towards the theatre, AAC CPA was a bit peckish, and we all know how he gets when that happens. So we stopped into one of our favorite casual spots, Paul, and picked up some sustenance.

Paul - pre-matinee snack
Dee-lish!

From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where we had tickets to see Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? What better way to spend a lovely afternoon that with Mr. Albee and his twisted characters?

AAC - Haymarket - 01
AAC, CPA in the theatre throng

AAC Damian & Sophie
AAC, CPA and Damian and Sophie

Haymarket Interior
The beautiful interior of the Haymarket 

The Set
The dimly lit set

Verdict on the play? Let’s just say that it was a very intense 1 hour and 50 minutes. Due to a bit of jet lag on both our parts, AAC, CPA and I may have had a few long blinks during the show….. But we enjoyed it nevertheless. (BTW, this play is not for the feint of heart!)

From the theatre, we shimmied over to our favorite hotel, the Corinthia in Whitehall Place, so that we could have a pre-dinner cocktail at the trendy Bassoon Bar. It’s a beautiful and low-key space with excellent cocktails. We know the manager there and he always takes wonderful care of us. They also have yummy nibbles.

Bassoon Bar Negronis
No, No, Negroni!

Corinthia Tulips
AAC, CPA tiptoes through the tulips as we leave the Corinthia

After lazing around the Bassoon Bar for an hour or so, it was time to get back on the road and head over the Hawksmoor Air Street, one of several Hawksmoor establishments throughout London. It’s basically a steak house, but really well done. We shared a couple of apps, a beauty of a beef fillet, yummy sides, a lovely Malbec and, for dessert, a very special Sticky Toffee Pudding.

Sticky Toffee Pudding
The aforesaid Sticky Toffee Pudding at Hawksmoor Air Street

By then, it was time to tube it back to the Hilton. Piccadilly Station was just 2 minutes from the restaurant and, within an hour, we were back at our digs.

Hilton - Walkway - Night
AAC, CPA retraces his steps after our 8-hour London adventure

By the time we got back to our room, the combination of not sleeping too much the night before and all of the day’s activities conspired to send us right to bed. We set a 6:00 AM wakeup call, slept fitfully and, now, here we are awaiting our flight, which we will board in about 30 minutes.

Etihad Lounge Entry

AAC orders breakfast
AAC, CPA fortifies himself before boarding our flight.

Etihad Flight Board
The flight board

So now it’s time to pack it in for awhile. Barring any surprises – both your’s and mine – the next time you’ll hear from me will be when we get to Dubai.

That’s all, folks!!

 

 

On the Road Again – Part One

Greetings from a slightly sunny and cool Sunday morning in New York City. Spring is trying to arrive in fits and starts. I suppose one must be patient.

I know we’ve been away a long time. We’ve missed you, but we’ve had a very productive winter, attending lots of theatre and opera and the like, dining out at establishments both new and familiar.

But now it’s time to get out of town and our upcoming trip will take us to some fabulous places and, perhaps, just a bit out of our comfort zones. 

The main event of this trip will be a 19-day cruise from Dubai to Piraeus (Athens). We’ll sail through the Middle East and the Suez Canal, to Israel and through the Greek Islands. It’s going to be quite the big deal, I think.

Our ship will be the 3 months old Seabourn Encore. As you know, we’re very loyal to Crystal Cruises, and this will be our first time aboard a Seabourn vessel, but everything we’ve heard augers well and we’re looking forward to trying something new. 

Seabourn Encore
The beautiful new Seabourn Encore

Spoiler Alert: If you look at the 2nd deck up from the jacuzzi at the front of the ship, the outdoor area on the right is the balcony for our cabin. We’re literally under the bridge.

More about the cruise later.

But first, we must get to Dubai to board the ship. And therein lies a tale and a bit of an adventure. 

It’ll be no surprise to you that we like to travel well and, most importantly, we like to get the best bargains wherever we find them.

We also like to tick off our “bucket list” items, one of which is to fly on Etihad Airways in the first class Apartments.

Oh – and we want to do it on miles, ie., for cheap!

So, for the past year, I’ve been looking to score 2 award flights from JFK to AUH (a/k/a Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates). There are 2 flights daily but, in order to fly in the Apartments, you must fly the A-380, which service is currently offered only on 1 flight daily. Awards in first class on this aircraft are impossible to obtain. The other daily flight is on a smaller aircraft and, therefore, doesn’t offer the Apartment. It’s always something, right?

(Wouldn’t you know – starting on June 1st, Etihad will offer A380 service on both daily flights from New York and, at that point, it’s possible to find award availability if you can book about 3 months in advance. Sigh!)

To cover ourselves, we booked flights on British Airways through Heathrow (London) with a connecting flight to Dubai. We were able to do it all on miles, but BA charges hefty taxes on awards flights. Even so, for a few hundred dollars each, we booked first class for both segments. These flights were booked last May and, ever since, I checked and rechecked award availability on Etihad, just in case.

BA 1st - 777
Our British Airways chariot from New York to London

BTW, we love taking the BA overnight flights to London Heathrow. If you’re lucky enough to be flying in first class, you’ll have access to the Concorde Room at JFK, which features a proper restaurant, so you can have dinner there (no charge for food and/or drinks) and, then, once your flight has taken off, you can climb under the covers and sleep for most of the light. Delovely!

Concorde Room JFK - 01
The Concorde Room at JFK

Concorde Room JFK - 02
You can enjoy a proper meal in the Concorde Room before your flight.

After months of frustration being unable to get that elusive Etihad award, I had – what Dorothy Kilgallen on What’s My Line used to call – a wienie! I remembered that Etihad has service to Abu Dhabi from London Heathrow. Would it be possible to find an award on that route?

The Etihad website has a very useful tool that allows you to find available awards and I hit the jackpot in finding exactly what I needed! Now, I wondered, would American Airlines allow me to rebook the 2nd segment (London – Dubai) over to Etihad (London – Abu Dhabi)? Only one way to find out.

The American AAdvantage rep couldn’t have been nicer: Not only was it possible, but we ended up saving several hundreds of dollars on the 2nd segment, because there were virtually no taxes! The whole thing took about 15 minutes and we were done! Woo-Hoo!

Etihad 380
The Etihad A380 – a beautiful piece of engineering

Etihad Apartment 3A and 4A
Our Etihad “Apartments”: mine on the left and AAC CPA’s on the right

Etihad Bar
If you want to be social, drop by the bar at 36,000 feet!

There was one small glitch, however: Because the Etihad flight departs London at 9:30 AM, we will end up having a 22-hour layover in London. Well, folks, I certainly know how to put a layover to good use!

Within 30 minutes of booking the Etihad flight, I’d arranged for matinee tickets to see Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? at Theatre Royal Haymarket, and made an early dinner reservation at one of our favorite London restaurants, Hawksmoor in Air Street. In between, we’ll swan over to one of our favorite hotels, The Corinthia in Whitehall Place, where we’ll enjoy a cocktail at the lovely Bassoon Bar.

Theatre Royal Haymarket
The historic Theatre Royal Haymarket

The Goat
Hey – recognize the guy on the left? He was Brody on Homeland!

Bassoon Bar - 02
The trendy Bassoon Bar at the Corinthia

Hawksmoor Air Street
Great steakhouse and more: Hawksmoor in Air Street

Oh, and as we needed a place for the night, I booked accommodations at the Hilton London Heathrow. It was recommended to us by friends who know. And get this: the hotel is a 10-minute walk to Terminal 4/Heathrow, from which our Etihad flight will depart the next morning.

Hilton Exterior
The Hilton is a 10-minute covered walk to Terminal 4 at Heathrow

Hilton Room
Cool accommodations at the Hilton

Walkway LHR - Hilton
Hotel to airport – quick walk – how great is that?

So, our layover will be filled with fun things to do: culture, liquid refreshment, grub.

Oh, and from Terminal 4/Heathrow to Piccadilly Circus in Central London, we can take the Piccadilly line in just about an hour. How great is that?

Tube Map to London
How to get from here to there.

The flight from London to Abu Dhabi take about 7½ hours (wish it were LONGER!), so we’ll arrive in Abu Dhabi at about 8:00 PM local time. For the transfer to Dubai (about a 90 minute drive), we’ve arranged for our hotel – Raffles Dubai – to pick us up at the airport.

Dubai
Iconic Image – Dubai

Raffles Dubai
Our digs in Dubai – cute, right?

We’ll have 3 nights and 2 full days in Dubai before boarding Encore on Monday, the 17th.

There, in a nutshell, is the first 5 days of our trip. Another preview on the cruise will follow in a couple of days.

Enjoy!

Au revoir, Paris: Our Photo Album

Bon soir, mes amis! This will be my last entry on our holiday trip to Paris and, instead of a lot of gabbing, it’s just going to be photos taken while we were there. Some you may have seen in earlier entries but there are some new ones here, too.

Enjoy!

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Friday evening: British Airways offers on-the-ground-buffet dining for some overnight flights

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AAC, CPA taking advantage of same

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Our Open Skies cabin

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Saturday morning: Checking into the fabulous Peninsula Paris

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Saturday afternoon: AAC, CPA arrives at the Arch de Triomphe: Bon jour, Paris!

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And then grabs lunch at Ladurée just down the Champs Elysses

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Classic Club Ladurée

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The hotel provides us with our own stockings

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Saturday evening: Negronis at Bar Kléber at the Peninsula

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Followed by Christmas Eve dinner at Bistrot de L’Oulette

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Sunday morning: Christmas continental breakfast at Le Lobby

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Sunday afternoon: checking out the competition – Four Seasons George V

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Sunday evening: Pre-opera dinner at L’Opera

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Followed by AAC, CPA at the Palais Garnier

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The grand foyer and Christmas tree at the Palais Garnier

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Iphigénie en Tauride curtain call

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Christmas Night: the Champs Elysses all gussied up

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Monday morning: Irina, of Paris Muse, shows us the Louvre

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And we get to see the Mona Lisa. Wait, what???

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Monday evening: AAC, CPA arrives at Le Grand Véfour

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The jewel-box dining room at Le Grand Véfour

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Sensational duck liver ravioli – one of their “Classics”

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Post-dinner view from our Uber on the way back to the hotel

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Tuesday morning: AAC, CPA takes Le Metro to our next Paris Muse tour

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AAC, CPA outside of Notre Dame Cathedral

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And with our terrific Paris Muse guide, Jason

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Tuesday evening: Cocktails and dinner at Monsieur Bleu

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Cool light fixtures at Monsieur Bleu

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View from the best tables at Monsieur Bleu

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Wednesday afternoon: Lunch at Caviar Kaspia

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You always get pickles with your caviar – a Russian thing?

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2nd course of “The Rasputin Set” – caviar with a baked potato

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Famous sites on the way back to the hotel: the Madeline

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Place de la Concorde – late afternoon

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Wednesday evening: 42nd Street at Théâtre du Châtelet

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AAC, CPA at Théâtre du Châtelet

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42nd Street onstage at Théâtre du Châtelet

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Thursday morning: Paying a visit to Jeu de Paume

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Seeing the exhibit “Uprisings”

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Thursday afternoon: And now over to Bibliothèque nationale de France

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AAC, CPA pays homage to Richard Avedon and Audrey Hepburn

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Part of the Avedon exhibit at Bibliothèque nationale de France

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Thursday evening: Gala farewell dinner at L’Oiseau Blanc atop the Peninsula Paris

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The view from our table at L’Oiseau Blanc

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AAC, CPA takes a picture at L’Oiseau Blanc

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A replica of the actual L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird)

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Friday morning: AAC, CPA heads back to reality and New York City

That’s all, folks!!

A Romantic Atmosphere

Whenever the great 1960s musicals (a/k/a the last gasp of the “Golden Age of Broadway”) are written about, the list is invariably topped by such shows as the leading lady musicals (Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Funny Girl), the groundbreaking shows (Cabaret, Hair), the satiric and/or subversive shows (Bye, Bye Birdie, How to Succeed), the unlikely blockbuster (Fiddler on the Roof).

What’s often missing from these lists is one of my favorite shows that is too easily dismissed: the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joe Masteroff 1963 musical She Loves Me.

Based on the 1936 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Milklos Laszlo, you may know the source material better from its 3 film adaptations: Ernst Lublisch’s sublime 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner, starring a perfectly cast James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, MGM’s musical remake for Judy Garland and Van Johnson, In the Good Old Summertime and, in 1998, Nora Ephron’s re-remake You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Shop Around Poster

Shop Around - Sullivan Stewart
Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart – note the body language

She Loves Me has had 2 major Broadway productions (the original and a revival in 1993), neither of which returned its original investment. Having said that, not every work of art can be judged a failure or success solely on the merits of its box office receipts. Had that been the case, Follies never would have been revived, even though no production (and there have been many of them) of that masterpiece has ever turned a profit.

She Loves Me - 1963 - Playbill
Playbill from the original 1963 production

She Loves Me - 1963 - Cook & Massey
Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey in a tense moment from the original production

She Loves Me - 1963 - Cassidy & Baxley
Jack Cassidy and Barbara Baxley in the original production

As I write this post, a new Broadway production of She Loves Me has just begun previews at Studio 54 and has set March 17th at its opening night. AAC CPA and I were there last week for the 1st preview and by the time you have finished reading this post, I hope you will have already ordered your tickets.

She Loves Me - 2016 - Playbill

CULTURE TIP: She Loves Me at Studio 54

So, what is it about this story that so captures our fancy and has certainly withstood the test of time, considering its many iterations over the past 80 years? And, in particular, what is it about She Loves Me that casts a spell over its audiences and completely captivates us to such an extent that it is difficult to remove the smile from your face well after you’ve left the theatre?

As with everything, let’s start with the story.

Here comes the BIG SPOILER ALERT, which is revealed within the first 30 minutes of the show: the leading man (Georg, originally played by Daniel Massey) and lady (Amalia, originally played by Barbara Cook) work in a “parfumerie” – a place which no longer exists – where perfume was sold and/or made. Being on the cusp of middle age and still single, they have each entered into a correspondence relationship with someone they believe to be their possible soulmates. Unbeknownst to each of them, they are writing to each other. And, oh yes, at work they cannot stand the sight of each other.

So maybe the plot might seem like boy and girl meet cute, complications ensue, but it all works out in the end – in other words, a formula story with a denouement we all saw coming as soon as were in on the gimmick.

But that’s not what’s going on here. In the finest of the Parfumerie adaptations – and I consider The Shop Around the Corner to be every bit as good as She Loves Me – the story becomes elevated by the material that was written by, respectively, Samuel Raphelson and Ben Hecht for the movie, and by Masteroff, Bock and Harnick for the musical. Put quite simply, the material for both the film and musical is just about perfect on all counts.

Joe Masteroff wrote the books for 2 musicals in the 1960s: She Loves Me and, three years later, Cabaret. Whereas the book for Cabaret is a hard-edged, cynical Brechtian orgy, She Loves Me is its complete opposite: witty, genuinely funny and completely romantic. More importantly, Masteroff has created an ensemble of 7 leading players, each of whom is completely human and completely recognizable to the audience. Simply put, we know these people.

Best of all, while the show is in no way sentimental, the show has great sentiment. By that, I mean that the story plays on to its inevitable conclusion but is in no way sappy or sugar-sweet. Whenever the situation threatens to crossover towards a false note of saccharine, our writers come to the rescue with a quip, a witty lyric or a surprise. In this way, it is almost anti-musical in its intentions and its presentation.

That is, except for its exceptional book and score.

It is at this point that we give a tip-of-the-hat to Mr. Bock and Mr. Harnick. They created, perhaps, their most harmonious, humorous and romantic score. There was so much of it, in fact, that the original cast album ran to 2 discs.

The amazing thing about this score is how, from the very opening number, it draws you in, not only to the story but, more importantly, to the inner lives of the characters. Masteroff’s book gives each character his or her special moment when they take center stage and shine. Because She Loves Me exists in musical comedy land, these moments are almost always musicalized. What’s most striking to me is the imagination inherent in the score: the moments that Bock and Harnick choose to musicalize are, in many cases, so surprising. Right at the top of the evening you have “Sounds While Selling” – a double trio of sorts in which customers are being waited upon by their salesmen in overlapping dialogue. Or our leading lady’s first number “No More Candy”, in which she “auditions” for a job at the parfumerie. Or Sipos’ “Perspective”, in which this nerdy clerk explains how not to lose your job and tells you exactly who this Sipos person is.

I thought you might enjoy Amalia’s “audition” scene in the movie and compare it to the musical moment in the play. In the first clip, Margaret Sullavan makes a sale and, in the second clip, Barbara Cook musicalizes the same scene.

The Shop Around the Corner

No More Candy, sung by Barbara Cook

The “second” couple – Ilona and Steven Kodaly (originally played by  Barbara Baxley and Jack Cassidy) get their due as well. In each act, they have back-to-back numbers that, in the first act, totally inform their characters and, in the second, resolve their stories. These numbers are comic but also real. And, in the current revival, one of these numbers – “Ilona” – has an interpolated dance break because Mr. Kodaly and his Ilona are played by the supremely talented Gavin Creel and Jane Krakowski, both of whom know a little something about “la danse”.

Our leading couple has ample opportunity to show the various colors of their personalities. When – finally! – the pen pals agree to meet, but still don’t know their real identities, Georg’s “Tonight at Eight” displays the manic combination of fear and joy that an almost blind date inspires. Amalia’s “Will He Like Me?” takes a more touching and introspective look at a woman alone and contemplating what may be her last chance for happiness.

Later, in the second act, they have back-to-back numbers. The ice has now begun to thaw for our lovebirds (he’s figured “it” out, but she doesn’t yet know) and first she, in the showstopping “Ice Cream” and then he, in the show’s title song, invite the audience to share in their newfound joy and surprise. (Notice how, in each song, both Amalia and Georg sing “Will wonders never cease?”)

It’s heady stuff.

And, by the way, let me just mention that the leading lady for this revival of She Loves Me is none other than Laura Benanti. She is one of those performers who, in the old days, Cole, Irving, Alan and Fritz, and Oscar and Dick would be fighting over to cast in their next show. It is a real treat to see Ms. Benanti onstage in a role that fits her like a glove that she might have purchased down the street from that parfumerie.

She Loves Me - 2016 - Cast
Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Cavin Creel and Jane Krakowski, now onstage at Studio 54

But mostly, what’s so deeply moving and entertaining about this show is that, for the entire evening, you are confronted by real people going through their lives in full view of the audience. While She Loves Me might be considered light entertainment, the show is played not for laughs but for real (which, by the way, makes the show riotously funny).

I know that there are many more exciting shows on Broadway just now (Hamilton, anyone?).

But in the final analysis, She Loves Me is both a charmed show and a show with great charm. It’s the type of show that is no longer being written and, quite frankly, may never be written again.

She Loves Me is now playing at Studio 54; performances are currently scheduled through Sunday, June 12th.