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Work of Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg come together in Skylight’s ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’

In 1988, modernist composer Philip Glass ran into out beat poet Allen Ginsberg in St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City. Glass had agreed to perform at a benefit for the Vietnam Veterans Theater and asked Ginsberg to accompany him.

Ginsberg grabbed one of his own books, Planet News, from the bookstore’s shelves and introduced Glass to “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” the 1966 anti-war poem he had written while traveling across the country. Glass composed a piano piece and the pair performed, with Ginsberg reading the poem to Glass’s music, at the Schubert Theater later that year.

“Allen and I so thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration that we soon began talking about expanding our performance into an evening-length music-theater work,” Glass writes on his website. “It was right after the 1988 presidential election, and neither Bush nor Dukakis seemed to talk about anything that was going on. I remember saying to Allen, ‘If these guys aren’t going to talk about the issues then we should.’”

The result was Hydrogen Jukebox, a chamber opera that features the poetry of Ginsberg, who died in 1997, paired with the music of Glass, who recently turned 77. The work will be performed by Skylight Music Theatre March 14–30 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre.

“I don’t even want to call this an opera because the term carries so much baggage,” says Skylight artistic director Viswa Subbaraman, who is serving as the show’s music director. “The combination of theater, narration, electronica and opera makes this just an incredible piece of theater for me.”

Hydrogen Jukebox drew its name from a line in “Howl,” Ginsberg’s seminal three-part poem that was the subject of a 1957 obscenity trial, primarily for its references to homosexual sexual acts. Hydrogen Jukebox premiered at the 1990 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.

“The title Hydrogen Jukebox comes from a verse in the poem: ‘ listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,’” Ginsberg once explained. “It signifies a state of hypertrophic high-tech, a psychological state in which people are at the limit of their sensory input with civilization’s military jukebox, a loud industrial roar, or a music that begins to shake the bones and penetrate the nervous system as a hydrogen bomb may do someday, a reminder of apocalypse.”

Put more prosaically, the chamber opera charts America’s progress from the 1950s through the 1980s through Ginsberg’s poetry. The Skylight’s staging is designed to provide the connective narrative threads.

The work is scored for six voices. For the Skylight production, baritone Dan Kempson takes on the role of Ginsberg.

“We’re not making Dan look like Allen Ginsberg, because we’d have to age him throughout the show,” Subbaraman says. “Ginsberg was also a very idiosyncratic-looking person and we didn’t think we could do him justice.”

The striking difference between Glass’s minimalist music and the rampantly colorful poetry of the beat era adds a creative tension to the work. Having to adhere the rhythm of the poetry without being distracted by a score comprised of seemingly repetitive measures makes this an extremely difficult show for the performers to master, Subbaraman says.

“There is a joy to the color, beauty and emotion in the words, but also a fear for the future, which creates an interesting dichotomy,” Subbaraman says. “Beat poetry in itself often seems to be a random output of words and images, but underneath there is true beauty in its structure.”

Glass’ music operates sometimes in counterpoint, while at other times seems to provide tongue-in-cheek commentary on the narrative. The music’s minimalist nature and rhythmic intensity is challenging, Subbaraman says.

“Glass hated the ‘minimalist’ term and has said that he writes in repetitive small structures with subtle changes,” explains the music director. “There is a sense of repetitiveness in the music that makes it almost feel slow when matched to Ginsberg’s text. This piece has an incredible propulsion because of that weird combination.”

Of all modern composers, Glass is probably the most familiar to the general public, if only for his work composing film scores. The Hours, The Illusionist and The Truman Show are three of his 35 films, meaning that many audience members have “heard a lot of Glass already,” Subbaraman says.

“Unlike what people think of as modern opera, Glass is very tonal and uses harmonies that people understand,” Subbaraman says. “He was one of first modernists to reject atonality. Nadia Boulanger, his composition teacher, thought he was going to revolutionize music — and to a great extent he has.”

Despite its artistic pedigree, Hydrogen Jukebox is a highly accessible and energizing work, says Subbaraman. No special preparation is required for audience members to enjoy this show.

“We’re taking a risk and giving the audience the ability to come with us on a real trip,” he explains. “It’s not a scary opera or scary modern music, but a frank look at our country. The sheer variety makes the nerd in me very excited.”

The Skylight is presenting Hydrogen Jukebox in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation.

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Hydrogen Jukebox runs March 14–30 at the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Call 414-291-7811 or visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org.

Radcliffe takes turn as gay beat poet Allen Ginsberg

The time is coming – maybe sooner than you expect – when you look at Daniel Radcliffe and don’t think “Harry Potter.”

The 23-year-old actor has gone from boy wizard to Broadway hoofer to gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whom he plays in the new film “Kill Your Darlings.” He has several wildly different films lined up, and is soon to take to the London stage as star of Martin McDonagh’s barbed comedy “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

The play gives audiences the chance to see Radcliffe in yet another new light, as Billy, a disabled orphan in 1930s Ireland who harbors an unlikely dream of Hollywood stardom.

“I think one of the hilarious things about this play is, by our standards today, how politically incorrect it is,” said the actor, looking lean if a tad tired – he’s been at the gym, working out ahead of rehearsals for the play – in the troupe’s office atop a West End playhouse. “So much of the comedy is just people being relentlessly cruel to Billy.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the one-time boy wizard is a fan of the edgier end of comedy. His entire post-Potter career feels designed to wrong-foot anyone seeking to pigeonhole him.

The play is Radcliffe’s first time on the West End stage since his 2007 run in “Equus,” Peter Shaffer’s play about a troubled stable boy who blinds horses. It featured the then-teenage actor in a nude scene, which triggered a deluge of “Harry Potter’s Wand” headlines. But critics praised the young actor’s brave and committed performance.

Radcliffe said “Equus” was “a signal of intent as to what I wanted to do.”

“I didn’t just want to take an easy way out of this. I wanted to really try and take risks and make a career for myself.”

Since then, he’s mixed movies and theater work, including a 2011 Broadway run as a scheming businessman in “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

He’s shot three films due to come out in the next year. “Kill Your Darlings,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, stars Radcliffe as Ginsberg – Beat poetry, gay sex scenes and all. Radcliffe says he’s never been prouder of a piece of work.

He’s also filmed “The F Word,” which he calls a “very funny, very sweet but also very smart” romantic comedy from Canadian director Michael Dowse.

“I don’t want to say (I’m) playing myself, exactly,” Radcliffe said, “but (I’m) playing a character that’s fairly high-anxiety, slightly hyperactive guy.”

He’s especially excited about “Horns,” a film by French horror auteur Alexandre Aja (“The Hills Have Eyes,” “Piranha”). It’s about a bereaved man who grows devilish horns that allow him access to the thoughts and feelings of others.

“It’s a love story, it’s a revenge movie, it’s a horror movie in parts – it’s going to be crazy,” said Radcliffe, who made an earlier foray into horror movies with “The Woman in Black.”

Next up, he will star as mad-scientist’s assistant Igor in Max Landis’ pop-culture spin on the “Frankenstein” story.

All in all, it’s an eclectic list of projects. Radcliffe says there is a philosophy guiding his career choices, but “it’s very basic. It’s just what excites me.”

“Hopefully later on this year people will start to see some very different performances from me. And hopefully some really good movies,” he said. “It’s about the movie as a whole, not just people studying my performance and seeing how I’m getting different and how I’m growing up.”

Radcliffe accepts that fascination with how he’s growing up is unlikely to fade altogether. But he seems comfortable with the Harry Potter legacy, happy to have made the transition from child star to adult actor.

The “Harry Potter” moviemakers have been praised for creating a stable, creative home for their young stars, who went from preteens to adults over the course of eight films released between 2001 and 2011.

“I feel like everyone wanted Potter to be more of a handcuff than it actually was,” said the resolutely well-adjusted Radcliffe.

“I think Harry Potter is going to be around for a while – a long while – but as long as it doesn’t inhibit me getting parts in the present time, then it’s fine. It’s a lovely association to have, because it’s something I’m incredibly proud of.

“People always say, ‘Don’t you just want to forget about it?’ No! That was my entire adolescence.”

Radcliffe conjures brave new role as gay poet Ginsberg

Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t mind hearing that schoolgirls were staking him out at the Sundance Film Festival, hoping for a Harry Potter sighting.

In fact, Radcliffe is happy if his Potter fame conjures up interest for what he wants to do with the rest of his career, such as his bold turn as young gay poet Allen Ginsberg in the Sundance premiere “Kill Your Darlings.”

Radcliffe goes nude for an explicit sex scene with another man, makes out with co-star Dane DeHaan and also appears in another sex scene with a clerk in a library while DeHaan’s character looks on.

As with his Broadway debut in “Equus,” which also featured a nude scene, Radcliffe said his celebrity from the boy wizard franchise might draw in fans who would not have seen a film such as “Kill Your Darlings.”

“I don’t care why people come and see films. If they come and see a film about the beat poets because they saw me in ‘Harry Potter,’ fantastic. That’s a wonderful thing,” Radcliffe said in an interview alongside DeHaan. “I feel like I have an opportunity to capitalize on ‘Potter’ by doing work that might not otherwise get attention. If I can help get a film like this attention, that’s without doubt, that’s a great thing.”

“Kill Your Darlings” recounts a little-known chapter in the life of Ginsberg, who met Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) at Columbia University during World War II.

DeHaan plays Ginsberg’s early idol and infatuation Lucien Carr, whose relationship with an obsessive older man (Michael C. Hall) involves the future beat-generation icons in a seamy murder case.

In the course of the film, Ginsberg comes to embrace his homosexuality. Hall said he hopes “Harry Potter” fans can come to embrace Radcliffe in the role and “expand their definition of what a magic wand might be.”

“Kill Your Darlings” director John Krokidas said Radcliffe hurled himself into the role and treated the nudity and gay love scenes as another part of the job, with no qualms or anxiety.

“None! None! None!” said Krokidas, who is gay and so became Radcliffe’s coach in same-sex love-making.

“Radcliffe simply asked, ‘John, you’re gay. How does this work?’” Krokidas said. “I’m not kidding. And so perhaps there was a little dry run-through – oh, she’s going to kill me – with me and the director of photography Reed Morano.

“I might have done it on purpose to make everyone laugh, too, but I also wanted to make sure that we got it right. And other films that have depicted certain moments of sexuality like this, it doesn’t happen that way. And at least for cinematic history, I wanted to get that moment right. But Dan watched, observed, found his own connection like he did any other scene and dove right into it.”

“Kill Your Darlings” premiered last week at Sundance’s main theater, which is adjacent to a high school where classes were just letting out for the day. A group of teenage girls rushed from the school to the back of the theater, trying to determine where Radcliffe and his co-stars would be coming in and out.

Some stars grow to resent that sort of fan attention resulting from past roles, feeling it overshadows the work they’re doing now. So far, Radcliffe seems to see nothing but good things coming out of “Harry Potter.”

“There was a generation of people who maybe wouldn’t have gone to see a production of ‘Equus,’ had I not been in it, that came to see ‘Equus,”” Radcliffe said. “Even if they came for the wrong reasons, you know, we got them there, and they stayed, and they watched. And they stayed for the right reasons.”

Something to ‘Howl’ about | an interview with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

In their latest film, award-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Times of Harvey Milk” and “The Celluloid Closet”) take a dramatic detour away from documentaries. “Howl” (Oscilloscope Laboratories) stars James Franco as gay poet Allen Ginsberg. The movie, filmed both in black-and-white and color, as well with live action and animation, is a composite of sequences involving the creation of the classic, but controversial, poem “Howl.” Ultimately it is through that poem that Ginsberg is able to express his feelings for his friend and fellow writer Jack Kerouac (played by Todd Rotondi), and Franco’s effortless portrayal of the poet is nothing short of poetic.

Gregg Shapiro: Were you readers of poetry before becoming involved in the “Howl” film project?

Jeffrey Friedman: I read a little poetry, not much. Emily Dickenson, Walt Whitman. I had read “Howl” in high school, but I wasn’t an avid poetry reader.

Rob Epstein: No. … Most of it goes over my head.

GS: What was the impetus behind the film?

RE: I think it was Allen as an artist … trying to figure out the source of his creative self, particularly with this poem. It was the “treasure hunt” aspect of this project that attracted us.

JF: It was what Allen had to go through, as a man and as an artist, to write this poem. A lot of it was a coming-out process, which we discovered doing our research on the film.

GS: What was it like working as co-directors?

RE: Like this: We kind of look at each other and say, “Are you going to do this, or am I going to do this? OK, you do this.”

JF: (Laughs)

RE: So (there is) a lot of back and forth. (Then) going off and having your own reflective time and then coming back together with new ideas and fresh approaches and hashing it out again.

GS: The film is sort of a cinematic quilt with panels representing different parts of the film’s history. Why did you decide to present it this way?

JF: We knew we were making a film about a poem, so we looked for different ways of looking at the poem. One of the ways was Allen’s story and (his creative process). We told Allen’s story using his own words in the recreated interview and with flashbacks from scenes from his life.

We wanted the poem to live on its own … in different ways. We recreated the first reading of the poem at the Six Gallery and imagined how it might have been to be there that night. We also recreated it as an imaginative ride through the poet’s mind, using art from Eric Drooker, who had collaborated with Ginsberg and had a good understanding of (him).

Then we wanted to see how the poem was received by society at large. That was what the trial represented for us. Those people were trying to make sense of it and trying to suppress it in some cases.

GS: Is “Howl” recited in its entirety?

RE: It’s about 80 percent of the poem. …That’s about as much as we thought the film could hold.

GS: James Franco has Ginsberg’s cadence down pat, as if he was born to play the part. What was involved in his process of becoming Ginsberg?

RE: James is the same age as Allen was when he wrote the poem. He grew up reading the beats and hanging out at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

JF: (James) is a poet himself.

RE: He also studied literature at UCLA. It was a whole confluence of circumstances that made him right for the part. He is also a great actor. We were really impressed by what he did with the James Dean story on television. He wasn’t afraid of taking on a living icon and personifying, rather than impersonating.

JF: We had a long time to work with James. He came on the project very early. He was very excited about it and very committed to it way before we had financing. We just had a first draft of a script. So we had several opportunities to work with James on the script and to really explore what the words meant to Allen, where these experiences came from. James had a long time to think about that.

Then we asked him to listen to Allen’s readings and we gave him an interview he did with Studs Terkel. He looked at some early film of Allen, saw how he walked, how he moved and how he used his hands.

GS: The film also has a cast of terrific actors, including Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, John Hamm and others, in much smaller supporting roles.

RE: Because those (characters) are on the screen for such a short period of time, we really wanted actors that would make an impression. For example Mary-Louise Parker, playing a 1950s English teacher who was appalled by the language in the poem, is on screen for maybe 5 minutes, but she makes such a strong impression as that character. …(The supporting parts) really help to create this composite impression of the period.

Allen Ginsberg: portrait of the gay poet as superstar

Name a poet, any poet. Now name a rock star. Picture the thousands of people who wait in line to buy tickets to Lady Gaga, Dave Matthews Band or U2. But no one imagines a poet as a superstar with the crowd-drawing power of today’s celebrity musicians.

The gay/bi/Jewish Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg, however, was an exception. A celebrity among poets, he commonly drew huge crowds to his reading, notably 7,000 people to his “International Poetry Incarnation” at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1967.

“Howl,” a feature film chronicling the life of Ginsberg as the young poet, could introduce a new generation to the electrifying Beat master. Directed by Rob Epstein (“The Times of Harvey Milk”) and Jeffry Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet”), the film stars James Franco (“Milk”) as Ginsberg, along with a supporting cast that includes Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, David Straithairn, Jeff Daniels and Treat Willism.

Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival will present a special advance screening of the film on Sept. 15 as a prelude to “Banned Books Week” (Sept. 25 to Oct. 2). The screening is co-sponsored by the UWM Union Theatre and Equality Wisconsin, and co-presented by Milwaukee Film, Woodland Pattern Book Center, the Milwaukee Public Library, UWM Libraries and the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation.

Ginsberg (1926-1997) was considered by many to be a ringleader of the 1950s Beat Generation, an association he constantly denied. His work reflected his take on life in a postwar society, characterized by the aimlessness of his generation. He protested militarism, censorship, materialism, the “war on drugs,” right-wing politics, conventional thinking, and later the wars in Vietnam and the Middle East. He condemned orthodoxy of any kind – even the orthodoxy of the left.

Ginsberg was thrust into celebrity with a reading of his groundbreaking poem “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. His opening lines are among the most famous in world poetry:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix;

Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection

to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

Ginsberg stunned audiences with his frank and shocking language, not expected in the medium of poetry. His open descriptions of sexual acts broke all 1950s societal conventions. His descriptions of gay sex were considered beyond obscene at a time when homosexual acts were virtually outlawed in every state.

With the publication of “Howl,” Ginsberg was charged with obscenity, sparking a world famous trial and the banning of his book. His description of those same best minds “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy” was specifically referred to in the trial.

The verdict, however, exonerated Ginsberg. The judge declared, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”

Ever an advocate for gay rights, Ginsberg insisted that his lifelong companion Peter Orlovsky be listed as his “spouse” in “Who’s Who in America.” Prolific even at the end, Ginsberg’s heartbreaking last poem, “Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias),” was written a week before his death from liver cancer:

“No more sweet summers with lovers, teaching Blake at Naropa …

Any visits to B’nai Israel graves of Buddha, Aunt Rose, Harry Melzer and Aunt Clara, Father Louis

Not myself except in an urn of ashes.”