Friday, July 4, 2014

Of Thee I Sing... and Sing Again

This is an updated version of my blog originally dated Monday, July 03, 2006

I grew up in Pasadena, California, home of the Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl Game, the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Garden, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory --- and one kicking Fourth of July fireworks show.

Pasadena’s celebration of Independence Day is one of California's biggest. It is held in a stadium big enough to hold a hundred thousand people, with thousands watching from their picnic locations in neighboring Brookside Park and many more enjoying the display from their homes all around the Arroyo. It’s a great show, always featuring a band and singers performing patriotic tunes, but growing up, we thought it was much more enjoyable to look out at the fireworks than straight up at them.

After a time or two of going to the festivities in person, we rarely went to the Rose Bowl to see the show.

Instead, my parents would prepare a big barbecue at home and, after the meal, we would light sparklers and watch the white hot embers fade as they fell onto the brick patio. Then the five of us kids would go up to the second floor and wait for the sky to light up in the distance. We knew where to look, but the hero of the night would be the first one to point and shout, “Hey! It’s starting! Look over there!”

I’ll never forget those hot July nights, stuffed to the eyeballs with hot dogs and potato salad, the smell of sweet ripe watermelon still on our fingers and then, at last, a spectacular light show, just before the dreaded call “Children, bedtime!”

Waiting in the gathering darkness, we’d provide music of our own, singing a few of the patriotic songs we’d learned in school: “Yankee Doodle,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and my favorite, “America the Beautiful.” None of us ever tried to sing the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner” --- with its sweeping range and difficult transitions, it didn’t sit comfortably on our tongues.

As I grew older and began to appreciate the cost of war, I wondered why our national song was a war hymn that ended with a question.

-Photo from The Smithsonian

Star Spangled Banner

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

- Words from the poem "In Defense of Fort McHenry", written by Francis Scott Key, September 20, 1814. Sung to the tune of the drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” attributed to the British composer John Stafford Smith.

“The Star Spangled Banner” has been popular since its composition during the War of 1812, when Francis Scott Key wrote a poem commemorating the moment he saw the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry the morning after a battle with the British forces.

According to The Star Spangled Banner and The War of 1812 from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the words and music were first performed together at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore on October 19, 1814. During that century, the SSB became one of the country’s most beloved patriotic songs.

The song endured throughout the Civil War as a way for Americans to express love of country and, along with "Yankee Doodle" and "Hail Columbia," it was played on most patriotic occasions. By the end of the century, the military was using the song for official ceremonies and playing it at the raising and lowering of the colors.

The National Museum of American History continues:

“Meanwhile, patriotic organizations had launched a campaign to have Congress recognize ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the U.S. national anthem. After several decades of attempts, a bill making ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ our official national anthem was finally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Herbert Hoover on March 3, 1931.”

It’s sometimes hard for me to hear the SSB without saying “Play ball!” in my head as the notes fade away, and I have discovered that there is a reason for that.

During the World Series of Baseball in 1918, the song was performed in honor of the troops fighting in the Great War. This was the first time it was played at a sporting event. It was a spontaneous moment and it was reported to have been deeply moving. It became a staple of every ball game, at first played during the seventh inning stretch, but formally adopted during World War II as the way to open every major league baseball game. I have some great memories of going to games at Dodger Stadium, singing rousing, off-key renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and that other fun baseball song, the good old SSB.

In a few years my knowledge of the world would grow beyond the boundaries of those halcyon summer days. My childhood heroes, the Kennedy brothers and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., had been struck down by assassins, Americans had landed on the moon, a bitterly divisive war was ending, a president had left office under a cloud, women, minorities and gays were striving for equal rights, the most influential rock band of all time, The Beatles, had disbanded, and the child who had danced in front of the mirror, trying to become a female Fred Astaire (I’d seen him on “The Early Show” afternoon television movie), was listening to a different tune.

My brother James, who is now the professional musician he dreamed of being in those days, thrust a mini reel-to-reel tape player in my face. (It was the iPod of its day.)

“Listen to this.”

And blaring out of that portable player, in all its tinny glory, came the sounds of the revolution.

It was “The Star Spangled Banner” as performed by James Marshall Hendrix, once a paratrooper and member of the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky --- and now, as Jimi Hendrix, the most innovative and acclaimed rock guitarist of his time.

Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock, NY August 18, 1969

As Wayne Pernu writes in Star Spangled Banned:Anthem of A Generation:

"Jimi Hendrix's performance of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock was a turning point in the history of the counter-culture movement.

The sounds Hendrix drew from his Fender Strat were literally an aural recreation of war. In between the machine-gun fire, bombs dropping, smoke billowing from napalm blazes, and a wrenching undercurrent that evoked the agonizing polarity which tore our country apart and destroyed Vietnam, Hendrix treated the song with surprising reverence... While people presume "Star Spangled Banner" to be defiantly anti-war, it is no such thing; such a notion limits the scope of the piece... Eric Burdon [lead singer of The Animals] recalled that when Hendrix arrived in England he spoke fervently about the need for the United States to subdue Chinese Communism before it overtook the world. It is important to remember that Hendrix had been on both sides of the fence, experiencing attitudes toward the war as diametrically opposed to one another as could be... At the same time, Hendrix possessed a pacifistic nature that certainly contributed to the work's radiant objectivity.”

Jimi was my brother’s musical hero, and he devoured everything he could find on Hendrix. I don’t recall where James got that bootleg --- perhaps handed down through his musician friends, perhaps taped from the audience in the theater where the “Woodstock” documentary film played the following year. I do remember that my young ears had never heard anything like it.

Many prefer traditional interpretations of "The Star Spangled Banner" and some even consider radical reinterpretations of the anthem to be disrespectful. I am a patriot of the left wing and I know that protest for many (no, not all) was born out of love for this country and a fervent desire to see it become the best it could be. Though it is not for all tastes, Hendrix’s version was a way of combining his formidable musical genius with a new interpretation of a patriotic tune, relevant to his life and his experience.

Who were the people who experienced Hendrix? They were the thoughtful, the self-indulgent, the fun-loving, the disorderly, the revolutionaries, the camp followers, the libertines and the lovers of liberty --- all coming together at Woodstock, a musical celebration as out-of-this world as the moon landing a month earlier.

- Woodstock poster by Arnold Skolnick

To place Hendrix’s performance in the context of its time, check out the 1970 Academy Award winning documentary “Woodstock.” One of my writing heroes, the kate film critic Roger Ebert, said of "Woodstock":

“The Hendrix guitar solo is the most famous single element in the film, which uses it as a form of closure. As Hendrix begins, we see the concert grounds after most of the 400,00 have left, leaving behind acres of debris, muddy blankets, lost shoes. Then the chronology reverses itself to show the field filling, until finally we see the whole expanse of the mighty crowd, as Hendrix's guitar evokes rockets bursting in air.

‘Woodstock’ is a beautiful, moving, ultimately great film. It seemed to signal the beginning of something. Maybe it signaled the end. Somebody told me the other day that the 1960s has ‘failed.’ Failed at what? They certainly didn't fail at being the 1960s. Now that the period is described as a far-ago time... how touching it is in this film to see the full flower of its moment, of its youth and hope.”

What has happened to the echoes of Woodstock Nation? My brother James has lived in Italy for many years, touring the world with some of the most famous musicians of the past thirty years. His twenty-something son was born and raised in Italy, and his favorite musician is --- Jimi Hendrix.

Though I was a tad too young to appreciate the times fully --- except with my copycat little sister “hippie” clothing and hair --- I now appreciate so much about that era, particularly its music.

The musicians of that time sang a different song of America, but it was a song of our nation all the same.

- Photo from PBS's "A Capitol Fourth" July 4, 2004

For ten years now, when I think of Independence Day, I think of Clay Aiken - the man with the soaring voice, snarky personality and thoughtful way of living, with service to others always in mind. Clay has been a part of my musical landscape for more than a decade, and he is one of my favorite Fourth of July memories.

Clay has an interesting and complex history with the holiday.

In 2002, he was a college student, sitting in the hospital where his stepfather, with whom he had a difficult relationship, lay dying.

In 2003, just beginning his transition from amateur to professional singer, he left rehearsals for the American Idol Tour to mark that anniversary with his family.

In 2004, as a chart-topping, best-selling singer, he was selected to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" to open the PBS broadcast of “A Capitol Fourth,” which took place on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol in Washington DC. Clay also sang “Measure of a Man” and “God Bless the USA,” dedicating his performance to the men and women who were serving the country. Clay’s brother Brett had just joined the Marines, served in Iraq and is now a veteran of that service.

In July of 2008, Clay had just returned from a field mission to wartorn Somalia and later wrote a blog about the visit for the Huffington Post.  It was his fifth journey as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, taking action against humanitarian crises that had ripped apart the lives of children worldwide - all of whom are deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In 2014, Clay is the Democratic nominee for the United States House of Representatives for North Carolina's District 2. (To learn more about his campaign, check out "Clay for North Carolina")  He believes - as I do - that far too few people in Congress are actually representing the people who elected them, instead catering to lobbyists and kowtowing to party bosses, even over their better judgment, the good of the nation and the interests of the district they represent.

Congressional candidate Clay Aiken celebrating Independence Day 2014 with the citizens of Pinehurst, Moore County, North Carolina - from ClayforNC Instagram

I wish more people of conscience who couldn't sing and entertain as well as Clay would go to D.C. and leave me my favorite artist and activist, but he didn't ask me to vote on his life,  so I'm left with adding him to my list of national candidates worthy of support.

During his time in the public eye, Clay has performed the SSB for the minor league Durham Bulls --- and at Game One of the 100th anniversary of the World Series of Baseball. He has sung the national anthem on D-Day, the sixth of June, at a NASCAR race in Dover, Delaware; at a basketball game for his alma mater, the University of North Carolina Charlotte; and at a Carolina Hurricanes hockey game. He sings it well, with an ease that conceals the song’s difficulty.

Clay’s performance for “A Capitol Fourth” is one of my favorites --- and it is worlds away from my memories of squeaky-voiced renditions in school auditoriums and boisterous shout-outs in summer ballparks.

In this rendition, Clay’s voice, though not perfect, is just beautiful, and I love the simplicity, the honesty and the respect with which he approaches the anthem. Some renditions are overly earnest and therefore feel insincere, a few have an unfortunate air of jingoism, others feel a bit like a star turn by the celebrated singers who perform it. Accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra, Clay’s version is traditional but not staid, and it feels appropriate to the setting. There are other songs of the American experience that I would had love to hear Clay sing before he set aside entertainment to pursue a new spirit of compromise and solutions for the nation's ills, so I’m glad I have this performance in my collection.

“The Star Spangled Banner” has now been our national anthem for eighty-three of our 238 years as a nation. The more I learned about it, the more I respected the song and its history, but it is another song, with its imagery of a peaceful America, that touches my soul.

The song is “America The Beautiful,” and the soulful, heartfelt version performed by the legendary Ray Charles has become a favorite, regardless of the occasion.

This version was recorded at the 2001 World Series, following the tragedy of 9/11.  Charles changes the order of the verses,  starting with the rarely heard third verse, as a salute to the heroes of that day:

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

(Spoken:  "When I was a little boy, I remember we always sang these words.")

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

- From an 1893 poem by Katharine Lee Bates, melody from the 1882 hymn “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem” by Samuel Augustus Ward.

Like the SSB, “America the Beautiful” has many verses that aren't sung very often, including some archaic language that would have contemporary Americans scratching their heads. But I love the song’s majestic imagery, its idyllic vision of a brotherhood shared by all Americans --- and the fact that you don’t have to be Ray Charles or Clay Aiken to sing it. It is not our national song, but it remains to me an anthem of reverent prayer and quiet celebration, just as it was to the little girl growing up in Pasadena, watching the fireworks and singing old songs.

Now we celebrate the 238th anniversary of the birth of this country, a place that is centuries old but still experiencing growing pains. A few years ago, I saw the possibility of change, and I had great hope.  Indeed, there have been some wonderful changes over the last six years, extending freedom to many more Americans and insuring that there would be fewer barriers to the pursuit of liberty. Two wars have ended or are ending, at east fr this country, and now must be settled by the people whose day-to-day fates hang in the balance.  And the mastermind of murder on 9/11 and beyond, is no more,

But the Voting Rights Act of my childhood has been gutted,  A woman's right to choose is increasingly dictated by men who seem hostile to and contemptuous of women. The very idea of sensible guns laws, particularly in the face of mass shootings that have seen the slaughter of children with just one number in their ages, are somehow so controversial that tempers flair at their very mention, and Congress continues in its abject failure to protect the First Amendment as vigorously as the Second.

In an Orwellian twist, the Supreme Court has decided that corporations are people and now, in a decision that would horrify the Founding Fathers, that religious groups are allowed to restrict the rights of others by selecting which laws they wish to follow. Racism, even with the election and reelection of the first African American president,  grows like a cancer, with the rise of hate speech and the failure to protect voting rights despite evidence that they is still both needed and effective. How heartbreaking to see divisions of old fracture anew,

There has been discord and there has been magnificent courage. There have been war heroes, and peace heroes as well. There has been a myriad of opinions, from the left, the right and the center. And there has been the music, chronicling the changing times.

Administrations (even the best of them) and Congresses (even the worst of them) come and go, but the people and their music endure. This is my country. This land is your land, this land is my land. Born in the USA.

I’ll celebrate a while, but there is work left to do to achieve the dream. There are still songs to be sung about hope and freedom and the people turn their dreams into action,

Happy Birthday, America. On this Fourth of July, regardless of politics and problems, challenges and  controversies, of thee I sing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Smart, Strong, Opinionated - and Unapologetically Bossy

I speak my mind.

I claim my place.

And I am proudly, without apology, bossy.

This week, I read with interest about the launch of the "Ban Bossy" movement.  Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of  "Lean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" has joined with other high profile women to encourage young girls to be leaders.  "Ban Bossy" says that the words girls are called, particularly "bossy," can discourage them from wanting to take leadership positions and have a negative impact on the self-esteem of girls and young women.

There is no doubt that there is validity to those notions.  I just don't think they go far enough.

The very society we live in, as girls, as young women, as females at any stage of our lives, discourages us from asserting ourselves, from standing out, from speaking up.

I was a shy kid with an extroverted streak (and despite my outspokenness, remain an introverted adult who is no one's doormat). I had ideas.  I was good at organizing anything. I love the arts and sometimes loved to "show off" - another term I embrace.

I was a rail-thin African American girl with a speech impediment.

And before I was twelve years old, I grew to just a click under six feet tall

"Bossy" was the least of my problems. I often joke that, had I been gay, I would have hit the trifecta of discrimination.

Of all the abuse a woman will endure during her life, I at least have the power to overcome what I am called, and even to pin it to a banner and fly it as my badge of honor.

I don't know what gave me confidence in myself, confidence I lacked as a child.  Perhaps it was being acknowledged for my intelligence and my talents.  Perhaps it was moving a bunch of times and having to make new friends everywhere I went.  Perhaps it was the rise of civil rights, women's rights and gay rights, and seeing other people who were not going to be defined or limited by bigotry, hatred or societal expectations.

When I began to respect myself, I knew that, in the end, it did not matter what strangers thought of me.  Ironically enough, that's when more and more people starting giving me the respect I deserved all along.

And what I accomplished!  I got into the college of my dreams and learned so much there, both in and out of the classroom.

I was one of 15 people, out of 2000 applicants, accepted into the Directors Guild/Producers Alliance Assistant Directors Training Program, based on testing and a series of interviews.  I have worked on films, in television on numerous series, a TV movie and a miniseries, and even on a commercial series by one of the quirkiest, most highly regarded directors of the day.

I travelled across the country and overseas, often by myself, meeting people, exploring cultures and seeing sights and  sites that opened my eyes to the wonders of this world.

I accomplished all of this despite being called names, having to overcome stereotypes and having to kick down the walls of exclusion that stood between me and my goals.

I would like to say to every little girl who has been called bossy, this is what it really means you are:

Self-assured.  Strong,  Confident.  Powerful.  Worthy.

It means that you are the one, irreplaceable, you.

So don't let anyone stop you.  Work hard to achieve your dreams.

Not everyone will like you.  It does not matter.

Sometimes people will call you names.  It is then that you know that they fear your power and your potential.  Their words do not define you.  Only you can define you.

And always remember:

It's not what you're called.  It's what you answer to.
                                                                                               - African proverb

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Clay Aiken Runs for Congress, Opens Door for Voiceless Voters

The rumors have been ticking away for a month now.

Multi-platinum recording artist, Broadway star, New York Times Best Selling author, frequent television guest star, touring machine - those are the things Clay Aiken is most known for.

Had the time really come when he would flip the page on all of that to devote himself fulltime to service?

Early this morning, the answer came from the News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh, NC.


Clay Aiken makes it official:  He will run for Congress

I wrote in my last blog entry, A Talent to Amuse, about Clay as artist and activist. Those twin stars of his public life have been evident for eleven years now, but in one of his earliest public statements, in support of Youth Service Day 2004, this is what he said:

Given problems such as poverty and illiteracy, we cannot afford to turn away anyone who wants to volunteer as a full and active citizen in our country... Everyone's voice is needed and deserves to be heard.

He has said that he wants to do more for people who don't have a voice, or whose voices aren't being heard, to be a true representative instead of a politician.

Here is Clay's statement on why he is running for Congress.

Campaign video, Clay for North Carolina

Over the course of the past eleven years, Clay has been a UNICEF Ambassador, serving children in crisis situations in the developing world; the co-founder of the National Inclusion Project, which brings children with and without disabilities together to laugh, learn and play; a supporter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to end bullying and make every school a safe space for all students, and; a promoter and fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS  His love for his home state of North Carolina, and his distress over the turn that it has taken over the last few years as progressive and inclusive programs have been dismantled, is palpable and obvious.

With that background, in the current dysfunctional political environment, I should not have been surprised that Clay Aiken would run for Congress.

It will be a loss to the world of the arts, at least for a while, but one could not wish for a more passionate and dedicated activist turned servant-leader..

Good luck and Godspeed, Clay.

To find out more, to volunteer or to make a donation, please visit his personal account @ClayAiken on Twitter, his campaign account @ClayforNC on Twitter, his campaign Facebook account and his website, Clay for North Carolina.

N & O Photo by Corey Lowenstein

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Talent to Amuse

I've spent my time on earth involved in the arts and in activism. To many, one is more important than the other, but they are the coequal anchors of my life. I will always contend that the entertainment, the inspiration, the enlightenment and the sheer liberating fun that comes only from the arts is what makes life worthwhile.

It is no small thing to have, in Noel Coward's lovely phrase, “a talent to amuse.” Here are three people whose talents as actors, singers and entertainers have added so much to my life:

They are Tom Hiddleston, Laura Benanti, and Clay Aiken.

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."Thomas Merton

The first time I remember seeing Tom Hiddleston, he was incarnating my favorite American author of the first half of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The film was Woody Allen's “Midnight in Paris” and I can still remember wondering, who is this utterly charming man? Opposite Owen Wilson's humorous take on a blocked writer wandering the streets of an imaginary, late night Paris, Tom was funny, sexy and appealing. I read the credits to catch his name.

I caught him again in “War Horse” as the kindhearted military officer, a small part that stayed with me once again. He brought heart and humanity to a serious role in a serious film, under the direction of Steven Spielberg.

Not having much interest in superhero films, I had passed on “Thor” in the theatres, but happened to catch it on cable while visiting with my sister. There was Tom again, as the cunning Loki, playing the Norse trickster demigod as a grand Shakespearean villain, an approach he developed with director Kenneth Branagh. Tom is self-deprecating enough to claim that Loki's appeal is all in the makeup and costume, but with a cursory check of the 'net, I see that fans of the films, and more than a few critics, are devoted to that character, a complex and even tortured creation with worlds alive in his eyes and the most perfect evil laugh.

Even in this setting, it was clear that Tom is some kind of marvelous actor. He's been recognized with awards as diverse as the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Newcomer in a play for “Cymbeline” to the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain for “The Avengers.”

Even better, he has a sense of humor about himself, as any number of YouTube videos will attest. He will sing and dance on a whim, mock himself and the characters he plays, hang out with Cookie Monster and just be so thoroughly charming and amusing that I want to sit over dinner with Tom and all of my friends, telling stories and laughing.

I don't know much about Tom's training for musicals, but I would love to see him in one. Even joking around, he has a clear and light voice with a lovely timbre, and he can pull off just about any kind of dance move. Perhaps that's in his future and, if so, I'll be there..

With all of his success, Tom Hiddleston finds time to give back. He is a Celebrity Supporter of UNICEF U.K. Here he is with a mother and her one year old son during a visit to Guinea, West Africa.

(C) UNICEFUK/Harry Borden

And then there is the marvelous Laura Benanti.  Laura’s been acting since she was a teen, but since she's largely done theatre in New York, I have yet to see her on stage. Right now, though, there are few people who can make me laugh more.

The first time I can recall Laura performing was when she was a guest on Rosie O'Donnell's show some five years ago , singing “No One Is Alone” from the “Into the Woods” revival. This wasn't a time for amusement, but I sure was touched - and very interested. Checking her out, I realized that I had been seeing Laura for a while, at least while standing up to receive statuettes, with Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards and Outer Critic Circle Awards and nominations going back to 2000.

Photo 62nd Annual Tony Awards/Andrew H. Walker

My favorite new show of the 2012/2013 season was the Matthew Perry comedy “Go On.” Criminally underrated, it featured a wonderful cast, terrific writing, an interesting premise and the comic brilliance of Laura Benanti, playing a support group leader (who we later found out was also a valet parking supervisor). Crazy twists and turns, so many laughs and so much heart.

She definitely has my attention now.

At the 2013 Tony Awards, Laura parodied Sondheim's “The Ladies Who Lunch” in a hilarious send-up of highly respected Broadway actors with canceled television shows. Performing with Andrew Rannells ("Book of Mormon"), Megan Hilty ("Wicked") and Neil Patrick Harris (the upcoming "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"), swinging a whiskey bottle, she summed up the hazards of attempting to bring something different to the small screen: “Television sucks!”.

Late last year, Laura was one of the brightest spots of NBC's live version of “The Sound of Music” playing Baroness Elsa Schrader. As the would-be fiancee of Captain Von Trapp, she was amusing without being arch, clever but not conniving, and oh-so-hilarious in her line readings and expressions.

Laura has lent her support to several World AIDS Day benefit concerts, appearing in special performances of Pippin, Children of Eden and The Secret Garden.  She's definitely one of the good ones, someone I am eager to see on stage.

Laura as Catherine in "Pippin" for World AIDS Day Benefit Concert

Today happens to be the eleventh anniversary of the first time I saw Clay Aiken, singing “Always and Forever” as his audition for “American Idol.” His music resume (six million album sales, biggest first week sales of anyone ever on “Idol,” fastest selling Christmas album in Billboard history, nearly $30 million in tour revenues for his first five tours, Number 1 CDs and singles and several American Music and Billboard Awards) is pretty well known.

Billboard chart compilation from clayaikenkids

His success in music led to some opportunities to act. All too often, that is a really bad idea, but Clay defied the odds.

The first time I saw Clay create a fully realized character was when he appeared as Kenny the cafeteria worker on Bill Lawrence's brilliant TV comedy series, “Scrubs,” in the award-winning episode, “My Life in Four Cameras.” After several guest spots playing himself, it was a revelation to see that he could become someone else – and make me laugh while doing so. That role was ample evidence that he could guest on TV's best comedies and lose “Clay Aiken” for half an hour.

Clay was chosen to sing “Proud of Your Boy” for the DVD release of Disney's “Aladdin.” Clay brought a youthful appeal to the song, which had been deleted from the original release of the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman animated musical. He blended resolve, heartache and humor to this Aladdin's promise to his mother to reform and make good on his potential. After that, I eagerly awaited the film that would give him the opportunity to create a Disney character role of his own.

Clay and composer Alan Menken rehearse "Proud of Your Boy"

In 2008, Clay made his Broadway debut as Sir Robin in “Monty Python's SPAMALOT,” earning praise from director Mike Nichols and the show's creator, Eric Idle, and being the driving force behind a significant increase in ticket sales. I had the chance to see it a couple of times, laughed heartily and remember it, six years later, with a smile. Clay, in a cast of seasoned and well-respected actors, held his own and amused me greatly. I knew, seeing him on the same Shubert stage I had first visited nearly twenty years previously, that Clay was bright with promise for originating a role on the Great White Way. He had the singing voice and, though he could benefit from a dance lesson or two for other roles, he was undoubtedly growing as an actor.

Photo (c) Joan Marcus

Last year, Clay finally returned to the stage with two roles in distinguished regional theatres.

The first was for North Carolina Theatre, which gave Clay his first stage role in “1776” at age 17, directed by Broadway luminary Terrence Mann. Returning the favor to the theatre, Clay appeared as Man in Chair in “The Drowsy Chaperone” opposite the Tony-winning Beth Leavel, who'd been a star of the original Broadway cast. The show is a daft send-up of the musicals of the 1920s, but Clay doesn't sing a note.  He's onstage for the entire show, a man in love with the romance of musicals, commenting on the events around him but interacting with no one. At least a decade younger than the actors who've received acclaim in that role, Clay revealed levels of complexity in his characterization that were a big leap ahead of what he'd done before. The role is largely comic, but he deftly handled the turn that breaks your heart.

(C) NCT/Curtis Scott Brown

In the fall, he took on the title role in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at the legendary home of summer stock, Ogunquit Playhouse . This time, he starred opposite the Tony-nominated Keala Settle.  Director/choreographer Jayme McDaniel praised Clay's range and power in the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, based on the Biblical story of Jacob's favorite son Joseph, his prophetic dreams, his betrayal by his brothers and the power of forgiveness.

Photo (c) Ogunquit Playhouse

Yesterday, eleven years after first stepping foot on the public stage, Clay won the Broadwayworld Maine Awards for Best Actor in a Musical and Best Vocal Performance in a Musical, and helped lead the Ogunquit Playhouse's production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" to eight other awards, including Best Musical and Best Ensemble Performance.  I think he's got this acting thing down.

Clay first started working with children at his local YMCA while in his teens. He expressed frustration at the inability to accommodate children with special needs into the day camp's programs. He was a substitute teacher in a classroom for children with autism even before earning his degree in Special Education from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. At the same time he launched his professional singing career, he set up The National Inclusion Project with Diane Bubel, the mother of a boy with autism who Clay had tutored. Its goal is to include children with disabilities into a full range of activities with their typically developing peers.

Clay was appointed a Celebrity Goodwill Ambassador by UNICEF in 2004. With a special emphasis on education, he made field trips to Indonesia, Uganda, Afghanistan, Mexico, Somalia and Kenya to observe firsthand how UNICEF programs were serving children in crisis situations, helping to build stability in their lives by getting them back to school.

Afghanistan Photo (c) U.S. Fund for UNICEF

Somalia Photo: Nick Ysenburg/US Fund for UNICEF

He's also been active with BroadwayCares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight EducationNetwork, anti-bullying campaigns and the fight for marriage equality. I do love a man who is dedicated to making a difference, using his voice to address important matters.

Debating Marriage Equality on CBS's "Face the Nation"

Tom, Laura and Clay all have “the talent to amuse” - but consider the full context of that line from “If Love Were All” from Noel Coward's musical “Bittersweet”:

But I believe that since my life began
The most I've had is just a talent to amuse

All three of these people who I enjoy and admire have the talent to bring to their audiences the transcendent experience, on stage, on television, in films and through songs. There is no “just” in that. It is an all, a gift complete in itself.

I would say that the arts, like beauty, are their own excuse for being, but they need no excuse, no apology, no feeling that, to move people's hearts and souls, to stir their imaginations, to bring them to tears and to heal the pressures of the day with laughter is somehow a lesser profession.

I've written a bit about the activism these favorite artists of mine are involved in.  It connects to me, because it is a common interest of mine.  But if these three, if any artist, did nothing other than sing, dance, act, write, direct, paint, sculpt, choreograph or any of the other myriad pursuits in arts and entertainment, I'd be perfectly satisfied with them.

Art is gift enough to this bruised and tired world.

That all three bring so much joy through the arts and give so much back through service makes them even more likeable and more admirable to me, but not because the arts are not enough. To do both is an especial gift to humanity, a way to elevate, illuminate and inspire, and a way of honoring both sides of a fully realized life.

So thanks, Tom, Laura and Clay for the laughter – a gift that, all too often, is exceedingly rare.


Tom Hiddleston is currently appearing in the title role in the historical tragedy “CORIOLANUS” at London's famed Donmar Warehouse. The sold-out production will be broadcast to theatres as part of National Theatre Live in the UK and Canada on January 30.  Stay tuned for an update on when it will come to the United States.

See Tom as Loki in Marvel's "Thor: The Dark World" which will be released in Digital 3D and Digital HD February 4, and on Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack, Blu-ray and DVD on February 25. 

Laura Benanti will lead a workshop of Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn for Goodspeed Musicals, with the production set for this fall. 

Her album “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention: Live At 54 BELOW” is available now.

And as for Clay Aiken? It's currently rumored that he will run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives, for North Carolina's 2nd Congressional district. 

During a recent appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” Clay said

 “I've spent ten years using my voice to sing... I'm working now on focusing my energies on doing things that will help give a voice to people who don't have one or whose voices have not been heard. In the coming months and years, that's sort of where my focus is lying.”

This world needs more servant leaders, more people willing to sacrifice of themselves to help others.

It also needs the healing power of song, of laughter, of imagination.

As long as I have known about him, Clay has done both, and done them well, but now it appears he hears the call to serve full-time. I know that this country needs all the help she can get, so I don't blame him.

But I hope that one day, Clay will once again combine arts and activism, as he has for so long, Both of his passions are too important to lose.

In the meantime, if he does indeed decide to serve the people by running for office, how good would it be to send someone to Washington who had brains and heart and integrity, and knows a bit about creating harmony? Maybe he could even help to get our leaders singing the same tune. After all, in his devotion to arts and activism, he's been pitch perfect.

Go, Clay, go.

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