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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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Three bright and beautiful human beings, inside and out. Thank you for sharing this.

And go,Clay, go!