Disney dreams -- and Broadway stardom -- do come true ... eventually


By Mike Hughes

The world, we're
told, is full of little girls with Disney dreams.

A few do star in
Disneyland, then retreat to non-glitter lives. One eventually
conquered Broadway.

That's Stephanie J.
Block, who stars Friday in the “Falsettos” musical on PBS. It
includes her “Breaking Down” number, with enough big moments to
make Carol Burnett or Jim Carrey envious.

“I just kept
adding and adding,” Block recalled. “And (director James Lapine)
never kept cutting and cutting .... It became four minutes and 36
seconds of circus.”

She got the role
only because Lapine rejected previous people who wanted to produce
the show. “They wanted a big star,” he said. “Which,
unfortunately, is what drives a lot of commercial theater.”

Hey, Block knows all
about that. She spent years in a lead role when “Wicked” was
being developed. Then the show went to Broadway and she didn't get
the role.

“'Wicked' was a
tough sting,” Block said. “I won't even mince words. Yeah, I
invested about two years in creating Elphaba, with Winnie Holzman and
Stephen Schwartz.”

But it was a
mega-show and she had no Broadway experience; Idina Menzel – fresh
from “Rent” and “Aida” -- got the role. “When she's
standing up there with a Tony ... I got drunk. That stuff happens.”

Block did the role
on tour, changing her life: “I met my husband (Sebastian Arcelus),
we bought an apartment, I have a child .... She got the Tony, I got
the Sebastian and it all worked out fine.”

Don't assume she
takes a let-it-be attitude. Those Disney duties didn't come easily.
“My mother forged my birth certificate, so I could be in the
Disneyland parade,” Block said.

That didn't turn out
the ways she'd expected: “I thought I'd be a princess, because my
sister was always cast as a princess. I became one of the three
little pigs .... I'm not legally supposed to be working, let alone
wearing this 30-pound head, Then I took a break; that really jaded me
a bit.”

But as someone born
and raised in Southern California, she wasn't ready to abandon her
Disney dreams. At 18, she wanted to star as Belle in Disneyland's
first “Beauty and the Beast” stage show.

“They were keeping
these really doe-eyed, blonde-haired (beauties) for their Disney
princess,” she said. “And I was like, 'That's not Belle. I'm
Belle. You know: I read a lot; I've got dark hair.'”

She was sent home,
then resisted. “I turned my little car right around and I just sat
in a chair and said, 'Well, if you have time, I'd love to sing for
you.' They'd come out and they're like, 'She's still there.'”

She got the job. “It
felt like I had conquered the world at 18,” making $127 for six
shows.

That was followed by
a decade of regional theater and commercials and the “Wicked”
close call. She reached Broadway at 31, playing Liza Minnelli in “The
Boy From Oz.” Eventually, there would be lots of off-Broadway
praise, plus Tony nominations for “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”
and “Falsettos.”

The latter started
when William Finn wrote the music and lyrics for a one-act show about
a woman, her son and three men – her ex-husband, his lover and the
therapist who becomes her husband. Lapine is listed as writing the
book, although there are few words. “He made sense of the
material,” Finn said.

Almost a decade
later, Finn had a dream about the characters “having the Bar
Mitzvah in the hospital room” during the early days of the AIDS
crisis. That became the second act.

“Falsettos”
would reach Broadway in 1992, winning Tonys for its book and score.
It returned briefly a year ago, getting nominations for most of its
no-big-name cast.

-- “Falsettos,”
9 p.m. Friday, PBS, under the “Live From Lincoln Center” banner

-- Part of a
Broadway-on-Fridays string that started a week earlier with “She
Loves Me.” Coming are Noel Coward's “Present Laughter” on Nov.
3, a rerun on the making of Lin-Manuel Miranda's “In the Heights”
on Nov . 10, “Indecent,” Nov . 17 and Irving Berlin's “Holiday
Inn,” Nov. 24.

In Flint, "housewives" battled officials and (sometimes) won


At times, we might forget how good a TV movie can be. The bad ones -- there are many -- can be brash and dim-witted; the good ones can take profound looks at important issues. Michigan people saw that long ago, with "The Burning Bed"; now they see it with "Flint," a compelling film that debuts Saturday (Oct. 28) on Lifetime. Here's the story I sent to papers.

 

By Mike Hughes

For three years of
rage and conflict, one place has seemed to be a symbol for
wide-ranging issues.

This was city vs.
state, people vs. government, “housewives” vs. officials,
anecdotal stories vs. accepted information. It sometimes seemed
like it was Flint, Mich., against the world.

“Even in a poor,
broken, poisoned town, we banded together,” Melissa Mays said. “And
we fought. We fought and we win.”

Well, there have
been some victories – indicted officials, a switch in water
sources, gradual changes in the water lines – and waves of
attention.

Flint's water crisis
has been a Time magazine cover story, a “60 Minutes” feature, a
“Nova” hour; now it's a cable movie, directed by Oscar-nominee
Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Tender Mercies”) and
produced and co-starring Queen Latifah.

She plays a
fictional character, but the others play real women who say officials
kept resisting them. “They belittled them,” said Jill Scott, who
plays Nayyirah Shariff. “They called them housewives. They made it
seem like (the women) were lying.”

Mostly, said Mays --
who is a graphic artist and music buff, in addition to being a
“housewife” with a husband and three sons -- they ignored them.
“The least they could do is go to our house and test it.”

The problem started
when Flint – with 41 percent of its people below the poverty line –
hit a financial crisis. The state appointed an emergency manager who
made financial cuts. Instead of buying its water from Detroit, the
city would take it from the Flint River.

That began in April
of 2014; by September, the city sent notes advising people to boil
the water.

The problem was
already beyond that, Mays said. “We had seizures, tremors, kidney
disease.” There were rashes; hair fell out. Her youngest son had a
broken bone from a simple fall off a bike.

Eventually, she
said, they found others with the same problems. “My husband and I
made a map of it.” This became a collision – experts who said it
was fine, regular people who said something was wrong.

“If my kids are
breaking out in rashes, breathing problems, losing hair, catching
pneumonia in the summertime, you'd better listen to me,” Mays said.
“I am expert, because I'm living it.”

For advice, she
contacted Erin Brockovich and Lois Gibbs. (“I found them by
Google.”) Both had previously been non-experts, battling giant
companies over environmental issues; in movies, they were played by
Julia Roberts and Marsha Mason. Now the Flint women are played by:

-- Scott. a singer
who starred in HBO's “The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.” She
plays Shariff, a long-time activist. “Nayyirah is silly and easy,
and she's sweet,” Sott said. “But she's focused.”

-- Marin Ireland, a
cable star via “The Divide” and “Sneaky Pete.” She plays
Mays. “She's funny, she's strong,” Ireland said. “She was
deeply inspiring to me.”

-- Betsy Brandt, a
“Life in Pieces” star who grew up an hour from Flint, in Bay
City, Mich. She plays LeeAnne Walters. “She didn't set out to be an
activist,” Brandt said, but she “saw her kids getting sick.”

Mays didn't plan on
being an activist, either. She grew up in Batesville, a Southern
Indiana city of 6,500, best known for its casket company; she
literally married the guy across the street.

They moved to Flint
for work reasons; in 2009, they settled into a four-bedroom home with
their three sons. Then the water crisis linked her with Walters,
Shariff and others, pulling them into the spotlight.

Eventually, some
professionals joined in – an EPA official in Chicago ... a Hurley
Medical Center pediatrician in Flint ... a professor and his students
from Virginia Tech. Some state officials resigned; some have been
indicted, accused of failing to use required corrosive control and
then lying about it.

But overall, Mays
says, this is a story about the people. “It was not experts who
swooped in and saved us as we sat there and cried for help. We did it
ourselves. We fought and we are still fighting today.”

-- “Flint,”
8-10:04 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 28), Lifetime

-- Repeats at 12:02
a.m., then at 10 a.m. Sunday

His dad made him a star (sort of) and he's making some TV thrills


Any time Mario Van Peebles makes a film -- or talks about anything -- it's interesting. Now, just in time for the Halloween season, his "Superstition" series debuts Friday (Oct. 20); here;s the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Somewhere alongside
the scares and thrills in Mario Van Peebles' new show, there's an old
tale:

A kid grows up in
the family business, then goes away. When he returns, his dad is
hesitant.

That's the story in
“Superstition” ... and in other movies and TV shows ... and in
Van Peebles' real life.

“If you grow up on
a family farm, you learn a little bit about feeding the chickens,”
he said. And “when you grow up with Melvin Van Peebles, ...you
learn as a kid” to make movies.

So he's given
“Superstition” the look of a big-deal horror film. It focuses on
Calvin, who grew up in a funeral home – with his dad (Mario Van
Peebles) and mom often fighting demons. The young man left to join
the Army; when he returns, his dad hesitates.

Yes, Van Peebles has
been there. His dad specialized in do-it-yourself filmmaking; Mario
took an opposite route – Columbia University, an economics degree,
two years in New York City government. That's when he decoded he
wanted to be in movies, after all.

“My dad sort of
said, 'OK, so we're going to make you a star.' .... He drew a little
star on a piece of paper and he handed it to me.

“Then he said,
'Here's my free advice: Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell
and advertise.'”

Van Peebles, 60, has
apparently done that. After leading-man roles (including the “Sonny
Spoon” series), he's done it all, like his dad. He's the
“Superstition” producer, director, co-writer and co-star, with
his daughter Morgana co-starring as Garvey.

And yes, he
advertises vigorously. Talking with reporters, he quoted from the
masters – Rudyard Kipling, Martin Luther King and Melvin Van
Peebles ... a guy who knows how to make someone a star.

-- “Superstition,”
10 p.m. Fridays, Syfy

-- Opener, Oct. 20,
reruns at midnight, then at 11 p.m. Oct. 26 and 6 a.m. Oct. 27

TV by the numbers: Still a man's world


The previous blog takes a Weinstein-era look at the male-female imbalance in the TV world. Alongside that, however, here are a few numbers, viewing which genres -- and which networks -- show the most and the least balance.

By Mike Hughes

Television is still
a man's world – as you might have suspected.

But the extent
depends on what network – or what genre – you're watching.

To test this, we
took the 64 primetime, scripted shows on the big-four networks. Then
we listed them according to whether the lead character is male or
female.

Yes, that can be
subjective. And yes, a few shows -- “This is Us,” “Modern
Family,” etc. -- defy category. Any two people might disagree on a
few of these; still, general trends are clear:

-- Overall: There
are 41 shows with a male lead, 16 female, seven mixed.

-- By network: Two
networks are balanced: NBC has 4 male, 5 female, 3 mixed; ABC has 8
male, 7 female, 2 mixed. The others aren't close: CBS has 18 male, 2
female, 1 mixed; Fox has 11-2-1.

-- By genre: The
crime (and firefighter) shows are 13 male and 4 female; you can also
add two military shows (both male) and some fantasy (five male, two
mixed). Once you've eliminated those, the dramas are balanced – 4
male, 5 female, 1 mixed. The comedies are not – 17 male, 7 female,
4 mixed.

-- And reality:
Things get worse if you add reality hosts; all five are male.

-- The outsider: If
you add the fifth commercial network, things are better. CW has 5
male (1 drama, 4 fantasy) and 5 female (1 drama, 1 fantasy, 1
military and two Friday shows in their own worlds).

-- And yes, things
are slightly more even now than they used to be. We checked one past
year, 2006. There were fewer overall shows then (fewer half-hour
shows, more hour ones and more reality), but the result was even more
imbalanced than now – 39 male, 9 female, 6 mixed.

 

 

TV gropes for equality (sometimes) in a Weinstein world


The Harvey Weinstein scandal has been a fierce jolt. A guy who makes great movies -- many of my favorites, in fact -- faces allegations of decades of sexual harassment. I can't tell you about that, but I can broaden the subject a little, and look at equality in the TV world. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As the nasty details
of the Harvey Weinstein story sink in, it's time to ponder the TV
landscape.

Here was a movie
mogul, accused of constantly trying to cajole actresses and
assistants into sex. His company fired him; the movie academy
expelled him.

That's an extreme,
but it begs questions of whether TV is fair. “The whole industry
has been (skewed) toward white heterosexual males,” Jon Landgraf,
head of the FX networks, said last year.

Landgraf is one of
those and admitted “a failure of leadership on my part as well as
(the TV) industry.”

At the time, he was
discussing a Variety trade-paper report: White males make up between
31 and 35 per cent of the U.S., Landgraf said, but a much bigger part
of the TV directors pool. They ranged from 67 percent for ABC shows
to 88 percent for FX. “I was dismayed.”

He promptly did
something about it. Currently, he said, 48 percent of FX directors
are white men.

Others, however,
have been slower to fix apparent inequities. For instance:

-- Gillian Anderson
said her show (“The X-Files”) has an all-male writing staff ...
and has had only two female directors in 207 episodes. Dana Walden,
co-head of Fox, said producer Chris Carter is now changing that. “I
don't want to make any excuses for anyone,” she said, but a show
with “a very deep and specific mythology” tends to rely on its
old hands ... presumably from the male-dominated years.

-- We categorized
primetime, scripted shows on the big-four networks. Out of 64, 41
have a male as the top character, only 16 have a female. The other seven (“This is Us,” etc.) are thoroughly mixed.

-- CBS takes that to
an extreme -- 18 shows with male leads, two with female leads and one
mixed. This is the second straight fall that it didn't add a new
female-topped shows. Also, critics pointed out this summer, the
casting department was all-white.

The network's excuse
is its stability. “We have a lot of long-running shows,” said
Thom Sherman, a CBS programmer. Kelly Kahl, the CBS programming
chief, said the casting people “have been together a long time.”
He points to increased diversity among writers, supporting actors and
reality-show contestants. “So we are making progress.”

But what about
instant progress? That's what Ryan Murphy – who makes many of FX's
top shows -- did. Now, he said, 60 per cent of his directors are
female; six percent are white male heterosexuals.

That's been
important to Murphy, Landgraf said. “He had grown up in the Midwest
as a gay man (and) always had people who were perceived as outsiders
... in his shows.”

Murphy offers a
reminder that Hollywood is no longer the sole province of
heterosexual males.

Nina Tassler was
programming chief of CBS for a decade. When she left, the job went to
Glenn Geller, who quickly identified himself as “a gay guy from
Indiana.” Robert Greenblatt, the NBC chief for the past seven
years, promptly reminded reporters that “I still come from Illinois
and I'm still gay.”

Geller resigned this
year, while recovering from a heart attack, but the TV world is
clearly more than a land of executives chasing actresses.

As recently as 2010,
ABC's programming chief resigned amid reports of a sexual-harassment
probe. Now the programming chief is Channing Dungey, the first black
female to head a major network.

Elsewhere, other
women are in charge. Courtney Monroe has transformed the National
Geographic Channel and leads its global operation ... Bonnie Hammer
runs the sprawling cable empire of NBC Universal ... Paula Kerger has
been the PBS president for 11 years. But the hurdles are still
imposing.

“The women and the
minorities have to shout louder and fight harder than many of our
white male colleagues,” Alexis Martin Woodall said. “Trust me ...
being 5-foot-3 and a woman, the hustle is real.”

Still, Murphy has
promoted her quickly; she's been executive producer of “Feud,”
“American Horror Story” and the O.J. Simpson miniseries. She sees
his efforts as proof that TV can have equality. “Network and studio
heads and male producers can no longer bury their heads in the sand.”

Well, they probably
can ... but in a Weinstein-fueled time, people might notice.