HOLLYWOOD REUNION: Behind the Musical

IT'S 4 O' CLOCK ON THE LAST OFFICIAL DAY OF SUMMER, AND SEVENTH grader Newman Wolf is feeling excited about returning to school. "I think it's gonna be really fun," he says from his cluttered bedroom in his mom's Studio City home.

One reason the energetic 12-year-old is enthusiastic about his return to campus life is, well, 'cause, he's one of the coolest kids in school.

"Not to sound all high and mighty, but people think I'm cool. Like, if I say, 'Hi,' people say, 'He's cool.'"

"It's true," confirms his 15-year-old cousin Taylor, from Newman's unmade bed. "He's a cool kid."

Comic books cover the floor and a drum kit from Pacific by DW is set up in the corner (Newman's played since he was 6). His desk holds a new iBook where Newman and Taylor are burning CDs.

Newman, who is currently wearing "the hat of God," a black The Nightmare Before Christmas baseball hat with Jack Skellington on the front, believes the summer has matured him.

"I'm less of a spaz. Less of a dick," the small-framed Newman explains, while simultaneously replying to an instant message. "My whole quote unquote essence."

"I can see that," says Taylor, adjusting a gray wool hunting cap from Newman's copious collection onto her head. "He really has become quite an individual. He's kind of become himself instead of a typical product -- you know, people who are produced?" Taylor doesn't watch MTV or listen to popular radio.

"And, I don't yell at my sister as much," Newman adds. "'Cause, I've come to accept that she's clinically insane." For the record, there is no hard evidence that Frankie, Newman's 10-year-old sister, who resides in the bedroom next door, is actually clinically insane.

Newman credits a few weeks at sleep-away camp, specifically an inner-tubing experience, as well as a recent trip to Vegas with his dad (where "I got to walk around on my own") and a girlfriend with his recent maturation. Taylor he credits with single-handedly saving him from a musical wasteland. "I was lost musically."

"I tried," says Taylor, who has now taken over the instant message post.

"I think if she hadn't come along, I would be totally fucked. I'd be sitting in my room singing along to Blink-182." A punk rock fate worse than death.

When did you start listening to punk, Newman?

"Last year."

"It wasn't that long ago," corrects Taylor matter-of-factly.

"Okay," complies Newman, with the finesse of a late-night talk show host. "The beginning of the school year. We'll say the beginning of the school year."

"What are these?" asks Taylor, opening up a box on his nightstand.

"My Chinese balls," Newman says. "Don't touch those." The two crack up.

"I used to go to a school for highly gifted kids," explains Newman, who is now emptying his backpack from Vegas: a small statue of David, a rubber finger pen, a Star Trek patch. "Now I just go to a regular school, so it's kind of been a hard transition for me. But, I like this school more, because there is not as much pressure from being around actual geniuses. Just being around normal kids."

But with normal kids come normal kids' questions. Newman rattles off a "Greatest Hits" of lame questions asked last year during science class. "Number 1: 'Are beaver dams man-made?' Number 2: 'Can you freeze fire?' And, Number 3: 'Is there oxygen on Earth?'"

Does everyone at school think you're cool?

"I don't know about everybody, 'cause there are like 300 kids at the school. But, yeah, the kids I know."

There is one girl who doesn't like Newman. She doesn't go to his school. We'll call her "Kelly."

"I met her when I was 7, and I had this huge crush on her. She hates me. She's been mad at me for like years. I don't know why she's mad at me."

Has she been mad ever since she found out you had a crush on her?

"Yeah. If I see her at my friend Zach's, she'll be like, 'Hi.' And, then 10 minutes later she'll be screaming, 'Newman is such an idiot I hate him.'"

Do you still like her?

"Yeah."

Why?

"She's nice. She's smart. She's cool."

As noted above, Newman now has a girlfriend. Yet, for reasons having to do with his mother and her tendency to ask a lot of questions, as well as the feelings of those involved, he is understandably reluctant to go into the details. It can be stated that Newman has kissed a girl.

What about your teachers?

"Last year I had a, let's say, challenging teacher. She was just evil. I hated her even more than I hate Avril Lavigne." Which is saying a lot. Newman thinks the 17-year-old "Complicated" pop star is an "evil poseur."

"She [Lavigne] doesn't think about [punk] music or the lifestyle. She just thinks of it as a fashion statement. She wears, like, nine bracelets. She looks like Taylor, except with red hair and Canadian." All of a sudden, despite the current heat wave, a dark cloud passes over the cluttered bedroom.

"Uh, I don't really dress like that, Newman," says Taylor, who like her cousin has dyed black hair and is wearing an old-school Crass patch safety-pinned to the butt of her handmade denim mini, a vintage Western shirt and prescription cat-eye glasses. Taylor is Ghost World, not Real World.

What are the different types of kids at your school?

"Jocks, punk rockers, and stupid idiot kids."

What about the girls?

"The girls are mostly classified into really stupid girls, and . . ." Newman takes a moment to think. "Cute? Girls? I guess."

Are there any stupid, cute girls?

"Yeah."

So do they become a stupid-cute girl then?

No. They don't become a stupid-cute girl; they are a stupid-cute girl. They still stay stupid. 'Cause no one would date a stupid girl. I mean jocks would date a stupid-cute girl. But I would never date a stupid-cute girl."

What are you? Punk rock?

"Yes. I consider myself punk rock. I'll admit I am a very recent punk." With that Newman exits and closes his bedroom door behind him.

Newman has asked that the following people be acknowledged: Zach, Eli, Joey, Lucas, Johno. "They are my posse, those are the guys responsible for Newman."

--Seven McDonald

HOLLYWOOD REUNION: Behind the Musical

IT'S ALMOST 45 MINUTES BEFORE the screening to honor the 50th anniversary and new DVD release of Singin' in the Rain, perhaps the greatest American screen musical ever, but the theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is already packed. The best seat I can find is in the back on the far right-hand side, in a row just in front of a manager type who is conducting a very loud, lengthy, public, coddling cell-phone conversation with a very busy celebrity.

"Sally Struthers," he announces grandly to his date when he finally hangs up.

While trying to wrap my head around that, I spot Gene Kelly's third and last wife, Patricia Ward Kelly, settling into a power spot -- next to host Michael Feinstein and just ahead of the film's stars Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor. Meanwhile, Kelly's eldest daughter, Kerry Kelly Novick, locates a seat as far away from Ward Kelly as possible. Novick hasn't set eyes on her younger stepmother since her father's death six years ago. Her grievance? According to her quotes in yesterday's New York Post, "[Patricia] isolated my father from all his old friends, the family retained lawyers and doctors and had his will rewritten to give her everything." The lights begin to dim.

Kelly's insanely radiant musical-comedy classic appears onscreen, and suddenly it's 1927, Hollywood is in turmoil over the conversion from silent to sound pictures, and Don Lockwood (Kelly), a womanizing, nearly over-the-hill movie star, is falling for the dancer-ingénue played by a 19-year-old Reynolds. Together with Lockwood's wacky studio-musician best friend (O'Connor), the trio set out to turn a lavish howler of a talkie into a glittering, all-singing, all-hoofing musical.

For 108 minutes, the crowd explodes into noisy applause after every dance number, with sustained bouts of cheering for O'Connor's wall-sprinting acrobatics in "Make 'Em Laugh" and Kelly's now-iconic puddle-splashing tap dance, "Singin' in the Rain." After the credits roll, the audience jumps to its feet and roars. Then, something amazing occurs, at least for a Los Angeles weeknight crowd: It's 10 o'clock, and virtually everyone stays for the Singin' in the Rain reunion panel discussion.

Assembling on the stage are a trim O'Connor and Reynolds, who bounds up the stairs with a shower of light bouncing off her figure-hugging, royal-blue sparkly Las Vegas headliner getup. Cyd Charisse and Rita Moreno, who both make cameo appearances in the film, find seats. New York­based Singin' in the Rain screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden, both eightysomething, roll out in wheelchairs. Green broke his leg. What happened to Comden? "I got jealous," she jokes. Actually, she slipped and bruised her hip at a Singin' in the Rain screening at the Telluride Film Festival, but in the end she's a comedy writer -- she couldn't resist punching up the scenario.

The way Green and Comden tell it, writing Singin' in the Rain was one of those uniquely peculiar Hollywood tasks: Producer Arthur Freed handed them a pile of songs he'd written with his partner, Nacio Herb Brown -- most of them back-catalog Freed-Brown songs from other movies, and one of them, "Make 'Em Laugh," a direct rip-off of Cole Porter's "Be a Clown." Their job was to find a story using the songs.

"We were in total despair. What were we going to do?" says Green, describing how they holed up for more than eight weeks in their dinky MGM office before cracking the structure.

When asked about choreographing the gravity-defying "Make 'Em Laugh" dance number, O'Connor admits to throwing in so many stunts and pratfalls that he feared he'd be left with only one possible ending. "I was building to such a crescendo," he says, "I thought I'd actually have to commit suicide."

The most outrageous antics of the evening belong to Reynolds. When Moreno gushingly describes Elizabeth Taylor as "my idol," Reynolds springs from her seat and pretends to storm off the stage. "Get over it!" Moreno shoots back with a shrug and dismissive wave of her hand. (Taylor broke up Reynolds' marriage to Eddie Fisher back in 1959.)

Then there is the moment when Adolph Green compliments Charisse on her show-stopping dream-sequence ballet. Reynolds pipes in, "Oh, you just like her legs!" She leans over, ogles Charisse's still shapely gams and does everything but let out a wolf whistle. "I like her legs! And I'm straight!"

--Margy Rochlin

JOURNALIST'S NOTEBOOK: Flak-jacket Wimps, Fools and Showoffs

YOAV COHEN, WHO RENTED ME A flak jacket and helmet in Israel, looked like a surfer -- if you can imagine a surfer with the unsmiling demeanor of someone who's had to use deadly force. He had that surfer's muscly, thin body, along with blond, tousled hair and blue eyes. He wore a gray CK T-shirt and jeans. And he was carrying a black nylon bag the size of a couch cushion, from which he pulled a giant navy vest. He put the vest over my head.

I was in a pink dress, at my boyfriend's aunt's house for Shabbat dinner, and over the dress I was now wearing a garment filled with 40 pounds of protective plates. I tried not to giggle as he explained that the vest had flaps that could be flipped up to cover my neck. My arms were bare because if I got shot in the arm I wouldn't die.

"When you hear shooting, don't be around," he instructed me humorlessly.

Before I got to Israel, everyone told me I needed a flak jacket if I was planning on going into the occupied territories. The Foreign Press Association, other reporters, everyone. I was even told I'd need to rent an armored car at $20,000 per month. I couldn't afford the car, so the flak jacket seemed even more important.

When I got to the hotel in Jerusalem, I put the flak jacket in a corner of my room. It was night, and I went downstairs to have a drink and meet another reporter, a friend of a friend. She'd just gotten back from two days in Hebron, which was seeing more army activity than Ramallah, where I was going. She ordered a martini, lit a cigarette and told me, "Screw the flak jacket."

She pointed to what she was wearing -- a sleeveless shirt and a light jacket -- and said, "This is what I wore."

The next day, I went to Ramallah wearing only linen. Through a series of events that are not worth repeating but did involve multiple taxis for which I paid way too much money, I ended up at a television studio in Ramallah. I was stuck there for hours because it was curfew and nobody was allowed in the streets. From the window of the TV studio I could see the building where I was supposed to be interviewing a Palestinian guy from Ohio named Sam, but I couldn't walk there. All I could do, said Qassem, the head of the TV studio, was wait for Ahmed. He shook his head and laughed to himself as he said this. "Ahmed is a little . . ." He searched for the word. "Unreliable."

Two and a half hours later, Ahmed appeared: a tightly wound guy in his 20s wearing glasses with dark frames. He looked like John Turturro. He had on a flak jacket. He slapped hands and joked with all the guys stuck at the TV station. Then Qassem asked him if he could drive me to Sam's house. After some back-and-forth between them, he reluctantly agreed.

We went downstairs and got into the armored car that he used to drive reporters around. Mostly NBC reporters, he said. The car was white and wide, almost like a Humvee but not as squat, and it had the letters TV taped all over it. That way the Israeli army would know not to shoot at it. The door was so heavy I could barely open it. As I climbed up, Ahmed started in on me for not having a flak jacket. Was I crazy? This was a dangerous place! Everybody wore flak jackets. If you get hit without a flak jacket on, your company's insurance will not cover your injury, he said. I said another reporter had told me not to wear one because I would look ridiculous. He snorted.

It went back and forth like this for two weeks: One person would say a flak jacket was absolutely necessary, and someone else would say it wasn't. I hooked up with a translator who said, "Yeah, you don't need one now, but if you'd gone into Ramallah a month ago without one I would have been very mad at you." I talked to TV reporters who said they would never go anywhere without one, and print reporters who rolled their eyes and said the TV reporters just wear them to look cool on TV.

Some reporters said they refuse to wear a flak jacket because then, when you interview someone, there's always this feeling in the air that your life is worth more than theirs, because you have a flak jacket on and they don't. Others said they'd wear one only if they were going to an active battle zone.

I ended up never taking mine out of the bag, not because I came to any solid conclusion about the issue, but because it was just easier to leave it behind. The only thing I learned for sure is that flak jackets have to go before normal life can continue. Even Ahmed, when he impulsively joined a game of curfew-defiant street soccer with some boys in front of the TV studio, could go only two minutes before he had to strip off the vest. He left it at the side of the road.

--Nancy Updike