In our culture, to receive a call from the office of Oprah Winfrey is about as close one can get to receiving a call from God. To be on the couch next to the woman with the Midas touch before millions of TV viewers is a life-changing experience, or so the mythology goes. Oprah is, after all, the woman who pushed for and helped get The Color Purple onto Broadway, and the woman who pushed for and helped get Barack Obama into the White House.
Oprah figures in the lives of two women appearing on local stages, but in contrary ways because of the wildly contrary personalities of the pair. Cynthia Silver’s acting career never quite got off the ground. She nonetheless got a call from Oprah’s office. It was part of a bizarre and deeply upsetting adventure that she describes in harrowing and often affecting detail in her one-woman show, Bridezilla Strikes Back!, which just opened at the Zephyr Theater.
Meanwhile, you can see Linda Twine, a regal African-American woman holding a baton in the orchestra pit of the Pasadena Playhouse for the production of Stormy Weather. She’s the show’s conductor and musical director — a position she’s held on Broadway for hits such as The Wiz; Caroline, or Change; The Wild Party; Jelly’s Last Jam; Ain’t Misbehavin’; the 41-city tour of Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music; and, of course, The Color Purple.
In an interview at a cafe around the corner from the Pasadena Playhouse, Twine mentioned Oprah as the producer of the Broadway production of The Color Purple, but really didn’t make much of it. I’m unclear if the two have ever even met, though it’s hard to believe that a show’s producer would have no contact with its musical director. Twine doesn’t drop names; you have to drag them out of her with pliers. That’s part of her self-effacing temperament.
In Silver’s show (co-written by Kenny Finkle and directed by Lee Sankowich), the performer doesn’t stop dropping names, even when her “friendships” with superstars are entirely invented, which they frequently are. Jennifer Aniston is among the fantasy friends with whom she has imaginary conversations — onstage, in front of a paying audience.
Among her fantasies is an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She not only confesses it freely in Bridezilla Strikes Back!, but whenever she does so, the Oprah show’s emblem appears behind her on a video screen. Silver plays out the interview and does a pretty good Oprah impersonation. And she probably did, as she says, actually get that call from Oprah’s secretary. (What happened next wasn’t exactly the answer to her dreams, but I won’t give that away.)
This is pertinent because of what Oprah, as an American deity, actually represents, which is a culture of confession that happens to be both the theme and style of Silver’s show. The phenomenon of spilling one’s guts in public as a form of personal and communal therapy seems to be in the American DNA, a trait that we’ve now exported around the world. You can track it back to the plays of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, David Mamet and August Wilson — plays that hang on the principle that bleating out one’s vulnerabilities while thumping one’s chest or yelling or cursing or weeping is a form of a high drama that’s highly improving for all of us. You just don’t find this style in many British or European plays prior to 1950, certainly not in Pinter or Chekhov or Ibsen. Those plays ride on the culture of decorum and privacy. That’s just not us. And it’s certainly not Oprah.
Oprah, however, is a regal deity that brings dignity to the art of confession. Her blue-collar cousin would be Geraldo Rivera; her white-trash stepchild is reality TV, which is where Silver’s saga begins and ends.
In August of 2002, Silver, a struggling actress, was informed by her wedding “event designer” that a British film company, September Films, was creating a “documentary series” called Manhattan Brides, which followed couples through the preparation of their nuptials. Her fiancé, Matt Silver (who still works as a production stage manager on Broadway), was less than impressed and, according to Cynthia’s confession, said he didn’t like the silky tone of the British producers, and didn’t trust them. “It’s a reality TV show,” he told her. “No, hon,” she replied, “It’s a documentary series. It’s like Nova, but about weddings.” Similarly confusing “exposure” with “acting,” she also believed that the experience might jump-start her performing career. That imagined jump-start is where her fantasies of appearing on Oprah had their origin.
Silver performed her show in the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival; she’s now visibly pregnant, and has regained the 15 pounds she says she lost after the “documentary” was aired. Much of Bridezilla is a pedestrian tale, as Silver regales us — on and around Giulio Perrone’s wedding cake set piece — of her filmed hysterics while trying to find a wedding dress that would disguise her weight, and her spunky on-film ruminations about the cruel, exploitive ambitions of the wedding industry. (She says Matt cautioned her ever so subtly that he found her on-film performance to be overacted; she countered that she was building a fan base.)
Then comes the section that’s irrefutably absorbing, when Silver finally realizes the betrayal that we’ve suspected all along. Months after filming has been completed comes the e-mail from Britain that the “documentary” has been sold to Fox, which is turning it into a reality show. (That’s when the actual call from Oprah came in.)
Then arrives the news that Fox has been re-editing the “reality” of her wedding to loop scenes of her emotional breakdowns so that they play over and over. The series is now called Bridezillas. Her segment goes by the title, “Life’s a Bitch, and Then You Marry One.”
After the humiliating broadcast, she reads excoriating online comments by viewers. It only gets worse when, trying to reason with the mob, she posts lucid explanations of how she was misled, while acknowledging her many mistakes. This only triggers more waves of written abuse online, frustrating her efforts to “set the record straight.” The core of her identity crisis is her obsession with what others think of her. As her husband aptly puts it, “Why do you care? They’re idiots!” But she does care, and her endearing confession of the profound insight she’s learned — as though she’s appearing on Oprah — rings ever so slightly hollow through her tears. She is, after all, still doing this show, still confessing in front of strangers in a film-and-TV industry town.
And this is the fallacy of the culture of confession, how exploitation, even by oneself, keeps intruding on some presumed, lasting wisdom.
The first thing you feel from conductor/musical director Linda Twine is a quiet serenity. It has the soft radiance of an aura that then gets reinforced when she speaks. Her gestures are muted. Her voice is sometimes so soft, it requires straining to hear her. She grew up in Oklahoma, where she played piano in local churches. After graduating with a degree in music from Oklahoma City University, and after completing grad work at the Manhattan School of Music, she cut her chops playing in clubs. That’s where she got noticed by a producer of The Wiz. She was hired on as associate musical director. Then the musical director fell ill.
The critics refer to Twine as a consummate musician, but she’s also a consummate diplomat. I tried to pry from her some scenes of conflict during her years of touring with Lena Horne. She thought for a moment, and then replied, softly, “Oh, Lena would always buy gifts for everybody.”
The closest she came to conflict was in a story of muted hostility by white musicians to an African-American female conductor. “That wasn’t in the South, mind you,” she pointed out. “That was in Philadelphia.”
While working as an assistant, Twine would tape Horne singing in order to study her intonations and cadences. Horne knew this, which is partly how Twine got promoted to musical director for the tour.
Stormy Weather — a bio-musical about Horne — has been in development for a decade. Twine worked on an early workshop at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and didn’t return to the project until about a month before rehearsals began in Pasadena.
“It’s a work in progress,” she says. They’ve added more and more songs for Leslie Uggams, who portrays Horne. Twine says she likes Uggams’ performance a lot, while noting the different musical styles of the two women. “It’s not just their voices,” Twine explains. “Lena had a different kind of connection to the audience. Sometimes it was just in the way she looked at them, and the room lit up.”
After the show closes, Twine will return to her Brooklyn home. In an era that marks an unprecedented abundance of musical theater, there will be no shortage of musicals for her to arrange and conduct.
Though in the spotlight every night, Twine reveals a striking shyness, compared to Silver’s craving for attention. At the podium, Twine’s style is meticulous, not flashy. Perhaps the difference between Twine and Silver is the difference between a performer whose identity and passion come from music, something both within and beyond herself, compared to Silver, whose instrument is her own body, and the life she’s lived.
Bridezilla Strikes Back! by Cynthia Silver and Kenny Finkle;
through March 29. The Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A. (323) 960-7774.
Stormy Weather; by Sharleen Cooper Cohen; through March 8. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena (626) 792-6142.