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I normally don't do reviews of films or shows here, but a Broadway show we saw the other night is worthy of mention.
Amazing Grace, which opened a week ago, didn't get great reviews and the dismal box office numbers in its first week since opening might mark this show for an early demise.
That would be a shame, since we thought Amazing Grace is a good show, well-performed.
The writers' notes in the Playbill say the show is based on a true story, although some characters and timelines have been altered or combined for the sake of storytelling. It's the story of John Newton, an Englishman who in 1772 wrote the iconic song Amazing Grace. (I had always assumed it was an old spiritual repurposed as a folksong by Judy Collins or Joan Baez.)
Newton, so the story goes, was the son of a British slave trader who, after a stint as a sailor to escape his domineering father, returns and tries to prove himself by getting into the slave business himself.
Set in 1744 and onward, the show doesn't whitewash the inhumanity and brutality of slavery. It has scenes that show the cruelty. A key character is Newton's childhood girlfriend, who joins the abolitionist movement. And the show let's us see special relationships between master and slave, especially between whites raised by slaves who acted in many ways like teachers and parents. It also shows how quickly a lifelong bond like that can be severed, when Newton sold off his friend and constant companion Thomas, who after all was still Newton's slave.
After nearly perishing out at sea on a slave ship, Newton sees the error of his ways and sets out to make things right, including a cross-ocean search for his old friend Thomas.
It's a great story that makes for good theater. Although not memorable, the music is good and there are some outstanding acting and musical performances by Newton (Josh Young), Thomas (Chuck Cooper) and an African princess (Harriett D. Foy) who becomes Newton's partner by enslaving her own people.
I recommend it, but you may have to get tickets quickly before the mediocre reviews force it to close.
Amazing Grace is playing at the Nederlander Theater.
Many of us New Yorkers can be a bit sensitive when someone criticizes our city. One frequent -- although really unfair -- criticism is that we New Yorkers are rude. I've come across plenty of rude and selfish people in other cities, large and small. It's not a trait we here in New York own.
So I have to admit, I was pleased to see a story in The Chicago Tribune by transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch. I've dealt with Jon. He's not at all rude. But evidently many of his fellow Chicagoans are, which has caused the Chicago Transit Authority to launch a new campaign calling for courtesy on the trains and buses serving the windy city.
According to Hilkevitch's story, thirteen humorous messages addressing rude behavior began appearing this week on trains and buses and in stations. The ads address things like blaring loud music, littering and spreading out to take two seats. (New York's MTA has a campaign that addresses that same issue, which they call "manspreading.")
So it's good to see that rudeness is rampant in other places. It makes me feel that much better about this great place that I call home.
In a few weeks, longtime ad columnist Stuart Elliott will pen his last column for The Times. He announced on his Facebook page this morning that he will be taking "the very generous buyout" the paper's been offering to longtime reporters and editors, as it tries to reduce its newsroom headcount by 100.
Others who will be leaving by year-end include bylines we've been reading for some time, like Bill Carter on the TV industry.
But Stuart's departure will leave a real gap in The Times business section. He's written beautifully over the years about new campaigns, agency mergers and buyouts, marketing and advertising trends and, often after long holiday weekends, the 10 or 20 humorous questions he raises, always capped with the self-deprecating final statement "for a guy from Brooklyn, you ask a lot of questions."
I've always looked forward to reading Stuart's columns, in the paper and also online. And I'm pleased to say, while we're not close friends, I've had a cordial professional relationship with him. I've always tried to respect him by only pitching him story ideas that I honestly felt were on target, often telling a client "sorry, that's just not for Stuart." And he's treated me with respect, always repsonding to my calls or emails, even if, sometimes, to patiently explain why an idea just isn't for him.
He's been the longest-running ad columnist at The Times, going back to 1991. In terms of longevity, he beat out legendary ad columnist Phil Dougherty, who preceded him, by a year.
Actually, I go back with Stuart to 1990, when he was the ad writer at USA Today. I had just started my own PR business, and an early client was agency Geer DuBois -- a name, like so many others, now just a memory for us oldtimers. He did a nice piece on a new campaign by Geer client YooHoo chocolate drink.
I recall meetings with him and clients like media guru Gene DeWitt in the cafeteria at the old Times building on West 43rd, or more recently at his breakfast haunt at the Royalton on West 44th St.
I'm sorry to see him go, but I know there are many opportunities waiting for him, if he chooses. Or who knows... maybe there's a book in the offing.
Whatever he chooses to do, I know I'm among many who wish him the best and thank him for his good work over the years.
Every year at this time, New Yorkers -- especially those of us who live or work in Midtown East -- have to endure major inconveniences during General Assembly Week at the UN.
New Yorkers are used to traffic, congested sidewalks and the seemingly constant shrill of sirens from police, fire and EMS vehicles. It's just part of living in this wonderful city that we love.
But it all ramps up during General Assembly Week. First Avenue and the cross streets in the east 40's have become parking lots. East 44th Street has barricades, police and bomb-sniffing dogs checking vehicles heading East toward the UN. This area is always a great melting pot with people of all ethnicities and in a dazzling variety of dress, but this week, it's even more so.
When I went out before at lunchtime, Second Avenue was barricaded, with police standing by as all kinds of quiet, peaceful protests and messages are displayed to passersby. Each block seems to have a different group holding signs about something, almost all of which seem obscure and unknown to most of us here.
As crazy as it seems now, once the big heads of state begin arriving and shuttling from their hotels and embassies to the UN a block from my office, traffic will grind to a standstill. It even impacts pedestrians, who often have to wait several minutes to cross a street as official caravans with foreign delegations drive past, preceded and followed by police cars and big SUVs with dark windows, with lights flashing. The streets and crosswalks get temporarily closed by police as they pass.
Poeple throughout the world will be seeing stories with the dateline UNITED NATIONS, New York, and photos from General Assembly proceedings will be beamed globally on TV.
The United Nations is far short of what its founders had hoped for some 65 years ago. There's a lot of talk and a lot of foot-dragging. Important things often get vetoed by a Security Council member nation, which tends to render the organization toothless at times when teeth are needed.
With all its faults, however, I believe it still serves an important purpose. It's a place where nations, who often have very different and opposing interests, can sit down across from each other and hash it out, raising voices sometimes, but not raising arms. Even then, the diplomacy doesn't always stop the fighting or the abuses of power or the denials of personal freedoms around the world.
But sometimes it does. And the annual meeting here in New York puts the world's focus on not only the differences and disagreements, but also on the honest attempts to find ways toward peace and dignity. And for those fleeting times when it does work, the UN is worth it after all.
The New York Times last week reported on the new logo that has just been unveiled for the new World Trade Center downtown.
Here's a shot of the new logo, courtesy of The Times.
Is it me, or is it underwhelming and totally nondescript? It took the Times writer several sentences to explain the meaning of the new logo. The five bars, for example, represent the five buildings on the site. The two bars on the lower part of the logo represent the two pools at the 9/11 memorial. The slope of the top of the bars is pitched at 17.76 degrees, representing the 1776-foot heigfht of the new tower. Clever, I suppose, but if the nuances of the logo need to be explained, maybe they're too subtle or too esoteric. Maybe they'd work if the logo itself looked distinctive or striking, rather than some boring and rectangles that sort of look like a candelabra.
The criminal thing here is that the Port Authority, which owns the space, paid corporate identity firm Landor Associates $3.57 million to create the logo. Maybe all those nuances are what they did to justify their hefty fee.
It makes me think of when another high-priced corporate identity firm -- Lippincott & Margulies -- created a new logo for NBC, back in 1976. They were paid "only" about $750,000, which would be about $3.1 million in today's dollars. So NBC got a bargain, compared to what Landor charged the Port Authority.
But not really. After spending all that money, it turned out that the new NBC logo looked extremely similar to the logo that Nebraska Educational TV had been using for two years. Nebraska ETV sued NBC, which settled out of court by giving Nebraska ETV $800,000 worth of broadcast equipment and $55,000 to pay a lower-priced firm to develop a new logo for them. NBC kept the million-dollar design. I don't know if Lippincott & Margulies refunded any of the fee for not doing proper research. (Maybe research would have cost NBC another $500,000.)
I wonder if Landor will give back some of its fee (paid for by taxpayers, by the way) for a boring logo that needs to be explained to make sense? Landor is the same firm that designed the FedEx logo, which works. But I'd say they really blew it on this project.
New York City continues to grow as more people come here to settle.
The Big Apple's population went over the 8 million mark with the last census in 2010, and it's gained nearly 3% since that last official headcount. There are now more than 8.4 million of us New Yorkers -- the biggest number ever.
Every borough showed a population gain, led by Brooklyn and then Queens.
The city still loses thousands every year who head south for warmth and sun (especially after this brutal winter) or out west to find themselves. But between immigrants -- 73,000 coming from abroad last year alone -- and a high birth rate, our numbers continue to rise. New New Yorkers joining us from Asia and the sub-continent, eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America continue to enrich our city with diversity that makes this place great.
Growth will be a challenge, as it means more people to absorb with education, housing and jobs. But it also creates new opportunities, since the things needed to accomodate our new neighbors will lead to more revenues and added income for retailers and others who will serve the new New Yorkers.
As always, the city welcomes them with open arms and an open heart.
Poorly handled press relations created a PR flap for newly-minted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The mayor scored points soon after taking office in January when he announced plans to undertake a major initiative to reduce traffic-related fatalities, especially pedestrian deaths. The city has seen several pedestrian deaths recently that have grabbed headlines.
Among the things Mayor de Blasio announced as partr of his plan were stricter enforcement of traffic laws, fines for jaywalking, and a proposal to reduce the speed limit on city streets from 30 to 25 mph.
Imagine the embarrassment when a WCBS-TV crew happened to catch video of the mayor's entourage speeding through a residemntial neighborhood and blowing through at least two stop signs. Of course, the station ran the clip, which went viral and was shown on other stations, not only in New York but nationwide. The story hit the newspapers as well, in New York and beyond.
At a news conference about education a day or two later, a reporter asked about the incident. The mayor scolded the reporter and told him the quetion is not "on-topic" so he would not respond. Instead, the police commissioner addressed the issue, a bit vaguely, by responding that his officers did nothing wrong and there would be no investigation or discipline.
As the issue lived on over the next few days, becoming known as "Speedgate," de Blasio told reporters he would not address it since his police commissioner already had.
The media in New York City -- especially the political and police reporters -- are not easily blown of, and they persisted with questions. As the issue got more exposure, a group of parents and families of traffic victims held their pown news conference and chided the mayor for his "insensitivity" and "lack of concern" for traffic laws.
Finally, yesterday, he addressed the issue with the media, telling reporters he respects traffic laws and knows that everyone -- himself and his police detail included -- are not above obeying those laws. But he begged off by saying driving decisions by his security detail are the responsibility of the police, and he would not "cross that line" to interfere.
To me. it seemed like a lame explanation, where a real apology and mea culpa would have done the trick and likely satisfied the reporters. He does, in fact, have a legitimate excuse. He was not driving and, most likely, he was not even paying attention to how the car was being driven as he was probably on the phone, talking to an aide in the car or by phone, or checking messages.
What he should have said was just that, and that he would expect his driving and security detail to use their sirens and lights if they felt the need to go faster and/or go through stop signs and lights. That would have put the issue to rest, rather than creating a very visible blemish on the mayor's first months on the job.
Next time, listen to your PR people, Mr. Mayor. (And if they didn't give you advice like this, then perhaps you should look for some other PR advisors.)