Thursday, July 30, 2009

Living legends

In this era of hyperbole run amock where we no longer have mere movie stars, only “superstars,” there is one descriptive term for an elite and rare level of talent and performance that still holds its water: living legend. You just can’t pin that label on every actor, singer, dancer or athlete who ever performed or competed at the highest level of his or her craft. Only a handful of even the greatest performers in any field manage to reach the rarified air of that loftiest of accolades.

Last night I had the pleasure of nearly three hours in the company of a living legend doing his thing.

I saw Topol perform Tevye in his farewell tour of Fiddler on the Roof.

I’ll leave the reviews to the critics, although I can’t imagine anybody having the audacity to suggest that this actor, who has performed this particular role more than 2,500 times in the past forty years, is lacking in any nuance or that he left any fragment of his massive talent or energy in his dressing room.

This is not so much about performance as it is the experience of seeing a globally-beloved entertainer doing the one thing that made his fame greater than his own existence.

I’ve had this experience three or four times before. I saw Sammy Davis Jr. perform in Vegas. He did two hours that kept me spellbound to the point that the time and place of my existence were irrelevant. Sammy held a large room full of people in hypnotic suspension of enraptured animation. You wanted to cry for being so fortunate as to be in his audience.

The same was true when I saw George Burns onstage no more than fifty feet away at Harrah’s in South Lake Tahoe. That man could milk more laughter out of a slightly raised eyebrow or a turn of a cigar than the greatest of today’s comics. When you saw George in his nineties you knew you were watching one of the greatest performers from an age already-past.

I saw Elvis in Vegas just a handful of years before he died. I was never much of an Elvis fan but living legend status does carry the weight of one’s body of work and the universal adoration he commands. Elvis certainly had that and the air crackled with the magic of his presence.

And, I saw Rex Harrison as Professor ‘enry ‘iggins in My Fair Lady. Show me any other actor who was beloved by millions for mumbling his songs in the essence of fabled British understatement.

This is my very small collection of times trapped in bottles. And now I have added a precious summertime evening in Los Angeles when the world’s best-loved piece of musical theater was given to me in its full orchestral celebrated glory. And for this evening the man who did not invent but became the synonymous face and distinctive voice of Tevye, the milk man, was — as the song goes, the master of his house.

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