Friday, October 28, 2016

Fall Harvest of Plays: Beautiful

For my August birthday, I couldn't wait to see Beautiful, the play about Carole King that won Jessie Mueller the 2014 Tony for best female lead in a Broadway musical. In a rare appearance, King was on hand to give the award, and in a rare coincidence, Abby Mueller, Jessie's sister, snagged the role for the road show. How much better could it get? A Carole King fan after I discovered the Tapestry album, I was surprised to learn she'd written so many top forty hits. But could this production top or even match the raging success of Jersey Boys for sheer entertainment?

From opening curtain to closing bows, the story, the music and the outright production pizazz of Beautiful rock. Instead of four street wise guys flirting with the law, a spunky Brooklyn teenager (whose mother taught her all about music) flirts with an older boy she meets at Queens College. When they discover a mutual aspiration to write top forty songs, a collaboration is born, romance flourishes, and much more ignites. Carole King and Gerry Goffin write a large slice of American popular music from the '50's and '60's on, but the emotional arc of the show rises and falls with King. She's on top of the world, married to Gerry and raising two daughters as they pen hit after hit. But betrayal seeps in and delivers blow after blow. Divorce follows. A despondent King recovers and writes the next chapter of her life, collaborating with fellow musicians, but even more, emerging as a powerful independent artist. The result is six Grammys, including four for Tapestry, and countless other awards. King takes her lofty place among legends of American popular music.

The brilliance of Beautiful is the scope of the material, which captures what's happening in the recording industry during this period. The action pulses at the label in New York where King and Goffin work in the late '50's and '60's, in feverish competition with artists like Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who write for the same label and pose the biggest threat for the number one spot on the charts. King and Goffin's top hits include So Far Away, Take Good Care of My Baby, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, On Broadway, The Locomotion, and One Fine Day, to set the tone of the play. Their breakthrough hit, Will you Love Me Tomorrow, crowns their success when Carole is seventeen. Performed by the Shirelles', it sparkles as bright as the group's sequined dresses for a show-stopping number in the first act. The second act reflects King's determination to forge her own identity after Goffin leaves, with more hits...It's Too Late, You've Got A Friend, (You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman, and Beautiful. Mann and Weil produce toe-tapping tunes, as well...He's Sure the Boy I Love, On Broadway, Walkin' In the Rain, Uptown and You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', for more magical performances.

As for birthday joy, Beautiful fit the bill. While the music carries the audience on a wave throbbing with nostalgia, the story renders the heartbeat behind the lyrics. King overcomes personal and professional challenges to emerge a true trailblazer, with more than 400 of her compositions recorded by more than 1,000 artists, resulting in 100 hit singles. Even though she famously said she had no desire to see the play, because it would bring back too many painful memories, Beautiful remains a triumphant celebration of a unique voice. Playbill described her impact best, with the artistic achievement of the Grammy-winning album: " was 1971's Tapestry that took King to the pinnacle, speaking personally to her contemporaries and providing a spiritual musical backdrop to the decade."  

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

As a press officer at UCLA Health Sciences from 1988-94, I responded to dozens of inquiries a month from health and medical reporters who requested information about a medical topic or asked to speak to an expert about a research finding published in a medical journal. Less often, a journalist might call to inquire about a patient complaint, an inevitable occurrence in a large academic medical center. In one instance, a UCLA patient named John Moore, a Seattle businessman and survivor of hairy cell leukemia, discovered his cells were being used to develop new cancer therapies without his knowledge or permission. He sued for the rights to his own tissue, which generated both legal and media interest in the case, spanning several years. But in the end, Moore lost the courtroom battle in appeals to the California Supreme Court. The landmark 1990 decision ruled that the patient does not retain the rights to tissue removed from their body. The court cited the defendants (Regents of the University of California, UCLA staff and two pharmaceutical companies) for not informing Moore about the  research.

This summer I picked up a book that took me right back to the UCLA press office and media calls about John Moore. When I first heard about The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot, I was intrigued because it tells the tragic but also fortuitous story of a poor black mother of five whose cell line led to an untold number of new therapies in medicine. Forty years before Moore, Lacks was a cervical cancer patient at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Her cells were used after her death in 1951, and her husband and children were never informed. For decades, Lacks' identify was anonymous, then misrepresented, and finally known. Her cells proved to be so beneficial and prolific that they've been used worldwide for more than sixty years to develop therapies for problems like polio and AIDS. At least one expert considers the He-La (Henrietta Lacks) cell line to be one of the most important scientific discoveries in the past 100 years.

Science writer Rebecca Skloot set out to investigate the history of the woman and the family she left behind, and to understand how the cells were acquired and led to one of the most influential discoveries in medical history. A full decade later, the book was published to critical acclaim, received numerous awards, and became required reading for at least one freshmen class entering UCLA. The science is conveyed in easily understood terms, but it's Henrietta's family's story that tugs at the heart and won't let go, even after the book is closed. This is a saga of love, loss, poverty, ignorance, abuse and neglect which unfolds alongside an astonishing explosion of research and modern medicine made possible by Henrietta's cells. The medical establishment zooms skyward while Henrietta's heirs and extended family barely stay afloat in their downtrodden urban neighborhood.

Skloot's unrelenting persistence to seek out family members and understand Henrietta's illness and treatment, the research her cells launched, and the impact of all of this on the family makes for a heartfelt, compelling read. The human toll is most vivid in Deborah, who was a baby when her mother died. She struggles through life, a hole in her heart because she misses the mother she never knew, questions if her mother might still be alive since her cells live, and resents the medical establishment which never explained anything to the family or acknowledged Henrietta as the woman behind the cells. Her siblings share many of Deborah's feelings about their mother and what happened to her, and to them without her. Immersed in the family's conspiracy theories and confusion about the cells and her mother's immortality, Deborah eventually bonds with Skloot to come to terms with her mother's legacy, but the road she travels is littered with challenges.

Social justice themes weave an undercurrent of raw emotion through the pages of the book. Poverty, lack of education, poor access to health care, isolation, and racism fuel distrust among Henrietta's children. The reader rides along with Skloot to visit the people and places who comprised Henrietta's short life on earth. We witness the anger they feel because they're denied the medical care her cells created. We hear the unaltered dialect and voices of people wrought by grief and suspicion over Henrietta's death and immortality. But it's the honesty and beauty of this family Skloot reveals through her storytelling that remains at long last. Their wants and needs are not that different from our wants and needs, their emotions our emotions, and their tragedy becomes our tragedy.

To her credit, Skloot's decade-long journey resonates as an unforgettable and uncompromising tale in which she turns over every stone, lumbers down every dusty path, and exposes every piece of evidence to breathe life into the characters on both sides of the historical account. This is a ride worth taking because it speaks not just to one woman's legacy, but to society's ills in the face of unprecedented contribution and medical achievement.