Frontier Psychiatrist

Posts Tagged ‘Theater

Beethoven and Quasimodo in “The Hunchback Variations”

Mixing historical and fictional characters certainly has comic possibilities, whether it’s a rap battle video between Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon Dynamite, or a novel that imagines Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter. It also has dramatic potential, as in a new “chamber opera” in which Ludwig Van Beethoven and the hunchback of Notre Dame join forces to write a musical interpretation of a cryptic stage direction in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. As the two characters spar in a series of songs, a question emerges: are there emotions that words or sounds cannot express? The question matters not only to composers, playwrights, and bell-ringers but also to anyone who’s ever opened his or her mouth to speak.

The Hunchback Variations, based on Mickle Maher’s play with music by Mark Messing, just closed a run in Chicago and is now playing for one month at New York’s 59E59 Theaters.  The brisk show (80 minutes) consists of variations on a theme. Each of the 11 scenes has the same setup: Beethoven and Quasimodo, whom I thought of as Lud and Hunchie, host a satirical panel discussion with the verbose title: “Sound, Mysterious Sound, Impossible Sound, Creating the Impossible, Mysterious Sound and the Effect of Love and Friendship of Rehearsing the Creation of the Impossible and Mysterious Sound.” Since Lud and Hunchie rarely leave their seats at the table stage right, my attention often wandered to stage left, where pianist Christopher Sargent and cellist Paul Ghica modulated the mood from somber to silly and everywhere in between.

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When asked – who is the greatest poet in the English language? – most people will say “Shakespeare.” When asked who the second greatest poet is they might say “Keats.” But would anyone say “Milton?” These days it’s hard to find a college graduate who has read Animal Farm from cover to cover, much less Paradise Lost, written by a man who was once thought to be a greater poet than Shax himself.

But it was not always thus. John Dryden, himself a onetime contender for the title of greatest poet in the English language, friend and younger colleague to Milton, supposedly said after reading Paradise Lost, “This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.” Though Milton was an old republican revolutionary and Dryden loyal monarchist, Dryden liked Milton’s epic so much he adapted it for the stage by rewriting it in rhymed couplets and setting it to music.

Paul Van Dyck has done Dryden one better by keeping Milton’s sublime poetry unrhymed and using all the modern theatrical arts to make Paradise Lost come to life at the FRIGID Festival.  I can say without qualification that this is the best theater – the most relevant to our time, the most uplifting, the most artistic, simultaneously the most esoteric and exoteric, visually, aurally, and intellectually stimulating – that I have seen in a long time. And running under an hour, it makes getting some high culture as enjoyable as possible for those of us inflicted with ADD by the modern age.

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The Mood Among the Cast of 'Fiddler'

[Our weekly literary section appears on Thursdays. This month, we’ve been serializing Daniel F. Levin’s account of his summer directing Fiddler on the Roof at a camp. If you missed Part One, Part Two, and Part Three, catch up before you read today’s dramatic conclusion]

PART 4: Exit the Queen

I don’t mean that the kids fell apart.  They sang and acted their hearts out.  But the body mics used on the four leads were making popping machine gun sounds every 20 seconds.  When we cut the body mics, the band drowned out the singers.  Sure I had yelled at the sound guy earlier in the week and made him promise me that he would have the mics working by the performance.  But my sound guy was a 15-year-old camper with his own problems.

Beyond just the sound, our audience was quite affected, not so much by the story’s poignancy, but by the oppressive heat.  We had had to tape trash bags over the windows to keep out the light for the first performance (we did two performances that night, each for half of the camp), turning the hall into a sweat lodge.  I had staged the show in the round to show we were all one community, actors and audience.  It also meant that I could see the faces of the audience encircling our show, each one dripping with sweat.  If you take away the war-zone sound effects and the swampy heat, all you really needed was to get over the noise made by restless young campers packed in too tight.  But what was I expecting?  This was theater at Summer Camp.  Did I really think I was going to resurrect this great American art form and pay tribute to this Bock-Harnick and Stein classic out here in the Poconos, with pre-teens?

And yet, there was greatness.  I watched Tevye bounce and bop his way through “If I were a rich man,” thrusting that broom out and down better than I ever had, with the audience clapping along with him.  I heard him barrel through to the finish, despite the fusillade from the sound system.  I watched 8-year-old Chava forget her line during “Matchmaker,” almost cry, and then relax when her stage-sister, Hodel, finished it for her.  I watched Motel finish his stage round-off to thunderous applause.  I saw Tevye step into his God-light, after his third daughter goes too far, marrying a non-Jew, and wonder, “How can I turn my back on my faith, my people?… On the other hand…” His hand shot up towards the light.  “No! There is no other hand!”

Tradition!  And as I stepped back, I noticed the most amazing thing.  Tevye, my little 11-year-old fidgeter, was running the show.  He was pausing to allow time for his daughters to set up; he was guiding a confused Lazar Wolf to where she needed to be.  And he was guiding the audience, that sweaty and shell-shocked but STILL engaged audience, to where they should be looking.

If it had just been this—my leads stepping up to rise above even the most infuriating technical elements, I would have said, Dayainu, it was enough.  But the night had one more surprise.

Sunrise Sunset

Jennifer Goldstein, that little dear from the plains of Long Island, who neglected to learn her lines, never got enough snack, always had to pee, and could single-handedly destroy a rare moment of focus we had amongst the other 13 cast members, was standing on stage.  After all the banished members of Anatevka have packed up their belongings and marched off to the last strands of the processional, only the Fiddler remains.  There she must play her cardboard fiddle, matched with the music from our CD, before being led off by Tevye.  Since we didn’t have a violin or violinist, we used the provided CD for a couple of the numbers, such as this processional.  But Jennifer had come out too early.  The processional music was still playing and she needed to stand there, in the center of the stage, with no set pieces to hide behind, for a number of beats before her theme would come.

A hundred times I had watched Jennifer do this, or a similar mistimed movement.  I fully expected her to slouch, chew gum (which I think she managed to smuggle even for the performances) and fidget while waiting to raise the fiddle.  This time, though, she didn’t.  She stood there calmly.  Tall.  Her jaw was still.  Where was the gum?  Her stance was even, not shifted to one foot.  She was taller than I’d ever seen her.  She let the music fill the hall and we all stared at her.  How could we not?  She owned the stage.  Then, when it was time, she lifted the fiddle, tilted her neck into it, raised the bow, and played the famous last strands of Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye came out wearily to lead her offstage.  The final three repeated chords of the orchestra played as their silhouettes exited.  Then the orchestra, the play, and the old Jewish life in Russia, were done.

After the shows, the kids became kids again, dumped their costumes, and ran off to play and celebrate.  The counselors took their campers back to the bunks, along with the victorious cast members.  Drama Dan stayed to clear out the performance hall.  It was all I could do not to smash in the soundboard.

I had gathered up all the props and costumes, putting the ones we’d keep in boxes, the rest into trash bags, when I came to the tower that served as Anatevka’s rooftop.  On it rested the only remaining prop, the cardboard fiddle, where Jennifer had left it.  I tried not to feel too symbolic when I placed it lovingly into the trash bag.  The show was over.  Drama Dan had done what he came to do.  Was it an honor for the camp? A good show that would’ve been better had it been heard?  A hot, inaudible show redeemed by some incredible performances?  Was it a success?  A failure?  It was theater, so it was a all this combined.

Will I go back next year?  I’m asking myself this same question.  Maybe we could do Les Misérables….with full barricades.  Enter orchestra…!

Daniel F. Levin‘s latest play, Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful Li_e, was called a “delightful surprise” by the New York Times. His musical, To Paint the Earth, about resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, won the Richard Rogers Development Award.  He recently completed work on his memoir, From Yale to Barbacking: One Man’s Remarkable Journey.

Photos: Judy Gross

The Director and His Charges Rehearse 'Fiddler'

[Our weekly literary section appears on Thursdays. This month, FP is serializing Daniel F. Levin’s account of his summer directing Fiddler on the Roof at a camp. If you missed Part One and Part Two, catch up before you read the following]

PART 3:  One Step Forward, Two Mazurkas Back

I had some all-star girls, too.  There was Cynthia, the brave young actor playing Perchik, the male revolutionary.  Wearing spectacles, a paper-boy cap, my pin-striped shirt, knickers, and carrying a book, she didn’t look as ridiculous as it may sound.  In one speech, she spoke of a nearby pogrom in Rajanka.  “Cynthia,” I said.  “I think Perchik gets a little fired up when he talks about these nearby pogroms.  I think he might show it in his body—maybe he balls his hand up into a fist,” and I demonstrated.  From then on, Cynthia stormed around with her right hand in a fist for most of her scenes.  Most impressively, when it was her time to propose to Hodel, she never once shied away from the courtship.  She accepted that she was playing a boy, who was head over heels for Hodel.  When she showed Hodel the dance that was being done in Kiev, the two galloped around the stage (I had given up on fancy choreography) to a Russian Mazurka and looked like they were having a blast.

The cast mother was Sylvia, who played Tevye’s wife, Golde.  She never missed a rehearsal, had all her lines memorized the first week (and without a photographic memory) and put her heart into each one.  She may have even understood her lines.  At 13, Sylvia was sensitive enough to imagine the fears of a mother losing control.  When Golde and Tevye sang the humorous duet, “Do you love me?” it was a chance for the whole cast to see how beautifully a song worked when both actors got rid of the giggles, the twitching, the thoughts of snack, and just sang.

The Mamas of 'Fiddler'

To a dangerous degree, I began to care about the production.  Yes, Jennifer was still asking about food, even in the middle of a scene.  Yes Sasha, given the most fun role of the show–Fruma Sarah, the ghost that returns in Tevye’s dream to terrorize the village—was playing the role way too literally: she actually seemed dead on stage.  And yes, Bonnie and I watched a run-through, barely able to hear any of the lines, when suddenly shouts and laughter came booming from offstage.  They should be so loud ONSTAGE!  Yes, I was Waiting for Guffman’s Corky St. Claire and I knew it, demanding full focus and commitment from my charges who just wanted to eat, pee and sleep.  I was fighting the camp establishment for more rehearsal with these miserable munchkins.  I begged my music director, the well-intentioned Guy from Israel who didn’t read music, to give the cast decisive pick ups and cut offs, even if the middle was mush.  Yes, I was setting myself up for disappointment.

But dammit, this was theater!  And this was Fiddler on the Roof, one of the great masterpieces of the art form.  And these kids were finally starting to get it.  They listened to me when I said I wanted the audience to feel their guts getting ripped out as they watched Tevye choose between his daughter and his religion.  They nodded when I warned that the audience would only buy if we were selling.  They learned that good acting isn’t JUST about being loud, enunciating, and facing the audience, but also inviting the audience into a world.  And that if we cared about the characters we created in that world, and honored them, our audience would care too.

In our last moment of quiet before heading out to take places, I did the focusing exercise I always do at this point: we circled up, took hands, closed eyes, and sent a pulse around.  I also had been preparing another Lombardi.  As I was about to begin my speech, Sylvia, on my right, asked if she could say some words to the cast. “Of course,” I said, a little disappointed.  Remember, it’s about them!

“I just wanted to say,” she said, twisting her shoe a little bit into the ground but otherwise keeping her motherly poise, “that this has been the most amazing theater experience I’ve ever had.  I’m really proud of how we’ve put so much work into this, and Drama Dan, and Drama Rachel and Drama Josh have helped us to make an incredible show.  This has been an amazing, amazing three weeks.”  Really?  Maybe an amazing last two days.  But didn’t Sylvia remember all of the whining, the snack rage, the missing rehearsal, the stress I felt?   The gnawing terror that we were completely unprepared?

As it never fails to do, no matter how much I doubt it, the force of the rehearsal process had worked its alchemy.  Somehow, these spoiled, whiny actors, these twirling, disparate drippy-nosed elements were mashed into one central speeding comet that was hurling towards the show.  And I was on board.

Which made it all the more excruciating when the production fell apart.

Part Four Continues Next Thursday

Daniel F. Levin‘s latest play, Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful Li_e, was called a “delightful surprise” by the New York Times. His musical, To Paint the Earth, about resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, won the Richard Rogers Development Award.  He recently completed work on his memoir, From Yale to Barbacking: One Man’s Remarkable Journey.

Photos: Judy Gross

[Our weekly literary section now appears on Thursdays. All September, we’re serializing Daniel F. Levin’s account of his summer directing Fiddler on the Roof. If you missed Part One, catch up before you read the following]

Teyve in his G_d Light

PART TWO:  The Lion’s Den

The truth is, when I learned I’d be directing Fiddler on the Roof, I wasn’t that upset.  Wasn’t I going to camp to relax?  To reconnect with the stars, have food prepared for me, swim, joke and find my peaceful mojo, away from the clatter of New York City?  I didn’t need to reinvent Jewish summer camp theater with a production of “Godspell.”  This didn’t have to be my Wagnerian Ring Cycle!  I could phone it in.  Yes they were honored to have me back at camp, but I could live up to that by directing a decent Fiddler, right? I even promised myself not to care too much about the show.  Caring leads to anxiety and disappointment.  In Spielbergian terms, this was going to be my Raiders, not my Schindler’s List.  Huzzah for an easy show!

Six people showed up for the first day of auditions, with only 2 boys.  Considering Fiddler has 21 principal roles plus villagers, this was going to be a challenge.  Yes, there’s the very of-the-moment-New York-scene trend of actors playing multiple roles, but you can’t marry yourself on stage.  I had tried to hype up the production to the campers, but perhaps they too sniffed a dusty classic.  At the table in the lunchroom after dinner, I met with Bonnie and some disappointed administrators.  I felt the legend of “Drama Dan” around my neck.

“Last year we had so many kids come out to audition,” sighed someone.

“Joey made a giant sign for Aladdin that lit up and hung it in the dining hall,” recalled the Program Director, shaking his head.  “He got a LOT of kids to try out.”

“Well then why isn’t Joey Sparkles back again!” I wanted to shout.  Instead I just sat there and burned.  It was later that night that the idea came to me.  I wasn’t the first to come up with it, nor would I be the last, but I dare say I went on to use it as effectively as any drama educator ever has.  Free candy.

Candy was a precious commodity at camp.  Banned in the bunks and never served in the dining hall, candy was even searched for in all incoming packages by the office staff.  I once watched this operation.  Like Berlin must have been in the 60’s, the Office ladies tore through packages with scissors, even opening up books to check for hidden candy compartments.  But Drama Dan, like Batman or Spiderman, worked outside of the traditional justice system.  I was a vigilante, a strange breed of counselor (older, creepier, more desperate) that could impose my own rules to complete my mission: get this show up.

Free candy at auditions worked, but it came with a price.  Yes we now had fourteen kids doing the show.  But only six of them had really wanted to do it; the other eight had come primarily for the candy.  It was my job to transition them from sugar high to performance high.  It would be a long road.

We had three weeks to produce the show minus half of the first week we lost to auditions avec Kit-Kat.  Aged eight to fifteen, only about five of our cast members could sing on key, all of them were obsessed with snack, and no one’s bladder could handle more than 15 straight minutes of rehearsal.  I had the distinct feeling that some were timing their bathroom trips to the second they were needed on stage.  And that was only when they were at rehearsals.  Some days we lost half the cast to sports games, jazz-dance rehearsals, or bunk trips.  But I was expecting this.  This was why I wasn’t investing.  It was Summer Camp for God’s sake.

The 'Fiddler' Cast at Rapt Attention

While our brave eleven-year-old Tevye memorized his enormous part in mere days (thanks to his photographic memory), actors with smaller roles didn’t know their lines during the final week of rehearsal.  At one point during this week, I gave a much-needed Vince Lombardi speech.

“I don’t have to be out there on stage!” I barked.  “You’re the ones that are going to be out there, and you will be embarrassed if you don’t know your lines.  I don’t know how else to say it.  Get a friend to help you.  Wake up early if you need to.  It is absolutely unacceptable not to have your lines memorized three days before the show!”

A hand shoots up from Jennifer Goldstein[1], our struggling Fiddler.

“Yes, Jennifer!” I say hopefully.

“We had plums for snack.  And I don’t like plums.  So can I have something else?  Pleeease?  I’m really hungry.”

Meanwhile, my two lead boys were performing their hearts out.  The one who was slightly heavier and more Papaish, I made Tevye, the milkman patriarch.  Sometimes it’s nice to have limited choices.  The other one, a talented singer/actor who had played Aladdin the year before, I made Motel the tailor, the nebbish who at last stands up to Tevye and asks to marry his daughter, Tseidel.

Tevye struggled at first.  He was shy and awkward, not boisterous and domineering, and it took everything I had to pull him out of that shell.  I also had to remember he was only 11.  In my New York life, giving line readings to actors is considered a terrible no-no.  At summer camp, I would spend many a rehearsal dancing around the hall, thrusting the broom out and, stomping my feet on the ground, shouting “If I were a rich man!!! Yeidel deedl digguh…!”  I circled the stage, my young Tevye behind me, matching my steps, trying to match my volume.  I watched him get more and more comfortable with making a fool out of himself, just like I was.  I taught him to approach the “God Light,” our one piece of special lighting—a spot that lit his monologues, and stand there, without fidgeting.

Michael, playing Motel, was different.  He was a triple threat—singer/actor/dancer–only he was having trouble with “Miracle of Miracles.”  A few nights before opening, he started blanking on his lines.

“I think maybe I’ll try not doing the blocking,” he suggested.  “I’ll just sit and sing.”

We had worked on this blocking all week.  He would jump up on a bench and balance-walk while singing about Daniel in the Lion’s Den, then spin off the bench and do a great final round-off for “God has made a maaaaan toooo-dayyy!” Land and pow, musical bump!  My Broadway choreography was vanishing. Before responding, however, I tried to remember the thing I think all teachers, at some point in their career, try to remember.  “It’s not about me.”  The next run through, Michael sat on the bench for the whole song.  After the first verse, he blanked.

He was getting more and more upset.  I sympathized.  I myself have terrible fears of blanking on stage, which actually pushed me towards writing and directing.  Now I wondered something else that all teachers, at some point, must wonder: how do I prevent this kid from becoming as screwed up as I did?

“Maybe, Drama Dan, I should go back to some of the blocking.”

“I think that’s a good idea.  Blocking actually helps me remember my lines.  Something else I’ve been thinking.  It doesn’t really matter if you forget the lines.  You are so good at showing the excitement in your body, that you got a ‘Yes.’  You could just sing ‘La la la..’ In fact, I think you should!  Just sing ‘la’s,” but act it the way you’ve been doing, and let your body run around that stage, and end with that round-off.  If you do that, no one’s gonna even care what you say.  Because they’re going to go with you!  You got me?”

The next time he went on, he remembered the lines.  And he killed in that number.  If only the whole show were “Miracle of Miracles.”

Part Three Continues Next Thursday

Daniel F. Levin‘s latest play, Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful Li_e, was called a “delightful surprise” by the New York Times. His musical, To Paint the Earth, about resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, won the Richard Rogers Development Award.  He recently completed work on his memoir, From Yale to Barbacking: One Man’s Remarkable Journey.

Photos: Judy Gross

[1] Names have been changed to protect the partly innocent

Fiddler on the Roof: Summer Camp Style

[Our weekly literary section runs on Thursdays. This month, we’re serializing Daniel F. Levin’s account of his summer directing Fiddler on the Roof. ]

Part One: Drama Dan Returns to Summer Camp

In 2002, I was selected to be one of the highly prestigious Steven Spielberg Fellows in Jewish Theatre Education.  It was very special to have Spielberg in your name.  Sure there was also Jewish, theater and education, but still… Spielberg.  Culled from New York’s finest out-of-work theatre people, we had the task of bringing meaningful theater to Jewish summer camps, or, as the promotional materials said: not just another year of Fiddler on the Roof.  Poor Mr. Spielberg probably never knew exactly what he was funding, or who these Fellows were dropping his name in camps across the country.  After an intense week’s training seminar in Atlanta, I was sent to a summer camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania.  There, as Mr. Spielberg’s representative, I was to  restore single-handedly their theater program and thereby preserve Judaism in the United States of America.

I ended up adapting a story told by the great Rabbi Nachman of Breslaw into a new musical with the help of Chen, Israel’s answer to Elton John.  We created a thrilling, Disney-esque opening number, “Here’s Hoping,” other passable songs to follow, and allowed the campers to improvise dialogue, all-the-while plumbing the depths of their Jewish identity.  The product was a weird, quirky musical that Stevie would have certainly been proud of.  It was also understood by pretty much no one in camp, including some of us who wrote it.

I had also, for no great reason, written a camp alma mater.  Set to chords that are dangerously close to “Piano Man,” it begins:

There’s a town in Pennsylvania,

Right near the border line,

And it’s named with love, for the stars above,

And how at night they shine…

Written on a whim, it caught on and metastasized into something of a phenomenon, particularly after a techno version was recorded by Chen.  Now found on a quarter of all iPods in Long Island, it’s easily the most popular song I’ve ever written, after a decade of writing original musicals.  But I guess we don’t get to determine which of our creations become immortal–teenagers do.

Though my Breslaw-based musical extravaganza was no smashing success, I did form some strong relationships.  I stayed in touch with the Arts Director, Bonnie, and would go to her house in New York yearly for Passover, Chanukah, and other big Jew days.  Bonnie and I actually have our language: one-part Yiddish, one-part Mel Brooks, one-part Eddie Murphy as the Jewish barber in Coming to America,—“achaaa!,” one-part other movie quotes, and one-part original content.  As each summer approached, Bonnie would call me and say, “Drama Dan, Alein v’ysthein, ven are you coming back to camp?”

“Bonnie Bubbe, do they remember the show I did? The audience was horrified.  ‘Guess you’re not quite ready for that…but your kids are gonna love it!’”

“Drama Dan, writer of the camp song, you will return a hero!  And remember, under the right circumstances…a flop…could become a hit!”

Some variation of this (using different movies) went on for eight years.  Usually I parried Bonnie’s requests citing other obligations—a production, a day camp job, a whale expedition—but this summer, nothing.  Nada.

“Bubbe, you know vat?  I think I might just do it!”

Bonnie giddily had me call the Camp Director to negotiate terms.  “Drama Dan,” he said earnestly, “We would be honored to have the writer of the camp song back this summer.”  No one’s ever been honored to have me back!  Maybe tolerant, but honored!  How could I refuse?

Drama Dan (left) with Drama Rachel and Drama Josh

Rather than sleep in the bunks, I would be given lodging in the “Adult Lodge,” or as my friends said, “that place where the slightly creepy older counselors live.”  My responsibilities would be to direct the camp musical and lead an occasional drama workshop with interested bunks.  This ended up being one bunk of Freshmore girls who continually signed up for my hobby, and loved playing the improv game, “Freeze.”  They had no idea how to create an interesting scene, often just standing on stage saying,

“Go to your room!”

“No!”

“Go to your room!”

“No!”

“Go to your room!”

“OK.”

But when it was time to go, they had to be dragged off stage.  After each class, no matter how dreadfully awkward I had thought an improvised scene must have been, they’d shout, “Thank you Drama Dan!”  How can that not restore a little bit of your natural love for theater?

And what about the musical, my main squeeze?  I had sent Bonnie five proposed musicals to do this summer and pitched each one, including

  • Godspell, Stephen Schwartz’s musical about the last days of Jesus (we could break religious barriers at a Jewish camp and delve into the essence of what religion truly is)
  • Once on this Island, a beautiful calypso show (think Romeo and Juliet set on a British Colonial island—hints of Palestinian/Israeli conflict?)
  • The classic, but off-the-beaten-camp-trail Pirates of Penzance.  Kids and pirates!

Bonnie came back to me with Fiddler on the Roof.  Oh Destiny, you wicked gamesman!  It was the very show I was sent in eight years earlier to obliterate.  Fine then, I say to myself.  Fiddler on!

Part Two Continues Next Thursday

Daniel F. Levin is a playwright, composer and lyricist living in Brooklyn.  His play, HEE-HAW: It’s a Wonderful Li_e, ran at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 2009 and was called a “delightful surprise” by the New York Times.  Daniel’s monologue, “A Glorious Evening,” was included in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT PLAYS 2007-2008 (Applause Books).  His musical, TO PAINT THE EARTH, written with Jonathan Portera, won the 2004 Richard Rogers Development Award  and was presented at NYMF 2008 at 37 Arts.  Daniel has recently completed work on his first memoir, entitled “From Yale to Barbacking: One Man’s Remarkable Journey, or, You’re Not that Special.”


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