Love Story

This week the historic Des Plaines Theatre in suburban Chicago is undergoing a rebirth with the world premiere of “Etude: The Musical,” an ambitious production that tells a love story spanning centuries, connected by myth, music and the arc of history. “Etude” presents a new take on the classic battle between good and evil, challenging the audience to sort it all out while also embracing the bloodthirsty characters.


Music composer Charles-Valentin Alkan (Ryan Bennett) sings in anguish with his fallen vampire queen Regine (Miki Byrne)

“Etude” is based loosely on the life and mysterious death in 1888 of French composer and virtuoso pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan. In the new musical, produced by Jerry and Michael Sigman, nephews of the legendary Tin Pan Alley lyricist Carl Sigman, Alkan never really dies. Instead, he is seduced by the voluptuous vampire Regine, who promises him eternal life and musical pleasure.

The musical brought us to Chicagoland for opening night of “Etude” because daughter Miki stars as Regine. Like other members of the talented cast of 23 singers, actors and dancers, Miki has been working part-time on the musical for nearly a year – and it continues to be a work in progress as they refine and expand the complicated roles and story before live audiences.

More about the musical and opening night performance in a bit, but first let’s consider this love story and how it came to be. There is more here than meets the eye. And the history is both personal and civic for the Sigman Brothers, who grew up in Des Plaines and dreamed of musical adventure and the big stage while attending performances at the old Des Plaines Theatre.

Jerry and Michael Sigman formed The Sigman Brothers Production Company “to foster an artistic environment that inspires the creation and staging of new and original theatrical works of all genres, and to preserve and extend the storied tradition of the American Theater,” according to their website.

The Des Plaines Theatre was built in 1925 by the Chicago Polka Brothers to be a suburban mecca for that unique European dance music. It went through several refurbishments over the next 40 years, hosting vaudeville acts and first-run shows. A fire in 1982 damaged the storefront, but the theater was largely spared. Unfortunately, its fortunes sank with live productions and eventually it was converted into a movie theater that ran mostly Indian-language Bollywood films.

1393680_424473347664632_2039589716_nThe Sigmans mounted a “Kickstarter”-style campaign to raise funds to restore the stage, and wrote “Etude” as the kickoff for a new “artistic environment,” in the Sigman’s vision. Jerry, who has performed in Chicago as an actor, singer and magician over 25 years, wrote the book for “Etude.” Older brother Michael, who composed the music, has earned five degrees in music composition, theory and history. The Sigman Brothers make clear that their work is inspired and directed by the memory of their uncle, Carl Sigman.

If the name Carl Sigman doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because the great American popular music lyricist has not been properly toasted over the years, certainly not in the Chicago area. You will know his songs, for sure, including this revived jazz standard, given words and wings by Sigman after the music, composed by Francis Lai, was a hit movie theme in 1971.

Sigman collaborated with some of the greatest music composers of his day, from Duke Ellington to Johnny Mercer, Lai and Jimmy Van Heusen. His songs were hits for Frank Sinatra, Billie Holliday, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and many others.  I have been obsessed by some Sigman tunes since high school, even mastering the karaoke versions of “Ebb Tide” and “It’s All in the Game.”

And then there is this great, fun piece given rhythm and bop by New Orleans Italian jazzman Louis Prima:

Jerry and Mike Sigman would like to return the Des Plaines Theatre to the pinnacle of Chicagoland stage, and the community should applaud them for investing the time and money into “Etude.” As students of music and history, they have created a fantastical tale. I’m especially grateful that Jerry saw the spark in Miki during auditions and selected her for the lead female role.

And you can’t help but be proud of all the cast and creative direction for “Etude.” The music soars in the first act, but seems to make a rough transition to the second act, when the classical composer and his vampire queen return to modern life in a punk rock band. Also, some plot twists are not wrapped up neatly as we move toward the denouement of the tale.

Aside from an uneven dance opening, the dance performances were outstanding – including the nicely choreographed and amplified swordplay as bloodsuckers of every stripe clash again and again. It wasn’t quite clear what the life of these vampire heroes involves, but that is a small detail when set against the timeless love story unraveling onstage.

The Sigmans have created a love story that comes from the heart of the American music experience, channeling their uncle as they explore the music thread that underlines our cultural history. Yes, the plot gets stretched a bit thin in places, but it’s easy to overlook those moments when another lively song and dance ensues. Humor infuses the dialogue, and nice physical comedy helps carry it off.

The Sigmans may be trying too hard to meld the history of 150 years into their tale, and a lengthy historical video that leads into the second act mixes images of politics, war and disaster along with popular culture and vampire movies. They’ve used this video in promotions, but they might have been better served on stage by using dancers to create the allusion of moving through time, communicating not boring topics but the overall themes of the play – love and passion.

It was interesting at the end of the opening night to see the cast gather on stage for champagne and congratulations. How can we make it better tomorrow, they asked. Some among the production team wanted to cut specific scenes, to make it move faster and trim the two-and-a-half hour two-act play to keep the audience riveted to their seats.

But the music and performances were stellar, so most of the cast resisted efforts to cut their babies. At least subtle changes will be made, for sure, just as the producers of “Next to Normal” refined the future Tony Award-winning musical during its run at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. Unfortunately, “Etude” was not destined to live much longer than Halloween 2013. But these things have been known to come back to life.

The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy

Sometimes the most vicious political attack ads can be completely ludicrous in presentation. Witness this breathless broadside against, ostensibly, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe:

McAuliffe is only nominally the target of the ad, “Don’t Let Them Detroit Virginia,” which vaguely connects him to a broad left-wing conspiracy, a “Gang of Five.” These dangerous radicals are led by Hillary and Obama and fed by the perverted forces of liberal media, foreign-sponsored smear groups (a photo of AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka looms ominously behind that legend), plus “Wall Street liberals” and Hollywood flesh-merchants.

When you stop laughing at the preposterous claims in the ad, however, you see how it is calculated to reach not rational, clear-eyed citizens, but lunatic fringe nutjobs who will buy any conspiracy theory if it pins the tail on Obama. It is coolly calculated and slickly delivered, narrowly focused. I’m sure all the audiences were surveyed, and the majority was dismissed.

ImageFight for Tomorrow, the Texas-based PAC behind the attack ad, waves its ideological agenda around like a freak flag, proud to say they’re on the edge. They’re also very well seeded, with a trail from Northern Virginia/DC officialdom to the Texas boardrooms. They will not provide information about who funds the group, although you can be sure it’s corporate in nature and possibly Koch in personality.

On the Fight for Tomorrow website, the group proudly announces,  “Contributions to Fight for Tomorrow are not deductible as a charitable contribution for federal income tax purposes.” In other words, you can’t deduct this on your taxes because we’re not telling where our funds are coming from.

The Roberts’ Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. FEC ensured that rich corporations with vested interests in public policy could spend any amount to influence public policy. Ordinary citizens are left to fend for ourselves, to sort out information that is skewed not only by the partisan interest fringe, but also by the mainstream media, which insists that everybody is making sense.


Moderator Chuck Todd wanted to make a point.

Watching NBC Political Director Chuck Todd moderate the debate tonight between McAuliffe and Tea Party darling Ken Cuccinelli was infuriating, as the Washington talking head sought to corner both candidates with calculated equanimity. For example, Todd persisted in asking McAuliffe, who favors expanding Medicaid to make Obamacare more accessible, if President Obama has shown adequate leadership in promoting his own program.

Perhaps that is a good question, but certainly not in a forum weighing the candidates for Virginia’s governor, with clear differences on the issues. It was a question calculated to elicit liberal criticism of Obama on his program, even though most liberals think Obamacare falls well short of the mark of real health care reform.

Not that McAuliffe is a liberal darling. He’s a businessman with a checkered past in both business and politics, with much intermingling along the way, including as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. McAuliffe was Clinton’s prime fundraiser, and those years of dedication to Clinton and the Democrats are being rewarded in political and financial support this year.


Virginia gubernatorial candidates Ken Cuccinnelli (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D)

I’m pulling for McAuliffe, though. Cuccinnelli is an ideologue who wants to foist his moralistic religious and political views onto the citizens of Virginia. He’s also a hypocrite who has gone along with the influence-peddling game in Richmond even while feigning the high moral ground.

If we are to judge these candidates by their associates, then we have to give McAuliffe and the Democratic establishment the advantage over Cuccinnelli and the knuckleheads at Fight for Tomorrow.

Lessons from Sifu Rasmus

Additional video from our Frederick, Md., “Science of Elastic Force,” tai chi workshops, with Sifu Mark Rasmus, are now available for viewing on YouTube. As a prelude, check out my three-part series on the workshop in Tai Chi Revelations, Into the Mystic and The Body Electric.

ImageBut the best presentation comes from Sifu Rasmus himself, and these videos are revelatory. Following on The Body Electric, Sifu expands on the notions of vibrations and frequency – how to match vibrations with your practice partner to easily bounce them. Notice his cynical view of martial arts masters who keep these “very, very simple” techniques a secret. One commenter pointedly asks, “(If you keep telling all these secrets), what will become of the tai chi teacher?” Who would not want to experience this demonstration?

Here he describes how a compliant practice partner helps you develop rebounding force, giving you the pressure you need, that you feel down to your root:

Sifu demonstrates how to “touch the elasticity” in the body through the frequency of your practice partner’s push, then control them through the elasticity in your body:

Finally, Sifu demonstrates how you can use the Science of Elastic Force to deliver a strike – in this case with the elbow.

Sifu covers a number of different defensive and offensive moves in his workshops. Videos from other training sessions on his U.S. tour also are uploaded for your viewing pleasure.  Check them out here.

Good Vibrations in LA

Hope was a byword of the AFL-CIO Convention this year, and the positive vibe was contagious even long distance.  As the federation wrapped up its business in Los Angeles this week, the positive signs were all around, even with the challenges that lie ahead. Labor seems fit for the organizing, bargaining and legislative campaigns coming up.

As veteran AFL-CIO News staff writer David Perlman remarked, it was an impressive show. “The odds are daunting but there is real hope for a youthful new movement that can make a difference,” he wrote. “Quite a change from the conventions I remember.”

David remembers, as I do, how the leaders of the movement were derided as pale, stale and male – it wasn’t that long ago, in fact. This year, reporting on the convention was uniformly positive, including this column by Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post, which points out that the labor movement suddenly seems younger and more diverse.

As Meyerson writes, “This is the first AFL-CIO convention – meetings attended chiefly by union leaders, not rank-and-filers – that hasn’t looked like a bunch of middle-aged white guys. The union movement now looks like the new America – and is trying to figure out how best to champion that new America’s interests.”

Much of the credit for the youth movement goes to Liz Shuler, the federation’s No. 2 officer behind President Richard Trumka. Shuler’s election as secretary-treasurer four years ago was exhilarating precisely because she is young and female — and very smart. She and Trumka immediately set up the Young Workers Advisory Council to empower younger workers, and Shuler conducted a series of meetings with young workers around the country, including two national conferences.


Liz Shuler went on a mission to raise the profile of young trade unionists.

By pushing young activists to the forefront, Shuler was successful in stirring the cauldron. Other leaders have emerged. Among the resolutions passed by the delegates was one that transformed the Young Workers Advisory Council into the Young Workers Organization with a mission to “empower the next generation of labor leaders to challenge, inspire, build and organize around issues that directly affect their generation.”

The resolution recognized “that the Young Worker Program will lead a diverse and vibrant young labor movement made up of rank-and-file union members, progressive allies, community groups and students that will advance social and economic justice and ensure that all people have the opportunity to secure a better future.”

Putting policy into practice, the delegates elected Tefere Gebre, a 44-year-old former Ethiopian refugee, to serve as the new executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, the No. 3 officer, succeeding Arlene Holt Baker, who raised a vigorous voice for civil and worker rights during her tenure.


Tefere Gebre, a former Ethiopian refugee, became a political force as executive director of the Orange County, Calif., Labor Federation.

Gebre, as the executive director of the Orange County, Calif., Labor Federation, combined union organizing, community activism and political savvy to help convert notoriously conservative Orange County into a pro-worker bastion – now represented in Congress by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, herself a former union activist.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council also elected as a vice president of the federation the first leader not of a union, but a worker “center” — Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a nonunion group that battles for immigrant workers. She will bring a new perspective to the AFL-CIO leadership.

So the labor movement is prepared for a new dawn that draws on the energy and expertise of a younger, more diverse leadership – and also the more direct input from its natural allies in the civil rights, religious, environmental, women’s rights groups and other progressive standard-bearers. As the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse reported, “at times the convention seemed like a mass group therapy session, with a consensus reached that major changes were needed.”

The devil is in the details, they say, and the exact framework of the new labor-community federation sanctioned by the delegates has yet to be defined. How will the allies from other progressive groups be integrated into the labor movement to expand the reach and raise the voice of ordinary workers?

How the new vision is framed going forward will determine the success or failure of the mission. It can’t stop with the adjournment of the convention. But for someone who has devoted much of his working life to the success of the labor movement, I am cheered by the actions of the delegates at the 2013 convention.

While the federation works at revitalizing itself, it is not abandoning the essential fight to preserve worker protections that have been enshrined in U.S. law for 75 years, but which have been chipped away steadily by the business lobby and its legislative ideologues at every level of government.

The first resolution passed by the convention deal with protections for the right to organize and bargaining collectively, calling for major labor law reform that, among other things, eliminate the state preemption of federal labor laws through so-called “right-to-work” laws. See the full recommendations here:

As the resolution points out, on two occasions the majority in Congress and the president had supported comprehensive labor law reform but both times it stalled when a minority of senators managed to tie it up with filibusters.

That’s why labor must continue to exercise its power at the ballot box, to use its energy and moxie to elect people who support workers’ rights and to defeat those who support corporate rights over employees. Because it has the people, and a capacity to energize and mobilize them, labor has always played above its weight class in election campaigns.

AFL-CIO leaders made clear they intend to recommit the federation to political action at the state level, aiming at states where governors and legislators have been hostile toward workers, suspending bargaining rights for public employees and enacting new anti-worker laws.

“We’ll get a huge influx (of energized workers) on state races because they lived under repressive regimes,” AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer told a press briefing at the convention. AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who heads the AFL-CIO Political Committee, didn’t name names but clearly singled out Govs. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.), John Kasich (R-Ohio), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Scott Walker (R-Wis.) for special attention. They all face re-election campaigns next year.

Our nation is better off if the AFL-CIO is alive and well. Join a union if you have a chance, but connect with the labor movement any way you can. It is a force for economic and social justice in America. We need it now more than ever.

Reinventing Labor

Although I’m not on the scene, the pressure that labor faces this week at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles is palpable across the nation. The labor movement is at a crossroads, and major changes are on the horizon. We will soon see if the federation can implement a radical plan to revive a labor movement that, left to continue its decline, is headed to the ashbin of history.

ImageThe evidence for labor’s possible demise is depressingly clear, given the depths to which this vital counterweight to corporate power has sunk since 1970. Once representing a robust 37 percent of American workers in 1954, the U.S. labor movement now represents less than 11.3 percent of the labor force – only 6.6 percent of the private sector.

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted in his keynote address this morning, “At the end of the day, it’s on us to build a movement not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent. Not just the 11 percent we are right now – the 99 percent.” Trumka is proposing major changes in the structure of the federation to achieve this broader base of support, a bold move to inject formal religious, environmental, civil rights, women’s rights and other progressive advocacy into the federation’s structure.

These groups are natural allies, although sometimes the common grounds have been rocky. It remains to be seen how much a majority of unions in the AFL-CIO are willing to cede to outside organizations in the drive to survive. Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times reports here.

Leaving aside for the moment the all-important corporate assault on labor law, a little history is in order.

Back in 1984, union presidents voted to create a “Committee on the Evolution of Work,” chaired by Secretary-Treasurer Thomas R. Donahue, to anticipate changes in the workforce so the labor movement could adapt and succeed in the 21st century.

ImageThe resulting final report in 1985, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” served as a blueprint for important structural changes for the federation over the next several decades, including:

Union Privilege, a benefits program that increased the purchasing power of union members, from credit card and home mortgage to travel and dental care discounts.

Working America, an associate membership program that allowed nonmembers to participate in the political and community activity of the labor movement.

Those programs, as important as they have been to giving labor a toehold among workers who would not or could not join unions, have not been enough to stem the tide swamping the labor movement. But Working America, in particular, is now seen as a model for the kind of affiliation that could transform labor into  “a movement of the 99 percent,” in Trumka’s words.

By walking neighborhoods and organizing for community issues, Working America has kept millions of Americans informed and energized for election campaigns. Karen Nussbaum, the founding director of Working America, used her 9-to-5 organizing skills to organize for political action, especially in Ohio where those votes have been critical in recent elections.

These millions of Americans who are not union members have signed up to join Working America, for a nominal fee, because they want to participate in a campaign to help working families, to create good jobs and services in their communities. Using email and Twitter, plus viral marketing with YouTube and the social media, an expanded labor movement built on the Working America model, with millions of potential new members, can rival MoveOn or Organizing America to promote collective action.


Trumka: “We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how the economy works now.”

You don’t have to be a member of a bargaining unit to be a part of the movement for social and economic justice, Trumka says. People want a culture shift, “We heard that all over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways and they call their unity by all kinds of names – workers’ unions, associations, centers, networks. We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how the economy works now.”

This may seem obvious, but many institutions have failed to adjust to a new environment, and simply faded away. Labor must tailor its organization to match the needs of workers and the economy, and not demand that they fit the organization. We must change. Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation outlines how a broad-based associate membership for nonunion allies might work here.

How that idea is translated into practice remains to be seen. Some unions are concerned about organizations at cross-purposes on some issues – the building trades and the Sierra Club over the Keystone XL pipeline, for example – and how those differences are resolved.

ImageBut strange bedfellows can be powerful allies, as witness the blue-green alliance, which for the past decade has promoted green industries, retrofitting and community redevelopment. The advantages of forging more formal alliances far outweigh any other consideration. The only question is how much will it cost to join this super labor movement.

And will it have the punch to lure back those big unions that abandoned the federation eight years ago? One of those unions, the Teamsters, has used its “independence” to raid several AFL-CIO unions, organizing the organized at American Airlines. This kind of power grab was specifically outlawed in Constitutional Article XX, another good recommendation by the Donahue Committee.

Article XX could have undergone a facelift as a result of the unfriendly actions by the Teamsters, which still works bilaterally with other AFL-CIO unions and coordinates some political activity. But the proposed constitutional amendment to allow the federation to punish non-members for raiding member unions was left on the table. The suggestion of a new era of union hostilities certainly is not the message Trumka wants to send as he tries to grow the federation. But what is to be done with the Teamsters?

Trumka prefers to highlight the return of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a million-member union that was welcomed back to the federation with much pomp and ceremony at the opening day session on Sunday. Another prize would be the Service Employees International Union, which led the disaffiliation charge eight years ago but is also the mover and shaker behind the one-day strikes for higher wages by fast-food workers, and other campaigns for a living wage and immigrant rights.

But the big story out of the convention will be what is the shape of the labor movement going forward. There must be some concrete steps to expand the vision and the organization of the AFL-CIO. This is a time for change, and there’s really nothing to lose.

Whither Labor

Four years ago, in Pittsburgh, the American labor movement was retooling for the challenge of an economy gone terribly wrong. Rich Trumka, the fiery former coal miner and inveterate boat rocker, was assuming the helm of the AFL-CIO with a warning shot across the bow of Wall Street and K Street. And he elevated two feisty women, labor leaders in their own right, as his top lieutenants.


Arlene Holt Baker, Rich Trumka and Liz Shuler taking the reins of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations in 2009. Holt Baker announced her retirement at the 2013 convention

This was not your father’s labor movement. Liz Shuler, the tough and polished Oregon legislative aide, electrical worker, editor and union leader was elected Secretary-Treasurer, and Arlene Holt Baker, daughter of a Texas domestic worker who rose through the ranks of AFSCME, the nation’s largest public employees union, was elected Executive Vice President. Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO, was introduced with a video biography, which I’m proud to say I helped to create.

I drafted all of the speeches for Trumka and his new leadership team as they left that convention and stormed into Cleveland, site of some of the worst foreclosure rates and neighborhood blights; Atlanta, where the religious community was rallying around minorities who were being “redlined” by the mortgage industry; and Wall Street, scene of the crime. In Cleveland, as in every location, Trumka decried the human cost of globalization: “The real tragedy of globalization,” he said, “is that corporations have lost their sense of community. They’ve turned their backs on America. … The system is broken.”

In the boisterous rally before tens of thousands on Wall Street, Trumka recited the litany of abuses by the titans of Wall Streets and said, “we’re going to fight you!” “We’re going to tell the truth about what you’re doing,” he said. “And we’re advocating for new regulations to make sure the financial sector is the servant to the real economy, and not its master.”

In that one whirlwind weekend, Trumka also addressed labor-environmental issues in a New York international confab and supported a New York borough community-based development campaign spearheaded by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), a former member of the federation.

It was a brilliant beginning, but many wonder whatever happened to that determined leader and his team. True, they’ve spent a lot of time cultivating a “new base,” younger workers, students and low-wage workers. But little has been done to heal the wounds of the labor movement, except for Trumka’s recent announcement that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) will rejoin the federation.

That is big news, and it will not go unnoticed at this convention. The UFCW represents more than a million retail workers at America’s groceries and other services, and it’s a mature union with a storied history within the overall labor movement. And it’s no coincidence that the UFCW is the parent union of the RWDSU. Trumka has been persistent in his pursuit of the Food and Commercial Workers and calls Joe Hansen, UFCW’s president, a good friend.

The UFCW was one of the major unions that defected from the AFL-CIO in 2005 – a ceremonious “disaffiliation” led by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters. Trumka’s professed goal in assuming the presidency in 2008 was to reunite the labor movement. The UFCW decision is a small first step.

Still, the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) announced last month that it is leaving the federation, and the East Coast-based International Longshoreman’s Association could follow. Others have indicated their irritation at Trumka and current federation policies, and particularly the AFL-CIO’s close affiliation with President Obama.


Trumka and President Obama have made no secret about their fondness for each other.

Trumka’s political moxie definitely is at issue given his strong support for President Obama, who he has hailed a hero for working class Americans, someone who is working for our best interests. The jury is still out on Obama, who has consulted with labor even as he ignored its counsel. Obama has fallen far short of labor’s proposals for financial reform, among other issue.

As the 2013 convention gets underway this week, Obama’s promise and resolve are very much on the line as he prepares to address the delegates on Monday, Sept. 9. Obama has received his share of criticism among unions for his less than wholehearted support for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its champion, Elizabeth Warren, now senator from Massachusetts who will deliver what is described as “one of the keynotes” of the convention.


Elizabeth Warren, apostle for bank regulation.

Obama also has been slow to address major concerns raised by unions about his signature health care program, Obamacare. Unless changes are made, the law will penalize multi-employer plans that provide good benefits at minimal cost. Also, we need to know what avenues exist for people who fall through the cracks of states that refuse to extend the benefits.

Four years ago, I was at the AFL-CIO convention working on the speeches for Trumka, Shuler and Holt Baker in Cleveland, Atlanta, Columbus and New York’s Wall Street. It was an exciting time in which everything seemed possible. Four years later, while I may wish I were there in L.A. with the gang, I’m thinking I’m in the best position now to take stock in what is happening.

Join me here over the next week or so to learn more about the history and the future of the American labor movement. They are indelibly linked.

Miss Saigon Revisited

As Cameron Mackintosh prepared to bring “Miss Saigon” to Broadway in 1990, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.  Would the burden of those years be reduced to a song and dance routine? As a Vietnam veteran stationed briefly in Saigon and Bangkok, the settings for Acts 1 and 2, I didn’t see how a musical could do justice to that historic passage.

I’ve gained a new appreciation for musicals since then, encouraged by my musical muses and having seen history and modernity fused in fine musical form with “Titanic,” “Les Miserables,” “Next to Normal,” “Ragtime,” “Spring Awakening” and many others. I learned, as well, that “Miss Saigon” was modeled after Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly,” and promised to rise above the Vietnam landscape with a timeless story of love and loss.

ImageAs we approached the performance last weekend at the Signature Theater in D.C.’s Virginia suburbs, my anticipation at seeing the musical was tempered by memories of how I resisted “Miss Saigon” when Mackintosh decided to export it from England to America. There was more at stake for me then than how the Vietnam War was depicted.

At the time, as the editor of the AFL-CIO News, I was concerned that Mackintosh was using an Englishman, Jonathan Pryce, to play the French-Vietnamese “Engineer,” using prosthetics to make his eyes look Asian. With Actors Equity jobs on the line and Asian-American actors offended by the prosthetics, the union challenged Mackintosh to open the Engineer role to Asian or mixed-race actors.

Pryce is a fine actor, of course, but it was the principle. Why not give a young Asian actor the chance to play a central role in a groundbreaking musical set in Asia? I wrote a letter to the editor of Variety, decrying an anti-union editorial and expressing support for the position of Actors Equity, which had threatened to scuttle the production.

ImageLater the union dropped its objection to Pryce playing the role when he agreed to forgo the offensive Asian-eye prosthetics and Mackintosh agreed to seek qualified Asian actors as replacements or understudies, and to originate the role of the Engineer in future companies.

The Engineer plays the pimp who hustles the bar girls in the Saigon club, Dreamland, then helps our heroine, Kim, escape to Bangkok. In a climactic scene near the end of Act 2, he speaks for every immigrant in “The American Dream,” as dancers who pranced with spears and black pajamas now sport top hats, nylons and Vegas glitter.

It was quite a show, this “Miss Saigon.” I immediately regretted my initial resistance to seeing the musical, which is a fine follow-up by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil of their successful Les Miserables. The mad exit from Vietnam, the lost dreams and lost loves, resonates with their martial musical style – everyone is living on the edge, with life and death in the balance. Their voices soar in song, some memorably and some perfunctorily, as just lines.


Thom Sesma as the Engineer

At Signature, Thom Sesma fills the shoes of the Engineer, and he is masterful. Sesma’s bio doesn’t reveal his heritage, but his features are Asian Pacific, perhaps Hawaiian or Filipino. He previously portrayed the Engineer in the second national tour in the mid-’90s, and he has played the King of Siam in the King and I.

The star of this show, however, is Diana Huey, who plays Kim, the 17-year-old orphan forced to work at Dreamland, and whose torrid affair with GI Chris (Gannon O’Brien) results in vows of love, a love child, and tragic abandonment as the Saigon embassy is seized. Huey carries off this role despite having little experience – mostly children’s theater and some karaoke in the Seattle area. But she seemed to be born to play Kim.

Miss Saigon is designed to be an operatic tragedy and, thus, the setting in the final throes of the Vietnam War is fitting indeed. I found myself transported back – at least to the club scenes where I had joined so many other GIs in escaping the war. In Miss Saigon, you are forced to see those scenes through the eyes of the Vietnamese, and to understand their own efforts to escape, through all the occupations, from the French to the Americans.

Here’s how the Engineer sings it, in The American Dream:

“My father was a tattoo artist in Haiphong
but his designs on mother didn’t last too long
my mother sold her body, high on Betel nuts
my job was bringing red-faced monsieurs to our huts
selling your mom is a wrench
perfume can cover a stench
that’s what I learned from the French

Then it all changed with Dien Bien Phu
the frogs went home. Who came? Guess who?
Are you surprised we went insane
with dollars pouring down like rain?
Businessmen never rob banks
you can sell shit and get thanks
that’s what I learned from the Yanks”

If that seems harsh, well, war is hell.  I was happy to see that it could be presented in all its gritty reality, with songs and dance. Very artfully done.

Miss Saigon has been extended through September at Signature. If you have a chance, go see it! Here’s the trailer from the creative people of Signature:

The Body Electric

Most of the individual exercises during Sifu Mark Rasmus’s workshop, “The Science of Elastic Force,” involved giving our partners enough pressure to allow them to bounce us by absorbing that force and turning it back on us, and vice versa. We were encouraged to sense the “springs” in our elastic joints and connective tissue. And we learned that developing that elasticity takes work.

ImageWe would alternately “push” and “pull” to open our joints and stretch our connective tissue. Pushing the arms, hands and fingers outwards, stretching the joints, is a natural movement. But then using the muscles in your arms to “pull” back against the reach, stretching and opening the joints, proved to be more of a stretch.

Sifu instructed us to use the magnetic Yin power to absorb the incoming force, drawing our partners off balance in order to make them susceptible to the return Yang power, which he described as electric, the opposite polarity to the magnetic force. How “electric” we were in response to our partner’s push depended on how well we were cultivating the elasticity of our joints and connective tissue.

It was hard to miss the difference between the electric force that Rasmus generated compared with the less assertive movements of his students. Using his arms only to “feel” the balance of his partner, his body would pulse against the incoming pressure, bouncing his partner violently but catching him with his sensing hand to avoid injury.

I have used “partner” and “opponent” alternately in describing this training to distinguish between developing the techniques in practice and using the techniques for self-defense. Our Sifu made clear, however, that the practice partner is an essential condition for becoming adept at tai chi as a martial art. One cannot simply practice the form and expect to develop the expertise necessary to defend yourself, he said. You have to practice with a partner.

That partner must be a willing foil for you, not your opponent. You don’t want a “sparring partner,” but a guide to help you develop your skills, and vice versa. “This is not the time to fight,” he said. “It is the time to learn.”

To connect with your partner or your opponent, you must tune into the same frequency, Sifu says, and you find that frequency by touching them gently, by sensing their root and their vibrations. This was perhaps the most difficult concept for me to grasp, and I struggled to gain this sensitivity to vibrations and frequency.

In this video clip, Sifu Mark Rasmus demonstrates to our group how to sense the frequency of a partner’s push, allowing you to “switch off” the body’s resistance to absorb the pressure and break the balance of the pusher. We quickly learned it is not as easy as it looks:

Aaron Green, director of Mid Atlantic Movement Arts, sponsor of the workshop, worked with me as my partner a few times, encouraging me to listen with my mind to the “switch” when he could be drawn off balance by my magnetic force. Inevitably, I would see it in his eyes, rather than feel it through the touch.

Tai chi teaching demonstrations of fajin – masters “bouncing” their opponents – as seen often on YouTube, may involve complicity of the student, whether overt or otherwise. The master has demonstrated the moves, and the autosuggestion for those who are most sensitive will be enough to move them, sometimes without any visible force.

This is not acting, however. It is a power that exists, particularly among those who do not resist it, who feel the power and respond to it.

As Sifu Mark touched each of his students, demonstrating different techniques, he pointed out that he feels different energy from different people. “Some are more receptive to this training; others are resistant,” and he likened this sensitivity to that of hypnotism, whether someone is receptive to autosuggestion, or who resists efforts to “put them under.”


Drawing from his Hermetics training, Rasmus teaches that we can focus our mind through meditation to increase our magnetic and electrical forces, that we truly have control if we allow our minds to lead. The meditations rely on elements of the earth, water, fire, and “ether,” an astral plane, which correspond to trigrams in the I-Ching, the mystical Chinese Book of Changes.

As we sit quietly and meditate on the space between our hands, breathing in and out, Sifu asks us to take one particular thought, something you want, “perfect health, for example, anything,” and project it into the space between our hands, breathe into it and accept it as our own, close up our hands, embrace our thought, make it reality.

It is a summons to tai chi warriors to carry our vision forward, to believe and to succeed, guided by this art that focuses the mind and conditions the body to win. Clearly, we must practice. We have much work to do.

For more information about Sifu Mark Rasmus and his teaching, check out the website at He is making plans for another tour of the United States next year.

Into the Mystic

Sifu Mark Rasmus is an imposing man, a lithe heavyweight who has trained wrestlers and boxers, including Thai kick boxers. He is about 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, by my estimation, although he seems bigger as he moves with quiet energy and purpose, like a big cat.


Sifu Mark Rasmus

Behind this warrior façade, however, is a gentle man eager to share his knowledge and expertise about tai chi and martial arts in general.  You sense that he is sensing you, measuring you, when you meet, and you get used to his mindful approach. You want to answer in kind. You sense his investment in your well being, as your teacher.

For our group, Rasmus has synthesized his “building internal power” training into a weekend workshop of 12 hours, “The Science of Elastic Force.” We are 14 tai chi devotees gathered in Frederick, Md., the next-to-last stop in the U.S. tour. Some are tai chi instructors with years of experience; others are just trying to expand their “push-hands” experiences. One comes from New York, and another from Delaware. A few are like me, local enthusiasts feeling lucky that Sifu had come so far, so close.

Mark Rasmus has taught martial arts throughout the Far East, building a worldwide following for his unique teaching method and style. You can witness for yourself his YouTube videos, readily available, featuring his lessons in Japan, where he lived for seven years, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he lives now “in a little hut on the side of a hill.” His skill is evident in this video, where pushes are neutralized with ease and force returned along three circular routes:

“The Science of Elastic Force” is one part mystical Hermetics, one part Chinese internal martial arts, and one part physiology – a course in body mechanics and flexibility. Connective tissue – ligaments, tendons and the fascia – are the elastic elements that give your body amazing strength, if you choose to train and develop their capacity.

We begin both sessions with meditation exercises that extend almost an hour. Sifu stresses the importance of visualizing and breathing in the “life force.” Consecutive meditation exercises ask us to 1) consider each thought that comes into your head, watch each fall away and others arise, enjoying each; 2) isolate one thought that comes to mind and concentrate on that one only, not letting it fade away for at least five minutes; and 3) let your mind go blank, dismissing all thoughts; sink into nothingness. Relax completely.


Finally, we are breathing into the vacuum between our hands, which we  hold 18 inches apart and contract to 8 inches or less as we breath into it, literally and figuratively, filling up the space with our “life force,” our chi. Like in the video, as we run through demanding physical exercises, Sifu Mark holds up his hands, gently moving them in and out as if with an accordion, “Bring it back to this,” he says, “the life force.”

“Stretching” exercises are physically intense and exhausting, literally throwing our arms one way and violently pulling them back, stretching the tendons and opening the joints, a key condition for the “elastic” energy you need to “bounce” your opponent.  When Sifu Mark demonstrates the exercise, however, his sweeping arm throws sound like deadly weapons, whistling violently against the wind as the tendons and ligaments are stretched to their limits.

I try this with much effort and notice that I am recreating the sound of Sifu’s hurtling tomahawks but with the sound coming from my mouth, a low and restrained whistle reflecting my effort but hardly matching the power of the original.

By opening the joints and stretching our connective tissue, we are releasing our bodies to song (hsung), in the Chinese terminology, complete relaxation, a condition of readiness, a precondition for action in tai chi, as Sifu Mark demonstrates on the video, sinking below his partner’s body mass.

In Sifu Mark’s metaphysical world, this Yin relaxation is also the powerful magnetic force you use to suck your opponent into the vortex, to put them off guard, to doom them. The magnetic is Yin, the female, the cold, the dark, the low. It is water, the essential element. It is roll back, the energy of yielding. As he demonstrates in this video, your relaxation (song) allows you to return the force applied to you, without intention:

Next: The Body Electric

Prying Eyes

I haven’t joined the Pardon Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning movement, although I credit her for trying to do something about government overreach, even if it was poorly conceived. It’s fine that she will be spending a few more years in prison, as a soldier. She is genuinely contrite and apologetic.

Given her special struggle with gender identity and decision to live as a woman, I think Manning is destined for hospital treatment and out – as Chelsea Manning – before the expected eight-year term is done.


I’m more concerned about Edward Snowden, now holed up in Russia on a one-year asylum deal. He is not contrite, but he is collared.  I’m sure he is quickly learning the limits of freedom, particularly in the grip of Vladimir Putin, former czar of the KGB.  After a year of internment, offers of asylum in Venezuela and Uruguay may look less inviting. Snowden may return to face the music. Are we ready for that trial?

Manning, a U.S. army enlisted man serving in Iraq, leaked 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables and 500,000 battlefield action reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, including a video of an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed civilians, including two Reuters journalists. These releases shone a harsh light on U.S. diplomatic and military activities – an embarrassment, certainly, and a black eye for American relations with some allies.  But also sunshine on a dark place.

Snowden was a civilian computer program analyst working on contract for the National Security Agency.  He used his access to reveal NSA’s massive metadata gathering of U.S. phone records, and its PRISM, EKeyscore and Tempora Internet surveillance programs on Americans. He also revealed parallel British mega-spying, leaking the information to both UK’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post.

Both Manning and Snowden maintain they leaked the information to journalists to expose the overreach and deception of U.S. policy makers. Manning’s data dump was to an international Internet clearinghouse called WikiLeaks, which promises no holds barred in releasing government documents and protecting whistleblowers. WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange have come to the aid of Snowden, trying to help him find asylum.

What makes Snowden’s case unique, however, is that his leaks involve the U.S. government spying on its own people. The NSA has cast its widest net under the cover of the “war on terrorism” to record and review voice and email communications of Americans, tracking who is talking to whom and how often (metadata).

ImageBased on Snowden’s information, the NSA surveillance programs appear to violate the privacy rights of millions of Americans. Since those revelations, ensuing audits and declassified documents have shown that NSA has, in fact, stepped over the line again and again in the name of fighting terrorism. It’s time for Congress and the administration to sanction illegal surveillance activity, and review and reform these intelligence programs. We need greater oversight.

President Obama has promised to fix it, and I look forward to seeing the details. Part of fixing the program should be giving Snowden credit for time served behind the old Iron Curtain, at least tacit credit for exposing the NSA problems. Perhaps that means that Snowden will deserve a pardon. I look forward to the trial, when Snowden stops running. But first he has a year in the gulag.


Obama was wise to cancel a September summit meeting with Putin, but the Snowden affair was a red herring. Under Putin, Russia has acted poorly on the world stage, arming Syria’s strongman Bashar al-Assad and repressing its own people, from truth-telling journalists to girl rockers Pussy Riot. Russians are being imprisoned and killed for speaking their minds. Meeting with Putin in summit pomp and circumstance would provide tacit support for the dictatorship.

I’m sure Russia’s ignominious record (and maybe some prying eyes, and fingers) is chilling to Snowden as he sets up house in a Russian dacha. The iron culture engrained in Russian rule is no friend to notions of freedom of speech, freedom of association or freedom, period. The Russian experience is the exact opposite, citizens struggling against an oppressive state, whether it is tied to a tsarist monarchy or to a communist apparatchik.

Meanwhile, we may have a creeping menace of our own, the National Security Agency. I studied at NSA headquarters in another era — focusing on the Vietnamese language and the codes the Viet Cong were using as they ran supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. I believe NSA is a critical element of the American intelligence community. It provided the pictures of Bin Laden’s fortress in Pakistan, for example, and images tracking the efforts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Without proper oversight, however, NSA is a scary proposition, the intrusive eye in our affairs, Big Brother. The potential for abuse is enormous. As a democratic people, we have to set the parameters for this kind of intrusive spying. It is only one step removed from the oppressor in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” watching our every move.

Fortunately, Americans are not taking this sitting down: