Monday, November 21, 2016

COLE PORTER'S KISS ME, KATE


Leave It To Me! (1938) was Cole Porter’s kind of musical, the zany tale of a small-town, middle-aged creampuff who becomes our ambassador to Russia and, homesick, keeps trying (and failing) to get fired. The show was fast, funny, and sexy. William Gaxton played a globe-trotting journalist—a favorite hero type of the day—and his recurring partner, the whining Victor Moore, played the ambassador. Sophie Tucker was Moore’s wife, bustling about our embassy in Moscow with decorators in tow. That wall goes. Put a fireplace there. Something  Victorian in that corner. Then, indicating her husband: “And rip out that monstrosity.”

     The entire show had the merrily unbelievable and slightly heartless air that Porter felt most comfortable with. He didn’t care for political or romantic musicals—he more or less despised operetta—and he didn’t worry about consistency of character. Porter wasn’t an author of musicals. He was a songwriter, a composer-lyricist who conjured up a world in which nothing is forbidden except virtue and everybody’s welcome except the innocent. A Porter show was risqué, worldly fun.

     Leave It To Me!’s script, by the husband-and-wife team of Sam and Bella Spewack, gave Porter the platform he needed on which to raise a score that was snappy, mournful, or sophisticated as needed. Snappy: Sophie Tucker’s establishing number, “I’m Taking the Steps To Russia,” outlined her personal foreign policy—the latest dances will soothe Soviet gloom. Mournful: Gaxton’s vis-à-vis, the exotically mononymous Tamara, sang “Get Out of Town,” a valentine in the minor key. “Why wish me harm?” Tamara cried, because love is torture. And sophisticated: Mary Martin, in her Broadway debut, sang a salute to carnal knowledge, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” atop a trunk in a Siberian railroad station. The number was so full of double meanings (“to dine on my fine finan haddie”) that Tucker had to advise Martin on how to finesse them. “Put your hand over your heart and look up at heaven, my dear,” Tucker told her. “And they’ll forgive you anything.”

     That was when Porter was a prince of Broadway. In the days before the original-cast album publicized a musical’s score as a whole, shows were judged by the number of hit tunes they threw off. Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) offered five, which was almost a record, and Porter’s other shows generally counted one or two hits each.

     Then, suddenly, Porter hit a speed bump. Starting with Something For the Boys (1943) the shows might be hits but the scores sounded like Porter on automatic pilot. Worse, some of the shows failed, and, in Hollywood, Porter’s songs for a lavish MGM musical with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, The Pirate (1948), were just plain dull. It did have a hit, “Be a Clown.” But Porter talking of circus loons wasn’t the Porter the public loved. Up and down Broadway, word was out: Porter was over.

     And then Bella Spewack approached Porter with an idea for The Taming of the Shrew as a musical. Porter thought Shakespeare too poetic for the Porter kind of show, but he had had a good relationship with Bella on Leave It To Me!, and he heard her out. There had already been two Broadway musicals based on Shakespeare. Rodgers and Hart did The Comedy of Errors as The Boys from Syracuse (1938), using the original plot, characters, and setting. Then came Swingin’ the Dream (1939), an updating of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a mixed-race cast and lots of musical jive.

     So, as Bella saw it, they couldn’t do The Taming of the Shrew straight and they couldn’t update it. What they could do was a backstager about a company putting on the Shrew. The new show’s co-producer Saint Subber said he got the idea, from having worked on a Shrew with another husband-and-wife team, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The Lunts were constantly bickering with each other offstage, and wouldn’t that make a dandy premise for this new musical?

     However, Bella hated Subber, and not cordially, in the Broadway manner, where you want to keep open all options for future employment. She hated him, period. The premise for the new musical, Bella insisted, was Bella’s and Bella’s alone. And she gave Porter advice as good as that given to Mary Martin by Sophie Tucker: Ignore the management and trust the artists.

     If it had been anyone but Bella, Porter might have refused, but he tried out a few numbers and began to see the possibilities. Still, with the period costumes and the elevated language, didn’t the whole thing smack of…operetta? Wouldn’t Kate have to be an opera soprano? Porter liked the breed well enough as long as they stayed where they belong: in opera. In musicals, Porter preferred the men to be comics and the women to be Mary Martin or even that mysterious Tamara. It’s no accident that the performer Porter wrote the most shows for—five—was Ethel Merman, as far from an opera soprano as one could get.

     But there is this: from his very first musical after college, See America First (1916), to his last, the television fantasy Aladdin (1958), there were two Cole Porters. One was the popular Porter, always looking for a simple hook out of which to fashion these hit tunes that gave a show prestige and notability. The other Porter was classically-trained, ambitious, and ingenious, toying with his forms; bedeviling his legatos with jazzy syncopations even in ballads; constructing musical scenes suggestive of Gilbert and Sullivan; or creating two separate choral strains that would then be sung simultaneously.

     The second Porter was always afraid of alienating the public. “Polished, urbane, and adult [writing] in the musical field,” Porter noted in the mid-1930s, “is strictly a creative luxury.” Nevertheless, after Anything Goes’ smash success, Porter felt free to unveil his most ambitious score till then in Jubilee (1935), painting on a huge canvas in  twenty-two vocal scenes, trying out every one of the Porter genres from the Latin rhythm number (in “Begin the Beguine”) to the list song (in “A Picture of Me Without You”). And Jubilee had a captivating storyline of typical Porter nonsense: the members of a more or less English royal family run off with fizzy show-biz personalities. The Queen pairs off with Tarzan, the King gets professional gossip Elsa Maxwell, the Princess meets Noël Coward, and the Prince wins Ginger Rogers. (The names were changed, of course; Tarzan was called Mowgli.)

     Jubilee got a terrific set of notices—but Jubilee failed. There was just too much music, too many ideas in the lyrics, for the public to collect the score at one hearing. So, on his next job, MGM’s Born To Dance (1936), starring Eleanor Powell, Porter reverted to his popular style, and he had hits with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Easy To Love” (which had actually been written for Anything Goes).

     And now, in 1948, Porter would surely have employed his popular sound on Kiss Me, Kate, to try to overcome his slump. But something else happened. Naturally, the Spewacks plotted Kate around the typical two couples that musicals had been depending on since Mozart’s day (as in The Abduction From the Seraglio and The Magic Flute). One pair is serious; the other is silly. With the Shakespearean atmosphere arousing his artistic side, Porter saw the first couple—actor-manager Fred Graham and his ex-wife and co-star, Lilli Vanessi—as romantic. They play comedy, too, yes—but there’s a touch of operetta about them. Porter would give them ambitious numbers, with an Elizabethan air, as in his “Were Thine That Special Face,” in Porter’s beguine style, and her “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” one of the very few songs Porter composed to someone else’s words. Shakespeare’s.

     In fact, Fred and Lilli’s music got so grand that they called for what Broadway termed “legit” voices, and Broadway baritone Alfred Drake and Metropolitan Opera star Jarmila Novotna were lined up for the roles. Novotna was an opera singer Porter could delight in, a looker with a sharp sense of theatre. But she became suddenly unavailable, and Porter was forced to face the possibility of one of those…you know, sopranos. Then Patricia Morison turned up, another beauty whose creamy mezzo sound had a high extension; coincidentally, she and Drake had played together in The Two Bouquets (1938), a West End import that was one of the first “jukebox” musicals, its score made of Victorian melodies with new lyrics. Porter was thrilled with Morison. “Deck her out,” he said—his customary phrase for “Give her a contract, put her in a costume, and set her on the stage.”

     And of course the second couple—Bill and Lois, two youngsters in the Shrew company—would sing the “popular” Porter. His “Bianca” is so simplistic that one wonders if Porter was expressing his contempt for the original Bill, Harold Lang, a dancer with surprising vocal tone but a somewhat unprofessional attitude. And  Lisa  Kirk, as  Lois, got  numbers that immediately became standards, “Why Can’t You Behave?” and “Always True To You in My Fashion,” characterful and clever but irresistibly catchy. Even here, Porter couldn’t keep himself from distinguishing his art. “Behave” features a sly little doodad of a figure between the vocal lines that quotes the main strain of a different Kate number, “Another Opnin’, Another Show.” And “Fashion” gives us the educated Porter, as the title references a line from a poem by Ernest Dowson, “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.”

     Porter’s only really large composition besides Jubilee, Kiss Me, Kate counts seventeen numbers (besides reprises), many of them in a pastiche style evoking the Italy of the Shrew scenes—the ostinato drum  figure of “I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily in Padua” or the tarantella that fires up “I Sing of Love.” The two Porters thus invented two completely different “musics” in Kiss Me, Kate, one for a musical comedy (in the backstage scenes) and the other for a…well, it really is a sort of operetta (in the Shrew scenes), though the lowdown and the ritzy collide with amusing dissonance in some of the songs. One instance is “Tom, Dick or Harry,” so prim and Elizabethan—there’s a touch of madrigal in it—till the last repeated phrase, one of the wicked little jests without which no Porter show was complete. Another instance is “We Open in Venice,” which, despite an accompaniment suggestive of a plucked lute, has its coarse side. Suddenly, Porter goes highbrow at the close: as the singers finish on the word “Venice!,” we hear the orchestra play the first eight notes of the tenor’s solo in the “Miserere” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

     What brought all this on? Put simply, it was the “musical play,” the more or less new genre developed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. By the time Porter started work on Kate, their Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), and the very experimental and unappreciated Allegro (1947) had revealed a new way of writing musicals. Leave It To Me! marked the old way: its essential elements were star performers and an enjoyable score. In the musical play, the essential element was a story made of arresting character conflict. This gave the performers parts of real bite and the score lots of emotional content. A homesick ambassador who tries to get fired isn’t arresting. But Carousel presented a belligerent hero who meets the one thing that can knock him down: love. That’s arresting.

     Porter told friends that Rodgers and Hammerstein had made life difficult for everyone writing musicals, because the public was now accustomed to the more intense drama of the musical play. And Kiss Me, Kate gave them that…in its score. It is Porter’s contribution that elevates Kate, texturing the crazy commotions of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with the waltzing gallantry of “Wunderbar,” Lilli’s spoofy coloratura in the first-act finale with the masochistic hunger of “So in Love.” As for hit tunes, the show itself was one big hit tune. Porter’s slump was over, and he was a prince of Broadway once more. It’s worth noting that when Hollywood began to concentrate on filming Broadway musicals faithfully rather than in reckless alterations, Kiss Me, Kate was one of the first so chosen. In my latest book, When Broadway Went To Hollywood, I had to deal in part with what happens to stage shows when they go California. I didn’t have room for Kiss, Me Kate in the book, because the history of the American musical—on both stage and screen—has become too rich for a single volume. So I’m doing it here.

     And it is indeed one of our classics, because with Kate Porter did not renounce the fun-filled show. Rather, he gave it—to quote Ernest Dowson’s “Cynara” poem again—“madder music and stronger wine”: a Big Sing score, with variety, hunger, nuance. Love music, we might say. Observant to a fault, Porter knew all about love except, perhaps, how to be in it. He understood how Fred and Lilli could part even when they’re wild about each other, and why their broken union must be mended. For all Kiss Me, Kate’s merriment, it nurtures powerful feelings at its core. The difference between what Porter used to write and what he wrote later is that Kiss Me, Kate has a heart.

 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

BARBRA STREISAND'S ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER


Everyone knows it’s true: Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965) has a great score but a terrible book. Except it isn’t true. It’s a factoid, a word Norman Mailer coined to mean, more or less, “a misapprehension that everyone thinks is a fact.” (The suffix oid denotes a resemblance to a thing rather than the thing itself, as in “humanoid.”) Here’s another factoid: Hitler was elected. You hear many educated people say it, but it’s totally false. Hitler did come into power legally, but he lost his election (for president of Germany). The winner of the election, incumbent President von Hindenburg, appointed Hitler Chancellor.

         

         Is there a difference? Yes, a vast one: it takes the support of millions to win a national election. To be appointed, all you need is the support of one person, in this case the aged and befuddled von Hindenburg, egged on by the usual power-broker jackasses like the ones we have in D. C. today.

 

          But I digress. The truth about On a Clear Day is that after a brilliant and very colorful first act, everything fell apart, because Lerner—as often happened when he wrote book and lyrics for an original instead of adapting a finished work—was a one-man Second Act Trouble. The Day Before Spring, Love Life, and Paint Your Wagon all start wonderfully but then, after the intermission, the plot evaporates.

 

          On a Clear Day’s premise is arresting: a medical man in the psychiatry phylum falls in love with his patient as she had been in a former life. Not as she is: as she was. She’s what they used to term  an “oddball”: she can make flowers grow fast, hear an incoming phone call before the ring, and even read your mind, all of which Lerner associated, for some unknown reason, with reincarnation. Still, it provisions very picturesque sequences in which the show leapt back into Regency England, a very riot of wit and couture, to compare with the drab everyday of the present-day scenes.

 

          Musicals have always looked for odd settings or situations to give them a unique presence, as in The Day Before Spring’s reunion celebration, at which Sally seeks to dump Buddy and reconvene with Ben to complete their love of long before. (Yes, that’s Follies, but Spring did it first, with different names: Katherine, Peter, and Alex.) Or Love Life’s history of American marriage, or Paint Your Wagon’s gold rush. A special setting gives a musical presence.

 

          But where do you go, in On a Clear Day, after Boy Meets pre-reincarnated Girl? As so often, Lerner started work before he knew what the show would be in toto, because Lerner was crazy. He married eight times, for instance, and though My Fair Lady earned him an uncountable fortune, he was more or less broke when he died. Too, he was weirdly unreliable. Frederick Loewe broke up their partnership in exasperation on numerous occasions, and even after getting Richard Rodgers to compose On a Clear Day, Lerner took off for Majorca or wherever it was on a day he and Rodgers had scheduled a work session. So Rodgers, who had had enough of this with Lorenz Hart (and Oscar Hammerstein was no workaholic, either), quit. Thus Burton Lane.

 

          I doubt even Rodgers, in his post-Sound of Music phase,  could have topped Lane’s inspired melodies. Yet On a Clear Day’s tryout played poorly, and the show did not go over in New York. The run lasted half a year, but the show was officially a bomb. Lerner tried a revision for the tour, and rewrote again for Paramount’s filming (1970), with Barbra Streisand in her third film role.

 

          That was tricky casting, because the show’s heroine is really two roles: one a slightly unsure modern girl not unlike the Fanny Brice Streisand had played on Broadway and the other an adventuress in Regency England. No one could rival the captivatingly bizarre Barbara Harris, On a Clear Day’s Broadway heroine, Daisy Gamble. But Streisand would suit the modern-day part and she would sing the heck out of the songs.

 

          Unfortunately, the rest of the cast ranged from wasted to just plain wrong. The former: Bob Newhart, so winning in his niche but otherwise very limited, and Larry Blyden in another of his thankless roles (he was sort of an unlikable Tony Randall). The latter: an absurdly young-looking Jack Nicholson in a role new to the story as Streisand’s step-brother, and cut so deeply in the editing that his participation is puzzling. And that’s just as well, because he’s deliberately making no attempt to relate to his lines or the other players. It’s as if he’s waiting for the angry 1970s to set in and give him scope.

 

          And then there’s Yves “The Walking Dead” Montand as the doctor. Whose idea was this? If you want somebody French, why not Louis Jourdan? He’s handsome and his English is perfect. Of course, we know why not: Jourdan had the role when the show began its tryout, and was replaced by John Cullum because, however well Jourdan got through the Gigi score, he couldn’t justify booming ballads like “Melinda” and the title song. But Montand was not up to them, either. His singing style was French fantaisiste cabaret, not Big Sing numbers fit for operetta.

 

          Meanwhile, the movie cut back the stage score to its modern-day numbers, leaving the flashback scenes without musical definition. Lane and Lerner wrote “Love With All the Trimmings” for Streisand to sing when she spots thrilling rake John Richardson at a banquet, but it has no Regency flavor; on stage, “Don’t Tamper With My Sister” and “Tosy and Cosh” (a madrigal for one, accompanied on harpsichord) brought us back in time along with Daisy. And the tour added a marriage-contract number (“The father of the bride must free and willingly provide…”), an ensemble piece of vivacious charm. It was all part of the show’s unique flavor, half now, half antique. The movie attempted to play now and antique without distinguishing them musically.

 

          Naturally, the film was a setback for Streisand, after a great Hollywood debut in Funny Girl and the much-derided but still well-attended Hello, Dolly!. True, Dolly! lost money because of an insanely reckless budget, typical of the decade that killed the movie musical as a valid genre. But everybody saw it, and as for the complaint that Streisand is too young for the part, this is simply irrelevant. It reminds me of  all the wise guys who thought “People” should be cut from Funny Girl, also for reasons that don’t matter. Bob Fosse, to have directed the show originally, was the first. He busily explained to Jule Styne why the song had to go, whereupon Styne did his own explaining. “People” belonged in Funny Girl because:

 

          STYNE: It’s going to be fucking Number One on the hit parade!
                        
 

          But Streisand was too something or other for On a Clear Day’s  flashback scenes. Too modern, perhaps? Harris had been fine in them, because she always seemed a bit Martian, and that otherworldly air was her passport into the past. But Streisand reminds me of John Malkovich in Les Liaisons Dangereuses: I just don’t believe him in those clothes. On a Clear Day’s Regency costumes were by Cecil Beaton in an end-of-days mood; they’re a film in themselves, though that’s not necessarily a compliment. Streisand wears them well, but still she’s always now, never then. Even her Fanny Brice and Dolly! were now. Funny Girl (if not Funny Lady) does have a certain period atmosphere in part, but it doesn’t recreate the past the way, say, Shakespeare in Love does. Or even Gone with the Wind.

 

          I’m writing all this because my next book, When Broadway Went To Hollywood, will be out in two weeks, and while the On a Clear Day film is partly what it’s about, I didn’t have room for it, so I’m doing it here. And, really, the only thing worth discussing about it is Streisand’s vocals. The  movie wasn’t as good as the show. It wasn’t even as good as its own soundtrack disc, which isolates for us the way Streisand relishes lyrics and toys with the notes.

 

          She opens the program with “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here,” which comes to us out of nowhere with the voice alone for the opening, in a slow-build-to-glory setting by Nelson Riddle, his sustained strings shimmering over the rest of the orchestra. Listening without seeing, we are spared the movie’s pointless visual of Streisand strolling through a park crammed full of banks of flowers. Meanwhile, good old Lerner makes two of the grammatical errors for which he has become famous, in a single line, “Up with which below can’t compare with.” A Lerner lyric wouldn’t  be complete without a solecism or two. (Recte: “Up which below can’t compare to,” though of course it wouldn’t suit the scan of the melody.)

 

          Streisand’s version of the title song has some of her own trademarks, including a little picnic of an embellishment on “clear” and long-held notes—both the penultimate one and, even more, the last. But her showpiece here is “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have,” her one genuine acting assignment in the score. Indeed, she speaks the first line, to get into the gloomy spirit of the situation of being two different people. Later, she complains, “And all the time, he was thinking of someone else…me.” Again, she really bites into the song’s lyrics, making a desperate meal out of “great big lack of,” with the adjective sounding like beeeg. One great difference between Streisand’s singing in movies and that of the generation that preceded her, from Bing Crosby to Betty Grable, is the way Streisand acts her way through the songs. She sees them as more script, as much character development as music.

 

          And yet she felt controlled by the music, by the public’s expectations. She wanted to act, and not in songs. She had always wanted to act; singing was a hobby or some such. And films like On a Clear Day, with their lack of substance, told her she was right to avoid them wherever possible. Moreover, Alan Jay Lerner did not succeed in improving his troubled show. This time, he simply cut out the second act. There isn’t even a conclusion to the love plot: Streisand just goes off somewhere, which makes Montand’s singing of “Come Back To Me” truly nugatory. Listen, Alan Jay: when the Boy sings his mating call to the Girl, she’s supposed to respond. That’s Musicals 101.

 

          Now let’s part company with an anecdote. James Kirkwood Jr. happened to run into Lerner somewhere, and Kirkwood told him how excited he had been, when he saw On a Clear Day on Broadway, to encounter a brand-new show with a brand-new story instead of some adaptation or revival. The intermission after Act One was wonderfully suspenseful, said Kirkwood, because he had no idea what was going to happen next.

 

          “I didn’t, either,” Lerner replied. “That was the problem.”

Thursday, September 1, 2016

SALAD DAYS


My parents took me to Europe when I was eight, and, in London, we stayed at the Savoy Hotel. Across the street and down a bit was the Vaudeville Theatre, where Salad Days was playing. I had been entranced with this show for years—my aunt Agnes had the LP—and I couldn’t believe it was still on. (It eventually lasted 2, 283 performances, to that point the longest-running musical in history.) In a whisk, I was inside the Vaudeville theatre, almost the only spectator for a midweek matinee, front and center, at one of the weirdest musicals of all time.

 

     It’s about uncles. Or no, it’s about Timothy and Jane, just out of university, who get a job minding a magic piano that makes people dance. Jane is a Lady, like the daughters on Downton Abbey, but middle-class Timothy is supposed to be looking for respectable work, and his parents urge him to try his uncles. There’s five of ‘em, says crazy Aunt Prue:

 

          TIMOTHY’S PARENTS: Four! And the one we don’t mention.

 

Then Timothy and Jane meet this very low-key Tramp with a piano and accept the responsibility to guard it while Timothy has encounters with his various uncles. One’s in the diplomatic, another is the killjoy Minister of Pleasure and Pastime, and so on, and instead of a plot, Salad Days runs on revue-like sketches—a chaotic fashion show managed by a fey designer, a beauty-parlor bit, a nightclub sequence. The piano does make everyone dance, so the authorities want to confiscate it as subversive. Was there a subtext here? Does the piano make everyone gay? Because there’s actually a lyric to that effect in one of the numbers:

 

          CHORUS I: We’re looking for a piano.

          CHORUS II: A piano?

          CHORUS I: Yes, a piano!

          CHORUS II: Not any old pia—

          CHORUS I: No! The one that makes you gay.

 

This was the second half of the 1950s, so “gay” here is clearly meant in its now outdated sense of “bright and festive.” Not long after, the word became ambiguous and tricky. I remember a day in Lehman Engel’s BMI workshop for budding writers of the musical, when he was working on his book of show lyrics and mentioned to us that one word in particular was used more than any other. Would anyone, he asked, like to guess which word that is?

 

     We all knew it had to be “gay,” but none of us said anything. Things were like that then. But on with the show, because Salad Days does have one touch of plot: the piano vanishes, and everyone scurries about in search of it. Other than that, the narrative is nothing but those episodes, tied together by blatantly convenient ligatures, as when Timothy and Jane cue in the next uncle, a scientist:

 

          JANE: If only we had a helicopter, we’d soon spot

         [the missing piano] then.

          TIMOTHY: Oh, what’s that up in the sky?...

          Nothing to be scared of. It’s only a flying saucer.

 

There’s a Second Couple, too, with another aristocrat, Lord Nigel, who   announces that he can’t sing, immediately provoking a charming but extraneous number, “It’s Easy To Sing.” Nigel is paired with Fiona, who at one point speaks for us all:

 

          FIONA: I don’t understand a thing that’s happening.

 

     Salad Days, which started out as a regional piece, for the Bristol Old Vic in 1954, is bizarre and amateurish but also tuneful and ingratiating. Critics often liken it to The Boy Friend, as they are exact contemporaries performed with just two pianos in the pit, but in fact they aren’t alike at all. Sandy Wilson, The Boy Friend’s sole author, was an archivist, trying to revive the charming old musical comedies that Oklahoma! began to sweep away in both America and England, and the Boy Friend’s songs are careful hommages to specific twenties numbers, mostly from No, No, Nanette. Thus, “Sur la Plage” carefully adopts the syncopation of the A strain of Nanette’s “The Call of the Sea,” and The Boy Friend’s “Perfect Young Ladies” comports with Nanette’s “Flappers Are We.” (There’s one red herring: “The ‘You-Don’t-Want-To-Play-With-Me’ Blues” references not Nanette but Rodgers and Hart’s Present Arms, with an étude on its “Blue Ocean Blues.”)

 

     In contrast, nothing in Salad Days recalls anything from the past. This show cultivates its own sound: in the merrily thoughtless “Oh, Look At Me [I’m dancing]”; Jane’s carefree waltz “The Time Of My Life”; the sneakily minor-key “Hush-Hush,” a how-to for those aspiring to join the foreign service. (One lyric runs, “Never reveal your age or sex.”)

 

     Detractors call the show “twee,” but the correct word is “sweet.” It has an innocence that transcends all those extraneous sketches and dopey song cues. It has charm, a rare quality now—and it’s not about uncles. It’s about youth finding its way after expulsion from the playroom, as Timothy and Jane amuse themselves with one last toy—the piano—and ultimately pass it on to Nigel and Fiona.

 

     I’m really supposed to be blogging in order to plug my next book, When Broadway Went To Hollywood, about the adventures of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Lerner and Loewe, and so on in the movies. (Oxford University Press, due out in December, at better bookstores everywhere.) And I intend to get to all that, but for some reason I’m as entranced today with Salad Days as I was back when I was eight. So let’s run through the show’s discography, for anyone interested in getting close to this unique yet very characteristic English musical.

 

     First, of course, is the original cast reading (Oriole, Sepia, Sony), authoritative, obviously, but also disappointing. Some numbers are omitted or abridged, there’s too much dialogue, and only heroine Eleanor Drew has a respectable singing voice; Jane is a soprano, and there’s no way to fudge about with that. The sepia CD corrects the original LP’s short weight with bonus tracks, as this dauntless label always does, including cuts from another Slade-Bristol opus, The Duenna.

 

     Still, given the original cast trademark, this is a surprisingly mediocre performance. When, in “The Time of My Life,” Jane sings of “summer and sunshine and falling in love,” Slade and Reynolds are ripping right into the heart of musical comedy. It’s a key line. This is, even, a key show. Yet it doesn’t sound like one here—and the two-piano accompaniment of the original theatre pit is oddly self-effacing. In other runthroughs, the pianists bustle all over the keyboards quite bracingly.

 

     Salad Days collected a very English form of highlights, the half-LP or 45 EP, which of course would give you only the best-known titles. They generally observe the two-piano approach, though World Records offered an orchestra, with famous leads. Pamela Charles was a New York Eliza Doolittle, and Peter Gilmore had the odd fortune to look like a nerd but sing like the sexiest baritone alive. The performance is poor even so, not well organized. “Looking For a Piano” repeats a section and seems to go forever, and the Dixieland arrangement for “Oh, Look at Me!” is way out of style.

 

     A much better half-LP is Decca’s with Jan Waters and Ray Cook, very much in the show’s spirit, with an antique piano when the Tramp first plays it. This is important, because the entire show revolves around that piano. It needs to be a presence on discs, even though it’s sort of a dramaturgical flaw, as we never do find out why it’s magical and where it came from. We do find out where the Tramp came from, however, and I’ll get to that presently.

 

     These bitty little “selections from” records disguise Salad Days in a way they don’t disguise, say, Oklahoma!. Five or six of Oklahoma!’s best numbers give us the core of that work, while Salad Days’ ballads and the “Looking For a Piano” chorus are not enough to catch the show’s flavor. We need the uncles’ wacky numbers, the camp solos of the nightclub sequence. Salad Days really is a sophomoric piece—a college show, and that’s its appeal. It’s more than happy kids singing. It’s whimsical and strange as well, and we need to sample all of that—“Hush-Hush,” with its Russian dance break (in the original staging, the uncle and his assistant went into that Cossack step where you’re halfway to the floor with your arms crossed and your legs kicking out), or “Cleopatra,” at the nightclub, a comedy number that’s only funny because it’s so terrible.

 

     In the remaining cast albums, purists must beware the 1976 revival (That’s Entertainment), with unusually demented arrangements for this delicate piece—a charleston vamp and ragtime dance for “Oh, Look at Me!, a raising of the key when a song hits its last A strain, as if Andrew Lloyd Webber were somewhere about, and the nightclub ditties going completely over the top. Salad Days is screwy, not coarse. Then, too, the Timothy and Jane are vocally weak; he’s often out of tune. The cast does include Elizabeth Seal (the original Irma la Douce in London and New York), but beyond a jazzy photograph in costume on set she makes little impression here.

 

     Best of all the Salad Dayses—yes,  including the original cast—is a BBC fortieth anniversary broadcast (EMI) with a more or less all-star crew: Valerie Masterson, Prunella Scales, Tony Slattery, Roy Hudd, audiobook king Samuel West, sitcom favorite Josephine Tewson, and the original Tim, John Warner, as the Tramp. The reading is authentic in text and perfectly in style; it also takes in dialogue bits so you can hear just how pre-Oklahoma! the dramaturgy is.

 

     From the very start of the overture, as pianists Jonathan Cohen and Mark Dorrell swing irresistibly into "Oh, Look at Me!,” the show comes through in all its congenital exuberance but also with its tender quibbles intact. The “We Said We Wouldn’t Look Back” of Simon Green and Janie Dee is full of bittersweet nuance—and this is the only recording to give us the twist ending: the Tramp is Timothy’s fifth uncle, the one we don’t mention.

 

     Unfortunately, the disc is very scarce now. An ironic touch: the cover art bears a photo of Bob Harris, who played Troppo in the original cast. But Harris isn’t on the recording, and neither is Troppo, a silent character. I recall being quite mystified by him back in the Vaudeville Theatre in 1958, because he didn’t seem connected to anything yet turned up all over the place. No doubt the role was created for Harris as a member of the Bristol Old Vic company, just to give him something to do. Salad Days is that kind of show: a devil-may-care irrational fling. Another lyric runs, “Oh yes, it’s not that I want to stay, it’s just that I don’t want to go.”

 

 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

I'M STILL HERE: THE ACCULTURATION OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM


Many years ago, I was at one of those New York show-business parties at which the guests sing for supper at the keyboard. The host was a major Broadway producer, and his performer wife, to keep the tone chic, pulled out the sheet music to a duet from Stephen Sondheim’s then latest show, A Little Night Music, and tried to cajole a singer named Earl Wrightson into sight-reading it with her.

     The number, “You Must Meet My Wife,” is a conversation in the form of a waltz, in which a man is forced to admit that his wonderful marriage is a sham. A middle-aged widower, by profession an attorney, he has taken a very young bride who finds him physically repulsive. In fact, she’s in love with his son. The woman the attorney is singing to is the love of his life, and she seems to know it. Yet somehow or other he doesn’t: perhaps because women see men as a source of warmth and protection but men see women as potential vessels of beauty and ecstasy. So his teenaged wife sparks some mysterious flame in him that overwhelms everything else.

     Granted, not all of the above comes out in “You Must Meet My Wife”: it takes the rest of A Little Night Music to develop that deconstruction of the American musical’s traditional Boy gets Girl. In fact, the song is a rather jolly affair—but Earl Wrightson was having none of it. An operetta baritone of the old school, Wrightson was a stouthearted man with a soprano mate, Lois Hunt. There were no sham marriages and no wives in love with their sons-in-law in Wrightson’s world. He and Hunt were strictly Boy Gets Girl, put on this planet to sing “Indian Love Call” and the like; the Wrightson-Hunt day job was a tour of The Sound of Music that hit almost a hundred cities.

     “I don’t know it,” Wrightson grumbled, as the hostess placed “You Must Meet My Wife” on the music rack and the pianist took a quick look at the sheet.

     “Oh, let’s wing our way through it,” the hostess suggested. Why not? They were both musicians enough. Troupers and pros.

     Here’s why not: “I don’t like that man’s music!” Wrightson told her in an unmistakably hostile tone. “He writes for himself and his friends!”

     Seated right in front of the piano—next to Lois Hunt, in fact—I alerted at that last line. Who were Sondheim’s “friends”? Reckless sophisticates who scorn The Sound of Music? Or gay? Because, while Sondheim wasn’t yet out at that time, everyone knew, even Earl Wrightson.

     But how did they know? Was it the clever jabs at the status quo, the playful observations of how (straight) people act, the slightly combative artfulness—all elements of gay creativity, from Oscar Wilde to Christopher Durang? Was homophobia the reason why the Sondheim shows of the 1970s—the works in which he first revealed his mature style as a composer and lyricist—proved divisive in the theatregoing community? Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), mostly produced and all directed by Harold Prince, offered an astonishing outpouring of fascinating and exotic but also challenging and provocative music theatre.

     Quite aside from  anyone’s feelings about homosexual art, these shows are highly evolved from what musicals used to be. Follies’ leads are middle-aged, which already breaks the musical-comedy handbook’s Rule Number One: “Everyone you care about must be young and cute.” True, the four Follies leads were shadowed by their own ghosts, who were young and cute. Still, by the show’s end, all eight of these people were so depressed it looked as though the message was that free will doesn’t make us happy, creating what academics would call a very  crowded text. At least A Little Night Music was glamorous. But Pacific Overtures was history and Sweeney Todd’s protagonist is a serial killer. Remember when musicals were about  lovable con men and wistful piano teachers? But they’re really made for each other? And then everyone sings “Seventy-Six Trombones”?

    Maybe it wasn’t homophobia. Sondheim calls his scores “playwrighting,” because they pursue themes latent in the story. Sondheim characters don’t take a time out to sing “Indian Love Call,” because there are no time outs in his shows. In the average musical, stuff happens, then people sing, then more stuff happens. In Sondheim, stuff never stops happening; from dialogue into song into more dialogue, there are no relaxation points. That makes it difficult for spectators who are used to lowering their attention level during the songs: they want to enjoy the music as music without having to absorb the lyrics in any real sense. On the contrary, Sondheim’s playwrighting scores demand intense concentration. And this sabotages the musical’s time-honored mandate to provide entertainment free of intellectual content.

     But didn’t earlier musicals use songs with strong thematic drive? What about those famous innovative titles—Show Boat, Lady in the Dark, Oklahoma!, Cabaret? And, yes, of course they did; English-speaking music theatre has integrated its songs into its narratives since the very first one, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, in 1728.

     Even so, Sondheim’s musicals tend to be more ambiguously psychologized than those of his predecessors, so they require more concentration from their spectators. To return to A Little Night Music: we are as close to that lawyer with the unhappily happy marriage as we are to Oklahoma!’s Curly or Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, but we can’t entirely understand him. Curly is easy: a cowboy as full of life as a newborn calf, in love, and proud of the land he lives on, the people he belongs to. Sally is easy: an English girl getting by in Weimar Berlin on a complete lack of scruples about anything.

     But that lawyer! He’s fast and smart, yet he misses a lot, Christopher Hitchens as the absent-minded professor. Married to a dope who loves another (again: his own son!), he gets the chance to reconvene with the actress, who is as fast and smart as he is. Everything about the show tells us that he needs the actress, and everyone in the audience wants them together. Yet, rather late in the evening, he reveals his motivation, and it’s a paradox. “When my eyes are open,” he says, he wants the actress—“a woman that I have loved for a long time.” Yes! But he goes on with “When my eyes are not open…all I see is a girl in a pink dress teasing a canary, running through a sunlit garden to hug me at the gate.” And we think, This is just as cockeyed and helpless as we all can get at times. What does he want? It’s real life as a musical, nimble and poetic yet also dense and inconclusive.

     But then, A Little Night Music’s source is Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. One expects something of the Bergman atmosphere to inform the piece, even if the movie is dry and restrained while the musical is ebullient, almost an operetta in its plethora of waltzes. There’s even a sarabande, a number called “Liaisons,” in which the actress’ mother, a former courtesan, reflects on the erotic life to the shimmer of harp and celesta suggesting a sibyl whispering in a cave.

     Sondheim’s music was advanced, obviously. But so were the stories he told, reveling in the ambivalence that Sondheim observes in human nature, like the attorney of “You Must Meet My Wife,” caught between the fascinating woman and the darling girl. From Show Boat to Hamilton, the musical has been built on the notion of destiny: Boy may meet Girl by chance, but he gets her by something we could think of as intelligent design. Or call it Romance 101: once two hearts bond in “Indian Love Call” (or something along those lines), they are entitled to a happily ever after, or the audience will tear the theatre apart.

     Nevertheless, I say again that Sondheim’s shows are based on free will, which doesn’t guarantee an ever after of any kind. These are complex shows, adventurous shows. Pacific Overtures tells of the opening of isolated Japan to Western trade in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it was staged in the Kabuki manner, expecting the audience to follow its now intricate and now intense narrative technique. Some found it picturesque and enlightening, but others were baffled and annoyed.

     Still, certain people simply do not like theatregoing outside the box. Worse, they couldn’t help noticing that some of the most intelligent and arts-stimulated people they knew greatly enjoyed Sondheim’s shows; their enthusiasm seemed, to disbelievers, a reproach. Three groups in particular were the most anti-Sondheim at this time: enraged queens, dreary straight men, and pretty much everyone in Bayonne, New Jersey.

     Then something happened. While writing On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide, I noticed a change in the way Sondheim was perceived, something like the opposite of a glitch. He had generally gone over well in London, especially among the intellectuals’ steward class, who favor Shakespeare and Brecht and never go to musicals. But they went to Sondheim. So in 1976 the Mermaid Theatre, which had been been running a series of songwriter revues, from [Noël] Cowardy Custard to Cole [Porter], raised up Side By Side By Sondheim, an evening of pure song using a narrator and three singers. The show moved to the West End and then, with the same cast, to New York the following year.

     The narration, as so often, added nothing to the event and simply got in the way, but the performers—Millicent Martin, Julia McKenzie, and David Kernan—were personable and versatile. Most important, the public was able to hear the songs simply as songs, without the baggage of the dense Sondheim playwrighting. This, clearly, was the breakthrough. And, just to make things difficult for Earl Wrightson, there was a gay touch, in that Kernan took part in a few numbers written for women characters. In “Could I Leave You?,” a scathingly anguished waltz from Follies, Kernan leaped into a highly contextual piece without its context—that of the wife of a self-hating lit-and-politics media grandee who rates himself as a fraud and fears her judgment. He doesn’t understand that she still loves the young charmer she married.

     But we take all that in at a performance of the complete and total Follies.  At Side By Side By Sondheim, the house could actually relax and enjoy the song on its merits alone. The music told and the lyrics delighted. “Could I bury my rage with a boy half your age in the grass?” Kernan sang. “Bet your ass!”

     The revue’s London staging ran a bit over two years, the New York one about half that, and the American theatregoing public now underwent a Damascene conversion, just in time for Sweeney Todd. All Sondheim shows are different from all other musicals—and from one another—but Sweeney is the only famous musical in history that is truly bloodthirsty. Todd, “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” cuts the throats of his customers, and the original production made the point with gruesome realism, to the banshee shrilling of a factory whistle. Further, the genre was melodrama and the storyline an intricate interlacing of subplots, memed, so to say, by sociopolitical critique.

     In short, Sweeney Todd was another rich work, one that was attractive and even compelling but, at the same time, brusque and a bit repellent. True, as Oscar Wilde puts it in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” But Sondheim’s fiction comes with disclaimers. The traditional musical’s relationship with its audience was one of clarity. The public was welcomed and loved…and maybe lied to a little, with instant solutions to every problem. “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “My Favorite Things” make life seem too basic. In the age of Sondheim, musicals explore life more honestly, and the relationship with the audience is less clear than it was.

     Luckily, after the Sondheim revue, the public had learned how to “hear” Sondheim—or, really, how to attend his shows. Then, too, as time passed, the key Sondheim titles were revived, which made it easier to process the detailed dramaturgy. Now we know to ask of Sondheim’s characters, as we do of people we’re close to, and whom we thought we knew, What do we want? Sondheim makes clichés into puzzles and tests the effectiveness of the received virtues. We have to return to his shows over and over simply to learn what we really mean when we’re talking. You must meet my wife.

 

 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

IMELDA STAUNTON'S MADAM ROSE


Rose Hovick may have been a monster, but in Gypsy she was Ethel Merman, who spent her career playing a tough broad with a gooey center, like a Snickers in armor. Generally an urban character till Annie Get Your Gun (even in the Arizona of Girl Crazy, she was a San Franciscan), Merman would sing torch songs on the ninetieth floor. “Leave out the cherry,” she says in one of them. “Leave out the orange. Leave out the bitters.” No sweets in this one: “Just make it a straight rye!” And listen to her characters’ names: Wanda Brill (the one who sings “Eadie Was a Lady,” one of the great hard-boiled show tunes of all time, in Take a Chance), Reno Sweeney, Nails Duquesne, May Daley, Hattie Maloney: no sweets there, either.

      So Rose Hovick was an ideal Merman part, once she agreed to take some acting direction. The standard Merman performance was touch-me-not diva in a sheltered space, projecting directly into the audience so that all her co-stars got to play to was Merman’s left or right ear. For Gypsy, she interacted with them, though she reverted to her old ways thereafter. You can hear the difference in the live tapes: in Gypsy, she occasionally turns to someone, and, given the primitive miking of the day, you lose the line. Then, as the last of the original Hello, Dolly!s, she’s back to hurling everything straight into the auditorium, and, except when she’s on the runway (which isn’t miked), you hear every word.

     Merman’s Rose was a tough broad with a show-biz center, exploiting her kids because she “just wanted to be noticed.” I’ve seen all the major Roses in the New York area (including Tyne Daly’s replacement, Linda Lavin, and, at Paper Mill Playhouse, Betty Buckley), and Merman was the titanic one. Further, her background in the above all comic show enabled her to get more laughs than her successors. However, in some strange way Merman’s was also a triumphant Rose—yes, even at the end, when she must face giving up her dream of getting noticed—because starring in a smash hit on Broadway is triumphant.

     And yet. Rose doesn’t triumph. And, despite her insistent reminders that her troupe were headliners on the Orpheum Circuit, she has been slogging along in the fourth division all her life.

     Later Roses have dealt more honestly with this paradox of the winner who loses. Rather, they  play losers who lose. But that doesn’t make it easier to understand; one reason we keep returning to Gypsy is to try to collect its protagonist, too rich and contradictory to absorb in one or even several visits. What does she love—her kids or show biz? And does she really want to marry Herbie? Or is that just one of the countless little memes she toys with as she recklessly storms through the world? No one chooses his or life as freely as Rose. Her establishing number, “Some People,” is an anthem devoted to free will—and we’d expect no less from a Sondheim character. While he wrote only the lyrics, to Jule Styne’s music, whether Sondheim collaborates on a score or writes both words and music, a Sondheim show is a Sondheim show: they all tour through the terrible real estate of the life freely chosen. As they used to say of unknown lands on ancient maps, Here Be Dragons.

     When I was preparing the bibliographical essay for my book On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide, I found that some writers felt comfortable ignoring the shows Sondheim didn’t compose. What nonsense: a musical’s lyrics don’t count? West Side Story and Gypsy are Sondheim’s two biggest hits. Is it sensible to leave them out of a Sondheim survey? As far as that goes, it was Sondheim and Jerome Robbins who put together “Rose’s Turn”—and I always suspected that Sondheim composed the strange rising then falling triad chords that accompany the trio section (at the Poco meno mosso, to the words “I had a dream”) of “Some People.” In fact, I once asked him, point blank, if he had done so, and he responded without answering, delivering instead some praise about Styne’s amazing facility at the keyboard. Well, Sondheim’s always diplomatic about people he admires; or perhaps he didn’t care for the question. And I could be wrong. But that music, extremely advanced for 1959, doesn’t sound like Styne. (To be fair, Styne himself sometimes doesn’t sound like Styne, as in the title song of Subways Are For Sleeping, which in fact doesn’t sound like any other song ever heard on Broadway.)

     The Here Be Dragons in Gypsy is comparable to the places ventured into by Company’s Robert, Follies’ Ben Stone, A Little Night Music’s lawyer, almost everyone in Into the Woods, Passion’s Captain Bachetti, and many others in Sondheim shows. Each major Rose finds a different way of negotiating the perilous terrain, and now we have a vastly praised and very extreme interpretation from Imelda Staunton in England, which has suddenly become available online in a bootleg of a live performance at the Savoy Theatre in London. Staunton’s Rose is a massive portrayal, with a shattering finale, yet this is a mother without love and a finagler without charm. Merman’s Rose had her angry side, but it showed only when she was provoked. Staunton is a monster; she comes raging at you without preamble.

     The lack of love is especially shocking; like Verdi’s Macbeth, this is opera senz’amore. There are those who don’t believe there is such a thing as an unloving parent. They can conceive of misguided and even destructive and vindictive parents. But, they think, the love must be automatic.

     Well, they’re wrong. There are truly hateful parents. However, we don’t generally see Rose as unloving. We see her as obsessed, distracted by her goals, impatiently applying the choices of the free in her voyage to the isles of the blessed. The folks she describes in “Some People” aren’t free: because they make no choices. When Rose says, “I had a dream,” she really means, “I am choosing to be guilty of my life.” The melodic cell to which she sings those four words is so intrinsic to what Gypsy is about that it launches the overture and is the last thing we hear as the curtain falls. In the movie Schindler’s List, one character says, in a kind of ecstasy, “The list is life.” In Gypsy, the dream is life, and if you will it intensely enough—Hitler thought this, too, by the way—you’ll realize it.

     But Staunton’s Rose is not merely obsessed. She is so owned by her dream that nothing else is of value to her. When she smiles, it’s not because she’s happy, because she’s never happy. She smiles because no one at that moment is challenging her dream. And when, at last, she must give up the dream forever, she caps her stuttering “Momma”s with a wide-open mouth that recalls the terrible silent O that Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigel, made famous in Mother Courage, when she realizes that she has allowed one of her sons to be murdered. The shortish scene that follows has traditionally provided a reconciliation between mother and daughter; Merman capped it with something near delight. Goody—I’m going to a fancy party in a sable coat! But Staunton is wrecked. Her daughter leads their exit, tall and powerful. And Staunton shambles along, all the fizz drained out of her and her head cast down, like that of a slave in chains.

     It’s total Sondheim, comparable to how Follies’ Sally Plummer feels at the show’s end, scarcely able to move at all. Or think of Sweeney Todd, immobile in despair and even willing to have his own throat cut at the close of his show. I wonder, though, if we want to see Rose so destroyed. Is Gypsy a musical comedy or a musical play? The former can be read as (fantasy + minor problem + solution = fun); in other words, No, No, Nanette or Anything Goes. The latter is (reality + major problem + no solution = tragedy); in other words The King and I or West Side Story.  And Staunton’s Rose gives us a No Solution Gypsy.

     I wonder if this Rose so enthralls the public because it feels it finally understands the character, has finally seen her not merely lose but feel it to the utmost. It will certainly be one of the bullet-point performances in theatre history, and it’s wonderful to have it taped for posterity, even if the rest of the production is on the modest side. The minor character men have been overdirected and the Herbie is no more than correct (though “All I Need Is the Girl” is the best I’ve ever seen, and the Louise is good.) And Rose’s father amusingly says “You ain’t getting eighty-eight cents from me, Rose,” the words Sondheim uses in a cameo on the Merman cast album, even if text and score give the line with “eight [not eighty-eight] cents.”  Perhaps it’s a Gypsy performing tradition, like certain interpolated high notes in opera arias.

     Above all, will Staunton’s renovated Rose influence successors? Merman said that Irving Berlin “made a lady” out of her tough broad because Annie Get Your Gun brought out her tender side. True, tender people don’t marry Ernest Borgnine, and there was nothing tender in Merman’s Rose. But Staunton has made a lady out of Rose in an entirely different way, as a tragic heroine: she strives, unknowing, till calamity brings self-knowledge and the elimination of the self from the world of the living. It will be interesting to see if Gypsy itself changes form or reverts to the sweets-filled if regretful show that we have been enjoying up to now.    

    

Monday, October 19, 2015

I'M IN THE NUDE FOR LOVE


     Everyone knows about this now, but in 1979 it was a shock: two gay roommates are recapping last night’s wild party, whereupon the trick that one of them brought home walks in, completely naked. Present-day Manhattan, the West Village, right?

 

     Only not long after this, military men burst  in, shot the trick and then cut his throat while the two gay boys fled. And a sign came down from the flies, reading “Berlin—1934.”

 

     It’s Bent, and the nudity, which lasted while the trick paraded downstage and then, facing away from us, moved back up and exited, was at once natural and gratuitous. That is, of course the trick would leave the bedroom skin-side out after a night of lovemaking. But the actor had clearly been chosen to stun us, with a toned physique, glistening flesh, and a spectacular bottom. He later became a prominent Hollywood name, but in 1979 he was just starting out, and though he is unquestionably a fine actor, his job in Bent was to remind us of the essential visual component in the way we understand the intensity of sexual hunger. More: all Broadway told the tale that one of the actors playing the Nazis complained that, backstage before his entrance, the young actor was fluffing himself—well, duh—and summed it up as “I’ve played Shakeapeare and the classics, and now this!”

 

     Nudity was rare then. True, there had been a season or two of mostly gay nudefests, almost entirely off-Broadway, starting in 1969 and often starring avatars of the gay cruising grounds. You saw them dancing at the Tenth Floor, shirtless in the Eagle, or exciting comment at tea out at the Pines. Or they worked out at your gym; now they were actors. And of course there was Oh, Calcutta, though that was more of a counter-cultural statement than an acknowledgment of human hunger. It was political, conceived by Kenneth Tynan because he was one of England’s leftist bad boys, antagonizing the authorities because that’s how freedom exercises its muscles. As one of those authorities himself once said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

 

     Also true, nudity is all but routine today, even in opera. At Covent Garden, I saw the world premiere of three hours of twelve-tone shrieking, Gawain. Its composer, Harrison Birtwhistle, never got the memo that dodecaphonic music, having produced all its masterpieces relatively early in the twentieth century, was now a closed thread. Anyway, in the title role, Francois le Roux underwent a sort of shriving ceremony completely naked, full frontal, for something like ten minutes. (A friend asked, “And?,” to which I replied, “Promising.”) Further, Christopher Alden, one of my opera-director friends, says that whenever he proposes to set a scene from something in a spa—Monteverdi works well, apparently, but you can do it with anything except Suor Angelica—and asks if one of the chorus guys is willing to drop his towel, there’s always a dude who immediately raises his hand.

 

     Moving on to literature, though, the showrunner (so to say) can get away with a lot more, because sex becomes intellectualized. There are still some things you can’t show on stage or film, but you write as honestly as you like—and don’t we have to understand what a character needs from sex simply to know that character? I’m not talking about kink. I mean how people are drawn toward or away from the physical expression of affection. Women want to re-encounter the daddy they knew when they were toddlers, that source of love and protection. It’s an emotional attraction; how does that translate into the physics of love? Men are easier to comprehend, because the physical is their portal; only the most intrepid among them master the emotions in the room behind the door.

 

     So authors develop character in a sex scene. I had to grip this while writing a novella called One Day in France, centered on an atrocity of World War II that took place in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane: the burning alive of the inhabitants and the destruction of their little town (which, by the way, has been left as the Nazis left it, by order of Charles de Gaulle, to serve as a war memorial). I wanted to show how the civilized always face barbarian enemies, in whatever age, and how defenseless the civilized have made themselves. But I wanted to show as well how full of life everyone is before the catastrophe, because civilization is full of life, with its rich stock of music and theatre, its nudity and fluffing and sarcastic gay dish, its nonconformism and playful crazy beingness. Everything barbarians hate.

 

     So I modeled one (straight) couple on the Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut and her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, simply because the novel and its opera, ballet, and film versions typify our arts world. It’s an edgy story, though we think of it as just another constipated old classic. Lurking behind its plot, very near to the view, is the same need to reveal how much of the visual resides in the sexual that I just remarked upon in Bent. Manon Lescaut tells of two teenagers in an obsessive romance that is destroyed by her wish for financial comfort. Here are two beautiful creatures so mad with love that, in effect, they fuck till it kills her—but of course Prévost couldn’t say that in 1731, or even twenty-five years later, in a very slight revision. The first version was banned in France, because it told of a love whose only morality is its own greed for consummation, and everyone reading the novel back then knew what a writer of that epoch couldn’t say outright: that marriage is society’s method for suppressing sex. A hot coupling brings us close to the divine, but it also threatens social stability. To tell, as Prévost did, how the utmost beauty inspires the densest hunger, is to blaspheme, which is one reason why gay-hatred is often a religious phenomenon. Indeed, at one point des Grieux’s family forces him to take holy orders, a hetero version of Pray Away the Gay (and, like the current version, it doesn’t work).

 

     There is another layer atop all this, because Manon Lescaut the novel is narrated by des Grieux himself. Or, more exactly, it’s narrated by “a man of quality” who reassigns narrator command over to des Grieux. So we have  the young hero’s viewpoint, not that of the usual omniscient narrator. Once only, the man of quality meets Manon, to ruminate on “le caractère incomprehensible des femmes”: womankind’s incomprehensible nature. But isn’t that mankind’s rationalization for the way women resist his control?

 

     Because we notice that, in all the modern adaptations of Prévost, Manon has all the power in the relationship. Auber’s opéra comique adaptation of Prévost (1856), immensely popular for a generation despite its unhappy ending—a provocative violation of genre—gives all its goodies to the soprano, with a ton of coloratura escapades. The baritone, as one of her admirers, gets some nice couplets, but des Grieux, the tenor lead, has no self-defining solo.

 

     At least Massenet (1884) and Puccini (1893) bring the tenor forward, and, after Auber’s tuneful but shallow piece, it’s refreshing to hear his two successors exhilarate the tale, open it up to take in the life around the central couple. Prévost’s novel is constricted and obsessed; he travels here and there in Paris but takes no notice of his surroundings—the markets, the Opéra, the people. He scarcely even gives anyone’s name—it’s all M. de T. or M. de G.M. (There are two G. M.s, father and son, both of course wild for delectable Manon; Prévost really does shatter the Commandments.) Des Grieux has no first name, and when the two lovers and her brother (her cousin in the operas) are out walking, a man steps up, crying, “C’est Lescaut” (as the stranger lets off a pistol shot). “Il ira souper ce soir avec les anges”: Tonight he’ll dine in heaven.” Then this who-was-that? takes off, and Prévost never troubles to tell us what that was about, because it’s des Grieux’s tale to tell, and all he knows is Manon.

 

     Are they the only people in the world, those two? Massenet and, to a lesser extent, Puccini color in the narration with piquant episodes, though the latter felt he had been sharper at realizing Prévost. Massenet, he said in a famous line, saw the story en francais, with “wigs and minuets,” while he, Puccini, gave it “passion.”

 

     Yet Puccini’s second act is half wigs and minuets and only then passionate. It’s an act like no other in opera, because his first act introduces Manon as little more than a cipher. Massenet filled her out with stream-of-consciousness confessions and endearing flourishes, but Puccini leaves everything out. We know only that she is insanely beautiful (the music says so), that des Grieux falls wildly in love, and that they run off to Paris together.

 

     Intermission.

 

     Then the curtain goes up on the greatest cold-open non sequitur in opera: Manon has already left des Grieux for some old clunkabunk’s gilded-cage palace, a naïve sweetheart boxing above her weight in the world of the wealthy, jaded exploiters of life’s chance thrills, such as helpless young women. Massenet’s heroine is on top of all this, but Puccini’s doesn’t understand the rules by which powerful men play with sweethearts—and, in the France of Manon’s day, aristocrats had the legal power of a hanging judge.

 

     Now for another coup de théâtre. The clunkabunk and his courtiers depart, and Manon, alone, turns to find in front of her, seething with rage, the last person she ever expected to see again: des Grieux. This is the passion section, in a splendid love duet of the kind that was pretty much the last formal invention in the form that we call “opera.” True, there’s that strange last scene in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, when two besotted freaks fit for I, Claudius launch their honeymoon. But not till Les Huguenots, Tristan und Isolde, Un Ballo in Maschera do we get love duets worthy of the name, and this one in Manon Lescaut is in the tradition.

 

     And yet Massenet is defter in the counterpart scene, when it is Manon who does the confronting and the Abbé des Grieux who does the resisting. Yes, she actually love-duets him in the church where he now preaches, and at its center is a tremendously intimate sequence, at “N’est-ce plus ma main?”:

 

          Isn’t this my hand in your hand?

          Isn’t this my voice

          Caressing you as always before?

 

The orchestra is reticent here at first, Manon’s phrases echoed by a solo violin. Opera occasionally tries to musicalize difficult propositions; one theme in Wagner’s Parsifal depicts the suffering on the Cross, or perhaps the tender horror it inspires. (Parsifal doesn’t lock all its leitmotifs into business-card clarity.) And here, Massenet tries to capture what the sexual temptation that you cannot resist sounds like. It’s naked music, but on the exalted level, wheedling but fierce. I love the live performances. At La Scala, Mafalda Favero gives it the verismo approach, pulling the line around, cringing and sobbing, but you can virtually hear the audience rapt in concentration; at the Met with conductor Thomas Beecham, Bidu Sayao is stupendously beguiling, with a hunger you can hear from space.

 

     And there’s a Manon ballet. When Nicholas Hytner was preparing his Carousel for England’s National Theatre, he told his choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan, that Carousel was about “sex and violence.” And MacMillan amiably growled, “Sex and violence is what I do.” He’s perfect for Manon—and dance is about bodies, so it can ask how much sex is there in love, how much love in sex. I recall a German staging of On the Town in which the Great Lover Pas de Deux found Gabey and Miss Turnstiles nearly naked and all but copulating. But is his idolization chaste and wondering, or just the dream of a horny sailor? And here’s the great On the Town line, from a wrecked old lush who teaches singing: “Sex and art don’t mix. If they did, I’d have gone right to the top!”

 

    But sex and art do mix. They have to, or art would be dishonest. Like the hot young devil in Bent, Prévost’s novel focuses on something unmentionable: the hotness that threatens to unravel the social order if we give it the reins. Isn’t that why all fascisms are by nature puritanical? Sexual freedom is freedom, period. And freedom is subversive to those who could control us.

 

     Thus, my French novel tells how democracies are always under the assault of fascists, and that led me to include a couple modeled on Manon and des Grieux. I may have under-modeled, though, because I changed almost everything about them. My des Grieux is shy, and my Manon likes to confuse people with ironic jokes. When the former speaks of how men see Prévost’s Manon as prey and hate her if she resists, the latter tells him, outrageously, “We women need these little attentions.” And she’s far more in charge of the liaison than he is. After their night together, he finds his way to church to repent, and she, untroubled in guiltless sin, takes a meditative walk along the riverfront of Limoges that seems to place her, through the magic of meta-fiction, in Roman Gaul, literally a Manon for the ages.

 

     Prévost wrote before psychology took over the novel; it was all narrative then while today it is all analysis theory. There is far too little history in the form, too little awareness of what forces have made us who we are: in a world in which the aggression that would smash Manon and des Grieux simply because they are so beautiful finds the free peoples not only failing to repel but actively welcoming it. Like the Wolves in the current season of The Walking Dead, barbarians don’t need a reason. They live to destroy and they destroy to live. What, then, happens to Shakespeare and the classics, even to Bent? The Wolves and their collaborators are everywhere among us now. James Burnham said, “Liberalism is the ideology of Western suicide.” I don't think he meant the liberalism of social safety nets, women's biological rights, and so on. He meant our eagerness to tolerate the intrusion of those who would destroy us.