Wednesday, May 22, 2019

THE WIZARD OF LIES


I just screened this HBO film from 2017 last night and found it extraordinary. The writing, direction, and acting had me in great suspense, because while the subject is the criminality of Wall Street “wizard” Bernie Madoff, much of the treatment relates to Madoff’s relationship with his two sons, Mark and Andrew, and my own father was as destructive as Madoff, albeit on a modest level.
 

Throughout the film, I kept hoping the sons would finally stand up to their father, a domestic bully when he wasn’t simply being psychologically absentee. In one especially grating scene, at some catered outdoor shindig, Madoff berates a waiter without cause—nothing makes one madder; the rich do it because they can—and forces Mark to eat lobster instead of whatever he chose for himself. What the fuck is it to you what he eats, shithead? And, Mark, tell him you don’t like lobster. No, don’t murmur it—speak up and push back, for gosh sakes! You’re a grown man!
 

But he isn’t, isn’t he? Bring grown means not taking it from them anymore. When you’re a child, you’re dependent—not after. The Wizard Of Lies is concerned far more with the thousands of lives Madoff destroyed with his Ponzi scheme. But isn’t what he did as a public criminal a vast version of what he did as a domestic tyrant? Madoff in effect bullied his clients by hiding from them what he was really doing with their investments:
 

Stealing them. Director Barry Levinson and his creatives frame the story with a New York Times reporter’s jailhouse interview with Madoff, and as the tale unfolds, we see how Madoff manipulated and tricked everyone (including government regulators). But note that we are spared the financial details, because this is a crime story, not a math class. It’s not a whodunit: it’s a whydidhe?, and, ultimately, no one can tell us. Levinson and crew strip Madoff’s soul naked to show us he doesn’t have one.
 

I’d call him crazy if he weren’t so insanely megalomaniacal. “Nothing is off-limits to these people,” he complains, about federal regulators. But nothing is supposed to be, you fucking jackwagon—especially monsters like you. How does he feel about it now? the reporter (played by the actual reporter who filed the story in the Times) asks, and Robert De Niro tells her, “It’ll kill me for the rest of my life.”
 

Yes, De Niro is Madoff, one of the few stars in the film. But with actors this good, you don’t need stars. De Niro lands terrifically in a difficult part, because Levinson has an odd take on the character: he thinks there’s no there in him. It makes him all the more outrageous, and as I’ve always hated him, anyway, it’s perfect casting. Oh, and it’ll kill you? You don’t look killed to me in your prison, which, from the little we see of it, looks like easy time. Why isn’t this creep in Oz?—the bloodthirsty HBO prison series, not the magic land.
 

I’m really supposed to be blogging about my latest book, On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide. But The Wizard Of Lies has distracted me, because the thing about great movies (and theatre, literature, and such) is the way they pump us full of fascination with how wrong (or, alternatively, right) the world can get. They introduce us to ourselves. Yes, I know some people enjoyed a wonderful family background. I’ve heard men tell me how much they miss their (late) father. I believe them, but I can’t imagine how that would feel, since I banned my own father some thirty years ago yet still hate him with the heat of a thousand drag balls. And, remember, great art isn’t about happy families—they’re too unreal.
 

The Wizard Of Lies is very real. So much so that I couldn’t figure out who was playing Ruth Madoff. She looked and sounded so like her model that I wondered if they had actually hired…No, wait: it’s good heavens Michelle Pfeiffer! Weren’t you French and classy in Dangerous Liaisons? I wonder how she and De Niro would come off in All My Sons, because—despite the enormity of Madoff’s very public crimes—I still experienced The Wizard Of Lies as the picture of a disgusting excuse for a father. Of a figure of trust and power who is instead one of treachery and impotence. Again: no there in him. At the end, De Niro asks the reporter, “Do you think I’m a sociopath?”
 

Boss-battle music. Camera slowly recedes. Reporter doesn’t answer. Levinson is asking us, of course, and everyone thinks, Yes he is. But that’s not enough. He’s an evil piece of subhuman filth, and why didn’t his sons ever tell him so? Why didn’t I? Yes, I insert myself into the frame; great films tend to call us in to take part. How would you feel in Oz, either one? What role do you play at the Boys In the Band party?
 

And I see myself in the sons, especially the one who killed himself, because I never did tell my disgusting father what I think of him. Yeah, it’s easy to say now, to readers—but if you don’t slay the dragon at the time, you’re going to carry it inside you ever after. The sons are squishes, and that’s why I’m reacting so fiercely to this show. They’re like Jeb! Bush, the perfect politician of nothing, forever mouthing empty sentences, as if speaking without  consonants.
 

I actually met the Bush family. It was many years ago, in my music-director phase, when I worked on a two-person revue with Russell Nype and Lynn Stewart. We did it here and there, including at the little theatre in Kennebunkport, and I stayed with Russell and Diantha and went with them to their country club during a tennis championship, and the Bush sons were playing. I was watching the game next to Barbara Bush, who was reading the Times, and George Sr. was nearby. He had just returned from his ambassadorship in China and was now heading the CIA, and Barbara, judging from the noises she was making, was in the middle of a piece about all this that she didn’t like.
 

So I piped up with “The New York Times never misses a chance to attack the CIA,” and she replied in a kind of jaded murmur, “You’re telling Noah about the Flood, boy.”
 

My father always liked that story.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Q & A ON BARBRA STREISAND


 

My latest book, On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide, is just about to appear, so I’m celebrating with an interview…

 

Q: So is this the usual Life and Work?

 

A: It’s a Work and Work, because there already are excellent bios available. This is an analysis of Streisand the actress, singer…

 

Q: And personality?

 

A: Up to a point, Lord Copper. Streisand is not a Warholian figure, the kind of star most people identify in a general—really, unknowing—way. Someone like Tennessee Williams, Britney Spears, Winston Churchill. Or take Marilyn Monroe. People who have never seen one of her movies “know who she is” uncomprehendingly, because her profile--that of the doomed, self-destructive beauty--has nothing to do with her work. And Streisand has no profile in that sense. You have to hear her sing or take in her acting before you know who she is.

 

Q: What was your first experience of this singing and acting? Did you know then that she was headed for such a big career?

 

A: I saw, very early in its run, her Broadway debut show, I Can Get It For You Wholesale. The one with Miss Marmelstein. Ironically, the number is very much in the line of songs Fanny Brice built her public persona on—the Jewish girl who can’t catch a break. Second Hand Rose and so on. Yet though Funny Girl was already in “process” then (as a movie called My Man and only latterly as a stage show), Streisand could not have known that that work would serve as her portal into big-time show business.

 

Q: And was Miss Marmelstein a real barn burner, as we always hear?

 

A: It got a big hand is all I remember, and I saw the show twice. But I wasn’t as impressed with that number as I was with What Are They Doing To Us Now?, in which Streisand led the chorus in strangely Hebraic-sounding music about the oppression of those with no earning power: in other words, with no real rights as citizens. Miss Marmelstein was a comic bit, but What Are They Doing is a real singer’s exhibition piece. I remember thinking, This is why she was hired, because even with all the belters on Broadway at the time, I didn’t think anyone else could have invested the music with such (I have to say) smooth intensity. It’s hard to describe what she does in that scene, maybe a cross between simply stating facts and giving way to despair. She’s almost like a fierce partisan reining herself in. A historian, even.

 

Q: And you saw Funny Girl, surely?

 

A: Yes—and that was the barn burner for certain. Everyone was talking about it—I mean the grownups you knew, because I was a kid then. My schoolfellows talked about The Twilight Zone or Mr. Novak, not Broadway. But Funny Girl totally took off, even though now everyone thinks it’s not even good schlock.

 

Q: What do you think of it?

 

A: I think it’s essential Streisand, because, if it hadn’t existed, she might never have become anything but an album singer. Because Funny Girl was Vivien Leigh-as-Scarlett O’Hara casting, and until Streisand had her hit movie with the Hollywood version of the show, she would have been thought hard to spot in the kind of stories they were filming then. Funny Girl “created” Streisand, but it as well created opportunities for new kinds of storytelling—The Rose, for instance, which served Bette Midler the way Funny Girl did Streisand.

 

Q: Couldn’t a Funny Girl-less Streisand have gone on to a wow career in Broadway musicals?

 

A: She didn’t want to. She likes creating anew each day—shooting the next scene, launching the next project. It keeps the art rich. The same thing night after night makes the art stale, because you already know what you’re going to play.

 

Q: So what’s her best film?

 

A: There is no “best.” There’s her most entertaining, her most enlightening, her most artistic. She would say it’s Yentl for all three. And of course everyone has his or her personal favorite, which is something else entirely. And there’s the complication that The Way We Were, an exploration of how politics and romance cannot mate, was sabotaged when the crucial eight minutes in which this theme is concluded was cut out by the frantic director when a single preview audience got restless. So people think of the film as a soap opera. At least the DVD includes the lost footage as a bonus, so you can see what’s missing. I think it’s the most interesting of her films, and I suspect it’s so popular partly because people keep re-screening it looking for the missing parts. Like, they have to be in there somewhere, right?

 

Q: But they aren’t?

 

A: Remember a very young James Woods in the opening college sequence?

Her best friend, Frankie McVeigh? You’ll have to read my book to find out what he does to her later, but it’s absolutely crushing.

 

Q: What does she do then?

 

A: She laughs. “The little rat,” she says.

 

Q: What’s the worst scene in all her films?

 

A: That lugubrious parade in Hello, Dolly!—an endless procession of the dullest people on the planet. It should have been a gay pride parade. Or she should have directed it instead of Gene Kelly. But she didn’t have that kind of power then. Besides, even when you are powerful, there are always jerkos hanging around to tell you why you can’t do what you want. And they’re not listening to you. Streisand lost a number of close relationships that way, because people who should have been supporting her need to make Yentl—a dire cultural need, not a wish—put their fingers in their ears and sang Hitler Had Only Just One Ball loudly whenever she brought it up.

 

Q: They sang what?

 

A: You don’t know it? It’s sung to the tune of the Colonel Bogie March:

 

                    Hitler had only just one ball.

                    Göring had two, but very small.

                    Himmler had something sim’lar,

                    And poor old Goebbels had no balls at all!

 

Q: My goodness. Do you always include these sidebars in your books?

 

A: Let others write Readers’ Digests. I compose panoramas.

 

 

 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A SONGBOOK REVUE AT THE KAUFMAN CENTER


So there I was, right after Veterans Day, as the guest sage at a musical show themed to my book When Broadway Went To Hollywood, about Broadway’s songwriters in the movie industry. Waiting to enter backstage right, with the show’s producer and host, Sean Hartley, I note the strong playing of the pianist, Evan Rees, who has chosen the “main title” music from MGM’s The Wizard Of Oz as his overture.

 

We all know this piece, eerie yet strangely attractive, so it’s an odd yet evocative choice—a good omen, as these one-night-only songbook retrospectives can devolve into mediocrity unless the folks in charge get adventurous. And I do like powerful pianism, as opposed to the introverted, “polite” kind that suggest someone like Jeb Bush is playing. Evan goes for a big sound, to give the show presence. “He’s good,” I murmur to Sean, and now the action proper has begun, with a clever meme: Darius De Haas is singing Blue Skies, which happens to be the first important song ever heard in a movie, the part-talkie The Jazz  Singer.

 

Darius starts with the verse, which always surprises us, because while Blue Skies as such is famous, its intro is…huh? What is this mystery piece? But then the refrain unfolds, and the audience gets into the swing of it, especially on the second chorus, when Darius decorates the melody with some personal jazz. This Blue Skies turns out to be a great First Number, because it announces the evening’s program: good music, well sung.

 

Then Sean goes out onstage. He is in a dark suit with a light blue tie. I had turned up on the sporty side with a red, white, and blue tie, but the costume designer, Lisa Renee Jordan, pointed out that everyone in the show was in black, so I picked out a black-and-white number properly to join the corps. Sean’s light blue tie gives him optics control, but then he’s the host.

 

We’re going to talk about Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, and so on in between the musical numbers, but first I’m concerned about Entering With Aplomb and trying to remember not to smile like a Halloween pumpkin. At the last minute, I decide not to smile at all, as befits a Keeper Of the Flame, but what I’m really worried about is the seating. The chairs look like Jar Jar Binks’ lawn furniture, and I’m afraid I might suffer a Schmiss and tip over. I fancy that someone in the audience will then cry out—as they do in Kabuki theatre in Japan—“I was expecting it! A gesture introduced by Shegeru Matsumo in the Fourteenth century!” Note to self: hire Kabuki plants for further show-biz engagements with esoteric chairs.

 

The second number offers Lora Lee Gayer in Cheek To Cheek. Now, here’s an interesting aspect in the art of staging these anthology revues: what do you do with the songs that kind of just stand there, the ones with no story in them? It recalls the famous West Side Story tale wherein Jerome Robbins complains that nothing happens in the song Maria. “What is he doing while he sings it?” Robbins demands of Stephen Sondheim, who replies something like, “He isn’t doing anything. He’s singing about this wonderful girl he just met.”

 

And Robbins replies, “You stage it.”

 

But in fact Tony doesn’t have to do anything during Maria, because in a story show like West Side Story there’s plot-and-character suspense when  a character tells us how he feels. It’s only in a revue, with its one-off, out-of-story song spots, that we ask for more of the singers than a mere stand-and-deliver approach.

 

Luckily, director Devanand Janki has come up with clever solutions to this problem, giving the company odd little things to do while not overshadowing the music. So Lora Lee’s Cheek To Cheek tries to get the pianist to partner her. Well, of course: “Dance with me!” is in the lyric. But Evan’s busy just now, so she tries Sean, and he isn’t moving.

 

I become apprehensive, as I haven’t been staged into the number—what if she asks me, too? What if she pulls on the chair and it explodes in the excitement?  But Lora Lee goes back to the pianist, and at length, upstage of the keyboard and with a Mona Lisa smile, she herself hits the tonic key to button the number, a cute touch.

 

For Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught In the Rain)?, Barbara Walsh of course has an umbrella, but the number’s feature is a dance break in which she calls out each step for us (“Imitation grapevine!”), which gives the spot a gleeful charm. Three titles later, when we’ve moved on to the Gershwins, Barbara is back for The Man That Got Away (by Ira with Harold Arlen), given an arresting spin as Walsh sings this sad tune sadly while Jason Gotay interpolates spoken questions to cue in each of Ira’s lines. It’s daring, because it gives us two completely different “tones,” Jason’s sympathetic yet quaintly zoned-out wonderings cutting into Barbara’s gloom. But it enlivens a number that otherwise sustains a certain relentless quality.

 

For Rodgers and Hart, the venturesome choice of songs favors the audience with two rarities, Hollywood Party and I’ve Got To Get Back To New York. Then comes Blue Moon, a rarity as well because we get tastes of its each of its first three versions, with different lyrics. As the singer reaches the end of Prayer’s first A, the lights black her out as Sean cries, “Cut!” This also happens with Manhattan Melodrama and the Bad In Every Man, till we reach the historic moment when MGM’s music publisher, Jack Robbins, told Rodgers and Hart that their tune was simple and beautiful but their lyrics were crossword puzzles. “Write me a moon song,” he suggested, and Lora Lee, Darius, and Amy Justman do the honors, very sweetly.

 

For the first-act finale, we get a production number, Isn’t It Romantic?, the most creative musical spot in all Rodgers and Hart, as the camera follows a melody from Maurice Chevalier’s tailor shop into a taxicab, onto a train and off on the road with marching soldiers, thence to a gypsy campfire thanks to a fiddler who plays it with almost demented schmalz, and at last to the enchanted Sleeping Beauty chateau where Princess Jeanette MacDonald sings it as if to summon her rescuing prince—Chevalier, of course, in this democratic fairy tale. The whole cast turns out for this, along with a real violinist, Lukas Sanchez, and Sean thinks it’s the first time that anyone has tried to stage this epic sequence. (The curious can find the entire thing on YouTube.)

 

During the intermission, in the green room, I ask Evan about transpositions I noticed in his personal vocal score, because for some songs he simply wrote (for example of a song published in G), “In C.” This intrigues me, as I’m a great sight-reader but I can’t transpose anything, not even You’ll Never Walk Alone, which, harmonically speaking, is the Mary Had a Little Lamb of show tunes. Years ago, for a violin-piano act in restaurants, my violinist partner had to write out a lead sheet from which I could play Happy Birthday To You when a party needed to sing at the presentation of the cake. I couldn’t even get through that ditty without a trot.

 

The second act sustains the vitality of the first, and I like the way Taylor Blackman, Brian Fender, and Austin Marquez’s Don’t Fence Me In (complete with little line-dancing steps) is balanced by Victoria Nassberg, Nicolette Shin, and May Yoshiota’s Please Don’t Monkey With Broadway. Two trios.

 

We have reached Cole Porter, obviously, and Sean asks me about how Porter adapted to Hollywood ways. I note that he carefully broke his movie work into three genres: primitive songs for the mass audience and slightly sophisticated songs for the keener public, but one song he always saved for himself. In fact, I’m thinking of his first full-fledged Hollywood musical, Born To Dance, with its Hey, Babe, Hey (a primitive title), I’ve Got You Under My Skin (a keen title), and the bizarre Love Me, Love My Pekingese.

 

And the latter is what the gang immediately serves up, as the Don’t Fence Me In boys in sailor caps and Jason as the captain welcome Lora Lee in Virginia Bruce’s old role, with a stuffed animal as the eponymous Cheeky. He has been hidden in a handbag bearing a folksy farm motif, and this little touch of rural peace is the very opposite of Porter, that naughty metropolitan grandee.

 

It’s another quirky touch in an evening dedicated to the musical, where quirkiness is the First Virtue. And what could be quirkier than the entire Munchkinland sequence from The Wizard Of Oz, the show’s finale, complete with the Wicked Witch Of the West? She doesn’t materialize, simply running in on her broom. But still. Very clever, the way the number ties in with the overture. Note to self: do this again some day.

 

 

Saturday, April 7, 2018

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CAROUSEL


       My book on the musical Chicago has just come out, so I'm celebrating with a piece on Carousel, which is arguably Chicago's opposite in every way:
 
       Now. When Carousel played its first night, on April 19, 1945, the audience thought it knew what to expect. Like Oklahoma!, the first Rodgers and Hammerstein show, just two years earlier, Carousel was a Theatre Guild production with a period setting,  based on an old Guild property. Rouben Mamoulian directed and Agnes de Mille choreographed, as on the earlier show. And Carousel was billed, like Oklahoma!,  as neither musical comedy nor operetta but “musical play”: with the power of drama and the emotional expansion of music.

       Some of the public might have been familiar with Carousel’s source, Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, a Guild hit in 1921 with Joseph Schildkraut as the titular anti-hero, ever rebelling against authority and rules—why? because they’re there—and Eva Le Gallienne as his abused but faithful love, Julie. Schildkraut was a heartthrob, quite the exhibitionist in his tight, striped jersey, and Le Gallienne was an actress of such presence that, when she made an exit, she took everything with her, including the grand piano. They worked well together, but their characters make a terrible marriage, because the more Julie understands and forgives, the angrier Liliom gets. He knows he’s unworthy: love makes him feel guilty.

       Liliom is a strange piece, focusing on working-class folk with no ambition and little hope in a stylized realism that suddenly veers into fantasy when Liliom dies and gets a second chance on earth—after sixteen years of hellfire—to do a good deed for his fatherless daughter. He fails and returns to the afterlife, a loser in death as in life. And there the curtain falls.

       That suggests a show that would end up as the one thing a musical must never be: depressing. Yet both Puccini and Kurt Weill wanted to have a crack at it. Molnár turned them down. He turned down Rodgers and Hammerstein, too, but as a refugee from the Nazis he happened to be living in New York, and he dropped in on Oklahoma!. It was instruction in lightning; now Molnár comprehended the potential of music theatre with the poetry of good music but the realism of theatre. And Molnár said yes.

       Chicago, too, is based on a play that was seen on Broadway in the 1920s, and the musical follows it very closely. However, Rodgers and Hammerstein knew they had to reinvent Liliom’s final sequence, rendering it as uplifting rather than dispiriting. What they didn’t like was the setting, in Molnár’s native Budapest. Neither of the two authors had any feeling for Hungarian culture—yet the story seemed to need the exotic locale, with its odd blend of the wistful and the brutal. They thought of New Orleans for a time, then jumped north to New England in the 1870s and 1880s, so picturesque with its accents (“Always settin’ by the winder”) and cotton mills, fisherfolk and carnival, skinflints and clambake.

       They made one mistake, envisioning the afterlife as the gloomy parlor of a dour minister and his wife, which infuriated the audience at Carousel’s Boston tryout. The scene had all the small-town pettiness that New Englanders live by but hate to see revealed, and the authors rebooted it on a bare stage with the minister defrocked as the Starkeeper, still heavenly but less parochial, a dreamer rather than a judge.

       Now Carousel was ready for its New York premiere—but that first-night public wasn’t, because Carousel proved to be nothing like Oklahoma!, and its innovations began literally one minute into the running time. Virtually all musicals had overtures in those days: a fanfare, then a chain of four or five numbers, with a big finish. Rodgers always hated them, because, in the typical Broadway pit, the brass overpowered the strings, so the ballads, in which the violins carry the melody, couldn’t be heard properly. After Oklahoma!’s smash success, however, Carousel could afford a big staging, and Rodgers got twenty-two strings in an orchestra of thirty-nine, almost twice the usual size.

       Anyway, Carousel didn’t have an overture. Instead, the show began with a quirky little prelude suggesting the winding up of a carousel’s drive equipment. As the music grew louder and faster, the house lights went to black and, without warning, the curtain went up, launching the narrative before the audience was ready: on an amusement park with courting couples, the stately bourgeoisie, heroine Julie and her sidekick Carrie, and of course the carousel and its barker, Liliom, now called Billy. The entire scene was enacted in pantomime, and amid  the vignettes and sidebars the public noticed that something interesting was happening between Julie and Billy.

       Traditionally, the next scene would give Julie a Heroine’s Wanting Song and then, perhaps, a duet with Billy. But first Carrie defined Julie from her point of view, in “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan.” Then Carrie got the Wanting Song, in “Mister Snow.” And only then did Julie and Billy duet, in the extended musical scene built around “If I Loved You.” Yet they do not sing at the same time, emphasizing how different they are. Never before had a musical explored so much character in a single number, as these two open themselves up to each other. “Two little people, you and I,” Billy calls them—and, in a line cut in Boston, after Julie likens a passing cloud to “a lonely leaf on a big blue stream,” Billy sings, “Who cares what we dream?” It won’t be a good marriage, but it will be a love match. Blossoms are falling all around them, coming down on their own. “Jest  their time to, I reckon,” says Julie. She’s talking about herself.

       Carousel is filled with music in a way few such shows are, one reason it has always tempted opera singers; the very first “crossover” recording was a Carousel in 1955 with Robert Merrill and Patrice Munsel. The centerpiece of this vitally personable score is Billy’s big scene near the end of the first act, called simply “Soliloquy,” proof that, in Carousel as not necessarily in Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein made the very term “show tune” inadequate. “Soliloquy” isn’t a tune at all, but rather a musical process that follows Billy’s thought patterns as he considers his coming fatherhood. The music jumps from one idea to another, from melody to melody, Moderato, Allegro (at “My boy Bill…”), Con Moto, confident and secure till Billy realizes that the son he’d be comfortable with might instead be a girl—too tender, too easily hurt, like Billy himself, but without a man’s ability to put on a bold front. The music almost breaks apart, then recovers for one of Rodgers’ loveliest melodies (at “My little girl…”), by which time Carousel has made a complete break with the way Rodgers and Hammerstein realized character development in Oklahoma!. That show’s cowboys and farm girls sing show tunes. Carousel is opera by other means.

       One of its most arresting novelties is its use of the musical’s Second Couple, traditionally mischief makers in the line of Mozart’s Papageno and Papagena or Puccini’s Marcello and Musetta. The First Couple tends to the romance, while the other two bicker, sing comic songs, and pass sarcastic remarks about everybody else on stage. Carrie and her Mr. Snow, however, are in Carousel to elaborate its view of social class. Carrie is a spirited girl, but Snow is a narrow-minded stuffed shirt—a bore, really. You don’t get a lot of those in musicals. He does seem to love Carrie, at least when they’re courting, but the only thing that truly excites him is his plan for a sardine cannery. Carousel’s action spans some fifteen years, long enough for the Snows to produce nine children—but he is as tiresome as ever. “Turn your eyes away, Junior!” he cries, when he and his eldest happen upon Carrie singing a naughty show tune.

       Thus,  Snow is a foil to Billy, who is robust and fascinating but unreliable. Snow, great husband material by comparison (if only on the material level), sucks the  oxygen out of everything. Comparing them, we see why Billy is a scapegrace: he‘s the revolution against all the Mr. Snows, the “big people.” Snow represents that authority and those rules, and Billy defies them because they are set up, he believes, to further the agendas of the Snows of the world, to keep the “little people” down.

       One of the key innovations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical play is the powerful sense of community the form conveys, in Oklahoma!‘s frontier, Allegro’s small town, Me and Juliet’s theatre people. Billy and Snow outline for us Carousel’s social cross-section, as the former lives in a state of reckless liberty while the latter can’t wait to get bricked up in the wall of bourgeois propriety. In between them are Julie, who throws herself into the arms of destiny, and Carrie, who chooses her future more carefully. Yet who is happier in the end? There is no easy answer. Except for the daughter Billy feared to raise, Julie is alone. Carrie has plenty of company, with Snow and their nine little snowflakes. Yet that revision of Molnár’s ending, with Billy’s ghostly appearance at his daughter’s high-school event and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” wants us to feel that, somehow or other, love has triumphed, even over death.

       Much of Carousel is not just beautiful, but fun: the cue for the clambake number is a girl’s crying, “Look here, Orrin Peasely! You jest keep your hands in yer pockets if they’re so cold.” Though it originally ran only two years (to Oklahoma!’s five), it was Rodgers’ favorite of his own shows, and has become known as the richest score of all Rodgers and Hammerstein. Besides its abundant emotional impact, it is filled with musical echo texture, as a theme from one number will turn up in another. Thus, Billy borrows “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” at the start of the “If I Loved You” scene; and the girls’ “Give it to ‘em good, Carrie!” in the ramp-up to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” reappears just before “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.”

       There is as well the almost sociological nature of the music, as if the authors had interpolated folk songs—the sea chantey “Blow High, Blow Low,” the hymnlike “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the sorry wisdom of “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone,” which sounds like one of those popular poems credited simply to “Anonymous.” There is something timeless, terrifying, and marvelous about Carousel, another reason why it is unlike the basic and even logical Oklahoma!. The latter is about how a territorial community prepares for statehood: through compromise, as outlined in “The Farmer and the Cowman (should be friends).” But Carousel takes us into the hereafter to try to comprehend how destiny works. If this is a musical, it’s a musical on the grand scale.

       For his part, Ferenc Molnár loved it, even the new hopeful ending. Perhaps he appreciated the way it affirmed his view of “little” souls with big feelings, people like you and me, who simply don’t matter to the Mr. Snows who run the world. Who cares what we dream?

      

Sunday, February 25, 2018

THE MUSICAL CHICAGO


My book on the Fosse-Kander-Ebb show has just been published, so I’m promoting it with a Q & A interview:
 

Q: All right, what about this format of a single book about a single musical? It’s a thing now, from Show Boat to Hamilton. I don’t mean those puff books mostly on the big pop operas, but rather the interesting, unauthorized critiques such as Jim Lovensheimer’s volume on South Pacific. And of course that show is a musical play, not a mere musical comedy.

 

A: There’s nothing mere about musical comedy—Of Thee I Sing, Anything Goes, Pal Joey, On the Town, Guys and Dolls. All classics.

 

Q: But is there a book in them? South Pacific at least has all that intense character interaction. And there’s the Michener novel, Mary Martin, the race thing. And that hot guy in the movie in the Seabees scenes whose dick was always pushing out of his pants. With Chicago you have just one work—

 

A: It’s six works: a play; two movies, silent and talkie; a musical; a movie musical; and a major revival both faithful to and different from the original play.

 

Q: Aren’t they all the same story, though, over and over?

 

A: No, because in the first movie (directed by Cecil B. DeMille, by the way, though he is not officially credited), Amos, who wanders lonely as a clod in the musical, is the hero of the piece. He’s a hunk, too. Then, in the talkie, Roxie—Chicago’s main murderess—is innocent. (SPOILER: So who dunnit? Amos.) And while the musical follows the play rather closely, there’s all that turbulent Fosse staging to explore. The way he tells a story can be more important than the story itself.

 

Q: Is that generally true of him?

 

A: To an extent. One of the most forgotten masterpieces in the musical’s history is Redhead, a Fosse-Verdon collaboration of 1959, with a spectacular staging—just a complete surprise in what it was doing, all the time. Although I was very young when I saw it, I remember it quite vividly, especially a moment in the big Dream Ballet (musicals had them then; now they have characters from Act One playing their own relatives in Act Two, which hopelessly confuses me) when Verdon flew out of the stage left wings ten feet in the air to land in two gypsys' arms. The entire house all but shouted in shock.

 

Q: Redhead a masterpiece? Really? Then why isn’t it revived?

 

A: It was a masterpiece of staging, not of composition. And it did go Tony-crazy. It won everything but Best Usher.

 

Q: So there’s a lot of Verdon and Fosse in your book? Fill?

 

A: It isn’t fill. It’s panorama. Readers want more than a palette of data. They want background, anecdotes, the color of everything. For instance, there are two great American myths associated with the Chicago plot line.

 

Q: Sex and snuff?

 

A: Chicago the city and the 1920s the era. You can’t comprehend the atmosphere Chicago dwells in unless you know what the Queen of the Midwest and that giddy decade meant to Americans when Chicago the play first appeared. The theme is lawless anarchy as the ultimate American quality, whether in Chicago gangsters or the average citizen’s defiance of Prohibition.

 

Q: And here I thought we were going to get fizzy stories about the Weisslers’ revival cast running around in vampire-prom mesh and Fosse the lover of women and so on. Didn’t one of the replacement Billy Flynns last less than a week? I heard that one of the Spice Girls went into the show and interpolated a Spice selection—did that happen? And isn’t it true that Maurine Watkins, who wrote the play that started it all, became a loony born-again something who refused to let anyone musicalize it?

 

A: That’s a false tale apparently started by the man in charge of the rights to Chicago. Watkins, a member of the Disciples of Christ from birth, wasn’t loony or a born-again anything, and her beliefs had nothing to do with her feelings about Chicago. And get this—she arranged in her will for Fosse and Verdon to buy the rights to make their Chicago after all.

 

Q: Revisionism!

 

A: One thing this format—as you call it—does is clear away the misleading decorations of legend. And of course there’s lots of snark and humor in my book. But the main thing is to try to explain why Chicago, so unlike the classics—The King and I, West Side Story,  The Music Man, A Chorus Line—has turned into such a major title. The Weisslers’ version threw off countless productions internationally, and in New York it has been running for twenty years.

 

Q: But every musical is unlike the classics—and the classics are all unlike one another.

 

A: Yes, but they all believe in something, while Chicago appears to be nihilistic. That’s why it was very uncomfortably admired when it first appeared.

 

Q: Yet we like it now?

 

A: The times have greatly changed. Now people understand what Fosse was talking about—the complete lack of morality in the ruling class and the news media. Then, too, Chicago is edgy satire, and you never know how the public will react to satire. Audiences prefer spoof, parody, loving take-offs.

 

Q: Hasn’t the musical been satiric right from the start?

 

A: Musical comedy, as opposed to operetta and the like, was always sarcastic and irreverent. But there was no evening-length satire till Strike Up the Band, a look at capitalist war-mongers, in 1927. It closed out of town.

 

Q: Ha! George S. Kaufman said satire is what closes Saturday night.

 

A: In Philadelphia—and Kaufman wrote Strike up the Band’s book. It got to Broadway in 1930, though.

 

Q: In a gentled-down book, right?

A: That’s another false tale. I got my hands on the 1930 rehearsal script (it’s in the Library of Congress, where the Gershwins’ collection resides), so I compared it with 1927. I assure you, 1930 is just as scathing as 1927. What saved the show was star comics and an improved score.

 

Q: What are some other satires? Mame? It mocks the pretentious, the bigoted, the conformists.

 

A: Mame has no evening-long target. Further, Mame doesn’t have a satiric score, which is a key element—songs that blatantly toy with theatrical realism in, let’s say, a semi-Brechtian way. Chicago has the pastiche “vaudeville” numbers in the style of Sophie Tucker, Bert Williams, Zez Confrey, Eddie Cantor, and so on.

 

Q: Who’s Zez Confrey?

 

A: It’s in my book. Of course, not every satire has that sort of “distancing” score. Finian’s Rainbow is a satire, but its score is made of standard story-and-character numbers, with some romantic ballads. And satire doesn’t really have room for romance. Yes, Strike Up the Band has the First and Second Couples. Even The Cradle Will Rock and 1776 have romances. But Chicago doesn’t.

 

Q: Is that true of the Watkins original?

 

A: Yes—but the silent has a romance.

 

Q: Okay, one last question. Is Chicago a classic?

 

A: Barry and Fran Weissler’s accountant thinks so.

 

 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

BROADWAY CAST ALBUMS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED


NEW FACES OF 1956 
 
In the days of the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’s Scandals, and the Music Box Revues, the variety show was Big Broadway fare, associated with powerhouse productions and major performing talent. Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, the Astaires, Marilyn Miller, Eleanor Powell, and Josephine Baker were among the many who headlined in revue in the 1920s and 1930s, and only in this particular form could you take in Beatrice Lillie. She appeared in book shows now and again, yes—but her unique comedy so baffled the organization of a story-and-character show that (at least until High Spirits, near the end of her career) she had to be set free in the looser form.
 
Lillie was still holding forth in the 1950s, in a posthumous Ziegfeld Follies, but by then the original-cast-album was controlling the way we perceive the quality of musicals. This revealed the salient weakness of revue: it didn’t make for good home listening. A cast album is a narrative above all. It isn’t just songs: it’s an exploration of how people feel and what they do, which gives us a lot of sheer there to enjoy. The storyless revue, on the other hand, doesn't take us anywhere.
 
Variety revue was on the way out by then anyway, supplanted by the television versions of the form. Still, Victor had a solid hit in New Faces of 1952—in my youth, it was almost as essential in the record library of my friends’ parents as My Fair Lady—and Victor must have had high hopes for New Faces of 1956 in turn. In the end, the show eked out a faltering half-season’s run, no one bought the album, and the title itself was admitted to Purgatory and never mentioned again. 
 
It’s an amusing listen all the same, mainly because the cast is filled with firecrackers of the kind we’re poor in nowadays. Some producers are valid judges of talent: George Abbott. Some producers are terrible judges: Robert Whitehead. The originator and lifelong producer of the New Faces shows, Leonard Sillman, was one of the valid ones, and while the cast takes in Maggie Smith (yes, she sings), Virginia Martin (later of How To Succeed and Little Me), T. C. Jones (a drag-queen interlocutor doing Tallulah Bankhead), and Jane Connell, it also had two of the best singers in Broadway history, Inga Swenson and John Reardon. The latter is a shameless oversinger, pouring out tons of voice as if tomorrow were The Day the World Ended. He goes bizarrely Caribbean in “The White Witch of Jamaica,” which manages to be fine art and wholly camp at the same time.
 
The funniest number, somewhat weakened on disc as much of the humor was visual, is “Isn’t She Lovely,” a lampoon of a Ziegfeldian “bring on the girls” number complete with staircase. The ladies were in crazy costumes (one, made of what looked like oranges, was falling apart as she moved) and the Roscoe kept flatting. Marshall Barer and Dean Fuller, who wrote the number (New Faces always had anthology scores) and are known today for their collaboration with Mary Rodgers and Jay Thompson on Once Upon a Mattress, were specialists in spoofing both high and low culture—there’s one line in Mattress’ “Normandy” that almost nobody gets because you have to be familiar with The Vagabond King to place its joke. Murray Grand’s “April in Fairbanks” (“I know I’ll never leave it…alive”) is another in this line, topped by Jane Connell’s trademark high B. There’s a gay reference in it, too, very rare for the time.
 
The New Faces of 1956 cast album is of historical note, too, for while the LP boasted sixteen cuts on its only release, Victor had actually taken down eight more numbers, including a sketch, “The Broken Kimona,” that poked fun at the art-house cinema obsession with Japanese movies, doing an American western in Asian accents. The extra numbers turned up much later on a bootleg LP with a plain white sleeve, but my Indiana friend Matt made me a two-disc New Faces of 1956 CD with a cover using the LP art, as if Victor itself had produced it. Only two copies of this treasure exist, and it looks so authentic that I can’t show it to fellow collectors or they’ll have envy heart attacks.
 
Among these extra numbers is a favorite revue genre, in which a song sets up a dramatic context that is then developed through choreography. Here it’s “A Doll’s House,” a screwy guignol about an unloved little girl (Swenson) with a fabulous toy. After a confrontation with a pushy urchin, the girl retreats into her self-protective shell as Sillman’s dancers treat us to a view of life in the dollhouse.
 
One of my favorite theatrical footnotes concerns this show. Jimmy Sisco, one of the new faces, was a skinny devastato with apple-red hair who knew how to have a good time. Though no face could be called “new” after appearing in one of these shows, Sillman found Jimmy so irresistible a talent that he hired him a second time for the next entry in the series, in 1962—billing him as James Corbett—and even gave him a semi-nude moment in a take-off on ladies’ health spas. I solemnized the event in the picture insert of my book on the sixties musical.
 
 
KEAN 
 
Speaking of books: I’m supposed to be plugging my next one, on the musical Chicago. But it won’t be out for months, so let’s move right along to another Broadway form as retired as the variety show, the period operetta filled with opera-weight voices, la-di-da diction, and Irra Petina. Actually, Petina wasn’t in Kean, from the Dumas play (and its Sartre adaptation) on the  early-nineteenth-century English actor, and except for Alfred Drake the performers are not really familiar Broadway people. Lee Venora was a fixture on the Big Sing circuit; she was virtually America’s Tuptim. But  Joan Weldon, the Other Woman in the plot, was so little known at the time that she doesn’t even qualify as a has-been. However, both sound terrific, and Drake was such a ham that he was always in his element in shows like this, with Shakespearean input, backstage antics, and an elevated cultural atmosphere along with the costume romance.
 
The songwriters are Robert Wright and George Forrest, using their own tunes instead of, say, those of Henry Purcell and Arthur Bliss in the Kismet manner, and the music is dense with invention. You can play this score ten times and still discover things you’d never noticed before. Some of the numbers remind me of what Ethel Merman so doubtfully said when she first heard “Rose’s Turn”: “It’s kind of an aria, isn’t it?” There’s even recitative in Kean (and a Willow Song), as if it were the opera version of a musical, and there’s a big orchestra, too. Really, the whole thing is compelling. On the one hand you have “Sweet Danger,” restless and passionate, with a terrific climax for Drake—it’s actually the song’s reprise, which Columbia smartly tacked on to the number as it is first sung—and, on the other hand, “To Look Upon My Love,” a comic spot for Drake’s legato undercut by his valet’s clipped patter. There’s even a jazzy de-dum-de-dum in the brass at the end.
 
True, we have to put up with “The Fog and the Grog,” one of those forced “show-stoppers” that the cast sings with their heads thrown back and their mouths locked in Pied Piper smiles, to show you what marvelous fun you’re having. But otherwise Kean is not only great music but a fascinating story—it's that cast-album thing again, about how book shows sing the narrative to us. When, this show asks, does the star actor stop acting and just live?
 
 
BRAVO GIOVANNI 
 
I guess we’re doing vanished Broadway genres, for this one is a zany musical comedy with a complicated storyline and nothing on its mind. It was never meant to succeed big-time with a major tour, a film version, a Random House text, and plenty of interest from high-school thespians. This wasn’t a show destined to rule the world. Instead, the public would be amused on a basic level, the show’s mediocrity lifted by chance creativity—ingenious choreography, perhaps, or a funny book, or getting the show-biz know-how that makes it play like a smash.
 
Bravo Giovanni got none of those except the dancing, laid out by Carol Haney. Worse, the show had not just an implausible plot but an idiotically implausible one. It would seem that someone thought America’s burgeoning fast-food industry would provide a useful novelty and, presumably because the show was to be built around the opera singer Cesare Siepi, the setting was contemporary Rome, where Siepi, a restaurateur, tunneled through the earth to steal food from a franchise, which made his trattoria a sensation. What, serving fast food? In Italy?
 
And so on, but Bravo Giovanni did boast two fine romantic leads. Siepi was a looker with a rounded bass tone and great musicality. His sound was a bit succulent for musical comedy, but the ingénue, Michele Lee—still nineteen on opening night—supplied the lean belt we love in Broadway vocalism. Her establishing number, “I’m All I’ve Got,” is a sizzler (the CD release includes her single of it as a bonus), and her sultry ballad “Steady, Steady” should have become a standard.
 
Siepi and Lee had the best numbers, and everyone else, all comics, had the dumb ones, often on themes that were quite passé  by then, though the score was nominated for a Tony, losing to Oliver!. There’s even a New Dance Sensation for Maria Karnilova in “The Kangaroo,” possibly the last of a kind that was by then nearly three generations old. Actually, everything about Bravo Giovanni was old except Michele Lee, and that was the show’s drawback. True, the plot was something new. But all else was over-familiar, and the authors were not marquee names. Composer Milton Schafer wrote only one other show, Drat! The Cat!, and lyricist Ronny Graham was known more for performing and also contributing to the New Faces revues. It’s unlikely that Bravo Giovanni will ever turn up at Encores!, so the CD is one’s only chance to sample the music with a full orchestra—and the scoring, by Robert Ginzler, is imaginative. My blurb is ready: “Better than Il Divo—A Musical Affair. Fight to get tickets!”