Thursday, November 21, 2013

A TURANDOT DISCOGRAPHY

I don't know why it took me so long to appreciate the 78 set (Cetra, 1938). Yes, the sound is antique. But Gina Cigna commands Turandot's Hippodrome vocal line as few can, Francesco Merli (one of the  Calafs in the opera's first La Scala season) is impetuous and heroic, and Franco Ghione conducts most stylishly. Was I disappointed in the Liu, Magda Olivero? I'd seen her on stage, a mesmerizing Adriana Lecouvreur, Fedora, and Tosca. But Liu isn't a mesmerizing part. She's a teenaged slave with no cultural breadth, musically speaking a pure lyric soprano of the most basic emotionalism. Then, too, the set cuts Turandot's all-important review of how she changed from hating men to loving Calaf, "Del Primo Pianto." Anyway, whatever my reasons, I now think of this performance as what Italians call molto valido, meaning quite good if not brilliant.

Though born in France, Gina Cigna was Italian, but Turandots tend to come from the North. So Inge Borkh played her for Decca, in 1955, with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, presciently recorded in stereo though first released only in mono (because nobody had stereo playback equipment in 1955). Though not generally admired, this is a wonderful set, not least in the conducting of the overlooked Alberto Erede. And Decca's engineers really got all the orchestra detail into one's speakers as they didn't have to with the more ordinary scoring of an Aida or Andrea Chenier. Del Monaco is his usual rowdy self, but Calaf is pretty rowdy in the first place, jetting from reason to obsession and from tenderness to fury without transition. Tebaldi is at her best despite the part's limitations, for Liu really is a one-note character. The problem here is Borkh. She's got the voice, in her more or less constipated Germanic vocal production, but she never soars.

Even Maria Callas (EMI) fails to distinguish herself (except in "Del Primo Pianto," when the opera is virtually over), though she had sung the part on stage years before. One thinks of a great Norma--which Callas was--being a shoo-in as Turandot, but the roles are widely divergent, not because Norma has a coloratura line to maintain as well as dramatic power, but because Puccini's orchestra-and-chorus setting is vast compared to that of Bellini. The proportions of sound are different. Further, Turandot often has to dialogue expansively in the upper register whereas Norma's high lines generally slip down to the middle voice fairly quickly. Consider: Beverly Sills and Renata Scotto were able to sing Norma; they could not possibly have gotten through Turandot.

EMI's opera chief, Walter Legge, disdained theatricality; he even resisted stereo as a vulgarity, so, two years after Decca taped in stereo, EMI is trapped in mono and, even remastered on CD, lacks the percussive punctuation that magics the piece up with opera's equivalent of the CGI effects in science-fiction movies. Yes, the gongs, xylophone, and so on are there. But they don't resound. Tullio Serafin's conducting is always praised, but the sonics obviously put him at a disadvantage, and the Calaf, Eugenio Fernandi, was one of the first of the postwar "too much too soon" casualties. His lyric instrument strains to keep up; Calaf is really just a shorter Otello. True, Fernandi rises to the optional high C in the Riddle Scene. Still, the air of a balladeer in Ivanhoe's armor is inescapable. I saw Fernandi in an Aida in New Jersey near the close of a tattered career; in "Celeste Aida," just before the last note, a high B flat, Fernandi suddenly cried, "Maestro, non posso piu!" as if he were Liu getting tortured, and fled the  stage. (Unlike Roberto Alagna more recently, at La Scala, Fernandi promptly came back.)

What's odd about the Callas Turandot is that its Liu is both miscast and the best thing in it. It's Legge's wife, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, so established as the ultimate Kunstdiva of the finely etched Lied, the super-inflected character study, that the very timbre of her voice threatens to present the song stylings of Hugo Wolf. Schwarzkopf sings very beautifully, and, as always, devises unique line readings. Her "piutosto morro" (I'd rather die) just before "Tanto Amore, Segreto" is wondrous; for once we realize that Liu isn't just a victim of circumstance but the driver of the plot resolution, determined to enlighten the apparently affectless Princess on the animating wonder of love, then to die for it.

But that's the problem: we expect not a knowing but a naïve Liu, just as we believe Turandot should be a termagant, with--says Italian opera critic Rodolfo Celletti in Il Teatro d'Opera in Disco--"a pinch of sadism" and "sounds of power, convulsion, tearing, strangling." That doesn't suggest Joan Sutherland, the Princess of the 1973 Decca reading, with Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballe, and Nicolai Ghiaurov under Zubin Mehta. However, Sutherland did command an extremely ample instrument; first-timers at a Sutherland performance at the Met were invariably shocked that a Lucia and Gilda so filled the house with tone. We should say as well that Mehta makes the most of Puccini's percussive glitter; once again, Decca's engineers did a beautiful job in catching it all. And Pavarotti, unlike other lyric Calafs, is comfortably ecstatic and quite grand, with a stupendous tenuto on that optional high C, the best one on disc.

In fact, the performance is a great one, and you hear it two minutes into the continuity, when Calaf stumbles into his father and Liu. It's an extremely innovative scene, as operas of this kind favored Entrances for their leads--think of the way Musetta, Scarpia, Butterfly, and Minnie (to keep to Puccini's characters) appear. Or Turiddu or Paolo in Francesca da Rimini. However, Timur and Liu don't Enter: we pick them out of the crowd commotion, and then some guy is suddenly embracing Timur--ha! it's Calaf, though we don't hear his name till five minutes before the final curtain--and the three of them start giving us the opera's expository scene while remaining totally in character. That is, they don't say anything they wouldn't be saying to each other, at that moment, in exactly the way they say it. The realism rivals Clifford Odets--and Puccini was not always so suave in getting essential points across. Again, think of Tosca, also two minutes into the continuity, when the tenor also recognizes the bass. But in Tosca, he gives the audience a heads up: "Angelotti! Il Console della spenta repubblica romana!" (Which amounts to, roughly, "Oh, that's the former chief of the democratic entity of Rome, overthrown by fascists, and I'm a democrat, too, so I'm going to get into big trouble very soon!") This is librettospeak, telling not what the character would say but what the audience has to hear to keep its place in the action. In Turandot, however, Calaf has been separated from his father and he doesn't know who Liu is, so their "who what where and when" conversation, while feeding the public necessary information, is utterly naturalistic. I've always felt that, if this offbeat scenelet pops, you're in for an unusual Turandot, and this set qualifies all the way through. Perhaps it's because Mehta's tempos are a hair faster than everyone else's, keeping the cast on its toes. Or because Sutherland conquers the uncongenial character by rooting her in not Wagnerian skyriders but the bel canto heroine. Rodolfo Celletti thought Sutherland's "fragility is the psychological identity of her Turandot"--that she is, as she says, the reincarnation of the "sweet and serene" Lo-u-Ling. Celletti found Sutherland not unequal to but innovative in the role--and she does get off a wrathful "La speranza che delude sempre" (Hope, that always disappoints) after the first riddle.

Caballe attained to the title role for EMI with another lyric tenor, Jose Carreras, and, one would think, the ideal Liu in Mirella Freni. But the set is as disappointing as hope is--and what are we to say of Herbert von Karajan's version (DG, 1981), with Freni as Turandot? Okay, it's not Freni, but it is a lyric soprano, Katia Ricciarelli. At first, she seems surprisingly able, pointing up the opening of "In Questa Reggia" with a pensive, regretful nostalgia. Then the bold high lines cut in and Ricciarelli struggles. By the aria's end, when she has to sing the same notes on "L'enigmi sono tre" (The riddles are three) as Placido Domingo, Ricciarelli's stringy soprano sounds totally unfit. Paltry, even. From then on, this is Wagner without his Valkyrie.

Yet the set compels for the conducting. This is late von Karajan, with the finesse and the artisanal miking and the emphasis on lush vocalism over theatricality. The first act's choruses are spellbinding here, with vivid readings of "Muoia!" (Let him die!) and "La grazia!" (Mercy!)--yes, from the entire ensemble at once--and the first scene of Act Two, in which, normally, three unimportant singers do nothing for fifteen minutes, is a high point. Of course, von Karajan bans entirely the buffo aspect that is supposed to inform the scene. Italians often refer to Ping, Pang, and Pong as "the masks," because they stem from commedia dell'arte, the world of stereotype character comedy, with the actors in masks that define who they are. In a way, Puccini's trio comes from the same source as the cutups in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum. But von Karajan never did have a sense of humor. He does, at least, open up the scene's two standard cuts to reveal pages we almost never hear turned. It's good music, too.

Before we get to Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli, the Flagstad and Melchior of a later age, we should consider two excerpts, one of live performances at Covent Garden in 1937, with Eva Turner and Giovanni Martinelli (EMI), two of the biggest voices of the day. Of particular interest is Josephine Barstow's superb reading, with Lando Bartolini, of the final duet in Franco Alfano's original completion (on Opera Finales, Decca). Puccini had died, and his sketches didn't give Alfano enough melody to justify the rather lengthy dialogue, so he had to add in a little Alfano. This infuriated Toscanini, La Scala's music director and CEO in particular of the Turandot premiere, a Puccini memorial. But while Toscanini forced Alfano to authenticate his setting by deleting all music that wasn't Puccini's own, Ricordi rushed the first vocal score into print with Alfano's first ending. Thus it survived, and it even turns up in stagings. Robert Carsen used it in a production in Antwerp in 1992, a novel Turandot all around, with a naked Prince of Persia (not the typical proud royal but a bewildered boy) and no Altoum: just a gigantic chair, his lines voiced by the chorus.

Nilsson made two studio sets (Victor, EMI) and appears in numerous live transcriptions. Her partners vary. Now it's the gleaming yet stodgy Jussi Bjoerling, now Giuseppe di Stefano, another lyric unable to resist this ultimate glamor role. Nevertheless, the Nilsson-Corelli pairing was always electrifying, and I find them at their best at La Scala in 1964 (Myto, Opera d'Oro, Memories), with Galina Vishnyefskaya under Gianandrea Gavazzeni. One reason why is a heady sense of occasion, for the audience is clearly keyed up, and its reactions are as much a part of the show as the performing forces. Vishnyefskaya's "Signore, Ascolta!," most unusually, is as much acted as sung--forcefully, at that--and it stops the show, getting not only an ovation but calls for the bis (an encore). Then, too, the masks' scene, led by veteran buffo Renato Capecchi, brings us back to tradition, Capecchi absurdly rolling his Rs and separating syllables with bite in mock-tragic manner. As the performance progresses, we note that Vishnyefskaya continues to give Liu a kick of aggressiveness the public isn't used to, and while the Timur, Nicola Zaccaria, is no more than a worthy voice--that fascinating first scene always went for nothing in Zaccaria Turandots--this is definitely a performance of occasion.

And that's because the two leads are at their utter best. Rodolfo Celletti  called Nilsson's Turandot "apocalyptic," which is why no opera buff can navigate this work without her; and Corelli, this night, oversings shamelessly, grandstanding on the big lines and caressing his pianissimos as if they were frightened kittens. His "Nessun Dorma!" receives an explosion from the house, and from then on all three principals are working at white-hot intensity. Only the cutting of "Del Primo Pianto" mars the event.

Choose only one? I don't think one can, as the Sutherland set is too good to miss but Nilsson-Corelli is essential opera history. I'd say get both, for this is a work that repays close investigation. Its libretto is outstanding even in the verismo era, one noted for texts so good that they sometimes outclassed the music (as with Mascagni's Il Piccolo Marat). And Puccini, horribly underestimated as an artist, outdoes himself in this work above all. True, the last LP side (so to say) was compiled by another. Still, the version we almost invariably hear is drawn entirely from Puccini's sketches. Toscanini saw to that. The conductor could be petty and stubborn, but he was one human who saw large, and he knew that Puccini represented something irreplaceable in music, in Italy, in civilization. That was why he was so hard on Alfano. Turandot, Toscanini thought, must be completed not as if Alfano had completed it: as if Puccini had completed it.

Some years ago,  I happened to mention to my friend Erick that Verdi was one of the two greatest composers of opera. Erick, to secure an ambiguity, asked, "And Wagner is the other?"

I blew it. I should have said, with an air of surprise, "No, Delibes!"

It was Wagner, of course. But now I think they should broaden the top lineup from two to three and include Puccini as well. The work, the arc, is that splendid.







 

Friday, October 25, 2013

BARBARA COOK

So this friend of mine has a new buddy, and it looks like True Love--which, translated from the gay, means they have at least three weeks to go before the final breakup. There's one problem: the two have almost nothing in common. My friend cultivates the interests typical of a Manhattan nightboy, which includes a fascination with theatre, movies, and music. Prospective taxi drivers in London can't take  the wheel until they master the city's street plan, from quaint alleyways to thoroughfares. Hop in and ask for Fertile Crescent or something and they have to know how to get there. It's called "The Knowledge." Similarly, urban gays have our own Knowledge, running roughly from Katharine Hepburn to "Defying Gravity"--and my friend's new pal couldn't keep up.
 
As my friend put it, "He doesn't even know who Barbara Cook is."
 
And that says a lot, because Cook is one of the central figures in the gay Knowledge. This is not only because of her gifts as singer and actress, but because she became prominent in the 1950s and 1960s, when the incipient First Generation of Stonewall Culture was growing up and playing cast albums. The men who were to create gay style in the 1970s (and eventually become opinionmakers in the field of musical theatre, as professionals and civilians both) got their intellectual bearings on Candide, The Music Man, The Gay Life, and She Loves Me, in all of which Cook was the heroine. More important, most of Cook's shows were written under the influence of Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose first rule of composition demanded more from heroines--and heroes and even sidekicks--than had been traditional in musical comedy before Oklahoma!. Plotting now called for romances with bite against a background theme of some kind. Good News!, in 1927, did have a background theme, college football, but it was atmospheric rather than sociological; and the romance was just another wallflower meets Lochinvar. The Music Man, however, gives us a background with rich potential: the inborn resistance of Iowa townsfolk to anything from outside their very narrow culture, including the use of books as a source of pleasure rather than for a few useful facts. It is almost--merely almost, I say--as if book reading were meant as a metaphor for sex, as if the notion of "Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac," cited as dangerous in the town ladies' "Pickalittle," really stands for a defiance of social cautions that will end in erotic chaos. And Cook's role, that of town librarian (in other words, the devil's henchwoman) and piano teacher (another subversive line of work, as advocate for art, which poses riddles that make life unstable) is thus far advanced from the days of Good News!. Marian Paroo is a nonconformist, a genuinely dangerous identification in small-town society, and she's feisty, too, as when, trying to stall a traveling salesman who intends to unmask the music man as a con artist, Marian pretends to be her very opposite, an anything-for-kicks coquette:

          MARIAN: I never met a man who sells anvils. That's something...well...quite
          different.
                                                                      ......

          CHARLIE: What am I doin'? I miss that train I'll get fired! And I got to leave word
          about  that fellow Hill!
          MARIAN: Leave word with me.
          CHARLIE : Not on your tintype. How do I know you'd deliver these letters?
          MARIAN: Try me. (Grabbing his lapels, she plants her lips on his. It is a long kiss.
          The  train grows louder. She struggles free, wipes her mouth in disgust, and points.)
          MARIAN: There's your train! Now run for it!





Then, too, the songs that Cook's characters sang provided sturdy foundations for her plangent yet determined lyricism, a vocal style she really could call her own. She wasn't just a wonderful voice as such. She was a presence. Her Heroine's Wanting Songs wanted as the genre had never wanted before. The Music Man's "My White Knight," with its pensive arioso abutting ecstatic musicality, is a real character study, with eccentric details enlivening the resume of her ideal man. He, too, will have to be a nonconformist, "not ashamed of a few nice things" and at times wondering "what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great." Further, The Gay Life gave Cook "Magic Moment," a boldly sensual piece echoing the surging chromaticism of Wagner's mythmaking Tristan und Isolde. And, for all that, Candide turned the format inside out in "Glitter and Be Gay," which renders Cunegonde as flighty and grandiose by using her as an engine of operatic spoof. In fact, the target is the very contrapositive of Tristan, Gounod's myth-diminishing Faust.

Thus, Cook arrived just in time to take command of the first generation of musical-theatre heroines who had a genuine story to tell. Had she been born a generation earlier, she might well have made her career in shows like Good News!, and would have been just as forgotten as its sweetheart lead, Mary Lawlor, is today. Yet Cook was not, at the time, the absolute headliner, because her ability to disappear into her characters was at odds with the star's practice of proclaiming oneself through one's characters--Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, Ethel Merman in Gypsy, or Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, say. (Though Cook starred in Funny Girl on the summer music-fair circuit in 1967, opposite George Hamilton and with Jean Stapleton as Mrs. Brice. This appearance can fairly be called "legendary," as apparently no one in the entire gay theatergoing community of the era claims to have seen it.) But then, stars are crazy people, and Cook wasn't. She naturalized everything she did, so that She Love's Me's "Where's My Shoe?" and "Ice Cream" scene, when she's taking a sick day in bed and receives  a visit from her  nemesis and (unknown to her) pen pal, Daniel Massey, seemed the most realistic ten minutes in the whole show. It has its farcical side, as Massey tries to wrestle her out of getting dressed for work. But then, alone, she confuses her letter writing with thoughts about Massey, rising to a brilliant high B natural. Somewhere in there, she gets in a crying scene, because she is both drawn to Massey and resentful of him. (It's a musical-comedy tradition, and, in the musical play, Oklahoma!'s Laurey and Curly offer a classic example.) A very touching moment, it anchors what till that point was simply an engaging cliché. Now, suddenly, they are involved, whether she likes it or not, and "Ice Cream" tells us that she likes it. Yet I remember Cook saying, somewhere or other, that the scene became so routine to her that after a while she had only to glance at the bedclothes to start weeping, Pavlov-style.

So Cook became restless. She tried straight plays, but that still wasn't what she needed--and Barbara Cook without singing is Anna Karyenina without Vronsky: the story is missing. Cook had to retain the music but lose Cunegonde and Marian Paroo and just be herself. So she returned to the first work she had found when she arrived in New York at the start of the 1950s, as a cabaret artist. From small rooms she was graduated to Carnegie Hall, and the recording of the event reveals how utterly relieved she is to be able at last to make her music in the character of Barbara Cook, and to range widely through the field of popular song. Subsequent albums bring her to Janis Ian, Carol Hall, Harry Nilsson, Judy Collins, Burt Bacharach, even a comic specialty, "The Ingenue," written by Cook's music director, Wally Harper, and David Zippel. One album is called It's Better With a Band, implying that her band is free of the fussy storytelling responsibilities of a Broadway pit; another disc, As Of Today, tells us that this is the now! Barbara Cook, liberated from having to pretend to be someone else, in the Broadway manner.

Ironically, the Carnegie Hall CD is mostly show tunes--but Cook sings them her way, emphasizing the unique tang of her delivery. In "Wait Till You See Him" (re-pronouned from the original Rodgers and Hart By Jupiter number), on the line "Wait till you feel the warmth of his glance," Cook shimmers intensely on warmth, getting inside both word and note to experience that heat, and in the second chorus she grabs hold of the Wait, making it a command. It's not Broadway singing any more--and in  She Love Me's "Will He Like Me?,  she is far more vivid than she was on the cast album. "He's  just got to!," she cries, and one senses the audience at one with her sentiment, for their cheering, preserved on the disc, is more than love: it's understanding.

We should note, too, that Cook's arrangements throughout the concert phase of her career are superb, imaginative and personalized as, of course, Broadway could never be. "Sweet Georgia Brown," on It's Better With a Band, jazzes up the joint with a freedom and an above all musical expertise that, again, would outrage the etiquette of a book musical, wherein songs must match each other in flavor and color lest the show mar its unity. Back at Carnegie Hall, the old Hollywood number "Glad Rag Doll" turns epic, as Cook opens with "Poor Little Hollywood Star" (from Little Me), then waits as the orchestra slithers into an eerie-carnival quotation of "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" to lead into the song proper, a lament enlivened by xylophone, wawa brass, and whorehouse piano. Yes, enlivened: it's radiantly sad, and Cook lets out a chuckle after she finishes, while the audience explodes. After all those cult musicals--the flops that thrill the gay heart because there is valor in making art of every kind and posing those riddles--Cook found her true calling by walking in her own shoes. Like one of those London cabbies, she knew how to get there.

             

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

THE WALKING DEAD SEASON THREE

I post mainly about the musical, but, as this blog's title implies, my survey takes in the arts in general, and television is especially interesting, because the best dramatic writing in America in this era is found in such shows as The West Wing, The Newsroom, and The Good Wife. By "best" I mean not only spiffy plotting and cagey character arcing but the sheer raving joy of smart talk. When the dramatis personae take in the hyper-educated brainstormers of the political, broadcasting, and legal cadres (as in the three series cited above), the author of any given episode must command the unique speech habits and attitudes of some dozen individuals, each one brilliant in his own way. That calls for dramatists with something like genius, which we get all too seldom in live theatre nowadays.

I just finished streaming The Walking Dead's latest season on Netflix, an ideal way to take in the zombie apocalypse, because you can gobble the whole thing up in  a few sittings and thus avoid suspense withdrawal. Better yet, the series reached its peak in this third-go-around, because the first was lumbered with uninteresting characters (though the sequence at the CDC was arresting, not least for its Goetterdaemmerung finale) and the second got bogged down on that stupid farm. One friend of mine put it well when complaining of all the personality interactions that overwhelmed the farm sequence. "I don't want to get to know these people," he said. "I just want to see zombie fights." And yes, I am addressing this post to those who have already seen The Walking Dead, so the uninitiated should stop here, because this is an all-spoiler read.

The third season, unlike the first two, rests on a narrative structure that tightens the action: a classic "war between the states" set-up between the communities of the prison and Woodbury. Better yet, the series' protagonist, Rick (Andrew Lincoln, who for some reason is English, though he never fails in his southern articulation), finally got an opposing figure worthy of his own stature, the spectacularly evil Governor of Woodbury (David Morrissey, also English). Before, Rick's only nemesis was his best friend and secret rival in love, Shane, definitely a villain but a tidy one, treacherous on the personal level, the small scale. And the atrocious Merle, another dangerous figure, supplied character color more than anything, as an openly destructive force who, when not outright homicidal, lives to irritate and irritates to live. He creates a bristly dramatic contrast with his younger brother, Darryl, personally somewhat distant to everyone but, as an action hero, utterly intrepid--exactly what you want in your lifeboat when you've been shipwrecked by zombies.

The Governor, on the other hand, raises the story conflict to the level of Wotan and Alberich in Wagner's Ring operas: two individuals fighting for world order. Outwardly jovial but in truth a ruthless monster, the Governor will not live in peace with his neighbors. He is Grendel, or American Psycho Patrick Bateman, or Hitler--or simply a mortal version of the zombies themselves in that you cannot negotiate with beings of this kind. You kill them or you die.

It's an unlikely lesson for television to teach. Except for clearly demarcated exceptions like the anti-terrorist series 24, TV tends to understand the enemy, forgive the enemy, even deny that there are enemies in the first place. It's a sixties worldview, a Stockholm Syndrome approach to the chaos of global engagement. And yet TV has been presenting exemplars of pure evil from its very beginnings, in westerns, cop shows, and the like. It knows what an enemy is. Thrill narratives can't do without villains--and not those "misunderstood" villains. Villain villains, because they give good story. The villain is always the best part; Jean Kerr's little boy came home unhappy that he had been cast as Adam in a Garden of Eden pageant. Why unhappy? Isn't Adam the lead? And Kerr's son said, "The snake has all the lines."

But Rick has been suffering a mental breakdown for some time, taking phone calls from and getting visions of people who aren't there. Did The Walking Dead's showrunner need to aggrandize Rick's stature as a hero by compromising his effectiveness? It's the invention of Kryptonite: now Rick will be more vulnerable and thus more interesting, and his battle with the Governor will take on even more suspense. Unfortunately, one of Rick's breakdown symptoms is an inability to answer questions promptly. Instead of responding, his gaze clouds as he wonders and suffers. Siegfried, the hero of the Ring, is interesting without this problem, but then he does live in an untextured world, with nothing but gods, giants, dwarfs, Rhine maidens, and a few stray mortals to worry about. Nevertheless, Rick's failure to pick up his cues quickly takes up so much running time that one longs for that Broadway wizard George Abbott to drop in on The Walking Dead's out-of-town tryout for a quick-me-up.

In fact, pausing and vacillating is a curse of this otherwise fascinating series. Its realism in the telling of fantasy is so persuasive that we really notice when the show breaks its own rules for effect, as when, near the end of the farm sequence in Season Two, Rick and his young son (Chandler Riggs, surprisingly able for his age) were walking back to the farmhouse at dusk, unaware that an army of zombies was right behind them. Obviously, the aim was to captivate the viewer with the dread of impending terror--but the show had established that zombies make louche gurgling noises when they're stalking prey. Here were a hundred of them, and Rick and his boy don't hear anything? Besides, aren't these people, living as they are in a world without a single safe place in it, always looking over their shoulder?

There's a lot of that in The Walking Dead: conversation when instant action, not words, is required; Method hesitations; dense psychological flutterings when it's Run for Your Life. This is a cast of Hamlets. We had an appalling instance of it in the very last episode so far, when Andrea, tied to a chair, was locked in a room with the dying Milton (Dallas Roberts, versatile enough to switch from the nerdy Milton to the effervescently irritating gay brother in The Good Wife). Milton had left a tool for her to use to escape from the chair before he "turned" and attacked her. If this were real life, she would be frantically taking steps to free herself. Instead, the show wanted her to complete her character arc, and she wasted time doing a zombie-apocalypse Liebestod: show love, reflect upon death, sympathize, cringe. Earlier, Andrea had had a chance to kill the Governor, and failed to take it. Yes, she was sort of in love with him. But she knew the world cannot survive its Governors. Of course if she killed him the story would be over--a lame motivation in a show that strives for naturalism in a most unnatural genre. And what did Andrea's time-wasting scena with Milton get her? She didn't get out of the chair in time, and he killed her.

There really is a shortage of sensible characters in The Walking Dead. The two outstanding "rational actors" are Glenn (Steven Yeun), who saves Rick from certain death in the second episode, thus making the series' continuity possible, and Carl, Rick's son, only ten years old when the series began yet sharp enough to accommodate the innovative survival tactics of a world in which to err is death. There's a brief but pivotal scene in the third season's final episode, after the Governor's attempt to kill everyone in the prison ends in a rout. One fleeing bad guy runs into three of the good guys, one of them Carl. All are armed, but the good guys, outnumbering the bad guy, order him to drop his rifle.

He doesn't. Let us remember that he has only just come from a murderous assault on these people. And, instead of surrendering, he more or less appears to be lowering his rifle very, very slowly, giving every indication that he's trying to lure Carl into a sudden turnabout. He even says, "Take it"--the old trick of distracting you so he can kill you.

Well, this isn't a "more or less" world any more. It isn't an "it appears" world. It's an "all or nothing" world. And when you're told to drop your weapon, you drop it or you are a mortal threat. And Carl is young but Carl is smart: he shoots the bad guy dead.

Now it's good. But one of the those with him in this incident is the old farmer (Scott Wilson, who, incidentally, murdered the Clutter family with Robert Blake in In Cold Blood and Gatsby in the Robert Redford remake of the Fitzgerald classic), who now sounds the pacifist's distaste for self-defense. He thinks Carl should have...what? Let the bad guy control the situation? Kill them all? It's impossible to know what The Walking Dead thinks of this character, because he's sort of a white-haired sage in style, yet he has in fact been a clueless idiot from the get-go. Are we supposed to agree with him about what Carl did? The farmer actually "tells on" Carl, complaining to Rick about the event, and Rick--who of course has been losing it throughout the series in any case and lacks the clarity to judge his own behavior, much less Carl's--third-degrees Carl as if the farmer were the ethics police.

Worse than the farmer's surrenderism is Rick's stunningly incorrect decision to make a deal with the Governor. As I've said, you can't negotiate with the devil--and this deal requires Rick to hand Michonne (Danai Gurira) over to the Governor for a revenge killing, certain to be a ghastly, drawn-out death. Is Rick suddenly that stupid? You don't stop Hitler by giving him Czechoslovakia. Again, you kill him or you die. Further, Michonne is a viewers' favorite, the last one you want to see sacrificed. Her tight-lipped, save-the-day resourcefulness makes her one of the series' outstanding figures.

I felt The Walking Dead ripped itself apart at this turn of plot (even though Rick ultimately changed his mind), because the show seemed to draw a moral equivalence between Carl's stopping a menace and Rick's willingness to give Michonne up to torture-murder. There is no equivalence. Carl chose to do what was necessary. Rick chose to do what was unnecessary, also barbaric and pointless. The fanatic, whether zombie or Governor, never stops coming at you. You kill him or you die.

 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

GOLDILOCKS

The problem with the history of the musical is: there's too much of it. Boiling it down to a single volume, the historian has to juggle all the forms from the minstrel show to the jukebox musical; throughline the development of comic opera through operetta to the musical play; assess the scores; parse the librettos; observe the stars; isolate the key inventions. This is not to mention the fun bits, as when Trevor Nunn forced Patti LuPone, in the London Les Mis, to play not only Fantine but a smelter in a crowd scene--"not even knowing," she confides in her autobiography, "what a smelter was." ("Smelter": noun denoting a performer who screams at audience members who take photographs during show time.)

With all that to cover, one has little room left for the fun flops. The prestige flops of course take pride of position--Candide, for example, though it's hard to call a show with a bestselling album and countless revivals a failure. It's the flops that vanished that don't really "place" in a one-volume chronicle. I just finished writing one of these one-volume histories of the musical, and even with 322 pages of relatively small print and tight letting I found little space for the fun flops. I had other assignments, really: trying to give the reader a vivid idea of what The Black Crook was like, finding new things to say about Show Boat, considering the role of free will in Sondheim's shows. By the time I got to Wicked, Women On the Verge Of a Nervous Breakdown, and Bonnie & Clyde, I had used up all my allotted space. So there was no room for Goldilocks.

All right, I slipped it in somehow, but if you blink you'll miss it. So I'm doing it here. When Charles Dillingham's personal theatre, the Globe, reopened, in 1958 as the Lunt-Fontanne, its first tenant was The Visit (with the eponymous pair). But its second was Goldilocks, set in the early silent-film era, when Fort Lee, New Jersey, was the location capital of the world. As originally set up, Goldilocks was to feature a Novelty Star, Barry Sullivan, as a movie director scheming to make a D. W. Griffith-like spectacle. Opposite him was Elaine Stritch, presumably to achieve career breakout as a musical-comedy lady forced to work in one of Sullivan's shorts just when she had planned to get out of show biz to marry socialite Russell Nype. Sparks would fly between Sullivan and Stritch, but romance would bloom as well, leaving Nype to pair off with ingénue Pat Stanley as the indispensable Second Couple.

Indispensable, that is, in a  conventional musical comedy, which Goldilocks was. The Novelty Star, who materializes as a song-and-dance personality after little or no such experience, was already a feature of the fifties musical, after Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Barry Sullivan had achieved second-division renown in movies and television because he was very tall, good-looking in an odd way, and vaguely menacing, which seemed to suit the character opposite Stritch, a cinema visionary but a conniving scoundrel. The character demanded an actor with strength and a bit of the rough about him, not at all the usual musical-comedy leading man. I imagine they tried Robert Alda first, because he fit the bill and, as everyone knew from Guys and Dolls, he could sing. Barry Sullivan possibly couldn't, because he left the show during the tryout, replaced by Don Ameche, who was a bit light for the man's hard edge but, in the end, quite wonderful. Still, this was typical musical-comedy casting, even if Ameche had done most of his singing in Hollywood. And in its plot structure  and constant toggling between full-size sets and smaller sets, Goldilocks was like many another show of its time.

Yet it had its eccentricities. For one thing, Leroy (pronounced Le-roy) Anderson was known for not theatre scores but a form that has now died out, the piano novelty piece. Zez Confrey's "Kitten on the Keys" might be its most famous title just for the piquant picture it paints--and of course the thematic visual is a key feature of the piano novelty: each one was a little tone poem. Anderson's titles clearly suggest a subject: "Sleigh Ride," "The Phantom Regiment," "The Syncopated Clock." And we should note that these piano solos were even more popular when orchestrated. It happens that Anderson was a lifelong admirer of the musical and eager to compose one himself. He got his chance on the aforementioned Wonderful Town, but something went wrong, and I've never found a satisfying--or, at any rate, complete--explanation. The prevailing version holds that Rosalind Russell didn't like the songs Anderson had written with lyricist Arnold B. Horwitt (a revue specialist, though he did write the lyrics to Plain and Fancy, one of the better book shows of the day), so Betty Comden and Adolph Green were called in and they brought Leonard Bernstein along. But what exactly was Russell's complaint? And was any of Anderson's music recycled in Goldilocks? All the songs, including the cut ones, are copyrighted in Goldilocks' 1958, not in Wonderful Town's 1953. Was nothing to be salvaged?

In any case, Goldilocks' score is wonderful, not only tuneful but keenly characterized in all four leads; it would make a dandy Encores! concert. A few of the songs (and the dance music, though it's credited to Laurence Rosenthal) have the sound of Anderson's novelties, especially "The Pussy Foot," a New Dance Sensation with a ragtimey chromatic riff so snazzy that it was used to open the show's overture. And here's an oddity: the book and lyrics were the work of Walter and Jean Kerr (and Joan Ford, whoever she was). Yes, that Walter Kerr. The storyline was the show's least original element, though there was one very funny goof on the one-reel western, as Ameche directs a recalcitrant Stritch, who constantly erupts in sarcasm. Her cabin is under attack by Indians, and she must wire for help on the telegraph gizmo. Yet she hesitates:
                      
                    AMECHE: What are you waiting for?
                    STRITCH: I'm trying to keep it under ten words.

The show's choreographer was Agnes de Mille, which already put the production on the must-see list, and the set designer was Peter Larkin, who seemed to fit one spectacular visual into every big show he worked on. No Time For Sergeants featured a sequence set aboard an airplane in flight, followed by a scene in the sky showing the parachuting of Andy Griffith and Roddy McDowall (sharing a chute), and The Rink took place in a big, dark arena that, at the show's climax, magically rose up into the flies. Goldilocks' special effect was the final set, something like the Babylon we see in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance, an astonishing pile of brick and feathers. Larkin is known to Broadway legend for his own private I Hate Jerome Robbins story: preparing Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Robbins needed to get permission from the original designers of the anthologized shows in order to use their sets and costumes. When Robbins called Larkin, the latter said, "I've been waiting thirty-five years to tell you to fuck yourself."

All told, Goldilocks was a generic show put on by individualists, and Elaine Stritch was perhaps the most individual of all. As my readers must know, she is renowned for her tart, blunt, unapologetic persona, which we sense is not a portrayal but a reality emanating from her real-life central nervous system. Stritch was an original, to be sure--just the sort to play Melba in the 1952 Pal Joey revival. You may recall Melba as the journalist who interviews Joey while making it clear she doesn't believe a word he says, topping off her scene with the mock-strip number "Zip." And of course Stritch was perfect as Company's Joanne, another one who not only sees right through phonies and idiots but lets them know it. A kind of mean-girl sophisticate, Stritch was something new in the line of musical-comedy heroines, who are expected to maintain at least a touch of sweetness. Give Stritch Albee or give her death: I saw her Martha in the matinee cast of the first Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? production, and she was terrific. But musical comedy plays by different rules than Albee does.

Yet the Kerrs' book (Joan Ford collaborated on the lyrics only) wrote Stritch's role for that tough Stritch persona. Bickering sweethearts was a musical-comedy cliché, but Stritch's war with Ameche's character anticipated her acerbic Company lines:

                     STRITCH: (trying to get rid of him during their first scene) Take your
                     horrible hat and get out of here!

and, when he tells her that she really likes him and doesn't know it:

                     STRITCH: After that stuff begins to wear off, how do you feel--depressed,
                     nervous?

till, finally:

                     STRITCH: You represent what I've been surrounded by all my life. You
                     are a common, on-the-make, hustler.

The score, too, was bent to Stritch's independence and power. When Goldilocks began its tryout, her establishing song was "Guess Who," in a backstage scene with the chorus girls of the musical we got a glimpse of when the curtain went up:

                       When Cupid's little dart went off,
                       Guess whose heart went off
                       On a spree.

But that didn't sound like Stritch, even if she was goofing on the tone of the lyrics. The number that replaced it, "Give the Little Lady (a great big hand)," emphasized Stritch as a standalone figure, singing of her coming marriage while possibly not belonging to it. Yes, the lyrics are positive:

                        So, you take the gay time,
                        For me, it's gonna be P. T. A. time.

but the music, marked Vivo (animated), suggests not a woman in love but a woman on a rampage, too spirited for anything as tidy as wedlock.

Some might say that Ethel Merman really introduced this independent and at times abrasive strain into the musical--and Stritch understudied Merman's role in Call Me Madam and played it on the post-Broadway tour. But Merman could project vulnerability; the Cole Porter torch song was one of her genres. Goldilocks gave Stritch a torcher, "I Never Know When (To Say When)," and she sang it well. Of course: Stritch sang everything well. But one never quite believed the moment, because it failed to match the rest of the role. The standalone heroine is so unusual that she needs an unusual amount of support from the show's structure, as she gets in, say, Marie Christine or Wicked. Then, too, the unconventional romantic lead doesn't belong in a conventional show, with the cultural and emotional limitations it presents. It would be refreshing to discuss this in a one-volume history of the musical, but there isn't room. Such topics are niche evocations, more suitable for books of their own.

 

Monday, August 19, 2013

THE TELEVISION MUSICAL

I remember the all-American excitement attendant upon the telecast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella on CBS in 1957. The cast album came out a week before the show was to air, and, as with such earlier Columbia recordings as Kiss Me, Kate,  South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, families risked losing membership in the middle class if they didn't secure a copy. The very small Pennsylvania town we lived in was culturally modest, and my friends' parents not only passed on the disc but possibly didn't even see the show itself.
 
(My mother thought them riffraff because they ran the radio all day, tuned to a religious station that interspersed Bible panels and spiritual programs with country music. So I grew up thinking that Pentecostals were somehow connected to the Grand Ole Opry.)
 
In the precincts that maintained a sound relationship with the higher midcult, however, a new musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein with Julie Andrews was not only irresistible but prestigious. Call it Identification Leisure, a way of explaining who you were, like a New Yorker subscription or a complete set of bitters for the bar, from Orange to Old Fashioned Aromatic.
 
Cinderella 's gestation lay partly in capitalist competition, for CBS was trying to outdo NBC's smash presentations of Mary Martin's Peter Pan, in 1955 and 1956. But note a strategic difference: while both shows reveled in the boldface names of Big Broadway--Martin and Andrews, along with the Hook of Cyril Ritchard; Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sir James M. Barrie; and Jerome Robbins, Peter Pan's director--Cinderella was a TV original, conceived for the kind of space the home screen was most comfortable in: small. The show looked all crammed into itself, whereas Peter Pan was roomier, working in geography comparable to the stage of the Winter Garden. And it was filled with the intricate foolery that a High Maestro like Robbins would invent for it. Thus, in the building of a tiny house during "Wendy," Martin supplied a door simply by painting one on, and the children then merrily paraded out through it...and of course the doorknob had been painted on the wrong side. It's one of those charming touches that routinely decorated the best musicals back then; Cinderella lacks them. But then, its director, Ralph Nelson, was  a stager of not Broadway musicals but videos, and because TV was live, the preferred approach called for as few props and tricks as possible. Simplicity, economy, clarity. Props and tricks are like trained dogs: they work great except when they don't.

We seldom get musicals on TV today, but in the 1950s they were core curriculum. There were adaptations of old shows from Naughty Marietta through Panama Hattie to High Button Shoes, but  the networks presented new compositions as well, usually based on something more or less familiar--Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Women, A Bell For Adano, The Canterville Ghost, Androcles and the Lion. Broadwayites did a lot of the writing. A Bell For Adano  offered songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, The Canterville Ghost tapped Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick in their heyday after She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof, and Androcles and the Lion boasted more music by Richard Rodgers. This was when he was writing his own lyrics, in that era after Oscar Hammerstein's death and before Rodgers voyaged into the world of unattached lyricists like the Flying Dutchman, seeking a redemption that he never quite won. (See the post on the BMI Workshop, below, for more on this.)

While putting together the bibliographical essay for my new history of the musical, Anything Goes, I suddenly noticed that while historians now regard Hollywood musicals as not a gloss on but closely linked to the stage form, they never discuss the comparable TV shows.

One reason is that, till recently, almost none of them was readily available. Still, it seems bizarre to expand chronicle to cover, say, a purely cinematic creation such as Singin' in the Rain while ignoring the Aladdin with which CBS succeeded Cinderella, commissioning its score from Cole Porter. This is not even to mention the Kiss Me, Kate and Wonderful Town with their original stars, events that gave the nation a chance to sample Broadway performing style at first hand.

The casting of these TV shows can be fascinating. NBC's Meet Me in St. Louis, drawn from the MGM adaptation and a two-hour special in 1959, used a movie cast, with Jane Powell and Tab Hunter (who got top billing) in the romance, Walter Pidgeon and Myrna Loy as the parents, Ed Wynn as Grandpa, and, lo, Jeanne Crain, formerly a bigger star than any of them, as the older sister. (Tootie was Patty Duke, half a year before she got a hit play, then her own TV show and a cult movie classic, for which she has continually berated the rest of us for not feeling her pain.) Ruggles of Red Gap, with a score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin, drew on opposing show-biz mediums, with the Shakespearean Brit Michael Redgrave in the title role; the Hollywood Brit Peter Lawford; Imogene Coca, known then for her work on TV with Sid Caesar; David Wayne, who straddled Broadway and Hollywood; and Jane Powell again, along with Joan Holloway, Gwen Verdon's replacement in Can-Can, to introduce a New Dance Sensation, the "Kickapoo Kick." (One lyric runs, "People do it when they want to be gay.") Sometimes casting simply exploits a TV attraction. Feathertop, a spooky piece with a score by Mary Rodgers and Martin Charnin, starred Hugh O'Brian, who was going freelance after six years playing the lead in Wyatt Earp. Here he was opposite Jane Powell, the Laura Osnes of TV musicals: she was in everything. Feathertop was taken from one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales of the occult; O'Brian played a scarecrow brought to life. Amusingly, the show, which aired a week before Halloween, was sponsored by the Mars Candy Company.

The most garish casting of all has to be Mickey Rooney in Pinocchio. Somehow the sight of Rooney clacking and freaking as a human puppet strikes terror in the heart yet has a peculiar logic all its own. Call it heterosexual camp. Rooney's support was quite a miscellany: Fran Allison (of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie) as the fairy, Walter Slezak as Gepetto, Sondra Lee as Slezak's cat, and Stubby Kaye as the Town Crier, with the best number, "Happy News" (because "the circus is coming to town!"). The villains were former D'Oyly Carte patter star Martyn Green and Jerry Colonna, who was famous for holding high notes longer than anyone else on the planet. There's something batty about all these second-division people spanning the performing arts from puppet shows to Gilbert and Sullivan, and the whole package is tied up by the participation of the eccentric dance team of Mata and Hari.

Pinocchio was one of the few TV musicals to get a cast album. The score, by Alec Wilder and William Engvick, is barely passable, and authenticity is compromised by the substitution of the suavely baritonal Gordon B. Clarke for Slezak. Further, like almost all its kind, Pinocchio didn't have enough music for a twelve-inch LP, and sought to fill out the running time with narration. It goes on forever, and, worse, it's by Rooney himself, putting on various voices and aided by sound effects. Perhaps I'm just the wrong audience for this. Rooney warns us at the start that Pinocchio is a tale "for children and people who used to be children." That lets me out.

Another movie star got his own TV musical, though it was actually filmed and, indeed, has the look of a movie: Van Johnson in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. This one is for children, period; it's the Barney and His Friends equivalent of a musical--in rhymed dialogue, no less. When the Piper offers to cure Hamelin of its rat infestation, a skeptical villager asks, "Can you send them on their way?" And the Piper replies, "With the music that I'll play." Alfred Drake had starred in a Marco Polo using the melodies of Rimsky-Korsakof, and Van Johnson must have said, "I'll have what he's having," because The Pied Piper uses the melodies of Grieg. True, Song of Norway had got there first, and it's odd to hear Johnson sing "Flim Flam Floo" to music we already recognize as "Freddy and His Fiddle." We also realize how creative Robert Wright and George Forrest were in crafting their Norway score, because they made a wonderful ballad, "Strange Music," out of Grieg's "Wedding Day in Troldhaugen" by using only the outline of the main theme. Here, the Grieg is used, as the opening chorus, very much as it was written, and it doesn't really work with words. Nor does "Anitra's Dance" (from the Peer Gynt music), which the Piper uses as an establishing song:

                     In Araby with just a tiny trill I
                     Slew a million toads...

It's a relief to turn to the Broadway adaptations, because even if the ninety-minute format meant cutting out much of each score, the songs were top in class to start with--and the casting tended to favor theatre specialists. The 1944 Bloomer Girl, for all its inquiry into race relations and feminism and its once-famous Civil War Ballet, has an uninspired book, and it's fascinating to see how Broadway pros, each in his own way, enliven it in a 1956 Producers Showcase airing. Barbara Cook and Keith Andes star, so the show--recently made available on DVD--preserves the way in which fifties sweethearts played the usual love-plot back-and-forth of deepening fondness and bickering worldviews: they bond the antagonisms in the songs. A surprising amount of the score was retained, too, even the second-act opening, "Sunday in Cicero Falls," with its own antagonisms of churchgoers and the rebelliously cynical Cook. Best of all, Agnes de Mille restaged her ballets, using at least some of "her" dancers--James Mitchell, Lidija Franklin, Robert Pagent, Virginia Bosler. Even Paul Ford, playing Cook's reactionary father, was to enjoy a relationship with the stage musical: he took over as the mayor in The Music Man (and filmed it) and went on to Whoop-Up, though he isn't on the album.

One of the very best of TV's Broadway is Annie Get Your Gun, from 1957, with Mary Martin and John Raitt. They're perfectly cast. It's fun to see what a good actor Raitt was--not psychologically dense but utterly one with the character--and because Annie's libretto is so good he doesn't have to finesse the dialogue the way Keith Andes does, over at Bloomer Girl. As for Martin, she more or less invented TV Broadway in that aforementioned  Peter Pan, and she owns the screen. I've seen high-strung Annies, more-acting-than-singing Annies, and Ethel Merman's Lincoln Center "Am I still doing this?" Annie, which was lively, but, I have to say, somewhat automatic. Of them all, I think Martin was the best, because the rococo warmth with which she made love to her public partnered up precisely with Annie's odd blend of ignorance and spunk. Lou Grant hated spunk, but the rest of us love it, and Martin's Annie had it. Moreover, she's actually working before a live house: NBC presented this Annie with an audience on hand. Perhaps the reason we don't have TV musicals any more is: we don't have the bigger-than-life talent to put them over.

 

Friday, July 26, 2013

THE LEHMAN ENGEL BMI WORKSHOP

I was fresh out of college, new in New York, and oddjobbing in the arts. On one gig, I music directed a community-theatre production of Good News! in Queens, and the show's producer, a pleasant young woman named Norma, told me about a seminar in writing musicals taught by Lehman Engel at Norma's day job, Broadcast Music Incorporated. Originally a composer and later a published theorist on how musicals work but most celebrated as a superb conductor of Big Broadway, from Kurt Weill and Harold Rome to Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne, Engel was well known to me. Through Norma, I auditioned for the class.

I'm sure it's more competitive now, after class alumni have given us Nine, Titanic, A Chorus LineRagtime, Little Shop of Horrors, Raisin, Avenue Q, next to normal,  both Wild Partys, and others too few to mention. But back then, composers simply played a couple of tunes and lyricists unveiled their rhymes. It helped to be male and cute, because Lehman was old-school gay, and he had an eye. Of course, he never made a move on anyone; it was strictly no-fault cruising. But he played favorites, and fortune does favor the charming.

Most interesting to me were Lehman's constant asides on the practical side of showmaking, based on his personal  experience. Here's one example: Edwin Lester's Civic Light Opera, a long-established outfit on the west coast that put on Broadway-comparable productions of shows both old and new, had asked Lehman to music direct Wonderful Town, one of his old credits. But, he said, Lester liked to take shows that worked and figure out how to make them not work, and for Wonderful Town he proposed to cut "A Quiet Girl."

True, this draggy piece is not everyone's favorite Bernstein ballad. But it's the show's one genuinely romantic number, essential in securing an emotional throughline for what is essentially a loveless satire. It serves also to amplify Ruth's character track, though of course it's sung by her vis-à-vis, Bob. The song tells us that Ruth's difficulty in enchanting men lies not in her looks or intelligence (as she believes) but rather in her directness, her lack of what we might call girlish tact. It's men who are supposed to be blunt. Women should be...uncommitted. Ruth has grown up thinking her prettier, unintellectual sister has all the power. Ruth's wrong: she has the power. That's the problem, at least for some men. So "A Quiet Girl" is a gem in the line of theatre writing, because it conveys essential information to the audience even though the one who's singing doesn't quite understand his own perception and the one he's singing about is utterly in the dark. That is, the play is telling us what the characters can't--and learning to write like that was what Lehman's class was all about. So Lehman told Edwin Lester,  No cut or no Lehman.
 
The way the class worked was: in the first year, we had to write a ballad for our imaginary musicalization of A Streetcar Named Desire, a charm song for The Member of the Wedding, and a comedy song for Come Back, Little Sheba. I was a composer, and my lyricist partner, Bruce Sussman, was a close friend of Stephen Sondheim. This was right in the middle of the Sondheim-Prince era, and Sondheim was the class' official god, so Bruce's access gave him bragging rights and he mentioned Sondheim often.  There was so much little night music in the air when Bruce was around that a friend of mine dubbed him "Bruce Sondheim."

Bruce dropped me as being too old-fashioned and took up with a composer I thought very gifted. They worked on an adaptation of Invitation To a March, very Sondheimesque in that Arthur Laurents wrote it and Sondheim himself composed the incidental score. But Sondheim heard their songs and told Bruce to lose the composer. I thought that a mistake, but who says no to God? Bruce ended up writing lyrics for Barry Manilow. (Full disclosure: I did, too, just once, on a song called "On the Way To the Rest of My Life." I still have Manilow's rough tape of it somewhere. It never got recorded.)

In the second year, we were supposed to start work on our own shows, performing the score number by number as it was written, then submitting to critique from the class, followed by Lehman's comments. Therein lay a problem. Obviously, some of the workshoppers were very motivated, or where did Titanic and those Wild Partys come from? But some others never seemed to contribute anything and their lack of overall musical culture was staggering. One day, Lehman thought to enrich our perspective by playing some operatic selections, and as each one began he challenged us to name the piece. I was the only one who knew any of them, and I say this not to pin a medal on myself but to decry the class' lack of sophistication, because these were all Opera 101 cuts.

The senior class members, like Maury Yeston, and the juniors, like Michael John LaChiusa, would no doubt have placed the music. But my own classmates were a largely clueless bunch. One of them had never even been to the theatre. Not that year. Ever. And one time he went to the upright to offer not a new piece but "Send in the Clowns" with his own lyrics, about a pilot lamenting an earthbound plane as "Get Off the Ground." It was so stupid you could call it spectacular, especially as he played by ear and bungled the more nuanced harmonies. But it was a slow news day, and Lehman was indulgent.

The best aspect of the workshop was the showcase, an end-of-term revue in which we got to accompany professional singers performing our own material in a theatre before an audience. One songwriting team was regarded as the class stars, though in the end they did not punch out professionally (Ron Field's term, used as in "Mary Martin punched out singing 'My Heart Belongs To Daddy'"). At the time, though, we all thought they would steal the showcase, not least because one of the singers Lehman hired for their sequence was an outstanding vocalist in the Ethel Merman-Dolores Gray line. She was also an eccentric, and known to be hard to get  hold of. I asked the composer of this duo if he had any trouble contacting her, and he said, "No trouble, man. You just let the phone ring ninety-nine times, and on the hundredth ring, she answers."

Lehman got mad at me on my first showcase. We had to give Norma our bios for the program, and to me your bio was like your underwear: you have to jazz it up to make an impression. So I claimed to have written the commercial jingles for Candy Mu and Mlle. Dainty Wipe-Me-Cleans, Norma set it into type, and Lehman had a fit. But Bruce Sondheim loved it.

"What is Candy Mu?" he asked, his arms wide to express his wonder and thrill.

"It's the epic of Candy Mu," I replied: a response but not an answer, which is the best way to treat direct questions.

Anyway, the true high point of the whole BMI Lehman Engel thing was the day that Richard Rodgers came to visit. Lehman had warned us to be ready to march up to the piano and perform our Best Song, because Rodgers--then near the end of his career, though he had two scores left to unveil, Rex and I Remember Mama--wanted to hear the state of the art as evinced by Lehman's protégés.

Rodgers was very frail and scarcely spoke at all. Still, what an honor to pound out your own accompaniment to your own (hideous) singing of "Advice From Animals," a number from your musical version of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure! Bruce Sondheim tried to waylay me with the suggestion that we render our ballad for A Streetcar Named Desire, "Stella Says." What, after you dropped me? Out of my way, has-been.

Later on, I told a friend about Rodgers' visit, and complimented the great man on taking an interest in the next generation. "Mt. Rushmore," I noted, "pays tribute."

"You dope," my friend answered. "He's scouting for his next lyricist. He's already run through three of the greatest [meaning Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim] and he doesn't know who's left."

Oh, yeah? Then it was wise of him to come to us, because Lehman's class succeeded in the most amazing way. He gave the ambitious among us work experience and audience exposure. He produced the musical's next-generation leadership cadre. He let us sing to Richard Rodgers. And that was a great day.

 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

THE CLASSIC ETHEL MERMAN STORY

Sometime in the 1950s, Ethel Merman was talking show business with Russell Nype, who had played the jeune premier with her in Call Me Madam and remained a close friend long after. Looking back on a stage career that had given her a more or less unbroken string of hits; Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin standards that "belonged" to her; and the longest-running star turn in the history of the musical, over two-and-a-half years in Annie Get Your Gun with just one six-week vacation, Merman lamented her failure to crack Hollywood in a truly important way. If she had been Big, she reasoned, they would have cast her in the Annie movie.

"Russell," she asked, "what do I have to do to get hot?"

Most of the stage musical's stars failed to punch out in Hollywood. Merman's only rival in her era, Mary Martin, had been a glamor sweetheart at Paramount early on, but she didn't achieve true renown till she reinvented herself as a tomboy madcap in South Pacific. Everyone says Broadway's women stars had a camera problem: their auditorium-filling charisma banzaied the screen. But that's only part of it. The elementally eccentric personalities of the stage--the heroines especially--were too offbeat for Hollywood. The movies liked their sweethearts neat, while Broadway relished a fizzy cocktail. Elsie Janis, Adele Astaire, Louise Groody, Gertrude Lawrence, and even Marilyn Miller (to a degree) exploited a rich blend of qualities from zany to flirty. The movies' ideal heroine was Judy Garland, humorous rather than zany and less flirty than direct and lovable. And it was Garland who was cast as Annie instead of Merman, though during production the role was recast with Betty Hutton, a kind of sleeker unit of the zany model.

Ethel Merman wasn't zany or flirty, but she was eccentric. She played not sweethearts but broads, distinctly urban after the middle-American honeys the musical had been preferring. They came from Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska; Merman was a birthright New Yorker. She was brusque and fearless, and librettists wrote her I.D. into her scripts. Here's her entrance in Du Barry Was a Lady, as nightclub queen May Daly. The lovestruck Bert Lahr has directed the chorus to shower Merman with roses when she appears:

           GIRLS: Here she comes!
                        (Merman enters, girls throw roses)
           AUDIENCE: (clapping, murmurs of welcome, thrilled mooing)
           MERMAN: (holds pose, waits for applause to die down from 7 to 3, then:) What
                         the hell is this?

Never did Marilyn Miller and her kind make the scene so belligerently; but that's Ethel. She also had the odd habit of freezing her opening-night performance for the run of a show. Earlier, the presentation of musical comedy accommodated bits of improvisation from night to night, and the star-comic vehicles were outright free-for-alls: it was live theatre, and audiences were used to--even expected--some goofing around. Then, in the 1930s, Merman's first decade on Broadway, directors like Hassard Short began to impose a sense of discipline on the ensemble, and stage managers policed the stage, insisting on identical repetitions.

Twenties operetta contributed to this new consistency, this (we might say) decorum of presentation, because operetta, the forerunner of the "musical play" (e.g., Oklahoma!, Fanny, West Side Story), treated its characters to more sociological narratives than musical comedy did. Class, politics, and even race played roles. Musical comedy was "The Varsity Drag." Operetta was "Your Land and My Land (will be our land one day)," a Civil War anthem on the promise of national brotherhood. And along with these weighty concerns came a need to tame the musical's disorderly side.

Merman fit right into that practice, but all the same her performing style was governed by a quixotic vivacity that had an extemporized feel. No musical star was more professional in sustaining a precision of execution yet more personal in drawing an audience into the fun she was having. She really commanded the stage. What other star had song genres all her own--the high-energy establishing number ("The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball," "[Gee, but] It's Good To Be Here"), the saucy set piece ("Katie Went To Haiti," "A Lady Needs a Change"), the Cole Porter torch song with a Latin beat ("He's a Right Guy")? In Panama Hattie, Merman's torch number, "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please," ends with a coda stripping the glass of its festive décor: "Leave out the cherry, leave out the orange..." On her Decca album of four Panama Hattie cuts, Merman sang the coda straight. But there is a bootleg of a live performance that seems to have been taken down right in the theatre. (You hear the audience at some distance from the mike, whereas on a radio check they would be prominent.) And here Merman deliberately flats the note on each "Leave," getting a laugh--and this is musical comedy in its essence, keeping the fun in trim even at a sentimental moment. That is really why they called it "musical comedy" for so long. The rise of the musical play forced a change in nomenclature to the unadorned "musical": because they weren't going to be quite so zany any more. Carousel is never zany, and most recent musical plays aren't even funny. Interestingly, when Merman did her musical play, Gypsy, she got more laughs than any Madame Rose since (as another bootleg proves). Her career really lasted through the evolution of the sheer-fun musical into the musical with subject matter: from Good News!, say, to Company.

So now it's time for The Classic Ethel Merman Story, which brings us to her famous brief marriage to Ernest Borgnine, when she was in her fifties. How she ever fell in love with that urban moose is a mystery, but those who knew her say she was utterly smitten--till the honeymoon, when all joy fled more or less overnight. The pair stayed together for a few weeks more, then split. And if this tale be true, it would have taken place in Beverly Hills in July of 1964. Keep in mind that Merman, though neither cultured nor sophisticated, was sharp and fast: intelligent in her own way.

In most versions of the story, Merman returns to the house after taping a television show. It went well, and after a glance at her happy countenance, Borgnine immediately starts snarling:

                  BORGNINE: What are you so pleased about?
                  MERMAN: Well, they just loved my thirty-five-year-old voice, and my
                               thirty-five-year-old face, and my thirty-five-year-old figure.
                  BORGNINE: And what about your sixty-five-year-old cunt?
                  MERMAN: Nobody mentioned you at all.




Monday, June 17, 2013

THE CONCEPT MUSICAL

Late in the continuity of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro (1947), the protagonist, a country doctor in despair at having turned into a Dr. Feelgood for rich urban hypochondriacs, goes into a rant about his empty life. "Is there anyone out there with a broken arm or a gallstone?" he cries. And "What the hell am I doing here!" Then, as if in a dream, his father and other folk from his youth appear to him, intoning the intro to "Come Home," and his mother appears as well, to sing the refrain and plead with him to return to the place where his work matters.

She is dead at that point in the story: Allegro was the first musical to break the limits of conventional realism, allowing characters to interact on stage when physically not available to each other in life. Carousel (1945) did this in its last few scenes, when the dead Billy Bigelow passes among the living. But Carousel's storyline has by then moved from realism into fantasy; Allegro's narration is wholly realistic. Nonetheless, a "Greek" chorus wanders through the action, observing and commenting and even addressing the hero directly. Further, people take part in scenes without being present in fact. And dead folk reappear.

This what the 1970s called a "concept musical," a term coined to describe what was happening in the work of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince: Company's gleeful ensemble irrupting into book scenes they had no role in, Follies' ghostly flashbacks, Pacific Overtures' Broadway Kabuki. Looking back, buffs of the form cited, after Allegro, Love Life (1948), Cabaret (1966), Pippin (1972), Chicago (1975), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976): shows whose effect lay more in the physics of their presentational theatricality than in the traditional narrative building blocks of character and event.

Over the years, the terminology has dissolved, and now some people define a concept musical as any show with a concept. But every show has a concept. Gypsy: the concept is Ethel Merman acts. Skyscraper: the concept is Julie Harris sings. Hit List: the concept is We're the dense dark joy of downtown and Bombshell is runny elitist goo. I prefer the concept musical's original limited definition as the show that analyzes the story while it tells the story. In other words, the concept musical is another disquisition on the meaning of "is"--the "I see dead people" musical (as with Allegro), the "We're in a musical" musical (Pippin).

Or simply the "intel inside" musical. It's interesting that other art forms were emphasizing this "commentative" composition at this time. Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy, from back in the mid-eighteenth century, is a forerunner of what is called "meta-fiction." For example, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962) consists of a longish poem and a much longer series of footnotes pretending to explain its story while erecting a demented alternate story on top of it. It's meta-nutso. Or think of the meta-cinema of Federico Fellini's E la Nave Va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983), with its opening sequence of black-and-white silent moving into sound, then into Technicolor; and its stupendous shot of the camera crew photographing the "ship" on hydraulic lifts against a "sea" of blue plastic sheets. Or the meta-television of Boston Legal, in which leading men William Shatner and James Spader would close each episode having drinks on a terrace while trading opinions of how the series was going, as if they were Ebert and Roeper.

This practice comes through most vividly in the musical, because music heightens everything. A genius number like "The Rain in Spain" electrifies My Fair Lady's first act, marking Eliza and Higgins' first emotional connection in a way that dialogue alone can't. It's one of those wonderfully rich numbers that the American musical excels in, with a text and subtext. Text: Eliza and Higgins (and Col. Pickering) are elated at their shared triumph, Pygmalion as mentor. Subtext: Eliza is attracted to Higgins' power and Higgins to Eliza's vulnerability, Pygmalion as lover.

But the wrong music, or an unclear ramp-up to the right music, backfires. Out of town, "Bill" (originally in Oh, Lady! Lady!!), "On the Street Where You Live," and "People" failed to land and were in danger of being cut till they were given a more effective narrative context. ("Bill" in fact was cut, to reappear in Show Boat.) Sometimes even a song that lands can sabotage a work, tilting it off-topic. I think "Maybe This Time," in the Cabaret film, is a wholly incorrect piece. True, as long as Kander and Ebb were in part restocking the score, they had a right to place a strong ballad. And "Maybe This Time" is a great Liza number, one tune to rule them all. But it's a terrible Sally Bowles number, because it makes of her a needy and loving soul, which is exactly what Sally Bowles isn't. She's amoral, practical, and passionless--the natural partner of Cabaret's Emcee, which is why she sings the title song, an ode to living outside bourgeois cautions and protocols. "Lady Peaceful," as "Maybe This Time" needs Sally to be, portrays someone with a heart. But it is Cabaret's remark that some of us don't have one, and that's how fascists take power.

So the Cabaret movie dulls the stage Cabaret's edgy message. But then, concept musicals don't work as movies. Almost none of the classic concept shows has been filmed, and one exception, Chicago, turned the commentary numbers into dreams. Presentational stagings can't transfer to the elementally realistic form of cinema, because theatre is non-realistic, the musical even more so, and the concept musical a slithery fantasy. That's its charm. Breaking its information into Pale Fire-like subject and footnotes, it enlightens us with the delight of theatre that knows it's theatre, showing off its shameless magic. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

AUDITIONING 101

Quite some years ago, I played auditions at everything from non-union cattle calls to invitation-only hearings on a Broadway stage. One of my most amusing jobs was accompanying all-day sessions for John Bowab, who would package a Mame or Hello, Dolly! around a single Name, to play engagements at a wheel of Texas dinner theatres--five weeks in Austin, then five in  Dallas, and so on. Monday morning: the Irene Molloys. Monday afternoon: the Barnabys. Tuesday morning...and on it went, and I was struck by how eminently castable everyone was. These were callbacks, so I expected a parade of talent--but there really wasn't an even mildly flawed candidate among the young people. (The oldsters included a few more or less feeble characters known only to Playbill's typographers, but each did claim a track record of some sort. I thought of them as would-be has-beens, since they had never attained even minor standing in the first place.) Thus, the Irenes were all cute and melodious, the Barnabys lovable and dancey. Any one of them would have distinguished the production. So how do they know whom to cast?
    
Well, there were ways to tell them apart, sort of: some actors show up ready to seize the audition as a performing spot, leaving the others to dial themselves down to about seven, as if fearing to seem too "theatrical," too brazen. It's hard to know which recommends you more efficiently to the director, especially in the drab limbo of the rehearsal hall. Then, too, some actors come prepared for anything, such as a pianist who, like me, can sight read Brahms but can neither play by ear nor transpose. One of the oldsters, up for Vandergelder, approached the piano and, with a wave of his hand, called out,  "'Walking My Baby Back Home,' in B Flat."

"This isn't a Deanna Durbin movie," I told him. "You'll have to give me the music if you want accompaniment."

(I should put in, however, that the choreographer Edie Cowan, whom you may know as "Private O'Brien from Texas" in the Funny Girl original-cast album, told me that when auditioning for a role she always asked for "Bill" in F [two-and-a-half steps below the published key], and no one ever failed her.)

Still, why take a chance? How much trouble is it to acquire the music, and, if necessary, to have someone write out--neatly!--a piano part if you need a different key? Yes, it's extra trouble; so is keeping fit and seeming happy, because directors aren't looking for dejected plops. One year, it appeared that all the young cute guys wanted to sing a certain number from The Yearling that climaxed on, I think, a top F sharp. The published sheet, however, was keyed a half-step too low, rising only to an F, which utterly lacked blitz. Naturally, they all wanted a transposition; some even wrote the higher chord symbols over the ones in the printed sheet--this in a number that restlessly prowls through Western harmony, from, like, B minor diminished curlicue 9/7 to E Major flopsy-mopsy 6/2 frammis depilatory over an M in the bass. Who's going to keep up with that?

All of which suggests Rule One: Be Ready. Bring exactly what you want the pianist to play--and don't show up with one number only. What if John Bowab says, "I'm just about to revive The Desert Song. Do you have something legit?" Wouldn't that be the moment to hand the pianist "What Good Would the Moon Be?" or the like? One of the Irene Molloys came in with a looseleaf notebook containing some dozen songs, using the commercial sheets or a transposition to a more accommodating key written out in dazzling readability. The latter were the Broadway Melody equivalent of a medieval illuminated manuscript--because, in so competitive an atmosphere, with so many potential hazards (age, looks, presence, and the usual unknown factors), why leave anything to chance? This girl and her notebook could have auditioned for anything from The Black Crook to Reuben, Reuben; she even had a country number, "Oh, Them Dudes," originally a duet for Fred Astaire and Betty Hutton in the movie Let's Dance. The word for this is "professional." Compare this with a number of the kids auditioning for the original Bye Bye Birdie who brought in "Bye Bye Blackbird," a choice that could be thought of as culturally uncluttered but must have made them look foolish. With a notebook of selections, they could have asked the usual assembled eminences what they wanted to hear.

Rule Two is Don't Sing What Everyone Else Sings. Some coaches warn that offbeat material will distract the listener, but that barrage of Yearling boys was hard to tell apart, and directors appreciate a novelty. I used to recommend "He Makes Me Feel I'm Lovely" (from Donnybrook) and "Here's To Your Illusions" (from Flahooley) for the girls and "Look Who's in Love" (from Redhead) for guys who weren't great ballad singers, because it isn't rangy and doesn't require a lot of legato. Remember, even the pros don't necessarily distinguish the singer from the song. If they like the piece--and you justify the music and lyrics--they'll like you.

Rule Three: Every Audition Matters, because one job can lead to the job that leads to  your Big Break. God, I hope I get it. Imagine, in the Hollywood version, the voiceover in the auditorium:

                         Presenting (your name here) as (Madame Rose/Harold Hill--select
                         the biologically sensible option) . . . and the crowd goes wild!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

PIPPIN

I have just returned from seeing the new Pippin revival with my friend Erick, and I am just amazed at the amount of talent on display on the Imperial stage tonight. Of course, Broadway maintains a high standard generally, but I can think of plenty of shows--Dracula was one, but there have been others--where through casting or direction the talent was unimpressive. And there are other shows where certain actors truly held the stage but the others were no more than functional. But in Diane Paulus' Pippin, the leads and ensemble all together are almost insanely spectacular in everything they do--acrobatics, dancing, acting, or simply having the stage presence that thrills and tantalizes. To pick just one example, in the original production, Fastrada's solo was a minor event, just a song and dance rather like Gwen Verdon's establishing number in Damn Yankees, "A Little Brains, a Little Talent," if less characterologically evolved. But here, Charlotte d'Amboise got a Big Number out of it, partly because the staging utilized (with a now-you-see-them-now-you-don't entrance-and-exit box) more of the magic-cum-craziness that informs this staging from first to last, but also because she just knows how to take the stage and make it hers.  The whole town is already talking about Andrea Martin's number, so I won't dwell on it here--but, really, everything in this production makes use of this extraordinary cast. The famous cliche about movies is that the camera loves certain stars. Here, the auditorium loves the players; they come alive as few ensembles do.
 
There are many changes in emphasis from the Bob Fosse original--of emphasis, not of kind. It's still the Pippin we remember. Yet isn't the episodic storyline focused as never before? The book seemed to plod once on a time; now it's intent, edging Pippin along on his strange journey to, really, nowhere. Few musicals lack, as this one does, a macguffin--Alfred Hitchcock's term for the "thing" that drives the plot. Dorothy needs to return to Kansas, or Ninotchka needs to laugh. It's difficult to keep an audience mesmerized without a kick in the plot. Yet this Pippin does exactly that, because, even more than in the Fosse original, the show is about how the work is presented rather than about what the story is about. 
 
Yes, it's another Concept Musical, as the actors address the audience or allude to the fact that, after all, they're in a show, not in real life. Andrea Martin warns us, during her singalong, that we can come in during the chorus but she gets to solo on the verses. Then, after a chorus, just before she sings again, she cries, quite tartly--because some people never pay attention--"Verse!" Meaning: lay out, guys, it's my personal space here. At the end, Patina Miller, the new Commere, gets so irritated at Pippin's refusal to play his role in her way that she strikes much of the set, pushes the players out, and shuts up the pit. No more show! It's almost as if the Concept has overwhelmed the Musical. And there's a new ending now, which closes off the narrative cyclically, a wonderful touch.
 
But where do they find the talent? How tough is it to get cast on Broadway, or in Boston, where the show originated? Matthew James Thomas is tall, handsome, fit, a fine actor, a marvelous singer, a superb dancer (when they let him, which is really only for a few moments in Act Two), and splendid company. How can one fellow pull all of that together? Many years ago, I played for auditions for shows, from Broadway to regional productions, and I was always amazed at how many of the auditioners were perfectly ready to play the parts they were up for. How can they find talent so wholly evolved? This must be why we go to the theatre: to see who the folk are who can do what we can't.