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.