Thursday, December 25, 2014

INTO THE WOODS: THE MOVIE

For many years now, I've been spending Christmas Eve with my college friends. We're a merry gang: David and Christopher, identical twins who are both opera directors; Peter, Christopher's husband, also an opera director; Matthew, an opera impresario; and your reporter. It's dinner and a show; this year it was Shun Lee West, a very classy Chinese restaurant, and Into the Woods.

The movie is wonderful, but I can't assess it in detail because it's so faithful to the original work. Unlike the film of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, it retains most of the score. Unlike Sweeney Todd, it fields a cast that can sing. Meryl Streep, as the Witch, doesn't simply act her way through her numbers, and she throws out a tremendous reading of "The Last Midnight," so balefully glorious that I finally believe that she really was a contender for the Evita movie. As always with the Hollywood translation of a stage show, the view opens up geographically. We see the castle, the beanstalk, the giantess. Streep's comings and goings are playfully fierce. She doesn't simply enter in her first scene: she blows the bakery door in. I would imagine that a moviegoer new to this work would wonder how it could ever have fit into a theatre, because so much of it--now--is so physical.

Sondheim aficionados will simply be swept away, with little to analyze. There are certain amusing details--Annette Crosbie, who played the magical godmother in another fairy-tale film, The Slipper and the Rose, is now Little Red Ridinghood's granny. Sometime during Cinderella's flights from her Prince, we hear the tiniest bit of one of the main waltz strains of A Little Night Music, a tasty treat for the Sondheim gourmand. Little Red is less querulous than usual, and rather prim and sensible. Jack isn't a glorified chorus boy but a real-life kid (with an English accent that doesn't match the inflections of the rest of the cast). The two Princes are absurdly handsome and the village folk quaintly ordinary. They truly seem like humans fit for the Grimm Brothers, whereas the original Broadway cast struck me as too "theatrical," in an Upper West Side of New York Professional way; the whole show could have taken place in Zabar's.

For the first time, Into the Woods takes you into the woods most sincerely, amid a tangle of flora, in swamp and fog, most of it dark even in daytime: the place of crucibles, of testing. There's an almost spiritual feel to the story now, somewhat akin to The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the novel in which Thornton Wilder makes an overtly religious inquiry into why his handful of characters all met death in a terrible accident (the bridge, traversing a gorge, collapses). Wilder's conclusion is that each of them had, whether he knew it or not, finished his life's work. There was no reason for any of them to go on living.

Into the Woods is just the opposite: everyone's life is just beginning, because, except for the Witch, he or she is just on the verge of getting to know him- or herself. The movie's physicalizing the woods emphasizes this: you really see how spooky free will is. More than most musicals, Sondheim's tell us of the danger inherent in making choices--in taking on company or nurturing follies. He has elaborated the notion of consequences in the musical (Sally: "I should of [sic] died the first time."), which is why, after ignoring the form for generations, the academic world suddenly sprouted analysis specialists on what the musical has been saying all those years. It was Sondheim who spurred them on. And let us note that, no matter who his librettists are, he has been consistent in exploring this perilous psychological real estate of the life-changing decisions we all have to make sooner or later. Ben: "It's knowing what you want, that's the secret."

Saturday, January 25, 2014

CAMELOT

Guenever and Lancelot meet uneventfully in T. H. White's The Once and Future King, but, two pages later, while hawking, Guenever gets clumsy in her handling of a falcon and an angry Lancelot wounds her feelings. Then, all at once, the novel comes to a complete standstill. White, an expert storyteller, utterly surrounds this moment, when, for the first time, the impeccable, invincible Lancelot has erred. He has damaged a human soul, and now feels wounded himself. Jenny, as Guenever is called, is not simply a Royal. She's a pretty girl who was trying to help, and he has hurt her. Feeling very, very guilty about it, he has hurt himself. She sees that. And at that instant the two of them fall in love, and their love will bring down a civilization.

 When Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe turned White's novel into a musical, they couldn't include a scene involving falcons. Besides, the psychology was too interior; they needed something extroverted to mark the respelled Guenevere's love for this all too perfect knight. (At that, they had to alter Lancelot, in White the ugliest man in the kingdom, into a cute hero fit for the musical; Robert Goulet would do nicely.) So Lerner wrote a different meeting for Jenny and Lance, in which she would get irritated at his insistent humble-bragging:

             LANCELOT: I have assured His Majesty that he may call upon me at
             any time  to perform  any deed, no matter the risk.
             GUENEVERE: Thank you, Milord. That's most comforting. Arthur, we have--
             LANCELOT: I am always on duty.
             GUENEVERE: Yes, I can see that.

Then she could goad three knights into challenging Lancelot at the coming jousting tournament, which the authors turned into "Then You May Take Me To the Fair." Stephen Sondheim points out a problem with this kind of number: it does exactly the same thing three times with Guenevere and each of the three knights, then does it again with them all in a coda. So, a bit after a third of the way into the scene, the audience knows what's going to happen and just waits for it to end. (It was, in fact, cut early in the New York run, though revivals tend to reinstate it.)

But there's something arresting in this piece. It's not really about Guenevere punishing Lancelot for his strangely self-deprecating arrogance. Why would she go to all that trouble--and risk lives--just to Teach That Jock a Lesson? There must be something more to it. Hasn't she in fact realized that Lancelot is dangerously perfect, a likely hazard in the democracy that King Arthur wants to invent? And even: hasn't Guenevere already perceived in herself a bitterly ambivalent attraction to Lancelot? I find the song fascinating because it says one thing but thinks another, albeit in my idiosyncratic interpretation. But then, at the jousts, Lancelot not only fells but kills one of the knights, and then prays him back to life. (In the movie version, he instead gives him a massage, stopping short of the happy ending; but let's not go there just now.) That's when Guenevere falls in love with him. Lerner has reversed the terms of the same event in the novel: now it is she who had hurt him. And, as Moss Hart staged it, Arthur saw what was happening "with," the script says, "fearful sadness."

It's a great moment in a great (but rather flawed) show, and one problem is that White's book is so wonderful you'd want to incorporate as much of it as possible into your adaptation. Not just the storyline, but also White's oddly skewed tone, which revels in the poetry of Arthurian romance but constantly refers to names and buzz terms of the twentieth century; if Barbra Streisand had come along a little earlier, White would have slipped her in. The Once and Future King is a very narrated work, as with a Victorian novel or something dense and Russian, the author always present and not just in worldview but personality. He's in your head, remarking on the story as it unfolds. Thus, when Arthur unwittingly sires a son on his own sister, setting up the Greek doom that will liquidate his fabled kingdom, White makes sure the reader grasps the significance of the king's mistake. Of his sin. It's as if Hera were importuning Zeus to punish the miscreant, this thief of sex, this blasphemer. Of course, Arthur didn't mean to: he was tricked. "But it seems, in tragedy," White explains, "that innocence is not enough."

White should have given Lerner the material for something extraordinary, a musical with a unique look and attitude--a West Side Story, a Dreamgirls. Of course, the sprawling novel had to be reduced, but Lerner ended up with nothing more than the regal love triangle surrounded by the "invention of democracy" meme, which was too little White and too much Rodgers and Hammerstein, a story neatly told where White elaborates. Then, too, Camelot  has a lot of humor for about thirty minutes; after that, it gets grim. This is a problem with theatrical epics: the bigger they get, the grumpier they act. Lerner did manage to slip in his characteristic satire on hetero courtship etiquette in "The Lusty Month of May," with a great triple rhyme on

                         The birds and bees with all of their vast
                         Amorous past
                         Gaze at the human race aghast...

and he even found a mellow and more considered version of the same theme for "How To Handle a Woman," not just a song but a musical scene that moves from an angry Vivace ("You swore that you had taught me ev'rything from A to Zed") through a Tranquillo with one of the show's loveliest melodies ("But wasn't there a night, on a summer long gone by...") to the famous refrain. A Lerner show that didn't make some remark on the difficulties of gender d├ętente--he was wed eight times--wouldn't be a Lerner show. Even My Fair Lady has "A Hymn to Him." (One wonders what Lerner thought of Company.)

On the other hand, Lerner also saddled Camelot with the impossible figure of Pellinore, a woeful knight with a sheepdog who offers the stupidest comedy since El Brendel disgraced early Fox musicals. Then, in Act Two, when Arthur's sin arrives to haunt him in the person of the evil Mordred, Pellinore suddenly gets sensible. Mordred wants to murder Arthur's democracy--"to destroy me and those I love," as Arthur puts it. So Pellinore says, more or less, Let's kill him. Problem solved. But Arthur refuses to defend himself, and Pellinore then utters Camelot's Gretchenfrage--the German term for the worrisome question that is better left unasked. In Goethe's Faust, Gretchen simply asks the hero if he believes in God; in a devout age, the answer could be perilous. In Camelot, Pellinore poses an even more dangerous question:

                         PELLINORE: Do you mean to say, Arthur, a chap has to wait till
                         he's killed  before he can attack [in self-defense]?

In other words, it's the late 1930s, and we have the chance to kill Hitler. Shouldn't we? Because he's going to start a war that will kill fifty million people and enslave the eastern half of Europe in a Soviet jail regime for half a century. What's one evil life next to all that? But listen to the reply:

                          ARTHUR: Pelly, I'm afraid I have no answer to that.

This is the once and future king? A pussy-wussy who lets his world crack apart because...well, why? It's one of the few moments in the musical that rises to White's challenge, that grasps, too briefly, history's ironies.

So the show is a mess, right? Wrong: the terrific score holds it together. For all our talk of the importance of a solid libretto and what musicals are about, a wonderful score creates a wonderful show. Then, too, the original 1960 production was a marvel. The most expensive musical in Broadway history at half a million dollars, Camelot looked every cent of it, with an astonishingly intense scene plot--not just backdrops and side pieces but big structures, one after the other--and costumes that suggested a gay interpretation of the Crusades. The opening scene, a winter wonderland with, at center, a practical tree (Arthur was hiding in it when the curtain went up) and, upstage, a wondrous view of the castle, was apparently banned from promotional  photography. A color shot of it did turn up on the cover of Percy Faith's instrumental LP reading of the score, but most of the stage view was missing; it would appear that the producers--Lerner, Loewe, and director Moss Hart themselves--wanted to startle the public with the optics of the show's first few minutes.

This is not to mention the two leads, Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, both of whom got that long-gone practice of show-biz savvy, the star entrance. Burton took his climbing out of the tree at Merlyn's command--"Your Majesty, I know you're up there." Right after his establishing number, "I Wonder  What  the  King  Is   Doing Tonight,"  he  scrambled back up into the tree as Andrews dashed into view for her establishing number, "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood."*

*The wildly appetitive Burton slept his way through the women's ensemble, giving rise to a company joke renaming the song "I Wonder Who the King Is Screwing Tonight."

Like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Burton was a Novelty Star, neither a singer nor a dancer, but adept enough. (And, yes, he did a little dancing, in "What Do the Simple Folk Do?) Most important, he distinguished his lines with that roughened silk of a voice, spit-it-out diction, and the presence of a Shakespearean. Andrews was--there's no other word for it--heaven. I saw the show twice; it became my favorite of all (immediately supplanted by Donnybrook!, but let's not go there, either). And it wasn't despite the problematic libretto, because the songs connect the parts of the story that the script somehow never quite gets to. Those establishing numbers are superb; Lancelot comes so alive in "C'est Moi" that one realizes that he can't help provoking extreme reactions even as he tries to endear himself. You either hate him or fall in love with him; Guenevere does both.

A beloved show, Camelot, yet a derided one. It's colossal yet infantile, avid yet slack. Anything intellectuals deride becomes fascinating, because that proves its power: opinionati love only the offbeat, the antagonistic, the radical. Readers of this blog probably know that I recently published a history of the musical, learning the hard way that this history has become so complex that one volume doesn't suffice. You have to walk past the curious corners, and Camelot occupies one. I did fit the show in, but there is frankly too much to say about this self-sabotaging piece, whose every revival is worse than the last. They're wrecking the show, cutting it back and cheapening it when even at full mast it's unfulfilled.

Most classics of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era have excellent books--Oklahoma!, Carousel, Brigadoon, West Side Story, The Music Man, Gypsy, Hello, Dolly!. But Camelot is the exceptional classic. Instead of letting the story unfold on its own terms, Lerner keeps telling us how grand it is. It's the librettist's equivalent of an actor's "indicating" instead of characterizing. The show's theme has traction, but the writing is slick.

Yet some of us love it, most famously John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Like Arthur, he was a democrat fighting fascists, in his case the Soviet Union. Fascists keep coming at us under different names, but they are all art-hating homicidal maniacs, and everyone of good will wants to see them stopped, like Pellinore, sooner rather than later. Isn't that, really, what Camelot is about? Is it only about adultery, a royal scandal? Or what is The Sound of Music about? A nun creates a singing group? Or is it about the redeeming power of music, which of course the Nazis are deaf to? Yes, that's rather fancy of me. But some of these shows are fancy. Epic, really. Otherwise, why do we love them so much? Many have scorned NBC's recent telecast of The Sound of Music, but has no one noticed how beautifully put together the show is? Camelot isn't as well made, yet it compels us. Why does tragedy always seem to catch up with not the Mordreds but the Arthurs of this world? The von Trapps escape, but Camelot is doomed as surely as JFK was. Innocence is not enough.