Music and the Legend of Faust Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

Music and the Legend of FaustFaust 1

Some subjects simply appeal to artists more than do others. We have symphonies inspired by Spring, the forest, the sea, mountains, rivers, the stars, and the planets. From fiction, there are Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, Macbeth, and jolly fat old Falstaff. Somehow, however, the shadowy figure of Faust seems to hold some sort of record. And it is this record that I would like to examine for this new series of articles.

To start, there may or may not have been a Doctor Johann Faust who died in 1540, leaving behind him a reputation for having sold his soul to the Devil, most probably by being too educated in areas that even today lie under suspicion in the eyes of certain groups with mind-sets that do not approve of any one except themselves knowing the unknowable. But the pattern for the man who probed matters best left alone became set and led the way to so many similar tales. Why how many old Universal horror films can you name with that very message?

In 1587, there appeared a “Volksbuch” that included the moralistic story of Faust. It went through over a dozen editions very quickly and was read all over Europe. His sin was that of “speculative ambition”: desiring to enjoy the cardinal sins with impunity. You see, Faust-as-modern-man or Faust-as-Prometheus had not yet been conceived. An expanded edition came out in 1590 and had Faust performing all sorts of magic tricks; but the trickster is of course tricked by the Supreme Trickster in the end and the moral pretty much remains the same.

220px-Faustus-tragedyLike the mass-media of today, a best-selling idea was quickly seized upon and Faust books by the dozens were popping up all over the continent, not to mention hundreds of puppet shows that told this and that version of the story—all of them the true version, of course—and it is very likely that many authors were influenced directly by any one or several of these. Christopher Marlowe’s  Doctor Faustus (1588) is a very uneven play, starting and ending grandly and suffering from a mid-section that is as silly in parts as any puppet play. But the message has something of a new element.

After seeing how useless it is to study the “allowed” material—theology, metaphysics, and so on—Faust turns to the forbidden books to call upon Infernal assistance. Once he has made his pact with Mephistopheles, this Faust seems content with practical jokes until he realizes the enormity of the consequences. “Cut is the branch that might have grown straight” is how the Epilogue describes the result; and we are left to feel how he wasted his opportunities rather than feeling sorry for his fate. Whether or not this is what Marlowe had in mind is not to be known, but the play seems to suggest such a non-moralizing message: if you are going to do bad, at least do it well!

What is certain is that of the several operas based on the Faust legend, only one of  them draws upon material from the Marlowe version—and that is the one the least known of the lot. (Is there a moral in that somewhere?) Since the German translation of this play was available only after Goethe had begun his more epic version of the story, scholars believe it had no influence on his whatsoever. This is neither here nor there, because Goethe’s version is entirely different and its influence on music is immense.

14706First of all, Goethe’s earlier version called the “ur-Faust” and the expansion known as “Faust, the First Part” were products of the Romantic Movement, not the Middle Ages. The philosophy of this stage in European thought could be summarized baldly and therefore badly thus: the Age of  Faith did not eliminate human misery, nor did the Age of Humanism or did the Age of Reason—therefore we must return to and trust in Nature for all solutions. Since Nature seems to be in a constant state of Sturm und Drang, it follows that a Man should be in the same state of striving for the unattainable. It is clearly stated in the “Prologue in Heaven” that while Mephistopheles scorns the useless striving of Faust, the Lord sees that as Man’s noblest characteristic. So it is part of the double bet that the Devil has to make with first God and then Faust that he can (1) turn Faust’s energies down the garden path to Hell and (2) give Faust a “moment of contentment” in which he can stop trying .  That he fails on both accounts is what separates this version from the earlier ones, for it is Heaven that greets the old scholar at the end of the Second Part as he is drawn on high by “the Eternal Feminine.”

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Faust and Wagner being stalked by a devil of a dog

Now all I have left out of this account is the marvelous poetry, the complex philosophical problems, the hundred or so minor characters, and most of what makes Goethe’s Faust one of the greatest achievements of Western literature. On the other hand, that is pretty much what the most popular musical form, that of Gounod, does. So what I would like to do in this series of articles is trace the different musical treatments of the Faust story, mostly the Goethe version, and see how it has been trivialized here and treated reasonably there.

Shakespeare on Broadway, 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

215px-West_Side_001Shakespeare on Broadway 3

Whenever I give a talk that includes the musicals of the 1950s, there is always a laugh when I mention that the original title of “West Side Story” was “East Side Story.” Well, it’s true. In 1949, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents were asked by Jerome Robbins to collaborate on a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet.” But instead of feuding families, there would be feuding religions as a Jewish boy falls in love with a Catholic girl despite the pressures put upon them by their peers.

The idea never came to fruition, but it stuck in Bernstein’s mind. However, for several reasons, he decided to change the religious slant to an ethnic one and moved the action from the East to the West Side of Manhattan. Bernstein explained that the Jewish-Catholic gang problems had died down somewhat, whereas the influx of Puerto Rican families and the culture clashes with the “older” inhabitants were in the news. I personally have always suspected that he made the change because Puerto Rican music provides much better dance sequences than does liturgical music.

Although the playbills and scores show that the lyrics are those of Stephen Sondheim, insiders have always said that some of the songs are entirely the work of Bernstein. But until some evidence is unearthed, one can never tell who wrote what.

On the whole, the Romeo and Juliet story is fairly faithfully handled, what with the rival gangs being the perfect updated version of the Montague and Capulet street brawlers. Even the bawdy humor of the servants that opens up the Shakespeare play is preserved in the mocking “Officer Krupke” sequence.

One of the major elements of the Bernstein creation is the emphasis on dance. So the Capulet ball becomes the dance at the gym; and the now graceful, now dynamic dance numbers nearly compensate for a good deal of the Shakespearean poetry that is lost in this transposition of the action to Manhattan of the 50s.

51Brb1j0CcL._AA160_Passing on to 1971, we have the Joseph Papp production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” This is certainly one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies and not a very well known one at that; so Papp felt he could stick with the plot as given, but set it in a sort of timeless zone in which costumes from all periods could be used. And, of course, set it all to rock music.

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Two Gentlemen in Central Park, 1971

Now in my mind, this is a most serious departure from the “feel” of the original. The Shakespeare play is a spoof on the exaggerated importance of fine speaking and witty remarks. Any good production will positively drip with elegance as the young lovers—Valentine and Proteus (guess which one is the unreliable one from the names alone) and the much sought after Julia and her friend Silvia–go through all the superficialities that high society demanded back then. Somehow—and I might get arguments—rock music simply cannot by its very nature carry that essence.

But who can argue with success? The play ran for 627 performances, but never enjoyed a film version or continuing revivals as did “West Side Story.”

The same problems crop up with filming Shakespeare in updated surroundings. At the very least, “thee” and “thou” ring false when “Twelfth Night” (say) is presented in Victorian dress, not to mention the swords. I cannot bring myself to watch the “Titus” film which is set in a nightmare Rome that includes loud speakers and motorcycles and in which no one can create a credible character in this incredible world.

On the other hand, neither Rodgers nor Hart really expected an audience to believe that 1940s tunes were being sung by characters in the ancient world of Ephesus. Then again, “Comedy of Errors” is particularly devoid of beautifully poetic lines. That is why (for me) “The Boys from Syracuse” succeeds where Papp’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” fails. It is not because the score of “Two Gentlemen” is inferior to that of “The Boys”—which it most certainly is—but that it conflicts with the essence of the play whereas the Rodgers score does not.

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And what would HE think?

What do you think?

 

Shakespeare on Broadway, 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

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“Twelfth Night” is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most popular, delightful and charming of romantic comedies. Using the ancient devices of a woman dressed as man who becomes attractive to both another woman and a man and twins who think the other dead, the plot plunges us into the busy household of the Lady Olivia, who has forsworn marriage and the lugubrious household of the Duke Orsino who will not desist in proposing to her.

As a subplot, we have the revenge of Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch, his friend and source of income Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the servant Maria, and the household fool Feste, along with an extra servant or two, on the puritanical Malvolio who thinks that because he is virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale.

Well, is this not all the stuff of musical comedy? In fact, there are just enough songs Shakespeare wrote into the script that nearly qualify “Twelfth Night” AS a musical comedy. So there little wonder that three musicals have used this play as the basis of their plots. Of them, let us consider the two that lasted more than just a few performances and found their way onto recordings.

“Your Own Thing” opened on January 13, 1968 and enjoyed 933 performances. The score by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar is best described as light-rock and the lyrics (by the same team) had nothing to offend the older generation, who were trying to cope with the “Do your own thing” philosophy of their children and grand-children. (Those who had danced the Charleston and Black Bottom to the dismay of THEIR parents might have been more tolerant, but I doubt it.)

Some of the dialogue is from Shakespeare, as are the lyrics to “Come away death” and “She never told her love.” Sebastian and Viola are a rock duo, separated by a sea wreck. Ilyria is New York. Orson manages a rock group. Olivia owns a discotheque. Viola disguised as Charlie gets a spot in Orson’s band. Sebastian, out of the hospital, runs into Orson, who mistakes him for Charlie. And so on. As you can see, it uses “Twelfth Night” as a starting point and then rocks along in its own direction.

Some credibility is given to these errors by the fact that young men’s hair was as longer if not longer than that of most women—as they were in Shakespeare’s time but not in late 19th-century settings that many productions have been given in the past decades.

The music is goofy and pleasant, as you can hear on the RCA Victor CD that is still available.

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The Duke himself

“Play On” did not open on Broadway but became a cult favorite very quickly. I saw it on Public Television and was lucky enough to tape it, because the video is simply not for sale as far as I know. Here the Harlem of the 1940s in the background and the only music heard is that of Duke Ellington.

So when young Vy comes to New York from Mississippi to become a songwriter, she is told by the chorus to “Take the A-Train” up to Harlem. But songwriting is a male profession, so her Uncle Jester suggests she disguises herself as a man and go to the Duke for a kick start. The Duke is in a depression from his breakup with Lady Liv, who sings at the Cotton Club. Add to this Rev, Liv’s secretary, who is in love with her and lets himself gets tricked into a wearing an absurd yellow suit and singing “I’m beginning to see the light”—and you have something very very close to what Shakespeare had in mind.

By the way, “Love and Let Love” is the name of the third musical based on “Twelfth Night” and I would love to hear from anyone who has seen it or has any information about it.

So far we have “Kiss Me Kate” which uses “The Taming of the Shrew” for both the framing device and the musical within the musical, “The Boys from Syracuse” that keeps in “The Comedy of Errors” in a sort of Aegean setting and “Oh, Brother!” that transposes it both in time and place, “Your Own Thing” that updates but does not faithfully follow the “Twelfth Night” sequence of events and “Play On” that more or less does.

This leaves us with two more successful treatments that do indeed stick to the plots of their originals but in different ways. Can you guess what they are?

Shakespeare on Broadway, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

Shakespeare on Broadway – 1Kiss_Me_Kate_1950_LP_Cover

I have lost count of how many operas are based on the plays of Shakespeare. I am also losing count of the Broadway shows that try to translate the plays, mostly the comedies, into contemporary terms. One of the most successful is the one I will start with.

Back in the late 1940s, Cole Porter was in deep trouble. His last few wartime musicals did not do very well while two others were outright disasters, and he was having the devil’s own time raising money for this next show. But the money came his way, and the show opened on December 30, 1948, the first of 1,077 performances; and it went on to garnish awards for best musical, best composer, best libretto (by Bella and Samuel Spewack), best producers, best scenic and costume designs, and even best leading man (Alfred Drake). The source: “The Taming of the Shrew.” The title: “Kiss Me Kate.”

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Tamer taming the tamee by turning their honeymoon meal into a nightmare

The critics went wild. Of the 9 major papers, 8 gave it raves while the other was merely very favorable. The Times called it a miracle and compared the score surprisingly with Puccini! The Post called it “a smash hit of epic proportions.” Everything worked right. Even Patricia Morrison, whose voice was predicted not to go further than the third row, was marvelous. And this was on Broadway, where Shakespeare was considered box office poison. The Spewacks were very careful to give the audience two plots, each mirroring the other: Petrucchio:Kate = Fred:Lilly. Not all that original, but very well handled.

This is one of those musicals in which the dialogue is as good as the lyrics. However, audiences went to musicals to hear songs (not to look at computer-driven stage effects as they do today); and great songs were what they got. Those sung as part of the framing plot include  “Too Darn Hot,” “True to You in my Fashion,” “Were Thine That Special Face,” “Wunderbar,” “Another Op’nin’Another Show,” and the very Gilbertian-trick-rhyme song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,”  which have been heard so often out of context. What is really unusual is that even the  songs from the play within the play are just as good: “We Open in Venice,” “I Hate Men,” “Were Thine That Special Face.”

51icpKKNZoL._AA160_Actually, Shakespeare did very well for himself earlier, in 1938, when Larry Hart wanted to write a part for his brother Teddy who looked so much like comedian Jimmy Savo that he could never get a role. Well, since they looked so much alike, Larry went to “The Comedy of Errors,” which involves two sets of twins, one of which is a pair of comic servants. Not surprisingly, Savo was cast as one twin and Teddy fell neatly into place. The result was “The Boys from Syracuse.”

It only ran for 235 performances–remember, the Depression was still with us–and is very seldom performed. Even the 1940 film with Alan Jones seems to have disappeared; and I dearly wish some television station would restore the it and some local group revive the show. There are at least three complete CD recordings of the score, and its absence from the stage is a genuine loss for us all.

Consider the two songs that became hits, “Falling in Love With Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” Among the less familiar numbers are “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” “Sing for Your Supper,” and “What Can You Do with a Man?” Finally, there is a comic duet titled “He and She” that should bring down the house.

Unlike “Kiss Me Kate,” the plot more or less sticks to the Shakespeare original but makes no attempt at period-sounding music. On the other hand, who knows what music sounded like in ancient Ephesus?

In 1981, something called “Oh, Brother!” also used “Comedy of Errors” as the basis for a musical, but it closed in two days. You see, the creators decided to reset the story in the Persian Gulf in modern times. Ken Mandelbaum in his fabulous history of Broadway flops, “Not Since Carrie” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), declares it deserved better. It suffered mainly from a small cast with too many lead roles in a single set. He suggests that with singers like Judy Kaye in the cast, they should have revived “The Boys from Syracuse.” In fact, there was a revival in 1963 that ran longer than did the original.

Now these are two very successful adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ll bet anyone could name the blockbuster adaptation that outran even “Kiss Me Kate,” but very few could discuss a 1938 musical based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other flashes in the Broadway pan. Some of them will be discussed in the next issue.

The Search for the American Sound, 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Search for the American Sound
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Scott Joplin, 1907

The Search for the American Sound – 3

About a century and a quarter ago in my now hometown of Keene, NH, an announcement appeared to one and all concerning “The 18th Annual Festival of The Cheshire County Musical Convention” that was to start on August 22, 1870 and last for five days. Among the participants were two conductors, five soloists, a pianist, and the Mendelssohn Quintette Club. The music was by     American and British composers, all of it classical or “light” classical and all of it quite respectable.

download (4)Around 1904, the popular Arthur Pryor Band gave concerts at Asbury Park’s Arcade Pier and at the Casino. These two events have been reconstructed on Archeophone CDs, “Echoes of Asbury Park”   by using old Pryor recordings. Among the selections are works by Berlioz, Balfe, Verdi, Pryor himself, and a few others known only to historians of the time.

None of this was quite what one would hear at the same times on the streets of New Orleans. But those antipodal musical worlds were soon to meet in the concert hall as they had done in the minstrel shows.

With the coming of the 20th century, the Philippines were demanding freedom from the United States’ military presence, Admiral Dewey was given an ovation in New York City, Carry Nation began to take her hatchet to Kansas saloons, and the newfangled automobile was banned from Central Park.

The book that held our attention included the first of the Rover Boys series. A team called The Four Cohans was getting good notices on the vaudeville stage, while Victor Herbert was still the king of operetta and William Gillette was portraying Sherlock Holmes on the “legitimate” stage.

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In 1909, “I wonder who’s kissing her now” was heard in the musical show above

After the Civil War, there were a good many songs about angels and death, almost as if we were trying to atone for the useless slaughter that ended in 1866—at least on paper. But lyrics were lightening up after 1885, while some were taking a more cynical turn. “I wonder who’s kissing her now” (1909) talks about an affair that is now over, not a love that has lasted since they were sweet sixteen. When a Follies singer was slightly shocking when she declared “I just can’t make my eyes behave” (1906), Eva Tanguay stunned audiences by confessing “I don’t care” (1905).

In 1892, Edison built the first movie studio in America in West Orange, NJ, and pianists had a bonanza playing familiar (mostly classical) tunes to fit the action on the screen. What was to be called Tin Pan Alley was paying great attention to the “huddled masses” arriving at these shores with lyrics such as those of an 1894 song:

That’s where Johnny Casey and Little Jenny Crowe

                With Jaikey Krause the baker who always had the dough,

                Pretty Nellie Shannon with her fellow fresh from Cork,

                First picked up the waltz step on the sidewalks of New York.

            Indeed, the once venerable waltz (which had been condemned when it first appeared as too immoral for decent folk) had evolved into a lower class masterpiece like “Waltz me around again, Willy” (1906). And big church weddings, beyond the means of most people, yielded to such compromises as

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

               I can’t afford a carriage.

               But you’ll look sweet upon the seat

              Of a bicycle built for two

that was sung in 1891.

Now, such new sentiments demanded new music. It was just fine to parody respectable European works, but an American sound was needed to do the job completely. The chemistry of the Black and French cultures in New Orleans had given rise to something called “ragging it up” or somewhat later “ragtime.” Inventing elaborate systems of syncopation (the strong beats of the melody NOT coinciding all the time with the strong beats of the accompaniment), black composers like Scott Joplin were forced to play in brothels and other sites of low entertainment where they would give a vitality to the music they played on out-of-tune pianos with missing keys.

This style of composition was quickly picked up by white composers like Irving Berlin and was heard on vaudeville stages all over America. It seems that an American sound had finally arrived from Africa and Creole New Orleans. What was done with it is quite another story.

Sometime in the future, we will pick up that story in an exploration on the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and other composers. But for now we can see how the American Sound was found in the unlikeliest of places.

 

21YC5JP3HRL._AA160_Recommended recordings. From New World Records: “Don’t Give the Name a Bad Place: Types and Stereotypes in American Musical Theater 1870-1900”; “I Wants to Be a Actor Lady and Other Hits from Early Musical Comedies.” Note: The Archeophone catalogue provides original recordings from as early as 1890 up to the middle 1920s. See their website. From Elektra: “After the Ball” with Joan Morris, mezzo.

The Search for the American Sound, 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Search for the American Sound
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Stephen Foster

The Search for the American Sound – 2

It was 1849. Rome was declared a republic under Mazzini, Bernard College for Women was founded in London, the speed of light was measured with the greatest accuracy yet, and David Livingston was exploring Africa. “David Copperfield” was the book to read, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” scored as a hit opera in Vienna, and “Who’s Who” appeared for the first time.

Zachary Taylor become our 12th president after a campaign in which bands played “General Taylor’s Gallop” and sang lyrics like

We’ll sing a song to suit the times

                        With voices bold and steady,

                        And cheerily we’ll tell in rhymes

                        Of good old Rough and Ready

to the music of “Yankee Doodle.”

In towns like Keene, NH, music festivals such as the 1854 Cheshire County Musical Institution were founded and hundreds would flock to them to sing. Lack of funding, alas, finally brought most of them to an end.

Around the same time, many people decided that this country had a Manifest Destiny (manifest to those who made the decision, one would assume) to expand to the Pacific coast. This concept of the territories to the west of the Mississippi sounded a lot like the concept of the Promised Land, and so a good deal of vocal music took on a very non-Bachian sound of the type collected in “The Sacred Harp” and “Southern Harmony.”

Of course, 1849 is better known for the Gold Rush, an even stronger incentive to move west. It has been said that men never worked so hard to become wealthy enough to never work again. Many of Stephen Foster’s songs such as “Camptown Races” were chanted as they optimistically followed the sun.

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Louis Moreau Gottschalk

At the same time, the Creole population in the New Orleans area was giving birth to a new kind of music. Many such songs were of a very sad nature, such as the lament for a dead child, “Salangadou.” Louis Moreau Gottschalk was taking the complex rhythms of songs like “Bamboula” and composing even more complex variations for piano virtuosi.

In what is now called the Sentimental Age, composers like Foster were spinning out “name songs” like “Jeannie with the light brown hair,” Aura Lee,” and other woman-as-goddess works that helped delay female suffrage for many decades more. The fact that many of these women were dead was squarely in the tradition of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems and Burns’ “Flow gently, sweet Afton.”

Sweetly she sleeps, my Alice Fair,

                        Her cheek on the pillow pressed

                        Sweetly she sleeps, while her Saxon hair,

                        Like sunlight streams over her breast.

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White dancers imitating black dancers imitating and making fun of white dancers!

And all the while, songs like “Old black Joe” with its “gentle voices” assured us that all was happy in the land of cotton. Actually, the Minstrel Show craze began with the black slaves dressing up one day in the year and mimicking  the high and mighty airs of their white masters. They would strut up towards the judge’s table and the winners would be awarded a cake. Hence the strutting became known as the Cakewalk and “That takes the cake” became a common expression in American English!

When done on a stage, the black performers were able to earn money but at the price of perpetuating the stereotype of the stupid but happy African. One composer-lyricist decided to compliment his fellow blacks by likening them to the raccoon, a very smart animal who knew how to survive. Unhappily, he used the abbreviation “coon” and the results were quite the opposite of what was intended.

So by now, the music heard outside of concert halls was not quite American, but it was definitely getting away from its European roots. But a lot was going to happen at the end of the 19th century when American music did find its voice.

71q9HByrqbL._SX450_Recommended recordings. From Vox, “The Great Sentimental Age: Songs by Foster, Ives, Hawthorne, Hanby & Others” (CDX 5016) and “Homespun America: Music for Brass Band, Social Orchestra, Choral Groups From the Mid-19th Century” (CDX5088). From New World Records, “Where Home Is: Life in Nineteenth-Century Cincinnati” (80251-2).

The Search for the American Sound, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Search for the American Sound

 

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When did American music become American? There are several answers, some absolutely assured, some a bit more tentative. In this miniseries, we will consider music in America even before composers began the search for the American sound.

In the beginning, the music of America was the music of those parts of Europe from which came all sorts of people to these shores. What is now Massachusetts rang out with the fervent sounds of “The Whole Booke of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Meter” (1640). Since musical instruments were not allowed in church, the leaders were often hard pressed to keep the pitch and even the tunes as they should be.

After 1700, organs began to be shipped over the Atlantic. At first they were little used, not because the congregations did not want them but because the leaders were reluctant to introduce anything that was new. The idea that the vocal lines should be printed along with the psalms met even more opposition, mainly because some of the Italian annotations were considered blasphemous. By 1720, this ban was relaxed a bit.

As more and more instruments were imported, singing and then dancing became acceptable to a degree. In fact, concerts began to be given, the earliest on record being played in the late 1720s. Five shillings would purchase a ticket for a Boston concert in 1731. By 1754, Boston had its own concert hall and by 1762 South Carolina had its first music society. What was played there was, of course, what was being played in similar venues in Europe, allowing for the time it took for the latest compositions to arrive and find their ways down the colonies.

downloadAmong the Dutch, Swedish and other non-English enclaves, music was played to please more eclectic tastes, but the influence was almost non-existent. For example, the music of the Moravians in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania sounded very much in the tradition of Bach—hauntingly lovely melodies in a powerful religious context. However, the Moravian influence on outside composers was nil.

In 1730, Benjamin Franklin published a collection of hymns, some of which are the earliest examples of music composed in America. However, they could not be distinguished from the European entries in any way.

Although some attempts at American opera had taken place, by far the most popular work was the ballad opera “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay. This set the style for early American “musicals”: plays in which new lyrics were grafted onto familiar tunes, such as Handel’s “Hail, the conquering hero comes.” Part of the fun was letting the audience identify the original titles and composers, not too unlike a performance today by PDQ Bach!

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William Billings

Homegrown composers included Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), James Lyon (1734-1794), and William Billings (1746-1800). The new nation desperately needed heroes when the old English ones would not serve. Since King Arthur defended his country from the invaders of the north, we would glorify George Washington. Indeed, Washington’s early portraits show him realistically if a bit romanticized in military dress. After the Revolution, he was shown in full Roman style with garlands around his head and a consort of heavenly figures in the Baroque style.

Such visuals need music to match and men like Hopkinson were quick to respond with paeans in the Handelian style. American subjects; European music. How could it be otherwise?

With perfect Orwellian doublethink, as we moved into what is known as the Federalist period and continued to take over the land from the “savages,” we would still praise their nobility in songs like “The Death Song of the Cherokee Indians” (1787) with elevated lyrics that would not be out of place in a Dryden heroic play, which was then all the rage in England.

220px-Hail,_Columbia_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_21566A German immigrant named Philip Phile composed “The President’s March” around 1793; and it stands as a rare example of music still played today, but with the added lyrics that begin “Hail, Columbia, happy land.” It is, of course, in the good old Prussian military style.

So while American composers were conscious of the need for an American sound, they had no idea of how to find one. Writing about American subjects helped a little. However, it would take more intellectual intercourse with the other groups who did not live in Boston or South Carolina and whose songs were not those of the English theater or churches. It would take another 100 years, but the experiments along the way are fascinating to behold.

download (6)Recommended recordings: From New World records, “The Birth of Liberty: Music of the American Revolution” (80276-2), “Music of the Federal Era” (80299-2), “The Flowering of Vocal Music in America” (80467-2). From Telarc, “Lost Music of Early America: Music of the Moravians” (CD80482). On an independent label, “The Music Master’s Companion” and “The Second Companion,” R.P. Hale (halerp@cs.com). From WEM (WEMCD503), “Colonial & Revolution Songs with historical narration.”

Putting on a Musical, 6

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical
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Getting together a musical takes a lot of cooperation between cast, choreographer, and so on. This shot of those who created the 1929 “Garrick Gaieties” with a Rodgers and Hart score, gives some idea of what goes on.

The Singer & the Song

Although I mentioned this aspect of musicals in the last essay, I want to elaborate on it in this concluding section.

A play—even “just a musical”—is drama. Something is happening up on that stage that means something to the character(s) and therefore should mean something to the audience. When Mame’s partygoers open the show with that paean in her praise, the audience is supposed to know nothing about her. Whoever is playing the title character must make you feel she deserves all that praise. If the actress plays it as if Mame feels she DESERVES the world on a platter, the song doesn’t work. In other words, the number must establish Mame’s character and that character should be a likable one. After all, most of the action springs from her attitude towards life.

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Faster, girls, faster

When Eddie Foy, Jr. sings about the need to keep everything going on time in “The Pajama Game,” he must try to convince not only the characters on stage (although it is against their interests) but also the audience. Again this number comes very early in the show, and it must have some dramatic purpose. Of course it establishes his character, but it also sets the theme of what management wants versus what labor wants.

Take “Why Can’t the English” from early in “My Fair Lady.” As usually played, it is sung to Pickering, who does not need to be convinced. It should be sung as a way of convincing the crowd waiting for the rain to stop and perhaps even the flower girl herself. It is Higgins riding his hobbyhorse, Higgins on his soapbox, preaching. Not only does it perfectly give us his character, but it also sets off the train of events for the play by putting the idea in Liza’s mind that perhaps she should do something about her speech.

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“Steam Heat” with original cast

Some songs, say “Steam Heat” in the second act of “Pajama Game,” are mere padding, and the best we can hope from these numbers is lively delivery and good dancing. Of course, those interpolated numbers designed to please the audience and/or give some star a “turn” might be an exception of sorts. Consider again the “Steam Heat” number. It is supposed to be part of a show within “Pajama Game.” Therefore the “audience” being addressed is not the real one but the invisible members of the cast who are supposed to be watching the performers.

Take, however,  “Were Thine That Special Face” from the show within a show in “Kiss Me Kate” is indeed being sung by an actor to his ex-wife and can deliver quite a dramatic punch if the actress reacts to the words that he is addressing not only to Kate but to the woman he still loves. A good director can bring out quite a bit of drama here by giving his Kate a “silent script.”

Let us consider a song sung by a character alone on stage. I have already expressed my dislike for singing directly to the audience. So there is Freddy in front of Liza’s house ready to burst into “The Street Where You Live.” Now the “you” is inside and theoretically out of earshot. But Freddy hopes she can hear and sings it to the door of the house—which is probably upstage, but the singer can “cheat” a little and be seen and heard to advantage.

41X5QAZ6STL._AA160_Of course, the most famous soliloquy is called “Soliloquy” (from “Carousel”). Here is a long number that falls into several parts. It is clear that the singer is talking to himself; Billy would NEVER confide his private thoughts to anyone, even the audience. Here a good director could get around things by (perhaps) having him sing one section to the sky, another to the sea, a clump of seaweed, some jetsam on the beach—or just staring into space, as we actually do when thinking to ourselves about very important things.

(See my suggestion about this in the previous section.)

One will argue that singing directly to the audience is no sin against drama. I feel that even in a straight play, breaking the fourth wall destroys all the illusion that theatre is supposed to create. Do you really want Liza or Billy or Whomever to admit that he/she is nothing but a character in a play, and that all the problems the play has created are nothing but a work of fiction? That this is “only a play”? And don’t retort that Shakespearean characters do just that. First of all, no one is really sure that the Globe actors spoke directly to the audience; and if so, the traditions of theatrical “realism” of that time are not those of ours.

230px-South_Pacific_PlaybillAnd just who is being addressed when the sailors in “South Pacific” proclaim “There is nothing like a dame”? Most directors have them face the auditorium and belt it out. How much more natural that they should be telling it to one another or to the non-military persons on the stage or to Bloody Mary, et cetera. After your set designer and costumers have gone through all the agonies of giving you the most realistic set possible, why ruin it with easy staging?

 

Not long ago, when I expressed these opinions, someone from a local college Theatre Department reposted, “Well, that’s the way they do it on Broadway.” Okay, I shrugged, “Just because they do that way, I guess you must slavishly imitate them.” There was no further response.

So much more to say, so little space to say it in. We shall see.

 

Putting on a Musical, 5

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical

IMG_20150609_0001_NEWThe Question of Rehearsals

So now rehearsals are ready to start. But not until you have had a long planning session with your crew and cast. For starters, you absolutely must know which sessions this player or that cannot attend. If you have to take their bank accounts into custody, they must swear a blood oath that they will show up at all other rehearsals—barring, of course, emergencies.

Also be very sure that (say) a 7 PM call means WE START AT 7 PM! How often do people show up only to find that the Director is not quite ready for them? Little by little, they start to arrive later and later to avoid the boredom of sitting around doing nothing. I would suggest that the crew arrive 30 minutes earlier to sort things out with the Director so that all is ready on time.

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From San Francisco Opera production of “Show Boat”

Should the dancers also be part of the chorus, it is only common sense that their dance rehearsals cannot be scheduled with those for the singing ensemble. If you have two rehearsal spaces, each with a piano or at least pre-recorded music, that is a Very Good Thing. But most groups do not have this luxury. In any case, as was mentioned earlier in this series, all the musical numbers should be down pat before blocking the dialogue scenes even begins.

I have found it very profitable to meet with the speaking characters as early as possible after they are cast and go over the dialogue without any blocking. This is where we begin to establish each character, set up relationships between the characters, and stress the need for good enunciation and projection. Many of them might be in other shows and wish to save their voices during rehearsals. What happens all too often is that they forget to project during the actual performances. But we humans are only human, and compromises must be made.

In a good musical, the songs should serve some dramatic purpose, even if that purpose is only to show an insight into the character. For example, Liza Doolittle feels very good about herself before she sings “I Could Have Danced All Night.” She does not change during the song; she merely uses it to express her emotions. It was “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” that established her character earlier in the show. But a good director will have the song burst out of her at that moment as an INEVITABLE reaction to what she is feeling. Having her walk downstage, face the audience, and begin to sing because that is where the song goes does nothing for the play, her character, or the audience.

During the blocking rehearsals, then, careful attention should be paid to whom each song is sung. Does Liza sing “I Could Have Danced All Night” to herself, to the servants around her? I have always truly detested having such songs delivered to the audience. I think musicals should preserve the “fourth wall” as much as do non-musical plays. (Exceptions are, of course, numbers like “Comedy Tonight” which are meant to address the audience.)

There should also be a different approach to songs that are supposed to be songs (such as the show-within-a-show numbers in “Kiss Me Kate,” “Show Boat” and “Pal Joey”) and songs that are supposed to be dialogue (“If I Loved You,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I Could Write a Book”). In the latter category, the delivery should be quite different when the song is being sung to another character or as a soliloquy. In the case of a soliloquy, should it be delivered to the audience or to oneself? (A singer could be facing the audience but not addressing it to them directly, you know.)

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The usual approach to Billy’s Soliloquy (and all others): straight out to the audience

I once had an idea for Billy’s “Carousel” soliloquy. He is standing on the beach and sees a young boy playing in the sand. This motivates Billy’s “My boy bill” section of his song. Then a girl joins the boy. This motivates the next section about being a father to a girl. In this way, there is a believable motivation for the song and Billy could be facing the children from (say) downstage right as they are playing (with minimal body movements) downstage left. (See my essay about Carmen’s “Habanera.”)

Many directors for local groups have had little professional training, if any at all, in the art; but a good deal of attention should be paid to fine tuning characterization. This is probably the most neglected aspect of amateur productions. “After all, it’s only a musical! After all, it’s only community theatre!” Does this mean the acting has to be rotten? Perhaps, if the Director is not overly territorial, someone can take the actors aside and go over line-readings for pacing, volume, enunciation, believable reactions, and so on.

And one thing that I have experienced in local theatricals. After the show and the “How wonderful you were” compliments, the entire cast should get together and go over what was poor about the production and how the next show could be so much better. (I live in a dreamworld, it seems.)

In our closing section, I would like to pay closer attention to other matters about how to achieve optimum dramatic effect in something that is “only a musical.”

Putting on a Musical, 4

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical

 

DanceThe Role of the Choreographer

Ever since Agnes de Mille integrated the dance with the other aspects of the musical in “Oklahoma,” it has become too old fashioned to follow the format of a song, a motivationless dance, and then a reprise of the song. Will is back from Kansas City and the outlanders are naturally curious about the latest dance craze in the big city. So Will sings a song about Kansas City and this leads naturally into a dance that he demonstrates and that the others pick up with surprising ease. (Harold Hill gets to do the same thing in River City.)

And what musical could expect to succeed without a Dream Ballet such as Laurie’s that all but ends the first act of “Oklahoma!”? Less integrated shows like “Promises, Promises” are sure to throw in an office party. Similarly “Damn Yankees” includes a show given solely, it seems, to give Lola a Mambo number. And how is it possible to sing the praises of Mame or Dolly without a big production number that leans heavily on dance?

Now as one barely able to walk and chew gum at the same time, I had a long discussion with a talented choreographer here in Keene, NH named Barbara Andrews, who has long been acquainted with the task of getting local adults and high schoolers to hoof it convincingly during major musical productions in this area.

The first thing to do (she explained) is to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the music, picturing in the mind how it will translate into dance movements. Refine your ideas into simple steps, not forgetting facial expressions, and keeping in mind the space available on the stage, the costumes that might hamper complex movement, and even the makeup.

215px-Fiddler_on_the_roof_posterThen do some research. Barbara spoke to a rabbi before choreographing “Fiddler on the Roof.” She learned about why the sexes never touch while dancing, the Russian version of Jewish folk dances, and the movements during the Sabbath prayer. I can vouch for how vividly it all paid off during the Lions Club performance several years ago.

Some dances are supposed to be badly done, such as those in “Cabaret” and “Guys and Dolls.”  Here the audience must realize that it is the characters that are terrible, not the performers. (If you know how good a singer Patricia Rutledge really is, you can appreciate how terrible she sounds as Hyacinth Bucket! It takes a great actor to play a bad actor.)

During rehearsals, to build up muscle memory, demonstrate (say) a 32-bar phrase and have them repeat it until the body learns it (much like learning to touch-type or play a beginner’s piano piece). The most difficult thing is getting people to focus on what they are doing. Barbara finds men, especially athletes, somewhat more willing to learn. The two sexes learn in different ways—but those without a sense of rhythm can never be taught to dance well.

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Once up, dancer cannot wait for music to end before landing

The better dancers should be used as section leaders, some up front, some in the back, so the others can follow them. Do not hide the poorer dancers; try to showcase whatever strengths they might have. And do not be too proud to collaborate with the better ones. Even more so, work closely with the music director so that the tempi are just right for dancing. This becomes a special problem when the dancers have to sing at the same time. There was a case in England in which a conductor who insisted on a certain slow tempo was told by a singer-dancer that the law of gravity made it impossible for him to remain in the air long enough to coordinate with the music. When the conductor insisted that the words be heard at that point, the performer reminded him that the words were Tra-la-la-la. The tempo quickened.

[The conductor was Malcolm Sargent, the singer-dancer was Martyn Green, the plays was “The Gondoliers,” and the song was “For the merriest fellows are we.”]

Each play presents its own problems to a choreographer. The dances in “Oklahoma!” and “Paint Your Wagon” can be patterned after modern square dancing with a shot of modern ballet; but when Harold Hill is asked to show the crowd the latest step from the big cities, the dance should be as authentic as possible.

Now and then, the choreographer is called upon to direct crowd scenes when the director feels inadequate or pressed for time. The restaurant scene in “Hello, Dolly” is a good example, with its complex mixture of dancing, pantomime, waiting on tables in the period manner, and dialogue. Many a choreographer, in fact, has done more of the directing than has the director. It happened in my experience when the over-committed director, who also had a lead in the show (never advisable), decided that any stage movement during a song or chorus counted as choreography. The results were marvelous, but the director got the credit.

What next? Rehearsals, of course.