The Question of Revivals

 The Question of Revivals

download (2)
Recording of 1999 “revival” with many changes from original

While two writers were taking me to task for calling Glenn Gould a vandal, which I never did, one of the responses to my article brought up the question of revivals. He said that when any work of (theatrical) art is “revived,” it should have “new life breathed into it” even if that means changes to the original. Now this gentleman is a professor of music at St. John’s University in New York City and knows of what he speaks. But while I agreed with all the rest he wrote, I cannot agree with his attitude towards revivals. This is, of course, not a question of right and wrong, but one of definition..

To “re-vive” is to “live again.” That is the denotation. Unhappily there are many connotations. To me, a pure revival should be done in the same form in which it was done in the past. No, I am not claiming it should be PRODUCED as a clone of the original, but it should at least follow the original script. I also feel that the acting style should be appropriate to the period of the original, but that is treading on dangerous ground.

So if a play is “revived”–as was (say) “Annie Get Your Gun” at Lincoln Center back in 1966 –with a subplot removed and a song along with it, a new song added, and its treatment of the American Indians totally “PC’d”–and again in 1999 with even more “improvements” or as is the revival of “Flower Drum Song” which is less stereotypical of the Oriental characters (they claim), these cannot be called “revivals” as much as “adaptations.”

Hey, how about a “Richard III” in which he is the kindest man in England and kills only in self defence to avoid showing a handicapped person being evil because he is handicapped? And then call it a revival? (Or did I just give some lunatic director an idea?)

41C4NY7E8QL
1994 recording of “revival”

When “Damn Yankees” was revived, the only real change was to give “Two lost souls” to Lola and Applegate rather than to Lola and Joe. This was merely a sop to the actor playing Applegate, despite the fact that the Devil would certainly not sing those lyrics while Joe certainly would. But all else remained untouched and we can safely call it a revival. When “Bye, Bye, Birdie” was redone on television, the title song from the film version was used and a very good song was given to the Mother. All else was left intact and we had a revival with additions.

download
Faithful to the original with two extra songs

Very often, the complete score will be kept but the book will be rewritten. This happens mostly with operettas in which the original books and most of the dialogue are truly poor. But if one went to see “The Merry Widow” revival and found it was about a rich woman who has become a Marxist and is trying desperately to give away her fortune to the masses while her government is trying to get it for themselves, even if every song is left intact one could still complain the audience was not getting the product as advertised.

When one goes to see a film version of “Hamlet,” one really does not expect to hear every word of the play as it has come down to us. Olivier gave us about half of the dialogue with the scenes pretty much in the order Shakespeare put them. The Mel Gibson vehicle gives us considerably fewer lines spoken in some sort of random order. The Branagh epic gives us every single line (which many found stultifying). I say nothing about the production values because they have no bearing on my main thesis.

download (3)
A “Gondoliers” with Gilbert’s words and lyrics held in disdain

But a musical is something else again, and Gilbert & Sullivan is something special. Let me repeat an example from a previous essay in this paper. A Canadian and later an Australian production (borrowed from the former) of “The Gondoliers” changed a good deal of the lyrics and some of the dialogue to make references to contemporary situations in those countries. Now since the action is set in the Venice of 1750–and these productions kept the costumes in that period–of what point were the references to things that did not yet exist for the characters? Of course, they caused some cheap laughs, but none of this had anything to do with the work being performed. Gilbert is funny enough on his own and does not need help.

Now there is a case of “vandalism” in the true sense of the word. “Breathing new life into the work” can be done by better acting, livelier singing, imaginative staging. References to “safe sex” and Australian politics in “The Gondoliers” is sophmoronic nonsense.

Now I must be honest and yield to the arguments of with those with a more liberal definition of “revival.” But do you not agree that at least the advertising should warn the ticket-buying public which of the three– revival, adaptation, desecration–their money is going to bring?

Comic Characters on the Musical Stage

 

220px-Lehar_Lustige-Witwe_KlA-01“Comic” Characters on the Musical Stage Are Nothing to Laugh At

Well, it happened again. Many of you might have caught on PBS television a production of “The Merry Widow” from San Francisco some years ago. In it is the ancient subplot of three husbands (it is usually only one) being cuckolded by their pretty wives, all the while bragging how faithful their spouses are compared with those of other men. Not that adultery is supposed to be funny per se–and after all, in the Lehar operetta the women only flirt (as far we can tell). But the husbands are such pompous asses that we are supposed to say “Good for you” and laugh at their expense.

The problem is that the actor/singers are invariably directed to give a cartoon performance that destroys any social point the librettist had in mind. The plots of most “Merry Widow”-type operettas are flimsy enough without taking the humanity out of the cast of characters and leaving us with nothing really to laugh at. And being less than human, there is no social point they can make.

downloadFor example, Laurel and Hardy were bumbling fools. But their hearts were pure, their intentions always good. It was their human failings that always got in their way. In a classic short, “Towed in a Hole,” they are trying to improve their “fresh fish” business by fixing up an old boat to cut out the middleman. The fact that Stan can do nothing right and that Ollie thinks he himself can do everything right–failings that come from their basic characters–is what leads to a string of disasters ending in the total demolition of the boat.

CSIRO_ScienceImage_10743_Onitis_aygulus
A comic but heroic character in a nature film

But the husbands in “The Merry Widow” have nothing but failings. There is nothing funny about that because they are not believable. Consider the following. In the nature film “Microcosmos,” there is a sequence in which a dung beetle gets his huge ball of dung stuck on a twig. Not having the intelligence to see why he is making no progress, he simply keeps pushing and pushing until the ball rolls over the twig. The audience cheered! And this for a dung beetle! It won the audience’s sympathy because its persistence, although part of its genetic code, was understandable and laudable. The three husbands, then, come out in most productions several sympathetic notches below the little hero of the nature sequence.

150px-KoKo_1926
Ko-Ko in a 1926 costume

In too many versions of “The Mikado,” Ko-Ko is played as an idiot, unable even to carry his large ax when he enters (although Gilbert wanted a sword). I do not know how George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko, played the role, but Martyn Green certainly established once and for all the feebleminded Lord High Executioner. However, when one production updated and replaced the action to an English seaside resort hotel lobby during the 1920s and cast Eric Idle of the Monty Python group to play the role, he pranced on with a tennis racket, addressed the people through a loudspeaker, feedback and all, and dismissed Nanki-Poo with what is usually a throwaway line, “Take him away,” in a very no-nonsense, dangerous way. Finally, a Ko-Ko to be reckoned with!

300px-Pinafore1899
An early souvenir program illustration showing Sir Joseph lording it over the Captain of the Pinafore

Worse still is having Sir Joseph Porter in “HMS Pinafore” played like a clown. (I must admit, I saw it done only once and that was in a rehearsal, after which most of the business was dropped.) Sir Joseph is all dignity, a dignity that does not come natural to him since his greatest accomplishment was to polish up the handle of the big front door and the only ship he had ever seen was a partnership before he was elevated to the rank he now holds and does not in the least deserve. The point Gilbert (who also directed his own works) is making is that Porter LOOKS and ACTS like “the ruler of the Queen’s nahvee” despite the hollowness below the glitter, and is therefore treated with respect his rank (if not the man) deserves in the British social scale.

The same must be said for the character of Dr. Bartolo in “The Barber of Seville.” If he is played as a total fool, then all the machinations devised by Rosina, Figaro and Almaviva are wasted effort. Now and then, a good actor/singer plays him as an intelligent person and the opera seems to make sense. He fails because of his ego, not because he is stupid. But then again, so many productions of “Barber” are played strictly for laughs that believable characterization is at a premium.

the-bird-catcher-papageno-from-an-1816-production-of-die-zauberflote-1369150859_org
Papageno as he appeared in a 1816 production

Even the richly comic Papageno in “The Magic Flute” might be played as childish, but always very very human. After all, opera is drama and drama is about human beings. Even farces are based on human failings, but in this area the rules are somewhat relaxed since farce is based on types (“humors” as Ben Jonson put it) and complexity of character is actually detrimental in this case.

This essay is, if anything, a caveat for local groups, both amateur and semi-professional, that might consider some of my comments while planning their next productions. Cheap laughs are easy to achieve, as Gilbert once commented, if all you do is to sit on a pork pie. Real life, however, needs real people up on that stage–even if they do live in a world where an orchestra is always playing.

Love Me Tonight

 

A-Love Me TonightAn Appreciation of a Great Almost Forgotten Musical Film

Most of the earlier movie musicals were concerned with a troupe putting on a musical. The best of them is “42nd Street,” many of the others a pale imitation of that wonderful work. A good many other film musicals are simply fair or not at all faithful transcriptions of a stage show to the screen.  However, now and then there is a musical written specifically for the screen that really works.

The Astaire-Rogers films had wonderful music and exquisite dancing, while the plots were lame, predictable and juvenile. A rare treat like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” was a welcome exception in which every element just worked! In this essay, I want to turn my readers’ attention to an even more exceptional musical film from 1932 called “Love Me Tonight.”

Designed as a vehicle for Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, it boasts a fabulous score by Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart. The slim plot, alas, depends on the very wealthy MacDonald mistaking the lowly tailor Chevalier for an aristocrat when he comes to her chateau to be paid for his work by Charlie Ruggles. So much for the story.

The film opens as does no other film musical in my recollection. In silence. A quiet street in Paris at sunup. Clock bells chime. A worker comes out to pound with a rhythmic beat a hole in the road. He is joined by a man snoring, a woman with a broom, some chimneys spouting smoke, a crying baby, the metal door guard to a shop being rolled up, a blanket being snapped to be aired out, two cobblers at their laths, a knife grinder, a woman beating a carpet, some car horns—each with a contrasting beat—until a young girl puts on a phonograph record to bring some melody onto the scene. This provides the background for Chevalier’s first number, “The Song of Paree,” which carries him from his flat to his shop.

220px-Rodgers_and_Hart_NYWTS
Composer (l) and lyricist (r) in 1936

After some rhythmic and rhymed dialogue with a customer, Chevalier begins “Isn’t It Romantic?” with some male-chauvinist lyrics (that were changed when the song became a single). The customer leaves the shop singing part of the lyrics and is overheard by a taxi driver, who hums the song in the presence of a composer who takes the cab to the station. Giving the song new lyrics, the composer is overheard by a troupe of soldiers, who adopt it as a marching song, which is overheard by a convenient gypsy violinist, who plays a melancholy version to his people. This is overheard by MacDonald on her balcony and she sings it with yet newer lyrics—thereby establishing her connection with the male love-interest far before they meet.

Just before they do meet, she sings a “throwaway” song to her horse, “Lover,” which became a perennial hit (much to Rodgers and Hart’s surprise). When they finally meet, Chevalier calls her Mimi for the sole purpose of introducing another hit song of the same name. When the tailor is revealed as a non-noble, “The Son-of-a-Gun is Nothing But a Tailor” is sung first by all the main characters (including the venerable C. Aubrey Smith in his only singing moment on film) and then by the downstairs staff.

In short, the team, along with director Rouben Mamoulian, had found a solution for the musical-comedy question, How does a musical number advance the plot and at the same time hold the viewer’s interest in a dark movie house?

download (3)
Myrna Loy has the best line in the film

(The biggest laugh, by the way, is a non-musical one. When her sister is ill, the love-starved Myrna Loy is asked, “Can you go for a doctor?” She brightens up and says, “Certainly. Bring him right in.”)

In his autobiography, “Musical Stages,” Rodgers writes that he, Hart and Mamoulian, were “convinced that a musical film should be created in musical terms—that dialogue, song and scoring should all be integrated as closely as possible so that the final product would have the unity of style and design.” They also wanted “not only moving the camera and the performers, but having the entire scene move” during musical numbers just as it does in a dialogue scene. The fact that not every song quite achieves this goal is unimportant since half of the songs do. (Wouldn’t Wagner have approved?)

Many film versions of stage musicals overdo this concept by having the singers suddenly shift locations without missing a beat of the music. This is merely film gimmickry and not what Rodgers et al. had in mind at all by “movement.”

Now and then, the Turner Classic Movies cable channel will show this film; and it is available on the Kino Video label. Well worth seeing.

And I would appreciate nominations from my readers for other musicals made for film that have high merit.

Singing in English, or the Impossible Dream

IMG_20150527_0002_NEW

Singing in English, or the Impossible Dream

“Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” lamented Henry Higgins. My question is why too many vocal coaches cannot teach their students how to pronounce the lyrics of what they sing.

For example, the expression  “I’ll love you for eternity” which I have almost always heard sung as “I love you for eternity.  “Is there no way,” I asked myself, “to pause between the last L’s of ‘I’ll’ and the first L of ‘love’?” The replies I got from singers were either, “It would break up the vocal line” (there would have to be a pause between the last “l” of “I’ll and the first “l” of “love”), or “What difference does it make?” The latter irritated me greatly, because the purpose of a song is to express words with music. Of course, the music is important, but never–repeat, never–at the expense of the words.

Truth to tell, during actual productions, most of what the cast is singing cannot be understood in any language, let alone the “I love/I’ll love” distinction. Shall we call this the Joan Sutherland Syndrome? A total lack of concern with the lyrics based on the supposition that music is all important?

Things get bad during a program (say) of jazz arrangements of popular standards, as we try to follow a trail of dropped or misplaced final consonants left by the singer. It is difficult indeed to make sense of lines like “Dohn geh taroun much anym’re” and “Gra bya ha tan gra bya coh, lee vya worrie zon the doorsteh” and so on. Most of the consonants are there, but attached to the wrong words.

220px-Pygmalion_serialized_November_1914
Perhaps Prof. Higgins should have taught singers to sing English

Even worse is the Case of the Missing Consonants. This seems more of a problem with female vocalists some of whom possess a marvelous voice but let forth a gorgeous stream of vowels in which (and I am not using a writer’s privilege of exaggeration) not one single consonant can be heard all through the performance. In the case of amateurs, not one single loving parent, friend, audience member, wants to mention this lack to their daughters, neighbor’s daughters, boss’s nieces, all of whom–spurred on by all the bravas they received–will continue to think that singing a text has nothing to do with the words therein.

So the question boils down to what should a singer do? Or better still, what should an audience demand of its singers to make them do what a singer should do? First of all, we have to be honest when relatives, friends, and other locals get up to entertain. What happens is that the Director has all the words already and in mind and THINKS he or she is hearing them. (This is what probably happens at the opera performances I attend.) So does every one else involved in the production.

I would suggest that some disinterested party, or at least someone who does not know the lyrics, should be invited to a rehearsal not too near opening night and comment on what is heard or not heard, what is understood and not understood. And a sound recording to back up those comments would not be a bad idea.

Either alone or with the musical director, each singer should talk the lyrics, deliberately exaggerating all consonants until they are perfectly audible when sung. So “I coulD haVe danceD aLL nighT” does not come out as “I codv dans (t)all nigh,” as I actually heard it done in a local production of “My Fair Lady.” (Actually, I barely heard even that much, since the singer was miked and made no attempt at projecting her voice, let alone her enunciation.)

When it comes to pop and country singing, the results are even more unintelligible, thanks to the singers’ tendency to make love to the microphone and mumble into it. The mike, blast it, only amplifies; it does not clarify. The very first Edison recording of “Mary had a little lamb” will sound just as bad on the most advanced state of the art reproduction system.

Nowhere is the problem of enunciation more acute than in patter songs like those in Gilbert & Sullivan or an English “Barber of Seville.” Since they are made up mostly of polysyllabic words, hitting off each consonant and separating each word is absolutely essential to communicating with the audience. Of course, many popular songs have very little of semantic value to communicate at all; but Broadway shows and opera in English are designed to say something–shallow or deep as the case may–and the audience deserves to hear what that is.

So perhaps if this little essay is read by some directors and does a little good, I would very much appreciate knowing about it.

A Plea to Local Theatre Groups: Take a Chance!

IMG_20150526_0002_NEW
Two of the four twins in “The Boys from Syracuse”

A Plea to Local Theatre Groups: Take a Chance!

How many times have you sat with a fixed smile through a local production of “Oklahoma!” or “West Side Story,” all the while knowing every word of the lyrics and most of the dialogue because the high school did it just a year ago and the film version has been on AMC or TCM a dozen times in the past few years? But you have come not so much to enjoy the production as to witness the performances. After all, your daughter will show up for a second in a crowd scene or your dentist will soliloquize about “My Boy Bill” or–worse still–your wife will play the female lead’s best friend and you have been running lines with her for the past three months.

How much more, you think, you would enjoy a good production of “Pal Joey” or “Girl Crazy” or even any Cole Porter play other than “Anything Goes” or “Kiss Me Kate.” Where I live and back in 2001 when I first wrote this essay, the Lions Club is getting under weigh for the year’s Big Show: “Hello Dolly.” At the same time, a town 15 miles eastward is working on “Guys & Dolls.” Last year it was a “My Fair Lady” in which all the local talent did its best, some with “Cockney” accents that were totally unintelligible and almost none with any feeling for the Shavian dialogue.

Every year I make a pest of myself advocating a Rodgers and Hart instead of a Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Babes in Arms” is loaded with hits, “The Boys From Syracuse” has somewhat fewer “big numbers” (e.g. “This Can’t Be Love”) but a far better “book” cribbed from Shakespeare, and “Pal Joey” has several great tunes and characters who actually interest us. So why “The Sound of Music” yet again or “Fiddler on the Roof”? The answer is blatantly clear: Box Office.

A summer stock company in Vermont puts out a questionnaire each year, asking for requests for the upcoming season. Well, you should easily guess what titles show up year after year. Is it that people are just comfortable with the same old musicals? Is it that they simply do not know of the existence of other musicals–or they know them by title but know nothing about the quality of the scores or lyrics? I cannot second-guess what is in their minds. I give courses in Broadway History, so I have more of a pool from which to make my selections. And yet….

From the point of view of the group putting on the production, alas, the bottom line cannot be artistic, it must be financial. The best performed “Pardon My English” (a once recorded, never to my knowledge performed musical by the Gershwin brothers) that plays to empty houses must be considered less desirable than a very mediocre “Carousel” that packs them in. This is an unfortunate fact of theatrical life, but there we are.

Now I do not mean to imply that yet another “South Pacific” that is well done is to be despised. There are reasons for repeating the Top Ten or Twelve over and over. One of them is audience expectation. They know the music and words ahead of time. There is always that thrill of recognition when “Nothing Like a Dame” strikes up. But what about the thrill of discovery when an audience hears, possibly for the first time, the extremely clever lyrics to “Way Out West on West End Avenue” from “Babes in Arms” or the wonderful Gilbert & Sullivanish chorus of Supreme Court Judges in the second act of “Of Thee I Sing”?

My local Lions Club once had a bad box office experience with “Pippin” and has been paralyzed into a conservative mode ever since. It so happens that “Pippin” has very little music worth hearing, its chief merit lying in the choreography of Bob Fosse and the sexy costumes of the warrior-women. But what if they had chosen, say, “Babes in Arms”?

220px-Rodgers_and_Hart_NYWTS
Rodgers seated, Hart standing, both outstanding

Okay, there we have the quintessential “Let’s put on a show, gang” plot that would call for a lot of local youthful talent and songs that almost anyone who can carry a tune can put over with a bang: “Where or When,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One Note,” “The Lady is a Tramp.”  And the less-familiar numbers are almost as good as those standards.  Or try Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy,” unfortunately undermined for a long time by the adaptation called “Crazy For You.” Here we have “Bidin’ My Time,” “Could You Use Me?” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me.”

Hey, these are the great bubble-headed musicals of the 20s and 30s when you went to a musical to hear music, not to see a ship hit an iceberg, a chandelier fall, or some cat apotheosized on a floating tire! I firmly believe it is the duty of these community groups to bring to their audiences the best of the old with a fresh approach–but without camping them up or otherwise patronizing the product.

One word of warning to anyone I have actually convinced. The publishers of “Babes in Arms” have had the book rewritten for some inexplicable reason. All the songs are still in place and there is still a group of youngsters who want to put on a show, but the motivations are all different. Be sure to say so in your playbills, please, lest the audience get a misconception of what Rodgers and Hart had in mind.

 

Opera: Caution! Open with Care

 

Opera: Caution! Open with Care

A very interesting point can be made abouPinocchiot how one is introduced to an opera. If an initiate has heard recordings of only (say) “Il Trovatore,” he might look at opera as a silly story sung in a foreign language, with arias, ensembles and choruses set to extremely enjoyable, recognizable, and many memorable melodies. Asking to hear another, he listens to (say) “Wozzek” or “Lulu” and sits stupefied, waiting in vain for what the Verdi opera had to offer. Unprepared, he might be turned off “opera” forever, or realize that the word can refer to many varieties.

However, would the scenario be the same if the person had been introduced to the works by seeing a fully staged production of those same works? A recent experience I had was being introduced to two modern operas, one on video and one on CDs, and certain questions came to mind.

A new opera with music by Jonathan Dove has appeared on an Opus Arte DVD called “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Based closely on the original novel by Carlo Collodi, it tells in 20 scenes the story of the wooden boy who wants to deserve to be turned into a real boy.

The production, filmed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, is spectacular. The conductor is David Parry. The costume and makeup for Pinocchio (Victoria Simmonds) is remarkable. (She is seen at the very end without the makeup and that is worth the wait.) The makeup and costumes for the Fox, Cat, Snail, Cricket, and other non-human roles are clever and funny.

One can easily see how sanitized the Disney cartoon of “Pinocchio” is by comparison. In the opera, for example, the Cricket intones a few bars of advice and then is squished against the wall by the impatient puppet. No wishing upon a star here!

The score is brilliant, but…. And here we go again! There seems to be a rule in what is wrongly called modern “opera” that not a single memorable melody must appear in the vocal lines. The closest a singer in this work gets to what is almost a melody is the Coachman enticing the boys to hop aboard for a trip to Funland. Therefore I am quite sure my impression of this work would have been a lot cooler if I had heard only the sound portion of the DVD or a CD of the work.

At the same time, there is a 2-CD set on the Troy label of Lee Hoiby’s “The Tempest,” based on the Shakespeare play. Judging from the photos on the cover and booklet, I am sure I would be raving about the production as I have about “Pinocchio.” But alas, while (again) the orchestra is doing marvelous things, the singers are given mostly declamatory vocal lines. “Come unto these yellow sands” approaches a melody, but holds off. The other songs provided by the original are anti-melodic in a dogged way that puts me off the work as a whole.

It is most difficult to take a blank verse or (worse) a prose text and set it to any sort of interesting music. Verdi could in “Falstaff,” his followers could not and their followers, it would seem, cannot. Starting with the long narrative of Prospero (Robert Balonek) to Miranda (Catherine Webber), one is aware of how musically sterile many of the vocal lines tend to be. It is a shame, because the Purchase Opera orchestra and cast under Hugh Murphy sound quite good vocally and dramatically.

It is interesting to think that I would rather hear “Il Trovatore” than see most recent productions, because the score is so utterly enjoyable in both the orchestral and vocal lines, while many productions today have settings and costumes totally out of synch with the action. On the other hand, I avoid hearing “Wozzek” or “Lulu” with their wretched 12-tone straitjackets but do not at all mind seeing a production, if it is intelligently staged. Therefore I know I am being unfair to “The Tempest” and wish fervently for a video of this production that I know I will enjoy to some extent.

Note: Another recent DVD release is of Lorin Maazel’s operatic version of Orwell’s “1984”! I really enjoyed the video production and doubt if I would have wanted to hear more than the first scene or two had it appeared on CDs.

To each his own.

 

 

Carmen’s Lunch Break and a Socratic Discourse

 

Carmen pixCarmen’s Lunch Break and a Socratic Discourse

After hearing “Carmen” on LPs and then CDs and then watching it on DVDs and in live performances, something finally popped into my mind. Does Carmen sing the Habanera EVERY DAY during the break from the cigarette factory?

There is no doubt that the entire male population of Seville tries its luck with her the moment she appears and that the song is an answer to the crowd. But what should motivate her on that particular day to proclaim her Gypsy Woman’s Manifesto?

Reply: This is only an opera and one does not ask questions like that. The character needs an entrance aria and Bizet gives her a good one. That is all we need to know.

Response: Yes, the work might be an opera but it is also a DRAMA. It is one of the earliest operas that looks at and treats life realistically. These are supposed to be real people and it is up to the Director to make them seem real. If she sings that long song at that moment, there must be some motivation for it.

Reply: There is a motivation. You said so yourself. She is responding to the amorous male chorus.

Response: I thought I covered that. They woo her every day. But why respond on this particular day? What is new that day?

Those familiar with the opera know that Don Jose has just joined the Seville regiment and Carmen sees him for the first time. If I were directing, I would play it this way. Don Jose is busy fixing his firing pin and does not see her. She sees him. Bingo! Her next temporary lover.

Even more interesting would be: Bingo! The man who is going to kill her. Since the Fate motif has just been played upon her entrance, this is a distinct possibility. She is turned on by the danger.

In either case,  how to get his attention? Ah, pretend to be addressing the crowd but aim it all at the handsome soldier.

She sings the first stanza but it doesn’t work. Or perhaps it does but Don Jose pretends not to hear or understand what he clearly does hear. So she becomes bolder. She sings the second stanza directly to him, leaving no doubt to any one as to her intentions. In this way, not only is the song as a whole motivated but even the second stanza alone serves a DRAMATIC purpose–as well as revealing not only her character but her methods.

In fact, I would have her coworkers nudge each other with knowing nods and winks. They certain know what is going on. So should the audience.

And thus can a warhorse of an aria become a telling dramatic event.

Reply: Isn’t that exactly what happens in “La Boheme” when Musetta wins back Marcello with her waltz song?

Response: Yes. Puccini’s librettist knew how to use a song to forward the plot. Bizet’s (I feel) merely put in an entrance number. It is up to the Director to coin gold from the ordinary.

220px-MatadorEarly20thCentury
A real matador from early 1900s.

In the next act, we see Escamillo responding to the crowd’s acclaim with his “Toreador Song.” Being a conceited and shallow superstar, his motivation is obvious. He loves being admired and reminds his fans about all the things he has done to be admired. I can believe he DOES sing this song at the drop of a hat whenever he thinks the crowd will appreciate it. However, while singing his aria this time, he notices Carmen. And it is always played on stage that the “amours” at the end of his second stanza are directed only at her, while she repeats them only to him.

Here, only the most obtuse Director would ignore the obvious and treat it as just another aria.

And speaking of “La Boheme,” every single number in that all-too-short gem helps advance the plot as well as revealing character. Oh yes, it has been mentioned that Colline’s farewell to his overcoat seems an interpolation; but it is certainly motivated by the circumstances and does show us quite a bit about Colline’s character—not to mention that of his overcoat!

It is sobering to recall that the earliest musicals scarcely had ANY songs that were dramatically motivated at that moment other than the justification that the character was expressing an emotion concerning events at that moment. Early opera is loaded with this kind of arias, because it was the purpose of an aria back then simply to express a single emotion.

When faced with a “realistic” or “verismo” work from about 1870 on, a Director must find dramatic reasons for nearly every musical moment. WHY is this character singing this particular aria at this moment? What does it accomplish? (That last question might prove unsolvable for many arias.) What new information does it reveal about the character?

This is not easy. But many directors of local opera groups or even professional companies might want to consider this question seriously before mounting yet another humdrum production. But for now, give Carmen a break!

Super Star = Super Troubles

Wildcat

Super Star = Super Troubles

There are many cautionary tales out there about reasons for the failure of seemingly promising Broadway musicals.  One of the reasons is the ill-advised decision to take a Super Star and build a show around that luminary. As the recent history of the American musical theatre can abundantly demonstrate in three words: It don’t work!

Take this case in which a Super Star was contracted to play a secondary character.

downloadOne of Eugene O’Neill’s lighter plays is “Ah, Wilderness” (1933); and some decades later, David Merrick thought it might be ripe for musicalization and was given the title “Take Me Along.” Once the idea gelled, Walter Pidgeon and Eileen Hurlie were cast (both excellent actors but really non-singers) along with the immensely popular Jackie Gleason in the role of Uncle Sid. This character was a sort of comedy relief role, but Gleason was the Great One, as he liked to be called, and secondary roles were too small for him.

Gleason also insisted that he get $50 more than the then highest paid actor on Broadway and wound up with $5050 a week! As his role took on more importance, the balance of the show went all out of kilter; but he did draw audiences. However, when the audiences dwindled, the Great One got bored and began to deviate from the script and from the dance routines. When he pulled a ligament on stage, he left the show, but Merrick hired a detective to be sure Gleason really was incapacitated. His replacement was the less flamboyant but more dependable William Bendix.1

When the show closed, it closed with a deficit, while Gleason got a Tony Award for Best Actor in a musical. (Considering what he did to the show, I think this was a shame.) One should always be aware of the Super Star comedian. But that lesson has to be learned over and over again.

220px-Jerry_Lewis_-_1960sAnother comedian known to be uncontrollable but still cast to bring in audiences was Jerry Lewis. Now the old Olsen and Johnson “Hellzapoppin” is not exactly an intellectual evening in the theater and it can bear a star whose unpredictability might be an asset. However, Lewis decided he could dictate what should be done about the show that had little to do with his role. For example, there was his insistance that a young female protégé of his be cast in place of more seasoned performers.

Although we must never second guess what motivated a person to do this and that, his connection with the female concerned might have caused the more-than-just-friction between Lewis and his co-star, the excellent Lynn Redgrave. Rumor had it that Redgrave’s fine performance was putting the younger woman into the background—which was almost certainly true.

It is also true that incompetence was shown by others on other levels. But the fact remains that the show’s Broadway opening was cancelled and that was that.2

220px-George-m-cohan-1
George M. Cohan as he looked in 1908

Even worse is the story of Rodgers and Hart’s “I’d Rather be Right.” Egos did not come larger than that of George M. Cohan, who was coaxed into playing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For starters, he detested Roosevelt. Worse yet, he was used to starring only in shows with music and lyrics by…George M. Cohan! From early on, he made it clear to Richard Rodgers that not one song was good enough. Rodgers, always hypersensitive to criticism, felt his music was running a poor third to lyrics and book, and lacked inspiration to produce anything really good for the show.

The show ran 290 performances and would be only of historical interest if revived today. Cohan, of course, is still Mr. Broadway in the annals of the American Musical.3

There is one more danger that must be mentioned in the context of the troubles of building a show around a Super Star. When the immensely popular Lucille Ball was given the lead in “Wildcat,” the critics pointed out that she was the only positive factor in a less than mediocre musical. The show ran only 171 performances, but there were many nights in which Lucy was simply too exhausted to appear—and who wanted to see a rotten show without the star, who was the only reason for having purchased the tickets in the first place?

Rule: When the situation dictates that the STAR must go on, the SHOW has little hope.

Sources

(1) The program notes for the RCA Victor CD of “Take Me Along.”

(2) Second Act Trouble by Steven Suskin (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2006)

(3) Somewhere for Me: a Biography of Richard Rodgers by Meryle Secrest (Knapp, 2001)

When Mimi Meets Rodolfo: a Challenge to Directors

BohemeWhen Mimi Meets Rodolfo: a Challenge to Directors

Some time ago, I considered how a director might handle the first meeting of Don Jose and Carmen. Now I would like to do the same with the first meeting of Rodolfo and Mimi in Act I of Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

Those familiar with the opera’s source, Henri Murger’s “Scenes de la vie boheme,” know it to be a series of short stories, through which several main characters appear again and again as in a chemical reaction as they affect and are affected by one another. At least six of them were to appear in Puccini’s treatment of the tragic love between two of them.

In Murger, Mimi is no angel. Driven by the necessities of a life on the edge of starvation and the winter’s cold, she turns, as so many others like her, to the streets, always hoping to find a rich baron or banker who can show her the high life, even for a little while. Puccini’s librettists tried very hard to show her as the good girl with a heart of gold in contrast to Musetta, the whore with the heart of gold.

In the past, I have paid more attention to the music of Mimi’s autobiographical introduction, “Mi chiamano Mimi” than to the words. Poor darling, who does her best to scrape out the meanest existence in a pathetic way but who loves what bits of nature she can capture in her wretched apartment.

And then her candle blows out in the hallway outside the garret apartment of Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard. (The last three are waiting for their poetic friend downstairs with, it would seem, a large degree of patience.) She timidly knocks on the door, Rodolfo opens it, sees her—and love at first sight.

Or is it?

As any good player knows, there is always a silent script that should be passing through an actor’s mind. Permit me to make one up for Mimi.

No rich man for me at present. Starving, freezing. Here’s a good looking young man. But as poor as I am, by the looks of him. Something is better than nothing; some one is better than no one. Just temporary. Let’s try.

costumes
The lovers costumed for the first showing of this opera

She drops her key as if by accident, a candle blows out, they both search and their hands touch. Rodolfo thinks he is in charge and charms her with his autobiographical aria, “Che gelida manina.” In it, he boasts that all his dreams are castles in the air (“castelli in aria”). And he even goes so far as to call her two beautiful eyes thieves, because they stole from him his dreams but replaced them with hope. He has nothing to hide, but he has a very smooth line for a new pretty girl.

This gives her time to think. She must lie…but not too much of a lie. A little hint that she might not be quite what she seems to be. Maybe he knows this already, so be subtle.

“I call myself Mimi, but my name is Lucia,” she sings. Okay, everyone has a nickname in their social circle. She goes on to say that she is tranquil and happy with the small things in life—embroidery, making lilies and roses (false ones, if you get what I mean)—small things that talk of all the things that are called poetry.

Okay, young man, you are a poet, I am a lover of poetry. So much for the bait. Now for some selected bits of honesty.

She explains that she lives all alone in her tiny white room (the “white” has good connotations); but she is the first one to be kissed (good way to put it, keep it up) by the April sun. She seldom attends church. (Oh, he’s bound to find out sooner or later, so go ahead and say it.) But, alas, the flowers I make have no scent. (It’s all a fake, the song you sang to me, the song I sang to you, this meeting, the dropped key. Don’t expect too much, young man. Life isn’t like that.)

Of course, any actor will agree but argue that very little of this silent script can come through to an audience. Puccini’s music is nothing but sincere. How can any Mimi on a stage and having to sing the notes as written in tempos dictated by the conductor possibly bring any of this across?

Would it be too much to have her gaze lovingly at Rodolfo while singing one idea and turning away when the “all that glisters is not gold” idea is dominant? I leave this to future directors of “La Boheme” to consider. I have seen far too many productions that refused to depart from the love-at-first-sight staging and make Mimi into a less interesting character.

Intermission Impossible

Mime
This nicely shows how the Mime must have felt during his interview after Act I of “Siegfried.”

INTERMISSION IMPOSSIBLE

I am not an opera singer, not even in the shower. But I do know this. If I had just performed the role of Mime the Dwarf in Act I of “Siegfried,” which lasted about 90 minutes, and in which I sang almost non-stop from curtain up to curtain down, the last thing in the world I would want is to be stopped on the way to my dressing room and asked questions for 10 minutes. Indeed, I would politely or not too politely beg off and go to rest my body and voice for as long as the intermission allowed.

Of course, if I knew in advance what was coming…but hush! It is all part of a game.

For example, this is exactly what happened to the Mime (one of the evil dwarfs in “Siegfried”) whose performance was seen by (I don’t know how many) thousands at the Metropolitan Opera and in movie houses all over the world. The audience at the Met was at least spared what the HD audience had to watch. There was a certain soprano waiting like a bird of prey to ask the poor man all sorts of questions about what he thought about the staging and about the role. “It pays the bills” was his wonderful answer and I wanted to shout out, “Good for you!”

In another intermission, other leads were treated to the same round of questioning, just as had been done between the two acts of “Don Giovanni” a week or two before, and as will be done in all the performances to come.

My objections to this practice go beyond consideration for the physical needs of those interviewed. I take exception to the value-judgment questions in which positive responses are the only ones possible under the circumstances. I believe that in many instances they are obliged to lie.

Imagine then a typical set of questions asked of an utterly fatigued star: the Question, the Answer, and the actual Thoughts of the victim.

 

  1. How does it feel to work with Marco Gondolieri?
  2. Absolutely wonderful. He is a true professional and encourages us all to do our best.
  3. (I’ve never seen a bigger pain in the rear. He knows he is called a superstar and actually believes it. Should have been put out to pasture ten years ago, and he wasn’t very good even then. And an acting lesson or two might help.)

 

  1. What is the challenge in singing this role?
  2. Well, the score is difficult. You know how the 64-tone music of Wolfgang Schmutz is extremely hard to follow, let alone memorize. But it does help create my character and all the hard work is worth it.
  3. (I hate it when I have to sing crap like this. I doubt if Schmutz could write a tune as good as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” if his life depended on it. I only wonder how audiences can sit through this boring idiocy. Let alone how the orchestra can play it.)

 

  1. How do you feel about this production of “Figaro Meets Fafner”?
  2. It is an interesting interpretation of this work and casts some new light on what the composer intended. Illbred Kerfunkle is a director with real talent.
  3. (Having the cast swinging from the flies over a stage full of mud should earn us danger money. How dressing us in paper bags and now and then having us fall into the muck is supposed to tell the audience anything is beyond me. Why did they hire this lunatic director? Didn’t they hear of his “Carmen” done nude on roller skates? What did they expect from him for this new work? But as long as audiences pay good money for this dreck, I don’t have to worry about being out of work.)

 

This next one was actually asked of a conductor, who at that moment was being called to the pit. I can’t recall the exact words, but this is a pretty close paraphrase.

 

Q: Last week you conducted “Don Giovanni.” Now you are conducting “Siegfried.” Do you find the switch a great challenge?

A: (Pausing to think of a quick answer that will let him get on conducting the next act) Well, they both have a lot in common, since Mozart was Austrian and Wagner was German. You know, the same musical background.

T: (My God, does she make up these idiotic questions or does someone else who knows nothing about opera give them to her?)

 

Again, the audience in the opera house is spared all this as they stand on impossibly long lines at the rest rooms. But the people watching the HD transmission in movie houses have to add one hour to their getting home time by watching the crew moving scenery (which can be quite interesting) and by listening to some star, trying to keep up a charming smile while talking (this cannot be done for long) asking the kind of questions I have paraphrased.

Perhaps “The Opera Quiz” and/or some expert giving really interesting insight into the work, as was done during the radio broadcasts, should be substituted for these interviews, not only for the benefit of the movie house audiences but certainly for the exhausted performers who simply want to rest their voices.