I Have a Song to Sing, O!

BalladI Have a Song to Sing, O!

When the players arrive at Elsinore and Hamlet asks them to perform “The Murder of Gonzago” so he can catch the conscience of the King,” Shakespeare had a problem. Since the characters in “Hamlet” speak for the most part in iambic pentameter and the players will speak in iambic pentameter in the play within the play, the challenge was to make the “Gonzago” dialogue SOUND like dialogue while the dialogue of “Hamlet” would still sound natural.

Shakespeare’s solution to this problem was to make the dialogue of the inner play sound old fashioned and clunky relative to the speech of the “real” characters. In musical work, opera or musical comedy or whatever, most of the songs are supposed to be extensions of the spoken dialogue (as in “The Magic Flute” or “The Mikado) or as emotional highlights in a work in which all the lines are sung. But now and then, the plot requires that a “song” be sung as a song and not as dialogue. How to deal with this?

Mozart had this problem in “Le Nozze di Figaro” when Cherubino is asked to sing his ditty to the Countess. Of course, these characters do nothing but singing—so how to make the song sound like a song rather than the sung-dialogue that is the very nature of opera? The best even Mozart could do is make the orchestra sound like the guitar that Suzanna usually makes believe she is playing while Cherubino warbles away. (See picture above.)

And how familiar is Don Giovanni’s serenade to his own (usually feigned) accompaniment on a lute! And the Merry Widow’s tale of Villia! And so on down the line.

Very early into Act I of Rossini’s “Il Barbieri di Seviglia,” the Count must sing a serenade; and again, he is provided with a guitar that he should actually play if he can while vocalizing. In the third act, Rosina has a music lesson, and it is the context that makes it sound like the character is engaged in a song.

In Wagner, two examples “songs” that have to sound like songs and not part of the opera that contains them are the hymn to Venus and the contest songs in “Tannhauser” and the “Prize Song” in “Die Meistersinger.” The first has a lute accompaniment, while the latter example is simply more melodic than is the rest of the score.

Chaliapin as a singing Mephistopheles in 1915

When Brander and afterward Mephistopheles are asked to sing a song in both Gounod’s “Faust” and Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust,” the former obliges with his Song of the Rat (curtailed in the Gounod version) and the devil delivers the Song of the Golden Calf in Gounod and the Song of the Flea in Berlioz. Somehow, all four do sound like songs, despite the fact that everything up to then has been sung. The same is true about the serenade that the Devil sings in both versions, as well as Gretchen’s Spinning Song. It might be psychological, but they do somehow sound different from the other numbers.

The reason, perhaps, that so many musical comedies are concerned with a troupe putting on a show is that there is lots of occasion for a song to be thrown in as part of the show within the show and therefore needing no motivation for its appearance. The question for a discerning composer is how to make the song sound as if it is not part of the framing plot but part of the show-within-the-show.

Kiss_Me_Kate_1950_LP_CoverCole Porter tried in “Kiss Me Kate” to have the “Taming of the Shrew” songs sound more like Renaissance pieces than the songs sung backstage. So “Why can’t you behave?” (a framing plot song) should not sound too much like “Tom, Dick or Harry” (a “Taming” song). In long-forgotten ‘Me and Juliet,” is quite impossible to know when heard out of context which song belongs at which level. Is “No other love have I” part of the framing plot or of the show they are rehearsing?

In “Pajama Game,” the song “Too darn hot” takes place during a show given by the pajama workers, while “Hernando’s Hideaway” is part of the main plot. I hear little difference between them. “There’s no business like show business” might be part of Buffalo Bill’s show in “Annie Get Your Gun” or might be an expression of joy or an explanation of what life is like in show business. The last choice is the true one, but out of context it is impossible to tell.

215px-Guys_and_dollsTake as a last case in point “Guys and Dolls.” “Bushel and a peck” is sung by the chorus on a stage, while “Sue me” is part of the plot. The latter is more dramatic, the former more four-square.  In fact, “Bushel” and “Take back your mink” are sung in a nasal tone by the chorus girls to underline even more that this is a “song” number and not a plot number. Even one unfamiliar with the show could tell which is a main plot, which a show-in-a-show number. But this is quite rare in musical comedy—and indeed even rarer in opera.

A composer in my area wrote the music, lyrics and book to a musical. The second act began with the full cast on stage and someone saying to one of the leads, “Why don’t you sing us a song?” Well, further experience will surely have him avoid such a sledgehammer cue. On the other hand, it was the best musical moment in the work. The rest was reboiled retro.

I wonder if anyone of my readers could give me some examples of “songs” within musicals that are unquestioningly songs being sung as opposed to plot songs that the audience assumes are being spoken in singing voice with an invisible orchestra playing.

Vintage Songs from 1911 and 1919 for School and Home

A-ARCH-1911Vintage Songs from 1911 and 1919 for School and Home

Let us say you are a history teacher (Junior High to College) and are teaching American History for (say) 1911. That is the year in which the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down with most of its workers, a woman was the first to fly across the English Channel, the big books included G.K. Chesterton’s  “The Innocence of Father Brown,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” made Irving Berlin famous, and the first effective electric self-starter for cars was developed.

I could just see how much of this would be ho-hum time for the students. As I have been stating for years, perhaps songs of the period, tied into the events and temper of the time, would begin to rouse the interest of some of the tweeters. Even if they laugh at them, that would be a step in the right direction.

Well, Archeophone has just released two more CDs in their incredible “Phonographic Yearbook” series, one of which happens to be “1911, ‘Up a Little Bit Higher’.” Here are 25 vintage recordings released that year, each of which connects with life in that period of history, each of which has a bounce designed to please people of all ages, or a lovely melody which just might get through the indifference of some students.

ComeJosephineBrownieCarrollCoverA woman aviator? “Come, Josephine, in my flying machine” is an “invention” song, as is “The Oceana roll.” A growing sense of national superiority? “Under the yum yum tree” and “King of the Bungaloos” are part of the call to exotic places. An increasing wave of the Irish into the  country? “Mother Machree” is the tear jerker of the first water. A desire for musical comedy?  “Italian street song” from “Naughty Marietta” and other Herbert operettas is just the ticket.

Of course, the majority of the songs deals with Love. (No surprise.)

1919“1919, ‘Jazzin’ Around and Paintin’ the Town’” has 25 selections of recordings from that year in which soldiers returning from the Great War demanded a better deal and formed unions to get it. I have several older CDs filled with “protest songs,” but this Archeophone collection is of a wider range. Only the plaintive voice of Bert Williams in his “It’s nobody’s business but my own” and “Oh, Death, where is thy sting?” represents the underdog. But people were more interested in the fact that “A pretty girl is like a melody” or “A good man is hard to find.”

a0081-1-72dpiEven the non-Irish could praise “That wonderful mother of mine” while those who moved to the cities could still yearn for “Beautiful Ohio.” On the other hand, “How ‘ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm? (after they’ve seen Paree).” The two selections that directly refer to the war are “Oui, oui, Marie” and  “The Rose of No Man’s Land.” (I suppose that “Make love, not war” is the implication here.) Among the happier sort is “Ja-da (ja da, ja da, jing jing!)” [and they say our lyrics today are sappy!] and the rest are love songs as one would expect.

Among the voices heard on these two sets are Marion Harris, Nora Bayes, Henry Burr, Billy Murray, Al Jolson, John McCormack, Ada Jones, Blanche Ring, and the instantly recognizable Sophie Tucker.

It is apparent that these stars knew how to project and to enunciate. First of all, the size of the vaudeville houses in which they performed demanded both skills. Also, not all vocal performers had voices suited to the then state-of-the-art recording techniques. Students today might laugh, as I said, at these singers; but a good teacher could elicit from them just why they had to sing that way. (What! make students think?)

Another plus is the excellent booklets included with each Phonographic Yearbook. They are loaded with information about the events of the year being featured, facts about each recording, and lots of photos of the times and of the singers. Oh, for those not in the teaching profession, you will enjoy these discs for many reasons other than educational. For my age group, that means “nostalgia.”

Kudos, Archeophone!

Not only does the Archeophone website (www.archeophone.com) list all of their available discs but it even supplies the track listing for many of them.

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.

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.)

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.”

Music and the Legend of Faust, 4

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust


 IMG_20150603_0002_NEWFaust as Epic: the Boito Version

If we recall that Arigo Boito proved to be the librettist Verdi had always dreamt of and the octogenarian came out of retirement to set Boito’s libretti to “Otello” and “Falstaff” to music, then we might not be too surprised to find that the libretto Boito prepared for his own version of “Faust” is the best of the lot.

Well aware of the dangers of trying to include a good deal of both parts of Goethe’s epic, the composer/librettist still presented the first-night audience with six hours of theater that had them in a very belligerent mood  by the end of it all. That was in 1868 and by 1875 he had shortened the work to the 2.5 hours or so that it now takes to perform. I would dearly love to read at least the original libretto, which is said to have been destroyed. And despite all this, what we have is still the closest to Goethe’s “Faust” among all the attempts to mold it into an opera.

It begins with a Prologue in Heaven. After a long orchestral introduction, highlighted by trumpet calls from the various upper reaches of the theater, you hear a chorus of voices offering praises to the Lord. (What you actually see all through this is up to the director.) Then there is a mocking scherzo for a few bars and Mefistofele appears to have a chat with “Il Signor.” Immediately we are aware of why Boito titled his work after this character and not Faust. Not so much to avoid confusion with the Gounod work, but to let us know where the emphasis is to lie in this work.

Boito’s Italian practically translates the German at this point word for word. The bet is made and after a chorus of cherubim drives the Devil from the scene, the Prologue ends with an extended chorus of some length, leaving the director with the problem of offering something visual for several minutes of great choral work. The City Opera of New York gave us a laserlight show; the video with Samuel Ramey in the title role gives us shots of clouds and plaster cherubs and angels. Recordings, of course, do not have this problem.

The scene before the City Gates has a good deal of complex chorus work, very much as in Gounod; and the plot is advanced not a jot all through it, except for Faust’s spotting a mysterious Friar stalking him. In the next scene, we are on familiar territory as the Bet is made. But unlike the trivial conditions of the Gounod’s librettists, here we have a very Goethean Faust demanding his “ora di riposo”—the one moment of contentment that will make him stop his striving—in return for his soul. We also have the magnificent “whistling aria” for Mefistofeles, “I am the Spirit that denies,” that puts a very intellectual tone to this script totally lacking in any of the other versions.

There is nothing leading up to the Garden Scene as things stand now. Faust woos Margherite (as she is spelled here), Marta tries to seduce Mefisto, and they all end up roaring with laughter. As far as libretto goes, the most interesting part of the scene is Faust’s reply to the young girl’s question, “Do you believe in God?” The subsequent Walpurgis Night sequence has a good deal of very difficult chorus work that tends to last beyond the term of its musical interest; but it certainly is a good deal more atmospheric than the corresponding music in the Gounod scene. And there is no ballet.

The scene in Margherite’s prison allows her a very effective aria about her lost child and lost love; and Boito’s unorthodox harmonies are just right to show her state of mind and the situation in general. Further, they supply the greatest possible contrast with the music depicting the “Classical Walpurgis Night.” The act opens with a soprano/mezzo duet of great beauty, comparable to the one in “Tales of Hoffmann.” This is where the ballet comes, but it is of little musical interest and Helen of Troy (that should be of Sparta, of course) is given a long narrative aria that sounds as if it were taken from Berlioz’ “The Trojans.” The love duet between tenor and soprano is quite lovely, blending into a full chorus.

The final act shows the death and redemption of Faust in which the Devil and Angelic Choir are given some powerful moments. Unhappily Faust’s Moment gets lost among the counterpoint and audiences might not realize what is actually going on even with a libretto to guide them. The final moments return to the majesty of the Prologue in Heaven, but this time we have Mefisto whistling his defiance at the forces of Good.

What are most interesting are the title character and his musical treatment. His “I am the Spirit that denies” begins each stanza with a snarling tempo and ends with a piercing whistle. Both the words and musical treatment of this and his later aria, “Behold the world,” point forward to the character of Iago as expressed by Boito in the interpolated Credo: “I believe in a cruel God.” Evil is always easier to portray on a stage than is goodness, as most actors readily admit; and the worst role of all to play is a good Priest or a pure maiden. They tend to get somewhat boring. This is probably why the Devil gets all the really powerful material in this work.

However Faust’s arias, short as they are, are very moving; and Margherite is considerably more lively in her short scene in the garden and more complex in her prison scene than her French opposite. If you have never heard this opera, please give it a try on the London recording with Siepi if you can find it. I have not heard the one with Ramey, but it cannot be better than the older version.


I highly recommend the DVD on the Kultur label with Ramey. The “concept” of this production is that the universe is a theater–and this works beautifully at the end of the Prologue in Heaven, as you can see for yourself.

Old “Maigret” Returns to DVD in New Edition

IMG_20150530_0004_NEWOld “Maigret” Returns to DVD in New Edition 

  As I keep saying in my articles, I can watch over and over the older episodes of Hercule Poirot with David Suchet (before they took all the fun out of his character) and of Miss Marple with Joan Hickson. But I never mentioned a third favorite, which has not suffered any remakes since its original showings in 1992-93. “Maigret” has now been reissued in a boxed set of 4 DVDs holding the 12 episodes that comprise Series 1 and 2 of this wonderful police drama.

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The man behind the detective

Jules Maigret is the creation of French writer Georges Simenon and played here by an all-British cast led by Michael Gambon in the title role. The directors wisely chose to have all the characters speak without French accents. The outdoor scenes are mostly shot in “Paris” (actually Budapest, which didn’t modernize as quickly as did Paris). The pictures behind the opening titles perfectly establish the time and place. Gambon is ably assisted by an equally good cast, which includes Ciaran Madden (Series 1) and Barbara Flynn (Series 2) as his loving wife; Geoffrey Hutchings as his assistant, Sgt. Lucas; and John Moffatt, as his obstructive superior, M. Comeliau.

The guest stars who do exemplary jobs include Cheryl Campbell, Edward Petherbridge, Brenda Blethyn (the current lead in “Vera”), Minnie Driver (in a very strong role) and even Jane Wymark (the wife of Tom Barnaby in “Midsomer Murders, Series 1-20). And kudos to Campbell and Driver for playing two very tough women who are a match for Maigret himself.

Gambon plays Maigret not as a “character,” as are Poirot or Marple, but as a serious policeman who looks into the characters of his suspects before coming to conclusions. His sense of wry humor does much to make this series quite enjoyable.

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One of the many French editions of a Maigret mystery

Out of the 12 episodes, my favorite is “Maigret Sets a Trap” (Series 1, episode 6). Here a sex killer is terrorizing Paris and the story starts in media res with Maigret bringing someone into the station but refusing to say anything about him to reporters. There is a touch of “Psycho” in a certain mother-son relationship and more than a little painful suspense as a policewoman is put in harm’s way to lure the killer.

Yes, “Maigret” provides 645 minutes of intelligent and enjoyable police drama. And subtitles and a booklet are included to further enhance one’s enjoyment of this set.