The Question of Revivals

 The Question of Revivals

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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?)

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.

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.

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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?

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.