Essay Series Essays

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.

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.

And what would HE think?

What do you think?



Bernstein Explains Music on Vintage Omnibus Episodes

A-OmnibusBernstein Explains Music on Vintage Omnibus Episodes

   Back in the 1950s, there a program called “Omnibus,” hosted by one Alistair Cook, flourished on television. The purpose of this show was to educate in a way that entertained but did not talk down to its viewers.

It seems that Leonard Bernstein appeared at least eight times to talk about some aspect of music; and E1 Entertainment, as part of their Archive of American Television, has gathered those eight talks in a boxed set of 4 DVDs titled “Leonard Bernstein, Omnibus.” To any one who loves music in any of its aspects, this collection is a must.

There are two talks on each disc. The first is “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” in which Bernstein uses copies of the composer’s original thoughts and reworkings and inserts them into the final version to show how they weaken it. It is both scholarly and accessible and should serve as a model for all such analyses.

It is followed by “The World of Jazz,” in which Bernstein, who was using jazz in his own Broadway shows, explains its elements and attractions. “The Art of Conducting” reveals the skills and insights a conductor must have just to conduct the opening bars of Brahms’ First Symphony.

The segment called “American Musical Comedy” appealed to me the most, since I lecture on that very subject. Here his main thesis is that stage music began with opera and vaudeville at the extremes, with such formats as the revue, operetta and musical comedy in between, and that after “Show Boat” the distinctions began to blur. In short, the (even then) current musicals were tending towards operatic treatment.

“Introduction to Modern Music” is concerned with the new approaches to the older schools of music. Bernstein aims, not to convert his audience to (say) dissonance, but to make them understand what it is, how it is used, and why.

I was happy to learn that many people find a lot of “The Music of J.S. Bach” boring, because I always felt guilty about doing just that. Thanks to the Maestro, I now know why I do so. But now I also feel I have a better understanding of Bach’s music.

Some will find the opening minutes of “What Makes Opera Grand?” a little disappointing, especially since the original telecast did not use subtitle translations for the foreign language lyrics and those supplied by E1 Entertainment do not show any lyrics in any language. But most of the program is given over to the second act of “La Boheme” in a neat format. Some actors speak an English translation of a segment of the act, and then the scene is done again, sung in Italian with full costumes and orchestration. The conclusions are a bit simplistic but the idea is a good one.

The final segment is simply Bernstein conducting the first two parts of Handel’s “Messiah” without any commentaries. It is interesting to watch, but the 1950s sound makes listening a bit of a chore.

Again, this is a set to cherish for many reasons, for which E1 Entertainment is to be thanked yet again.


A Controversial “Carmen” is Reissued on CD

A Controversial “Carmen” is Reissued on CDA-OP-Carmen (Horne)

Not only are there many audio recordings of Bizet’s “Carmen” to choose from, but the opera itself exists in different versions. I grew up with the “grand opera” version in which the original spoken dialogue had been turned to sung recitative  by Bizet’s pupil Guiraud. In 1972, at the Metropolitan Opera, Leonard Bernstein put together a production based on the 1875 Opera Comique original (with spoken dialogue) but with his own variations here and there. The critics were divided over the results.

Well, the audio half of those results was preserved on a three-LP set with the same cast. And what is I think the second CD transfer of this recording has been released in a Pentatone set with two discs and a complete libretto (unusual for a reissue of an opera). It is certainly worth the hearing, although it might not be the first choice for those wishing to own just one “Carmen.”

Bernstein’s very slow tempos, especially for Carmen’s arias, might be a put-off for many listeners (as it is for me). His using an alternative setting for the counterpoint of the bullfight offstage and the death of Carmen onstage is quite different from the one heard in every other production—but not necessarily not as good.  Also the spoken dialogue reveals a lack of coaching in French pronunciation in most of the cast.

However, the big plus is that the recording was made after this cast had the experience of performing on stage; and the dramatic urgency shows through in a way seldom heard in a recording rehearsed and made in a studio.

Horne-MarilynThe Big Star here is Marilyn Horne, who has her Carmen down pat. James McCracken has that Wagnerian tenor voice that works for the passionate Don Jose, while Tom Krause is a formidable Escamillo—although he lacks that sexiness that might attract the ladies. Adriana Maliponte as the innocent Micaela is a good foil for the gypsy temptress. The secondary parts of Carmen’s gypsy friends gain much by the spoken dialogue.

Pentatone has packaged this set as a small book with the discs in sleeves behind the front and back cover and some introductory notes, followed by the libretto.

download (9)A good modern recording is the one with Placido Domingo and Tatiana Troyanos, conducted by Georg Solti. And although I grew up with the RCA Victor set with Rise Stevens and Jan Peerce (1951), I still prefer the 1950 set with Raoul Jobin and Solange Michel, with members of the Opera Comique. The pacing is quick, the humor is intact, and the French is perfect in both enunciation and spirit.

Note: The first nominally complete recording of “Carmen” was made in 1908–in German!

Instrumental and orchestral

Bernstein’s Concerts for the Young on DVD

A-Bernstein ConcertsBernstein’s Concerts for the Young  on DVD

 From January 18, 1958 at Carnegie Hall to March 29, 1970 at Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center, television history was made when Leonard Bernstein conducted and presented his Young People’s Concerts. For some time, these events were available on several VHS tapes and much treasured not only by those who attended or saw them on television but by children and adults who are interested enough in classical music to want to learn more about it.

Now I am delighted to report that Kultur has two sets of these milestones in educational broadcasting. In the first set, 25 of those telecasts comprise a splendid collector’s edition of 9 DVDs  with the title “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.” With each episode running about 50 minutes, you can see what a wealth of material is contained herein.

Now I really doubt that parents and teachers brought into the concert halls all those youngsters for a mere 50-minute event. Therefore, unless otherwise informed, I can assume that not every minute of those concerts has been kept on the film. I do know that one concert had to be repeated since “technical difficulties” prevented the first talk’s being telecast.

At any rate, the subject matter of the concerts can be sorted into types. There are those dealing with general questions: What does music mean? What is American Music? What is Orchestration? What is Classical music (in both senses of the word “classical”)? There are those dealing with somewhat technical matters: the concerto, Impressionism, melody, sonata form, intervals, modes. There are those about less technical topics: humor in music, folk music and jazz in the concert hall, Latin American music, the sound of an orchestra. (This is my favorite one, in which Bernstein plays Haydn all wrong in his discussion about sytle.)

Some talks are devoted to a single composer and often to just one of his works: Mahler, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Berlioz. There is one about two “bird” ballets, in which the music of “Swan Lake” and “Firebird” are contrasted, a salute to Vienna and its 3/4-time music, and a study of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” One is even devoted to a quiz about spotting things about music.

Bernstein’s explanations are always very clear, but I fear much of it was over the heads of the really tiny tots picked up by the camera looking puzzled, fascinated, and in one case yawning politely into the back of a hand. But in general, the audiences—young and old—seem not only to understand but greatly enjoy the presentations, especially carefully spaced references to the music of the Beatles—just to show that grownups can appreciate “popular” music too.

I was particularly impressed by how well behaved the youngsters were, with the single exception of a wail from an upper balcony in one of the talks. In many cases, I think, the musical examples are far too long to make whatever may be the specific point. For example, as wonderful as it was, perhaps having Walter Berry and his wife Christa Ludwig sing three songs in 3/4 time and in German might have been a little too much for that audience—although viewers of this video will probably play this sequence several times. And you don’t bring such superstars in for only one short number anyway!

The video and sound are as good as they were at the times of the original broadcasts; and the sudden change to color halfway through is thrilling. A booklet is provided with a complete outline of all the track listings and a short synopsis for each of the 25 concerts.

The second volume with 27 concerts given from 1960 to 1970—and I am sure there are still some not yet released.

My only real objection to Bernstein’s approach is that he is far too often talking way over the heads of the youngsters in the audience. Indeed, the camera is merciless in picking up those in the audience playing with their programs, sitting in a daze or in a semi-sleep, and in general wishing they were somewhere else. Actually, I blame the parents for bringing children too young to understand what is going on.

Bernstein is further at fault for choosing musical illustrations that are either too long, too complex, or both, for even the older youth to take in. And when he utters statements like “I am sure that when you think of melody, you think of Brahms,” I wonder if he thinks he is speaking to a group of professional musicians. In fact, he is “sure” of many things that any second thoughts should have dissuaded him from claiming.

That said, this set is, like the earlier one, a super product for us grownups!  His analyses of works like “The Planets,” “Pictures at an Exhibition” (first the piano version, then the Ravel orchestration), and Strauss’ “Don Quixote” are quite good. Among the most interesting is “Bach Transmogrified,” in which one of that composer’s works is played in the original version, followed by an orchestrated one (arranged and conducted by Leopold Stokowski), and then on the Moog Synthesizer. More radical treatments of other Bach works end with a Rock and Roll version. Fascinating.

Of little interest to the younger audience are the nine “Young Performers” concerts in which upcoming conductors (one of whom is Seiji Ozawa) and musicians are invited to perform. Where he can, Bernstein does some explanation of what the piece is about. Better are his talks in which he explains the acoustics of Philharmonic Hall and “The Anatomy of a Symphony Orchestra,” the latter of which uses the four short movements of “The Pines of Rome” to illustrate his topic.

A good point about purchasing any video, especially a relatively expensive one like this, is that it cries out for repeated viewings over the years, especially for educational purposes. Music teachers MUST have this set and show carefully chosen short selections to their classes. Concerned parents would do very well to watch this themselves and encourage their youngsters to watch with them. Any lover of classical music should definitely view both volumes. What the really young in the original audiences might have missed will be most welcome by viewers today.