Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sunset - A Close Hit

Maybe it's a bit late in the run to do a review of Broadway's limited run revival of Sunset Boulevard, but I saw it yesterday, and wanted to write one. (Honestly, mostly because I wanted to document the lighting and the orchestrations, as well as a few individual elements I thought were interesting. Not so much a review as a list of things that struck me.) I'll go through the various production elements increasing order of amount of things I have to say about it.

First, let's get the cast out of the way.

Glenn Close was, of course, the star as Norma Desmond, but if you're at all interested in Sunset Boulevard, you've already heard all about her. What surprised me was how restrained the audience was. There was no applause on Close's first entrance, at the top of the stairs. Instead, the audience waited until she had placed her foot on the stage proper. (It was pointed out to me that this was because it was only when she finished descending the staircase that Glenn did, in fact, become Close. Prior to that, from the audience's perspective, she was Glenn Far.)

Siobhan Dillon was a delightful surprise as Betty Schaeffer, with probably the best and most consistent singing of anyone in the cast. She also had the fewest accent problems. (Michael Xavier seemed to slip a couple of times. Fred Johanson went the British Butler route and did not put on an accent. Glenn Close, for whatever reason, the only American in the principal cast, seemed to be putting on some sort of transatlantic accent. Which makes very little sense, because she's playing a silent film star, who shouldn't have to concern herself about an accent. I guess it's just Norma being dramatic.) The character of Betty Schaeffer is the most "generic" of the four leads (snarky but idealistic love interest to contrast the cynical protagonist), but that doesn't mean it's an easy role. Siobhan Dillon does wonderfully with some of the best music in the score.

It is at this point that I should say that the weakest point of Sunset Boulevard is probably the underdeveloped relationship between Betty and Artie. Artie seems nice enough, but we don't see nearly enough of him to care about him being engaged to Betty. Of course, that's not the focus of the story, and the Norma-Joe-Betty love triangle is more important than the Joe-Betty-Artie one, but still, it would be nice if it were dwelt on more, if only so that we actually care somewhat when Betty decides to leave Artie. As it stands, Artie seems to exist mostly to facilitate the "Studio smart-ass" joke.

Michael Xavier did not really impress me as Joe Gillis, which is a bit of a shame because he's on stage for all but about fifteen minutes of the show. (Let's say two minutes total for combined scene changes, two minutes for the car chase scene, six minutes for Norma coming back to Paramount, and five minutes at the end.) He didn't seem to have quite the necessary range, particularly on the lower end, although that's a difficult point of any Andrew Lloyd Webber character.

Fred Johanson easily had the best voice of the cast, and delivered the required low notes with gravitas. His falsetto was not quite there, and I wonder if "The Greatest Star Of All" might not benefit greatly from being transposed down a step or two. The last note, an F4, is one usually reserved for tenors, and even when a baritone is asked to sing it, he's seldom asked to do so quietly, and for an extended period of time. But high notes aside, Johanson made a marvelously menacing Max, and it came as a legitimate shock when he smiled during the curtain call.

Now for the visuals of the production.

This production was adapted from a concert, directed by Lonny Price. Lonny Price has directed many semi-staged concert productions before, including Company and Sweeney Todd, both with the New York Philharmonic. So it did not surprise me to see little scenery. The orchestra took up most of the upstage space, and there were maybe ten or fifteen feet of downstage space to play on. On either side of the stage was the bottom end of a staircase, black, metal, simple, and the two staircases went up to the top of the opposite sides of the stage, crossing each other (one behind the other, not meeting) in the middle. There were platforms at the top of each staircase, as well as at about a third from the bottom, making for a total of five playing platforms, although it was really more like three, as the top platforms were really only used very briefly for entrances and exits. The three playing platforms were a necessity here, as scenery was limited, and a several points in the show the location changes quickly. At least one staircase is necessary for Sunset Boulevard, but here they were not for spectacle. They were strictly utilitarian. The staging was highly efficient, which is imperative for a plot that moves along as briskly and thrillingly as this one.

This production made fantastic use of lighting and projections. Projections were primarily used to establish mood and subject. Silent movie footage was projected onto a scrim at the front of the stage during the overture and at other points. Sometimes it was projected onto the scenery itself. The scrim was also used during the car chase scene, but the big lighting surprise of that scene was how the conductor's podium lit up to become Joe's car. When cars had to move around the stage, they were portrayed by people holding flashlights. The stage went completely dark except for the headlights (and a few projections near the end) during the car chase scene. And I must point out that the orchestra, being on stage, could not have had stand lights, nor do I expect the conductor was very visible at that moment. So Joe Gillis wasn't the only one driving blind.

The most impressive feat of lighting, to me at least, was the lighting of an ensemble member made up to be "Young Norma." She would appear from time to time, silently, usually when they were talking about Norma's past. She was always lit to look like an old black-and-white movie. This was not makeup, which became apparent on two occasions. Once when Young Norma briefly joined in on the action in "The Perfect Year" and danced with Joe. She briefly crossed out of her lighting and appeared in full color. The second time was when, after his last reprise of "Surrender," crossed behind Young Norma, into her light, and appeared in that moment as an old movie himself. For the most part, however, even when Young Norma was moving around in close proximity to other characters, her particular lighting was focused solely on her, and it looked quite surreal. In her first appearance during "The Greatest Star Of All," on the middle platform of one of the staircases, I initially mistook her for a projection. In all honesty, I was shocked when she walked off of the platform and down the staircase, giving herself away as an actual person.

While I'm on lighting, I must say that there needs to be a moratorium on costumes with lots of little sparkly bits until costume and lighting designers can figure out how to make that work without blinding the audience.

That happened in "As If We Never Said Goodbye," the direction of which stood out from every other number in the show. People often call Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals "operatic," which is a description I agree with to varying degrees depending on the musical in question. But the directing of Norma's big ballad in Act II showed a unique operatic quality I've never seen in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical before. And that is the sort of directing characterized by having a singer stand there and sing without moving while the chorus looks on doing nothing, called "Park And Bark," of which opera productions, particularly older ones, are so frequently accused. I'll admit, what bothered me most about the directing of this number was the zombie chorus. They stood there, just staring at Norma as she sings this dramatic soliloquy. I think it may have been intended to be a freeze frame, but those work best when the transition is abrupt, and the people freezing are frozen in a position people wouldn't usually stand still in. "As If We Never Said Goodbye" had neither of these qualities, and so it did not play well to my eyes. (A more effective freeze frame was done later, in a smaller scene, with Betty suddenly freezing while leaning over her typewriter while Joe goes into narrator mode.)

It is at this point that I would like to point out that any criticisms I make of the show were only magnified in my mind by the fact that everything I do not mention here was so fantastic. The direction of "As If We Never Sad Goodbye" was a uniquely bad moment in what otherwise was a fantastically directed production. To that end, I will now cite what I thought was an especially well directed moment.

Before the reprise of "Sunset Boulevard" (you know I'm talking about the song now and not the show, because I used quotes instead of italics), where Joe comes clean to Betty, there's a short but dramatic reprise of the car chase music, which facilitates the most awkward transition in the show. It's easy to jump in time when you're also jumping in place, because some time can easily be assumed to have passed in the move from one place to another. It is also easy to jump in place without jumping in time. What's difficult is jumping in time without changing the location of the scene. Particularly if the characters both scenes are the same. The time only has to go forward maybe half an hour or so. Whatever's enough time for Betty to drive to the mansion, but it has to go forward, because Joe can't be on the phone with Betty and suddenly have her appear five seconds later. The solution is maybe fifteen seconds of transition music, but it still has to be staged somehow. Lonny Price had a quite clever solution. Joe sat down on a couch upstage, while characters and ensemble members went in and out of the platforms on the staircases and, with lighting shifts, quickly did a pantomime of the entire show up to that point. The "life flashing before one's eyes" imagery was clear, and I found the transition quite effective. When Betty entered, there was no question that some time was intended to have passed.

Now to the orchestra.

I know it's highly unlikely that this particular revival of Sunset Boulevard will make a cast recording, but I do hope that a studio recording will be made of the show at some point using these new orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen. The two of them do basically all of Andrew Lloyd Webber's orchestrations. I don't know exactly how the collaboration works. I assume, Webber coming from a big family of classical musicians and composers (his father, William Lloyd Webber, was a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams -- how's that for family connections?), at least knows how orchestras work. At any rate, if Jonathan Tunick and Stephen Sondheim are any indication, the best orchestrations come from longstanding collaborations between the same composer and orchestrator over many works. And the orchestrations of Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen are definitely at their best here. What is already easily one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's best scores reaches new heights with expanded orchestrations. This orchestra has two whole bassoons! Would you believe it? A Broadway pit orchestra (though not technically in the pit -- the actual pit, being unoccupied, is cleverly used in the staging) with two whole bassoons! And lots of strings. Where many Broadway orchestrations fall flat is a lack of strings. Too few strings makes an orchestra sound thin. Often orchestrators will double the one or two violins in the pit band with a wind or two to get more volume, but it's simply not the same. (Sometimes, for a cast recording, a few extra musicians will be pulled in to supplement the orchestra.)

At forty pieces, this production of Sunset Boulevard is up about fifty percent from its original circa-twenty-seven piece orchestra, and is quite possibly the biggest orchestra on Broadway since the original production of Carousel in 1945. (The minimum orchestra for Carousel is about thirty pieces, although there are reduced orchestrations of twenty or less available. For comparison, The King And I requires a similar orchestra, and South Pacific slightly smaller, closer to two-dozen pieces. In Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals, Phantom has a thirty-piece orchestra and Evita eighteen. The many different orchestrations of Jesus Christ Superstar range from five pieces to thirty-five.) The orchestrations were full, and made use of many of the varied colors of the orchestra. Much of the score was greatly enhanced. Some of it was more or less the same but bigger.

I was not a too fond of the orchestrations for "Every Movie's A Circus." Now, to be perfectly honest, I'm not too keen on the song itself either. It was not in the original London production, but was added for the American production, replacing reprises of "Let's Have Lunch." I can only suppose that, for the first time in his career, Andrew Lloyd Webber finally felt that he was reusing the same tune too much. I disagree. I find "Every Movie's A Circus" to be too simplistically cheerful for Sunset Boulevard. The tune might have enjoyed life in a show like Joseph, or even Evita, but for the dark and satirical atmosphere of Sunset Boulevard, "Let's Have Lunch" is just jaunty enough with still the right amount of sarcasm. Of course, "Let's Have Lunch" is not lost. It still makes a good seven-minute chorus at the beginning of the show, and there's plenty of it to go around in the recitative. But I must say the exchange "Where have you been keeping yourself?" "Someone's been doing it for me." sounds much better set to the slightly unsettling tones of "Let's Have Lunch" rather than the poppy guitar strains of "Every Movie's A Circus."

The guitar is much of what bothered me. Well, not so much the presence of the guitar, but the loss of everything else. The orchestrations of everything else are so full, that when everything drops away (and without a change in tone in the script to facilitate it) it feels thin by comparison. The guitar was also prominent in "Girl Meets Boy" and its reprises, which also felt thinly orchestrated. The guitar is a soft instrument, and I expect the orchestrations were softened when it was playing for that reason. In the original orchestrations this doesn't make a huge difference in texture, and so "Girl Meets Boy" sounds fine on the original cast album. Here it felt diminished. Which is a shame, because "Girl Meets Boy," plus its reprises leading up to and including "Too Much In Love To Care" make up my favorite sequence of Andrew Lloyd Webber love duets, probably due to how it plays with tempo in a way Webber's songs usually don't. I maintain that Webber's recitatives and scenes tend to be far more interesting than his songs, and the score of Sunset Boulevard strikes a pretty good balance. Probably the best song-recitative-dialogue balance of any of his shows except for Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which is basically a song cycle, and School Of Rock, which is a conventional dialogue-and-songs musical, and therefore didn't really have a chance to go wrong there.

Despite a thinly-felt "Girl Meets Boy," "Too Much In Love To Care," a magnificent hodge-podge of modulations designed to keep Joe at the very top of his range, was still intact, and greatly heightened by the new orchestrations. I think it may have been the musical highlight of the show for me.

And now for the writing things.

There were new lyrics after Joe's first "This is crazy / You know we should call it a day," and the new lyrics technically made more sense (the "Sound advice, great advice" bit being more effective later in the song), but they still caught me off guard. As did some other small lyrical changes.

I still maintain that, even though the original lyrics were used in the London production, and only changed for the cast album, I guess because language, the (presumably) censored lyrics for "The Lady's Paying" are very simply better than Norma's "Shut up, I'm rich" verse. At no other point in the show is Norma that snappy, nor does she swear at all. Other characters do, but Norma's far too classy for that. And the sudden shift of subject from clothing to her apartments comes out of nowhere. It doesn't seem quite in character, whereas the censored lyrics ("I'm sick to death of that same old filling station shirt / And that boring baggy jacket stained with yesterday's dessert") do. But on the other hand, "The Lady's Paying" is a unexpectedly unusual song anyway. Or perhaps unusually unexpected. I also don't understand why the "I've been invited somewhere else on New Years Eve" section was ever changed from singing to dialogue. It scans perfectly well.

Other slight changes I'm not fond of include Norma's "There was a time in this business" recitative being changed into a reprise (pre-prise?) of "Sunset Boulevard," and the removal of Artie's "Jewish Casanova" line. (Note: This last one was lost in one of the aforementioned switches from "Let's Have Lunch" to "Every Movie's A Circus." That said, the tune to which Artie sings this line is a motif which I can't off the top of my head identify as being used anywhere else in the musical except for at the very end of the last reprise of "Sunset Boulevard." I know it must occur elsewhere.) (Note: After publishing this post, I remembered where else the motif occurs. It is used when Artie is singing in "By This Time Next Year." It seems to be a motif associated exclusively with Artie.)

But slight lyrical changes aside, there is one big change which was made in the move from London to Broadway which I strongly disagree with. Sunset Boulevard ends with Norma's big monologue. In the movie, the final line is "Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup." In the musical, her final line was "And now, Mr. Demillle, I'm ready for my closeup," which is slightly different, but similar. She delivers her speech, says the line, and the orchestra plays a final thirty seconds or so of music as Norma is lead off stage. But only in London. The ending was revised so that at the very end, after about twenty of those thirty seconds of music, Norma belts out a final short reprise of "With One Look." Which, to my mind, does no favors for the atmosphere of the finale. In this particular production, it came across as even more strange by having a black drop come down just behind Norma, separating her from the rest of the stage. The ending, in my opinion, relies on the audience being in a state of shock. And even knowing what was coming, I was shocked. But having Norma do a triumphant reprise of a solo at the very end destroys that tone.

And I'm bad at conclusions, but I've run out of things to say. So speaking of abrupt endings that really don't work, this.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sunday, Sondheim, And Spoilers

When Sunday In The Park With George premiered in 1984, it received mixed reviews from critics, lost every Tony award to La Cage Aux Folles except for scenic and lighting design (the advantages, I suppose, of being a musical based on a painting with a song even titled "Color And Light"), and though it ran for about a year and a half, closed at a net loss. It did win a Pulitzer prize, but while it has an obvious appeal to artistic snobs, it doesn't seem to have much to offer the average Broadway audience.

Since then, it has become revered as one of the greatest works by one of the greatest composer-lyricists ever to write for Broadway. Its most recent revival, currently on Broadway, was adapted from a sold-out concert performance at City Center, and since opening at the Hudson Theater has received rave reviews. And deservedly too. Jake Gyllenhall is not as good a singer as Mandy Patinkin, but he still plays the part exceptionally well. Annaleigh Ashford is a weaker Marie than Bernadette Peters, but an equal if not stronger Dot. The scenery is not as lush as the 1984 production, and all of the cardboard cutouts save the dogs are eliminated, but projections make for an excellent substitute. The entire audience seemed enthralled by the story and the music, which are fantastic even in the most stripped-down production. The show is basically the same as it was thirty years ago, so what changed?

Similar redemption stories have littered Sondheim's career. Merrily We Roll Along, initially a dramatic failure running not even two weeks, was later revised and has since then become acclaimed as an obscure gem of Sondheim's career. Company, originally lukewarmly received, has grown exponentially in popularity, with Sondheim saying that the 2006 Broadway revival seemed to be the first time the audience really clicked with the show's protagonist. And aside from a few select musicals that have been popular from the start (primarily Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods), this pattern makes up most of Sondheim's career. Very few of his shows have been plain unambiguous flops, but equally few have been unambiguous big hits, until well after their original premiere.

I think there are two main factors at work here, and they play into each other, so it's hard to say which comes first. With that in mind, I've decided to start with the one which I don't plan on leading into a tangent for the rest of the blog post. And that is that at some point, Sondheim started to become renowned as a legendary composer and lyricist. It's possible that this is simply the result of a couple of popular shows causing people to recognize his name more. (Notably, two of Sondheim's biggest hits, Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods, both came closer to the second half of his career.) Once people associate Sondheim's name with a couple of musicals they really like, it's more likely they'll treat his less popular works more kindly. When Company premiered, it was not a "Sondheim musical," it was just a "musical that happens to have songs by a guy named Stephen Sondheim whom you've probably never heard of." But nowadays, name recognition has even a highly flawed musical like Anyone Can Whistle being looked upon more favorably.

(Funnily enough, the reverse seems to have happened with Andrew Lloyd Webber. He had counterintuitively megahit musicals early on, such as Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar, which later started to decline in popularity as Webber produced more and more flops. I'm not sure what to read into that, but I do think all of the hate toward Cats is unwarranted. You know what other musical doesn't have a plot? Company.)

The second factor at play here, which may have been caused by the first, or perhaps might be the cause of the first, is an increased number of people taking a second look at Sondheim's musicals. I live in an age of easily-accessible recordings and research materials, and so it's easy for me to fall in love with a Sondheim musical in the space of a day. But for the majority of Sondheim's career, your first interaction with his shows was seeing them in the theater, and Sondheim does not do well to go into blind. In his book, Sondheim speaks of a reviewer who saw a preview performance of Company, and was so thoroughly baffled that he came back the next day to see it again before writing his review, which was a rave. (On the other hand, upon finding that the original production of Passion had been professionally filmed, I did watch that without a clue in advance what it was about, and loved it the very first time through. On the other hand, I already love Puccini, while many casual Broadway-goers probably do not. I imagine Passion does better with people who are predisposed to like Puccini. It's actually not that unconventional in form, except for the letters. It's style where it's radically different from most of Broadway.)

Knowing what you're getting into dramatically shifts how you approach theater, and it makes easier to enjoy shows that you might not entirely comprehend the first time through. This is especially important in theater as compared to other art forms. When you're reading a book, you can flip back a page if you think you missed something. Television you can rewind, or enjoy those helpful "last time on..." clips. And even when you see a movie in cinemas, where you can't control your own speed, movie direction can control what information and how much of it you get in a way theatrical direction cannot. In theater, you've got one pass to get everything. And in a way, it makes sense to do everything you can in advance to make sure that that one pass is successful.

I think theater was doing this right for the vast majority of its history. Greek plays were based on stories everybody knew. Shakespeare's plays, if the stories weren't common knowledge, were often given to the audience in a prologue. Or if not, the extensive exposition early on makes the plot clear. And the comedies were based, if not directly on preexisting stories, on common archetypes and tropes. In opera, to this day it's generally expected that you know the plot going in. I don't know exactly when the concept of spoilers became something people were worried about, but while I can justify preserving spoilers in literature, I think theater had it right for most of its history. Less so for plays, which can communicate information more cleanly in dialogue and are therefore less risky insofar as confusing the audience, but more so in musicals, and especially in operas. (And even more especially in ballet, where the story has to be conveyed without any words in any language -- that is, assuming you go to the ballet for the story. I'm not really a ballet buff, so I don't know how important story is to the ballet community.)

My experience with Sunday In The Park With George I think supports this. When I saw the current revival, the audience around me seemed as into it as I was. Lines such as "not Marie again" in Act I got a stronger reaction than you'd expect from an audience who hadn't already seen Act II. Even the musical foreshadowing seemed to work exceptionally well -- although that's harder to judge. "We Do Not Belong Together" landed so much that the audience seemed really put out at not being allowed to applaud (the music segueing directly into the next scene). And the chatter around me at intermission seemed to confirm for my suspicion that not many people were going into this performance completely blind. A good thing too, because seeing it live for the first time, I realized just how easy it would be to miss things if I hadn't already known them.

And all of this plays into something I've said a lot regarding spoilers: A well-written work of art, be it a book, a movie, an opera, or anything else, should not become less enjoyable the second time through. A really well-written one will become more enjoyable each time through. A surprise plot twist is only effective once. Extended dramatic irony is effective every time. I've used Il Trovatore as an example before, but I continue to do so because it is such a good example. Imagine that Azucena never spelled out for the audience that Manrico is DiLuna's long-lost brother in Act II. Then the audience would go through the opera thinking it's your basic love-triangle plot, until the very end, when DiLuna sends Manrico to be executed, and then Azucena exclaims the secret. That might catch a first-time audience off-guard, but it also seems like a shoehorned twist put in there for the sole purpose of giving the finale a little extra oomph. But since we know from near the beginning of the opera that Manrico is DiLuna's brother, and they don't, it makes their conflict that much more gripping, and since we know before they do, DiLuna's reaction to the revelation at the end is that much juicier. And this stays consistent throughout every performance, because from the beginning, we pretty much already knew how this opera was going to end.

Likewise with Sunday In The Park With George. The musical is rife with foreshadowing, both in the music and the text, that becomes more effective the more you know in advance. That's what makes dramatic irony. Aside from the finale, the music of Sunday In The Park With George more or less spends the entire show building up to the big duet at the end of Act II, "Move On," which builds on musical motifs previously established and explored in "Color And Light" and "We Do Not Belong Together," and just as "Move On" becomes more effective in the context of those two songs, so do they become more effective when you know what they're building up to.

The same is true of many of Sondheim's later scores, starting around Sweeney Todd. The Beggar Woman's main theme in Sweeney Todd echoing the dance tune heard in another song, for example. Sondheim put that in, as well as a song for the Beggar Woman late in Act II (often cut), for the sole purpose of cluing the audience in to the twist before Sweeney finds out. Originally, when Sondheim tried to make it a surprise twist, it failed to land. But by inserting that new song, Sondheim made sure that however far ahead the audience was, that at least they all knew before Sweeney, which puts the focus on his reaction to the news, rather than the news itself. As in Il Trovatore, dramatic irony is stronger than a surprise twist.

Passion does not have much in the way of surprise twists, but it does have strong musical cohesion that becomes even stronger on repeat listens to the score. Fragments of the Garden Sequence are echoed in Giorgio's "Is This What You Call Love," which in turn develops into the Farewell Letter. But the second time through, it's the Farewell Letter (which I consider to be the dramatic turning point of the show -- supported, I think, by the fact that it echoes segments of, like, half the songs up to that point) being forewarned in the Garden Sequence, and even being foreshadowed all the way in the opening number. Wagner's leitmotives are more effective if you know what they are in advance, because otherwise it takes a few iterations of them to pick up on what they actually are. It's the same thing here. In the case of Sunday In The Park With George, it may be the reason reception to a premiere can be mixed, but reactions to a revival can be raves.

You might notice that I'm skirting around saying what the actual twists are in Sunday In The Park With George, Passion, and Sweeney Todd, even though they are written in such a way so as to favor dramatic irony. I do recognize that not everyone shares my view on spoilers, and therefore I think it safest to steer clear of dispensing them, although in most cases I do not mind receiving them. Because if a piece is well-written, it won't matter if you know what's going to happen or not. (Note that while I don't mind finding out spoilers on my own terms, I, like most people, would still rather people not blurt them out for no reason. Spoiler etiquette does still exist, and I do try to abide by it, two-hundred year old operas excepted.)

There is one Sondheim musical, however, that favors a surprise twist over a foreshadowed attempt at tension. But A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a farce, and the apparent ridiculousness of the twist serves the same comedic function it does in any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Outremer Of Contemporary Opera

The Metropolitan Opera's current production of Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour De Loin marks the second time in two consecutive seasons that the Met has mounted a new production of a not-hugely-popular French opera about three characters entangled in a rather minimalistic plot, in which all three characters tend not to appear on stage at the same time, and about which the director has said that there is, in fact, an important fourth character, that character being the abstract concept of the sea itself, despite the fact that the opera does, in fact, have an actual fourth character, even if only for a handful of lines, but who should still probably be credited above the abstract concept of the sea in the program.

Well, I liked The Pearl Fishers, so why shouldn't I like L'Amour De Loin?

To director Robert Lepage's credit, the sea in this production, portrayed by strings of multicolored LED lights strung across the stage and over the orchestra, did succeed in hogging the spotlight (so to speak) from the singers. The set was possibly the most impressive part of the production, the lights constantly shifting with the mood and the plot. In a storm sequence at the beginning of Act IV, the strings themselves even moved up and down. Two other set pieces floated on and off stage in between the strings of lights. The Pilgrim's boat, which generally floated across the front of the stage, and a long platform that rotated and tilted into a staircase in a manner which I'm still trying to make sense of. The staircase also spun and floated about the stage between the lights, and along with the Pilgrim's boat, was the main playing area of the opera. Very rarely did any of the characters step on to the stage itself. This was effective in its way, but came with two major downsides.

The first downside is that since most of the action took place off of the surface of the stage itself, in the few instances when a character did step on to the stage (specifically Clemence in Act II), it broke the illusion of the stage being water. (This did not apply in Act IV, where Clemence walked over the water in a dream sequence, or in Act V, when the floor of the stage was made into a legitimate playing area, and all characters at points used it.)

The second downside to this set is that when one edge of the staircase poked just barely off stage, you knew it just had to be because in a moment is was going to pop back out with another character on it. The nature of the set made it easy, and somewhat distracting, to predict exactly when and where characters would enter.

However, there is just one aspect of the blocking which I did not particularly care for. And that is how whenever the chorus appeared, their heads popped up between the strings in a square formation. Now, I don't have a problem with how their heads popped up between the strings. That was quite cool. I just wish that they weren't always in the same square. The chorus doesn't appear a whole lot in this opera, but they could have afforded to mix up the formations a little.

Saariaho's score was well-suited to the text of the opera, and sufficiently varied to provide aural interest. I admit I was a little concerned at first that the opera would find a groove and stick in it, but there was a lot of variety within the acts, and even more so between acts. My favorite of the five acts was probably the third, most likely because it had my favorite line of the whole opera, delivered by the surprisingly snarky Pilgrim. Paraphrased here:
JAUFRE: Pilgrim! You're back! Have you seen my beloved who I've never met and only know about because you mentioned her in Act I?

PILGRIM: Jaufre, it's taken me an unspecified but probably not-insignificant amount of time to go to Tripoli and back in the last two acts. Have you really done nothing but write ballads to this girl in all that unspecified time?

JAUFRE: More or less.

PILGRIM: Get a life! You know, the chorus is saying you're mad.

JAUFRE: And do you think I'm mad?

PILGRIM: If someone tells you you're mad, they don't really think so. If someone thinks you're mad, they just complain behind your back.
I liked the snarky Pilgrim. Of the characters, I think Jaufre and the Pilgrim had the best chemistry together. The Pilgrim facilitated Jaufre's romanticism, but also provided him with a tie to reality, and occasionally enraged him. The Pilgrim's role in the opera as a whole was that of an anchor, keeping Clemence and Jaufre from flying too far off into their fantasies. The Pilgrim's function as a tether was much appreciated by me, as another thing I was a little concerned about early on is that the opera would get a bit too syrupy and romantic. Yes, I know, it is that sort of opera, but there's still a concentration of syrup that's just not good for one's health. Fortunately, the Pilgrim did not only (or merely) dilute the syrup, but gave it a punch of spice, with exchanges like this one:
JAUFRE: I've never been at sea before

PILGRIM: Well, I've been at sea a lot, and I know what I'm doing. So calm down and get some rest.

JAUFRE: Okay

(Pause)

JAUFRE: Pilgrim?

PILGRIM: What?

JAUFRE: Why is the sea blue?

PILGRIM: Because it reflects the sky.

JAUFRE: Oh.

(Pause)

JAUFRE: Pilgrim?

PILGRIM: What?

JAUFRE: Why is the sky blue?

PILGRIM: Because it reflects the sea. Now go to sleep.

I really liked the snarky Pilgrim. (Note: I'm happy to say that I was not the only audience member chuckling at these lines. So if I'm wrong in getting some humor out of this opera, at least I'm not the only one who's wrong.)

Saariaho's score is effective in evoking a medieval sound, and the melodies tend to be modal, evoking something vaguely middle-eastern, which makes sense considering the opera's setting. Much of Jaufre's music was accompanied with crunchy open fifths in the strings, sounding not unlike a Bach partita. There was sufficient repetition of melodies in the score to give it cohesion and help the audience along, most prominently the not-unhummable tune of Jaufre's ballad that the Pilgrim sings in Act II. Some parts of the score reminded me, of all things, of Adam Guettel's score for The Light In The Piazza. In particular, parts of Act II reminded me of "The Joy You Feel" from The Light In The Piazza and parts of Act V of the Octet and Clara's Tirade. I'm not entirely sure I could say why.

If I have any complaint with the score, it's that Saariaho does not employ silence as often or as effectively as I would have liked. In the first place, in an opera so based on sustained atmosphere, silence may not seem intuitive. But sometimes hearing the constant tremolos in the high strings or the low basses became a bit distracting, where I think more might have been said in silence. I think, for instance, a silence both before the Pilgrim starts singing Jaufre's ballad in Act II, and another silence after he finishes, would be beneficial on two counts. One, it would help separate the ballad out of the score as a distinct aria -- which it is supposed to be within the context of the libretto -- and it would help the audience (and Clemence) differentiate between what the Pilgrim is saying as himself, and what he's repeating Jaufre saying. A silence at the end of the aria would also give the ballad a moment to sink in, both for the audience and Clemence. There were various points like this where the continuing music made it difficult for anything to really settle in my mind, as I wasn't sure if the previous thought was over. Silences tell us that we can take a moment to let what we just saw and heard sink in. And sometimes, when so much of the music is so quiet, silence can have the audience listening even more intently than sound can. At some points I found the sustained drone distracting, particularly at points when I felt the primary focus should be on what is actually happening on stage rather than the music -- a rare priority in an opera.

Now, silence also affords the audience the opportunity to applaud if they so choose, and I wouldn't be surprised if Saariaho's goal was to avoid breaking up the opera with applause, but even with silences, I don't think the audience would take that liberty. There was no applause for the conductor at the beginning of the performance, and I think that sufficiently set an applause-free tone for the whole show. (Although since the music started without the warning of applause, it was a couple minutes into the prelude before the audience finally calmed down, and I wasn't a huge fan of that bit. There was applause when the conductor entered after intermission (before Act IV), and the audience seemed far less restless during the prelude to that act.)

And if I have any complaint with the libretto, it's that Jaufre takes far too long to die. But then again, there aren't very many operas in which characters die quickly. Act V was by far the longest act. At only thirty-five minutes, it still felt like a slog. If I have any major advice for opera composers, it's to not extend the ending any more than you absolutely have to. (A major offender in the standard repertoire is Lucia Di Lammermoor, but unfortunately, there's also no good way to cut it down without introducing plot holes or unresolved plot threads.)

In some ways the vagueness of the libretto bothered me, and it left many questions open. How does Jaufre fall ill? How does Clemence resolve her reservations about meeting Jaufre? Did Jaufre really do nothing during the time that passes between Acts I and III? Does he have no troubadoring to do? And does Clemence have no other suitors? But on the other hand, the streamlined story was able to be told in a fairly to-the-point fashion, in only about two and a half hours, with intermission. Ultimately, I think it would be an unwise decision to expand the opera to fill these holes, as it would likely mean extending the run time by an hour or more. Ultimately, L'Amour De Loin does what it sets out to do, without too much philosophizing, and with sufficient variety and relief to be engaging. As a rather conservative opera-goer who is cautious around contemporary works, I would have to unhesitatingly call L'Amour De Loin a success.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

God Bless City Center Encores!

Encores! Off-Center at City Center just finished its run of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same name. I saw the show yesterday, and was duly impressed.

I very much like Encores! (Although I'm not a fan of the exclamation mark at the end; I have no idea how to punctuate it, for instance, in a list, such as I might be listing Encores!, Oliver!, Oklahoma!, and other such annoying titles that end in exclamation marks.) The premise of the series is to perform obscure musicals, and try to bring them back into the public eye. Sometimes this works well, most notably with their 1996 production of Chicago. Then an obscure faded show, Encores! revived it, and what was originally a limited-run concert launched a full-scale Broadway revival which is still running twenty years later.

Some of the shows Encores! performs were originally poorly received (or later dipped into obscurity) because they were somehow unconventional, either in form or content, such as Merrily We Roll Along, and Chicago. Some because they were, admittedly, flawed shows that Encores! decided to give a second chance, such as Anyone Can Whistle or Allegro. And still some are perfectly good, respectable, normal shows that just happened to fall between the cracks.

The recent addition of the Encores! Off-Center summer season ups the ante. Encores! Off-Center is devoted to performing shows which were originally produced Off-Broadway. Off-Broadway shows naturally tend toward the more obscure, and the nature of Off-Broadway allows them to be more unconventional. Such is the case of A New Brain, which Encores! Off-Center produced last year. And while I wish A New Brain were more popular, I do completely understand why it isn't.

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is not one of those shows, however. And if it had premiered ten years later, after Menken and Ashman had established themselves with Little Shop Of Horrors and The Little Mermaid, it may have come straight to Broadway. It's certainly a worthy enough show, and not terribly unconventional. The fact that it's based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel might put a few people on edge, but, surprisingly, the story is straightforward one, told in linear fashion.

The plot concerns Elliot Rosewater, the rather eccentric president of the philanthropic Rosewater Foundation. He is in possession of a rather large fortune, which catches the eye of a conniving lawyer, Norman Mushari. When Elliot's fixation with oxygen gets him into trouble (at a performance of Aida -- he clearly did not get the memo that no one dies in Aida), he flees town and finds himself in Rosewater, Indiana, his impoverished hometown, where he sets up a branch of the Rosewater Foundation. Mushari, meanwhile, decides to locate the next living heirs to the Rosewater Fortune, and to pass the fortune to them by proving Elliot legally insane -- and, of course, to win a chunk for himself by inserting himself as the middleman. Mushari's plan is foiled in a Gilbertian plot twist for which I recommend you read the book to find out.

See? Unlike a lot of the musicals I talk about, this one actually makes sense!

Of course, it wouldn't be Vonnegut without biting satire of society, and that satire comes in the form that the main accusation made against Elliot's sanity is that he is charitable toward everyone. His foundation gives money to anyone who asks for it, even those who might not deserve it. Elliot's father is baffled as to why Elliot would ever choose to live with volunteer firemen, and set up a base of operations in a town of "poor, discarded Americans" who are "useless and unattractive." When Elliot's wife Sylvia joins him in Rosewater County, she very shortly suffers a nervous breakdown, which is diagnosed as Samaritrophia. The "hysterical indifference to the troubles of those less fortunate than oneself." Kurt Vonnegut goes into much greater detail about the syndrome.

In a way, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater deals with similar themes as Ashman and Menken's  next musical, Little Shop Of Horrors. Both deal with money and greed in a rather backwards way. In the case of Little Shop Of Horrors, it results in the end of the world, which is a rather Vonnegut-esque thing. But God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is much more idealistic than Little Shop Of Horrors, and, if some of the language were cleaned up, it might make a decent Disney production.

Of course, given that Menken and Ashman headed off the Disney Renaissance with The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin, it makes sense that God Bless You Mr. Rosewater may at times evoke feelings of Disney. The most interesting example being that I think it's implied that the "grey stuff" from Beauty And The Beast is pâté. (Which those of us who have watched Funny Girl know more simply as chopped liver.)

In more seriousness, the most interesting proto-Disney element I found in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater was the prominence of large choruses. In general, on stage, when you have a chorus sing, it is because the characters whom the chorus represent, be they villagers or sailors or whatever, are presently on stage and have reason to sing. And also in general, when this is not the case, it is because the chorus is a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. God Bless You Mr. Rosewater does not make use of a Greek chorus. More recently it's also become somewhat common for the chorus to act as backup singers, without being supposed to be literally on stage and part of the action. This occurs briefly in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, but that's not the sort of chorus that caught my eye.

In a movie, it's easy to bring in a chorus at the drop of a hat. Usually you don't, though, because the rules of suspension of disbelief dictate that a unanimous spontaneous chorus is more believable on stage than on screen. But when said musical is animated and by Disney, suspension of disbelief goes out the window. The entrance of the chorus in such songs as "Plain Clean Average Americans" and "Thank God For The Volunteer Fire Brigade" evokes feelings of "Prince Ali" and "Be Our Guest." They use a big show-stopping chorus in a way that evokes pre-Hammerstein Broadway, but at the same time following Hammerstein's rules. There are not many post-Hammerstein musicals that incorporate a spontaneous toe-tapping choral showstopper as coherently and organically as Menken and Ashman could. It's a staple of the Disney musical, and the seeds are present in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.

Another thing that caught my eye (or ear?) is Ashman's love of internal rhymes. The first sung line of the show is "Welcome to a flowing fount of truth and good and cash," which has no rhymes. The second line is "If you're looking for the loot to toot a flute or cure a rash." In this line, "rash" rhymes with "cash" in the previous line, but inside, "loot," "toot," and "flute" are rhymed within five syllables. The next line is... You know what? I'll do this the easy way.

Welcome to a flowing font of truth and good and cash
If you're looking for the loot to toot a flute or cure a rash
If you're down on luck and need a buck we'll fund you in a flash
If you want to write a piece on St. Denise or Delacroix
If you must research the church of Christ or works of Myrna Loy
Don't be bashful we've a stashfull don't be timid, don't be coy
...
In a world where next to nothing comes for free
Bet you never thought you'd ever live to see
So divine a shrine to fine philanthropy
...

And so on. Notice how almost all of the lines contain internal rhymes, and said internal rhymes always come in different parts of the lines. And in some cases, (It's a joy to buoy the Iroquois and liberate the Cree), the internal rhymes aren't even evenly spaced! Of course, one could argue that this is a necessity, as if the internal rhymes were consistent in every line, then they're simply part of the rhyme scheme and no longer "internal."

My favorite of these internally rhymed lines is "What a pal to those who work in prose or poetry or paint." Note that "prose" is both the last word of the internal rhyme, and the first word of an alliterative list, which ends with the word that rhymes with the previous line. The line jumps from one ear-catching lyrical device directly into another.

That is clever lyric-writing, but the most telling part is that the reprise of this song, which is more melancholy in tone, hardly rhymes at all. The internal rhymes in the opening number indicate a certain level of wit and humor, which sets up the whole show nicely, but once inside the play proper, Mushari is the only character to regularly employ internal rhymes. This keeps in perfectly with his character, who is Cornell-educated and flaunts it. For the most part, while the show is clever a witty, the characters within it are not. And so the scene-setting opening number is the most clever and internally-rhymed song in the piece. And, indeed, one of the most emotional songs in the show, "Elliot... Sylvia" is entirely unrhymed, and seems almost free-form until the second verse starts, at which point the audience is placed back on solid ground.

***

Encores! bills its shows as concerts, or semi-staged concerts, and warns that the cast may be holding scripts. I'm not sure if this is a relic from the early days of Encores! or just insurance so as not to disappoint an audience with high expectations, but it seems that Encores! productions have strayed from their origins as concerts and become more and more elaborately staged. Of course, this whole production was prepared in less than two weeks, so the cast still had scripts (with the apparent exception of Skylar Astin, who may have decided that his character would be the type to show off by not carrying a script), but said scripts were disguised as Kilgore Trout novels (as can be seen in the B-roll footage) -- which did seem a little odd in the hands of characters other than Elliot, who is given to be Kilgore Trout's only reader.

So Encores! not only provides a listen to the scores of unknown shows, but practically brings them back to Broadway for a week. Unfortunately, it's not hard to see why a theater program devoted to producing unpopular works might have trouble filling seats. (Naturally, I don't know how big a problem this actually is for them, but just bear with me for the sake of a blog post.)

The solution, of course, is to hire actors who will bring in crowds. (And also to periodically do a show like Gypsy or Little Shop Of Horrors, which is far from obscure, but should help bring in a profit.)

This is the part where I review the Encores! performance.

The three headliners were Santino Fontana as Elliot Rosewater, Skylar Astin as Norman Mushari, and James Earl Jones as Kilgore Trout. Notice the three different target audiences. Santino Fontana is a name recognizable to the Broadway crowd. Skylar Astin brings in the fans of Pitch Perfect and Glee, and James Earl Jones attracts anybody who's ever heard of James Earl Jones. (I know at least one audience member who came to see the show because of him.)

Santino Fontana brought his usual tenor ingenue panache to the role of Elliot Rosewater. He's played a Disney prince in Frozen, a non-Disney prince in Cinderella, a non-prince who may as well be Disney in The Fantasticks, and now Elliot Rosewater joins them on his resume. It was a perfect role for him, and, naturally, he played it well.

Skylar Astin's portrayal of Norman Mushari caught me a little off-guard. In the book, I had read Mushari as more oily and snakelike. While Astin's Mushari was definitely oily, he was also positively and relentlessly gleeful, and even a little bit awkward. In Vonnegut's book, it's easy to read Mushari's only motivation as being money, but Astin's Mushari seemed to be motivated not only by money but also by the sheer joy of coming up with a clever scheme, and executing it. His dancing and prancing about the stage in his villain song in Act I totally sold the performance, and he was the comic highlight of the show.

There was a moment involving Skylar Astin that exemplifies the sort of entertainment you can only get from live theater. In Act II, Elliot Rosewater has a particularly dramatic song, and a dark one at that. It got a lot of applause. Immediately after this song, Mushari enters as his plot is coming into motion. This scene is not particularly comical, but during the applause after Fontana's song, Fontana left and Astin entered. Astin entered as the applause was still going on, and acknowledged the audience as though the applause was for him. This immediately defused the tension from the previous scene with a big laugh, and set us up immediately for the next scene, a more lighthearted one.

There was a lot of laughter during the show, which is a good thing, but it did cover up some of the lines. In fact, half of the narration (provided as magnificently as you might expect coming from James Earl Jones playing a character listed in the script as "Voice Not Unlike God") was covered up by laughter from the other half of the narration. Suffice it to say, when James Earl Jones finally made his on-stage entrance as Kilgore Trout, he got a large ovation.

The non-headliner who should have been a headliner was Brynn O'Malley, in the role of Sylvia Rosewater. The only character other than Elliot and Mushari to get a solo all to herself. She went through all of Sylvia's turns of character wonderfully -- and Sylvia has more turns of character than anyone else in the show. She starts out as Elliot's anchor to sanity, before suffering a nervous collapse, and then finally adopts a more somber tone in Act II. Brynn O'Malley likely would have been listed along with Santino Fontana and Skylar Astin in the advertising, except that her name is not as recognizable, and James Earl Jones already filled the third advertising name.

It's worth noting, however, that while Sylvia probably has the most colors to play of any individual character, there is a lot of doubling in the show, and almost every actor except the principals plays multiple parts. In most of these cases, they play one prominent role, and a number of nameless ensemble parts, so, just as the actor playing the dentist in Little Shop Of Horrors may be listed in the playbill as "Orin and Everybody Else," so may the actor playing Fred Rosewater be listed as "Fred Rosewater and others." And when I say I enjoyed Kevin Del Aguila's performance, it may be taken to mean that I enjoyed Kevin Del Aguila's performance as Fred Rosewater. Although his portrayal of Writer #1 was perfectly respectable, Fred Rosewater is the role I'm going to be able to pick out when reviewing the show as I am now. And I did enjoy Kevin Del Aguila's performance as Fred Rosewater.

Of the other ensemble members, Rebecca Naomi Jones was probably the most prominent. She played a memorable Mary Moody as her primary role, but I think audiences will remember her scenery-chewing Blanche and Telethon Hostess, and, although her final role didn't have any spoken lines, she still got a major laugh as the Nun.

I did notice that the character of Mary Moody was slightly reduced from the book. A brief moment for Mary Moody in the book was given to Diana Moon-Glampers in the musical, and played quite effectively by Liz McCartney. Diana Moon-Glampers was a particularly prominent role (the song "Since You Came To This Town" was originally written as a solo for her), and that is perhaps why she doubles with only two other parts, the File Clerk and the Operator.

But of the doublings, one stuck out at me. The actress who played Dawn Leonard (in this instance, Kate Wetherhead) doubled as Caroline Rosewater. Both roles are of similar prominence, and a given audience member is probably likely to remember each of them equally. The only other actor who plays two roles of equal prominence is James Earl Jones as the Voice Not Unlike God and Kilgore Trout. (It is worth noting that in the cast bios, James Earl Jones was the only one who listed multiple roles; Kate Wetherhead only listed Dawn Leonard, Kevin Ligon only listed Delbert Peach, and so on.) I'm not sure what the rationale is for Dawn Leonard and Caroline Rosewater being played by the same person (and this is the recommended doubling given by the script, not just a quirk of this production), but Kate Wetherhead played both roles distinctly and well.

While Dawn Leonard is not a prominent character, so to speak, she does have two prominent musical entrances, both of which succeeded in giving me chills. The first in the song "Look Who's Here," where she enters on harmony with Mary Moody, and the second entrance being the third verse of "Since You Came To This Town." The latter part Wetherhead sang quietly and timidly, and was extremely effective. She then proceeded to throw off all timidity in Act II for her comic and sarcastic portrayal of Caroline Rosewater. Between her and Kevin Del Aguila, if I have one complaint about the show, it's that we don't see more of the Rhode Island Rosewaters. They appear in only one scene at the beginning of Act II, and after that, their actions are represented by the machinations of Mushari. Their duet is catchy, though.

***

Periodically, Encores! does a pretty good job of bringing a show back into the public consciousness. Chicago is the most prominent example. Some of their productions, most recently, Violet, have sprung Broadway revivals. Several of their productions have made cast albums which helped to get the music into more hands. I should certainly hope God Bless You Mr. Rosewater will get a cast album, if for no other reason than that it currently does not have one; the music may be heard in demo recordings and that's about it. What's more, this production features orchestrations by Danny Troob, more than doubling the size of the orchestra from what, according to MTI, was originally five players. And I have to say, the big band sound definitely suits the score.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to Howard Ashman after the original Off-Broadway run of God Bless You Mr. Rosewater had closed. He said that what Ashman did "was to shoehorn 'Rosewater' into world culture, whether the critics wanted it there or not," and his guess that "it is going to become a staple in American theater, at least -- living on, who knows, for a hundred years or more."

Clearly, Vonnegut was wrong. I feel like some of the confusion may be due to the fact that God Bless You Mr. Rosewater premiered in 1979, but it feels much more like a 60s musical than a 70s musical. The book was published in 1965, the year that brought us Flora The Red Menace, Do I Hear A Waltz, and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. Big bands, lavish productions, conventional stories. But 1979, when the musical premiered, was the year of Sweeney Todd and Evita. A very different sort of musical. But I think time may have redeemed God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. If a show is ten years out of date, it's old and tired. But if it's fifty years out of date, it's nostalgic. God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is not fresh and new, but now that it isn't new, it doesn't have to be. Kurt Vonnegut may have made his mistake based on how the musical felt like a show from the 50s and 60s, which is when so many of the "great American musicals" were written. But with a few decades difference, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater may pull a Chicago and make its way back into the American musical repertoire. I'd say it deserves it, if on no other count than I can think of no other musical that deals with this particular subject matter in such an uplifting way.

***

This hardly serves as a useful review of God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, as the show is already over. Consider it instead an advertisement for the potential upcoming Broadway revival (too hopeful?), as well as a warning to watch out for Encores! in the future, and an encouragement to give obscure and unpopular shows a chance. You never know when something great has slipped between the cracks.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Menken A "Musical Theater" Score

It seems every Broadway songwriting team has their niche. Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote romantic pastoral pieces (except for Allegro, Me And Juliet, Pipe Dream...), Lerner & Loewe wrote sophisticated European farces about rich people (except for Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon...),  and Kander & Ebb wrote about dark subjects in entertaining ways, such that you laugh and then worry if you're a terrible person for laughing at that (except Flora The Red Menace, The Rink...) You get the picture.

It may surprise to find out that musical songwriting duo Menken and Ashman never wrote a musical for Broadway -- though several of their collaborations have been brought to Broadway years after they were first written. Their first musical, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, was based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and, as you might expect, is filled with satire and weirdness, although, oddly enough, it's told in chronological order and has no sci-fi MacGuffin. Anyway, deeming its cast of fourteen actors too many people for an off-Broadway show, Menken and Ashman went right along into their next project, an eight-person musical (nine counting a single puppeteer) called Little Shop Of Horrors.

(I want to clarify, yes, eight actors. Eight. The guy playing Orin was literally credited in the playbill as playing "Everyone Else.")

Little Shop Of Horrors was their breakout musical. Like God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, a satirical dark comedy about how horrible and greedy human nature is. (Note: God Bless You Mr. Rosewater seems more idealistic until you remember that the rest of the characters need a crazy science fiction author to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why Elliot is being nice to people. More on God Bless You Mr. Rosewater after City Center Encores does their production next week.)

So you might see where this is going. Following the trend in the 70s of musicals getting darker and grittier (in other words, Sondheim and Kander and Ebb were becoming prominent in the 70s), Menken and Ashman come along as a sort of younger, hipper Kander and Ebb. But their next collaboration was a distinct swerve from this. A little animated movie musical called The Little Mermaid, which kicked off the Disney renaissance.

I have to assume that the Disney executives listened to "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop Of Horrors and called them up to say "write exactly that song again, but for a mermaid!" before listening to the very next song on the cast album and wondering if they made a huge mistake.

(Seriously. "Somewhere That's Green" and "Part Of Your World" are the same song. I mean, come on. And "Zero To Hero" from Hercules is "Ya Never Know" from Little Shop, but I'll get to that later.)

But despite their gritty start, Menken and Ashman had a hit with The Little Mermaid, and proceeded to write the next two Disney scores as well, Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin. Howard Ashman died in 1991, but Alan Menken stayed on as the primary composer of the Disney renaissance, writing the score of Hercules with David Zippel, and Pocahontas and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame with Stephen Schwartz. Of the whole Disney renaissance, he did not compose the music for The Lion King, Mulan, and Tarzan. Also, he did Newsies, for what it's worth. He has continued on into the modern era with Enchanted and Tangled.

I think it's fair to say that Disney movies are many people's first exposure to a form of musical drama. (I hesitate to say musical "theater" for obvious reasons.) Given this, I think we can agree that Alan Menken is possibly one of the most influential musical theater writers. He defined the sound of Disney in the 90s and onwards, and the kids who grew up with Disney in those years. I expect as the millennial generation gets to Broadway, a great many of the Broadway composers born in the 80s onward (Lin-Manuel Miranda is one, Pasek and Paul are another two) will cite an Alan Menken musical as their first exposure to the genre.

And now I'd like to talk a bit about the implications and questions raised by a single composer "defining" a genre like Menken did for Disney. Because "Disney musical" is a genre, much like "Gilbert & Sullivan" is a genre.

It's nice to be able to classify musicals based on their musical style. And with some composers, this is easy enough. Porter is jazz, Rodgers is classical, and so on. Stephen Sondheim is a composer who is difficult to classify as one particular musical style, as his musicals span so many different genres. But even so, we can say with reasonable comfort that Follies is jazz, and Sweeney Todd is classical, and so on. Still some others have their own distinct style that's not really part of any recognized genre, such as Pacific Overtures and Sunday In The Park With George. In such a case as that last one, "contemporary classical" is a nice catch-all for "vaguely weird and maybe not traditionally tonal," but that really only applies to Sondheim, and is so vague a term that it really isn't useful.

Little Shop Of Horrors is a musical that can be classified by its musical style. Its score is based in 60s pop and do-op music. But, like Sondheim, Menken is versatile, and while this is the style of Little Shop Of Horrors, it cannot be said to be Menken's style in the same way rock might be said to be Jason Robert Brown's -- and even classifying Jason Robert Brown as rock is being pretty vague. Hercules is the only other Menken score that approaches a similar style as Little Shop, and that is perhaps the reason Hercules is one of my favorite Menken Disney scores. (Pocahontas being my other favorite, mostly for "Just Around The River Bend")

Of Menken's other Disney scores, Enchanted and Tangled stand out, stylistically speaking. I like talking about Tangled in particular, because of the four principle songs in the score (not counting reprises) there are two songs that might be considered "traditional" Disney songs, and two that feel more like contemporary pop -- I don't know if the songs were written before or after Mandy Moore was cast as Rapunzel, which may have had something to do with it -- the pop songs are the ones she sings.

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is harder to classify, musically speaking. There's a comic patter song in 6/8 time -- a form you might associate with Gilbert and Sullivan -- next to a peppy waltz for the villain, along with a tango, and another villain song that sounds vaguely Cole Porter-esque, as well as a romantic Rodgers-esque ballad. But the whole score ties itself together with a genre I can only think to call "generic musical theater." Which is not remotely satisfactory.

Similarly, the remaining Menken Disney scores (i.e, everything except Hercules, Enchanted, and the two pop-esque songs in Tangled) have a vaguely "generic" style, excepted for some individual songs, such as "Under The Sea" or "Friend Like Me," which have more distinctive styles. But how do classify songs like "One Jump Ahead" or "Be Our Guest"?

The easy answer is very simply to say that these songs only sound like "generic Disney" because Menken has defined what "generic Disney" actually is, in which case his style is "Menken" in the same way Gilbert and Sullivan made their own genre. It feels generic because Disney is ubiquitous.

Hit songs used to come from musicals. Before Hammerstein came along, a great many musicals were mostly just excuses to have star singers sing potential hit songs. Nowadays that's less common. Sometimes songs like "I Dreamed A Dream" or "Defying Gravity" make it into the public consciousness, but it's not that common that popular music and theater music intersect anymore. Which creates an unusual situation for a song like "The Girl In 14G," a song written by theater writers Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan and made popular among theater crowds by Kristin Chenoweth. Or maybe "They Don't Let You In The Opera If You're A Country Star" for Kelli O'Hara. There are many such songs, that exist independently of musicals, but are written in a style one would associate with musical theater -- this even despite the fact that the latter is written to sound like a country song!

Of course classification is always difficult and muddy, and it's tough to say what makes a theater song fundamentally different from a song from any other musical genre, even when said song is taken out of context, or even written completely independently of any musical. Heck, "When You Get To Asheville" is somehow different when sung by Edie Brickell on a country album than it is sung in the musical Bright Star, even though the songs are almost identical. Maybe it's just a subconscious thing from knowing a song is from a musical, or written by a musical theater composer, or sung by a musical theater star.

But back to Alan Menken.

While it's true that musical theater songs don't tend to get into the public consciousness anymore, Disney songs do, which gives Alan Menken a bit of a unique position of power as a musical theater composer. And if his particular style (assuming we take that to mean the overarching style of "Disney" we use to describe the non-Mandy Moore songs in Tangled) isn't identifiable as a particular non-theater style, it's still the perfect style for Disney. Menken's songs are very melody-oriented, and the guy knows how to write a catchy melody. You can get his songs stuck in your head on first listening, which is more than can be said about many composers. His text-setting is also extremely clear -- and it probably helps that he's been paired with some brilliant lyricists. Clarity and catchy melodies (the latter actually being of significant help to the former) are probably the two most important qualities in a Disney score, and are pretty important qualities in any musical theater score. In the theater, the audience can't rewind and play back the songs at their own pace. The song needs to convey to them all the necessary information in a clear manner in real time, so the audience doesn't get lost, and it has to do so concisely, so the audience doesn't get bored. There's some pretentious academic pride that comes with writing something complicated and incomprehensible, but theater isn't a book where the audience can turn back a page, or read over a line and look up a word or phrase or reference they didn't understand. Any theater scores could use a touch of Disney. Clarity, and even a touch of "generic," helps make the audience feel comfortable even if you're about to launch on a crazy story about a downtrodden florist who kills people to feel his carnivorous plant. Because, let's be honest, Stephen Sondheim probably couldn't have made that musical a hit, but Menken could.

Happy birthday Alan Menken!


Monday, July 4, 2016

And Cats Makes Three

Assuming School Of Rock continues to run for the next couple of months (which seems likely), come August, Andrew Lloyd Webber will be represented on Broadway by three shows. The original productions of Phantom and School Of Rock, and the revival of Cats. This will be the most shows running on Broadway from one individual composer at the current time, and since there are only so many Broadway theaters, it seems reasonable that it might be the record, since for a composer to have multiple shows on Broaday at once, they either need long runs (like Phantom) or multiple shows popular enough to revive. Bock and Harnick, for instance, are currently represented on Broadway by both Fiddler On The Roof and She Loves Me, while as long as Chicago continues to run, any revival of a Kander and Ebb musical will give them two shows on Broadway. I feel like listing Alan Menken might be cheating, since he's so strongly connected with Disney, which obviously has its own advantages, but currently he only has one show on Broadway, Aladdin.

Cole Porter potentially raises the bar, being that in the middle of his career, he was often writing two musicals in a year, but most of these shows didn't run for more than a few months, often closing before the next one opened, and only three of them (Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate, and Can Can) have every been revived on Broadway.

Rodgers and Hart do better, having often written three or more shows in a year. They had four shows open on Broadway in 1926, but two of them closed before the other two opened -- opening consecutively on December 27th and 28th. Them having three shows running at once sounds plausible at the rate they wrote, but if you're writing three shows a year, how many of those can you expect to be hits?

But that was all pre-Hammerstein. Once Oklahoma! entered the picture, musicals stopped being mass-produced for the sake of hit songs, resulting in composers producing fewer shows, but more potential long-running hits. I don't know if anyone's ever had more than three shows running on Broadway at once, even posthumously, but if so, someone like Richard Rodgers or Cole Porter, writing for pre-Hammerstein Broadway seems like the most likely. In revivals, Rodgers and Hammerstein have an advantage in that they wrote five big popular hits that have continued to remain popular, which is more than most people. Among most major Broadway composers and lyricists, two or three big hits -- sustainable big hits -- seems more like the norm.

And now a follow-up. Who is the individual who has been connected to the most shows running on Broadway currently? Or at one time in general? A lighting designer? A violinist? An ensemble member? It's possible that there's some actor or actress who was in the ensemble of Phantom when it first opened, and then moved to the ensemble of Chicago, and then Lion King, and so on.

***

Upon review, Andrew Lloyd Webber seems to have done this before. The last revival of Jesus Christ Superstar slightly overlapped with the subsequent revival of Evita, and all this while Phantom was still running. This being the advantage of having a show run for twenty plus years.

Speaking of which, John Kander has had three shows on Broadway at once, though a little more loosely. He wrote the dance arrangements for Gypsy, the 2008 revival of which overlapped with the original production of Curtains, while Chicago was (and is) still going on as a long-running show.

On a whim, I looked at Boublil and Schonberg, since Miss Saigon and Les Miserables both had long overlapping runs. But, surprisingly, Martin Guerre was never on Broadway, and their next show, The Pirate Queen, has after Les Mis and Miss Saigon had both closed.

But on the subject of Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Cats, and Phantom, as a producer, Cameron Macintosh might be in the lead, having been behind several long-running shows. And sure enough, from April 11th, 1991 (opening of Miss Saigon) to September 10th, 2000 (closing of Cats) those four Cameron Macintosh productions were running on Broadway. And in that nine-year stretch, he also had other productions with shorter runs, none of which overlapped. So at some points, Cameron Macintosh had five productions running on Broadway at once. How's that for impressive?

Monday, June 13, 2016

Awesome. Wow.

I guess I should do a brief summary of my thoughts on last night's Tony Awards.

Hamilton won best musical. To quote King George III, "Awesome. Wow."

As I predicted from a couple blog posts ago, Hamilton did not break the record for most Tony award-winning show. It came close, but The Producers holds the title. The places where Hamilton lost were for scenic design (which went to, as I predicted, She Loves Me) and lead actress (which, as everyone else predicted, went to Cynthia Erivo). I thought American Psycho might have won lighting design, based on hype, but evidently hype was wrong.

Hamilton also lost two awards early in the evening, both for best featured actor in a musical. That also happened to be at the same moment it won one award for best featured actor in a musical. Later, Hamilton lost best lead actor in a musical, and lost it to Hamilton.

Clearly the Tonys last night resolved this question, but I think there could be some argument as to how an actor playing two separate roles in one show should be considered. Particularly if the roles are not dramatically connected to be played by the same actor, but in this instance just happen to have been played by the same person. Could Daveed Diggs have been nominated exclusively for playing Jefferson and not Lafayette, or vice versa? Could he have been nominated twice, once for each part? The nomination seemed to be for "Daveed Diggs" and not "Daveed Diggs in any particular role," but then, the award isn't for "best featured actor," but for "best actor in a featured role in a musical," indicating that possibly two separate roles for one actor could be considered.

Now what about two actors in one role?

The two awards that peeved me a little were Orchestrations (as my last post may have indicated), which I felt should have gone to Bright Star, and Best Lead Actor in a Musical, which I felt should have gone to Danny Burstein, who, since his Broadway debut in 1992, has been in sixteen shows on Broadway, and nominated six times for Tonys, none of which he has won. I figured Kelli O'Hara and Leonardo DiCaprio had set a precedent for sixth time's the charm.

The musical that got shorted the most, I think, was Waitress. Of the five Best Musical nominees, obviously Hamilton got the most coverage. But three of the others, Bright Star, School Of Rock, and Shuffle Along, had representation in the people connected with the show. In the case of the former two, composers Steve Martin, Edie Brickell, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and in the latter, from six-time Tony winning actress Audra McDonald. All four of those faces made various appearances throughout the broadcast, presenting awards, doing little skits with James Corden, and so on. But while Sarah Bareilles made a brief appearance, Waitress's coverage was almost entirely contained to its performance.

I was surprised that On Your Feet gave a performance, but I guess it was deemed marketable enough. Maybe it'll be the new Mamma Mia.

The most pleasant surprise of the evening to me was the brief snippet from The Visit which played as Chita Rivera took the stage. I still feel that The Visit was snubbed at last year's Tonys, and did not get enough love as it deserved. (It should have definitely taken home score and orchestrations -- for the latter of which it was not even nominated.)

It occurs to me that The Visit would likely have been a much better success if it had premiered this season rather than last. A lot of people have talked about what a shame it is that such terrific musicals as Bright Star and Waitress happened to premiere in a season where they were overshadowed by Hamilton, but even simply being juxtaposed to Hamilton could be enough for a significant bump. It's even possible that Hamilton got more people to watch the Tonys than who would have nomrally seen it, which could mean they saw and liked the performances from Bright Star and Watiress and so on, and that's great publicity.

And The Visit certainly could have benefited from such a bump. During the course of its short run, Lin-Manuel Miranda often tweeted and posted about how terrific The Visit was, praising it at every turn, especially the cast (including Chita Rivera) and especially the music by John Kander. Miranda even interviewed Kander after one performance of The Visit, which went to the internet shortly after. But while Lin-Manuel Miranda was certainly popular and famous at the time among the theater crowds, Hamilton had not yet blown up to the degree we see today. (And yes, this is my not-so-subtle way of claiming hipster cred on account of I knew about Hamilton before it blew up. Although it did still have a lot of hype at the time -- just not nearly as much as it has since accumulated. Now that the Tonys have happened, I think it's peaked, and the hype will gradually dry up over the next few months as the original cast leaves.)

Maybe I should just do a post all about how awesome The Visit was.

Speaking of Kander and Ebb, the 20th anniversary Chicago performance was a little short, but I guess when they're allotting time to various musicals, the twenty-year warhorse with no sign of slowing down is pretty low on the list of priorities. Still, Wicked got a full song at the Tonys for its 10th anniversary, and Phantom for its 25th.

I wonder if The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will get anything special for its 25th anniversary.

And speaking of legendary Broadway songwriting duos, is Sheldon Harnick really just wining a Lifetime Achievement award now? Did it take two large-scale revivals of popular musicals of his to remind people that he exists? (Although neither Kander nor Ebb have gotten  that award, so I guess they're just a little slow awarding it. Note that Robert Russell Bennett received a Speacial Tony Award posthumously in 2008, more than twenty-five years late.

Thanks to Jonathan Groff, I feel like there should be a third level of actor categories. At the top is lead actor/actress, of course. Then I'd suggest that featured be rechristened supporting, and a new featured category be introduced for actors particularly small, but particularly memorable roles. And there are a lot of small but memorable roles. Jonathan Groff as King George in Hamilton would, of course, be moved to this category, and so would roles such as Arpad, Sipos, and Maraczek in She Loves Me, Lazar Wolf, Fruma Sara, and Yente in Fiddler On The Roof,  Daryl and Lucy in Bright Star, Ilsa in Spring Awakening, Tulsa in Gypsy, Piragua Guy in In The Heights, the guy who sings "Why, who are you who ask this question?" in The Mikado, and more. These are all characters popular with the fans, but perhaps too small for consideration as a "feautred" role.

James Corden did a good job hosting, although I felt the carpool karaoke dragged on a little long.

There were a lot of shots against Donald Trump. I liked the political musical parodies, but I feel like James Corden could have come up with a better pun than A Clinton Line. But I guess Clinton is a hard name to make a pun out of. My First Lady was the first one I could think of, and that doesn't really apply anymore.

I didn't really like that Hamilton did the closing number. I know everyone knew it was going to win, but for the sake of an awards show, they could have at least pretended that the other nominees had a shot. It's more sportsmanlike that way.

The best performance of the evening was obviously Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber on the tambourine.

So now the Tonys are over. Over the next few months the original cast will gradually leave Hamilton, and then things will slow down, and by this time next year, we'll all be talking about whatever the new musical is that looks like it can't possibly lose to the Tonys. Possibly Dear Even Hansen or Anastasia or The One With The Really Long Title That Josh Groban Is In.

Now I can get back to writing about opera!