Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Great Comet: On Engaging Staging

I made a post last month with some of my thoughts about the new Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre, And The Great Comet Of 1812, based on the cast recordings and my research into the show. Now, having seen it live, I have a few more thoughts.

There's been a lot written about this musical already, so I'm going to keep the review part of this short. We already know that this is a well-written music with great music. The cast album is out. It's not up to me to tell you whether you'll like the music.

Josh Groban left the show on Sunday, and the Pierre I saw was Dave Malloy, the librettist and composer, who originated the role off-Broadway. I am generally opposed to writers and composers originating roles in their own works (cameos excepted) as a matter of principle, just as it's generally considered bad form for directors to cast themselves. That said, despite being in the title of the musical, Pierre is actually a fairly minor role, hardly featuring in the plot at all until the last half of Act II. It is an ensemble show, with the leading parts shared fairly equally among Natasha, Anatole, Helene, Sonya, basically every role listed before the "minor characters" section of the Prologue. Dave Malloy's voice is not as pleasant as Josh Groban's (I don't think this is a controversial opinion) but he physically inhabited the role quite effectively, with all the awkwardness and self-doubt called for in the script.

The performance I attended also happened to be the debut of Ingrid Michaelson in the role of Sonya. She was good too.

The two cast standouts for me were Grace McLean as Marya, and Gelsey Bell as Mary. It occurs to me that Mary, a much underrated character, is in some ways a counterpart to Pierre, resentful of the characters who are actually doing something to advance the plot. (Speaking of the scene with Natasha and Mary, I find myself wondering if Natasha's "I'm not afraid of anyone" was intended as a reference to Songs For A New World.)


I discussed in my previous post how The Great Comet has what I called an "oratoric" nature about it, which makes it an extremely effective album to listen to, and will also lend itself nicely to concert productions in the future. I talked about how the "immersive" staging of the show may be considered a distancing effect, designed to keep the audience aware, rather than to immerse them per se. I have since found that, to my mind, the active and expansive staging actually detracts from the remarkably well-written musical.

For starters, The Great Comet is a particularly wordy musical and requires a good deal of attention to be paid. I found the staging to be too active, often slipping over the line into being distracting. Audience interaction also resulted in laughter at particularly un-funny moments (most notably the scene early on with Mary and Bolkonsky), and in general felt over-burdensome to me.

There is also a problem of staging theater in the round which was redoubled by the set for this show being essentially a series of walkways. When directing in a proscenium theater, the director may behave as though everything is seen through a picture frame, because, well, it is. When directing in a thrust theater, the director must take better care to make sure that actors don't spend too long with their backs to the audience on one side. In the round, actors must be constantly in motion, facing in all directions so that no audience members feel snubbed. And when a big part of the show being advertised is its interactivity, this is double true. The result is that the staging was seldom stagnant. Actors were always in motion, running all across the theater. This is fine for scenes in which a lot of things are happening, but The Great Comet has a wealth of small, intimate, and intensely focused scenes which suffer from this kind of staging. I found that the duets suffered from this the most. When many characters are in a scene, in makes sense for them to be walking about, interacting with the various other characters. When only one character is on stage, it's generally considered bad form to have them simply stand and sing. But when two characters are on stage, it doesn't tend to make much sense to have them wander this way and that.

The trouble is that, while The Great Comet has primarily been advertising its big ensemble numbers such as the Prologue and The Abduction, it has a great many small scenes, and, in fact, a big contributor to its dramatic momentum is how it alternates between big and small scenes. Rarely are there actually many things happening at once -- at least things that are related to the plot. "Find Anatole" is perhaps the only song which actually has multiple things going on at the same time. 

I wonder how The Great Comet will do on tour. Given that a tour goes through many theaters, it won't be able to build out all the walkways consistently, meaning that, for better or for worse, the show will likely have to be redirected in a somewhat more proscenium-esque way, although I expect there will still be on-stage seating. I think this may benefit the show from a dramatic standpoint, as scenes like "Natasha And Anatole" and "Pierre And Andre" (really any of the songs with a title of the structure "Character X And Character Y") will hopefully be able to get the tight focus they need, but it may disappoint audiences, as the interactive nature of the staging has been so heavily marketed.

In general, I worry that the marketing of The Great Comet will be its downfall. It is a wonderfully-written show, with a good story and a great score, and it ought to be able to stand on its own merits. But Josh Groban is no longer in it, and the staging is infeasible to recreate in subsequent productions. And much of the hype around the show has been on those two specific elements. When you advertise a show almost entirely on its star actor, any subsequent replacements have to carry equal cachet. At least unlike some star vehicle shows (*cough* Dear Evan Hansen *cough*), The Great Comet is an ensemble show with many prominent roles, and so the casting directors may be able to continue cramming in stars in an assortment of roles, not just Pierre. Still, it's a difficult business model for a Broadway show to sustain.


I want to add the disclaimer that I did really enjoy this show, and I highly recommend it. As I said in my post about Dear Evan Hansen, I simply have more to talk about with regard to things I feel could be improved, because everything that doesn't need to be improved (most of it) has already been talked about at length in other reviews.


One last point to my review, I will not criticize the lighting, as I am particularly susceptible to light-induced headaches and migraines. The club scene made heavy use of strobe lights throughout, for about four minutes. Other moments made use of bright flashing lights which were not technically of the strobe variety, but still bothered me. Attend at your own risk, and maybe bring sunglasses.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bastard Jones: A Quippy Comedy

Currently playing at The Cell Theater in Chelsea is Bastard Jones (official site), a new musical by Marc Acito (Allegience) and Amy Engelhardt. It is based on Henry Fielding's picaresque novel, The History Of Tom Jones, which might be described as Don Giovanni meets Candide.

One of the comic highlights of the show came before the first (technically non-existent) curtain, when Rene Ruiz, who would later assume the character of Partridge, gave his variation on the standard "turn off your cell phones" announcement. Throughout the performance, Ruiz acted as an emcee and stand-up comic, delivering comic asides and puns to the audience, commenting on the action throughout. One-liners like "I'd swear off drinking, but it's not polite to swear" abound. (When he later entered the story at the end of Act I, he added made-up Latin phrases to his list of comic devices.)

As the action begins, Tom Jones, the illegitimate ward of a squire, is a notorious womanizer, who, despite his habits, is legitimately in love with Sophia Shepherd, the daughter of a priest. (It is at this point I began to think: "This is going to be Grease, isn't it?") When Tom is implicated in a scandal by his foster brother Blifil, he is sent away from home. Sophia goes out searching for him, and the two cross paths in a series of misunderstandings the "will they or won't they"-ness of which ends up feeling more tired than Ross and Rachel. Along the way they meet a colorful cast of characters, all of whom somehow end up being connected, and ultimately all ends happily.

The script lacks polish, with many character motivations being unclear (Harriet is a particular victim of this) and a general lack of aim in the story (for instance, how Allworthy sings a dramatic reprise of "I Must Away," and then proceeds to do nothing until half the cast come rushing to his door). Many of the songs feel like re-trodden ground, with "Blifil's Kissoff" evoking the end of "Trial By Pilate," "Nil Desperandum" being a jazzed-up version of "Hakuna Matata," and even "Tingle" having much the same conceipt as Rossini's "Contro Un Cor." At the same time, despite evoking feelings of more famous songs, the individual songs of Bastard Jones by and large failed to impress. Comedy songs are difficult to write without falling into cliche, especially at length, and the songs of Bastard Jones suffer from this. "I Must Away," for instance, falls flat quickly, because after Sophia has listed in rhyme all the various ways she could kill herself, where do you go from there?

All the same, there is much fun to be had. Most of the comedy, for me at least, came in the form of the puns, quips, and one-liners delivered primarily by Partridge, but also many of the other characters. (As an example, one particularly groan-worthy joke, uttered in a ball scene, I must echo here: "What are you doing here?" "The minuet!") There was also a good deal of slapstick, but never to the point that it felt overdone. In some ways, I feel this show may have been more successful as a play, with no songs to slow down the jokes.

The cast are particular highlights. In addition to the aforementioned Rene Ruiz, Alie Gorie played two important and unrecognizable roles as Molly Seagrim and Harriet Fitzpatrick, earning many laughs in one role, and much pity in the other. Cheryl Stern was a comedic highlight in all her assorted supporting roles, and Elena Wang as Sophia was refreshingly sympathetic (possibly the only entirely sympathetic character in the show) but not above slapstick. And, of course, I have to mention Evan Ruggiero as the titular Tom Jones, who played the role with appropriate flair, although his voice was weak at points. Of note is Ruggiero's very real wooden leg, which was worked ingeniously into the staging, including in a wonderfully choreographed sword fight.

As a drama, Bastard Jones needs a polish and a trim. As a comedy, it is an enjoyable enough farce, though it is a bit bawdy (at a level about on par with Heathers: The Musical). It does not take itself seriously, and even indulges in a sort of self-aware over-the-top-ness which might be best characterized by cheesy cult musicals such as Rocky Horror and Reefer Madness, and with some tweaks, I could see Bastard Jones developing a similar cult status, although probably not to the same level. Ultimately it comes down to what you want in a musical. Bastard Jones does not hold up to musical farces like Anything Goes and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, but for puns, quips, and slapstick, it's not a bad choice.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Novel Narration: How Broadway's Russian Novel May Be An Oratorio

After my last post speaking rather negatively about one of this season's most highly-acclaimed musicals, I thought I'd better make up for it by extolling the virtues of another one. But rather than more or less parroting what all the other reviews say, I hope to contextualize in the frame of a classical oratorio. And this blog post will be short.

Much of the praise for Natasha, Pierre, And The Great Comet Of 1812 cites its highly innovative and immersive staging. It is perhaps more often described as an "experience" rather than a "musical." The corollary to this is that I have heard it criticized as being too complicated, difficult to follow, and not having enough hummable tunes.

I will not justify that hummability criticism with a response. I thought Sondheim smashed that argument into the ground.

The funny thing is that I don't find Great Comet complicated at all. I had to look it up on Wikipedia (it does tell you to do your research in the opening number) but I was able to latch onto the plot pretty well. It helped when I realized that it basically parallels the part of Pride And Prejudice where Lydia elopes with Wickham. (Note: Pride And Prejudice predates War And Peace. I know. I was surprised too.)

The most innovative conceit of Great Comet, as far as I'm concerned, is in how it derives its text. It is based on a short section of War And Peace, and it draws much of its text directly from the original source. The result is what in the opera world we call a prose libretto. That is to say, a libretto that is written without rhyme or meter. Prose librettos came into the opera world in the late Romantic era, as arias became more free in form, and more integrated into a holistic score. (Compare Mozart to Puccini for example.)

In addition to lacking meter or rhyme, Great Comet deriving its text directly from War And Peace has a second major effect on the musical: Characters frequently sing their own narration. This is an interesting, almost Brechtian, distancing effect, and makes me immediately think of classic oratorios. Mendelssohn's Elijah, for instance, derives its text directly from the bible, and, like the libretto of Great Comet, has a mix of dialogue and narration. This is necessary, because oratorios lack staging.

It seems strange to compare Great Comet to an oratorio when so much of the praise heaped on the musical has been for its immersive staging. Oratorios are typically anything but immersive. But the staging of Great Comet was inspired by a Russian club. The Imperial Theatre has undergone some structural revisions to accommodate a different sort of theater space, including seats on the stage itself, a la the recent revival of Cabaret. This is a further distancing effect, and the intended illusion is that you are sitting in a club or cafe watching actors perform the story. Which is the exact opposite of immersive.

Bertolt Brecht (a playwright so influential he has an adjective named after him) was not fond of realism as a theatrical movement. He viewed it as disingenuous to try and trick the audience into thinking what they were seeing is real. He believed that the audience should always be aware that they are watching a play. Some things he did to achieve this effect included having characters break the fourth wall, comment on the action in song, and exist in a stripped-down stage setting, with the technical workings of it visible to the audience.

I believe that this is the theatrical idiom in which Great Comet exists. Its immersive nature is therefore something of an illusion, designed to actually distance the audience, and thereby make them more receptive to the oratoric nature of the musical. You don't become immersed in an oratorio and let the story wash over you. You sit down ready to hear the story told to you. It is a much more active form of listening. And so while the songs of Great Comet won't play on the radio as nicely as the songs of Dear Evan Hansen, they are just as deserving of accolades. They exist in different idioms, and Great Comet's idiom is one which includes primarily oratorios, Brecht, and not much else. That is what makes it innovative as a hit Broadway musical.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Sorrows Of Young Evan: How Broadway's Biggest Hit Might Be A 1774 German Novel

Note: This blog post is lengthier than usual. Read it when you have time.


"Thwarted happiness, confined activity, and unsatisfied wishes are not faults of a given period, but the problems of every single person, and it would be a bad thing if, once in his life, everyone did not have a period in which he felt that Werther had been written exclusively for him."

So said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe regarding his 1774 epistolary novel, The Sorrows Of Young Werther, about a young artist who goes to a quaint little village, falls in love with a woman who does not love him back, wallows in self-pity for a little while, and then shoots himself with her husband's pistol. It became wildly popular, regarded as one of the most significant and influential works in romantic literature (a movement which Goethe later derided as "everything that is sick") and served as an inspiration for many subsequent works. It also lends its name to a sociological phenomenon.

Today, there is a new Werther. He dwells at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, and goes by the name Evan Hansen. He is the star of Dear Evan Hansen, one of this season's most popular musicals, and has built a large, rabid, and divisive fan base. He has been called everything from "inspirational" to "sociopathic."


If you're concerned for spoilers (read any of my blog posts mentioning Il Trovatore for an explanation of why you shouldn't be) turn back now.


Evan Hansen suffers from what has been identified by audience members as social anxiety, depression, asperger's, and everything in between. None of the writers behind Dear Evan Hansen have anything relating to psychology or mental health on their resume, and so whatever Evan suffers from, it remains rightly unnamed in the script, and is probably not entirely accurate to any specific condition. "Social anxiety" probably comes closest, if for no other reason than it can be interpreted as either a specific clinical term, or a more general one. At any rate, he's a troubled young lad, who has no friends (except for when he does) and cannot deal with social situations (except for when he can).

I had originally written up a synopsis here, but I realized that it was rather biased, and thus undermines my wish to discuss this musical objectively. I therefore recommend, if you do not already know the story and do not care about spoilers, reading the synopsis on Wikipedia.

The one observation I had in the synopsis I wrote which I think is worth mentioning here, as it is not something I have seen explored elsewhere, is that Connor's line when he signs Evan's cast about how they can "both pretend to have friends," possibly indicates that he had already made up his mind that he was going to kill himself, and wanted people to believe that he did have friends when he finally did. It's possible that keeping Evan's note on his person was also an attempt to deliberately induce some sort of plot to the effect of what followed, although probably not with those exact details. It seems unlikely that the writers intended this, but it could have been an interesting path to go down.


I find the score of Dear Evan Hansen largely mediocre, but it has provided the world with two new soon-to-be-overdone audition songs. The first is Evan's Act I ballad, "Waving Through A Window" is a contemporary pop single about how alone and isolated he is. It's the new "On My Own." The second is the Act I finale, "You Will Be Found," cataloging the explosive growth of the Connor Project, and carrying with it the feel-good message that you are special, and that you matter.

Which is a fine enough message on its own, but it comes with heavy contextual problems, and highlights the two main criticisms of the show. The first is that Evan is using Connor's death for his own gain. The second is that in this, Connor actually is forgotten, because the only semblance of him left by the end is the entirely false portrait Evan has painted. In a sense, Evan erases Connor's memory in order to overwrite it with his feel-good "you matter" message, which is more than a little hypocritical. And the musical's fanbase likewise seems to forget Connor in favor of buying into the lie Evan spins. It is important to remember that by the end of the musical, everything Evan has told us about Connor is blatantly false, and that we have to scrub "For Forever" and "Sincerely Me" from our minds in order to maintain a clear and objective view of what has transpired.

I have seen it explained that Dear Evan Hansen is meant to be a satire and critique of people using tragedy for personal gain, and of people trying to make themselves seem more important and connected than they actually are. That You Will Be Found is supposed to feel threatening. The moment when Evan fully gives into the lie. But if this is Dear Evan Hansen's intent, it fails miserably.

Parade is a musical I like quite a bit. It has a book by Alfred Uhry and a score by Jason Robert Brown, and it tells the true story of Leo Frank, the superintendent of a pencil factory in Atlanta. One of his employees, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan, is murdered, and he is scapegoated because he's Jewish and this is 1913 Georgia. At the trial, in the musical, Mary Phagan's mother sings a touching ode entitled "My Child Will Forgive Me," which, if well-performed, is sure to draw tears from the audience. It builds our sympathy for Mrs. Phagan, and makes us want just as much as her to find and convict the murderer. And then she blurts out the final line, "And so I forgive you... Jew!" The accusatory exclamation of "Jew!" suddenly drags the audience back to their senses, and we realize with a fright just how easily we were swayed by the song's pathos. Jason Robert Brown does this again and again throughout the musical, drawing us in with wonderful and engaging songs, and then tossing us back to the ground with the revelation that we can be just as easily swayed by mob mentality as any of the characters on stage.

Dear Evan Hansen is "My Child Will Forgive Me" without the final "Jew!" We get pulled into the lie with Evan by these catchy songs with a lot of catchphrases and little substance ("Waving Through A Window" seems to have practically been designed to be a radio hit), but we don't get the chance to regain our objectivity. There is no moment where everything collapses on top of Evan, or where he seems to unwittingly step to far. (It would go a long way in solving this problem if one of the first things Evan did wasn't deliberately forging emails to make it look like Connor was his friend. Not denying the Murphy's assumptions is one thing, but it's quite another to consciously fabricate this narrative, especially after he ought to have had some time to think it over.) And he doesn't really suffer any tangible comeuppance at the end. Zoe even forgives him (which I have a hard time believing, given that he more or less blatantly emotionally manipulated her into a relationship, even if he didn't intend to do so maliciously), and says that her family is closer for the whole ordeal. Everything seems to work out just fine. If Dear Evan Hansen is meant to be a critique of profiting off of tragedy, it sure seems like a romanticization of it.

The only think that comes close to a critique is when Jared (who is the comic relief character) sells buttons with Connor's face on them. He freely admits that what he's doing is morally dubious, and says that what Evan's doing is basically the same. But the musical doesn't really expand on this, and leaves the morality of Evan's actions at the ultimate good that comes of it. The song "Good For You" comes close to doing something right, but is too quickly undermined by the too-neat resolution which follows. Evan is forced to come clean, but ultimately, the ending wraps up everything to everyone's benefit.

There is a parallel here in how Werther has been identified by some analysts as a parody of the Romantic movement in literature. Never mind that the Romantic movement didn't really get into full swing until after Goethe wrote it. It is only Goethe's later remarks and revisions that lend any credence to the idea that Werther is not to be taken seriously. At the time it was originally published, Werther was exactly what it appeared to be.

There are a few things that would make this all much more palatable. The first and biggest thing, for my tastes at least, would be to strike out Evan's relationship with Zoe entirely. Have her remain skeptical of him, and leave his affection for her unrequited. It's too convenient that Evan ends up with everything, and the girl on top of it. It also removes any questions about the morality of Evan's relationship with Zoe if he never actually has one. Another thing to do would be to slow Evan's fall, and make it more based on factors out of his control. That is to say, don't have him fabricate emails. Only have him spin verbal lies, and only when pressured to. If he must put more thought into his fabrications, let it be in Act II, when he's already out of his depth. The musical could also take an idea from Heathers, which deals with similar subjects, and have the ghost of Connor appear to Evan, not as a reassuring voice, but as a critical one, to remind both Evan and the audience about everything wrong here. But the biggest thing of all is that Evan needs to be faced with the fact that he caused significant damage, to the Murphys, to the memory of Connor, to his own reputation, to his relationships with other people, and that even if there is a chance of undoing said damage, it can't be done so quietly off stage during a time skip. I don't want to see Evan crucified, but I do want him to actually have to face real consequences for his actions, not just superficial ones that get nullified in the final scene.


So how does this musical become designated the feel-good hit of the year? Why the rave reviews? What makes the public go crazy about this musical? Well, the rabid fans make it clear that the primary attraction is Ben Platt's portrayal of the lead role. It has become apparent through the discourse surrounding the show that, above all, people love the character, and will work hard to defend and justify his actions, or else meekly say "well it's fiction, he doesn't have to be perfect." Which, though technically true, comes close to the "well could you write anything better?" defense in pointlessness.

The fact that the songs are written with pop principles in mind and are therefore easy to have a strong reaction to upon first hearing doesn't hurt Evan's likability. This is not strictly a bad thing in and of itself, but when the song is meant to be part of a larger work like a musical, it creates a too-hasty generalization. Pop songs work differently from theater songs, and that's just the nature of the medium. But considering all the questionable-at-best things he does, what makes this character so appealing to the crowds?


Anyone who's watched How I Met Your Mother can accurately tell you that the hero of the classic 80s film The Karate Kid is not Daniel, but rather Johnny, who is a studious karate student, tragically defeated by an upstart with an illegal kick to the head. The Karate Kid problem is something the internet likes to have fun with, but it also provides a valuable insight into how people respond to different types of characters.

It is not, I think, a revolutionary idea to point out that people like an underdog. Daniel is a more appealing protagonist than Johnny because he has to struggle more for his goal. The story of someone coming up from nothing is more compelling than the story of someone who's good at a thing, and does the thing, and succeeds at it because they are good at the thing. Likewise, the story of someone searching for a purpose in life is more dramatic than the story of someone who has a pretty good idea of what they want to do, and then does it. Struggle is what makes a dramatic story, and therefore protagonists are more likely to be underdogs.

But statistically, everybody can't be the underdog. For every Gabriela Montez, there has to be a Sharpay Evans who is, quite justifiably, peeved that this random outsider is swooping in and playing the lead despite having no theatrical experience. The fact is that few people get the true underdog story, and likewise few get the Sharpay story. Most people are more like the crème brûlée guy who thinks he's special for having more than one interest or personality trait. (Although, for a background character, that actually is an impressive feat.)

But because of the cult of the underdog, nobody wants to be Johnny or Sharpay. People want to feel like they're the struggling underdog, treated unfairly by the world. In some cases, it almost feels like a victim complex. Most people would rather compare themselves to Eponine than Cosette, Elphaba rather than Galinda, Louise rather than June. Even though Cosette, Galinda, and June don't do anything wrong (or in the case of the former, really anything at all), they are more likely to be vilified in the eyes of the audience. And this goes all the way back to ancient Greek drama. The protagonist is Antigone, not Ismene. Elektra, not Chrysothemis. (Although those sets of sisters don't compete in the same way.) In the bible too. Esau is born with advantage over Jacob, so by necessity Jacob is the hero, even though, taken in a vacuum, he's really kind of a jerk to his brother. Same thing with Joseph and his brothers. I could go on. In the case of Werther, the title character is made up as being the underdog to Charlotte's husband Albert, even though their rivalry only exists in Werther's own head.

This is the phenomenon that makes Evan such a popular character, and why it's so important to the musical's success that whatever condition Evan may or may not have remains unnamed. Mental illness is not a subject that is treated lightly, nor should it be. That's why people take care to distinguish between "feeling depressed" and "having depression." The former is something everyone experiences from time to time. The latter describes a much smaller set of people with a much bigger problem than simply occasionally feeling upset. And if Evan had been specifically diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, or depression, or something else, it would restrict the number of people comfortable saying they relate to him without fear of being corrected. But everyone can relate to occasionally feeling left out, and so for two hours or so, as long as Evan is never diagnosed, people are free to identify themselves with him as much as they choose, despite it being a small minority of people who have actually had the experience necessary to fully empathize. And again, there is no particular problem in relating to characters with whom one may actually have little in common. My objection in the case of Dear Evan Hansen is twofold. One (which I will come back to shortly) the musical has been hailed as one of the first musicals to deal with mental illness, but fails to actually identify or even indicate any specific illness, thus opening the door to rampant unprofessional misdiagnosis. Two, putting Evan on a pedestal as so many seem to be doing implicitly endorses some highly troubling behavior. Even Hamilton is honest about its title character's flaws.

But I can't really fault the musical for this. Dear Evan Hansen does portray its title character as an extreme case, even for fiction. This is more of a grievance with the victim culture that pervades sections of the internet. But the result is that Evan is forced into the position of everyman in the worst possible way. Because all of this makes him a character highly susceptible to inducing the Werther Effect.


Following the publishing of The Sorrows Of Young Werther, many young people in Germany began emulating its title character. Like Evan Hansen, Werther was a misunderstood loner, which, for the same reason as Evan, appealed to a lot of people who sought to identify with him. As I quoted above, Goethe viewed it as a phase everyone goes through where they basically feel like Werther, alone and misunderstood. It isn't a problem to have characters that are relateable to certain people in certain phases of their lives. It isn't even a problem when people begin dressing like the character and quoting them, although it does begin to get weird. It is, however, a problem when people begin to kill themselves in the same manner as the character.

Werther was subsequently banned in many places as "Werther Fever" spread through Europe.

The Werther Effect has become a term for copycat suicides. Where reporting suicide, or portraying it in fiction, makes other people more likely to follow suit. This is why it is advised to avoid publicizing suicides, and part of why the recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has attracted controversy.

The somewhat reassuring thing is that Evan's problems resolve without him committing suicide -- although he did try. He does, however, benefit from someone else's suicide, and his actions are not the most commendable. For a character with the memetic relatability of a modern-day Werther, this is not a good road to be traveling. A potentially dangerous one as well. People contriving empathy with Evan leads to normalizing, or worse, romanticizing his actions, which ought to be against the entire point of the musical. That is what makes Evan more problematic than other suicidal characters of theater. Hedda Gabler, like Evan, feels alone and misunderstood, but unlike Evan, she is explicitly manipulative, and is not in danger of being put on any pedestal. (It doesn't hurt that her play is not particularly popular among the young and mob-minded sections of the internet.) I am not so much concerned with Dear Evan Hansen per se, as much as I'm concerned with how it has blown up and garnered a strong and misguided internet following. (Although, as I've discussed, the musical itself has a number of problems which have allowed said misguided following to exist.) We have to remember that the point is that Evan isn't important, and that we still don't know anything about Connor or his reasons for killing himself. This is a musical that needs an analytical and removed vantage point. It should have been written by Kander and Ebb. But Pasek and Paul's relentless pathos make the audience just as lost as Evan.


Let's pause for a moment and have a bit of cheerful counterpoint. There is a corollary to the Werther Effect known as the Papageno Effect (named after the character from The Magic Flute) whereby presenting alternatives to suicide makes people less likely to commit suicide. Which seems stupidly obvious when you say it like that, but is important to consider when reporting suicides. Potential Werther damage can be offset by coupling the report with a Papageno-friendly PSA. 


There is a strong dissonance, which is not Dear Evan Hansen's fault, in the mere fact that Evan is the protagonist. For instance, it is a requirement of Evan's character that he be completely isolated and friendless. But it is a theatrical necessity that he have someone to talk to, so that the plot can advance. This is the role that Jared fulfills, and though the script tries to emphasize that Jared is not Evan's friend per se, the fact is that Evan is not entirely alone with no one to talk to about his problems. And that is just one example of the dissonance required in making a character like Evan a protagonist.


Next To Normal is a musical which famously portrayed mental illness. But the illness portrayed in Next To Normal is designed to be more dramatic than Evan's. Next To Normal is unabashedly fictitious, and at times surreal, which allows it to take more liberties in its plot. It also helps the audience stay somewhat removed from the action, which is important. The character in Next To Normal which the tumblr demographic likes to identify with is not the protagonist, Diana, but rather her daughter, Natalie. And rightly so. Natalie, a supporting role, is a teenage girl dealing with what are, though in extreme instances, basically high school problems. Meaning that the young demographic can freely identify with her without belittling or distracting from the more major issues of the musical. It also works because Next To Normal does not resolve. It does not end in either tragedy or triumph, and so it cannot set any expectation or course of action like Werther and Evan do.

In its ending, Next To Normal takes a page from one of the generally agreed upon "great American plays", Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. The central figure of The Glass Menagerie is Laura Wingfield, an antisocial shut-in who in many ways is indicated to be worse off than Evan in her condition. She interacts with no one but her family, cites times when the prospect of social interaction has made her physically ill, and, at almost a decade out of high school, shows no indications of getting better. What enables her to be the central figure of the drama is that she is still not the protagonist of the play. That title belongs to her brother, Tom, and the play chronicles his misguided and ultimately failed attempt to set his sister up with a colleague of his. In fact, Laura herself is off stage for much of the first two thirds of the play.

One of the things I find most interesting about The Glass Menagerie is its incredibly frank observations and discussions about Laura's condition and behavior, and its acknowledgement of the cognitive dissonance that comes with it. Take, for example, a fear of bugs. I know that objectively, I have nothing to fear from cockroaches except in the most contrived of circumstances. But that doesn't stop me from jumping when I see one, and being extremely cautious when I attempt to get rid of it. I'm sure you can sympathize. Likewise, Laura can consciously observe and agree with Jim that she has an inferiority complex, and that it is irrational and she has nothing to feel self-conscious about. But just acknowledging that as true won't stop her from feeling that way. And even when it seems like Laura is going to come out of her shell and get better, she ultimately sinks back into it and ends back on square one.

Something that both Evan and Laura do (and Werther does this too) is manufacture relationships in their head. In Evan's case this is clear. He makes up this story about having been Connor's best friend, and at a certain point, begins to believe it. Laura's is smaller in scale. In her conversation with Jim O'Connor which makes up most of the final third of the play, she clearly begins to develop feelings for him. She is able to develop these feelings so quickly because, one, she had already had a crush on him in high school, and, two, she is dramatically undersocialized. When it becomes clear that Jim does not return her feelings (he is, in fact, engaged, and assumed he was at the Wingfield house for a regular old dinner with friends) she blames herself for the misunderstanding and sinks back into her shell. It's sad. Read the play. But Evan has no such crash. We see him begin to believe his lies about Connor, but we never see him ultimately come to terms with the fact that he was deluding himself, which, to my mind, could have been the most affecting moment of the script.

Dear Evan Hansen, by necessity, utilizes this sort of cognitive dissonance, because it would otherwise be nearly impossible to have Evan as a protagonist. But it does not acknowledge it, or seem to embrace it for its own advantage. It is left hanging there like any other plot hole, and any speculation that it is intentionally ambiguous must be left as nothing more than speculation. And because it forces itself to resolve satisfactorally, unlike Next To Normal or The Glass Menagerie, it, to an extent, implicitly endorses the actions that lead to its ending, even if it doesn't intend to. And again, there are plenty of stories where people get what they want through dubious means, and that's absolutely fine. It's part of creating interesting stories. What makes Evan the unique subject of my criticism is the pedestal he's placed on, which is not strictly the fault of the musical itself.


I think there is also an attitude that denotes a strong emotional reaction as a sign of quality. But emotional response should not be an indicator of quality. It should be a factor considered, of course, but pathos can be misplaced. I'm going to dip into opera here, so bear with me.

Massenet's opera based on Goethe's Werther has a fine example of well-placed pathos. The hit aria of the opera is "Pourquoi Me Reveiller" in Act III. In the opera, it is a poem read aloud by Werther to Charlotte, which is designed to reflect Werther's intense self-pity. The music is sorrowful, ominous, and thrilling. It uses its emotion to force us to sympathize with Werther, much as "Waving Through A Window" does for Evan. But, as I said, the music of "Pourquoi Me Reveiller" maintains an ominous tone which Dear Evan Hansen lacks, which clues the audience into something more negative. Even the darkest songs of Dear Evan Hansen sound strangely uplifting, which distracts from their subject matter and their context. Just because they express emotion does not mean they express the right emotion. "For Forever" is the song that comes closest to having a dark tone in contrast to the subject of the lyrics, and is just another example of something Dear Evan Hansen begins to do, but fails to follow up on. (In contrast, almost all of Werther's music in Massenet's opera sounds incredibly dark, and after "Du Gai Soleil" in Act II, there is scarcely a lighthearted moment in the remaining two-and-a-half acts.)


The worst thing about it for Evan himself is that much of this scrutiny would go away if the musical were simply more explicit in what its intended message is. Without that certainty, people have spawned many different interpretations, each of which has its own set of problems. And without specifying or even indicating a correct interpretation, Dear Evan Hansen leaves every one of those problems open. Instead, it gets so caught up in the emotions that it forgets what it's doing.

People have praised the musical's moral ambiguity as being "complex," but there comes a point where I feel it's just calling its own vagueness by the name "ambiguity" as an excuse. People can come up with narratives that explain why Johnny is the tragic hero of The Karate Kid, but I doubt any of us actually believe that that is what the filmmakers intended. And it's not wrong to have a work that can be interpreted in many different ways. But again, Dear Evan Hansen is just so vague and so popular that it becomes a problem when discussing the musical.


One of the most prominent parallels between Dear Evan Hansen and The Sorrows Of Young Werther is the emphasis on letter. Werther is an epistolary novel, told largely in letters written by Werther to a friend of his who does not factor in the plot. Dear Evan Hansen, though not an epistolary musical as Passion is, deals a lot with writing letters. The goal in both cases is to give a great deal of insight into the character's psyche, as both stories focus intensely on the troubles of one young man, whose struggles to fit in with society cause a great deal of drama.

Although Werther was an immediate hit, it caused some trouble for Goethe, who struggled with how personal it was to him when he wrote it. It was written almost entirely from a sentimental standpoint, as opposed to the more complicated and analytical nature of, say, his Faust. A decade after its initial publication, Goethe went back and substantially revised Werther, expanding on its minor characters, in particular making Albert much more sympathetic. A good thing too, because Albert doesn't actually do anything wrong in the story at all, and the only reason he is vilified is because he happens to be married to the girl the protagonist loves. Remember the underdog fallacy.

Goethe initially wrote Werther based on recent and immediate experiences, but at a point when he was further removed from it, he rewrote it with greater objectivity, and, I think most would agree, greatly improved it. I think Dear Evan Hansen would do well to undergo a similar set of revisions a few years down the line, after we see how it holds up.


(Aside: I also find myself wondering how well Dear Evan Hansen actually will hold up. Its use of social media as a medium for storytelling seems like it could become dated extremely quickly, and ten years down the line, it may seem like too much of a period piece to be worth revisiting. I may be wrong. This is something that only time can tell.)


I'd like to conclude with a little disclaimer denying something I've been told a fair bit when expressing my views on musicals like Rent and Spring Awakening, where my view differs greatly from the mainstream. People have been quick to deduce that because I don't like Rent, I therefore must be some hipster who thinks he's above liking anything that's popular. This is not the case. There are basically four distinct and mutually exclusive categories of musicals, and they are as follows:

1. Popular musicals which I like. (Into The Woods, Chicago, Wicked)
2. Unpopular musicals which I like. (Passion, The Visit, If/Then)
3. Unpopular musicals which I don't like. (Aspects Of Love, Whistle Down The Wind, Love Never Dies -- man, when Andrew Lloyd Webber flops, he flops hard!)
4. Popular musicals which I don't like. (Rent, Spring Awakening, -- that's mostly it.)

With the first category (which is also probably the largest, or perhaps second to category two), there is little cause for discussion, because the mainstream and I basically agree, even if the specifics of our liking the shows differ. Likewise in category three. If I don't like a show, and you don't like a show, why even bring it up? It is only in the second category, where I defend shows I felt were wrongly flops, or bring attention to shows that have slipped through the cracks, and in the fourth category, where I take a stance contrary to the mainstream, that much discussion is likely to ensue. This creates the illusion that I disproportionately exalt unpopular musicals and tear down popular ones, because in cases where the general population and I agree, I don't find it worth my time to write something like this. I hope this explanation will dissuade people from dismissing my remarks as those of a "Hansen-hating hipster."

Further, it is always good to be able to honestly discuss something's flaws. Even Gypsy has flaws, which I will happily point out. But this doesn't mean Gypsy isn't a great musical. It certainly is. Just not a perfect one. So I hope we can take Evan off of his pedestal, and observe him objectively.


Printed in 12pt, Times New Roman font, singe spaced, this blog post takes up eleven pages. (This final postscript pushes it onto the twelfth.) I believe this is my longest blog post to date. Most of my posts seem to tend to be between two and five pages. Thought I'd end with a little lighthearted trivia.

Join me again tomorrow when I follow this up with a post comparing the other big hit of the Broadway season to a classical oratorio!

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: Pilgrim?


JAUFRE: Why is the sea blue?

PILGRIM: Because it reflects the sky.



JAUFRE: Pilgrim?


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.