Friday, February 16, 2018

Mayer, Muhly, and Mefistofele: The Met's 2018-19 Season

The Met announced their 2018-19 season yesterday. I did plug it into the spreadsheet, and it popped out a score of 0.2481. Which is not only more daring than any of the remarkably close past four seasons, but also the most daring of any season in the past seven years, with the 2013-14 season being next at 0.2489. So it looks like what I found in my last post was just a neat coincidence.

There are two major things bringing this number down. The first is the Ring Cycle. The Ring Cycle is always a special event, and draws in a crowd. The reason it scores so low is because it's difficult to pull off, and so companies don't attempt it that often. But when you do pull it of, it's not exactly an obscure thing that no one's going to see. This is a marked flaw that my algorithm doesn't account for. I expect that's also why Aida scores surprisingly low. It's just a technically difficult show, so it's done less often, but that doesn't mean it's any less popular with crowds.

The other thing bringing the score down is the inclusion of Il Trittico in the season. When I devised the spreadsheet, I had a hard time figuring out how to deal with double bills. Operabase considers each opera individually, and I can't distinguish when Cavalleria Rusticana was paired with Pagliacci or when it was paired with something else, if anything at all. For Cav/Pag, which is opera's most popular double bill, it didn't make a huge difference, because both parts of it are just-popular-enough-but-not-too-popular to not significantly mess with the numbers in a large season. So I could count them as either a single averaged opera, or as the two constituent operas. I elected for the latter. But Il Trittico is three distinct operas, and none of them rank particularly highly on the popularity scale, with Gianni Schicchi, the most popular by a wide margin, scoring 0.119. So should Il Trittico be considered three separate operas? Or as one opera that's the average of the three? Should it be given the score of the most popular of the three? Or something else entirely? Double bills is one of many things my spreadsheet is not equipped to handle.

Even cutting the Ring and Il Trittico, the distribution of operas in the season did not match my model at all. The curve was much steeper, which basically means fewer mid-range operas, and more on one end or the other. So maybe it's coincidence that I happened to find four consecutive seasons that greatly resembled one another. Or maybe the Met is significantly changing its tack this time around.

Let's get into the season a bit, shall we?

After last year's debacle cutting the new production of La Forza Del Destino, the Met is down to four new productions in the 2018/19 season. I think this is fine. As I've said in the past, to the casual opera-goer, there's not that much difference between a brand new production, and an old production that hasn't been seen in 20+ years. Both are pretty exciting.

The first new production is the season opera, Samson Et Dalila, starring Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna, directed by Darko Tresnjak. Garanca will be fantastic in the role, and later in the run, Anita Rachvelishvilli takes over. Alagna is solid, and he certainly has the hair for it. I do like Tresnjak, but this seems like an odd match for him. Based on the promotional pictures, this might somewhat resemble the John Cox Thais, which I have mixed feelings about. Thais and Samson Et Dalila have certain obvious similarities in style and subject matter, but Samson has a greater scale and more plot focus. Space is also much more important in Samson than it is in Thais. Specifically, it needs to be well defined. But I can't judge Tresnjak's production on a few pictures. I look forward to seeing it, and I hope it does well.

The new production of La Traviata is exciting. After this season's Tosca, I believe this will be the second opera to have two new productions under Gelb's tenure at the Met, and it looks like Michael Mayer will be doing the same thing as David McVicar (read my thoughts here) in contrasting the controversial minimalism of his predecessor. I was hesitant to see Mayer listed as the director, as he is the director who foisted the Vegas Rigoletto upon us. But the blurb assures us that this Traviata will be in-period, and the promotional pictures look quite decadent. I am a little worried that it will be too decadent though. I think Michael Mayer has a tendency to get bogged down in the window dressing and to lose the drama in it.

La Traviata will star Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez. I'm very happy to see both of them. Damrau's Violetta is somewhat divisive, but she is a smart singer and actress (even if you do think she's a bit of a ham) and I'm counting on her to keep the production grounded if Mayer gets distracted by all the shiny scenery. Florez will be returning to the Met for the first time since La Donna Del Lago in 2015, and since he left, he's been breaking out of his usual fare of Rossini and Donizetti. This Alfredo will be a role debut for him, and I think he'll be phenomenal. He's played wonderfully opposite Damrau before. Quinn Kelsey is Germont, and should be fantastic.

Michael Mayer has a second production in the season in Nico Muhly's new opera, Marnie, based on the Hitchcock film. Muhly has not impressed me, but of course I'll give Marnie a fair shot. Isabel Leonard plays the title role. Leonard is getting a lot of good coverage this season, and mostly in pretty modern fare. She plays Blanche in The Dialogues Of The Carmelites, which is getting a broadcast, and the second title role in Pelleas Et Melisande, both being conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. I predicted when Nezet-Seguin was named as the Met's new music director that we'd see more late-Romantic / early 20th-century fare, but didn't quite expect it to this degree. I guess he and Leonard are in an impressionist mood this year. I do love Isabel Leonard, but I'm not a huge fan of this rep.

The fourth new production this season is Adriana Lecouvreur, directed by David McVicar. As you've probably gathered, I'm a fan of his work, and I'm optimistic about this. It stars Anna Netrebko, who is back in full force as the diva of the season. I think the role will be good for her voice. One of the frustrations I've had with Netrebko in the past is her insistence on singing roles not suited to her voice, so I'm happy to see her taking on more verismo rep. Anita Rachvelishvilli plays the Princess.

A new production of Aida starring Netrebko had been rumored, but that seems to not be happening. All the same, Aida is happening, and Netrebko is starring, once again opposite Rachvelishvilli as the Mezzo Princess. Later in the run, Yonghood Lee takes over as Radames, and I think he'll be fantastic. I'm really happy to see Anita Rachvelishvilli getting some much-deserved coverage this season, starring in three productions, two new, and two getting broadcast. Her breakout role at the Met was probably as Konchakovna in Prince Igor in 2014, and since then she's mostly played Carmen. Recently, she played Azucena in Il Trovatore, and the New York Times review didn't so much review the production as kvell about how fantastic she was. So she may be on the fast track to being the Met's next top Mezzo.

Speaking of Mezzos, Joyce DiDonato is back in full force playing Sesto in a perfectly-cast La Clemenza Di Tito. Matthew Polenzani plays Tito, which I'm sure was decided the moment the reviews came in for Idomeneo last year. (By the by, the Met's productions of La Clemenza Di Tito and Idomeneo are both by Jean Pierre Ponelle, and they're exactly the same. Except for the face of Neptune in the latter, Ponelle used the same sets and costumes for both and just changed the names. It works great.) Joining them are Elza Van Den Heever as Vitellia (again, probably cast right after that Idomeneo), Christian Van Horn as Publio, and Ying Fang as Servilla. (I assume Nadinne Sierra and Alice Coote were unavailable for that full Idomeneo cast reunion.) Ying Fang was a marvellous Barbarina, and it's great to see her climbing that Mozart ladder. Paula Murrihy plays Annio. All in all, this seems like the perfect cast for one of the greatest opera seria ever written.

Other singers getting good coverage this season are Pretty Yende and Sonya Yoncheva. Both of them have been promoted a lot in the current season, and this continues next year. Yoncheva stars in Iolanta opposite Matthew Polenzani in a role debut (and it occurs to me I don't htink I've never heard him sing in Russian), as well as an encore of Otello with Stuart Skelton and Zeljko Lucic. Pretty Yende will be starring in The Pearl Fishers and La Fille Du Regiment, both opposite Javier Camarena. I'm happy to see The Pearl Fishers coming back for a second go-around, although I'm not sure I see Camarena in the role. Mariusz Kwiecien reprises his role from the last time, so of course he'll be fantastic, but it will lose some of that wonderful stage chemistry he has with Matthew Polenzani. The Met needs to cast Kwiecien and Polenzani back together again.

But while I can't really see Camarena in The Pearl Fishers, I can totally see him in La Fille Du Regiment, which is sure to be a hoot. Marie is such a different role from what sopranos in this rep usually play, and it's such a fun role, so I'm looking forward to seeing how Yende interprets it. The broadcast is one of the later performances, presumably to capture Marizio Muraro as Sulpice, since Alessandro Corbelli has been recorded many times in the role. I wonder who's going to guest star as Krakenthorpe.

Falstaff is another recent production of a less-well-known opera that's coming back for a second spin, and I'm excited to see it. Love the opera, love the production, and the cast looks great. I am a little iffy on Ailyn Perez as Alice, but then, Angela Meade just sort of wiped any other interpretation of the role clean out of my mind. I was kind of hoping Lisette Oropesa would reprise her Nanetta, but Golda Schultz should be great as well. (Although, on the subject, Met, can't you give Lisette Oropesa more to do?)

Nathan Gunn is back. As Papageno. Because of course he is.

I assume Fanciulla is in the season for one reason and one reason only: They were able to get Jonas Kaufmann. For four performances. Yusif Eyvazov plays the other three. We'll see if Kaufmann sticks with this one, or if Eyvazov will end up singing the entire run. Eva-Maria Westbroek should be great. Zeljko Lucic will be as reliable as ever as Jack Rance, and Oren Gradus and Matthew Rose join the cast as well. The Met seems to be playing it really safe here with the low voices. Got to get all the basses covered I guess.

Mefistofele should be fun. Angela Meade and Christian Van Horn are exciting. Not a huge fan of Michael Fabiano.

I nearly jumped when I saw Luca Pisaroni was finally playing the Don! And Ildar Abdrazakov is his Leporello. Two years ago those roles would have been reversed. But Abdrazakov has more than proven his comic chops in Le Nozze Di Figaro, and there's been hype around a potential Pisaroni Don Giovanni for quite some time. I look forward to finding out what sort of interpretation he takes. I also look forward to the digital recording in which he played not only the Don, but also Leporello and Masetto at the same time. Hey, Bryn Terfel already did it with the Commendatore scene. Susanna Phillips should be an... interesting Elvira. For the most part, this Don Giovanni cast looks like its a lot of vehicles for new singers, so hopefully some standouts will emerge. I'm super optimistic about Aida Garifullina, who is making her Met debut as Zerlina. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of her in the near future.

Il Trittico is a neat addition to the season (and it's also the main way to get me to sit through Gianni Schicchi), but, as with The Tales Of Hoffmann, it looks like it's difficult finding a soprano to sing all three leads. I recall reading a while ago that Kristine Opolais was going to try it, but here she's just playing Suor Angelica. Stephanie Blythe will be in all three installments, though, and she's fantastic. Maurizio Muraro will also be in the two that have bass roles. Placido Domingo plays Schicchi, which should be interesting.

McVicar's Tosca is coming back, this time with Radvanovsky as the headliner, and she's sharing the role about evenly with Jennifer Rowley. Rowley seems to be one of the Met's go-to substitutes lately, stepping in for Cyrano last year, Trovatore this year, and a single performance of Tosca. I really liked her in Cyrano, so I'm hoping she'll impress in these roles as well. She's also filling in for Netrebko for a couple of performances of Adriana. I wish they'd gotten Bryn Terfel for Tosca since he missed it this year. Terfel remains a conspicuous absence from the season. Was his last Met appearance in the last Ring Cycle?

Well, at any rate, as we were promised four years ago, the Ring Cycle is coming back. It's the Lepage production again with the Machine, so we'll have to see how audiences feel about it now. Christine Goerke is the main star as Brunnhilde. Michael Volle is a solid choice for Wotan. The names I'm most excited about are Jamie Barton as Fricka (loved her in Das Rheingold in concert with the NYPhil), Gunther Groissbock as Fasolt and Hunding, and Eric Owens as Hagen. I think Eric Owens is trying to gradually work every single bass role in the Ring Cycle into his rep. If you're one of those people who just wants to catch Die Walkure and leave the rest alone, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Stuart Skelton are the Walsungs. Skelton was good as Tristan, and Westbroek is always great.

The Live In HD lineup features Aida, Samson, Fanciulla, Marnie, Traviata, Adriana, Carmen, Fille Du Regiment, Walkure, and Carmelites. Really surprised Trittico didn't make the cut (I expect Fanciulla went in its stead because of Kaufmann), and I would have liked to see Mefistofele. Looks like Netrebko is once again the diva of the season, with two productions (one new) both being broadcast.

All in all, this is a pretty exciting season. Great array of singers lined up, both old and new. Verdi is represented by five operas in the season, and Puccini by four (or seven, if you count Il Trittico three times). There's a fair bit of French repertoire. Surprisingly little pre-Verdi. Only four operas in the season predate 1850, and three of them are Mozart. The median year of composition for this season is 1876, and the average is 1879. The 1870s are the most represented decade. Looks like Yannick Nezet-Seguin is indeed into the late Romantics.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Seasonal Safety: Secco Recit's Spiffy Spreadsheet

We are right now in the middle of a wonderful holiday season. That is, of course, Season Season! 'Tis the time of year when opera companies around the world announce what operas they will be producing in the coming year, and audiences wait with bated breath to see if their local house will be performing their favorite Verdi for the umpteenth time, or if they're taking a chance on that obscure Auber opera you've been dying to see but never gets done.

Season planning is a delicate balancing act. If you only perform operas no one's ever heard of, you're going to have a tough time turning a profit. At the same time, it's going to get awfully boring if you only perform the top ten highest-grossing operas year after year.

Opera snobs like me take great joy in critcizing or kvelling at a company's choice of programming, and a word that's often thrown around this time of year is "safe." A season is "safe" if it has fifteen performances of La Boheme, twelve performances of Die Zauberflote, eight performances of Rigoletto, and three performances of La Cenerentola. In contrast, a season is "exciting" and "daring" if it has a plethora of obscure operas by composers no one has ever heard of. But what's "safe" and what's "exciting," while somewhat directed, is still a little nebulous, especially when you're the one planning the season. If you work for an opera company, and it's your job to decide what operas you produce, and how many performances of each you put on, you want a clear and precise way to determine what sort of season is going to maximize ticket sales. As far as I know, no such method exists.

So I decided to create one, which you may view here.

I went to Operabase. Operabase has an extensive database of opera performances, and a statistics page where you can see what operas have been produced in the past few years, and how may productions and performances each of them got. At the time of writing, Operabase lists La Traviata as the most frequently performed opera in the world, with 869 productions and 4190 performances between 2011 and 2016. Now, as I went through this project, I came to realize that Operabase's data is not entirely there. Some operas, like Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle somehow fail to make an appearance. But because I could think of no other resource for getting such extensive numbers, I pulled the full spreadsheet of every opera ever performed in those five seasons. (Note: Operabase does not have a built-in easy way to access the data other than by physically looking at the site. To get the data in a usable form, I wrote a script to parse the HTML and transfer the data to a .csv file.)

The next step was to assign each opera a number, describing how "safe" that individual opera is. I gave this number in terms of portions of La Traviata, the most frequently produced. I divided the number of productions of a given opera by the number of productions of La Traviata, and that was the opera's "safety score." I also assigned each opera a second score using the number of performances rather than productions.

Now it was simple to be able to input a given opera season, and the spreadsheet would pull from the data and assign the season two scores. A first score as an average of the scores of the individual operas in the season, and a second score weighted based on the number of performances of each opera. You can try this for yourself in the spreadsheet. The block on the right has spaces for you to write in the titles of operas, and the number of performances for each, and it will automatically calculate for you the season's safety score.

Note: You may have to manually search for some operas in the database. The titles have to be spelled exactly, and this can be difficult for Russian operas. Also, if two operas share the same title, and you mean the less popular of the two, you'll have to input the numbers for that opera manually. If an opera isn't in the database, I ended up simply substituting the numbers as if it had had one production and one performance.

This turned out not to make a huge difference when dealing with operas on the far extreme, because after the very most popular operas, the numbers drop rapidly. We're not even at Aida (the twelfth-most-frequently-produced) before the safety score drops below 0.5, and at number 52 (The Bartered Bride) the numbers drop below 0.1. Even the second opera on the list, Die Zauberflote, only scores 0.79 for performances, and 0.65 for productions, because La Traviata is just done that much more. This means that it's actually surprisingly difficult for an opera season of more than half a dozen operas to score above a 0.5 on a season-wide basis.

Operabase also has a second set of data, from an earlier five years. The arrangement of operas is similar, but notably, the top handful are much closer together, and while La Traviata still has the most productions, Die Zauberflote has more performances. What this did in general was it boosted most seasons' scores by about 0.02 to 0.05, but the relative relationships between the numbers were basically the same. I've included a second tab on the spreadsheet using the old data for reference. The advantage of using the old data is that, in a small season, it keeps La Traviata from absolutely dominating any season it appears in. The difference isn't as great in larger seasons. It's probably better to use the newer data, but it does bother me a little on an intuitive level, because I can't see why La Traviata should be so much more popular than the next half-dozen on the list, all of which are relatively close together. What happened in the past half-decade that gave La Traviata such a boost? If you know, please do tell me.

Now, this is crude and generally unhelpful except for the broadest overview of a season. It doesn't take into account star casting, particular artistic production, or audiences getting sick of La Traviata after the hundreth performance. I assume most major opera companies have a formula that tells them how many performances of La Boheme they can put on before returns start to diminish. But in a very general way, I've made up a simple module to quantify, in a real number between 0 and 1, how safe or daring an opera season is, which should be good enough for the average opera onlooker.

So I started plugging in some opera seasons. I've come to the conclusion that a score above 0.35 is a particularly safe season, and a score below 0.25 is a particularly daring season. Most of the professional seasons I plugged in fell in between. Of course, what you think is safe or daring is your own opinion, and your boundaries may be different from mine.

Some companies are more consistent than others. La Scala's score jumps around a lot from year to year, but the performance score is always very close to the production score, because La Scala almost always performs each opera in its season a pretty uniform number of times, usually about 7-9 performances per opera. Paris Opera is a bit more consistent, possibly because they perform so many more operas per season that the numbers average out better, but even they vary by more than a percent from season to season. The Met, meanwhile, scores much more consistently between seasons.

In fact, the Met was shockingly consistent. It was significantly the most consistent company I looked at. Each of the past four seasons scored (for productions) approximately 0.30 to within a margin of a single percent, and the three seasons before that scored close to 0.25. Looking at the actual seasons, it can be intuitively seen that the most recent four were less adventurous than the prior three, and so a difference of 0.05 is pretty significant. The Met's plateaued numbers suddenly leaping up to a slightly higher plateau makes me wonder if they use a system vaguely resembling mine in their own season planning. It would not surprise me if any sufficiently large opera company used some sort of algorithm rather than intuition to determine what operas they should produce in a given season.

Then I made graphs of the past few Met seasons. Not to prove anything. I just like graphs.

The first graph shows the operas of the past four Met seasons overlayed on one another. They are sorted in increasing order of popularity (I used production numbers rather than performance numbers, somewhat arbitrarily), and they are evenly spaced between 0 and 1. (So if a season has 24 operas, the plot points are at X-values 1/24, 2/24, 3/24, and so on.) Then I trend-lined. A quadratic formula fit the graph well. I made the second graph to average out the seasons into one big 100+ opera season. You can see on the right-hand side where the popular operas repeat from year to year. The formula this one gave me was pretty close to an average of the first four graphs, which makes intuitive sense.

And so the formula for creating a Met season is thus: Take the graph of X2 - 0.156X + 0.0316 over the domain [0,1]. Take 24-28 points on this graph, evenly spaced horizontally, and find operas whose safety scores are near the Y-values of those points.

As I said, this math is not particularly scientific, and the data has holes, and there are just generally a lot of problems with this. Four seasons isn't a great sample set, and this trend of consistency only started in 2014. I'm not a statistician. I put this together hastily in a couple of hours because I was mildly curious, but not curious enough to apply serious scientific rigor. But it is just thorough enough to yield some interesting results. I enjoyed plugging in seasons and seeing which companies play things safer than others, and making up hypothetical seasons of my own. I hope you'll find it mildly amusing as well. The Met announces their new season tomorrow. By how closely it matches my graphs, we'll see if I'm on to Peter Gelb's secret formula, or if, by coincidence, I just happen to have found a formula that by coincidence makes the past few Met seasons look more similar than they really are. Probably the latter.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Tosca And Tradition

In an interview last month, David McVicar, the director of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Tosca, talked about how, when talking about productions of operas, people confuse "traditional" with "period."

Peter Gelb took over as the Met's general manager in 2006, and since then, most of the company's standard repertory has been replaced with new productions, most of which in turn could be said to be "non-traditional." In general, productions can be non-traditional in one of two ways. They can either be set in a time or place apart from what the libretto specifies, or the choices made could be more artistic, with unrealistic sets and stylized costumes and whatnot.

It's easy to spot a non-period production simply by looking for anachronisms. And the Met's had their share, from Michael Mayer's infamous Vegas-set Rigoletto, to ones that more or less flew under the radar, like Deborah Warner's Eugene Onegin, or Richard Eyre's Werther, both moved to take place around the time they were written

Stylized productions are a bit harder to pin down. Some are obvious, such as Julie Taymor's Die Zauberflote, which makes heavy use of unreal puppets and magical stage effects, or William Kentridge's projection-heavy productions of The Nose and Lulu. But all of these are magical or unreal operas to begin with, and so treating them with realism isn't expected. On the other hand, Willy Decker's minimalist La Traviata has gotten much praise and criticism, and several new productions, such as Dmitri Tcherniakov's Prince Igor or Mary Zimmerman's Armida, heavily abstract the situation, not clearly taking place in any particular time period.

And, of course, some productions do both. In McVicar's Cav/Pag, Cavalleria Rusticana is heavily abstracted, while Pagliacci is shifted temporally. Zimmerman's Lucia Di Lammermoor not only moves the action up several centuries to about the late 1800s, but also features ghosts on stage, a mansion suggested only by a large staircase and a balcony, and a monstrously-sized moon looming ominously in the background. (Apparently visible through the wall of the mansion?)

Of course "stylized" is a weird word to use. Every theatrical production is, by necessity, at least a little stylized. Even in McVicar's new Tosca, the angles on the Castel Sant'Angelo in the final act aren't a proper ninety degrees, and the stage is on a weird slope. This makes it look nice to the audience, but could hardly be called "realistic." But let's say, for lack of a clear delineator, that a "traditional" production of an opera must be set in-period, and must not be more stylized than suits the nature of the opera. (Meaning Die Zauberflote more or less gets a pass.)

Since so many of these non-traditional productions have been met with criticism or controversy, surely, five years into Gelb's tenure, he must have realized he needed a traditional production to win back the fans. And so in 2011, Michael Grandage directed a new production of Don Giovanni at the Met, that was in-period, and basically realistic (excepting, of course, the Commendatore scene).

So, of course, it was raked accross the coals in the reviews, described as "dull," "unimaginitive," and, perhaps most scathingly in the New York Times review, "almost makes you yearn for those new stagings where the creative team is booed on opening night." The basic consensus is that it was too safe. Too bland. There wasn't any vibrancy in the production itself, nor the spectacle you expect from Don Giovanni. Fortunately for this production, Don Giovanni is an opera that sells itself on its own merits, and even with the drabbest production, a good cast can make the opera shine.

This was followed by Bartlett Sher's production of L'Elisir D'Amore, constructed with his usual Broadway team of Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber. This was a period-accurate and highly realistic production of a much-beloved classic, but unlike Grandage's Don Giovanni, it was well-received from its first premiere. Why did L'Elisir shine while Giovanni fell flat? I think the answer might have less to do with the productions themselves and more to do with the audience's expectations. Don Giovanni is a highly active opera, with a lot of stuff happening at any given moment, all leading up to an iconic, intense, climactic scene at the very end. L'Elisir D'Amore, by contrast, has a fairly subdued plot, mostly just dealing with the personal quibblings of a small handful of people, and there is no great spectacle to be had. Grandage's production of Giovanni failed to deliver on the expected spectacle. Sher's L'Elisir absolutely delivered above and beyond the lack of it. There is also the point that Grandage was replacing a much-beloved Zefirreli production (which we will come to learn is sacriledge), whereas the previous Copley production of L'Elisir was not so widely liked, being basically functional and vaguely cartoonish. (Addendum: It was well-received when it premiered in 1991; it did not age that well.)

So when Susan Stroman (another Broadway director) was brought in for a new production of The Merry Widow, which had no iconic production to replace, and she set it in-period, staged it realistically, and added the same verve that won her five Tonys, it must have been the toast of the season, right? Wrong. Critics described it as "overproduced," and "too Broadway."

I... I just don't know anymore. Do you want spectacle or not, opera-going audinece? Make up your mind!

(Within the same season, Paul Curran's production of La Donna Del Lago met a similar fate to Grandage's Giovanni, though slightly less scathing, as Curran was not replacing any production at all, and the opera itself wasn't nearly as iconic. Still, it was considered by some to be too safe and bland.)

Obviously it's more complicated than that. Each critic has different tastes, and with the internet, everyone is a critic. But in general, this is how the opera world reacts to new productions. We all want traditional productions, but can't agree on what "traditional" means. When there is an unambiguously traditional production, we hate it. Unless we don't. There's really no pleasing us, to the point where it's practically tradition at the Met to boo the creative team of a new production on opening night.

This brings us to Tosca. In 2009, the Met replaced its old production, a highly acclaimed one by Franco Zeffirelli, with a new production by Luc Bondy. The Guardian review does a good job explaining where they went wrong. It was when they decided to replace the Zeffirelli production. "[Zeffirelli's] Tosca... combines a literalist take on Puccini's score with the composition of a Renaissance painting. He dealt with the central problem any director faces at the Met – the theatre's vast Proscenium arch – by filling it up with detail. So the inside of the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in act one could have been imported brick by brick from Rome, so faithfully was it reproduced."

The problem with the new production, therefore, is that it couldn't hope to meet the ridiculously high bar set by the production that preceded it. Robert Carsen's new Der Rosenkavalier last year faced a similar issue. It's not that Carsen's production was bad per se (although there were some seriously questionably choices made in the third act), it's just that Nathaniel Merril's production was so much better (and made no such questionable choices in any of the acts.)

Perhaps knowing that he could never beat the spectacle of Zeffirelli's iconic production, Bondy took the opposite tack. Where Zeffirelli had large-scale paintings of full buildings, Bondy had close-ups of walls in small rooms. It was, by both of our earlier measures, traditional. Both in-period, and basically realistic. But it was, in the words of some critics, austere.

But many productions could be described as austere, and many of them do quite well. David McVicar's aforementioned Cavalleria, for instance, also replaced a Zeffirelli production, and was also highly austere. Now, this new production did attract a lot of criticism, but unlike the more generalized criticism of Bondy's Tosca, which pointed out things the reviewers didn't like, but generally failed to articulate why they didn't like them, aside from taste, the reviews of this Cavalleria tended to better identify what went wrong. The most commonly called-out culprit was McVicar's use of the turntable, which many reviewers agreed was too much, often being distracting, causing the opera to lose focus and motivation. That is a specific criticism of a specific thing in the production that didn't work, and an explanation of why that was the case. David McVicar was lucky to get such criticism. Luc Bondy did not get such a courtesy.

So let's dig into it, one element at a time, starting with the most frequently complained-about element, the set. If there's one thing Franco Zeffirelli's productions are famous for, its the spectacular and intricately detailed scenery, which Bondy tossed out in favor of comparative minimalism. Starting with Act I, here are the sets of Zeffirelli's production, Bondy's, and McVicar's. The location is the Sant'Andrea Della Valle, in Rome.

Zeffirelli's production is obviously visually stunning, and a thrill to look at in a museum. If it has a fault though, it is a fault shared by a number of Zeffirelli stagings, and that is that it is flat and stagnant. The background is simply a drop, and though a beautiful one, it is obviously so. The set is clearly a set, and will enthrall an audience, but not necessarily immerse them. Of course, like Don Giovanni, Tosca is an opera that will do most of the work for you, provided you supply an adequate space for it to do so.

Bondy's production is a clear contrast. Like Zeffirelli's, it is obviously a set (designed by Richard Peduzzi). It is non-immersive, but unlike Zeffirelli's, it doesn't really invite the audience to look on either. It has big flat walls with little to draw attention, and it looks awkward next to the surprisingly detailed costumes. (The costumes in Bondy's production I think are actually more colorful than the ones in McVicar's, although McVicar's production wins out by virtue of giving Tosca a particularly sparkly dress to wear in the second act.) Bondy's production is also dimly lit, which is an effect that can be pulled off, but when overused, especially in a house the size of the Met, can easily put an audience to sleep. (The dim lighting was another common complaint with McVicar's Cavalleria.)

Now we come to McVicar's produciton, with sets by John Macfarlane. And if there's one thing John Macfarlane's resume (which includes the Met productions of Hansel Und Gretel and Maria Stuarda) will demonstrate, it's that he loves perspective. (And also vaguely unsettling drops to be used instead of curtains.) And sure enough, Macfarlane's set here makes fantastic use of perspective, giving a great sense of depth to the stage, which, among other things, really serves to pull the audience in. Theater is a three-dimensional art form, and Macfarlane and McVicar know how to use all three.

In an interview during the Met's Live In HD broadcast of this production, Macfarlane mentioned how, although he modeled his sets closely after the real buildings in Rome in which Tosca is set, theatrical space works differently from real space, and so sometimes accomodations have to be made. In the first act, Macfarlane takes an odd sort of angle, and one which allows McVicar to do something brilliant and truly spectacular. On the left side of the picture, you can see two columns, with a passage behind them. If you extend the line of columns out, the next one would coincide with the proscenium. The use of this specific angle of the church is used to great effect in the Te Deum that ends Act I.

During the Te Deum, spectacle is usually achieved by having the chorus gradually fill on while Scarpia's singing, so that the stage is completely full of people for the big choral finale. Both Zeffirelli and Bondy had this. But McVicar holds off on filling the stage until the end. Instead, he has people walk down that passageway toward the audience, and disappear behind the proscenium. The illusion is one of an infinite procession of people walking straight toward the audience. It's like a cheesy effect in a 3-D movie, except, you know, actually 3-D. The church seems to extend into the house, even with nothing built beyond the proscenium. Toward the end, later than usual, the chorus does fill onto the stage, almost as though they've filled all the space in the invisible part of the church that overlaps with the audience, and now they're overflowing onto the stage proper. Now that's spectacle.

The problem with Bondy's Act I is therefore that, while it may provide a technically accurate and functional space, it does not provide a space well-suited to the demands of the opera. And that has nothing to do with austerity.

I couldn't find a good picture of the second act of Zeffirelli's production, but all three are basically funcitonally the same. A room in which some things happen. Peduzzi's room is starker, and Macfarlane's is at a steeper angle. Zeffirelli's room was presented head-on, with the back wall flat to the audience, with a good deal of surface area for intricate detail. Of Tosca's three acts, the second is the most action-filled, and does most of the work for a lackluster production. I don't know that McVicar made any choices that stood out from Zeffirelli, the main difference simply being in the angle of the set, which is a matter of preference. I prefer the more askew angle, because it feels more active to me, while Zeffirelli's set feels more stagnant. Peduzzi's set for the Bondy production is obviously the least intricate of the three, but putting the set aside, I will come back to Act II when I talk about directorial choices.

Once again, we can see much the same trends. Zeffirelli's production is detailed, but flat, and from a head-on angle, the levels kind of wash out. Bondy's production is tall, but sparse, and somehow overbearing. (Reviews tended to agree that the third act of this production was the least problematic.) Thirdly, we once again have Macfarlane's trademark perspective, which provides a good deal of dimension. From the raked angle of the platform to the somehow inverted angle of the statue, the audience is somehow both looking down on, and up at, the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Curiously, Zeffirelli's production also supplied a good deal of scale and dimension, although you cannot see it here. Unlike almost every other production, where the tenor playing Cavaradossi is brought up to the platform to sing "E Lucevan Le Stelle," Zeffirelli took advantage of the Met's gigantic stage elevator, to lift the platform, revealing an entire second level of set hidden beneath the stage, where Cavaradossi is being kept, and where he sings his aria, after which the elevator lowers the platform back to stage level. This is the sort of spectacle which, by necessity, you can only get at a large-scale opera house, because a smaller one wouldn't have the technical capability to achieve it.

And so once again, we see that Bondy's production is functional, but lacks spectacle. Which is more or less what we'd already agreed before looking at all the sets side by side. But as we've also seen (and I hope you'll forgive me for repeating myself), austerity alone does not a poor production make. McVicar's Cavalleria and Richard Eyre's Carmen both replaced visually stunning Zeffirelli productions, and both received criticism, but neither got the same amount of scorn as Bondy's Tosca, or dismissive indifference as Grandage's Don Giovanni. Although, notably, reviewers tended to agree that Zeffirelli's Carmen, though pretty, was dramatically stagnant. Richard Eyre's production, in contrast, was generally agreed to be exciting and action-packed, bringing out the darker elements and violence in the opera that Zeffirelli was too tasteful to emphasize. McVicar's Cavalleria too added something new that Zeffirelli's production did not have. A new angle, if you'll allow for the pun on the turntable. Where Zeffirelli's production was realistic, and made the most of the pretty Sicillian setting, McVicar's darker production was more character-focused, putting an almost oppressive scrutiny on Santuzza, who was kept on stage the whole time, surrounded by a ring of chairs.

In this way, it's easy to see how Grandage's Don Giovanni failed. It got rid of the beautiful sets, but didn't provide anything new to compensate. During the tenure of this production, all the new excitement has been provided by the cast, which has included at various points a dashing, roguish Don played by Mariusz Kweicen, the more suave and effortless Don of Peter Mattei, and the frightening and powerful Don of Simon Keenlyside. The Met has also cast a variety of accomplished Leporellos, Annas, Elviras, and others in this production, each of whom bring something new, because Don Giovanni is an opera that is carried by the cast. They can make up for a bland (though functional) production, but when the option of a great cast and a great production together was on the table, getting rid of the latter is bound to leave a sour taste.

This explains the lashback against Grandage's Don Giovanni, but does not in itself satisfactorally justify the extreme hostility directed at Bondy's Tosca. It must be more than that. Grandage showed us what happens when you present the same opera with different trimmings. Bondy must have made some sort of active misstep. And to see what that was, we have to look back to Act II. (Well, we don't have to, but I choose to because it provides a clear example of what I'm going to be getting at.)

The climactic moment of Tosca's second act (arguably the climactic moment of the entire opera) occurs near the very end, when Tosca stabs Scarpia to death. One of the most effective ways to provide excitement in opera is with musical contrast, and Puccini does that admirably, framing the murder on the one side with the showstoppingly beautiful aria "Vissi D'Arte," and on the other about a minute of orchestral interlude. It's in this orchestral passage that something interesting happens. The review I quoted earlier said that a problem directors face at the Met is how to fill the enormous stage. A problem directors face with a great many operas is how to fill stretches of music which, if not treated right, can seem unmotivated.

During these sixty seconds of orchestral music, here is what Zeffirelli has happen: Tosca washes her hands with a pitcher of water on the table. She then goes over to Scarpia's desk to take the letter of safe passage she had him write. She rummages through his papers, before realizing that Scarpia was holding the letter when he died. She goes over to the dead body and pries it from his hand.

In this same space, Bondy has something quite different happen. Tosca, without looking, wipes her hands on the (red) couch. She then goes over to the window, where she stands and looks out as if to jump. (Which you can see in the picture above.) Finally, she takes the letter from Scarpia's hand, as before.

The text is the same. The music is the same. The major event of the act (Tosca murdering Scarpia) is intact. But these two sets of actions, inconsequential to the plot of the opera, do very different things to the character of Tosca. For Zeffirelli, Tosca is a pious character. The opera has major religious overtones, and the imagery of Tosca washing her hands alludes back to the holy water explicitly mentioned in the libretto in Act I. When Tosca rifles through Scarpia's papers on his desk, it doesn't make much sense to the casual onlooker. Scarpia literally just wrote the letter. If he wasn't holding it, it would be the top item on his desk. Tosca making a production out of looking for it where it isn't shows her reluctance to approach the dead body again. She is horrified at having just killed a man, and doesn't want to acknowledge it by prying the paper from his hand. The fact too that, later, Tosca places candles by Scarpia's body and a crucifix on his chest, shows that Tosca can find it in herself to show more remorse for Scarpia's death than the audience ever could. The audience doesn't have any remorse for Scarpia's death. He is a thoroughly reprehensible character, and we specifically came to the opera house to see him get murdered in a thrilling act of theater. These actions that Tosca takes after the murder in Zeffirelli's production make her a pure and good character, who has been driven by circumstance to horrifying extremes.

Bondy's Tosca is quite different. She does not wash her hands in water, but simply wipes them clean on the sofa. (And, religious imagery aside, this really isn't an effective way to wash your hands.) She then spends a good thirty seconds or so at the window, apparently contemplating suicide. When she takes the paper from Scarpia's hand, she shows no remorse. And when she stands at the window, although I'm sure Bondy thought he was giving a clever bit of foreshadowing, this only serves to weaken the character. In the opera as written by Puccini, Illica, and Giacosa, Tosca does not jump off the parapet until she is completely out of options. After she kills Scarpia, her plan is to save Mario and escape the country. She only kills herself when she discovers that Mario has in fact been killed, and Scarpia's body has been discovered. She's trapped on the roof of the building, and the guards are coming to arrest her. She doesn't have a lot of options, so she decides in a split second to go out on her own terms. But what Bondy does is have Tosca consider abandoning her goal and the entire third act. He has her become indecisive at the very moment she wields the most power of anyone in the opera. This is not just presenting the same opera with new trimmings. This is a theatrical curveball for people who know and love Tosca, and it is one that doesn't work. I don't know how many audience members took active note of what was different and what implications that had, but I'm sure they noticed, even if they didn't know it at the time.

As for McVicar, well, he does pretty much the exact same thing in these sixty seconds as Zeffirelli. So does Gobbi. In fact, the vast majority of Tosca productions have Tosca, after stabbing Scarpia, wash her hands with water (but no soap), flipping through his papers, and ultimately prying the paper from his dead hands. Finally, she places candles by his body and a crucifix on him before leaving. In this way, Bondy's Tosca may be the most blatantly "non-traditional" production we've discussed here, insofar as it blatantly and explicitly breaks from the tradition of Tosca doing these things in the final minutes of Act II.

But McVicar wasn't copying Zeffirelli. None of these people were copying each other. The reason so many productions have Tosca take this exact sequence of events at this point is quite simple: That's what the libretto instructs. Those stage directions are spelled out. Puccini wasn't just writing sixty seconds of filler music to let the audience process what just happened. He was writing sixty seconds of music intended to accompany this specific sequence of events.

Another buzzphrase people like to use when complaining about nontraditional productions is "respecting the composers intentions." Usually, this is near "stylized" on the scale of useless criteria. How can we know the composer's intent? Maybe we could take it to mean "in-period," but Baroque operas set in Ancient Rome usually weren't staged with authentic Roman garb and realistic scenery portraying the forum. When Verdi wrote La Traviata, it was contemporary. It could be argued that the best way to honor the original intent of the opera would be to continue to set it in the present day, whatever that happens to be at the time. Of course, Verdi might have balked at that. We have no way of knowing. And I'm sure plenty of opera composers couldn't care less about how their operas would be staged hundreds of years after their deaths. Some of them probably wouldn't have expected their operas to last that long anyway. Especially those from the days when opera was a mass-produced form of popular entertainment, and composers would churn out three or four in a year. Even going so far as to make cuts or alterations to the score might not be complete blasphemy depending on the opera in question.

But Tosca, with its unusually high level of specificity, makes this surprisingly easy. It is set on a specific date of a specific year (and not an arbitrary date picked by the librettist; it's historically significant), and each of the three acts occurs in a real and famous building in Rome. The libretto comes with a lot of stage directions, which Puccini has accomodated for in the music. And this is why so many productions of Tosca look so similar. It works that way. It was written to work that way. That's not to say it couldn't work any other way, but it does make it a more difficult opera to mess with than others. And ultimately, that felt like the biggest problem with Bondy's production. It seems that, early in his time as general manager, Peter Gelb wanted to bring in new productions of the classics just for the sake of doing something new. And so the impetus for Bondy was to create a Tosca that was different from Zeffirelli's for no other reason than to make it different. This is not a theatrical motivation, and it did not play well on stage. Now, David McVicar was given free reign to bring back all the elements of Zeffirelli's production that worked (read: the elements that were in the script) while also giving it his own personal style.

Of course, if McVicar's production had followed Zeffirelli's directly, it might have been met similarly to Grandage's Don Giovanni. Sure, it works, but so did its predecessor. And so the question is why bother? McVicar's Cavalleria at least provided something new that the Zeffirelli didn't. I'm not sure that his Tosca does. After all, Tosca itself does most of the work. And when you have a production that works for an opera, unless you feel you can give it something new, it does seem kind of pointless to go through the effort. At the same time, a new production can give vivacity to a work that's fallen into a routine. And short term, a new production almost certainly gives a boost to profits, even if, in retrospect, audience members might have no particularly strong feelings for one traditional production over another. I'm sure the Met has all sorts of complicated financial models telling them when a production will peak and when to replace it to maximise ticket sales. That's not my area.

Which I guess brings us to an almost stupidly obvious conclusion. When taking on an opera to direct, follow the script. There's a reason these works endure in the form they're already in. That's not to say you can't put your own spin on it, but make sure it's motivated by something other than a desire to be different for difference's sake, and think it through. Some operas provide more creative leeway than others. Tosca is pretty strict, and David McVicar is a director who undoubtedly has utmost respect for the composer's intent. For proof, you need look no further than his Met debut, a generally-liked production of Il Trovatore, an opera he openly dislikes. It is not in-period, but McVicar's goal was not to bend the opera into something he liked, but to present what he felt Verdi wanted in the best possible way. The result is a fast-paced, aesthetically pleasing Il Trovatore, that one would happily call "traditional" at a glance, even though there are a million things separating it from the most literal interpretation possible of the opera. It works because McVicar read the script, and thought, not about how to make the opera fit his vision or taste, but how to make the opera work. Bondy's alterations were motivated by a desire to contrast Zeffirelli. McVicar's were motivated by a desire to make the opera work.

As far as a review goes, McVicar's new (and by that I mean old) Tosca is thrillingly done, and I'm sure will be engaging audiences at the Met for years to come. And, I mean, of course it will. It's Tosca for crying out loud.

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!