Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Outremer Of Contemporary Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAUFRE: More or less.

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

JAUFRE: And do you think I'm mad?

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

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



JAUFRE: Pilgrim?


JAUFRE: Why is the sea blue?

PILGRIM: Because it reflects the sky.



JAUFRE: Pilgrim?


JAUFRE: Why is the sky blue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

God Bless City Center Encores!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Friday, July 22, 2016

Menken A "Musical Theater" Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to Alan Menken.

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

Happy birthday Alan Menken!

Monday, July 4, 2016

And Cats Makes Three

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, June 13, 2016

Awesome. Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Now what about two actors in one role?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I can get back to writing about opera!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Dramaturgy vs. Dialogue

With the Tony Awards coming up on Sunday, I thought I'd clear up a question that seems to be confusing a lot of people. Specifically the matter of why Hamilton is eligible for the award for best book of a musical. The confusion stems from the fact that people read "book," are told it means "script," and immediately think "dialogue." Hamilton, being almost entirely sung, has minimal spoken dialogue, and so logic dictates that its "book" should really be considered as "lyrics," which are covered under the award for best score. (Which is also flawed -- it should really be two separate awards for music and lyrics, as the Drama Desk awards do. I assume the reason it isn't done is because the one year they tried it, Stephen Sondheim won both awards for Company.)

But the book of a musical is not just the dialogue. It also concerns the pacing, the dramatic structure, and the plot itself if original, and the adaptation from the source if not. In this sense, Hamilton should be considered for its book, as should Les Miserables and Evita and other sung-through musicals -- or even operas. Verdi himself adapted the libretto for his opera Simon Boccanegra, adapting it from a previously existing play. But while Verdi's is the drama, the actual words Piave's to whom Verdi gave the prose drama he had adapted to be turned into poetry for setting as an opera. In this case, I would argue that Verdi and Piave may both be considered the librettists for Simon Boccanegra. Verdi plotted out the scenes, the structure, and the pacing, and Piave wrote the words.

It is easy to conceive of a playwright who can come up with marvelous plots and execute them fantastically, but fails in writing natural dialogue. At the same time, it is not hard to imagine a playwright who excels in writing witty and entertaining dialogue, but fails in pacing and structure. Obviously the best playwrights are good at both, I think it makes sense to distinguish between the two skill sets, and it wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea for playwrights to pull a Verdi/Piave and collaborate with one on structure, and one on script. It therefore might be prudent to eliminate the Tony Award for best book of a musical, and replace it with two awards, one for best dramaturgy of a musical -- for which Hamilton would be eligible -- and one for best dialogue of a musical -- for which Hamilton would not be eligible.

You'll notice I left the Tony Awards for plays alone, even though this is something that is significantly more relevant to theater sans singing. The reason for this is that there is no Tony Award for best script of a play. It is assumed that the award for best play goes to the play with the best script, and therefore the best playwright. But best musical doesn't go by default to whatever show wins two out of three from best book, best score, and best direction. Best musical (theoretically) goes to the musical in the season with the best cross-section of all production elements. This includes dialogue, dramaturgy, music, lyrics, sets, costumes, choreography, lighting, and so on and so forth. Very often the musical that wins best musical is not the same musical that wins best book or score. And that should be the case as well for plays. Best play goes to the play with the best cross-section of all production elements, and there is introduced a new award for best script of a play -- or two, for best dramaturgy and best dialogue.

My last scruple with the Tony Awards (which I have to hastily insert here as it didn't insert naturally earlier) deals with orchestrations. I am of the opinion that for a new musical, with an original score, the award for best score should include orchestrations by default. Therefore, Lin-Manuel Miranda should not be the sole nominee for best score, but him and Alexander Lacamoire. A separate award for orchestrations should be considered for revivals and other musicals which use previously existing music, and other such cases where the songs had already been written, but the orchestrations of those songs differ from the original. But then, based on the fact that The Visit was not even nominated for orchestrations has me suspicious as to whether or not the Tony judges know what orchestrations are.

But at least dramaturgy and dialogue should be easier to distinguish.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Broadway Bluegrass

I saw Bright Star on Broadway last week. My review in two words? Really good. That's not to say it was flawless, and the elements I wasn't too pleased with I will proceed to explain, but you can safely assume that for any given element of the show, if I do not mention it and say otherwise, I thought it was terrific.

On the one hand, there are spoilers for Bright Star ahead. On the other hand, the plot of Bright Star was pretty predictable. Note that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I've talked about this before, citing Il Trovatore as an example of a show that tells you in the first scenes pretty much exactly how its going to end, and still manages to be a terrific dramatic roller coaster. Sondheim had trouble with a plot twist in Sweeney Todd, in that sometimes the audience figured out the twist way ahead of time, and some of them didn't even quite get it when Sweeney did, and there was no consistency from performance to performance. To solve this, Sondheim added in a song a couple scenes earlier that revealed the twist before it becomes important, and that way, the audience can focus on Sweeney's reaction, which is the interesting part. Same with Bright Star. Sure, the audience basically knows what's going to happen well before the characters do, but the main selling point of Bright Star isn't its shocking plot twists.

The first thing Bright Star did wrong was the opening song. This was not immediately apparent, and didn't become apparent until a good fifteen to twenty minutes into Act I. The opening number, "If You Knew My Story" was sung by the character of Alice Murphy, played by Tony nominee Carmen Cusack. In the song, she assures us that "if you knew my story, you'd have a good story to tell." She promises an exciting and interesting story featuring her as the main character. She then proceeds to disappear from the next twenty minutes, allowing us to get fully immersed in the story of Billy Cane, a young soldier and aspiring writer. His story isn't particularly novel, but it's told in an entertaining enough way to forget about the lady whom this musical is supposed to be about -- at least according to the opening number.

Bright Star tells two stories simultaneously. One of them is in the 1940s, about Billy Cane. The other is twenty-two years earlier, and is about  Alice Murphy. It's not immediately apparent how the stories intersect, and since Billy is so much more prominent in the opening scenes of the musical, it seems like the show can't decide who the protagonist is supposed to be. Indeed, even though Alice tells the audience in opening number that this is her story, and while her story is much more dramatic than Billy's, her story is pretty much contained to Act I, and due to the two stories being told simultaneously, it's as though her story is only interesting enough to fill half of one act. The way it seems the story wants to be is about Alice, with Billy's story existing for the sake of closure and a happy ending. The way it ends up being is the protagonist is Billy, with Alice's story being extending backstory. Given that Billy's story isn't very dramatic, this gives way to a bit of weirdness throughout.

The second issue was with the second song in the show. The song, titled "She's Gone", features Billy's father telling him that his mother died while he was off fighting in the war. This song lends a sense of false importance to the figure of Billy's mother, who hardly features at all. The first thing we find out about her is that she's dead. The second thing is that she thought statues of angels over graves were silly. And that's it. All mentions of her might as well be stricken from the script.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. She is mentioned once more. In the penultimate scene of Act II, when Billy finds out (plot twist that we all figured out at intermission) that he was adopted and Alice is actually his mother, he freaks out and mentions his adoptive mother, who, as we learned at the beginning of Act I, is dead. Billy runs off stage, and Alice sings a little. I did not think the music of the song "So Familiar" was particularly suited to the situation, although it did suit Edie Brickell's quirky off-rhymes -- I don't care what Lin-Manuel Miranda says, I am still firmly against false rhymes -- and I think it might have worked better to cut the song entirely, and go straight into "At Long Last". Of course, Billy freaking out at the revelation is misleading to, as in the very next scene, he is completely alright and everything wraps up into a nice happy ending for all.

The other problem with "She's Gone" is in the structure. The song is written like a folk ballad. Well, that's the sort of song you expect from a bluegrass musical. Billy's father sings that while Billy was off in the war, a visitor came by, and his mother left with the visitor. Also, that's a metaphor for death. But we don't need the metaphor, we don't need the story, we don't even need the song. By the time the third song -- the title song -- rolled around, I was a little worried about how the songs were going to integrate into the musical. In a musical, it's not enough for a song to be a good song, it also has to fit into the musical, agree with the pacing of the show, and, unless this is a pre-Hammerstein show, advance it in some way, either through developing character or progressing the plot or something else.

Something bluegrass music is very good for is exposition. There doesn't tend to be a whole lot of subtlety in folk lyrics, and a lot of folk songs are things like ballads, which tell stories in their own right. But when a song is in a musical, subtlety becomes important. I could have done without the repeated chorus of "You're the black sheep/little lost lamb" in the introduction of Alice Murphy's backstory. It felt awfully in-your-face. On the other hand, the song which preceded it was misleading. It showcased Alice and her love interest being snarky toward each other. Now, it's obvious that they end up an item, but the implication from their first duet is that they're going to have some back-and-forth before they finally get together, a la Curly and Laurie in Oklahoma! But in the very next 1920s scene, Alice and Jimmy Ray are together without a bit of conflict. (Well, without a conflict between themselves.)

Fortunately, the next song, which introduced the villain of the piece, was fully integrated, and from then on, most of the songs were acceptably theatrical. Particularly in the first half of Act II, which alternated quite elegantly between the heavy pathos of Alice Murphy's story and the light relief of Billy Cane's story -- although I would have liked to see more development of the Margo-Billy-Lucy love triangle, which was introduced, but never properly followed up on.

That was really the most egregious point of the musical. That certain plot threads were never properly developed, mostly with respect to Billy. The musical could have improved from giving equal focus to both Billy and Alice, but everything seemed to be trying to force Alice on us as the main character. But on the whole, I'd say Bright Star is a very strong contender for many of the Tony categories in which it's up against Hamilton.

Originally, this had spiraled off into another talk about the purposes of songs in musicals, which included a lot of analysis of Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, which is why this review is coming out a week after I saw Bright Star, but I finally decided that that should be its own post, which you can expect... at some point in the future.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Bel Canto Of Broadway

So Hamilton just set a record with sixteen Tony nominations. It's worth noting, though, that seven of those nominations were for actors. So really it's only nine nominations that will apply when it's finally possible to get tickets in three years. Second, because of multiple nominations in the actor categories, Hamilton can only possibly win thirteen Tonys. The record for most Tonys won by a production is held by The Producers, which won twelve. It was nominated for fifteen. The reason Hamilton was able to grab one more nomination is because The Producers did not have any female characters prominent enough to be eligible for the Actress In A Leading Role award.

The Producers swept every category it was nominated for, but I wouldn't get too excited for Hamilton. The Producers was up against very little competition. Look at the 2001 Tony awards and tell me, how competitive was that really? Of course, that may be due to hindsight, but Billy Elliot, which also got fifteen nominations, only won ten, in part due to tough competition from shows like Next To Normal and Shrek The Musical (which, like it or not, deserved its sole win for costumes -- fantasy creature costumes beat out carefully chosen casual attire any day).

A reasonable show to look at for comparison would be In The Heights, which was nominated for thirteen awards -- and really the only spots where Hamilton got more nominations was in the actor categories. It won four. Surprisingly, its competition wasn't from any great new musicals, but from two highly acclaimed revivals, South Pacific and Gypsy -- both highly regarded Golden Age musicals. Lin-Manuel MIranda lost Best Actor to an opera singer making his Broadway debut -- go Paolo Szot! South Pacific was nominated for eleven Tonys that year, and won seven.

Now this season, Hamilton is facing just as stiff competition. Not so much as In The Heights was from any specific production, but around the board. Bright Star snags an award for score and lead actress, She Loves Me manages to get featured actress and set design, Fiddler On The Roof grabs choreography, and before you know it, Hamilton could beat out Scottsboro Boys for the record of most nominations with fewest wins. (Scottsboro Boys was nominated for twelve Tonys -- it won zero -- that was the year Book Of Mormon swept with fourteen nominations and nine wins. Perhaps more familiar, Wicked was nominated for ten awards, and won three. It lost three awards to Avenue Q (which won only those three of the six it was nominated for) and lost three awards to Assassins, which won five of its seven nominations. Wicked, clearly, has since then done considerably better than Assassins.)

School Of Rock got four nominations. Book, score, lead actor, and musical. Now, I've heard a lot of people scoff at School Of Rock, saying it's just too silly an idea, and wondering how this could possibly come from the guy who wrote the score to Phantom Of The Opera.Which I don't think is deserved.

People have compared sung-through musicals like Les Miserables to operas, and while the opera community takes exception to this, the comparison is not without merit. We've gone through the classical Mozartian musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, through musical theater's own Verdi vs. Wagner, Sondheim vs. Webber (although I think Sondheim is more analogous to Richard Strauss), and shows like Next To Normal, Fun Home, and now Hamilton have definitely pushed us into the Puccini era of Broadway. And while I'm all for pushing art into to new territory, I also like the more traditional musicals, and just as elitist opera snobs write articles wondering where Bel Canto has gone, so does the elitist snob in me wonder where the traditional musical has gone.

Of course, nothing is wrong with where musical theater has gotten to, just as nothing is wrong with Puccini. More than nothing being wrong with him, Puccini is terrific. He definitely deserves his place in the pantheon of great opera composers. But there's problem when composers get so caught up saturating their scores with leitmotifs that they forget how to write songs, and then complain about all the people writing songs. This, I feel, is the main thing Kander and Ebb have over Sondheim. Sondheim can write a score, but Kander and Ebb can write songs.

And again, there is nothing wrong with a holistic score, held together with leitmotifs and whatnot. Wagner wrote amazing operas. So did Puccini and Strauss. But it's not good when people get so enthused with Wagner that they dismiss Rossini for writing frivolous comedies with catchy tunes. A frivolous comedy with catchy tunes is just as valid a form of artistic expression as any Verismo drama. And by the same token, there is nothing wrong with School Of Rock being fun, or silly, or not as grand as the musicals Andrew Lloyd Webber is famous for. When was the last time Andrew Lloyd Webber had a hit? I think it's wonderful that he's going back to a more traditional form of musical, a book punctuated with songs.

Mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, who at this point in her career is starting to take on heavier roles such as Charlotte in Werther and Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana has said that she continues to come back to Bel Canto as an important part of a healthy vocal diet. I think Bel Canto is good for a healthy listening diet too. It's so easy to get caught up in Wagner's world building that you forget how much fun music can be -- and even that opera can be dramatic while still being fun!

So, to recapitulate (I did get rather out of hand), is Hamilton worthy of acclaim? Of course it is. And so is Phantom Of The Opera and Sweeney Todd and Cabaret and any other "grand" or "intellectual" or "avant-garde" musical you can name. But they do not deserve to crowd out the Bel Canto of Broadway, traditional book musicals like School Of Rock, The Visit, and, yes, In The Heights.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On The Met's 2016-17 Season

The Metropolitan opera has announced their 2016-17 season, and at a glance, I think it's a much stronger season than the current one. Let's break it down a little.

The current season consists of twenty-four operas:

  1. Anna Bolena
  2. The Barber Of Seville
  3. La Boheme
  4. Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci
  5. Don Pasquale
  6. La Donna Del Lago
  7. Elektra
  8. L'Elisir D'Amore
  9. Die Entfuhrung Aus Dem Serail
  10. Die Fledermaus
  11. Lulu
  12. Madama Butterfly
  13. Manon Lescaut
  14. Maria Stuarda
  15. Le Nozze Di Figaro
  16. Otello
  17. Le Pecheurs De Perles
  18. Rigoletto
  19. Roberto Devereux
  20. Simon Boccanegra
  21. Tannhauser
  22. Tosca
  23. Il Trovatore
  24. Turandot
(I have to wonder: When the Met does The Barber Of Seville in English, that's what they call it, but when they do it in Italian, they call it Il Barbriere Di Siviglia. Same with Hansel And Gretel or Hansel Und Gretel and Die Zauberflote or The Magic Flute. So why don't they call their English-translated holiday production The Bat?)

That's sixteen tragedies, six comedies, and two not-quite-either.

By composer, we have the following:
  1. Puccini: 5 operas (Boheme, Butterfly, Manon, Tosca, Turandot)
  2. Donizetti: 5 operas (Anna Bolena, Don Pasquale, L'Elisir, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux)
  3. Verdi: 4 operas (Otello, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Il Trovatore)
  4. Mozart: 2 operas (Die Entfuhrung, Figaro)
  5. Rossini: 2 operas (Barber, Donna Del Lago)
Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Strauss, Strauss, Berg, Bizet, and Wagner are all represented by one opera each. More than half the season is dominated by Puccini, Donizetti, and Verdi. (I think a joke has to be made here about how 99% of the operas are written by 1% of the composers.)

Eighteen of the twenty-four (a full three quarters of the season) are Italian. Of the remaining six, there are five German operas and one French. (This not counting both Barber and Fledermaus, which were written in Italian and German respectively, but performed in English.) The season contains six operas in the top ten most popular as ranked by Operabase, and half the season is in the top twenty-five. This is not necessarily a bad season, but it is a very safe season. This is good for them, but not so good for me. As an established opera fan who knows that it's only going to be two or three years max before Tosca and Trovatore pop up again, my eyes immediately jump to the more obscure gems. In this season, the ones that immediately jump up are Lulu, The Pearl Fishers, and the three Donizetti queens (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux). Of the productions, five are showing up consecutively from the previous season (La Boheme, Barber, Cav/Pag, La Donna Del Lago, Figaro). Of these, the last three were new productions last season being immediately revived.

Here's the breakdown of the 2016-17 season:
  1. Aida
  2. L'Amour De Loin
  3. Il Barbriere Di Siviglia (Note the Italian)
  4. La Boheme
  5. Carmen
  6. Cyrano De Bergerac
  7. Don Giovanni
  8. Eugene Onegin
  9. Fidelio
  10. Die Fliegende Hollander
  11. Guillaume Tell
  12. Idomeneo
  13. L'Italiana In Algeri
  14. Jenufa
  15. The Magic Flute
  16. Manon Lescaut
  17. Nabucco
  18. I Puritani
  19. Rigoletto
  20. Romeo Et Juliette
  21. Der Rosenkavalier
  22. Rusalka
  23. Salome
  24. La Traviata
  25. Tristan Und Isolde
  26. Werther
Seventeen tragedies, four comedies, five not-quite-either, and I was on the fence for a number of these. So still very tragedy-weighted, but there are several more in that ambiguous zone.

Only four of the twenty-six are returning from the current season (La Boheme again, Barber again, Manon, and Rigoletto). Manon Lescaut is the only production new to this season that's being immediately revived.

Our composer breakdown:
  1. Verdi: 4 operas (Aida, Nabucco, Rigoletto, La Traviata)
  2. Mozart: 3 operas (Don Giovanni, Idomeneo, Magic Flute)
  3. Rossini: 3 operas (Barbriere, L'Italiana, Guillaume Tell)
  4. Puccini: 2 operas (Boheme, Manon Lescaut)
  5. Wagner: 2 operas (Dutchman, Tristan)
  6. Strauss: 2 operas (Rosenkavalier, Salome)
Saariaho, Bizet, Alfano, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Janacek, Bellini, Gounod, Dvorak, and Massenet are all represented by one opera each. (Actually, I should be fair. The 2015-16 season really only has 4.9 Puccini operas, and 0.1 Alfano operas, thanks to the last scene of Turandot.)

So clearly this season is more diverse at least on a composer-by-composer basis. On a language count, we've got eleven Italian, six German, six French, two Czech, and one Russian. (And for what it's worth, The Magic Flute, a German opera, will be performed in English translation.) Still weighted in favor of Italian, but that's just more representative of opera as a whole. The lack of French operas in this past season was particularly shocking to me, and in 2016-17 that seems to be rectified.

How does it rank on operabase? Well we've got seven in the top ten, and eleven in the top twenty-five. Pretty much the same. But casting the safety net aside for a moment, this season has a number of rare gems. L'Amour De Loin (a contemporary piece), Guillaume Tell, Cyrano and Jenufa, as well some not ridiculously rare but not exactly easy to find either works, including I Puritani and L'Italiana

And here's the part where I complain about the HD lineup, because of all those operas I just mentioned, only L'Amour De Loin is getting a broadcast. Not even Guillaume Tell, which is probably the best known of of the lot (thanks to the overture) is being broadcast, and it's a new production. And  there are currently no recordings of it from the Met (at least not that are on Met Opera On Demand). Same with Cyrano and Jenufa, which are even rarer operas than Guillaume Tell. I imagine Guillaume Tell gets some extra coverage because as often as the overture is played, occasionally someone remembers "Wait. Isn't there an opera that comes after that overture?" (More than once I have surprised someone with the fact that there is in fact an opera following that overture.)

Instead of Guillaume Tell and Cyrano and Jenufa, we are instead getting broadcasts of La Traviata (again), Don Giovanni (again), Nabucco (again) and Eugene Onegin (again). I forgive Rusalka, Der Rosenkavalier, and Romeo Et Juliette getting second broadcasts on account of this season having new productions. The one that really gets my goat is Eugene Onegin. Because not only have we had a broadcast of that very recently (this will be the third Eugene Onegin broadcast, although the first was an different production), it will star Anna Netrebko, who was in the last Eugene Onegin HD broadcast, and Dimitri Hvorostovsky, who was in the one prior. And it's not like Eugene Onegin is going to sell more on name recognition than Guillaume Tell -- to an opera newcomer, Guillaume Tell may even be the more familiar title! But I guess it was the only way to get Anna Netrebko in the broadcast season -- the other production she's appearing in next season will be Manon Lescaut, which is a new production this season that got a broadcast, with Kristine Opalais. And of course Anna Netrebko has to be featured in a broadcast. Never mind all the other fine sopranos lining the season, including Kristine Opalais in Rusalka, Diana Damrau in Romeo Et Juliette (who I daresay will be an improvement over the last soprano to be featured in an HD broadcast of Romeo Et Juliette -- Anna Netrebko), and, of course, Renee Fleming in Der Rosenkavalier (same Marschallin as last time, but then again, she might be retiring after this season -- although I seem to recall she's said that before).

Something else I find a little amusing about the upcoming Der Rosenkavalier cast is Matthew Polenzani playing the Italian singer. The Italian singer appears in one scene and does nothing for the plot of the opera. He's exactly what his name implies. Matthew Polenzani struck me as too big a name to be playing that role -- he'd be playing Octavian if Octavian were a tenor. I'd almost think Polenzani wanted so desperately to be in Der Rosenkavalier -- in the same cast as Fleming and Garanca -- that he was willing to take the only tenor role there was in the whole opera. Well, except for the gossip guy, but he's a character tenor. Polenzani will also be broadcast in Idomeneo, in a role more suited to his stardom, and the opera will also serve as a good vehicle for Nadine Sierra.

Of course Nabucco has got to be the subject of discussion, because it stars Placido Domingo in the title role. Now, I'm not going to open the kettle of fish about Domingo singing baritone roles now, but I do suspect he's the main reason Nabucco's being broadcast again this season. Although Ernani didn't get a broadcast when he played Don Carlo. I guess Nabucco has enough fame on its own to justify an extra broadcast with Domingo. But I'm not going to complain. He's earned it. But on the other hand, he's also played the title role of Cyrano -- couldn't he be doing that and get that broadcast instead? I'm sorry, but Cyrano should really be getting its due exposure!

But if I have one complaint about the upcoming Met season, it's the same as the complaint I have with every upcoming opera season -- it doesn't have Sullivan's Ivanhoe.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Two-Hit Titan

Quick. How many Mozart operas can you name? Magic Flute, Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, Abduction. Five. Pretty good. How about Puccini? Boheme, Tosca, Butterfly, Turandot, Gianni Schicchi. Also a solid five. Donizetti? L'Elisir, Don Pasquale, Lucia. Three, not bad. Strauss? Salome, Rosenkavalier, Die Fledermaus, Ariadne Auf Naxos? Well, that's an average of two operas per Strauss so I'll let that slide. Beethoven? Just Fidelio? Well he only wrote the one, so that's a hundred percent. And I'm not just listing off the operas I can name off the top of my head, these are the operas that each of these composers have listed on Operabase's top fifty most frequently performed operas.

There are certain one-hit wonders in the opera world. Bizet with Carmen, Leoncavallo with Pagliacci, Mascagni with Cavalleria Rusticana, and even Strauss with Die Fledermaus. Generally these composers, popular though their individual hits may be, don't get listed as among the greatest opera composers ever. Generally you need a few more than one opera to make that list. Mozart makes it. He's got five in the top fifty. So does Puccini. Verdi has ten. What about Rossini? He's a popular opera composer and renowned as a pretty good one too, right? Well it turns out that although he's the fifth-most commonly performed composer of operas, and regarded as one of the greats, he is just barely on the verge of being a one-hit wonder. Most of his popularity is contained within two operas. Il Barbriere Di Siviglia and La Cenerentola. L'Italiana In Algeri is his next most popular, and within the last five seasons, according to Operabase, it only saw one more production than Bizet's second most popular, The Pearl Fishers. And after that? Il Viaggio A Reims is produced even less than Lehar's Das Land des Lachelns, which I'd never even heard of until I started doing research for this blog post!

What I find interesting here is that Rossini is an acclaimed opera composer, but only two of his operas are in common rotation (and La Cenerentola somehow ranks behind Verdi's Otello and Wagner's Flying Dutchman despite the fact that it's a great deal easier to produce). At the same time, Rossini doesn't get the same treatment as the one-hit wonders. Everyone knows he wrote more than the two operas, and many people can surely even name them. But they're rarely ever produced. (Also, Operabase lists Le Petit Messe Solenelle as an opera, and as Rossini's eighth-most performed work, in between Guillaume Tell and Le Comte Ory.)

This explains the general perception of Rossini as a composer of primarily frivolous comedies, even though throughout his career, his operas covered a wide range of genres, from comedy, to melodrama, to that weird state of things where it feels like it should be a tragedy but nobody dies, to even full on tragedy. It's just that the two most famous happen to be comedies. In fact, the first not-comedy on the list is Guillaume Tell and number seven. Tancredi and Otello follow ranking at ten and twelve respectively. In fact, some of the most famous Rossini excerpts (though not full operas) are from the dramas he wrote for Isabella Colbran. Otello, Armida, Semiramide, La Donna Del Lago, and so on. Not a single comedy among them. Rossini was very good at drama. I consider La Donna Del Lago and Armida to be among his best works, both musically and dramatically. It's sort of similar to the reputation Sullivan gets, the difference being that Sullivan's oeuvre is indeed ninety-percent comedies, and so any of his operas drawn at random is likely to be one, while Rossini's got a fairly even spread. It's just by chance that the two of his operas that bubbled to the top happen to be comedies. For some reason, Mozart doesn't have this reputation, despite the fact that all five of his operas that rank in the top fifty are comedies -- more than twice as many comedies as Rossini has in the top fifty! But then I guess one of those comedies being Don Giovanni does put an edge on things.

I didn't really have a point with this blog post. Just some musings on Rossini, because today happens to be his birthday, and if I don't strike now, I won't get to make a birthday post for him for another four years. Funny how the guy wrote all his operas (nearly forty of them) before his tenth birthday. And they say Mozart was a child prodigy.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Busy, Busy, Bizet

I like to do my research before seeing a show. This gives me some idea as to whether I will like a show before I even make the decision to see it, and by keeping myself on top of the plot and -- especially important in a musical -- the lyrics, it allows me to focus on the individual aspects of that specific performance rather than trying to keep a gauge on the show as a whole. The operas haven't changed for over a hundred years. The productions have.

I attended the Met Live in HD broadcast of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers the other day. I'll be calling it The Pearl Fishers because I don't want to have to spell out that impossible French title with all the accents. Now I'm going to get into a lot of stuff about drama and playwriting and Carmen later that has nothing to do with this production, so if you're just here for the review, I'm going to get it out of the way quickly now. Everything was great. The audio in the broadcast sounded off a few times. I wasn't a huge fan of Polenzani's falsetto in Je Crois Entendre Encore, but that's a matter of preference. The divers at the beginning were amazing. All in all, the blending of projections with the staging elements was very well done. Pacing was terrific (I don't think I ever realized before just how short this opera is), but fell through when long set changes had to be made behind a projection of water to get to and from an interior set in Act III. Said interior set (which appeared to be an office) was the only bit of the modernization of the production that seemed awkward to me.

Now on to the nitpicky plot stuff. Feel free to leave now. This is why I named this blog Secco Recit.

I had already made myself familiar with the opera before I saw the Live in HD, but even if I hadn't, it's one of those operas that makes it pretty clear to you exactly  how it's going to play out right from the first scene. But despite the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen and when, as a testament to the quality of the opera, Penny Woolcock's production, and the talent of the singers playing the four leads, I was still completely taken by surprise at every turn, and engaged right to the end. (Speaking of the end, is it just me or is this another opera Andrew Lloyd Weber totally ripped off in Phantom Of The Opera?)

This is the hallmark of a good thriller. Shocking twists only go so far. Foreshadowing and dramatic irony must be employed to keep the audience one step ahead of the characters. Excitement is maintained through sustained anticipation. This is why Il Trovatore is effective even though the main plot twist is handed to you on a platter during the exposition. By setting up the twist early, the audience gets engaged in Count Di Luna's actions because they know how he's setting up his own undoing. What's more, if we were told nothing and only discovered the twist at the same time that Azucena reveals it to Di Luna, it would be ham-fisted and forced in to give Di Luna one last dramatic moment. But since we know before he does, his reaction is that much juicier.

The Pearl Fishers is more subtle. It is, on the face of it, a fairly simple love triangle plot with no major twists that aren't given away or foreshadowed well in advance. And it's not a very exciting action-packed opera either, at least not until the last act.  But to start, it has a very slow leisurely pace to it. So what keeps it moving? Well, despite the fact that the plot seems less exciting than that of Il Trovatore, the libretto of The Pearl Fishers is much more streamlined. Even the most plot-oriented operas (and there aren't very many of them) waste time on pointless choruses or waltz numbers of what have you. The Pearl Fishers jumps right into the exposition, and from then on hardly a minute of music is wasted. The result is that despite its slow pace toward the beginning, the simple plot and streamlined libretto means the opera is very short and never dull.

The Pearl Fishers of course screams for comparison with Bizet's other well-known opera, one of the best-known of the genre, Carmen. Like The Pearl Fishers, Carmen is a love triangle. (I say triangle rather than quadrilateral because I think it's about time we resigned ourselves to the fact that, sympathetic though her character may be, Micaela doesn't actually do anything.)

The characters in The Pearl Fishers are two pearl fishers (of course), and a priestess. The characters in Carmen are a gypsy, a soldier, and a bullfighter. Quite the exciting crowd. And indeed, Carmen gets off to a more exciting start than The Pearl Fishers. But in the later acts, I find the situations reverse. Carmen gets bogged down and starts to drag, while The Pearl Fishers picks up and drives to an exciting conclusion. And the reason for this I think is simply that less is more. The Pearl Fishers only uses what it needs (emphasized, I think, by the fact that it has literally only three characters), which means that once it warms the audience up, it doesn't need to work to keep them there. Carmen is loaded down with excess baggage, which, while flashy, gets in the way of the drama later on. Take the entire character of Escamillo. He is given a big showy entrance in which he sings one of the most famous arias in all of opera. He's a bullfighter, he's a bad boy, he's a baritone. But beyond that, he is woefully underdeveloped. He is a one-dimensional archetype who exists to give Carmen someone with whom to make Don Jose jealous. And for the plot to move along, it's necessary that Don Jose have a rival to be jealous of, but when Escamillo is written in solely to be that rival, with no depth of his own, it draws attention to the fact that the whole plot is Don Jose loves Carmen, Carmen loves someone else, Don Jose kills Carmen. The fortune-telling is a sidenote. The smugglers are a sidenote. Even Zuniga is a sidenote. Jose letting Carmen escape in the first act is more than enough impetus to start his downward spiral even without having to waste an entire act (the last half of Act II and the first half of Act III) detailing it. Remember, this is opera we're talking about. If Act I ends with Jose freeing Carmen and being arrested, Act II can open with him disgraced and impoverished on the streets of Seville, and, given the presence of the obligatory rival, that would lead to the exact same ending.

Unless, you might argue, the whole point of the opera is just how much Don Jose does give up for Carmen before she leaves him. In which case that would justify Zuniga and the smugglers, so Jose can make three decisions that jeopardize his reputation before Carmen leaves him. But that doesn't change the fact that the smugglers are an addition just for that purpose, and Escamillo is still underdeveloped. Not to mention Micaela still doesn't do anything. But suppose Jose's final sacrifice for Carmen is a complete rejection of Micaela? As the opera stands, Jose never really addresses her Suppose he were to send her away, even ignore her when she tells him his mother is dying, because he cannot bring himself to leave Carmen -- eve as Carmen is mocking him and openly wishing he would go? That would be the bottom of Jose's descent rather than the slight mitigation it gets from his devotion to his mother in the opera proper. It would be a difficult choice for Jose to make -- one that would make clear his downward spiral by his even having to make it -- and once he'd made it, it would render Carmen's leaving him for Escamillo all the more soul-crushing for him. Not to mention it would make Micaela actually important to the plot. What's more, suppose that Carmen were arrested in Act I for possessing contraband rather than for randomly attacking a factory girl? That would justify the smugglers in Act III, tying everyone up into one neat Chekov-friendly plot. What's more, outside of that one stabbing incident, Carmen, for all her issues, never shows any violent tendencies, so it would be a little less solely-in-their-for-the-purpose-of-getting-Carmen-arrested.

Now let's look at The Pearl Fishers. The plot of The Pearl Fishers takes longer to set up, and the reason is simply that every member of the love triangle is very much invested in the other two. The only important perceptions in Carmen are Jose's view toward Carmen, Carmen's view toward Jose, and Carmen's view toward Escamillo. In The Pearl Fishers, Zurga, Nadir, and Leila are each concerned with the other two. Six relationships have to be set up. Zurga to Nadir, Nadir to Zurga, Nadir to Leila, Leila to Nadir, Zurga to Leila, and Leila to Zurga. The love triangle is exactly that. A triangle. And, in fact, it's so thoroughly developed that when Nadir and Leila sing their love duet, it's treated as though Nadir cheated on Zurga. In fact, that's the point that Zurga's most caught up on in Act III, at least until Leila tries to plead on Nadir's behalf and ends up making things worse. None of the characters are perfect (I particularly blame Nadir for everything that goes wrong), but that keeps them interesting and gives their relationships color.

Those six relationships between those three characters are the entire meat of the opera. In fact, the whole opera is just those three characters (and the priest, Nourabad). There is no excess, and this allows the audience to be fully immersed in the central triangle. Even though the plot is fairly by the numbers (as far as operas go), the audience becomes so invested in these characters that the comparatively uneventful climax becomes just as nail-biting as all the murder and suicide in Tosca and Il Trovatore combined.