Charles Strouse’s autobiography Put on a Happy Face is unexpectedly revealing. An autobiography by the composer of the scores for Bye Bye Birdie, All American, Golden Boy, Annie, Rags, and many other shows would be worth reading in any case, but the book is better than it has to be; it contains surprisingly frank perceptions of his various collaborators, and also an unexpectedly frank examination of himself, his neuroses, and his self-loathing.
From that description, you might think the book is case of too-much-information, or “oversharing,” but that’s not how it comes off. It comes off as honest. Strouse may not always be a reliable narrator (after all, his collaborators would probably tell different stories of the shows they worked on with Strouse, if they wrote about them), but you always get the sense that Strouse is doing the best job he can to tell the story as he knows it. The book is artlessly written, but this too comes to seem a virtue. There is a transparency here that is valuable.
One thing Strouse doesn’t write about is that his famous composition from Annie, “Tomorrow,” had an earlier life before the show. Replay, a short documentary film from 1970 (seven years before Annie’s opening night), depicted the hippie love generation and the reactions to this generation (positive and negative) from their elders. Strouse wrote the musical score for the film, as he did for several others, including Bonnie and Clyde. At around 2:20 into the film (which you can view below), the song comes in. The “B” section of the song is different from “Tomorrow,” but the “A” section is musically identical. While the lyrics for “Tomorrow” are by Martin Charnin, those for this song (which might be titled “The Way It Is Now Is Different”) are by Strouse himself. (Strouse usually worked with lyricist collaborators, but not always.)
I actually prefer the song in Replay to “Tomorrow.” Strouse’s lyrics are fresher than Charnin’s for the latter song. And the musical treatment, in a gentle, very 1970 light rock mode, is charming, not like the overbearing, almost militant feeling we’re used to associating with the song “Tomorrow.” Watch, listen, and see if you agree.
Of all the productions of musical comedies I’ve seen in 50 years of patronage since childhood, one of the ten most successful is the current production of The Music Man being put on by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario this summer. Certainly not the only reason, but an important one, is Leah Oster’s performance as Marian Paroo, the librarian.
She made me aware of a paradox. Why this production of The Music Man works is that you know that you are seeing, at last, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. That is, it is the text itself—the book, music and lyrics by Willson—that shines at center stage. You get these characters, you get what Willson wanted you to know and feel about them, and you surrender yourself to his vision and the brilliant, original way he realized it. All of that, one would think, might be at odds with a performance that stands out for its beauty as much as Leah Oster’s does. You might think, I should be believing in Marian Paroo’s reality right now, not being ravished by Oster’s singing. I should be in River City, not somewhere inside my own head making comparisons to Barbara Cook’s Tony-winning (and Capitol-recorded) performance in 1957—comparisons which, and this is all that really needs to be said, do not leave Leah Oster in the dust.
The paradox, I guess, is that it takes a singer/actress of such magnificent voice that you can’t help noticing her to erase the singer/actress from your mind and put you in communion with the author.
The paradox occurs elsewhere. It takes someone of Sinatra’s preternatural talent—a voice so special that Sinatra was nicknamed, in fact, “The Voice,” as if all others need not apply—to make you finally understand Cole Porter when he asked the musical question, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The awesomeness of Sinatra’s talent calls attention to itself and somehow, by doing so, abnegates itself so that you feel in direct communication with the writer, not the singer. It can take an unconventional production that rethinks Hamlet (such as the one playing at Stratford this year with Ben Carlson, directed by Adrian Noble and set in some 1910 nightmare hybrid of Edwardian England and Denmark)—a production the idiosyncrasy of which can’t help calling attention to its own brilliance—to make you finally understand Shakespeare. It’s counterintuitive that the more an interpreter’s majesty holds center stage, the more the writer of the original text does, too, but that seems to be the way it often works.
The above is but one of eleven choice pix that the New York Times has assembled into a Cyd Charisse memorial slideshow.
Enchanted is more different from its preview than any movie I’ve ever seen. The preview makes this part-animated, mostly live-action Disney musical look like a deconstruction (read: trashing) of Disney musicals of the past. The preview makes you anticipate a movie soaked in the brine of irony; it looks like Disney devaluing its own legacy, turning on itself and eating its own leg in desperation.
The movie is a deconstruction of sorts, but what you’d never expect from the previews is that the effect is to elevate the Disney legacy–to praise it, not to bury it. The preview makes the movie look like its energy comes from the cold water of reality thrown in the face of fantasy, but it turns out that for our cynical times, Enchanted makes the case that fantasy is more important than ever. It reminds us that there is a reason humans have told stories that ended in happily ever after for as long as there have been stories. And it makes the case that The Musical, rather than being an outmoded contraption worthy only of ridicule and contempt, continues to be the best way to tell these stories. Who’d a thunk it?
Every element of the movie contributes to this success, but I’d like to single out two. As I’ve said, the movie succeeds because of its absence of cynicism (in opposition to the impression created by the previews); the movie’s sense of commitment to its story is epitomized by star Amy Adams and composer Alan Menken.
Amy Adams is brilliant casting, because she’s counterintuitive casting. This actress has been authentic in every supporting part she’s done (see Junebug, especially), but at 33, she might be considered a little “long in the tooth” for the part of an innocent fairy-tale princess. A more expected choice would be a Mandy Moore or other early twenty something pop icon. We can thank our fairy godmother that the studio chose Adams, for the success of the movie hangs on our belief in Gisele, and Amy Adams makes us believe.
Composer Alan Menken has created a pastiche score—combining echoes of music from the great animated Disney musicals of the past as well as his own from the Disney animated musicals of the nineties—while going beyond pastiche to create music of excellence on its own terms. The song “True Love’s Kiss”—which is the emotional linchpin of the movie—hearkens back to the music of Frank Churchill for Snow White and Bambi (words by Larry Morey). (Churchill’s career was cut short tragically by suicide when he was 40, on May 14, 1942.) In fact, the octave leap that is the central motif of “True Love’s Kiss” is highly redolent of the same in Bambi’s “Love is a Song,” which was the emotional linchpin of that movie.But here’s the thing. You don’t sense Menken saying, “I’m going to send up these old songs with clever musical quotations for the cognoscenti.” You sense him saying, “I want to tap into the primal unconscious the way Frank Churchill did. I want to salute him, and the best way to do that is to write music with the same power as his.” Everyone involved with Enchanted seems to have felt a similar obligation, and to have been impassioned by similar motives. Shot in New York, it comes in an envelope decorated to look like satire, but inside the envelope is a love letter.
One virtue of the musical film Hairspray is that it is the first movie musical in a long time to have the courage of its convictions. That is, not to frame all its numbers as if it’s ashamed of them, in the “it’s happening on a stage within the film, so it’s justified!” way; or the “see, it’s really just an ironic commentary on the story!” way; or the “hey, don’t worry, it’s only a fantasy the character is having, so it’s not really happening!” way. (For an example of all these ways, see Chicago.) Or, the “it’s just a spoof, so relax” way. (See The Producers.) Rather, Hairspray, in the manner of classic musical films, dares to present us with some musical numbers that are simply the sincere, if outsized, expressions of its characters’ emotions. In these sequences, the movie leaves us no safe ground to run to evade the rapture of “yes, this is really happening“–yet no possibility to account for what we are seeing as logical or rational–opening up the possibility for us to feel feelings just as the characters do. And to give us choreography that isn’t all disembodied faces and hands and feet and asses. (See, again, Chicago.) Quite a lot of it works.
Most of the felicitous score (by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) is in the pop-rock genre, but among the highlights is a number featuring Michelle Pfeiffer that owes more to “Whatever Lola Wants.” Its production is not only funny but, what’s more surprising, genuinely haunting; maybe the more haunting for being funny and the funnier for being haunting. It’s called “The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs.” Here’s a (somewhat choppy, unfortunately, and not terribly representative) video of a small piece of it:
Pfeiffer made something of a sensation with her piano-perching musical turn in The Fabulous Baker Boys back in ’89. It’s too bad we’ve had to wait almost twenty years to enjoy her in a musical again–she obviously has a flair for it–but her performance in Hairspray makes it feel worth the wait.
Beverly Sills and Ann-Margret????? (And throw in a !!! for good measure.)
This two-part clip (posted by mcrtnyfan to YouTube) pairs the opera star (who died yesterday) in a duet with the 60s trashpop sex kitten, from a 1978 television special saluting Radio City Music Hall. (Note: Since “the owner of the clip does not allow embedding,” a single click won’t do the usual and make the video play on this page. The good news is that a second click will take you to right to the YouTube page where it will.)
My first reaction to the idea of this pairing was that it was absurd, if not cruel. A stunt concept only a hack TV flak could love. But the over-10-minute medley is carefully rehearsed–by the singers and by the director and the tech people–and the result is, well, pretty awesome. The two voices find more common ground than I expected, meeting each other halfway so that the result isn’t a compromise of either of its constituent parts but something new. The place they meet halfway is the world of The Musical; if we use the topography of our culture as a metaphor, Sills adjusts “downward” from the world of opera, and A-M adjusts “upward” from the world of junk pop, to produce an entirely credible result. A-M, in fact, sounds remarkably like Judy Garland much of the time, in a way that’s almost unnecessarily emphasized by a snippet of “The Man That Got Away”–given the Garland-like warmth of her voice during the whole medley, that one moment inevitably sounds like imitation, which is mildly distracting. Nevertheless, by the end of the ten minutes, the medley–the concept of which is clever, and the shot design and direction of which are brilliant–had achieved the emotional effect it was after. I had goosebumps.
Last Friday when I watched the clip, I recognized in it some of the signs of decline in Sills’ voice by 1978 that the writer of this New York Times obituary points to this morning–a degree of uncertainty on some of the notes, a bit of wobbliness in the vibrato–but these were overcome by the sheer communicativeness of her voice, which the obit writer also points to. Since I am not an opera buff, but am a devotee of musicals, watching this performance made me “get” Beverly Sills (not exactly for the first time, since I was around in her glory years, but yes, refreshing my memory in a way that it needed refreshing), which made me “get” the obituary in a way I otherwise might not have. It, too, gave me goosebumps.
I find it interesting to consider that many (though not all) of the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis films–including all five of the ones in a new Paramount DVD set available today, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection Vol. 2–could be considered musicals, even though no one ever writes about them that way. But (in the case of these five) they had scores by top-flight songwriting teams with names straight from the Who’s Who of the Great American Songbook–Arthur Schwartz and Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne and Bob Hilliard, Harry Warren and Jack Brooks, Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, and Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. Moreover, for all but one of these films, the scores were original–which is more than can be said for many Warners and MGM musicals of the period, which raided songwriters’ catalogs. It could be that in some writers’ minds the M&L movies are sui generis, or perhaps too low-brow properly to be listed in the movie-musical genre, but by objective criteria–the sheer number of songs, and the fact that most of these purpose-written songs were integrated into the plot in the Rodgers and Hammerstein manner, arising out of character and situation, rather than being sung only on nightclub or theatrical stages in the films–they are as deserving of the term “musical” as many films that are commonly put in the genre. Considering the enormous popularity of these films in their time, it can be argued they kept the movie musical alive and well in the fifties even though it’s more usual to think of the form as having embarked on a long period of life support in that decade.