Wednesday, June 20, 2018

City on a Hill: Vision for America

Before sunrise, using the Book of Common Prayer's form "In the Morning" (BCP 137), I often choose for "a hymn or canticle" the Third Song of Isaiah (87) which fits the time of day:

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.
For behold, darkness covers the land;
    deep gloom enshrouds the peoples.
But over you the Lord will rise,
   and his glory will appear upon you.

[Photo: Sunrise over Jerusalem. omsi.edu]

Today, as the news media buzz around implementation of the President's policy to keep out "bad people, murderers, rapists," the words from Isaiah resonate with an alternative vision of America that we've heard time and again, from John Winthrop (1630), to John F. Kennedy (1961), to Ronald Reagan (1984), that we are to be a "city on a hill." Isaiah, writing when Israel was in exile, describes a new day for Jerusalem, literally set on a hill:

Nations will stream to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
Your gates will always be open;
    by day or night they will never be shut.

Jesus picked up on the image for his Sermon on the Mount, telling us that a city on a hill cannot be hid -- so be worthy of the privilege, and "let your light so shine" (Matthew 5.14).

For Isaiah, as for Winthrop, Kennedy, and Reagan, the light of "The City of the Lord" is about showing the world how a people can live together, recognizing human dignity, expressed in rights defined by law, mercy, and generosity, not by class, gender, or origin. Citing the prophet Micah's admonition to "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God," Winthrop intended that, in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts, "the rich must not eat up the poor," and the Massachusetts "Body of Liberties" soon included laws mandating decent treatments for "sojourners," women, servants, children, and even for animals. Kennedy and Reagan both spoke in terms of freedoms guaranteed and exercised, and sharing these with peoples overseas. Isaiah continues:

Violence will no more be heard in your land,
    ruin or destruction within your borders.
You will call your walls, Salvation,
    and all your portals, Praise.

Isaiah imagines "the sun will no more be your light by day; / by night you will not need the brightness of the moon." (I'm afraid that line, so beautiful in intent, conjures incongruous images of Las Vegas and Times Square.)

The Attorney General answered Christian critics with Paul's endorsement of the Roman Empire's laws, implying that the Administration's policy of "zero tolerance" is ordained by God.  Of course, many laws in many lands are anything but, and "an unjust law is no law at all," as we've heard from St. Augustine and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sessions could have found more apt scripture about keeping foreigners out of Israel, but Isaiah is part of a stronger stream of scriptures that say, in essence, it doesn't matter where they come from or how they got here: God is on their side, and you need to take care of them, even if that's costly or difficult.  Think of Jesus's story of the Good Samaritan.

I hear that today happens to be International Refugee Day.  I'm glad that I started it with something so positive and beautiful as this "Third Song of Isaiah."

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Guide Dog & Her Poet


Steve Kuusisto's memoir Have Dog, Will Travel includes scenes from 38 years of "creeping" through life to hide his inability to see more than light and a few colors; a history of reforms empowering the blind that reach apotheosis in the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) of 1990; and anecdotes that show the barriers that persist, due to prejudice and misunderstanding.  But more than anything else, he wants to immortalize in words Corky, the guide dog who brought him out into the world of crosswalks, airplanes, trust, and love.

We who read the book will remember seeing Corky "run full steam" into his arms at their first meeting: "She placed her large front paws on my shoulders and washed my face, and then, as if she fully understood her job would require comedy, she nibbled my nose" (50).  He reflects, "She was happy but she had something else, a quality of absorption.  She looked me over like a tailor," beginning for both of them "a lifelong process of learning to read each other."  We'll remember Corky temporarily non-plussed by aromas inside her first supermarket.  One time, a couple of young men inside a convenience store call her "hero dog" and tell Kuusisto a story from the Koran about a hero dog in heaven.  Another time, a policeman, seeing Corky pull Kuusisto up just short of a hole in the sidewalk out of sight around a corner, asks permission to rub her belly to express his admiration, and all the witnesses around join in. We'll remember how Corky falls in love at first sight with Roscoe, a black lab, and how they tug their owners into friendship that grows into marriage. We'll see Corky during a lecture by Professor Kuusisto, suddenly roll on her back, kicking all four feet in the air.

Between delightful stories of Corky, we get anecdotes of indignities that disabled people suffer. To the early 20th century, laws kept disabled people off the streets in deference to the public's sensibilities (205).  Attitudes began to change when soldiers were blinded by gas and guide dogs, "fought" alongside troops in World War I (82-83).  But prejudice and pity add insult to daily struggle for Kuusisto to this day. People stand over Kuusisto to pray for healing and forgiveness (161).  Others accuse him of using his disability to gain privileges (204). When one man screamed at him, Corky simply pushed between the two, de-escalating the situation.

Kuusisto learns from his dog.  "I was going to be enlarged," he realizes in his first days with Corky (41).  The power of praise for Corky opens Kuusisto to understanding the power of praise in human relationships (56). He writes that dogs can't "heal" us, but "draw us out into the world" (181), blind or not.  Corky was a "Renaissance dog," showing flexibility in five areas of canine cognition identified by Duke specialist Brian Hare: empathy, communication, cunning, memory, and reasoning (229). "A dog in class," Professor Kuusisto writes, "insists love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries" (233).

Kuusisto brings a poet's sensibilities to his memoir.  There's a rough chronology to the book, but some of the earliest memories pop up late.  For example, telling about an offer to work as spokesman for Guiding Eyes in his forties, he interpolates a story from his teens of being close to death from a self-loathing fast when, on impulse, he entered an Episcopal church; affected by the idea that the bread and wine could consecrate his own flesh, he decided to take, eat, and live (194); and he decides the job is a risk he can face.  He alludes to Buddhism, Duke Ellington, Jung, and King.

What I appreciate most is simply the gift of Corky, and the instruction from the Guiding Eyes staff whenever Corky did something well: "Love her up!"

(All page references are from Stephen Kuusisto, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet's Journey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.)

[Photos: Just because I use any excuse to include photos of Mia, I include two from time on my patio mid-June.  In one, I love her up; in the other, she's loving up my mom.]












Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Forward Day by Day, to January 2018: Fear Not

Forward Day by Day publishes thoughtful responses to Scripture assigned for each day by the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  On newsprint, the quarterly booklet isn't meant to last; but some thoughts are striking enough that I mark them for preservation in my blog. (See many other digests on my page Those Crazy Episcopalians.)

Below are highlights from one issue of the past year, covering November and December 2017 and January  2018. [Picture: Roger Speer's design for Advent in a coloring book for adults created for the Forward Movement.]

I notice a strong theme of fear in the readings for all three months.  King Herod fears losing his power, segregationists feared acknowledging that their way had never been just, all of us fear rejection and humiliation. These meditations and scriptures speak to these fears.

from November 2017
meditations by Jake Owensby, Bishop of Western Louisiana
Mt. 14.20 All ate and were filled. It's a simple thought, but not always what comes to mind, that Jesus in drawing us to the Eucharist table, "also draws us to each other."

Mt. 14:29 So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. "Jesus urges us to do impossible things. Love our inconsiderate neighbor. Forgive the drunk driver who hurt our spouse.  Give the shirt off our back to the guy who just stole our shoes.  Feed the hungry." Owensby observes that we'd usually rather sink than admit that we have to reach out to Jesus -- which entails "admitting our limitations and facing others' snark." When we try to walk on water, Owensby writes, it's that second step that takes the "deeper level of courage."

Rev. 18.21 With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down. Owensby cites theologian Bob Hughes, who led a weekend retreat for me and my co-mentor Susan some years ago: "Wrath is what love looks like to a sinner."  Owensby adds, "For those who elevate themselves at the expense of others, Jesus' return will seem catastrophic."  Now, I've learned to associate the phrase "tough love" as an excuse for abuse when coaches, parents, and teachers take their authority personally and enforce their demands impersonally; but Hughes means something more along the lines of the way whites felt with the end of racial segregation in South Africa and in our southern states (see January, below). It's a thin line.

Mt. 25.18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.  That one "refuses to take any losses," but Jesus's bottom line is that "the central business of being human is to take the wildest, most unreasonable risks."
  •  From theologians we've read in EfM, Diogenes Allen and others, I'm learning to think of the Trinity in terms of the risk that God the Father took in Creation; risk and pain and death of God himself is inherent in creatures who are allowed to grow their own ways.  Family, friends, and teachers take the same risk, and mustn't give up when, inevitably, things go bad.  
  • This message seems unexceptionable, but I'm aware that some of my friends see Jesus's bottom line as, "Believe I'm the Son of God, or go to hell."  That message won't transform the world, but only build a wall around believers, who fear that a tug on any brick in the wall will cause the whole thing to crumble.  (I borrow the metaphor of bricks from Robert Bell's book Velvet Elvis.) 

Rev. 21.3  See, the home of God is among mortals.  Owensby's divorced father moved away, and  Owensby spent his youth trying to attract his father's attention by accomplishment.  He naturally experienced God the Father in the same way. "As it turns out," he writes, "I had everything upside down. ...God is straining to reach us where we are.  Jesus didn't come to take us back up to heaven.  He came to transform earth by planting heaven at its very core."

Ps. 106.15 He gave them what they asked, but sent leanness into their soul.  Owensby lists as "idols" things that, though good, "always let us down" -- family, work, and possessions -- because "their promises are rooted in our capabilities and formed to our likenesses."  When we focus on those things, we're getting spiritually lean on a "soul diet."

Mt. 4.19 Jesus said, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  This is the reading for St. Andrew's day, remembering the disciple who died on an X - shaped cross in Patras, Greece.  Owensby gives the etymology of martyr as witness, not anything about death.   Our martyrdom, then, is witnessed in "our compassion for others, our perseverance through hardship, and our humble pursuit of peace and justice."

from December 2017
meditations by Holli Powell, executive committee of the Diocese of Lexington, KY
Mt. 20.20 She said to him, "Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom."  Jesus gives a "countercultural" response, that the great must be servants to all.  Powell puts it in a way that would draw scorn from a lot of my students and from some teachers and coaches I've known:  "In God's estimation, we are all winners, and our greatness is achieved in serving each other."

Jude 16 These are grumblers and malcontents... bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.  Dealing with troublemakers within the church community, Jude gives Scriptural examples that all show God rebuking evil. Powell draws the lesson to "keep our eyes in our own lane.  Our job is to follow Jesus, not to punish those who don't."

2 John 5. But now, dear lady, I ask you... let us love one another. Powell relates this to another Scripture, "let us walk in love," and writes two aspects of "walking in love." First, "walking" implies "action" and "adjusting our own lives to stay in relationship with God and with one another even as … changes occur." Then, it means "fearlessness."  "Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4.18) and looks beyond the familiar to see God in others, "not just those who look like us or agree with us."

from January 2018
meditations by Ken Woodley, licensed lay preacher in Prince Edward Cty., VA
Mt. 2.3 King Herod... was frightened.... Fear, writes Woodley, "is the enemy of faith." Woodley relates Herod's fearful reaction to that of white - only government that closed down all public schools in Prince Edward County for five years rather than seat black children beside white children. "What did Prince Edward County fear? What did Herod fear?"  

In a later meditation on John 1.15, The light shines in the darkness, Woodley tells us that a beacon now sits atop the courthouse where the decision was made to close public schools rather than comply with orders to desegregate.  Called the Light of Reconciliation, the beacon honors Barbara Johns, a student whose activism in 1951 started the de-segregation crisis, and was dedicated a few years ago with apologies for "the barricaded dreams of our children."

Appendix:  Action Items
Forward Day by Day has lately instituted a tag to every day's thought, "Moving Forward." Some of these could serve the class I mentor for the program Education for Ministry, either as check - in questions at the start, or "action" responses to theological reflections at the close, so I list those, here:

  • The parable of weeds of the field occasioned this question: Can you think of any good that came out of one of your life's most difficult times?
  • Thinking of Peter, reaching out for Jesus' hand as he sinks: When have you been humbled enough to change your mind about something you have believed for a long time? Are you still putting that change of heart into practice?
  • "Listen to him!" says a voice to obtuse disciples at the Transfiguration: Share a lesson learned in elementary years that has remained with you. 
  • Jesus, kneeling beside the lame beggar, asks "Do you want to be made well?"  Could you this week write a note of gratitude to someone who was an agent of healing in your life? Share the story.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Reliving 40 Years of Sweeney Todd with Atlanta Opera

More than 40 years ago, I talked with Stephen Sondheim about Sweeney Todd.  I asked about a note I'd read in Variety about a forthcoming Sondheim "ballad opera." At first, he didn't know what I was talking about. "Something about a barber who kills his customers and eats them," I offered.  "Oh, that!"  He told me and my friends that he envisioned "an elegant entertainment" where people would "laugh their heads off" and then "throw up in the lobby."  Did he think that would have popular appeal? "I like to write shows that aren't like anything else I've seen." (See my Stephen Sondheim page for a picture of that conversation, and many articles about Sweeney Todd on stages and on screen.)

Since then, I've attended the tale of Sweeney Todd at live performances from the original runs in New York (1979)  and London (1980) to the Atlanta Opera's production this past weekend; sung along with four different cast recordings, learning the words for every role; and played keyboards in the pit for a production at the Walker School.  I anticipate favorite moments; I cry with the characters over the cruel ironies in their lives, no matter who plays the parts; I feel the adrenaline rush when Sweeney rages.  I no longer just watch a performance; I relive it!

Though I can never see the show with fresh eyes again, I kept my notes from that first time. With apologies for prose written under the influence of Henry James, I present my 20 - year - old self's first impressions of the show, split between a journal entry and "my version of the NY Times review" written at the request of my mentor Frank Boggs.  In brackets, I draw comparisons to the Atlanta Opera's production and reconsiderations of my youthful first impressions.

   

[Photos:  Above, Playbill from 1979, featuring Frank Verlizzo's (fraver.com) Fraver's adaptation of a 19th century image of the Sweeney Todd character.  Below, an ad I cut from the New York Times that aggregated highlights from reviews in the first week.].

[from a journal entry, Thursday, March 15, 1979]
"Tuesday night was the big night I'd been waiting for since I first heard A Little Night Music in 9th grade: I saw a Sondheim show on Broadway.  In fact, the day after they recorded the album.  The Uris is as huge as I'd heard, and the set was hideous: stretching out above and to the sides, it embraces the audience, bringing it into a dirty factory, which soon becomes all of 19th century London.

"The show starts long before 8:00, when some scruffy-looking characters crank the massive machinery of the set into motion.  Two gravediggers shovel black dirt out of a coffin - shaped hole in the stage floor.  Above them stretches a tapestry depicting the 'Victorian beehive.'

[As the director of Atlanta Opera's production told  listeners to WABE-FM, it's eighty percent identical to the original, with a smaller replica of the 'beehive' and the actual Meat Pie Shop from the original cast's touring production.  The original designer Eugene Lee still gets the design credit in the program.

"Then a tall sinister - looking guy steps up to the organ downstage right bearing the banner, By the blood of Jesus Christ we are forgiven all our sins, removes top hat and gloves and, as the house lights finally dim, he strikes an appalling first chord, which made the audience giggle at its pompous solemnity and exaggerated portent.  He launches into an atonal fugue as a chorus of dirty - looking town dwellers wanders out of the shadows to eye the audience suspiciously.  Two men bring out a body wrapped in sackcloth as two workmen grab hold of the two lower corners of the 'beehive' diagram.  As the organ music climaxes, and they toss the body in the grave, and they tear the cloth from the high ceiling all at once, a piercing strident whistle screams out, and so does half the audience."

[The stage at the Cobb Energy Center is much smaller than that of the Uris, and the stage lacked the flying iron walkways that animated the original stage, and the trap with elevator.  They leave out the organ and business before the prologue; the drop of the smaller beehive had a smaller effect; the whistle, less piercing, gets a commensurate reaction.]

"The orchestra launches into 'The Ballad of Sweeney Todd' with suitably uneasy harmonies, and the chorus sneers the melody with suitable violence.  [Atlanta Opera, thank you for fielding a full orchestra to play Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations:  the details and inner workings of Sondheim's music work well with small bands, but the richness of an orchestra envelops the action.] At a critical moment in the song, they back away from the grave where we see Sweeney rising, staring straight ahead and snarling his lyrics.  He's lit to be the only bright thing on stage, and even that's cold, cadaverous blue.

"[My friend Bess], who doesn't like musicals, said she was thrilled by every moment, 'there was so much to watch.'

[from my letter to Frank]
"The show is an opera, with three hours of music and only ten lines of dialogue. Unfortunately, all ten lines are bad, especially at the end of the 2nd act, before the final number saves the show."

[I suppose that I didn't count numerous lines spoken over accompaniment; the effect was of non-stop music.  Sondheim does admit that he regrets not composing music for the final scene. The actor playing Toby, left high and dry by the orchestra's silence, has to recite a nursery rhyme and cheesy lines about cranking the meat grinder "slowly... slowly... slowly....]

"Some have criticized it for Brechtian social comment, an invalid criticism, unless one is distracted by the social comment in My Fair Lady as well."

[I was writing with a scrap of the NY Times' Richard Eder's "Critic's Notebook" in my collection.  He lauded the music and lyrics, but asked what moral purpose motivated all this powerful storytelling?  While director Harold Prince has said that he needs to find a social relevance to any show he does, the creative team was content to tell a ripping good story.  But while we attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, the creative team underscores resonances between the world of the story and our own:  maniacal obsession, class resentment, official corruption, sexual predation, dehumanization of  industrialization, and serial violence.]

"[Angela] Lansbury is as funny as anyone could possibly be, especially in two of her songs 'The Worst Pies in London'  and 'A Little Priest.'  [Maria Zifchak nailed the comedy in Atlanta, too, with a stronger, richer voice across the range of her songs.  Since 1979, I've learned to love "By the Sea" for operating on several levels: music hall pastiche, Mrs. Lovett's fatal attraction to a man she doesn't understand, word play, and comic business. "Oo, Mr. Todd" (kiss) "I'm so happy (kiss) I could eat you up...."]

"Len Cariou radiates dark energy and is attractively chilling in his madness."  [Ditto, baritone Michael Mayes, who adds to the role his more imposing physical and vocal presence.] 

"Victor Garber is likable as the young sailor." [But Joseph Lattanzi brings a superior voice and ease to his singing.]

"The villains were villainous, and Ken Jennings, blessed with a splendid voice, is wonderful as the comic and touching young Toby.  His duet with Lansbury, 'Not While I'm Around,' is the one moment of affection and warmth in the show, and does indeed 'touch the heart.'  After this calm - before - the - storm, there follows an operatic sequence that pulls Sweeney Todd to its horrifying melodramatic conclusion with breathtaking speed."

[See, I thought of "Beadle Banford","Judge Turpin", and "Signor Pirelli" as THE villains of the piece. That makes heroes of murderous Sweeney and amoral Mrs. Lovett.  Forget about Brecht and social commentary: the real moral ambiguity is that we -- rooting for Sweeney's revenge, laughing at Mrs. Lovett's cheerful amorality -- are complicit in their crimes. In Atlanta Opera's production, Toby -- performed with innocent earnestness and sweet voice by Ian McEuen -- brought us back to our right minds. He vows to protect Mrs. Lovett, even while her face and a dissonant obbligato tell us she's planning to kill him. We're not on team Sweeney after that.  There's a similar effect in Sondheim / Weidman's Assassins, when the song "Something Just Broke" snaps us out of accepting the assassins as endearing misfits.]

"But the greatest thrill of the evening is unrelated to the plot.  It is the ecstasy of discovering a superbly crafted and aggressively original work of art.  That is a joy more profound and satisfying than any number of average happy endings."  [Amen!  I'm surprised to see that I saw things this way so early in my life. I had believed that art had to deliver a good message to be good.]

"Two other facts," [I wrote in 1979]: (1) I've had three nightmares about the show since I saw it; (2) Beverly Sills sat across the aisle from us, and said that she had seen it three times already.  She wants to direct it at the City Opera!" [And the show has thrilled audiences in opera houses world wide ever since.]

Monday, June 11, 2018

Dementia Diary: Preparing for a Transition

For six years, I've picked up Mom Saturday mornings for breakfast at the French bistro where our late beloved Sassy could sit under the table (or, on cold days, in the car) and finish off Mom's potatoes.  Mom used to be outside with Sassy, waiting for me at 7:30.  That has gradually shifted to my arriving at 8 to rouse her from bed, where she lolls the way her son used to do: "I'm getting up in a minute," she'll say, making no move at all.  I do the old motherly things, saying "Rise and shine!" as I pull the blinds, turn on lights, play the news, and keep urging her.  It's another hour before Mom has found clothes, decided whether to wear a sweater (asking twice, at least, "Is it cold out?")  and has primped and preened to her satisfaction [see photos].
In these photos. we see one of several reminders typed by the staff to remind her that they -- not her controlling son! -- now require supervision for her, 24 / 7, "for her safety."  The change has come since a morning in April when Mom left the campus without signing out.  Staff found her a couple blocks away, unable to say where she lived, only that she was "going home."

Until this Saturday, I thought this was an over-reaction.  Mom has been walking that territory with little Sassy for six years, now, and she has never remembered to sign out or to sign in, and she has never known her address.  But this time, after our breakfast, as I signed her in, she asked me where her apartment is.  She didn't remember where to find the elevator, or what floor, and she was uncertain which way to go off the elevator. She thought that this was an amusing situation.

So, she does indeed need supervision.  But some nights, I'm getting phone messages of rage: "I see that they require me to have someone here 24 hours a day for my 'safety.'  I can't imagine why!...  I want this nice young lady out of my apartment!  I am not a child!"

Sigh.  I'm doing what I can.  By next week, she'll be in a new place where the staff will keep an eye on her 24 / 7 by a combination of eyes in the hallway and electronic monitoring.

[This is latest in a series of posts collected in my Dementia Diary]

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Anyone Can Whistle: See What It Gets You

This delightful original musical pokes fun at gullible rubes and pompous leading citizens in a small American town. A stranger arrives, pretending to be someone he is not, disrupts everyday life, and captures the imagination of a repressed young woman, the town's sole intellectual.  When she discovers that he's a fraud, both characters are changed.  The score is notable for mixing musical underscoring with rhythmic dialogue, and for pastiche of Americana, with a march, a gospel chorus, and a barbershop quartet.

Does this describe the huge Broadway hit of 1957, The Music Man, book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Wilson, or is it  Anyone Can Whistle, book by Arthur Laurents, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a show that ran for nine performances in 1964?

Although the answer is "both," Anyone Can Whistle is no rip-off of Music Man, nor a mockery.  In his memoir Finishing the Hat, Sondheim includes Wilson in a list of lyricists whose work he appreciates, and Barbara Cook in her memoir quotes Sondheim praising The Music Man's opening number. Besides, the same outline fits another show of the era, 110 in the Shade, based on a 1950s movie, The Rainmaker.  For that matter, that story of the unmarried repressed woman learning to live and love from a man playing a role is also the story of Laurents's script for the film Time of the Cuckoo and the musical he made from it with Sondheim and Richard Rodgers, Do I Hear a Waltz?  The very term "repressed" belongs to the zeitgeist of the 1950s and 60s, Freud lurking in the background.

Nor is Anyone Can Whistle all that "delightful." Sondheim recalls how the playwright Peter Shaffer, who happened to sit beside him on a plane soon after the show, called it brilliant and "irritating." Where Wilson poked fun, Laurents and Sondheim were out for blood, taking satirical stabs at militarism, McCarthyism, religiosity, gender stereotypes, suburban life, psychoanalysis, and, in the one joke that remains funny all these years later, Civil Rights:  a black man named Martin responds to the suggestion that his "line of work" -- i.e., "going to schools, riding in buses, eating in restaurants" -- might be "getting too easy."   Martin shrugs, "Not for me -- I'm Jewish!"  At the end of Act One, the psychiatrist character Hapgood tells the audience directly, "You are all mad!" and lights come up to reveal the entire cast in theater seats, pointing at the audience and laughing.  Sondheim writes, "There's a very thin line between smart and smart-ass, and we overstepped it," though he thinks the latter part of the show achieved "a better mix of satire and feeling" (Finishing the Hat, 125).

[Photo below: Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick in Anyone Can Whistle, 1964]

But Anyone Can Whistle does have its delights, as Sondheim finds heart in cartoonish characters. For "Nurse Fay Apple," originally played by Lee Remick, Sondheim wrote a passionate show-stopper about looking for a hero to save the community, "There Won't Be Trumpets."  Because Remick stopped the show with a monologue prior to the song, it was cut, being redundant, but the revue Side by Side by Sondheim brought it new life.  Sondheim wrote the song "Anyone Can Whistle" for the same character, who sings, "What's hard is simple; what's natural comes hard," and who pleads with the stranger "Hapgood" to teach her "how to let go, lower my guard, learn to be free."  For Hapgood (originally played by Harry Guardino), Sondheim wrote an anthem, "Everybody Says Don't," that builds through a list of don'ts and can'ts :  "don't disturb the peace …  can't laugh at the king … don't believe in miracles," to a full throated affirmation, "I believe in miracles / If you do them... I say don't! / Don't be afraid!"

Sondheim combines all of these numbers in one fierce song of disillusionment for Fay, "See What it Gets You."

Give yourself
If somebody lets you,
See what it gets you,
See what it gets you!
Give yourself and somebody lets you
Down!

The bridge encapsulates the arc of her story:

Here's how to crawl,
Now run, lady!
Here's how to walk,
Now fly!
Here's how to feel -- have fun, lady,
And a fond good-bye!

She comes to a decision:

When the hero quits,
Then you're left on your own,
And when you want things done,
You've got to do them yourself,
Alone!

The song reaches its climax:  "Here I hope I come!"  She launches into an upbeat reprise of "Anyone Can Whistle," made almost frantic by phrases from "Everybody Says Don't" playing rapid-fire in the accompaniment.  She is determined to be the hero that she was looking for in "Trumpets":

Just once, I'll do it,
Just once, before I die!
Lead me to the battle.
What does it take?
Over the top,
Joan at the stake.
Anyone can whistle -- (SHE tries to whistle, and fails.)
-- Well, no one can say
I didn't try!

A comic ballet follows, and then a heart-breaking duet for Fay and Hapgood, "With So Little to be Sure Of."  Not the man he pretended to be, he's leaving town; she will remain behind, serving her patients.  But they're both better for the encounter:

With so little to be sure of,
If there's anything to be --
Being sure enough of you
Made me sure enough of me.

While she thanks him for their time together, he sings a plaintive counter melody, "The more I memorize your face, the more I never want to leave."

Aside from the numbers related to Fay and Hapgood, the score is largely pastiche.  Sondheim explains that he had used pastiche in earlier shows "to set time and place," but, writing for Angela Lansbury's character, Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper, he intended "to convey Cora's heartlessness through the use of a slick, jazzy showbiz style" which he used for her and her cohort, "in contrast to the personal musical language of the other characters" (116).   He tells how Lansbury asked him to write a number with heart in it, and he found a way to do it, playing off of a character both venal and narcissistic:

I see flags, I hear yells,
There's a parade in town.
I see crowds, I hear yells,
There's a parade in town.

But her townspeople are cheering for Doctor Hapgood.  "Any parade in town without me must be a second - class parade, so, Ha!"  When the stage empties, she sings to the audience,

I'm dressed at last, at my best,
And my banners are high.
Tell me, while I was getting ready,
Did a parade go by?

Sondheim remembers that the show's early demise didn't affect him the way he'd expected. "I was buoyed by the realization that I had loved writing it and that I was happy with the result," both "inventive" and, "above all, playful" (139).  The fifteen-minute number "Simple" was Sondheim's first experiment with an extended piece mixing music and rhythmic dialogue, a technique at which he has become the master.

I've enjoyed the 1995 recording before a live audience at Carnegie Hall starring Bernadette Peters, Scott Bakula, and the late Madeline Kahn; but the original cast, who recorded the score on the day after the show closed, gave it their all.  Producer Goddard Lieberson took a chance recording a flop, betting that its better qualities would win it a place in music theatre history.  If you're not familiar with the show, try that one out -- and see what it gets you!



[Photo:  Laurents and Sondheim, at the recording of the cast album, the day after the show closed.]

PS - The guy who posts on YouTube under the title Musical Theatre Mash makes a strong case for the show's being, not "ahead of its time" as some claimed, but about seven years too late.  The show's story and themes all revolve around a crowd of "non-conformists" and their relationship to the Leave It To Beaver - Father Knows Best 1950s establishment.  As the Musical Theatre Mash - guy points out, that kind of non-conformism was going mainstream in 1964. "Just down the street," he says, the first version of Hair was being written.  (See his incisive video here.)

Friday, June 01, 2018

Andrew Lloyd Webber, Unmasked

In the first chapter of Unmasked, memoir by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, a pet monkey reacts to fetal  Andrew, attacking his mother's swollen belly. The memoirist concludes that the monkey was "the first to dislike me."

With this comment, Lloyd Webber wryly acknowledges a famous anecdote about him.  Google "instant dislike" to find numerous versions of the story that Lloyd Webber asked Broadway lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, "Why does everyone take an instant dislike to me?" Lerner reportedly answered that "it saves time."

Except for the word "dislike," that putdown doesn't appear in the memoir, but Lloyd Webber does reprint Lerner's long, affectionate letter to him written just as the lyricist went into treatment for cancer.

Lloyd Webber answers his critics this same indirect way throughout the book, nodding a bit regretfully in their direction as he gives his side to the story. He sets a positive tone in his prologue, observing how fortunate anyone is who makes a living doing what he loves, much more to make a fortune. He comes across as a naïf, wide-eyed with wonder, shy except when taking a stand in his chosen fields of musical theatre and architecture.

Easy and Shallow?
My personal appreciation for Lloyd Webber's work, posted some years ago, is tempered by a common criticism that he settles for "The First Things that Come to Mind."  I've written that Lloyd Webber and his collaborators don't look beneath the surface, even when they deal with deep subjects. Lloyd Webber's accounts of his thoughts as he created various works show me to have been wrong, at least part of the time.

I've learned that he, not the librettist, was architect of the dramatic effects I've loved most in all his work: the music came before any of the words. He and collaborator Tim Rice wrote Jesus Christ Superstar for a "concept album" first, where interruptions from dialogue would be annoying; staging wasn't yet a consideration; so, they wrote it as if it were a radio drama, aiming for "clarity" in the storytelling with constant variety achieved through unusual time signatures (he loves 7/8 and 5/4) and qualities of "light and shade." Lloyd Webber writes that the trial of Jesus before Pilate "loomed large" throughout the writing process, so he made the wise choice to compose a Vaudevillian interlude for Herod, way out of character for the rest of the score, to give the audience a break between the intense Gethsemane song and the trial. (That sequence of numbers is what I recall most from seeing the show in an unauthorized concert version at Atlanta's defunct Municipal Auditorium in 1971.)

About Evita, Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice got a lot of criticism and mockery for glorifying a ruthless fascist dictator's opportunistic wife. Tim Rice stoked that line of criticism by claiming that they weren't interested in politics, but examining celebrity -- Eva being just another "superstar," early critics suggested.  But that's not how Lloyd Webber saw it.  In an outstanding paragraph, he depicts England in the mid-1970s disintegrating among competing forces: fascist militias, socialists frankly promising to squeeze the rich dry, crippling debt, tax rates up to 97%, unions vowing to shut the country down, and Irish Republican terrorism.  To his mind, at least, he was drawing parallels to contemporary life with his proletarian anthem "A New Argentina," and the power couple's cynical manipulation of Labor.

Lloyd Webber, no less than his critics (and I) wondered, why should we care about this reprehensible woman Eva Peron?  He tells how he got his answer when he remembered his experience watching Judy Garland in her last days.  The star arrived an hour late, the audience was already hostile, and they booed her as she fumbled lyrics for "The Trolley Song."  Lloyd Webber describes her trying to get into the audience's good graces by having the pianist begin her signature tune, "Over the Rainbow," but it backfired. The audience mocked her (213).  Lloyd Webber composed Eva Peron's anthem "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" to be the song that would "break" her when she sings it on her deathbed late in the show.

Lloyd Webber's descriptions of how the theatrical magic in the first minute of Cats won over a loudly skeptical crowd at the first preview (351), and a long excerpt from his first notes envisioning the prologue to Phantom -- which became the reality -- have made me re-evaluate my feelings about those shows.**   Where I and others have heard tedious recycling of themes, Lloyd Webber tells us how there is "no accident" in his use of motifs throughout Phantom  (475).

Lloyd Webber explains decisions he made for particular effects in particular songs.  When Eva tells Peron, "I'd be surprisingly good for you, too," Lloyd Webber uses a dissonance under the preposition to accent the cynicism of Eva's proposition.  A snare drum adds menace to a love song in Phantom. The counter-melody from the song "Prima Donna" underlies Christine's melody in the song "Twisted Every Way," literally underscoring her indecision.  He shifts key three times in the song "Memory" to postpone the effect of the singer's high note until the climactic repetition of the plea, "Touch me!"

About his Requiem, Lloyd Webber does indeed have second thoughts, giving us pages of what he should have done for different numbers in his mass (430 ff). While he admits it's not up to standards, he denies that it's "derivative" of certain composers, as critics charged, since he's never heard of those composers! He has regrets about a recent show of his, Stephen Ward, all but admitting what I thought when I listened hard to the cast album, that it's a disappointingly superficial treatment of a multi-faceted subject, the Profumo scandal that broke England's government in the 1960s.

Though Lloyd Webber has convinced me that he doesn't toss these things off lightly, I stand my ground when he discusses his "obsession" with melody.  He sometimes has to work hard for one, but he tells us that melodies often occur to him in an instant, even while he's eating (486). To me, that's a sign that the melody is what his detractors say, derivative of something already familiar.  Regardless the source, those melodies of his, from "I Don't Know How to Love Him" to "With One Look," including "Memory," "Music of the Night," "All I Ask of You," or "Love Changes Everything," all stretch like taffy from plodding syllable to syllable, gumming up the drama.

Lloyd Webber's music is exciting when he writes for several parties in conflict. Besides the aforementioned trial scene in JCS, there's the Casa Rosado in Evita with dissonant chants of "Peron! Peron!", over which rises the dictator's rabble-rousing declamation ("We are all leaders now, fighting against our common enemies, foreign domination of our industries...") while Eva snarls at the military brass who would hold her back just before she launches so sincerely into her seduction of the crowd with "Don't Cry for Me...."  Now that's musical drama.  The first ten minutes or so of Sunset Boulevard propel us into a world that's both noire and glamorous, with a high speed chase and elements of farce.  These pieces have texture. Compared to them, those much - vaunted melodies are thin.

We agree on one piece that stands out among all the others in the memoir for being pure "joy," his Variations on a theme by Paganini, written to "celebrate" his brother Julian's virtuosity on the cello (260).  He mentions it often, as if it were a favorite child.   

Dislike? 
But the Lerner anecdote sticks to Lloyd Webber for a reason.  He tells us that the late director Milos Forman approached him to play Mozart in the film Amadeus, because the two composers share certain traits:  "a foul temper," rude public burping, "hot-headed perfectionism," and being "extremely obnoxious." (Spoiler: Forman persists until Lloyd Webber, following advice from Lorin Maazel, accepts the role with the stipulation that all music in the movie be Lloyd Webber's.)

Lloyd Webber admits that his laid back collaborator Tim Rice may have finally tired of "tantrums" from "hypertense Andrew"(234) ; and that he has "behaved appallingly in theatres more often than I care to mention" (236).  He presents these admitted flaws in the context of telling how he doesn't accept inferior quality in sound systems. Rice, he laments, didn't even hear the difference.

We get the sense that Lloyd Webber is proud to be obnoxious for the sake of music and architecture, twin loves since early childhood.  He prints a photo of a prized possession from childhood, an elaborate model of a proscenium stage, peopled with chorus and actors.  Music was always part of his life, his dad being a composition teacher at the Royal College of Music -- though he advised his own son that the school would "educate the music right out of you."  Improvising portraits of faculty members at the piano for a school talent show transformed him from geek to hero.

We get a taste of his righteous indignation when he describes the desecration of late-Victorian theatres that his Really Useful Foundation has restored.  A chapter tells in numbing detail how he acquired the "mongrel" manor home Sydmonton, where his view includes Watership Down (yes, the one with the rabbits) and the location for "Downton Abbey."  Even the footnote about its background packs two pages.  There, he lives, and there he hosts an annual arts festival, where he has tried out early drafts of Variations, Cats, and Phantom.

There is also the matter of his marriages and divorces.  His first wife was 16 when he, 22, married her.  He tells us that he never considered what his infidelity would do to her, and that's before he left her for singer Sarah Brightman. His chapter about that, he tells us, is his "umpteenth draft," presumably because he worked so hard to appear not awful in it.   He's since gone on to another wife.
He tells us that he bought the first one a country home, and he's still good friends with number two.

Unmasked?
Aside from the allusion to his most successful creation, what "mask" does Andrew Lloyd Webber remove in this memoir?  I suppose that he wants us to see behind the image that his critics have portrayed.  Even though he allows us to see the ways that he earned his reputation, he has softened some of the hard edges, and has caused this musical fan to reconsider his work.  In fact, I've got out my vintage CD of Variations with cello and rock band, to fall in love again with music that is indeed a joy.


PS and Notes
1.  About "instant dislike": Dig a bit deeper in Google to find use by others of the same putdown, all predated by its use in an episode of M*A*S*H, between the characters Frank and Trapper John.

2. Was there an editor for this book?  ALW consistently uses the past tense when he should've used the subjunctive.  I never cared so much about that before now, as I was constantly confused about whether something was accomplished, or only considered. For example, "He also demanded that the auditorium was painted black" (375). No: He demanded that the auditorium be painted black; it hasn't happened yet, and may never.


*Page references are to locations in the Kindle Edition of Unmasked, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Harper Collins, publisher.

**(By the way, he asked T. S. Eliot's daughter what I've always wondered, what did Eliot mean by "jellicle" cats? It was the poet's transliteration of the way upper-class Brits muddled the words "dear little." "Pollicle" is "poor little.")