Thursday, June 29, 2006

The March by E.L.Doctorow: Out Like a Lamb

The end of E. L. Doctorow's novel The March couldn't be much of a surprise: peace. Except for a surprisingly strong attack by CSA's Joe Johnston at Bentonville NC, Sherman's progress through South and North Carolina was inexorable and would terminate at the same time as Lee surrendered to Grant in Virginia, followed within a couple weeks by the assassination of Lincoln. Doctorow must bring some kind of closure to all the strands of his story at the same time. Some characters end with hope for a future. My personal favorite character Arly, the rebel soldier who never met a situation that he couldn't reinterpret as God's blessing -- thanks to his own wit, audacity, imagination -- could have been a novel all to himself. His denoument is particularly satisfying, if bitter.

Much of the last section dwells on the meaning of it all. The army seems to dissolve in chaos when its purpose is close to completion, and Sherman himself descends into self-doubt and maybe self-loathing as his mission is accomplished.

Another character introduced late becomes something of an emblem for others. It's a soldier who survives an explosion almost intact, with a foot-long iron spike cleanly thrust into his brain. He doesn't feel it or mind it at first; the doctor Wrede Sartorius guesses rightly that any attempt to remove the spike will kill him, and meanwhile, the man will reveal much about the brain. The soldier's name is "Albion," a fitting name because he's soon a "blank" page (blank, alb, both meaning "white") with no memory besides a childhood song. In alarm, when he can't remember even the start of the sentence he's saying, he chants, "It's always now! It's always now!"

By the end of the book, with the forward momentum of the march ended, and the past wiped away by the war's destruction, that's what everyone is feeling: It's now. Now what?

A humane, wide-reaching, constantly interesting novel.

The March by E.L.Doctorow: Out Like a Lamb | Category: Fiction, News & History

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Leadership as Romance: Lincoln's Team of Rivals

From a review I wrote of Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincolnby Doris Kearns Goodwin. News and History )

"Well, aside from that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"

I'm reminded of that old joke, because, aside from the senselessness of his assassination and the tragedy of the Civil War itself, Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 biography of Lincoln is really the "feel-good" book of the year.

Biographer Goodwin found a new angle for exploring the familiar territory, opening her lens wide to include Lincoln's cabinet. Suddenly, it's like one of those romantic comedies, where the girl hates the boy at first sight, but he gradually wins her over. Lincoln's that boy, and, as we reach the last chapter, he has won the affection, deep loyalty, or at least the grudging respect of his rivals, opponents, critics, and even of his enemies in the heart of the Confederacy.

Typical of those romantic comedies, there are laughs along the way, as he uses his wiles, humor, and charm to defuse explosions of anger and resentment. There are also tough times, as the war drags on years past its projected end, and newspapers attack Lincoln and his men.

An Illinois boy myself, I've always thought of Lincoln as "my" President. But he won praise even from his enemies. The Charleston Mercury newspaper praised him for gathering about him "the ablest and most earnest men of his country. Where he has lacked in individual ability, learning, experience, or statesmanship, he has collected around him in every department." While cursing him for his actions, the paper grudgingly admits "respect" for him as a ruler, in "appalling" contrast to the Confederate President.

Lincoln's Biography: Sequel in the Works?
As I read, I had an idea for Goodwin's next book. Wouldn't there be a market for a book about leadership and management techniques from Lincoln's examples? The main points might be these: (For examples and quotations, go to the full version of this review at my website.)

  • Forgive and forget
  • A correlary: Replace anguish over unchangeable past with hope in the uncharted future (Goodwin, 521)
  • Take responsibility for your subordinates' mistakes.
  • Find the dark lining in a silver cloud, as well as the reverse.
  • Leaders must educate their followers before asking them to swallow change.
  • Visit the troops: it's good for them, it's good for the leader.
  • There's a difference between firmness and obstinance.
  • Relax with friends and read poetry.

Lincoln, Bush, and Newspapers
Aside from these thoughts about leadership, I also saw parallels to President Bush's engagement in Iraq. These are parallels that show how some things never change, regardless of the qualities of leadership in the White House. They incline me to give Bush benefit of more doubt. Here's what I saw:

  • Secretary of War Stanton is despised by his critics in much the same way as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld: "brusque, domineering, and unbearable unpleasant to work with."
  • To the consternation of critics, the President overrides constitutional protections (503), arguing that his own war powers are justified by the constitution (463).
  • Likewise, Lincoln defends suspension of habeas corpus (523).
  • The issue of "unitary executive authority" resting in the President alone and not in his cabinet cropped up in a cabinet brouhaha for Lincoln (491) and more recently in the confirmation hearings for Judge Alito.
  • After initial enthusiasm, the public and their newspapers are calling for negotiated peace two years into conflict (486).
  • Just as Vice President Cheney is seen to be the forceful genius behind a mediocre President, Secretary of State Seward was widely believed to be the real President.
  • Opponents of President Lincoln charged (with justification) that his original objectives for the war had changed. Just like Democrats who voted to give Bush authority to launch attack on Iraq, the "Copperheads" in Congress said that their support of the war had changed because Lincoln had changed the goals (503).
  • Peace demonstrations disturb Washington (522).

Surprise Ending
The book is long and remarkably fun to read. That's the "romance" at its core. Of course, the ending is a tear-jerker. Knowing all the details, I was still choking up reading it, because by the last chapter, I knew the supporting players as well as the star and the villain.

Leadership as Romance: Lincoln's Team of Rivals | Category: News & History

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Updike Screed or Updike's Creed?

John Updike's latest novel Terrorist is already a bestseller despite terrible reviews. I heard one of those reviewers on NPR, Maureen Corrigan, who likes just about everything. But she said this one disappointed her high expectations, because the young terrorist whose mind Updike tries to enter is only a mouthpiece for Updike's "screed" against modern US culture. She added that his anger boiled down to the observation that a landscape of McDonald's, WalMart, and StarBucks doesn't have much gravitas, and that we didn't need a great writer like Updike to know that. Her tag line: "It's an old man's book."

I haven't read the book, waiting to begin it until I've finished The March, but I doubt that she's on target, here. Updike has always, always looked between the cracks in our popular culture. In his early books, that meant diners, gymnasiums, cars, Doris Day, movie theatres. His 1977-ish novel The Coup, written from the point of view of a Moslem African dictator educated in Michigan, already played with a Moslem fundamentalist's mixed fascination and revulsion with our sex symbols and instant gratification.

I imagine Updike is doing what he has always done, walking in someone else's shoes awhile, portraying them fairly. If there's anger in Terrorist, it's that of the young Moslem man, not of the old man who wrote it.

I ran across an interesting blog at LitKicks (where they don't believe you relax with a good book - only with mediocre ones -- because good ones make you too joyful or too angry) in which the contributor reports on seeing Updike on stage in New York a couple of days ago. Here's some of what this observer says about Updike:

Updike has a mild manner and a great smile, a smile so big that at times there seem to be three people on stage: Jeffrey Goldberg [the interviewer], John Updike and John Updike's smile. He speaks with quiet confidence and little vanity, allowing Goldberg to throw one controversial question at him after another. Goldberg points out that John Updike had been one of the few literary figures of the 1960's to express support for the Vietnam War, and asks him to talk about George Bush and the war in Iraq. Updike accepts the comparison and acknowledges that, as in the 1960's, his current feelings are mixed: the war is going badly, but the Bush administration faced hard choices and deserves some sympathy for the frustrating position it's in.

Updike is clearly a principled moderate, and it's brave of him to insist on ignoring the popular delineations between red-state and blue-state dogmatism (his new book's sympathetic portrayal of a young terrorist seems designed to anger the right wing, while his refusal to loudly condemn the American war in Iraq will equally alienate the left). At Goldberg's prompting, Updike talks about the strong role of religious faith in his own life (he has always gone to church and believes this has helped him at various times in his life). He exudes a healthy open-mindedness towards all ways of life, and insists on avoiding abstractions and prejudices. "There are no sub-humans in the human race", John Updike says, and this is probably the one thing he says that most people in the crowd agree with.

Very Episcopalian, I'd add. I first read Updike because I ran across an essay in which he mentioned going to the Episcopal Church, not so much because he accepted everything in its creed, but because he's touched by the fact of a group of strangers getting together every week in this sanctuary, making a statement by their participation in this ritual that the rest of life matters. Literature itself makes the same statement, he says.

Read more about his under-appreciated novel Seek My Face at the "reading" part of my web site. Look under "links" in the sidebar of this page.

Updike Screed or Updike's Creed? | Category: Fiction, Religion, News & History

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Duke Ellington Tells What Makes Creative People Happy

(Responding to Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu, and a CD, Such Sweet Thunder, a jazz suite suggested by Shakespeare, composed by Strayhorn and Duke Ellington for the Ellington orchestra)

I once tried to read Duke Ellington's memoir Music is My Mistress and really couldn't make much sense of it. He was an incoherent and idiosyncratic writer. But in his eulogy for his longtime friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn, Ellington says in one line something I've been trying to say for years: "Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words, and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness" [emphasis added].

As this biography makes abundantly clear, Strayhorn was not made happy by the successes of his hit songs and arrangements, nor by the acclaim that came to him when Ellington belatedly made a concerted effort to bring Strayhorn out of the Duke's shadow, nor by several "relationships," nor by the several martinis that Strayhorn imbibed before and after dinner each day. The one thing that energized him was the prospect of creating something new in which everything fit.

Case in point was the commission to produce a musical suite for a Shakespeare celebration. Strayhorn knew his music, knew his Shakespeare, and knew the talents of Ellington's band. He found satisfaction in creating (with Ellington) music (Such Sweet Thunder) that accomplished many things at once, fitting the form of the sonnet, suggesting characters by musical analogies, and making arrangements tailored to the talents of soloists in Ellington's band.

It's like the satisfaction I imagine one feels playing chess on a five-tiered board, moving the piece into exactly the place that achieves "check" in three dimensions. It "fits," or it "clicks." That happens in song, and it happens in theatre (see my review of Bus Stop in May 2006), but it's most miraculous in musical theatre where story, character, melody, harmony, rhyme, an overall theme, stage movement, and the visual design of the show can all fall into alignment. That's why many people find themselves weeping at the end of act one of Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE: it's just so perfect.

Duke Ellington Tells What Makes Creative People Happy | Category: Music, Drama

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Night of the Cows: New Poet Laureate Donald Hall

(Response to interview with Donald Hall heard on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED today, with comments about his collection The Old life (1997))

In an interview today, Donald Hall spoke about ideas of using public radio, public tv, and cable to promote poetry in his new job as Poet Laureate.

Speaking from a long perspective as a professional poet (he's nearing eighty years), he opined that poetry today is flourishing beyond any time in his life, judging by sales, number of poets, number of books. He attributes this in part to the "engine of the poetry reading," a fad from late 50s that's persisted, increased.

Here's my opportunity to wonder at one poem of Hall's that I've kept bedside for months, "The Night of the Day," an eight-page blank verse account of a homely incident that interrupted a quiet night of watching tv. Nothing earth-shaking, it's as funny as any event that involves cows.

I enjoy reading it, and I've appropriated his experience; yet I wonder, if he'd written it as an anecdote for READER'S DIGEST, would it be any different? Frankly, it wouldn't fly as a story, because there's just not much to it.

So, a so-so story that can't survive as prose can still make a sale as a poem if you just add a couple of inches to the margins? Easygoing regular meter slowly unfolds a situation, interruptions in the lines signal a shift in time (from incident to memory and back), language is conversational but precise. Is that enough to make it a poem, not just a well-made anecdote?

The thing is, our expectations of a poem are different. This one does many of the things that I expect a poem to do. We expect a poem to put us inside an experience, to suggest more than the experience itself. Ted Kooser's recent book The Poetry Home Repair Manual uses a saying from an ancient Chinese poet, that the verse should "lift the eyes" by the end. In his poem, Hall uses this two-or-three hours' incident as the scaffold for telling us about his whole community, his outsider status there, and yet his deep love for it. He doesn't say any of that directly; we share in it.

During the interview with Hall, I hoped we'd get through it without mentioning his late wife Jane Kenyon. But the interviewer made an allusion to how poetry might deal, perhaps, with the loss of a beloved wife, so Hall obliged with a poem about her. I once heard Hall tell how, soon after their marriage, Kenyon used to mind being patronized at academic parties as the wife of the great poet, until not many years later, he was being described as "the husband of Jane Kenyon." I can't help but think of the story of how she nursed him through cancer, only to fall herself to an acute leukemia -- beginning at a restaurant where they were celebrating his first year in remission. That backstory helps to make her name memorable, but I would prize her posthumous collection Otherwise anyway.

By the way, I'm reminded this afternoon of an interview with Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon both that I heard sometime in the mid-80s on a public radio station on the road somewhere between New York and Georgia. I've recently credited Billy Collins with interesting me in reading poetry for daily enjoyment; but I remember now that it was Hall, surrendering his professoriship and moving with Jane to his family's old farm to garden and write poetry, who made me first think that poetry offered something day to day that I was missing.

Mr. Hall, if you happen to be reading this, will you please remember that most of us don't live on farms, don't garden, and cannot picture all those plants that you're naming? And please, consider this complaint from Cole Porter: Good authors, too, who once knew better words / now only use four letter writing prose / Anything goes.

Night of the Cows: New Poet Laureate Donald Hall | Category: Poetry

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Composers Who Think Big

(Thinking of music by Tan Dun -- His Water Concerto and "Phoenix and Dragon" episode from his 1997 symphony)

I admire and identify with those composers who do as much as possible with just a little bit of music. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms -- they built structures out of little motifs (Beethoven's four note 5th symphony motif being most famous). Bartok admired and emulated that quality of Beethoven. Britten gets incredible mileage out of a C-chord in his "Jubilate Deo," and the first two notes you hear in West Side Story, the gang's danger signal, form the interval that Leonard Bernstein then uses to launch most of the songs in the score. Mid-20th century composers got off into serialism, and the less said, the better. "Minimalists" compensated for those dense and twisted long lines by returning to very very simple building blocks of music and repeating them with tiny changes over time -- to very exciting effect, I think. I got into those composers through Stephen Sondheim, whose own music has always exemplified this quality. (I've been asked to elaborate in an article for a British journal on how he derived the entire score of INTO THE WOODS from five notes sounded early in the show.)

BUT. . .

There are composers who don't seem to think this way, and I admire that. They seem more interested in "color," texture, sound, contrast, and build their pieces with a kind of improvisatory mixing and matching of big sounds and audacious tricks. In the best pieces of his last thirty years, Michael Tippett did this, describing his own late music as a kind of collage.

Today, we have Chinese composer Tan Dun (see His concerto for water was a joyful event to see - as he put percussion artists through their paces doing every noisy thing you can think of that you can do with a big tub of miked water, and lots of things you wouldn't think of, all done against a background of chords and orchestral textures to alter the mood, set up dramatic contrasts, and build to a conclusion with the one inevitable sound effect -- the one you expected, and the one you don't get until the very end -- and we laughed and jumped to our feet.

Just heard a bit of his 1997 symphony, characterized by big sounds, big contrasts, no tune, no theme that I could discern -- though a few sounds seemed to repeat. But it's consistently exciting.

I'm thinking of buying a ticket to the premiere of his new opera, commissioned by the Met, to perform in December.

Composers Who Think Big | Category: Music

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Billy Collins: Ten Poems Too Many?

(considering an article in the Weekly Standard (June 12, 2006) and books of poems by Billy Collins: Questions About Angels | Picnic, Lightning | Sailing Alone Around the Room | The Art of Drowning | Nine Horses )

Someone named Edward Short, writing this month for The Weekly Standard, considers different editions of the Oxford Anthologies of poets American and English. I'm grateful for his heads-up that the anthology of 18th century verse published in 2003 has evidently shaken up a lot of cherished conceptions of that time, a favorite era of mine. I may look into that.

But, reviewing the latest American anthology, he rhetorically asks, "Why give 10 pages to Billy Collins?" I think I know where that whiff of condescension comes from, and I can answer his question.

The Trouble with Billy Collins?

Collins has just published another collection, The Trouble with Poetry. I have hesitated to buy it, because I put down the last collection Nine Horses mid-way, feeling suddenly as if I'd been duped. Familiarity with his poetry had bred contempt, and I thought it was time for a trial separation.

Maybe I'd heard him read too often on public radio. I could hear the same tone to poem after poem. There's a deadpan wise guy sound in his delivery that always gets them laughing, me included.

Then, I had discerned a pattern that began to feel like a formula. Starting either with some mundane found word or object or else with an amusing premise ("What if all the allegories were retired to Florida?" - probably occasioned by a momentary confusion with alligator), his poems spend around twelve lines making whimsical observations about the object until a metaphor takes him on a tangent to something metaphysical. A lot of the fun comes from seeing at the end how far we've strayed from the premise.

But after five collections in one year, Collins was cloying.

Two Cheers for Collins

And yet. . .

Until I heard Collins speak, I'd left poetry behind. It was an English major's cross to bear. But I heard him on the day he was appointed Poet Laureate, speaking of how poetry should be accessible. Curious, I bought Questions About Angels for fun reading when I had time to kill in Baltimore (at an English teachers' convention, natch).

From page one, with a few exceptions, Collins connected to me. For the first time, it hit me that a poem is a kind of joke, with a set up, carefully calibrated timing, but of which the punchline may elicit "Ah!" or "Ooo!" instead of "Ha!"

I purchased the other collections in quick succession, and branched out to other poets that I've enjoyed. So I'm grateful to Collins for opening me (and others, I'm sure) to a medium that had appeared to be dying. Let's give credit also to others working successfully in the same direction: Dana Gioia, Ted Kooser.

Adhering to a pattern isn't a crime -- Shakespeare wrote 120-odd sonnets that end predictably with a twist in the last two lines -- and besides, there's more variety to his work than I've let on. At the back of the first collection I bought, I wrote a list of Collins poem types:

  • snapshots
  • what ifs
  • character soliloquies
  • riddles - last line = answer
  • extended metaphor
  • scene described, then reflected on
  • take off from a quotation or cliché
  • compression of an entire life

And, besides, knowing the pattern has not taken the edge and pleasure off a large number of poems. How about "Forgetfulness," which I've memorized without half trying (ironically):

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of. . .

There's another one, about the pictures and mysterious strings of letters in his "First Reader," touching on the way we can let our words and thoughts mediate between us and our world: "we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read."

Just to spite the critic, I'll go out this weekend to buy Collins's latest collection. I already know two of its poems well, having heard Collins read them more than once on the radio: "Lanyard" a riff on that word that turns into an hilarious, honest, and maybe painful reminder of the casual ingratitude of children, and "The Revenant" which is indeed, intentionally, a joke - reversing the kind of sentimental poem in which the dog who has "passed on" looks back on life from the doggie afterlife. Instead of gratitude, this dog lets it be known how he was annoyed by that jingly collar, and how humiliating it was to jump and dance around and wag his tail to motivate the master to take him for a walk. I think about it every time I put a leash on my capering dogs.

Humor, memorable insights, new ways of looking at ordinary things, and accessibility: I'd say ten pages of Billy Collins is just about right.

Billy Collins: Ten Poems Too Many? | Category: Poetry

Friday, June 09, 2006

Insight that Changes Outsight

(Reflections from reading a novel, The March by E. L. Doctorow; an historical look at Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene by Bart D. Ehrman.)

Now up to the sixteenth chapter of Doctorow's novel The March, I was struck by a passage in chapter XIII, last page. For a few pages, Doctorow has made us privy to the thoughts of the General whose march of destruction through the Civil War South is the basis of the novel, William Tecumseh Sherman. He has calmed down after exulting in the bravery of his men assaulting a fort outside Savannah, and he's sitting up watching men asleep besides corpses, and he's been thinking Hamlet-ty thoughts about the dreams we might have if death doesn't turn out to be "mere oblivion." For a general, death is merely a "numerical disadvantage," he thinks.

From this, he thinks of a particularly gruesome and stupid death - a laborer decapitated by an enemy cannon ball -- on the bounce. Sherman concludes that nothing so grand as "fate" was involved there, just dumb bad luck.

As Doctorow delineates this internal monologue, Sherman is growing morose, until he reaches bottom:
In this war among the states, why should the reason for the fighting count for anything? For if death doesn't matter, why should life matter?

But of course I can't believe this or I will lose my mind. Willie, my son Willie, oh my son, my son, shall I say his life didn't matter to me?

By an act of "will" (pun unintended, but fun), he reverses the trend in his thinking. Fear of death motivates the search for immortality - in children, in glory.

Now we come to the remarkable sentence: "And so the world in its beliefs snaps back into place. Yes."

I've had that feeling of the world's "snapping back into place" when internal monologues of my own have brought me to desolate places. It never seems to be a matter of feeling, but of definite linear thought. I talk myself into a constrictive or oppressive worldview, and I talk myself out.

I was going to say that this particular kind of moment is something I've not seen before in literature, but how could I have forgotten...?
  • the epiphanies that totally redirect lives (and sometimes reverse again) in the works of philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (click on the name to read my essay about her)
  • The moment that I spent a year of my life explicating in an honor's thesis, when the protagonist of Henry James's The Ambassadors, idly enjoying a picture-perfect afternoon on a river, suddenly recognizes the truth in what he's seeing, and in that flash of insight, everything he has come to believe falls apart. Same thing in The Golden Bowl or my favorite story, "The Beast in the Jungle"
  • The moments from King Lear to which Doctorow alludes in this passage, when the blind king is talking himself into a new, scary vision of the world, and he recoils, saying, "No more - that way madness lies."

It so happens that I've also just reached a scholar's explication of the earth-shaping moment when Paul the Jewish persecutor of Christians had a vision of Jesus. From that moment, he had to "think backwards" over everything he thought he believed. Instead of giving it up, he re-assessed it, finding clues in the Hebrew Scriptures that God must have intended the Messiah to be humiliated and tortured all along.

So, once again, a piece "snaps" into place, and suddenly the whole puzzle-picture becomes clear.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Sondheim, Fantasticks, and "Chamber Musicals"

(Responding to "Chamber Musicals: Perhaps smaller is better when it comes to Sondheim shows," an article by British journalist Norman Lebrecht in a Canadian arts magazine, reprinted in The Sondheim Review, summer 2006, and to a June 2006 production of The Fantasticks by the Atlanta Lyric Theatre.)

Before I get to the subject of "chamber musicals," let's set the record straight about ALL musicals, starting with a canard that I hear every time I mention my love for musical theatre:

I once heard it from actor Tom Hanks in an interview. He was asked if he'd seen the then-current staging of the musical Big, based on his movie of the same name. He dismissed it out of hand: "I don't like musicals. I mean, come on, no one in real life just starts singing. . ." (and here he launched into over-ripe baritone singing words like this) "Good morning, I want some coffee. . . ." He laughed, the audience laughed, and that seemed to be the last word. I once heard an English teacher say, "People in real life don't sing. End of story."

Of course, Mr. Hanks, you don't suppose movies are any more real? I mean, come on, no one gets made up and back lit for a twenty-by-fifteen foot close-up view, and no one running through the Vatican at night has an orchestra playing music to add some tension to a widely ridiculed dull movie. And of course, Mr. Professor, no one in real life speaks regular lines in iambic pentameter or sits down to tell a story uninterrupted for 265 pages -- yet you spend your life teaching how we can connect our real lives to Shakespeare and Huckleberry Finn.

So, let's get over the idea that any art at all is ever "real life." Art is ALWAYS a distillation of experience in some kind of framework. Television and movies have their own frames that Americans take for granted; they've lost the habit of going to live theatre, and no longer accept the conventions of musical theatre so easily.

The Fantasticks: Concentrated Reality
The key, of course, is to draw the audience into the frame, as Sondheim's Seurat tells of "entering the world of the hat" that he's painting. For him, the frame becomes a window "back to this world from that," revealing beauty even of mundane things (e.g., a factory, a garbage scow).

Big budgeted shows on stages now use machinery to convince audiences of the reality of their fantasy worlds, as cars, nannies, and ape men fly out over the audiences, or cartoon-like costumes duplicate live what audiences already know from animated musicals. If art is a distillation, focusing us on something real, then these shows just aren't doing that: the audience is focused on the machinery and scenery, not on the story that those things are supposedly telling.

Last week I was drawn in by a show at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, engaged much to my surprise - because I thought I'd outgrown the show. It was written by a couple of Texan undergraduates in 1957. They revised it a bit and it turned into the longest-running off-Broadway show The Fantasticks. They had in mind Thornton Wilder's Our Town and the much older tradition of street actors in Italy (and England, and - if we can believe Hamlet, in Denmark) who set up stages anywhere and performed anything.

Usually, the play is performed on a plain wooden platform, but this production decorated a tiny space as a public square in some small town on the occasion of some double wedding at midsummer. The action, then, was a play within a play (and some of it a play within a play within a play). The music is rich with dancing rhythms, jazzy dissonance, melodic lines that lilt and grow -- lots of play with dynamics and counterpoint. The dialogue sometimes rhymes, the music accompanies spoken monologues, the similes are famously quirky ("you are the inside of a leaf").

This is art that keeps saying, "This is all a frame -- look at the story!"

The story is about as distilled as you can get: this is what it's like to grow from a childish fantasy-world to the shared fantasy of adolescence (when teenagers are each others' mirrors, seeing what they want to see) to adulthood. When the Boy and the Girl encounter the world outside the Garden (Eden, anyone?), pain and failure are represented totally artificially: live actors don masks and costumes, performing violence like Punch and Judy puppets. There's a waltz playing. At the same time that it's so artificial, the actors are totally "in" that world, and there's an element here of virtuosity as they stay "in" it while also coordinating dance moves, spitting out rapid-fire lyrics, and singing perfectly.

As a middle school teacher, I live with this story every day, and last week, I was feeling pretty tired of it. Seeing it raised up, framed so beautifully, distilled to its essence, presented joyfully with care and inventiveness - I felt refreshed.

That's what musical theatre can do.

Sondheim's Big Shows on Small Stages

The article in Sondheim Review reports on an apparent trend of re-imagining Sondheim's musicals to tiny stages. Huge Merrily We Roll Along, panoramic Pacific Overtures, grand operatic Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park with George, the show that's literally "wide canvas" -- these have all been squeezed into tiny spaces for audiences of 300 or fewer in recent productions that have had more impact critically and popularly than the originals, which were called "cold," "remote," or even "dull."

More recently than this article was written, Sondheim's Company which was always a chamber show, more like a revue than a big-stage play, has been whittled down even more in Cincinnati. There, as in the recent hit Sweeney Todd, the actors are also musicians. The ingenuity and team spirit it takes to sing, act, and play all at once evidently wins the audience over.

The article might have included the work of Eric Shaeffer at the tiny Signature Theatre in Virginia, where he's staged all of these and more for over ten years, gaining a reputation that led Kennedy Center to name him the executive artistic director of their acclaimed Sondheim Celebration in 2002 which drew me and fans from all fifty states and dozens of nations world-wide.

The author writes that shrinking the shows "alters every other dimension, accentuating beauty and accuity." He observes in the "teeny" Todd that the voices "sustain a tense equality within the musical texture" instead of having to be "over-projected foreground against a heavy band."

The author notes that Sondheim always thought of Sweeney as playing in the small theatre where he first saw the play on which he based it. He wanted the action to be right there in the aisle, up-close and gross and scary. (Sondheim told me in June 1977, before he wrote it, "I want to have this really elegant show where the audience laughs their heads off and then throw up in the lobby during intermission.")

Merrily is another version of the Fantasticks story, showing the trajectory from dreamy adolescence to jaded maturity backwards. Ironically, its creators originally aimed for a "Fantasticks"-styled production, as if performed by high school students with a low budget on the floor of their gym. Its grandfather was, perhaps, the Rodgers and Hammerstein's flop Allegro. Several commentators have theorized that Sondheim, Hammerstein's protege and assistant during the development of that flop, has always been trying to "fix" it.

Must it Be Small to be Good?

Of course, we wouldn't know Sondheim's name today if there hadn't always been those of us who let ourselves be drawn in by the music, the inventiveness of the staging, the seamlessness of lyric and dialogue. I saw Sweeney in its original cast productions on mammoth stages in NYC and London, but also in a tiny basement in Atlanta - loved it always.

Small may alter audience expectations to a musical's benefit. Audiences that despise musical theatre are the same people who easily accept emotional material performed with music by a cabaret performer or a band in a small rock club. Presenting musicals in that way instead of pretending they're live-action movies is a way to keep this repertoire alive.

So, perhaps it must be small to be.

Sondheim, Fantasticks, and "Chamber Musicals" | Category: Music, Drama

Monday, June 05, 2006

On "The March"

(reflections on E. L. Doctorow's novel THE MARCH, ch. I-VII.)

I keep a pen in hand to track the characters through THE MARCH. I also trace the lines that tie disparate events together as one evolving story.

The novel starts at the Jameson's plantation, already braced for the onslaught of Sherman's army. Getting her last glimpse of her home, Mrs. Jameson glances at a slave girl named Pearl. Another chapter brings us US soldiers who pick up Pearl; and another introduces a comic pair of hapless CSA deserters who will be caught up in the violence that overtakes the soldiers who took Pearl. . . and so on. It's sort of a relay, with a character or object or home being the baton passed from chapter to chapter.

We might predict that Georgians would perceive Sherman's men as wanton and cruel, and some do, but others are impressed by how orderly, ordinary, or even admirable they are:
As Northerners these soldiers were far from their homes and families. Yet they persisted and walked the earth as if the earth were their home.
By the same token, we see the Georgians pig-headed about their slaves, or regretful about what they've lost, but also we see the old coot who realizes he's "Pharoah" and that this destruction is the Lord's judgement, using the Union army as His instrument (end of ch.VI). Tears in his eyes, he lets his one remaining slave go.

Doctorow eschews quotation marks, and I don't miss them. The dialogue, the thoughts, the narration all seem more of a piece, as in this passage from chapter VII:

They stood for a moment on the landing.
We return-march to the corps before dawn, Wrede said. He looked at his pocket watch. I'm sorry, I should have released you hours ago.
I've done nothing to compare with what has been required of you this day.
He smiled and shook his head. We know so little.

"We know so little." Is that the author's comment, or the doctor's thought, or something he says aloud to the woman? In fact, it's all three.

Though I know Doctorow only through reviews I've read of his earlier works and through the splendid musical made of his first big success, RAGTIME, I recognize a couple of common techniques. He interweaves large casts of characters who represent diverse types from a certain historical place and time. And he allows for the intrusion of the future through a prophet. In RAGTIME, it's the little boy disturbed by a premonition of an assassination leading to world war, and here, it's that doctor who off-handedly remarks that there will one day be "botanical molds to reverse infection" and a way to "photograph through the body to the bones."

Still have three hundred pages to enjoy.

On "The March" | Category: Fiction