Sunday, March 14, 2010

Colette Collected and Recollected: Sweet and Sour

(reflection on COLETTE, a musical entertainment by John Dankworth, original 1980 cast album released by Stagedoor Records, and THE COLLECTED STORIES OF COLETTE. edited by Robert Phelps.)

Singer / Actress Cleo Laine and her husband composer / lyricist John Dankworth opened previews of COLETTE in London the very week that my summer in England ended in 1979, and listening to it brings back that time sweetly. The sweetness is increased because their loving marriage came to an end with Dankworth's death from long illness just a few weeks ago.

I also caught up on reading the works of the eponymous writer, expecting to enhance the experience. But I wish I'd taken the sweet "musical entertainment" without the sourness of the writer.

Mr. Dankworth must have enjoyed writing this musical "entertainment" for his wife. It opens with a waltz set at a reflective tempo, with rich jazzy chords arpeggiated behind Cleo's smokey observations about the changing colors of seasons, and how "You Can Be Sure of Spring." Other numbers are spritely marches, a little girl ditty for little girl Colette, and more waltzes. It's a little jarring when sounds that were hip in 1980 intrude, sounding extremely dated. Dankworth arranges the songs the way he arranged his wife's concerts, saving her high notes for an anthem of self-assertion midway through the score.

The show originated at the summer arts camp that the Dankworths ran together for decades, and there's a little summer camp quality. The lyrics rhyme playfully and frequently without ever saying a whole lot. Dankworth settled for repetition and stereotyped lines ("He was a sight to see!" and lots of lines with "really" and "quite" filling out the meter). The story -- there is no script mentioned in the credits -- is about a country girl who marries an urbane young bounder who uses her talents for his own self-promotion. Later, she creates a line of cosmetics, she acts on stage, and she divorces number one and marries two more.

It's a pleasant relic from a time when Cleo's voice was at its peak of clarity, suppleness, range, and stamina. The show was light, and a way for Cleo to wear lovely costumes, show off in bright songs and in thoughtful ballads. It was a lovingly crafted gift from Dankworth to Cleo.

The real Colette comes across in her stories as a fine craftsman -- if one can judge from translations -- but also as disdainful of the people she describes. "Cheri" focuses on a narcissistic young man through the eyes of the older woman who keeps him. We read about his skin, his hair, his muscles, his pouting, his wearing her pearls, his dancing around the bedroom while she watches. One blogger observes astutely that this is a reversal of the usual point of view, and that's interesting.

In a suite of stories set backstage at a 1920s music hall in Paris, Colette evidently draws on her own experience as a "mime" to show us monstrous behavior, cheapness, drabness, and insecurity back stage. One portrait of "The Quick Change Artist" shows sympathy for the young woman who dances herself into a state of quivering exhaustion, runs backstage to change costume in under a minute, and runs back on stage for another desperate dance in another style.

Some other stories are brief glimpses of criminals: stupid men who have lashed out stupidly at girls we never see except as corpses. We see how these men self-destruct.

I don't have time to think this through right now, but I have observed many times in this blog that certain artists -- Updike, Sondheim, Shakespeare, Buechner, and mystery writer Sue Grafton -- feel a love or at least a sympathy for their characters, and they work hard to get us to appreciate them. Colette's ability to observe is as acute as anyone's, yet I feel from her only disdain, though she sometimes condescends to feel pity for someone.

After reading stories from each of the sections in this collection, I've had to give up. I was getting depressed.

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