Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hedgehog More Music Than Novel

(reflections on THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery, translated from French by Alison Anderson.  Europa paperback 2010 edition.)

What makes life worth living?  Renee Michel, a woman on the declining side of fifty and Paloma Josse, a girl looking ahead to thirteen, both consider this question.  They remain largely unaware of each other until mid-way through THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery. 

The story is how their two approaches to the question converge.  The catalyst for convergence is the arrival of Mr. Kakuro Ozu, director of Japanese art films, who takes a floor in the upscale Paris apartment building where Mme. Michel is concierge and Paloma lives with her family.

Aside from this slender plot, this is less of a story than a series of essays that develop certain themes and motifs like music.   The form would be a kind of rondo –  ABABAB --  with narrative by Renee in two or three short chapters, followed by Paloma’s "profound thoughts" and journal entries, often begun with haiku.

Like music, there are broad themes, and little motifs.   Certainly a broad theme is the deep rooted class system maintained among even the most “lefty” Parisians, Paloma’s own parents.  Renee’s whole life is defined by her class. She seeks to remain invisible to the people of her building by keeping quiet and acting churlish, the way they expect her to be.  It is Paloma, with help from the Japanese visitor, who realizes that their rebarbative “hedgehog” is actually hiding a secret appetite for art, music, and philosophy (143). 

Another broad theme is what Paloma calls “the fishbowl.”  The adults in her life – “emotionally anorexic” grandmother, guilty father, pretentious mother and sister, "inept" teacher, fearful psychologist -- swim in circles seeing only reflections of themselves (145).  Like Mme. Michel, Paloma hides, eventually learning that the conciergerie is the best place for her to be invisible.  No one knows that Paloma has secretly resolved not to live past her thirteenth birthday.

Smaller motifs play off the themes:  Japanese culture, both classic and pop; camellias;  randy dogs and lethargic but decorative cats;  grammar as something to appreciate in the loveliness of language, which should not be “reduced to a long series of technical exercises” (156); and Tolstoy –  his art, but also his character who, “feeling the sweat on his back,” learns to appreciate how the lower classes live.

It’s no surprise that these two lonely, questing females find the worth of living when they begin to find each other.

Art itself is another reason to live.  Paloma grows rapturous when she hears her middle-school choir sing, beautiful in spite of the fact that all the individuals are stupid or bothersome (185).  Renee is “knocked out” by a still life painting (203), which, on reflection, she calls a symbol of the “plenitude” of the “suspended moment”(203).  She repeats the idea, derived from Japanese movie making, that “art is life, playing to other rhythms" (276).

With rhythm, texture, color, and its interplay of motifs, THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG can be enjoyed page by page without ever involving one as a novel.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Good Actors Make Good COMPANY

"Who's high?" Neil Patrick Harris as "Robert," Jon Cryer as "David," and Jennifer Laura Thompson as "Jenny" perform at the 2011 New York Philharmonic Orchestra Spring Gala Benefit Performance Of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center on April 7, 2011 in New York City.
Photo by Dario Cantatore/Getty Images North America

(This is a further reflection on COMPANY. See previous post.)

There’s a subtle moment in the musical COMPANY, after unmarried Robert has introduced friends Jenny and David to recreational drug use.  It’s uproar, until Jenny worries that they’ll wake the kids.  She leaves for the kitchen.  David refuses another reefer, because “Jenny didn’t like it. “ But Robert observes that Jenny got very high and had a great time.  David corrects him.  “She liked it for me.” He leaves to help in the kitchen.  All Robert has to say is, “Wow.  Oh, wow.”

How does the actor playing Robert perform a line like that?  “Wow.  Oh, wow.”  What does it mean?  I’ve seen productions of COMPANY where the actor said the lines in a tone of generic disbelief.  Those productions fell flat.

But in the recently broadcast film of a concert-staging of COMPANY, actor Neil Patrick Harris made clear that “Wow, oh wow” means a combination of “Wow, you can’t do what you want when you’re married,” and, “Wow, Jenny risked herself to please David, and David just sacrificed his preferences to please Jenny.”   Harris and his costars also gave us a strong sense that there’s something deep going on that Robert can’t even begin to fathom. 

How does a good actor do it?  I can explain, having played “David” in COMPANY back at Duke University in 1978.  I’d thought I was a good actor:  I memorized my lines, figured out where the jokes were, and punched those up the same way in every rehearsal and performance.  

Then my “Jenny,” a wise student actress named Wendi Bukowitz, invited me to her apartment for dinner in character as husband and wife.  This struck me as a silly, pretentious idea.  But then we, as actors, discussed how we, as husband and wife, met each other, how we spend our days, how we know Robert, and even how our apartment is laid out.  Then we had dinner in character, talking about our day.

It still seemed like a useless exercise, until rehearsals.   Suddenly, there were all kinds of communications going on between us behind Robert’s back, but picked up by the audience.  She glanced up to Junior’s room, and I knew what she was silently telling me. I made an innocuous statement, and she picked up the message, “I love you. I’ll do the right thing.”  

In our tiny studio theatre, the audience easily picked up on the subtleties of our performance, and the local critic singled out our scene for the ways we communicated feelings under the dialogue – what actors call “subtext.”

In the concert COMPANY, and also in the DVD of John Doyle’s Broadway revival of the show, the actors all do a great job of communicating the subtext.  

Perhaps COMPANY is too subtle to be appreciated where audiences can’t see those sidelong glances and locked gazes, where a camera doesn’t focus on the actor who says nothing while the others prattle.  That might explain how the conventional wisdom about COMPANY has been so wrong for so long.  Even in recent blog postings, it’s a given that COMPANY is a “cynical” show with weak script, clever but heartless songs by Stephen Sondheim, and “the kinds of characters you avoid at cocktail parties.” Conventional wisdom holds that the creators of the show palliated its anti-marriage message by tacking on Robert’s final prayer, “Somebody hold me too close… Somebody make me aware of being alive.” 

But the conventional wisdom has been wrong for forty years.  “Being Alive” is a breakthrough:  Robert is the last one at the party to “get it.”  Finally, he reads the subtext.

COMPANY on Film: Review

(reflection on the filmed presentation of COMPANY, book by George Furth, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, originally directed by Harold Prince.  Presented at Avery Fischer Hall by the New York Philharmonic, directed by Lonny Price, conducted by Paul Gemignani.)

I'm pleased to announce, after all these years, that my favorite Sondheim show is, hands down, COMPANY.  NIGHT MUSIC has those elegant waltzes, SWEENEY TODD all that glorious heart-pumping music in every scene, FOLLIES those layers of reality, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE its lovely treatment of the themes of art, family, and mortality.

But today, sitting in a movie theatre to see a broadcast on the big screen of the entire show, I'm ready to commit.   

In an interview with Terry Gross about the concert version of COMPANY, Stephen Colbert divulged that he and the other cast members didn't understand until the first rehearsal that this was going to be more than a staged reading of the show.  They rehearsed two weeks.  So I expected some laughs from George Furth's best zingers, and a glorious sound from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and a miss-matched bunch of TV actors hamming and missing cues..  Instead, I saw an ensemble committed to making their characters distinct and real.  The care that went into each moment was moving, all by itself, apart from the script and score. 

Director Lonny Price staged this musical with variety and focus, though he had to do the whole show on a narrow horizontal strip between orchestra and front row.  The play features five married couples and their single friend Robert, so the set consisted of five 1970s - modern sofas for two stripped in chromium and rolling easily into configurations to make separate living rooms, or a restaurant, or a parade.

TV stars well known to others have been dinged by some on-line critics for giving merely serviceable performances, and I'm surprised.  I have more to say about their acting, and George Furth's writing for actors, in my article "Good Actors Make Good COMPANY.")

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

RENT: Quaint

L-R, front row: John Stewart as "Benny," Michael K. Harry as "Collins," Felicia Boswell as "Mimi," Stanley Allyn Owen as "Roger," and Maxim Gukhman as "Mark." Image from Atlanta Lyric Theatre's Facebook page.

I've recently seen both FOLLIES and RENT.   FOLLIES (see my review "Haunting and Haunted"), from 1971, concerns old people haunted by memories of the 1930s and 1940s.  RENT opened in the mid-1990s just after the death of its young creator Jonathan Larson,.  But RENT is the one that feels more dated.

The production by Atlanta Lyric Theatre at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta, Georgia, was energetically performed by a cast of strong singers, all of them earnest actors, dressed in a variety of the uniforms worn in the 90s by defiant non-conformists under thirty.    Enunciation was clear, dancing was energetic and virile in that fist-pumping way that we’ve come to expect from modern performers. Scaffolding climbed the stage’s bricked walls to create the urban milieu of the story. The rock band rocked; the lights directed our attention to the right places.

But the rock music had a quaint feel.  It has become the music of men with thinning hair and AARP cards.  (Recently an eighth grader complained to me, “What’s the music going to be? I hope it won't be rock.”) Worse, the high-strung emotional songs, the attitude of the defiant anthems -- complete with middle-finger -- all seemed generalized, just what we'd expect from rock anthems of this or that type. We applauded the performers emotional sounds; we didn’t share them.

One character mentions that he’s on AZT, a drug that I haven’t heard mentioned in so long that I’d forgotten about it. In the time of RENT's composition, it was the only hope for slowing the progress of the AIDs virus.

The transvestite Angel and his lover Collins got more laughs and more tears for their strand of the story than other couples in the show. From initial attraction through deepening affection, their story seemed real. The principal romance between Roger and Mimi, starting over a candle (a device borrowed from the show’s source, La Boheme), seemed much less substantial. So far as I could tell, Roger liked the shape of her rear end, and she liked cocaine. The ups and downs of their relationship just didn’t mean much.

One character made perfect sense, all the way through:  Bad guy "Benny," played with fierce presence and often affable demeanor by John Stewart, was clear in his intentions, his self-justification, and his mixed feelings.

Larson knew his Broadway as well as his rock. The show clarified and perked up whenever the music was driven by character, not the beat. There were those Bernstein / Sondheim places where several groups of characters sang different lyrics and different material in counterpoint. There were pastiches, such as the amusing “Tango: Maureen” and “email” messages from characters’ parents. “I’ll Cover You,” sung by Angel and Collins, was rousing and touching. When Roger and Mimi stopped yelling and whispered, “I should tell you, I should tell you…,” they were at their most interesting.

That’s what they were singing at the inevitable death of Mimi, and I was tearing up. It works in La Boheme, too, as the tenor, realizing that she has died, sings just one word, “Mimi!” and the curtain falls. So, what happened after Roger sang “Mimi” in RENT seemed like a cheap trick from some light comedy.

”Seasons of Love,” which opens the second act, is as good as the show gets, encapsulating the show’s best intentions in one lovely anthem.

Kennedy Center's FOLLIES: Haunting and Haunted

Eliot Elisofson's photo of Gloria Swanson in the wreckage of the Roxy Theatre.  In the
mid-1960s, this image was an inspiration for James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim's FOLLIES.
(reflections on the musical FOLLIES at Kennedy Center June 4.  Book by James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, originally directed in 1971 by Harold Prince, co-directed by Michael Bennett.)

FOLLIES is a ghost story.  I found the Kennedy Center's production to be haunted by images of earlier productions.

To be fair, a show about aging performers of the Thirties and Forties confronting death and lost ideals may never again be quite so poignant as it was in 1971, when it starred aging performers of the Thirties and Forties. My three companions, who had no such preconceptions, laughed, shuddered, and teared up at all the right moments. 

The audience enters KC’s Eisenhower Theatre to find the walls and proscenium shrouded with loose-hanging safety curtains.  The jagged wreck of the stage’s apron overhangs the orchestra pit.   We are in the fictional “Weissman Theatre,” once glamorous and soon to be demolished for a parking lot. 

Doom-filled chords begin the “Prologue” and the shroud lifts to reveal a statuesque chorine in glittery gray.  As the music hushes to an eerie waltz (one of Sondheim’s most evocative pieces), more ghostly chorines appear and join in a delicate ballet.

The ghosts never leave the stage, even during intermission, and aged characters are shadowed by ghosts of their youthful selves. These ghosts re-enact songs and scenes of the past, and play important roles in the drama of two couples who come to a “first and last reunion” at the theatre.

The story is simple: Sally married Buddy, and Phyllis married Ben, but now Sally has come to the reunion to recapture “the time [she] was happy” by recapturing Ben. In this crisis, each character has to confront the realization that, at mid-life, their lives have been “time wasted, merely passing through.”

Reviews of the original 1971 Broadway production often disparaged James Goldman’s book and the “book” songs in Sondheim’s score, saving the most positive comments for Sondheim’s “pastiche” songs, those written in the style of earlier Broadway composers. Viewing this production, my companions and I had the reverse reaction.

James Goldman’s script gives us a dozen characters’ back stories in brief bits of dialogue, peppered with zingers.   Scene by scene, Sally reveals the depth of her delusions.     Ben’s veneer of accomplishment wears away until he reveals that he feels like a phony, and so he has never experienced love (as opposed to affairs and flings).   Only the reconciliations at the end seemed too quick, too neat; two of my friends came to Goldman’s defense, feeling that the characters were returning home with their eyes opened: not a happy ending, but a chastened beginning of the rest of their lives.

In Sondheim’s “book” songs, the characters reveal what they think – or like to think – of themselves.   “The road you didn’t take never comes to mind, does it?” asks Ben.   “In Buddy’s eyes, I’m young, I’m beautiful,” sings Sally.  “It was always real, and I’ve always loved you this much,” promises Ben to Sally.  Buddy sings about how good life is “when you’ve got the right girl,” but then can’t finish the refrain, “And I’ve got….” After kicking chairs in frustration, performer Danny Burstein ended the song in tears.

By the time Phyllis sings to Ben, “Could I leave you? Yes!” the drama has reached an impasse.   A curtain falls, the characters and their ghosts intermingle, all yelling recriminations at each other, and suddenly, that curtain is ripped down to reveal arches of giant red-pink roses spanning the stage. 

This production’s principals, choreographer and dancers really nailed those “Follies” numbers that bring the show to a climax.  The chorus sang “Loveland” while the two couples wandered, dazed, about the stage.  The young couples sang clearly, charmingly, in the double-duet “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow / Love Will See Us Through.”  Bernadette Peters sang “Losing My Mind” with quiet intensity, not moving from her spot stage center;  Ron Raines as “Ben” sang and danced “Live, Laugh, Love” with requisite confidence – before the dance falls apart.  Standouts of the evening were Danny Burstein in “Buddy’s Blues,” whose clarity, enthusiasm, and inspired athletic antics with two girl dancers made me laugh at this number as if it were new to me.  Jan Maxwell, as the femme fatale surrounded by fawning, leaping boys, made “Lucy and Jessie” the showstopper of the evening.

Between episodes in the slow-motion collision of the two couples, FOLLIES gives us old girls singing and dancing their old songs, always shadowed by their younger selves.   These numbers were high-points of the original production; here, they came close to dispelling all the ghostly atmosphere and dramatic tension that director Eric Schaeffer and his cast had been at pains to create.

A few times, the numbers worked as the creators intended.   A delightful pair of elderly performers, “The Whitmans” (played by Susan Watson and Terrence Currier)  sang a cute “specialty” tap song – “Listen to the rain on the roof go pit-pitty-pat” -- as if happy to be remembering their days of modest success.  Upstage, their youthful “ghosts” performed the dance with grace that the older pair no longer could match. 

“One More Kiss” reaches its musical climax on the phrase, “All things beautiful must die,” and the truth of that line is proven in the music, the image, and even in the casting. In the role of "Heidi Schiller," soprano Rosalind Elias, her voice strong but husky, takes the low note in harmony while Young Heidi's more supple and clear voice reaches much higher.   Throughout her number, even as she sang the words, “Never look back,” Miss Elias as "Heidi" was looking back with longing at her younger self.  At the end of the song, during the applause, she seemed to be lost in a painful memory, and she wandered off stage, looking a bit lost.  (In the Broadway revival of 2001, a young man touched the elderly soprano on the arm, and tugged her gently towards the exit, while she peered back plaintively into the darkness of the house – the most memorable moment of that production.)

The “mirror song” (“Who’s That Woman?”) brings a chorus line of flabby, stiff or haggard women into step with their younger selves.  One of my friends teared up to see this;  I was struck by the image of spry “Mrs. Whitman” stumbling mid-spin, disoriented, while her younger self twirled behind her.

But other stars of the show punched holes right through the fourth wall, as if they were trying to impress the audience at a benefit concert.  Regine, unsteady on her feet, anchored herself to a spot stage left and delivered "Ah, Paris!" sans enthusiasm (or consonants), and then paused to receive her expected allotment of applause.  Linda Lavin, swathed in a tight, shiny gold dress, belted "Broadway Baby" and even raised the pitch an octave for a grand smash.  But the song loses a lot of its interest if the aged singer who swears to "stick it till I'm on a bill all over Times Square" appears to be a confident, healthy, glamorous star.  The woman for whom it was written, Ethel Shutte, had lived those lines.  At seventy-five, she had once been a performer of the real Ziegfeld follies, a has – been, or a never-quite-was.  To see that old lady up there in her matronly skirt, finally getting her (last) chance to be in a "great, big, Broadway show" was wonderful, funny, and heart-breaking at the same time. 

Diva Elaine Paige's version of “I’m Still Here” likewise suffered in comparison to earlier versions.   In the original, Yvonne De Carlo had lived much of what she was singing about, no one more the “sloe eyed vamp” than she in her 1950s film roles, and no role more “camp” than “Lily Munster” in the then-recent TV sitcom. In the 2001 production, Polly Bergen and her director got it just right:  For the first half of the song, the character was regaling laughing guests at the party.  She left them laughing with, “I got through Shirley Temple, and I’m here,” and retreated to a spotlight downstage left, close to the audience. There, she sang to us the more rueful verses that begin, “I’ve been through Reno, I’ve been through Beverly Hills….”  Paige didn’t seem to get that concept. Worse, to achieve the illusion of spontaneity, she stretched the end phrase every time, an annoying affectation.  The introspective part was just a generalized belt-fest, not an expression of character.

Perhaps no production of FOLLIES can be what that first one was. This one probably came as close as possible.