Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Solace in Blanco Verse for Midlife, Midwinter Blues

Richard Blanco, from New York Times

Mid-break and midlife, one naturally feels the passing of time with a mixture of regret and alarm.  Waking in the dark, I tell myself to get up and make a head start on projects for next week, and I also tell myself No!  Enjoy staying in bed while you have this chance!  My compromise was to flip on the bedside lamp to find solace in the nearest book.  I opened Richard Blanco's Looking for the Gulf Motel to the end and read backwards.  I found what I needed.

The collection finishes with "Since Unfinished," six stanzas telling us that the poet has been writing these lines "since" his grandfather taught him to make a whistle from a blade of grass, since the sparrow flew into class, since...

the morning I first stood up
on the bathroom sink to watch
my father shave

when their "eyes met in that foggy mirror" (79).  Through crises of youth and young adulthood, promise and loss, eventually we reach a place by the sea, where his eyes have "started seeing less," but where...

I sit to read and watch the sunset
like my grandfather did everyday....

...still at work writing this life in progress. The repetition of the phrase "writing this since" gives comforting form to a chaos of memory and reassuring continuity to work / life unfinished.

The collection's penultimate poem encompasses a whole life time against a single backdrop:

The sea is never the same twice.  Today
the waves open their lions' mouths hungry
for the shore, and I feel the earth helpless.  (77)

What a great image for awe and fear!  But then,

... Some days
the sun is a dollop of honey and raining
light on the sea glinting diamond dust...

More than memory, the sea returns him to earlier time, past still present:  "I'm still a boy on this beach, wanting / to catch a seagull," or else he's "a teenager blind to death."  But most often he's "tired," "old and afraid of my body," imagining that someday he'll "return someplace like waves / trickling through the sand."

Age depletes expectations, but Blanco's poem reminds us how all our past selves are potential presences, like the sea itself - constant, constantly changing.

Poem third-to-last also picks up on that image of water that disappears into something larger, a "Place of Mind."  It's a pantoum, content dictating form as "tears of rain fall / from awnings and window ledges" into the streets -- and stanzas -- below, the cycle of rain "always ending, yet always beginning."  Naturally, the poem ends where it begins, as "the search for myself ends in echo."  That's beautiful.

Is it comforting?  Life is bigger than the little pieces that worry me in the dark; little pieces can have lasting value;  those of us feeling "tired," aware that our "eyes are seeing less" are hardly alone. 

Is it compatible with what I say when I recite the Nicene Creed in the Episcopal Church?  That re-opens the discussion I've carried on in my head with poet/essayist Christian Wiman.  See my previous blog entry, "Ecclesiastes at 3 a.m."

Reflection on three poems at the end of a collection by Richard Blanco, Looking for the Gulf Motel (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).  I wrote about the whole collection in an essay a year ago, "Not Grievance, but Gratitude."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ecclesiastes at 3 a.m.

Reflection on a portion of My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2013).  Read my reflection on his poetry collection Every Riven Thing, and my reflection from months ago, "Beyond Belief."

Existential worries don't keep Luis awake.
A professor at Duke with the wonderful name Orville Wintermute suggested that an atheist wrote Ecclesiastes, that we have it in Scripture solely because Solomon is mistakenly supposed to have written it.  Though Prof. Wintermute preached the Gospel on Sundays, he felt obliged as a scholar to point out that the author of Ecclesiastes dismisses as "vanity" and "weariness" everything that's supposed to make life worth living: pleasure, learning, achievements.  At the end of each disgusted rant, we find a little hymn telling us to praise God anyway, which the professor read as irony.  I studied Ecclesiastes at the same time that I studied modernist literature, and felt it summed up by the final words of atheist Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable:  I can't go on; I'll go on.

You don't have to be an atheist to feel like the author of Ecclesiastes when you wake at 3 a.m..  I try to steer my mind away from its Ecclesiastes groove, but within seconds one wheel has dropped over the edge and I'm off the road and in a rut.  "Things done and things left undone" hem my mind in on all sides. 

If I'm lucky, Luis will sense that I'm awake and he'll bat my cheek with his paw to draw my attention to scratching his ears, where it should be!  But the thoughts don't go away. I flip on public radio's "Music through the Night" and listen to now-familiar voices (Scott Blankenship is one of them - see the program's Facebook page) saying interesting things about interesting pieces. (Thanks to Mr. Blankenship for selecting Beethoven's 4th symphony this morning: I was fascinated by the way Beethoven leads us down a long, dark pathway to a sudden brightening -- still on the same path.)

With these thoughts comes the yearning for a peace that lasts.  Can I never just finish my projects and be done with them?   But it's not to be:  Every one who achieves something lives in its shadow, afraid to try to match it, afraid not to.   In an interview on the occasion of yet another lifetime achievement award, my hero Stephen Sondheim said essentially that to NPR's News Hour. I've written musicals, too, and I've taught good courses, and I've directed good plays: What good are any of those now, when a new set of students will show up January 6, and I have performances of a musical slated for February, and an original mystery dinner theatre play to write before March?  As my own grandmother Thelma once said, "Scott, there's always something."

Poet / essayist Christian Wiman has written his own pensees in a book called My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.   He writes with the authority of a scholar and the added authority of a husband and father who has persevered these last several years with an uncurable, unpredictable, excruciating bone cancer.  He reasons that change is an essential part of what defines life:

 "All creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together," says Paul [an image of giving birth?], which is exactly right.  But also this:  all creation, including every atom of our selves, groaneth and travaileth toward something -- not toward some ideal existence from which "sin" has irretrievably separated us, and not toward some heaven that is simply this existence times eternity. No. Faith is not faith in some state beyond change.  Faith is faith in change.  (104)

That makes sense, and it precludes the eternal rest that I long for at 3 a.m.  As Wiman writes,

Death is here to teach us something, or to make us fit for something.  To project ourselves beyond it is to violate not only the terms of this life, which include a clear-eyed awareness of the end no eye can pierce, but also, I suspect, of the next.  (105)

Wiman, too, knows those ruts that a mind falls into at 3 a.m. : "We disparage ourselves endlessly...with a kind of black clarity ... that reaches right past all that we have done or have not done... and fingers us at the heart of what we are" (106).  This, he writes, is what we might call "original sin," but that's a blanket term, a comforter, when this self-loathing is painfully particular to us.  The comfort is in the knowledge that Jesus, God Himself, felt it when he cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"  Wiman imagines the thoughts behind those words: "Is it because I have not lived up to you, am not worthy of you? Is it because you are ashamed of me...?"

So, I long to arrive, wherever I can stop worrying about the next thing; but that will never happen.  I worry that I'm not up to whatever it is, but I'm not alone feeling that way. 

Now what?  Wiman has more answers, but it's dense stuff.  I'll save that for later.

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has an answer tucked into "Daily Devotions" for "In the Morning" (BCP 137): 

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day; Preserve us with your might power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Amen.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sondheim's Rich

Reflection on "The Sondheim Puzzle," essay by Frank Rich in New York magazine (Dec. 2013).

Sondheim and Rich onstage in Easton, PA, in 2010
Longtime New York Times essayist and sometime film producer Frank Rich has known Stephen Sondheim's work since age ten, and Sondheim himself since age twenty.  Now, around age sixty, Rich looks back to explain a "consistent emotional reaction" to the work that arises from something of its creator that underlies its "technical brilliance."  It's a puzzle, because Sondheim denies any autobiographical elements in his songs (except for "Opening Doors" in Merrily We Roll Along about young writers trying to break into show business).

What Rich finds is "a longing to connect and a fear that time is going by too fast."  No doubt.  Rich sites the song from Follies, "Too Many Mornings" about life "wasted in pretending I reach for you," that leads to the urgent question, "How much time can we hope that there will be?"  Of course, these are themes worked into the books of shows by what Sondheim calls his "unsung" collaborators.  In Hugh Wheeler's book for A Little Night Music, old Madame Armfeldt reminisces of the first in her long string of lovers, an ardent young man who gave her a wooden ring that had been in his family for centuries.  Because it was only wood, she rejected it, and him. "And now, who knows?" she asks.  "He might have been the love of my life." 

Rich comes closer to the essence when he quotes Sondheim on "loving his characters."  Sondheim thinks like an actor, finding some way to connect to each character, even the unsympathetic ones.     

I'd add that Sondheim also takes care of his performers.   We read in Sondheim's memoir how hard he worked to fix songs that earned their  performers merely "polite" applause, which he says is the most "dispiriting" reaction.  "I'm Still Here" gave Yvonne De Carlo the song of her career, "Send in the Clowns" played to Glynis Johns' strengths as an actress and weakness as a singer, and "Another Hundred People" was revised to give Pamela Myers her opportunity to stop the show.  Seeing six of Sondheim's shows at Kennedy Center in the summer of 2002, I was struck again and again by the ways he built numbers to show off the singing actors.

For example, "The Worst Pies in London" not only introduces us to "Mrs. Lovett" in Sweeney Todd, but also requires coordination of rapid-fire lyrics with dough-kneading, ale-pouring, roach-crushing, and, beneath it all, the subtext that Mrs. Lovett has recognized her customer.   The actress ends on a sustained note, always an applause-getter, tied with a flurry of final activity to present a complete pie to Sweeney on the last beat. 

Rich tells us that Sondheim's "journalistic objectivity" about people results in magnanimity about colleagues who have been less generous to him.  He tells us of Sondheim's gratitude to the teachers in his life, and his making time to meet privately with students at universities across America, wherever Rich has staged a series of public interviews with Sondheim over the past ten years. 

So Rich is right: "The ineffable quality in Sondheim's work is where love enters his equation."

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Shining: King Stretches Storyline Both Ways

Reflection on THE SHINING by Stephen King.  I read it on the Amazon Kindle.

After some iconic lines spoken by Jack Nicholson ("Do you like it?" "Honey, I'm home!" and "He-e-re's Johnny!"), my strongest memory from seeing Kubrick's THE SHINING four decades ago is the tracking shot of little "Danny" riding his Big Wheel bike through a maze of hallways in the enormous empty hotel.   Stephen King's original novel doesn't give us any of those lines or the Big Wheel, but the image of a maze does help me to describe his achievement in this novel. 

I know from his memoir that he prefers "story" to "plot," meaning that he himself doesn't know what's around the corner of any chapter in his first draft.  In that way, the progress of this novel is like a maze.

But he doesn't just blunder forward.  Like Theseus in the ancient myth, King lays down thread at each step of the way, tying end to beginning.  The threads go back, not just to earlier chapters, but to earlier years in the characters' lives. 

The technique pays off in credibility.  I don't suppose anyone needs a spoiler alert before I say that little Danny's father will be stalking the boy before the novel ends, but it would be hard to believe had we not seen incidents in Jack's life that prepare us to believe that he's a man prone to lose control.  Even the draft of a play that Jack intends to write concerns a sudden turning of father figure on youth.  Near the end, we learn that Jack's own father bludgeoned Jack's mother nearly to death.  When the adult Jack teeters on the edge of violence, an epiphany about his father makes the final slip believable: The father had done it to free himself of the wife's dead weight on his aspirations.  It makes deranged sense, and so does the climax.   We don't even need the supernatural ghosts and the hotel's satanic "manager" to believe it.

It also pays off in emotion.   If this were a video game, I suppose the action would simply move forward, and we'd never get time out to learn of the early years of the marriage, or the tortured relationship of wife Wendy to her jealous mother;  but her own feelings of self-doubt and guilt help the story along, and explain some crucial hesitations.  The entire book is warmed by the off-stage presence of Dick Hallorann, the hotel's chef who appears just long enough in the early chapters to teach little Danny about the extra-sensory "shining" they share.   I wept with a combination of pity and relief when Hallorann, down in Florida, receives Danny's mental Mayday, "COME COME DICK HURRY."

By the end of the book, I'd almost forgotten another character, "Tony," who appears only to little Danny.   He's an ambiguous "imaginary friend" who is either warning Danny away from danger or else leading him astray.  His reemergence adds another layer of emotion and excitement to the climactic scenes, as we get a sense that the good guys and bad guys have all gathered forces for their final confrontation.  It feels great.

Besides all this, even some little through-lines make the supernatural feel real.  For one example, our characters see three nuns sitting on a sofa in the lobby on the hotel's closing day.  That image becomes a touchstone for normal, and fleeting memories of it ground later fantasy in reality.  Then there's the image of "wasps."  Jack has memories of wasps; there's a wasps' nest in the attic; the snowmobile is colored and shaped like a wasp; fluorescent lights in the kitchen buzz like wasps at the moment Wendy tries to lock Jack away; and the man Dick Hallorann who attempts to rescue the family is reminded of a cloud of wasps.   The buzzing, the sting, the hidden menace, the thousand beings acting as one -- all of these give us a strong sense of how the characters experience the hotel's malevolence.

Of course, now I have to read the sequel, Dr. Sleep.  No sleep tonight, I guess. 

PS - To check the internet for spelling "Hallorann," I ran across a sampling of scenes from the movie on YouTube.  Having read so often that the movie was a disappointing departure from the novel, I'm struck by how much of the dialogue I recognize from King, and how Kubrick compresses chapters in some deft strokes -- particularly in the scene that begins with Wendy's reading Jack's "script." 


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks: Mary Poppins meets Scrooge

Reflection on the film Saving Mr. Banks, and the music and lyrics of Richard and Robert B. Sherman for Mary Poppins. I read several articles about basis in fact for the movie, including an article about Richard Sherman's friendship with the young actors who portray Richard and Robert in the recent movie.


Naturally, the creators of Saving Mr. Banks weave their movie from threads of Mary Poppins, and from real-life incidents,  but their tapestry owes as much to Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  

Our Scrooge in this story is P. L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins. It's 1961, twenty years since Walt Disney first proposed to adapt her books to the screen.  Needing money to pay her mortgage, she flies to L.A. to consider the script.  During daylight hours over the next two weeks, she battles the screen writer and two song writers over every detail of Mary Poppins' world -- how opulent should the Banks house be?  should "constable" be rhymed with "responstible?"  may Mr. Banks have a mustache?   At days' ends, however, she is alone with her memories.  The creators of this movie use visions of the past as Dickens does, to show us how open-hearted our protagonist was, once, and why she has built up such strong defenses. 

In this story, those defenses protect a cherished image of her father, Travers Goff.  Played by Colin Farrell, he's a bit of both father-figures in Mary Poppins:  whimsical like "Bert" the chimney-sweep, subservient to bank executives like "Mr. Banks" -- though Firth shows flashes of resentment.  Both the little Pamela who adores her father, and the adult P.L. Travers who took his name, try desperately to believe that the father cares more for his daughter than for his whiskey.  In the end, not even the Mary Poppins-like aunt from the east can redeem him.  During a revealing outburst early in the movie, Travers says that she won't let Disney use Mary Poppins to sell children on the lie that life will be just fine, that someone will come in to straighten the nursery and save their lives.

When the Disney team taps into her past, re-pitching the movie to her as a story about the redemption of a father who "cannot see beyond the end of his nose," P.L.Travers relents.  (The inevitable scene where she watches the movie contains this line from Mary Poppins, and it hits twice as hard for summing up two stories.)

How much of the emotional impact of this movie depends on the audience's emotional investment in the film from fifty years ago, I can't say -- because I'm invested up to my eyeballs.  My generation grew up in a world that revolved around disengaged dads, gone 9 to 5, then off to dinners with clients or the airport for business trips.  That's my memory, too, though my own dad was certainly demonstrative and eager to play when home.   But even at age five, I was haunted by the duet of  two father figures.  "Mr. Banks" sings, "A man has dreams of walking with giants, / to carve his niche in the edifice of time."  It's a rubato variation on Mr. Banks' pompous theme song, "I run my life precisely on schedule," made ruminative and rueful.   But now, because Mary Poppins has disrupted his "well-ordered" life, his career, his standing, his hopes are "dashed."   "Bert" is sympathetic:

You've got to grind, grind, grind
At that grindstone
Though child'ood slips like sand through a sieve
And all too soon they've up and grown
And then they've flown
And it's too late for you to give

Just that spoonful of sugar...

The films Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks dovetail at this same crucial moment, following which Mr. Banks decides to repair the damage he has done to his son's kite -- and to his relationships --  and the family is reconstituted at the end for the song "Let's Go Fly a Kite."  It's a highpoint of Saving Mr. Banks when the creators of the musical hand Mrs. Travers a kite and sing her the song.

As Travers, Emma Thompson chews people out from one end of this movie to another; yet she appears vulnerable at every moment -- more so as the movie proceeds.  As Walt Disney, Tom Hanks instantly brought back my own impression of the "Uncle Walt" who loomed over my early childhood, but also Disney's contemporary LBJ, angling for his agenda no matter how jovial he appeared to be.  Paul Giamatti plays Ralph, assigned by Disney to drive Travers around.  He's an affable Bob Cratchit to Thompson's Scrooge.  He even has a "Tiny Tim" at home, a disabled girl named "Jane" who adores Travers's books.  We see him mostly behind the wheel of a car, glancing at Travers in the rear-view mirror, and we can measure the thaw in their relationship by his eyes.

The backbone of this movie is the string of daily sessions in the rehearsal room with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak).  Because P.L.Travers insisted on recording these meetings, Richard Sherman has proof how Travers "sliced them up" and attacked their work from the start.  We see each of the three creators as they try to swallow their shock, exasperation, and loathing.  The most satisfying points in the movie are the ones that trace advances in the teams' courtship of this hard-to-get woman. Naturally, it all happens in song -- the very songs that do the same trick for Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, of course. 

Three miscellaneous notes about Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers:
  • A survey of articles about the movie reveals that it took more than a spoonful of poetic license to help this story go down.  The premise of the script is that the rights to the movie were riding on Travers' two weeks in L.A.  But in real life, Travers signed away the rights to the movie before her visit to the studio.  Whatever Disney did to convince Travers, it is mere speculation of the screenwriter that he might have reached understanding with Travers by drawing parallels between his childhood and hers.  That Disney did not invite Travers to the Hollywood premier and that he was alarmed when she showed up anyway, is historical fact, however.
  • P. L. Travers never did like the movie, and, late in her life, when Stephen Sondheim was in London, she invited him to write a new musical version for the stage.  He declined, but astonished her by revealing that he had drafted a musical version of  Mary Poppins at age 19.  She reluctantly permitted the recent staged version to go forward with material from the movie -- but with stipulation that none of the movie's creative team could be involved.
  • E.T. was Mary Poppins for a later generation.  A family in distress (disengaged parents in 1961, divorce in 1981) receives a magical outsider.  After many fanciful adventures, the crux of each movie comes when the children are on the run from a "father" who appears to be fearsome (angry Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, the agent with keys in E.T.)  and the last shot of each movie is of a re-constituted family, waving upwards as the magical stranger re-ascends to the sky.  At the iconic moment of E.T., when the alien speaks the line, "E.T. home phone," the little sister has dressed him up like Mary Poppins.  I've always wondered if Spielberg modeled his movie consciously to create a Mary Poppins for the divorce generation.   

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Putting St. Nicholas Back into Christmas

The morning after Christmas Eve, the angels flown, shepherds back with their flocks, presents open, candles out, Father Daron Vroon asked the congregation of St. James' Episcopal Church (Marietta, GA), "What did it all mean for us today?" 

His sermon, titled, "You Better Watch Out!"  hinged on a story of Saint Nicholas that I'd never heard.  As a bishop of Myra, Nicholas attended the Council of Niceaea, where the emperor of Rome had called together the hierarchy for a hearing of Arius's theories.  Hearing Arius argue that Jesus was a creature of God, latest in a string of intermediary prophets, Nicholas stepped forward and slugged Arius.  For this violence, Nicholas was punished, but later reinstated.  The council rejected Arius, and we now recite from the Nicene Creed that we believe Jesus to be "God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father." 

In Fr. Daron's sermon, Nicholas was standing up for the essence of our faith.  It's not just a baby or angels, but incarnation:  God participates with us in life and suffering; He does not remain a distant figure who sends intermediaries from time to time.  (This is also the gist of today's reading from Hebrews.)

This certainly gives us more to celebrate at Christmas than "the spirit of giving" or what a couple of 30-somethings discussed at the Square Bagel yesterday:  "You know the true meaning of Christmas? It's really the birthday of Jesus!" 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Re-connecting to my inner Joker: The Sixties' Batman

Reflection on the 1960s Batman series. For a reflection on later incarnations of "The Joker," see my article Jokers at the Gates


Cesar Romero and Julie Newmar, ca. 1966
Good old "Batman!"  For a white middle class kid in the 1960s, the war in Vietnam and the racial violence across our country were distant storm clouds; reality was brightly colored and peopled with the reassuring presences of Batman, Robin, Charlie Brown, Samantha and Endora, Jeannie and Major Nelson, Space Family Robinson, and Walt Disney characters.  No one ever bled or died;  every situation was ripe for a punchline; every dire problem would be resolved after the final commercial. 

Older now than most of the people who were involved in putting on the Batman series, I can see how much fun they were having.   I just watched a couple of episodes on YouTube:  "The Joker is Wild" and "Drat! the Catwoman."  Nearly half of each episode is boilerplate:  the Batphone scene at Commissioner Gordon's office,  the scene at stately Wayne manor, "to the Batmobile,"   the stock footage of Gotham City streets, the first fight (POW! BAM!)  when the villain gets away, and the second fight when Batman and Robin are knocked out and placed in some outlandish trap.  Of course, these were the tricks of studio writers and directors working under strict time constraints and tight budgets. But when I was a kid, the stock scenes had the comforting quality of ritual for me, heightening anticipation  The creative team's playing around with our expectations was part of the fun, as when Robin turns to slug Batman during the fight scene (blame it on the drug "catzophrenia"), and when Catwoman rides shotgun in the Batmobile.   

The stock scenes are like tent poles, supporting the flimsy story and a half-dozen gags.  The Joker is "sprung" from jail on a giant spring concealed in a softball;  Batman takes a moment to consider moving the Batmobile when he notices a "no parking" sign at the curb;  girls in bouffants squeal when Robin, the teen idol, delivers a graduation address at a high school;  the crooks take time out for an impromptu lip-synching concert by "Pussycat" (Leslie Gore in pink kitten costume).  Batman wonders if he's being lured to a trap when he passes signs, "This is Catwoman's Secret Lair!"  "Catwoman in Here!" at the entrance to her hideout.  When Catwoman falls off the roof and disappears into the West River, Batman pulls out a black cloth labeled "Bat-Handkerchief" to wipe tears.

Yet, when I was seven or eight, this was all so real for me.  Even now, certain moments got my heart-rate up.  Batman drops onto a TV soundstage during a live performance of "Pagliacci" and, for me, it's still a thrill to see the singer's rubber clown mask come off to reveal a close-up of Cesar Romero's gleeful Joker face. (One clown face under another: Holy Irony, Batman!)  Catwoman, impossibly leggy and lissome, runs in those high heels across the roof top with Batman in pursuit, and I was rooting for her, vaguely aware that she would fall -- a dim memory from, OMG, 48 years ago!

Part of the explanation for the excitement has to be Neal Hefti's music. I don't mean the blatant title theme, those three elementary blues chords played by a California beach band.  I mean the dissonant fanfare that accompanies the Joker's entrances, and the sliding "meow" that Hefti somehow pulls out of his band whenever Catwoman is on the move.  (In those pre-synthesizer days, how did Hefti make that sound?  I suspect he scraped bows over a vibraphone.) 

Another part of it is the charisma of the stars.  As much as I once wanted to be the Joker, boss-man in violet tails, I can't imagine a grown man cavorting the way Cesar Romero does, laughing at nothing.  The darker Jokers of early comics and later movies notwithstanding, Romero's Joker still seems most fun, yet still unpredictably dangerous.  I appreciate now how much fun Julie Newmar had with her character. Around half of her lines are energetic, assertive, flirtatious;  for the other half, Newmar is rolling her eyes with exasperation.  When she proposes a partnership with Batman (because she'd rather die than go back to prison), he asks, "But what about Robin?"  She rolls her eyes, momentarily nonplussed, then brightens: "I know!  We can kill him."

Of course, Adam West and Burt Ward both play their parts with earnestness that makes every banal or sententious line hilarious.  I especially enjoyed their transformations into "bad men" in this Catwoman episode:  "Where to, Cat-Baby?"  Batman asks.  A producer of the show once commented, "If Adam ever realizes he's funny, we're sunk." 

Is there any of that Batman world left inside me?  I can't pinpoint manifestations of my inner super-villains, but the way my heart so readily leapt to see the old gang is a sure sign that they're in there.  I wonder if some of my deep-seated confidence that things will turn out okay comes from Batman as much as from religion?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Lyricist Sammy Cahn: So He's Responsible!

Reflection on the life and work of lyricist Sammy Cahn 1913-1993. See sources listed at the end of this article.

"Call me irresponsible / Yes, I'm unreliable / But it's undeniably true, / I'm irresponsibly mad for you!"  (Cahn, 1962).  Lyricist Sammy Cahn was proud of the "neatness" of the partial rhyme between "unreliable" and "undeniably," and he liked to point out that those five-syllable words come from a guy reared in "a one-syllable neighborhood."  He was responsible for dozens of songs that I've enjoyed singing with Frank and Tony and Cleo for many years now, but I've never been sure which songs were his.  That's because so many of his songs share the quality of sounding so natural that no one had to write them, says Mark Steyn, citing the universally-known first lines of "Let it Snow!" :  "Oh, the weather outside is frightful / But the fire is so delightful...." 
(L-R) Composer Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn, and Frank Sinatra
http://www.theottofiles.com/?p=398
Even those five-syllable words sound natural, once our ear accepts "irresponsible" in the first line.  Cahn often had to work to integrate difficult words or phrases into his songs, writing on assignment from movie execs who wanted him to work the title of a movie into the theme song.  This one was for a movie called "Papa's Delicate Condition," a euphemism for the main character's drunkenness.  "Irresponsible" was another euphemism, used often in the script; thus, this song is for an irresponsible, self-deprecating and charming man (to be played by Fred Astaire, but ultimately portrayed by Jackie Gleason).

Early in his memoir I Should Care, Cahn tells how the eponymous ballad nearly wrote itself.  "I should care, I should go around weeping," he wrote.  What could follow but, "I should care, I should go without sleeping?"  Another song illustrates the principle:  "Starting with the 'ABC' of it / Right down to the 'XYZ' of it / Help me solve the mystery of it / Teach me tonight." 

Mark Steyn points out that repeated phrases account for a large percentage of any Cahn lyric.  "Come Fly With Me" mentions "flying" three times in the first ten syllables.   "Let it Snow!" is repeated three times at the end of each stanza.  Cahn told Steyn that that's not just repetition,  "That's lyric."  In poetry, in essay-writing, even in stories, repetition feels like missed opportunities to be specific about setting, place, intentions, nuances. In lyrics for songs intended to be sung in parlors and dance halls across the country, you don't want to be too specific; you want something catchy (from Renaissance "catch," or refrain) and pleasantly predictable.  

In 1985, Cahn expounded on this quality of his lyrics when he told interviewer Terry Gross that a song's title implies "the architecture" of it.   For example, in his memoir, Cahn describes writing one of his Oscar-winning songs.  As often was the case, the title was a given:  "Three Coins in the Fountain."   All he knew about the film was that three women visiting Rome throw three coins in a fountain and make wishes.  He quickly sketched out these lines:

Three coins in the fountain,
Each one seeking happiness,
Thrown by three hopeful lovers,
Which one will the fountain bless?

Composer Jule Styne instantly worked out the melody, "which meant Styne was three-fourths done with the song because the theme repeated three times."  That's the music's AABA "architecture."  But Cahn had a big problem:  "I'd said all I had to say with those lines I'd written."  He just repeated the idea, adding in a reference to Rome, as each "heart" is "longing for its home."  He needed to develop some idea in a "bridge" to a climax.  What idea was left to develop?  He handed Styne a single line, repeated:  "Which one will the fountain bless?  Which one will the fountain bless?"   Styne was "incredulous," and said, "It stinks."  But he built the music up under the repetition.  The lyric ends with "Make it mine!  Make it mine! Make it mine!"   (Cahn 174).

While Cahn intended this to be an illustration of resourcefulness and craftsmanship, his story confirms my distaste for the song.  In words cribbed from a pan of Neil Simon, I'd say Sammy Cahn had nothing to write a song about, but he wrote it anyway.  Sinatra hands us the song wrapped in strings, but it's an empty package.  Cahn commented ruefully in 1985 that the song had made a lot of money for him in its day, but that day had passed.  I'd observe that it's the kind of schmaltz that led to the folk-rock reaction, to eschew craft in favor of "authenticity."

Cahn tells a similar story about the assignment to write a title song for a movie called "The Tender Trap."  Once he had thought of the rhyme "snap," the song "snapped" into place.  On inspiration, he added a repetition to each stanza:  "Those eyes, those sighs, / They're part of the Tender Trap" (150). He draws on his own experience for the next line: "You're acting kind of smart, and then your heart just goes 'whap'";  then there's a honeymoon "at a spot that's just a dot / on the map."  "You fell in love," he concludes, "and love is the tender trap."  It's a pleasure to see it all fit together so easily, so naturally.

Apart from Cahn's tales of writing songs, his memoir leaves us with a couple of strong impressions.  From the first, he was the little guy who was able to push himself into the company of the big boys.  In fact, from the lower east side of New York to the street in Hollywood where his neighbors included Judy Garland and some other big-name stars and producers, what we get is a feeling of Cahn with a pack of guys who interacted with each other a lot like 8th Grade boys, where Frank Sinatra was "the popular boy": Blue jokes, insult jokes, pick - up baseball games, some rough-housing, some misbehavior (with gambling, booze, and women), some tiffs and -- Cahn's specialty -- elaborate musical skits to "honor" guys on their birthdays. 

The other strong impression is of the first marriage, what he called "Camelot," which broke up when the wife Gloria felt somehow unsatisfied.  Cahn has an epiphany during an awkward session with his wife's psychoanalyst, who goads him into punching the analyst's couch until tears flow.  Cahn reflects, about hatred,

It might feel good for a while, like when your eye itches like hell and you rub it and it feels so good that you rub it some more -- then you pay like hell for your momentary indulgence with a sore and puffed and maybe infected eye for days to come. (186)

He preferred the approach of his gentle father who couldn't "whack" his children even now and then.

To the perennial question "Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?" Cahn quipped, "The phone call."  At the time of his memoir, 1974, he was on Broadway in a revue of his own "Words and Music."  (Summer, 1974 was my first visit to Broadway, and I vaguely recall passing by the theatre.)   Happy as he was about that, he seemed a bit bewildered that, for years, "the phone hasn't been ringing."  Except to write parodies of his own songs for special occasions, he didn't write what he called "money songs" again. 

My survey of the internet for "Cahn's last years" brought me a lovely anecdote in a blog by Derek Sivers, who was 20 when he assisted Cahn at his office.  Cahn was evidently irascible, and others in the office avoided him.  But one morning, when Sivers found Cahn cursing the coffee machine, Sivers laughed and said, "Mr. Cahn, I like you."  He writes that "a mask dropped" and Cahn replied gently, "Thank you."  A couple of years later, Sivers had a vivid dream of encountering a much-younger Cahn and reassuring him that his songs would still be valued 40 years later.  Again, "a mask dropped" in the dream, and Cahn thanked Sivers.  The young man wrote the vivid dream, to find out the news hours later that Cahn had died that morning, January 15, 1993.

 I recommend my sources:

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Met's Falstaff: Life is Good

Reflection on the live-in-HD broadcast from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera yesterday of Falstaff by Verdi, Boito and, of course, Shakespeare.  The production starred Ambroglio Maestri in the title role. Robert Carsen directed.


Director Robert Carsen has updated the look of Falstaff to the world of I Love Lucy, comfy and droll from the get-go.  It seems so natural for those Merry Wives to meet for a two-martini luncheon at a wood-paneled club in Windsor, fussing with their purses, oohing over a fancy dessert, and dishing on that fat knight, Falstaff.  The finale of Act II is a blissfully chaotic deconstruction of history's largest kitchen -- pastel cabinets, red-check table cloth, brand-name detergents filling a space the width of a basketball court.   

A cursory look for "Verdi's Falstaff" on the internet yields these basics:  it's Verdi's final opera, his only comedy, written over the four years approaching his 80th, drawing on material from three of Shakespeare's plays.  Its longest aria is only about 90 seconds long, so it disappointed those who expect "a tune you can hum," but everyone else seems to agree that it's Verdi's benediction, celebrating love, sensual pleasures, and reconciliation.

I tried to notice the music while the cheery characters' antics kept distracting me.  Each scene began with a different fast-paced ostinato in the bass, making me think of Sir John himself.   My favorite musical moment, aside from the finale (see below), followed Sir John's cup of wine at the top of Act Three.  He has climbed exhausted from the Thames river, waked in a stable in his muddy long johns, and sung a despairing little aria about the cruelty of life.  But when Falstaff sings how wine spreads throughout the mind to restore the senses, notes in the orchestra bubble up, and spread outwards to more and more instruments.

As the director said in an interview between acts, the finale gets us out of indoors for magical moments in nature.   There's elaborate hoodoo about a huntsman's spirit, fairies, witches, and such; but the magic is in the music and stagecraft.   Director Carsen brings in "spirits" on wagons covered in white cloth.  Once Falstaff understands that he has been hoodwinked and humiliated yet again, the young lovers married, the jealous husband reconciled to wife and daughter, then musical magic begins:  Falstaff sings that life is a joke, and others take up his words and melody a cappella at first, building with orchestra into a magnificent celebration.  

As the fugue reaches its climax, we see that the white platforms now constitute a giant banquet table, laden with food.  Chandeliers drop into view, and the whole company sets to a feast as the curtains close.

I had tears streaming down my face at the end.  Sigh.  It's been a hard few weeks, and I was glad to be washed in the waves of good feeling from this wedding of music and story.

Adding to the general sense of community and warmth, the Met treated us to backstage interviews.  Maestri's wife translated for an interview between Renee Fleming and the gigantic baritone where he demonstrated his own cooking skills in that oversized stage kitchen.  Such interviews as these, with stars and with stage crew, draw us into that Met community, if only through satellite technology.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grafton's W is for Wasted: Well-Woven and Warm

Reflection on W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton.(New York: Putnam's, 2013.)

One pleasure of reading Sue Grafton's latest detective novel is to appreciate her skill in weaving nearly a dozen different strands into a single net.  Another pleasure, something of a surprise to me, is that she touches our emotions in unexpected ways. 

As detective Kinsey Millhone tells us right away, the story connects the deaths of two men who never knew each other.  One is an unscrupulous Private Investigator named Pete Wolinsky whom she knew slightly, and one a homeless man who carried her name and number in his pocket.  We learn Wolinsky's story through third-person flashbacks (presumed to be Kinsey's speculation after the fact), interspersed through Kinsey's forays into the homeless community and a distant town where the homeless man left wife and children years before.

Encounters that seem incidental do figure into the eventual grand design.  There's the young loser who sings, his sisters (one sluttish, one shy), their mother and their family's ex-neighbor with dementia, the P.I.'s long-suffering wife, Kinsey's sometimes boyfriend Dietz the P.I. in Nevada, an ugly encounter with "Boggarts" ("bad fairies" among the homeless), and researchers studying pharmaceutical  remedies for addiction. There's Kinsey's encounter with details from her paternal family history.   Oh, yes: her landlord adopts a cat named Ed.  I kid you not: all of these are interconnected by the time we reach the page-turning finale.

Along the way, we meet the rotund and rebarbative Pearl White, and her young buddy with blonde dread locks and braces, Felix.   Kinsey opines about the homeless several times, seeing sometimes no harm in them, and yet resenting how Pearl games the system.  A frustrated businessman tells Kinsey how he faces a life of debt over his own wife's $90 K hospital bills, while "some program" will take care of Pearl if she ever gets sick.  A funeral on the beach for the homeless man and one of his homeless friends near the end of the book took me by surprise, bringing tears to my eyes when passers-by were stopped by the solemnity of the occasion.  The eulogy includes this observation:

Both the urge to rescue and the need to condemn fail to take into account the concept of [the homeless people's] personal liberty, which they may exercise as they see fit so long as their actions fall within the law.  ...The homeless have established a nation within a nation, but we are not at war. (483)

Others we meet, who seem to be unsympathetic, do gain our respect, if not our sympathy, thanks to telling details imagined by Grafton.  The shy youngest daughter of the homeless man seems to be way off-topic when she tells about a Great Dane always jittery about going to the vet's, for fear of being put down. When the time came to put him down for real, the cooing and petting of his humans calmed him, for once.  "If I'd been there," she says, thinking of her father's death on a lonely stretch of beach, "I could have held Daddy's hand" (224).   The detective Wolinsky is certainly despicable in many ways, but his adoration of his wife, his shame, and his determination to please her, make him sympathetic, too. 

As we've come to expect, there's a suspenseful action-packed showdown involving the cat and a scalpel:  pretty creepy and exciting.

My only complaint is with Grafton's editor.  Must encounters of substance be separated by pages of detail about Kinsey's eating, grooming, and driving?  I swear, one passage told us how Kinsey stopped the car, turned the key in the ignition, put on the parking break, opened the door. etc. etc. etc.   There was so much of that stuff early in the book that I would not have pushed through except that I've come to trust Grafton's judgement in the long haul.

 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Weight of Bernstein's Mass

Jubilant Sykes in Mass, conducted by Marin Alsop
President Kennedy's widow asked Leonard Bernstein to write a mass for the opening of JFK's memorial arts center in 1971.  What Bernstein wrote is probably far from what she had in mind. I've sometimes called it Bernstein's Mess,  But, God help me, I love it intensely.

I'm not alone in feeling this way.   A quick search netted this gem of observation from someone who wore out her LP of Mass with repeated listening, as I did:

For myself, I love [Bernstein's Mass] but also find it cheesy and corny at times, not just dated; feel it relies on a reaching and sentimental twist to find its ending amidst a lot of devolving hyperbole. I also find it incredibly beautiful, especially in its details--more beautiful, the more closely you look at it.  (from a blog by Elizabeth Tamny)

Between forty minutes of stuff that's "cheesy and corny" but fun, and a half-hour of "devolving hyperbole" at the end, there's a half-hour of music that has color, variety, ingenuity, beauty, and a weight that has anchored it deep in my own life.   Let's take up Ms. Tamny's suggestion to notice the "details" that make this section of Mass "more beautiful, the more closely you look."

For me, the heart of Mass begins with Bernstein's setting of Psalm 130, De Profundis ("From the Depths"). The basses sing from the depths of their range.  Punctuated by timpani, and built up with overlapping imitations in chorus and orchestra, the music reaches ever-upward, until a breaking point when the chorus dissolves into choral yapping, a foretaste of the musical chaos to come.  This section ends on the words Spero! Sperat!   ("trust" or "hope")

During the next several minutes, Bernstein will open up the fourth wall in a few ways. The Celebrant, central character in this theatre peace, will mention members of the cast by name in prayer.  Bernstein will give us a look into his own process for composing, as his Celebrant will appear to improvise a couple of melodies.   A few minutes later, the Celebrant will sing in Hebrew, for no apparent reason except the words' personal resonance for their Jewish composer.  I'm not complaining; I'm touched.

After the chorus sings "Sperat!" a boy's choir continues the "hope" theme singing "My soul waits for the Lord" in Latin.  We've heard the tune before, at a similar moment of repose early in the Mass, when the choir sang the words, "Almighty Father, incline Thine ear."  The boy sopranos sing it simply, but the adult choir echoes each phrase with near-frantic urgency.

This little interlude builds to an instrumental version of the same tune, orchestrated to sound like dance music in some Middle Eastern bazaar, the strings a little off-pitch, the beat something odd (I'm guessing 7/8).  The libretto describes a "fetishistic dance" adoring the sacraments.  It's thrilling and meant to be more visceral than spiritual.  We heard it early in the Mass, a setting to the words In nomine Patris et filii, ("in the name of the Father and of the son"), and we'll hear its distinctive beat throughout this section, sometimes just on bongos, an ominous thread underlying sweet music.

With "Our Father," Bernstein deliberately reminds of how Mass began, to draw our attention to significant differences.  At his first appearance, our Celebrant, dressed casually, strummed a guitar and told us to "Sing God a simple song.../ Make it up as you go along."  In the numbers that followed, he donned more and more ecclesiastical garb while street people and marching bands and rock singers and whatnot all had their say.  The celebrant thus appeared to be more and more alienated, both from his flock and from that "simple" faith he proclaimed at the start.

Now, heavily robed, he literally re-composes that faith.  He sings "Our father" accompanied by one finger on a piano, as if he actually might be making it up as he goes along. The phrases meander to the upper edge of his baritone range, where he sounds exposed and vulnerable. His "amen" reaches up a fifth, sounding more like a question than a statement; and that interval becomes accompaniment with guitar clearly meant to remind us of "Simple Song," only the text here expresses resignation, regret, and determination to "go on" even when "our illusions fail." 

Now he does indeed go on, ringing the sanctus bell.  What follows is a delight all the more delightful against this dark background.  Two groups of boys toss around the phrases of the Sanctus as in a game.  The orchestral accompaniment climbs from deep down to high above the boys' highest notes. Like fireworks, the orchestra bursts at the pinnacle, notes cascading like sparks.

The orchestra subsides mostly to just the bongos that echo the beat for that "fetishistic dance" (nomine patris), a beat soon taken up by woodwinds and strings.  But first, the Celebrant continues to re-compose his faith from the ground up, plucking a couple of guitar strings and seeming to improvise a melody from the pitches: "Mi alone is only mi /  but mi with sol / means a song is beginning ...to grow... take wing, and rise up singing / From me and my soul."  Without pause, he proclaims, Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! Hebrew for "Holy."

With that bongo still going strong, the Choir takes up the Celebrant's "Kadosh" and sings in Hebrew, "All the heavens and earth are full of His glory," while a pair of flutes chase each other upward like playful birds ascending.   The volume and density increase, and then the Street Chorus joins in for "Holy Holy Holy" in English. They subside. Then it's back to "Kadosh" for a bigger finish on the Hebrew phrase, "B'shem Adonai!" (In the name of the Lord).

This part of the Mass is sweet, mysterious, and somehow painful to hear.  Certainly the strange mixture of English, Latin, and Hebrew is part of the mystery;  the intertwining of the voices and instrumental parts, tending upwards, expresses yearning.   It is music and text beyond doctrine, beyond ethics and morality, operating on me at a level I don't fully understand:  that's where my faith comes from.  While there is much music in the world that I can say I love, and much that has an emotional effect on me, Mass is in a class by itself.

Back around Bernstein's 70th birthday, I wrote him a fan letter telling him all this.  I also confessed to singing parts of Mass in the car at times when I've been most exultant and most frustrated.  He hand-wrote an appreciation of my appreciation.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Peter Abrahams' Oblivion: Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma

Reflection on the novel Oblivion by Peter Abrahams, published in 2005.  I read it on a Kindle.

Remember Churchill's description of Russia as a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma?" Peter Abraham's Oblivion starts simply enough, but by the end -- Churchill didn't have enough synonyms to describe it!  But there is a key to unlock all the boxes, and the prize is worth having.

The novel opens with detective Nick Petrov giving dramatic testimony that convicts a murderer.  We learn that "drama" made him famous, first when he found the clue to end a serial killer's reign of terror twelve years before, and then when a movie was made about that investigation.   Before he's out of the courthouse parking lot, he's been hired to find a missing teenage girl.  He learns quickly that the girl follows a band called "Empty Box" that sings how you don't always know what's buried in your own backyard.  His investigation takes him places:  an airport hotel, a dive, a small desert town's high school, a nasty trailer, and his own secluded cabin in the mountains. 

Then the context for this whole investigation changes.  It's not a spoiler to tell that the headache nagging Petrov through the first chapters turns out to be an inoperable brain tumor that affects his body, his memory, and some aspects of his personality. A new intuitive sense of people replaces dispassionate reasoning.  The stern voice of his late father hectors him.  Self-doubt also changes him, and he begins to wonder how much of his "dramatic" career really has been play-acting and covering up. 

The missing girl case is one box inside a larger box inside yet a larger box, and one begins to suspect that there really are things buried in Petrov's own "backyard."  By the action-packed conclusion, Petrov is fighting not just for his life, but for his own sense of it: Is he really the good guy?

Author Peter Abrahams writes in third person, but keeps the focus tight on Petrov's perceptions.  The book is rich with distinguishing details about minor characters, but nothing extraneous to the puzzle.  When I used the "search" function on my Kindle to remind myself of one character who reappears late in the book, I recognized that Abrahams had planted clues to the true nature of this character from his very first appearance.

Petrov briefly partners with a dog, giving an intertextual thrill to readers who know The Chet and Bernie series written by Abrahams under the  pseudonym Spencer Quinn.  (See a compilation of my reflections on Chet and Bernie.) 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Rhymes with Integrity

Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley, and Jenna Russell
as Frank, Charley, and Mary
(reflection on the High Definition transmission of Merrily We Roll Along, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, directed by Maria Friedman.  Production at the Harold Pinter Theatre, summer of 2013.  Also, Stephen Sondheim's book, Finishing the Hat, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

About Stephen Sondheim, the commonplace comments are, "You can't hum his tunes," "His songs are too cerebral," and "He sure does know how to rhyme!"  Since I saw director Maria Friedman's 2013 revival of Merrily We Roll Along broadcast in HD from London last week, I've been marveling at how the plentiful rhymes in Sondheim's score sound as natural as conversation and yet bring home the characters' thoughts and feelings with a snap that makes the listener chuckle, or wince.  I've been humming two songs non-stop: from Act Two, "The Blob," and from Act One, "Growing Up."  And as soon as I realized why those two songs were haunting me, I had an oh-so-cerebral thought: "Growing Up," a late addition to the score, "rhymes" with everything else in the show, completing it in a way that snaps all of Merrily's pieces in place, character, story, and theme.

About Merrily, the commonplace comments are, "It's told backwards," "It was a fiasco in 1981 that ended Sondheim's collaboration with Hal Prince," and, "You don't like the main character." In Sondheim's own words...
Frank, the central figure, is entirely unsympathetic for the first half hour of the show.  He is arrogant, an adulterer, a betrayer of his best friend and the cause of near-suicidal alcoholism in the woman who loves him unrequitedly. (Sondheim 395)
Sondheim doesn't disagree:
I just happen to like stories about unsympathetic characters, because I trust the author to tell me why they interest him. That was the purpose of "Growing Up"...(396).
Four years after the short-lived run of Merrily on Broadway (so short-lived that I never got to use my tickets), director James Lapine revised it with Sondheim and  book writer George Furth. He suggested a song for the third scene to give the audience "a progress report on [Frank's] moral state." Sondheim obliged with a song that "allowed the audience to feel affection for Frank an hour earlier than they had in 1981."

So, in the fully-integrated version of the show, Frank sits down to a piano.  He's alone in an unfurnished room, trunks and suitcases unopened around him. He's back from a cruise, moving in to a new luxury apartment, beginning a new life after divorce.  His closest friends Charley and Mary met him here with his little son, but the joyful reunion almost fell apart in a disagreement about Frank's next move:  Will he collaborate with Charley on the political musical they've always wanted to write, or put that off another year or two to make money from Hollywood fluff?  They worked through their differences in the tense middle section of an otherwise joyful paean to "old friends." Mary and Charley have gone off to their old club while Frank waits for a phone call from Gussie, a Broadway star, wife of his producer / patron Joe. 

Because Merrily We Roll Along is told backwards, we know what's "ahead."  We've seen Frank, surrounded by sycophants, denounced by ex-friend Mary, despised by second wife Gussie, unable to tolerate even the mention of his ex-friend Charley, and proclaiming "I hate my life.  If I could go back and start over....!" 

But at this moment, there's a lot we don't know, yet.  This song anticipates it all.

Frank softly plays steady chords and hums a melody.  He sings, as if to Charley and Mary,
Thanks, old friends ...
Keep reminding me...
Frank's old friends
Always seem to come through.
Frank will, too. 
No tricky rhymes here, just a natural sounding statement of affection and gratitude. He continues his thoughts about the decisions ahead:
So, old friends,
Now it's time to start growing up.
Taking charge,
Seeing things as they are.
Facing facts,
Not escaping them,
Still with dreams,
Just reshaping them,
Growing up...

It's a gentle tune, reaching up in a way that feels positive.  The lyrics still feel like something a guy might say explaining himself across a table in a coffee house. 

Yet there's more going on, here:  The accompaniment for this song is from Frank's supposed hit song "Good Thing Going," which we'll hear first as a brassy Broadway anthem, but will eventually recognize to be lyricist Charley's gently regretful description of his friendship with Frank.

But, there's another resonance with Frank's "past." It's "The Blob," a song that we won't hear until late in the second act, when young Frank has been invited to a party in the luxury apartment of Gussie Carnegie, up-and-coming Broadway star.  He's all agog at the famous and sophisticated people there.  She mocks them (incidentally referring to a schlocky movie from the approximate time of the scene)
Meet the Blob,
The bodies you read about.
The ones who know everyone
That everyone knows...
Meet the Blob,
Not many and yet --
You never see one.
They come as a set.  (Sondheim 402)
This up-tempo tune, with the 1962-trendy Latin-American pulse in the accompaniment, is what Frank has been singing in "Growing Up."  Compare the first two lines of "The Blob"  to "So old friends, / Now it's time to start growing up...." 

Then there's an outburst of short musical phrases that twist around within an interval of just four steps in the scale,  a little like kids' sneering "nyeah- nyeah nyeah" on a playground: 

Charley is a hothead.
Charley won't budge.
Charley is a friend.

Charley is a screamer,
Charley won't bend.
Charley's in your corner.
We've heard that twisted little tune several times already.   It's the second motif of the overture.  It starts the innocent little figure that the keyboard plays early in the song "Franklin Shepard, Inc."  The song grows into a furious indictment of his pal's abandoning friends and ideas, and this same mocking motif snakes under most of the song.  We'll hear it again when Mary teaches Frank some philosophy, expressed in the wise-cracking way that Furth invented for her:
All right, now you know:
Life is crummy.
Well, now you know.
We hear it again in "The Blob," when Gussie mocks "the most important people / in the most important city / in the most important country / in the you-know-what!"

But, for now, in the song "Growing Up," Frank's outburst of anger grows to a high note on the word "change" before it subsides in the pair of lines that follow, which rhyme like an old adage:
Why is it old friends
Don't want old friends to change?
Every road has a turning,
That's the way you keep learning.
The "turning" of a "road" is a metaphor shared with the Kaufman and Hart play of the same title on which this musical is based, developed in the opening number, and repeated at transitions between scenes:   "Bending with the road, / Gliding through the countryside, / Merrily we roll along, / Roll along, / Catching at dreams" (384).

Frank's conclusion pulls all these strands together:
Trying things,
Being flexible,
Bending with the road,
Adding dreams
When the others don't last.
Growing up,
Understanding that growing never ends,
Like old dreams --
Frank qualifies this last one:
Some old dreams --
Like old friends.

The vamp returns for "Good Thing Going," and the song seems to be over.  But Gussie slips into the apartment.  Frank has made up his mind to meet his friends, to leave Gussie and her "blob" world behind, and he rebukes her when she tells him that she has just left her husband, Frank's patron and friend. Why now, asks Frank. "Because I saw tonight that I could lose you." She continues Frank's song:
Growing up
Means admitting
The things you want the most.
Can't pursue
Every possible line.
Folding tents,
Making choices,
Ignoring all
Other voices,
Including mine...
You're divine...
"You're divine" is a non-sequitur, but it keeps the integrity of the drama, as Gussie is turning from rhetoric to outright seduction.  The phrase is a bit far-fetched, but not for Gussie, whom George Furth endowed with memorably precious dialogue, as when she tells a party to "fermez all those bouches".  At this spot, where the twisty mocking motif comes in, Sondheim stretches it out in legato phrases, and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick brings in the saxophone to make it into a sultry tune:
You decide on what you want, darling,
Not on what you think you should.
Not on what you want to want, darling,
Not from force of habit.
Once it's clearly understood, darling,
Better go and grab it.
Things can slip away for good, darling.
What is it you really --?
She finishes with a come-hither gesture, and Frank follows her to the bedroom.  He's hooked.

But Frank fought the good fight, and every word of this song rings true. It's realism, it's common sense, it's appealing:  Who doesn't want to grow?  Who doesn't realize that realities change?  Who can't identify with "wanting to want" what one "should?" 

Every scene, every song in Merrily We Roll Along displays such integrity.  Why should Sondheim and Furth have taken such care to integrate music, lyrics, and dialogue, along with story, character, and theme?  They do it to create a world for the actors -- and audience -- to inhabit.  In an interview before the broadcast, Mark Umbers ("Frank") tells us that "Sondheim does all the work for you," unlike other writers who leave gaps for the actors to cover over.  Director Maria Friedman's staging and her cast's performances match the material in integrity and skill. Moment to moment, we feel that what we see and hear is really happening;  everything fits;  and, for the man who has lost his integrity, there is no escape from the consequences.

Happily, Friedman finds a way to emphasize a possibility for redemption at the very end.  When we first see Franklin in her production, he's pacing his living room, the site of that disastrous party, but he's considering a manuscript bound in red. Then follows the party where he says that he hates his life, and that, if he could go back, he'd start over.  When the play finishes with the beautifully hopeful anthem "Our Time," sung by young Frank, Mary, and Charley under the stars, all that fades away, and we're left again with Frank in that living room.  He's back to clutching the red manuscript, which we now recognize to be the play that he and Charley always wanted to complete.  Could he be ready for a new start?  There's hope.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Honest" Onegin

From left to right, from rural to royal: Met Opera, Oct. 2013
(Reflection on the presentation of EUGENE ONEGIN by the Metropolitan Opera, live in HD, October 5.)

Interviewed during the Met Opera's HD broadcast program, conductor Valery Gergiev deflected an invitation to wax eloquent about the luscious romanticism of Tchaikovsky's music, saying simply that Tchaikovsky's music for Eugene Onegin is "beautiful and honest."  I've heard of beautiful music, natch, but "honest?"  Yet, the more I think back on the opera, the more I understand what he means.

The arc of the story is simple, as adapted by the composer from Pushkin's novel in verse:  na├»ve Tatiana confesses passionate love for Onegin, a worldly neighbor, but he rejects her in a cool, civil manner.  A season later, Onegin's flirtation with Tatiana's married sister results in his dueling with Tatiana's brother-in-law Lensky, who dies.  Escaping the scandal abroad, Onegin returns years later to find Tatiana married to a Prince, now a mature woman, elegant, self-confident, and wise.  He falls passionately in love with her.  She rejects him. 

So, what makes Tchaikovsky's treatment of this material "honest?"   Operatic "honesty" might refer to a composer's sticking to the pure line of the story, unadulterated by extraneous ballets and choruses added just to please the audience.   It might also refer to the composer's eschewing showy vocal technique that might draw more attention to the singer than to the character.

Tchaikovsky does embroider that pure arc.  Strictly speaking, we don't need the first twenty or so minutes of the opera, during which Tatiana's mother and a servant reminisce about an early romance and a chorus of rustics celebrates the fall harvest.  We could do away with some big company dances at the two parties.  We don't need the aging French fop who sings Tchaikovsky's parody of insipid lyrics.  We could drop the tenor Lensky's couple of arias about memories and regrets, since he's just a plot device to explain Onegin's years away.  We could lose the bass aria for the Prince, who sings how much Tatiana has brought to his life, and how he adores her;  he is, after all, just a minor character. 

After such cuts, we'd still see a good show.  We'd see the young men Lensky and Onegin comparing the coquettish sister to introspective Tatiana; Tatiana's wonderful scene first preparing restlessly for bed, then drafting letters to Onegin, crumpling up each draft until she writes a direct and hopeful confession of love, which she completes at sunrise and sends by messenger before she can change her mind; Tatiana's standing silent while Onegin lectures her about the insurmountable differences between them; the duel; and then Onegin's awakening at the Prince's ball, with the private duet that follows.    

Yet the story would not be honest without the social and thematic context that these "extras" provide. 
When Tatiana's mother and her servant sing the refrain, "God sends us habit instead of happiness," it's homely wisdom that comes back at the end when regal Tatiana leaves passion behind in favor of contentment, duty, responsibility, and affection for a Prince who loves her. 

Tchaikovsky's dances, so popular that I was humming going into the theatre,  provide in themselves a social panorama against which we can see Tatiana's rise.  At first her world is shabby-genteel, characterized by rustic choruses, the energetic polonaise (in somewhat cramped quarters),  and the heel-kicking cotillion dance at the party celebrating Tatiana's name day.  Yet she is already set apart from that world, as we see by that French dandy's song for .  In a roomful of people who don't seem to know the difference between fashionable and elegant, she endures his first verse with polite attention, and the second with growing embarrassment. 

The grand waltz that begins the final act provides us a background of true elegance, where Onegin wanders aimlessly, drinking, bored.  When Tatiana enters with her entourage, we see the difference between true "class" in the sense of "nobility," and what Onegin has -- a mere sense of privilege and entitlement.

There's another kind of honesty in Onegin.  Tchaikovsky lavishes attention on these characters because he loves them.  He gives them room to speak for themselves, letting the music swell and subside, grow dense with agitated action or light with just an instrument or two in accompaniment, as fits their reminiscences and expressions of contentment, affection, or regret.   Because of the time that Tchaikovsky takes to let Lensky speak, when Lensky dies, we feel the loss as acutely as Onegin;  when Tatiana returns to her husband, we know she has made a good choice.  Only her selfish sister and that damn Frenchman fail to warm our hearts.

I've seen three productions of Onegin, now.  Atlanta Opera performed it at the Atlanta Civic Center a few years ago.  The Met projected an abstract production in HD, using little more to create scenery than autumn leaves, chairs, a couple of carpets, and snow.  Now we have the Met's new production, with more literal settings, setting tongues wagging about the drabness of Tatiana's country home.  It seemed appropriate to me.  All three have sent me out overwhelmed by affection for the characters, wonderment at the deftness of the storytelling, and appreciation for the variety, expressiveness, beauty and, yes, the honesty, of Tchaikovsky's music.

Honesty means following all the elements of the story within the parameters of the form wherever these take the composer.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Brainwashing?

Thanks to my cousin Arwen for posting this on her Facebook page. 

Teenager Ethan Metzger responds in "slam" poetry style to a cynic who assumes that religious tradition and behavior is the result of parents' brainwashing.

I'd add only that he has proven the value of that "brainswashing" by living it.

Go to  COL Live

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Education: Drill It In or Tease It Out?

Teachers who expect more from their students will get better results than those who expect less. This is the core idea in an article, "Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results," by Joanne Lipman, and she'll get no argument from me, there. She uses for example her high school orchestra teacher, who berated students at practice and applauded them for good performances. Grateful and successful students played their instruments at his funeral.

But she couches her insight in an article that seems to extol rote learning above any alternatives, and to deride the notion that knowledge is "teased out" of students.

Granted, when every bow must play the same phrase the same way; when the conjugation of certain verbs must become automatic; when certain formulae are required to solve problems -- then drill is necessary, and a teacher who can motivate students through the tedium is a good teacher.

But it's the experience of every writer, every reader, every mechanic, every physicist or mathematician who ever solved a problem, that knowledge is constructed inside, developed through engagement with some matter, often through collaboration. I do recall memorizing things for a test; but the standout moments in my years of schooling all came when teachers weren't telling me anything. Instead of prescribing and demanding, they simply situated me and my classmates where we had to figure things out for ourselves. When we realized that we needed help, they provided it.

For example, Mr. Leon Scott once asked our Literature class why atheist Hemingway loaded The Old Man and the Sea with Christian imagery; then, Mr. Scott left the room while we puzzled it out. He's the same teacher who required us to write on a topic of our own making about a Faulkner novel of our own choosing, forcing me of necessity to develop lifelong habits of close reading. I'm grateful for an education professor who opened up his library of resources to me and assigned three papers about the three worst problems I faced in my classroom -- and I developed ideas that still guide my teaching.

Is drill the way that we teach reading? Not if we're after appreciation and understanding! I've taught students who could rattle off dozens of prepositions, but didn't apply that knowledge to distinguish Jefferson's main idea in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence from the prepositional phrases around it.  

Is writing best taught by "hard" teachers who find faults? I'd simply observe that "good" writing and "correct" writing are two different things. I wish more teachers and parents knew this! A "tough" writing teacher and I shared a student who, she said, "couldn't write." I rushed to show her something he had written for a test in History class, in which he displayed insight and a creative approach to the question. She read the essay, and commented only on the spelling errors and a run-on sentence. I am eternally grateful that the boy was not present. What good could that comment have done? I see only how discouraged he would be, his good work unappreciated.

Hard teachers emphasize results; good teachers emphasize the process that will lead to results -- though maybe not in time for the end of the grading period.

This debate comes up often. Even a sports ignoramus like me has heard a great deal about the contrast between "tough" Bobby Knight's coaching methods (screaming, abuse, tantrums, drill, drill, drill) and the kinder, gentler methods of Coach K, John Wooden, and "the Zen coach" Phil Jackson. The consensus seems to discredit Knight.

My own mentor, Frank Boggs, taught us so much about music without "drill and kill," without humiliation, without sternness. Our tastes (I speak confidently for my contemporaries, too) were influenced by the New Yorker cartoons and articles that he pinned to his bulletin board, by recordings he played us, by his own example. We learned to watch the conductor when he unexpectedly asked for changes in dynamics and tempo, even during a performance -- and it was exhilarating and hilarious.

Unlike the "tough" teacher in the article, he didn't wait for us to be perfect before he put us onstage; some of us were pretty rough-edged when he gave us our first solos, but that was ok: He was allowing us to grow into poised and confident performers. He certainly told us a lot, but I remember most what he asked. For example, he wondered aloud why Vivaldi sets the comforting phrase "peace on earth, goodwill to men" in a minor key, acquainting us with the idea that music can say something independent of the words.

Mr. Boggs recommended this article to me; I'm glad he hadn't read it when I first walked into his chorale room forty years ago!

Reflection on an article by Joanne Lipman. "Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results." The Wall Street Journal online. September 27, 2013. Ms. Lipman is co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of "Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations," to be published by Hyperion on Oct. 1.



Saturday, September 28, 2013

Civics Lesson for Republicans: Thank You, Senator McCain

Reflection on remarks made by Senator John McCain, September 25, 2013.  Video, quotes, and commentary by "Owen" at  Carbonated TV, a CNN site
 

"Do you argue to win?"  

Over thirty years of my asking that question, thousands of middle school students have said, not just yes, but heck, yes (to avoid demerits for stronger language).   

When I point out that the Constitution and Justice systems of our nation are built on the idea that we argue to find the truth, young students are baffled.   It's the simple idea (on which science is based) that truth emerges from fair, informed, reasonable debate.  From TV and bumper stickers, they thought our nation was built on "God, guns, and guts" or else something vague like "freedom" which seventh graders hear as "unfettered access for me to get stuff." 

"Freedom" is another word for mutual respect, period.   Anything else is license or privilege. 

Respect for each individual person means respecting property and freedom of speech; it comes with the responsibility to respect the others'. Inevitable collisions between a majority of people in a community and those in the minority will have to be resolved in compromise, arrived at through a process of, you guessed it, fair, informed, reasonable debate.

Though this process has frequently been marred by repression and violent conflict, US history is largely the story of our growing into "a more perfect union" in which fair, informed, reasonable debate can involve all who live here. 
 
Name-calling, obstruction of those procedures, gross generalizations, and the "win-at-all-costs" mindset poison the process.  They poison the spirit of the process.

Senator John McCain recently stood before the Senate to remind those who call themselves Conservative what Conservatism used to mean.  Responding to some twerp in his party who equated a stand against "Obamacare" with the stand that Germans should have made against Hitler (!), McCain methodically enumerates the ways in which fair, informed, reasonable debate and also compromise resulted in the Affordable Care Act. 

McCain cites more than a year of working through committees and hearings, a month of focused debate (weekends included), and dozens of Republican amendments accepted by the Democratic majority.  

McCain reminds his colleagues that the healthcare reform was a major issue in the last campaign.  "The people spoke... and re-elected the President," McCain concludes, adding, "much to my dismay."  He doesn't like it, but will he obstruct the law from going into effect?
"Elections have consequences," he admonishes those hotheads, and "respect [the] outcome of elections that reflect the will of the people."


That's real conservatism.  That's what makes America exceptional.  Those other guys who call themselves conservative?  They need to go back to seventh grade.