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


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.