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.


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
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.