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More On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 28, 2004

More On Sweeney Todd

As I noted here a week ago after arriving at the party a full quarter-century late, I’m much taken with Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and spent the last week engrossed in a sort of saturation involvement with the work. I first came to it several weeks ago via a TV version done originally for the Entertainment Channel with George Hearn in the title role, and the incomparable Angela Lansbury — about whose stellar performance I cannot even begin to speak without sounding like a gibbering groupie or movie fan — as the very creepy but curiously charming Mrs. Lovett.

Although I could see instantly this was no ordinary Broadway musical (an art form I find vapid and tiresome and have little patience with, even with the best of its examples), I was at first confused by that TV production because something important was missing; something I sensed (but of course couldn’t know) was essential. And what was missing, I decided, was the orchestra, which in this TV production is barely audible. For the typical Broadway musical that would not be a serious problem (as opposed to being merely a problem) as the orchestra for such is not much more than fill accompaniment, much like the orchestra in a typical Italian opera. For both, it’s the songs and singers that are important, and as long as they’re fully intact, and the stagework what it should be, all is well.

Not the case with Sweeney Todd, I conjectured.

And I conjectured correctly, for after purchasing the original cast CD album (also starring Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, but with Len Cariou in the title role), and for the first time being able to hear that orchestra, I understood at once just how important it is to the work, which is to say Wagnerian-important, as I remarked previously. The very heart of the work’s narrative, emotional, and dramatic core is contained within the orchestral music in Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant orchestration, and a comprehensible Sweeney even partially absent that orchestral music is to me inconceivable.

More generally, Sondheim’s music for Sweeney, melodically and harmonically, is even today atypically avant-garde for the Broadway stage (and the choral writing especially complex), and utilizes forms ranging from the Dies Irae of the Gregorian Requiem Mass (a prominent idée fixe cum leitmotif in the Sweeney score) to love ballads sacred, profane, and perverse — the “Johanna” ballads sung by Anthony (sacred) and Judge Turpin (profane and perverse), “My Friends” (perverse), “Wait” (sacred, in a Mrs. Lovett creepy way), “Not While I’m Around” (sacred when sung by Tobias; perverse (and creepy) when sung by Mrs. Lovett) — to Broadway “jump tunes” (“By the Sea”), as I’ve heard this form referred to by Broadway mavens, to the big Broadway production number (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”, “God, That’s Good!”), to extended Broadway comic numbers (“The Worst Pies in London”, “A Little Priest”), and even to Old English folk ballads (“Parlor Songs”), and a kind of Chanson (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”). Thanks to Sondheim’s and Tunick’s rare and original treatment, however (and Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics which everywhere are pure magic), all these familiar forms take on a character and coloring markedly unlike that which their provenance would suggest.

And both Sondheim and Tunick are not above, um, “borrowing,” at times almost verbatim, from the music of composers such as Bernard Hermann (from the scores of the movies Cape Fear and Psycho) and Gian Carlo Menotti (from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors), to name just two that I recognized immediately.

In all, a rich and veritable musical smorgasbord almost without parallel in the Broadway musical theater — at least as far as it’s known to me.

To thoroughly familiarize myself with this new-to-me work, I began by following my usual procedure with any new musical work, which is to first listen several times through to get the work’s overall shape. Having done that, I proceeded to embark on my usual next step: a study of the full score — and was stopped dead in my tracks. It seems there’s no full score to be had, the only score available for purchase being the piano (vocal) score; almost useless for the study of a work such as Sweeney. Worse, it seems that in all probability there’s no full score even extant — for purchase, rent, or otherwise — or so I was informed by a professional acquaintance of mine with many years experience conducting non-Broadway productions of Broadway musicals (he informs me, for instance, that not until the mid-1980s was there available a full score for even so classic a Broadway musical as Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 West Side Story(!)).

For a classical musician, such a state of affairs is both astonishing and incomprehensible. How, for instance, does one prepare for a performance absent a full score? And absent a full score how is the original orchestration preserved across performances in various venues?

The answer, it seems, is the rental of a copy of the original handwritten(!) full score from the designated agent, from whom all the orchestral parts must also be rented, and all that available only to a theater company that intends actually producing the work. It seems the matter of copyright infringement (i.e., performances unauthorized and/or unpaid for) is the specter ostensibly being protected against by this misguided practice (misguided because, especially today, there’s nothing to prevent unauthorized copy of such rented material. And even if only the parts were rentable, nothing to prevent utilizing them to readily “reverse-engineer” a full score).

But as in all things, old practices don’t go easily or willingly into that good night, and in the meantime seriously interested amateurs such as myself (not to speak of genuine students who want to make the Broadway musical theater their life’s work) are royally screwed, and have no choice but to make do with a piano score, as totally inadequate as it most decidedly is for a work as complex as Sweeney Todd.

Major bummer.

Anyway, more on Sweeney to come anon. But for now, enough.

Posted in Music, Opera, Theater | Comments Off on More On Sweeney Todd

A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 23, 2004

A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Had anyone suggested to me before yesterday that I’d spend two consecutive days listening four times through a complete Stephen Sondheim musical — listening in the same way I listen through, say, a complete Wagner opera — I would have thought that person lunatic.

But that’s just what I’ve finished doing, and I can report (and, yes, I know just how late to the party I am) Sweeney Todd is a veritable wonder, and the original cast CD (RCA) a wonder as well. The audio is sterling, and the performances first-rate all round, vocally and dramatically, the chorus most decidedly included. And Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett — an impossible role, vocally and dramatically — is done so superbly the performance beggars adequate description or praise.

But most amazing of all is the orchestral music; music as dramatically Wagnerian-integral to the play as anything any of Wagner’s successors ever wrote. The music itself is astonishingly rich, complex, and difficult, and here performed to utter perfection by this supplemented pit band conducted by Paul Gemignani (a name unknown to me); a performance, ensemble-wise, the equal of, or better than, any of this country’s major symphony orchestras.

I’m totally blown away by Sweeney, and haven’t finished with it yet.

Posted in Music, Opera, Recordings, Theater | Comments Off on A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

A Modest Proposal

Posted by acdtest on December 15, 2003

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Opera, Theater, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on A Modest Proposal

A Postmodern Director Speaks

Posted by acdtest on November 24, 2003

A Postmodern Director Speaks

t will come as no revelation to any regular reader of this weblog that I’ve here often expressed my extreme displeasure with — my contempt for — so-called Eurotrash productions of the great Wagner masterpieces and other masterpieces of the stage by other creators, and laid the impetus for such at the feet of self-involved, self-serving directors who thought their “vision” more important and more pertinent than that of the geniuses responsible for the creation of those deathless masterpieces. It never once occurred to me, however, that the motivation for the outrageous vandalism and displays of the grotesque “vision” of those directors could in fact have stemmed from basically well-intentioned if egregiously wrongheaded, self-delusional thinking on their part. Seems I perhaps may have been a bit shortsighted in the matter generally.

Or was I?

The breakthrough in my thinking on Shakespeare [writes stage director Michael Bogdanov] came with a lavish production of Romeo and Juliet in 1974 at the newly opened Haymarket Theatre in Leicester….

[…]

In rehearsal the story had been coming over hard, clear and very exciting.

[…]

When the production moved from the rehearsal room and arrived on to the stage, somehow the clarity and the hardness, the linear quality of the story, had gone. What was more, audiences weren’t responding to either the production or the play. At the last moment, after the very final preview, I cut the whole of the end scene, where the Friar recaps the story for the benefit of Escalus and, after the death of Juliet, I switched to a press conference around the unveiling of the two gold statues that Capulet and Montague erect to the memory of each other’s child.

Rock music built to a climax during a blackout and, when the lights came up, the entire company was assembled in modern dress in front of Romeo and Juliet, now dressed in gold cloaks and masks standing on the erstwhile tomb. Muzak played: “Fly Me to the Moon” . . . Escalus, the Duke, read the prologue as an epilogue from a cue card, as if inaugurating at an unveiling ceremony. The main protagonists were photographed in front of the statues, shaking hands, the Nurse holding up a rope ladder, Escalus attempting to bring about the familial reconciliation with a three-way hand clasp. The smile of Jimmy Carter handing over the presidency to Reagan.

The transformation had an extraordinary effect. People in the audience shouted, people walked out, people cheered, people bravoed, people booed, and I thought: “For three hours they have been bored out of their minds and suddenly something has challenged them. A moment of real theatre.”

The above was taken from a reprint in The Guardian of a discursive, edited extract from Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut, by Michael Bogdanov, published by Capercaillie Books. On reading it, one hardly knows whether to laugh, rail, or weep. “Suddenly something…challenged them. A moment of real theatre”(!)? What is that? Some sort of joke? Is Bogdanov being self-delusional, simpleminded, or just plain lunatic? Or is he simply self-servingly offering up a veiled apologia for his own self-involved, self-serving corruption of a masterwork?

Seems to me that any honest, conscientious director who found that when his production of a work by Shakespeare (Shakespeare, for chrissake!) “moved from the rehearsal room and arrived on to the stage, somehow the clarity and the hardness, the linear quality of the story, had gone…[and] audiences weren’t responding to either the production or the play,” would look for the fault elsewhere rather than come to the astonishing conclusion that Shakespeare or his centuries-acknowledged, timeless and universal masterpiece was somehow at fault for not speaking to a contemporary audience. After all, we’re here talking about a play that in its unadulterated form has captured the imagination and riveted the attention of countless numbers of audiences for more than four centuries now. What strange and anomalous circumstance could possibly account for its sudden failure to do so at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester in 1974?

Golly. That’s a tough one to suss out. I’ll take a stab at it, though, by suggesting that perhaps the failure was neither Shakespeare’s nor the play’s, but entirely that of the director and his actors. I mean, that doesn’t sound an at all unreasonable suggestion, does it?

Well, perhaps to Mr. Bogdanov it would.

We’re in mortal peril today, boys and girls, of seeing, at the hands of such as Mr. Bogdanov, the disappearance of all that’s important and meaningful in our great legacy of stage masterworks from times past. By the attempts of such auteurs as Mr. Bogdanov to peddle their own piddling and inconsequential “vision” at the expense of those masterworks, and in place of the vision of their creators, and by their resorting to mass-market prole pandering to attract a larger audience for their productions, we’ll not have to wait for Armageddon to bring an end to our great legacy from the past.

Should we be even the least bit concerned about that? I mean, they’re only entertainments, after all.

Uh-huh. And the blood that courses through our veins is merely a salty, liquid reminder of our unimaginably ancient ocean-borning, and nothing more.

Should we be the least bit concerned?

Not exactly.

Afraid is what we should be. Very afraid.

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Theater | Comments Off on A Postmodern Director Speaks

Revisiting Godot

Posted by acdtest on January 3, 2003

Revisiting Godot

t’s been ages since I last saw a stage production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and so it was with some measure of excited anticipation that I looked forward to PBS’s airing of the Michael Lindsay-Hogg film adaptation of the play on the new PBS series Stage On Screen which I saw last night after tuning in some ten minutes late, the fault of a stopped clock that shouldn’t have been. And what a first-rate realization it was, too. Oh, there was some careless thinking involved in the mise en scène (too busy and populated), and some equally careless thinking involved with some of the camera viewpoints (too many medium closeups and medium shots, and not nearly enough establishing shots — in this case establishing the intimate identity of the physical, emotional, and spiritual landscapes, an identity crucial to this play), but these are mere quibbles.* The performances by all were stellar, and it was especially gratifying to hear the lines of the two protagonists, Vladimir (Barry McGovern) and Estragon (Johnny Murphy), spoken in Irish-inflected English as the inflection gives special point and poignancy to the vaudevillian character of many of the exchanges.

The play itself is nothing short of a prodigy. Easily one of the most profound and suggestive plays of the 20th century, and among the most profound and suggestive ever. Right up there with Shakespeare’s best in that regard. The dialogue is a marvel as well, and contains worlds in its concise, tightly coiled lines; lines that pierce heart, mind, and soul as with daggers even as they entertain. A neat trick, that, and a Beckettean specialty.

Volumes could be written on analyses of Godot, and volumes already have (a Google search on the play’s title turned up some 33,600 entries). I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve never read an analysis of the play. I don’t yet know it well enough for that, and have still to reach my own conclusions on many points before reading the conclusions of others better qualified. In talking with some acquaintances about the play, however, it seems the focal point for them all is Lucky’s “think” of Act I. I’ll grant it’s one helluva think, but what I found so marvelous about it seems to have passed by (or over) most, their concern being the deciphering of the think’s actual content, which to my way of thinking (sorry!) misses the think’s point, its point being — by way of savage (but hilarious) parodying of form (academic and “learned” discourse) and substance (theology, philosophy, politics, and science) resolving to word-salad gibberish — the futility of man’s resort to and reliance on faith and reason to make sense of and give meaning to an otherwise irrational and meaningless universe.

There’s a key to understanding this play, I think, and that key is an understanding of the characters Pozzo and Lucky (wonderfully played in this production by Alan Stanford and Stephen Brennan, respectively), and their part in this tragicomedy. Just who are they, and what are they doing there? Estragon (in Act II) thinks Pozzo might have been Godot himself. Vladimir dismisses the suggestion immediately, but then, in rapid stages, becomes less and less sure. For my part, Pozzo and Lucky seem a shared vision vouchsafed by Whatever to Vladimir and Estragon, and to us as well; a vision of the reality of what Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for as it really is, as opposed to what they’re expecting it to be. Pozzo as Godot incarnate, and Lucky as the incarnate whole of mankind that is Vladimir and Estragon — and us. Part (but only part) of my reason for reaching that conclusion is that Beckett puts into the mouth of Pozzo (in Act II) the most searing lines in all of Godot, and the most horrific ever uttered by any character in any play whatsoever:

(Spoken to Vladimir in a fury) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he [Lucky] went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer, and more to himself) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Take particular note of the “they”.

That simultaneously searing and chilling speech is the play’s climax, its crisis, after which Pozzo and Lucky exit the tragicomedy, and it’s left to Vladimir to complete the horrific image for himself while Estragon sleeps:

(Vladimir looks at Estragon sleeping) He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. (Pause) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at the sleeping Estragon) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause) I can’t go on!

But he will. He’s seen a glimmer of the appalling truth; more than is seen by most, but, still, it’s insufficient to murder hope (incarnate in the figure of the young boy who is Godot’s messenger). He will go on, as will Estragon. Godot hasn’t come today, but he’ll come tomorrow. And when he does, they’ll be there to meet him and so be saved. This they believe because they can’t believe otherwise and still go on.

Nor can we.

*I subsequently saw this production for the second time, and was struck by two rather serious flaws missed on first viewing (because unconsciously “corrected” by me): Pozzo’s Act II exit speech, and Vladimir’s following reflection/ epiphany — critical moments in the play. Both disregarded Beckett’s stage directions, and in consequence not only failed of their full effect and impact, but changed their meaning. Extraordinary that the disregarding was permitted.

Posted in Television, Theater | Comments Off on Revisiting Godot