Last Night at the Festival

We performed “Two Songs from Speakeasy” at the LES (Lower East Side) Festival at the Theater for the New City last night (The festival continues through Sunday at the TNC).  Big crowd, big ovation, it was fun and sweet and short.  Here are some pictures, links to the songs that were sung, and an approximation of what was said:

Rachel Green and Andrea Pinyan

Rachel Green and Andrea Pinyan

ANDREA: Hello, I’m Andrea Pinyan.

RACHEL:  I’m Rachel Green, and we will be singing two songs from the new musical “Speakeasy” by Danny Ashkenasi, who’s at the piano.

(Danny waves to the audience)

ANDREA: “Speakeasy” reimagines Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” as the adventures of newlyweds John and Jane Allison in a fantastical version of Jazz Age New York, a time of defying Prohibition and exploding sexual boundaries.

RACHEL: First we will sing “Wonderland”, sung by Speakeasy’s version of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, The Tweedle Sisters, performers at the Wonderland nightclub.

(Wonderland, as performed by Rachel and Andrea on the Speakeasy demo recordings:)

 (Although I should note that we sang the corrected lyrics last night.)

LES 3

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FIRST GRADE OPERA #3: Mermaids and Blue Sharks and Red Sharks, Oh My!

“And when a mermaid bumps

Into a blue shark

They kiss”

Class 1-3’s opera this year opens with a rather prettily moody song* (for first grade) about the Mermaid Castle and the Mermaids and Blue Sharks who cavort merrily within (for more on the other First Grade Operas and how they are created, read this and this).

1-3 Song 1

But their idyll is threatened.  The Red Sharks are planning an attack, eager to take the Mermaid treasure that the Red Sharks claim is really their great great grandfathers’.

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SPEAKEASY songs to be performed this Friday at the LES Festival

THE GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY (US 1929) WARNER BROS Picture from the Ronald Grant Archive

Two songs from my musical “Speakeasy – the Adventures of John and Jane Allison” will be performed at the Lower East Side Festival at the Theater for the New City.

Andrea Pinyan and Rachel Green will perform the songs “Wonderland” and “My Passion” at around 8:15pm this Friday, May 22.

Entrance is FREE(!) Friday as it is for every day of the three day festival.

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Forbidden Movies, Forbidden Music

I walked out of the Film Forum mind abuzz and guts churning.   I was chewing on a whole lot of food for thought as well as the ice cream melt I bought to soothe my emotion roiled innards. I’d just seen “Forbidden Films”, the documentary about Nazi propaganda movies that are still deemed too toxic to release unrestricted to general audiences. The Film Forum in Manhattan is showing it this week, and most unusually you can see it free of charge.  However, like me, you may purchase comfort food at their in-house bakery afterward.

forbidden filmsI don’t know what is more awful, the horrific Nazi propaganda – anti-semitic, anti-Polish, anti-English etc. – writ large in the scenes I saw, or the artistry with which they were made.  Truly awful in both senses at times.  I will not soon forget the beautifully lit, beautifully acted scene of the tear-stained girl giving a heartfelt plea for living in a German village surrounded only by Germans, not having to listen to Yiddish or Polish anymore.  Awful.  But cinematically as beautifully made as Ingrid Bergman crying in Casablanca.

I should not describe more.  It gets worse, much worse.  And these scenes are best viewed in the context of this documentary, which delves deeply into the debate of why these movies remain forbidden, only occasionally allowed to be seen within the context of a curated screening.  Experts and audiences and ex-Neo-Nazis (who had engaged in an underground market of these films) in Germany, France and Israel react to and debate the wisdom of keeping these films restricted or allowing them to be more widely seen and discussed.  People on all sides of the issue make compelling arguments.  If you don’t see “Forbidden Films”, I recommend reading the New York Times article on the subject and its review of the documentary.

Feuerzangenbowle1200 movies were made under the Nazi regime.  Only 40 are still “forbidden”.  I remember growing up in Berlin seeing several German movies made between 1933-1945.  For example “Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war” (The Man who was Sherlock Holmes) and “Die Feuerzangenbowle” (The Fire Tongs Bowl), two hugely popular Heinz Ruehman comedies that don’t appear to have any objectionable propaganda content (in fact “Die Feuerzangenbowle” was almost forbidden by the Nazis because an official thought all the tomfoolery the schoolboys engage in was too disrespectful of authority).  Yet my strongest memory of “Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war” is the moment a German boy’s stamp expertise is what allows the movie’s (fake) Sherlock Holmes to solve the case.  Why was that plot twist added in a film that otherwise had nothing to do with Germany?  And I still remember with discomfort the moment when the “cool” teacher, the only adult in “Die Feuerzangenbowle” who is sympathetic, gives a speech at the end of the movie about how best to mold the minds and character of young men, a moment that raised mental alarm bells when I saw this film at sixteen with my friends at a sold out screening at the Waldbuehne Amphitheater.  Even in movies designed as non-political escapism, the tenor and prejudice of the time and place of their making would creep in.

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Five Reasons to be GLEE-ful!

Ed and I watched every episode of Glee.  We remained loyal throughout its wild upswings and downturns in popularity and storytelling.  Being of a generation that grew up with few television shows of a musical nature to turn to, and even fewer or none that regularly explored LGBT themes, we greatly appreciated how Glee tilled new territory on both fronts.   Glee may have wrong-footed itself more than once as a soap opera, yet nothing bothered me as much as Mrs. Shue’s fake pregnancy early in the first season, so every plot twist after that I would take with the requisite grains of salt; and by the last season Glee basically directly and cheekily told its audience to do the same.

So even if the storyline could be a hot mess, Glee succeeded by getting so much so wonderfully, movingly right when it came to diversity and music.  Glee picked up the LGBT TV baton from Ellen and Will and Grace and ran with it, dealing with stories of coming out, sexuality, gay marriage and transgender characters in ways that kept pushing the envelope, and ultimately mainstreamed those stories for the rest of the TV landscape (that 200 strong transgender chorus singing “I Know Where I’ve Been” during one of the last episodes was a testament to how Glee remained on the vanguard of LGBT issues on TV for its time).

Glee cast 3

And Glee was also consistently strong in its musical performances, featuring a diverse cast of powerhouse talents performing a diverse program of popular music.  Glee’s musical selections would reach back to the golden age of musicals through to today’s most recent pop hits.  Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Jazz, Pop, Hip-Hop, Rock, all were created equally according to Glee, perhaps homogenized a bit by dint of being arranged and performed by the same general group of people, but mostly celebrated as a wide field of musical expression.  In doing so Glee helped unify and democratize the landscape of pop music that had recently become more balkanized in media outlets.  “The young kids” would be introduced to some of the classics or songs in genres they normally avoided, while “old fogies” like me would get their first introduction to some of the latest pop culture hits, sometimes within not just the same episode but within the same musical number.  Occasionally Glee managed to cover a new song even before it reached its greatest popularity, perhaps contributing to its assent up the pop charts through the exposure.

So to show my appreciation of Glee I thought it would be fun to highlight five musical numbers from the show that I not only personally enjoyed but also are representative as a group of what made Glee such an enjoyable place to tune into.  I quickly realized that limiting the number to five would force me to leave out many tracks I would sorely wish to include.  So a sequel (or two) to this post is probably likely in my future…

But here goes, Five Reasons to be Glee-ful:

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THE SOUND OF MUSIC: Embracing the “Sugarcoated Lie”

Die_Trapp_Familie_PosterEd and I were in Berlin* a couple years ago visiting my folks when we stumbled upon a German movie from the 1950s being shown on TV.   We missed the first seconds of the credit sequence and so didn’t catch the title, but something about the opening shots of Austrian mountains and buildings felt familiar.  Then the story introduced us to a novice named Maria.  She doesn’t fit in well in the convent with the other nuns, and so the Mother Superior forces her to take a position as a governess to the seven children of a retired Austrian naval officer.

Ed and I started thinking, my does this look familiar, could it be…?  Maria gets on well with the kids and teaches them to sing Austrian folk songs, but she clashes with their father who eventually sends her back to the convent. Then he realizes he’s in love with Maria and they marry.  But then the Nazis take over Austria… By now it was undeniable, this is The Sound of Music, except of course it wasn’t.   After the movie ended Ed and I looked up the German TV guide: turns out this film is Die Trapp-Familie, the first film to be made about the famous van Trapp family, and a big success in German cinemas in 1956, so big in fact they filmed a sequel: Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika.

And without Die Trapp-Familie there would be no The Sound of Music.   It was the German movie that attracted the attention of the original producers of the musical who brought the project to Rodgers and Hammerstein.   It was astounding to Ed and me to see how much the plot of The Sound of Music resembles Die Trapp-Familie.  Except in the German original the van Trapp house is a fine mansion but not the palatial estate of the musical, and the van Trapp children’s names and ages are truer to history.  Both movies end with the van Trapp family fleeing Nazi occupied Austria after the Germans try to force van Trapp (Baron van Trapp in the original, Captain van Trapp in the musical) to join the German military, but in Die Trapp-Familie we see the family get stranded on Ellis Island in danger of being deported.  They are only allowed to enter the United States after they sing for a New York talent agent who puts them under contract.

When The Sound of Music was released it broke the all time box office record Gone with the Wind had held onto for 25 years.  Critics were mixed on the movie – Pauline Kael famously branded it a “sugarcoated lie” – but audiences all over the world embraced it.  Well, almost all over the world.  Germany and Austria never much cared for The Sound of Music, preferring the original Die Trapp-Familie.

Which explains why I, growing up in Germany in the 1970s, was a stranger to The Sound of Music.   I avidly watched every musical German TV aired, but The Sound of Music wasn’t one of them.  (I also have no memory of Die Trapp-Famile airing on TV, but I was less likely to watch a German “Heimat-Film” from the 1950s than I was to turn on the TV for a Hollywood product.)

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More fun with FIRST GRADE OPERAS: the King, the Queen and the Wacky Witch

KING COFFERN (looking through his special magnifying glass):

“I want to find a queen who is beautiful and kind.  Let’s see what Queens I can find with my magnifying glass.  All right let’s see … here’s a Queen … hmmm, knows too much … how about this Queen? She cheats in cards – no thanks! Let’s try this Queen … looks like she never showers!  Pee-ew!  I’ll try again.  At last! There she is! That Queen is perfect!”

1-2-1a

And so begins the second First Grade Opera performed this year (read more about how the first graders create their operas here), with King Coffern finding Queen Rose with his special magnifying glass and then singing “Love is Magical”, an unusually romantic tune for First Grade Operas.  Before I continue with the story, I should explain that when the child acting the King sings his song the whole class sings along with him.  When we perform First Grade Operas every song is sung collectively, with the “soloists” acting out the song.  The roles are also shared, with several children tag team performing each character during the course of the show.  This way every child in the class gets a solo moment even though there are on average only 4 – 6 different characters in any First Grade Opera.

But back to this opera: before King Coffern can present himself to Queen Rose, her land is rattled by a massive earthquake:

1-2-2

After this disaster Queen Rose can’t find her parents.  King Coffern uses his magnifying glass to locate Queen Rose’s parents:

QUEEN ROSE: There’s a worm wearing a cardboard box!  But where are my parents?

KING COFFERN: There’s an elephant with a tutu!  But where are your parents?

QUEEN COFFERN: There they are! My father is stuck in an earthquake crack and my mother is trying to pull him out!

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SPEAKEASY and the “breaking into song with music out of nowhere” musical trope

Alice goes through... Alice goes through the looking glass                            Alice goes through the Looking Glass

JANE (puts the Drink Me bottle back onto the little table):

How much hooch will I have to down before I get to the Wonderland?

(singing) WHAT ARE THESE DRINKS THAT I’M DRINKING

THESE THOUGHTS I AM THINKING

WHAT WHERE AM I NOW?

Oh. I’m singing! Fun!

 

Elsewhere John is wandering alone in the maze.

 

JOHN:

I wonder if I’ve changed somehow?

(singing) WAS I THE SAME WHEN I GOT UP THIS MORNING

BUT IF I’M NOT WHO AM I NOW?

I can’t be the same. I’m actually singing. I don’t do that, do I?

The above is an excerpt from the musical Speakeasy – the Adventures of John and Jane Allison in the Wonderland, a Roaring Twenties adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books featuring two Alices, the newlyweds John and Jane Allison.  Jane has just “gone through the rabbit hole” at the same time John has slipped “through the looking glass”, and they find themselves in a magical dream world where time and space and identity don’t follow regular rules (to read more about Speakeasy, you can access additional posts about the musical by selecting “the Speakeasy Chronicles” in the category sidebar).

In addition to the mind bending shifts of time and space as well as the shifting understanding of who they are that John and Jane experience while in the Wonderland dream, they also experience the actuality of music accompanying their activities and the seeming normalness of they themselves and the people they meet easily breaking into accompanied song.  Which of course is rather convenient for the drama, as Speakeasy is a musical.

During the excerpt above, John and Jane, in separate areas of the magical world they slipped into, for the first time experience themselves unexpectedly warbling snatches of song, and remark upon it.  Jane finds this amusing, but John is a little more alarmed.

Eventually Jane will meet up with Roberta White (Speakeasy’s version of Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit), who will consciously start up a jazzy song by snapping her fingers and calling out “Hit it!” to an invisible but responsive orchestra. John will meet Julian Carnation and three gay florists (Speakeasy’s version of Through the Looking Glass’ Red Queen and Flowers).  Before they regale John with a song of their own, Julian will remark upon the orchestra playing the introductory measures: “And there’s the cue. We’ll make our point musically.”

After that John and Jane will be deeply enough immersed in the strange rules of time, space, and music of this world to turn their initial snatches of melody into a questing song of their own, Curious Colorful Night:

 

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How Cabaret circumvented the “characters breaking into song” musical trope

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret

When people who say they hate musicals explain why they hate musicals they usually fall back on this well-worn reason: it is unrealistic that characters just break into song and dance; this doesn’t happen in “real life”.  I find this a rather eye-rollingly lazy reason to reject musicals as an art form.  Do we reject comedies because in real life people generally don’t engage in hilarious dialog and pratfalls?  Do we reject action films because in real life all those extreme stunts just don’t keep occurring like that?  Do we reject horror films because there is just no such thing as zombies and mummies and vampires (never mind that they are a reflection of our subconscious desires just as much as a song is in a musical).  If you hate jokes, fine, reject comedies.  If you don’t want to watch violence, fine, reject action films (like my mother-in-law does).  If you hate being scared, for heaven’s sake, avoid horror movies.  And if you don’t like music, avoid musicals.  But if you do like music (and really, most everybody does), it doesn’t make sense to reject all musicals just because people sing in them.  People breaking into song in musicals is as much a suspend-your-disbelief integral element as all the other suspend-your-disbelief elements we accept to enjoy genres of art, or even the basic tools of the language of cinema, like editing, lighting or musical scoring.  Or as one blog post I found that goes into great detail defining various musical tropes puts it: “Musicals have songs in them – just go with it.”

That said (or vented), there is at least one musical that most stringently circumvents the “characters breaking in to song” trope.  Cabaret is chock-full of brilliantly realized musical numbers, but all of them are performed “realistically” within the context of a performance actually happening as naturally as any other interaction between characters in the real world.  If you absolutely must avoid suspending your disbelief at seeing “characters break into song” when “in real life” they wouldn’t, couldn’t ever do that, then I invite you to watch the movie adaptation of Cabaret.  It also just happens to be one of the greatest musicals (or movies) ever made.

Joel Grey as the M.C. with the Kit Kat Girls

Joel Grey as the M.C. with the Kit Kat Girls

The stage version of Cabaret, a big hit on Broadway in 1966, was a traditional musical where characters would burst into song.  It also included scenes in the Kit Kat Club, a seedy Weimar Berlin cabaret, where the creepy Master of Ceremonies (played by Joel Grey on stage as well as on screen), the Kit Kat Girls and Sally Bowles (played by Liza Minnelli in the movie) would perform numbers that would comment on the musical’s narrative.  These numbers were therefore not suspend-your-disbelief moments of characters breaking into song unrealistically, but real life performances at the Kit Kat Club, which was as much a real setting of the musical as the boarding house where Sally resided.

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