SPEAKEASY – The Irony of the Young Lovers’ Duets

Curious Colorful Night – It’s a Dream – Momentary Bliss

Three lovers’ duets that are not what they seem to the ear

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Ah, young lovers’ duets.  A hallmark of musicals, especially those of the 1920s and 1930s, and so of course also of the musical “Speakeasy – John and Jane’s Adventures in the Wonderland”, set in Prohibition era New York, and influenced by the magical realism of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

The story of Speakeasy opens with young ingenues, newlyweds John and Jane Allison, who are very much in love, but who, after individual moments of erotic indiscretion find themselves thrust down a rabbit hole or through a looking glass into a dream-like, disorienting world of New York City’s queer speakeasy subculture.

John and Jane, exploring this world separately, quickly discover that the rules of time and space don’t quite apply anymore.  They also discover that in this world they can sing to express their feelings (why, we must be in a musical!), and after Jane encounters her friend Roberta White preparing to go slumming in Harlem, and John encounters a gaggle of gay florists preparing for the drag ball, the newlyweds sing about this curious night they are experiencing.  (The use of the word curious in the title phrase, and its exaggerated amplification in the lyric “I’m drawn to follow you, curious, then even curiouser, to the curioust sight” is obviously a conscious nod to Lewis Carroll’s “cuiouser and curiouser”, just like everything that happens to John and Jane is rooted in the Carroll books as well as Roaring Twenties queer subculture.)

Curious Colorful Night

 

CURIOUS COLORFUL NIGHT

 

JANE:

WHAT IS THIS WORLD THAT I FELL INTO

WHERE THERE’S NO TELLING WHO

WHAT WHEN AND HOW

WHAT ARE THESE PLACES THAT AWE ME

WITH FACES THAT DRAW ME

TO FOLLOW THEM NOW

 

CURIOUS COLORFUL NIGHT

SHININGLY CLEVERLY BRIGHT

I’M DRAWN TO FOLLOW YOU

CURIOUS, THEN EVEN CURIOUSER TO THE CURIOUST SIGHT

 

JOHN:

WHAT IS THIS PLACE I HAVE LANDED IN

STRANGE WORLD I’M STRANDED IN

WHERE DO I GO

WHO ARE THOSE CREATURES COMPELLING ME

ODD FLOWERS TELLING ME

WHAT I DON’T KNOW

 

CURIOUS COLORFUL NIGHT

FUNNY FANTASTICAL SIGHT

I GROW DELERIOUS

SWEETLY UNSERIOUS

FOLLOWING CURIOUS GLITTERING LIGHT 

 

 

JOHN AND JANE:

CURIOUS COLORFUL SIGHT

MAKE ME A SEEKER TONIGHT

I’LL GO ALONG

BE IT RIGHT, BE IT WRONG

YOU HAVE TAUGHT ME THE SONG

OF YOUR WONDEROUS LIGHT

 

It sounds like a sweet duet for our ingenues, one in which their voices come together in the final chorus for mutual affirmation of purpose.  Almost, but not quite.  The formatting in the lyrics echoes what would also be clear in the staging if not clear through merely listening to the song.  Jane and John are in separate parts of the magical world they have entered.  They are not (yet) aware that their spouse, too, has been weirdly thrust into a strange new world they find odd yet also oddly compelling, and one they choose to continue exploring.  The audience alone gets to see them both, together but not together, separately and simultaneously compelled and confounded by the adventures that follow.

 

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Jane and John Allison (in last year’s Speakeasy workshop)

This musical irony of Jane and John singing harmonious duets unaware of each other is carried through much of “Speakeasy”.  Several numbers also involving many other characters include John and Jane duetting their reactions, musically congruent, yet unsettlingly unaware of another, as their actions take them further down paths exploring non-heteronormative environments and activities (i.e. the queer subculture) always experienced separately, but witnessed simultaneously by the audience.

And as the couple further explores “this world [they] fell into” (and the audience starts to wonder how all this will inevitably effect their relationship) they get physically and emotionally entangled in the affairs of brash lesbian night club singer Duchess Bentley and famed female impersonator Julian Carnation.  Act One nearly ends with Jane dancing with Duchess and John dancing with Julian in the Wonderland nightclub, blissfully unaware their spouse is in the same nightclub also dancing with someone of the same sex.  John and Jane realize they are crossing dangerous emotional lines here, but they allow themselves to indulge this bliss because they reckon it’s all only a dream they are dreaming, not really real:

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SPEAKEASY – Advice from a (Lesbian) Caterpillar

Two songs from “Speakeasy” explore two sides of a closeted 1920’s lesbian

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For many years I hoped to write a musical about the queer subculture of Roaring Twenties New York, but didn’t find my “in” until I came upon the idea of adapting Lewis Carroll’s two “Alice” books as a magical realist template for exploring that world.  Alice became a young newlywed couple, John and Jane Allison, with “Wonderland” inspiring Jane’s trip down the queer rabbit hole, and “Through the Looking Glass” pointing the way for John.

And so I began work on the musical I would eventually call Speakeasy (with various reworkings of the subtitle, currently settled on “John and Jane’s Adventures in the Wonderland”).  Yet before I made any decisions on story, characters, songs, I needed to immerse myself in the little known history of LGBTQ life in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  I spent a year just doing research, and learned an awful lot about the social and sexual mores of the era as well as its (in)famous queer cultural provocateurs.  Much of this research made its way through a magical realist Carrollesque lens into the musical (and much of which has already been discussed in this blog).

1800s friendsSometimes this research took me into even earlier times, for need of greater context.  Which is how I learned about the “female friendships” of the 19th century.  These would be intense relationships between two women, in school or college, that could be as deeply bonded as any traditionally romantic or familial bond.  Publicly these “female friendships” could exhibit all the hallmarks of romance: physical affection, love letters, lavishing gifts on another, intense jealousies, sharing beds, displays of devastating heartbreak when relationships dissolved.  Society approved and encouraged these “female friendships” as a way for young women to exercise romantic proclivities within the safety of sorority, away from male temptation. That these friendships could become sexual was not imagined.  That doesn’t mean however that some of these female friendships didn’t become sexual.

1850sgirlsTimes were different in the 1800’s.  Men sharing beds with men and women sharing beds with women was common.  The terms heterosexual and homosexual weren’t even coined until the end of the 19th century.  But once coined, their usage and the greater awareness of homosexual identity and activity seeped into society by the early 20th century. Intense “female friendships”, as practiced and encouraged in middle class society in the 19th century, now became tainted and suspect.  Suspicion and fear of lesbianism made something once deemed a normal rite of passage for young women now appear unhealthy and dangerous.

So by the 1920’s the practice of these intensely bonded “female friendships” was long in the past.  But I imagined a society lady old enough to have experienced it in her youth; a conservative, closeted middle age woman, so frightened of her own lesbianism that she remains consciously wholly unaware of it.  She would look back on her girlhood friendship as an ideal she could cling to while the cultural and sexual revolutions of the Roaring Twenties rage around her, confusing her with possibilities she has denied herself, while idealizing a past relationship she refuses to examine close enough to see it for all it truly is.

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Alice and the Caterpillar

For the historical aspects of “Speakeasy” she would stand in for both the influential high society ladies that helped usher in Prohibition and also later helped dismantle it when it became clear that the social ills of Prohibition were overwhelming any social good originally intended by its enacting (Prohibition and its end had profound effects on the rise and fall of 1920s/1930s queer culture, a reality I felt I needed to thread into “Speakeasy’s” narrative).  As regards to “Alice in Wonderland”, the character of the society lady would easily intersect with the Queen of Hearts in the dramatic end of the story (personifying the reactionary forces that clamped down on the free-wheeling Speakeasy culture or the Roaring Twenties).  But when Jane Allison first meets her, the society lady will intersect with the Caterpillar (who book Alice encounters in the chapter “Advice from a Caterpillar”).  And so I named the her Caroline Chrysalides.

Chrysalides is an obvious reference to the butterfly that Caroline would become if only she burst through that massive cocoon she built around her soul, and came out as the fabulous lesbian butterfly she could be.  I liked that the Caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland” imperiously insists that Alice explain who she is, just at a time when Alice has gone through so many disorienting changes she is unsure that she can “explain herself”.  There is delicious irony to transposing that conversation to Caroline Chrysalides chastising Jane on her equally currently unsteady sense of identity, when Caroline’s own true self is so woefully closeted.

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Jane and Caroline in last year’s “Speakeasy” workshop

Jane reminds Caroline of the “steady, simple girls” of her youth, so unlike the contemporary “jazzers” and “flappers” that scandalize her with their loose morals. Which leads Caroline to sing “Once I Had a Friend”, decrying the girls of today and extolling the female friendships of her youth. In song she is supported by her three attendants: a hairdresser, a tailor and a secretary (played by the same performers who we previously saw as the gay florists), who likely have a greater appreciation of the Jazz Age and the hidden, true extent of Caroline Chrysalides feelings about her girlhood friend than the protesting lady would ever consciously admit).

 

Once I Had a Friend 

 

ONCE I HAD A FRIEND

 

CAROLINE:

YOUNG WOMEN TODAY

THEY RUN AND THEY STRAY

 

ATTENDANTS:

FROM NIGHTCLUBS TO BARS AND SALOONS

 

CAROLINE:

IN MY DAY YOUNG GIRLS

WERE ELEGANT PEARLS

 

ATTENDANTS:

BUT NOW THEY’RE UNLADYLIKE LOONS

 

CAROLINE:

TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH

MY SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH

WAS AN AGE THAT PASSED FAR TOO SOON

AH, THOSE DEAR DAYS OF OLD

 

ATTENDANTS:

ERE THE WORLD GREW SO COLD

 

CAROLINE:

I SPENT WITH MY DEAR, DARLING FRIEND

WE WERE STEADY AND SWEET

 

ATTENDANTS:

INNOCENT AND DISCREET

 

CAROLINE:

BUT SCHOOLGIRL DAYS CAME TO AN END

THEN WE TOOK A NEW LIFE

AS A MOTHER AND WIFE

GAVE A SIGH AND WAVED THOSE DAYS GOOD-BYE

 

ONCE I HAD A FRIEND

A BEAUTIFUL FRIEND

A TRUE LOVING BLUE BONNET FRIEND

AND WHEN IT WAS SPRING

WE’D LAUGH AND WE’D SING

SUCH SWEET AFTERNOONS WE WOULD SPEND

AND OUR EYES WOULD SHINE

WHILE HER HAND HELD MINE

AND OUR HEARTS LIKE GARDENS WE’D TEND

LEARNING SONG AND RHYME

IN SWEET BLOSSOM TIME

MAY THE SPRING IN OUR HEARTS NEVER END

 

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RETURN OF THE ROSES

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I beg your pardon.  I never promised you a rose garden.  But we can visit one together just up the road.  And June is the time it bursts in massive, colorful bloom every year.

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Last year’s visit to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden Rose Garden resulted in a post all about “Rose” songs illustrated with rose pictures.  This year’s return visit to the rose garden at peak bloom yielded even more spectacular flower pics.  So I will post these wrapped around a repost of  “A Rose By Any Other Song Would Sound As Sweet”.

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R2It wouldn’t be a visit to the botanic garden without the obligatory “Ed sniffs a flower” picture, as my Facebook Friends have already learned to expect from us with seasonal regularly.

 

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The Brooklyn Botanic Garden in general and its Rose Garden especially are popular with brides-to-be taking their pre-wedding photos.  Channelling his best inner Edwardian, Ed wryly noted that the weddings were coming none too soon for these particular brides-to-be:

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After the break, last year’s “A Rose By Any Other Song Would Sound As Sweet”, followed by even more splendiforous pictures from this year.

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KINDERGARTEN’S POWERBALLADS

The Unlikely Occurrence of Kindergartners Composing

Two Soaring Love Songs

(and Their Perfectly Rockin’ Antidote)

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Usually five year olds consider overt declarations of love yucky.  So when kindergartners create their own original fairy tales operas, these don’t tend to end with romantic knot-tying, even if so many traditional fairy tales do.  Yes, Happily Ever Afters are really important to Kindergartners.  In the sense that all turns out alright and everybody gets along as friends in the end of any story,  so much so that even the most dastardly villains will invariably be magically turned good and join in friendship with the heroes of the story (as in this year’s previously posted K-2 fairy tale opera at the Brooklyn Children’s School). Friendship for ever for all.  That is what five year olds want.  Not mushy love stuff.  That makes them cackle and hoot in embarrassment.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me that K-3’s opera this year included not just one but two soaring romantic anthems, which the children wrote and sang with lusty enthusiasm, nary a wince or giggle or grimace to be evinced.  Even more surprising that these love ballads landed in a story that started off as an adventure quest narrative with no hint of romantic implications, the set up being a town in environmental peril and a knight sent off on a quest to retrieve the one thing that will save them all:

The Air is So Bad

 

THE AIR IS SO BAD

IF WE DON’T CLEAN THE AIR

WE WON’T SURVIVE

 

THE AIR IS SO BAD

WE MUST HAVE FLOWERS

TO MAKE THE AIR HEALTHY

 

THE AIR IS SO BAD

THEY MUST GROW QUICKER

SO WE DON’T CHOKE

 

THE AIR IS SO BAD

TO MAKE THEM GROW QUICKER

WE NEED UNICORN TEARS

 

THE AIR IS SO BAD

THE UNICORN TEARS

WILL MAKE THEM GROW FASTER

THE AIR IS SO BAD

  

So, to recap:  the town is choking in bad air.  Flowers must be grown fast to make the air better.  To make the flowers grow fast enough, unicorn tears are needed.  A bucket of unicorn tears, to be precise.

rainbows_nordvik_largeTo get to the unicorn one must find the meadow in the sky.  A wizard helps the knight get to the meadow in the sky by magically creating a rainbow up to the clouds.  The knight climbs up the rainbow. So far so complicated (and unromantic).  But we are not there yet.

You see, once in the sky, the knight discovers a large ocean separating him from the unicorn’s meadow.  A mermaid appears in the ocean and takes a liking to the knight. Quite a liking!  And thus we are suddenly treated to an imploring love song, much in the vein of a Celine Dion power ballad:

I am in Love With You

 

I AM IN LOVE WITH YOU

YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL

I WISH I WAS LIKE YOU

I THINK YOU’RE PRETTY

(Remember, this is the mermaid singing to the knight…)

 

I LOVE YOU

I LOVE YOU YOU YOU

I LOVE YOU VERY MUCH

WHY WON’T YOU LOVE ME TOO

(Why won’t you love me too?… Maybe this is more an Adele than a Celine song…)

 

I WANT YOU HERE WITH ME

STAY IN THE OCEAN

STAY IN THE SEA WITH ME

WHY WON’T YOU STAY WITH ME

 

I LOVE YOU

I LOVE YOU YOU YOU

I LOVE YOU VERY MUCH

WHY WON’T YOU MARRY ME?

  

So much unabashed longing.  So much “I love you you you!”  The Kindergartners laughed a little at the musically and lyrically soaring declarations they were writing, but mostly in appreciation.  Considering the massive disruptive giggling I am used to from Kindergartners at previous years’ occasional, much milder marriage related fairy tale finales, K-3’s dedication to this naked crooning was quite admirable and sophisticated.

But more romantic antheming was still to come.

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K-2 Presents: THE WIZARD’S REVENGE (featuring the Garbage-Throwing Machine)

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The Kindergarten K-2 class of the Brooklyn’s Children’s School just presented their original fairy tale opera, for which the children created the story, the lyrics and the melodies:

Once upon a time there was a king, a princess and a wizard.  They all lived together in the castle.

The wizard had awful manners and wasn’t following the rules and directions of the king. This made the king very upset.

He decided to banish the wizard from the castle and sent him into the forest as punishment for being bad.

The wizard was unhappy and wanted revenge.

Ten years had passed and the wizard was ready to take on his revenge.

 

The Wizard’s Revenge


 

ONCE UPON A TIME

THERE WAS A WIZARD

WHO DECIDED TO HAVE REVENGE

 

THE KING SENT THE WIZARD

INTO THE FOREST

BECAUSE HE WAS BAD

 

FOR TEN YEARS THE WIZARD

WAS IN THE FOREST

MAKING A CURSE

 

HE MADE THE CURSE

TO SEND TO THE PRINCESS

TO MAKE HER BAD

 

ONCE UPON A TIME

THERE WAS A WIZARD

WHO DECIDED TO HAVE REVENGE

 

The wizard says a spell: Alakazam, abracadabra, I punish you to be bad.

The princess then turns bad.  She starts stealing toys from people in the town.

Then she starts taking gold and books from the king.

She even starts dumping garbage all over the castle.

The princess goes to the town to turn the people bad.  Each time she touches someone, they go bad.

They start stealing and dumping trash also.  When they touch people, they go bad too.

Soon the whole village is robbing and dumping trash all over.

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The princess touches the king who also becomes bad.

The wizard watches all this bad stuff from the top of the castle.  He loves that everyone has turned bad.

 

This is Great

 

THIS IS GREAT OH THIS IS GREAT

THIS IS GREAT OH THIS IS GREAT

I’LL KEEP WATCHING CAUSE THIS IS SO GOOD

I’LL KEEP WATCHING CAUSE THIS IS SO GOOD

THIS IS GOOD OH THIS IS GOOD

THIS IS GOOD OH THIS IS GOOD

I’M SO HAPPY CAUSE THIS IS SO GREAT

I’M SO HAPPY CAUSE THIS IS SO GREAT

 

THE GARBAGE GETTING THROWN AROUND

THE PEOPLE STEALING PEOPLE’S THINGS

THE GARBAGE GETTING THROWN AROUND

THE PEOPLE STEALING PEOPLE’S THINGS

garbage dump

THIS IS GREAT OH THIS IS GREAT

THIS IS GREAT OH THIS IS GREAT

I’LL KEEP WATCHING CAUSE THIS IS SO GOOD

I’LL KEEP WATCHING CAUSE THIS IS SO GOOD

THIS IS GOOD OH THIS IS GOOD

THIS IS GOOD OH THIS IS GOOD

I’M SO HAPPY CAUSE THIS IS SO GREAT

I’M SO HAPPY CAUSE THIS IS SO GREAT

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50 WAYS TO BE 50 – Guess Who Turns a Half Century Today (cough)?

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Might as well have some fun with it….

As my mother said, you can’t avoid turning 50 if you want to live…

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4. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover – Paul Simon

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6

Version 2

7 – (Yes, now I too am 50 … lucky me …)

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9                     10

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The Passing of The Oriole’s Song

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The Last Question

 

I do not remember          

          what my father said

          when we last spoke.

 

But my mother remembers          

          She was there.

 

In the deep quiet of the room  

          she sat at his bedside

          their fingers entwined.

 

He said,          

           “I hear singing.”

 

She asked          

          “Is it beautiful, dear?”

 

But the room was empty.

 

B. J. Elder

January, 2012

 

Last Saturday Ed and I drove in a rental car through two hours of sheets of rain to Kendal at Longwood, PA, just south of Philadelphia, to attend the memorial service for Aunt BJ. We slipped into Kendal Hall just in time to join her widower, Uncle Dave, Dave’s brother and Ed’s father Joe, their siblings Mim, Alice, Louise, Dave and BJ’s daughters Renee and Jenny, grandsons, many more nephews and nieces and cousins, plus a large contingent of friends from Germantown Friends (Quakers) and Kendal Retirement Community to commemorate BJ Elder’s life in a Quaker service.  The testimonials given, the pictures, mementos, and decorations (including BJ’s favorite teddy bear and preferred candies, Peppermint Patties) celebrated a wonderful woman who was pint sized in stature but great in character, humor, decency, honesty and love.  Herself a much admired woman, the admiration held for her beautifully written memoir “The Oriole’s Song” also embroidered many testimonials and memories.

BJ3I was introduced to BJ and her writings that would eventually become “The Oriole’s Song” during a weekend visit to Philadelphia over 23 years ago.  While Ed, Dave, BJ and other family members were leaving the house to attend Quaker Meeting, BJ handed me sheets of paper with two short stories she had written for her writing group.  She insisted I read them and tell her what I thought, as I was “an artist”.  I felt a little trepidation.  Ed and I had been dating for only half a year and I was meeting many of his relatives, including BJ, for the first time that weekend, and now I was being asked to read and judge her writing?  What if I didn’t care for it?  Already imagining devising diplomatic responses, I sat down to read in the empty house.  By the time the family returned from Meeting, I was flush with the excitement of having encountered a thing of beauty.

The first short story I read dealt with BJ’s childhood in 1930’s China.  Her parents worked in the Yale in China program, which relocated from the capital of Hunan province Changsha to the small hill country town of Yuanling when Japan invaded China, a war that preceded and would continue on to the end of World War II.  I was struck by the clarity of BJ’s writing.  How her words, like the elegant economical brushstrokes of a Chinese watercolor painting, created indelible images with precise eloquence.  Her evocation of a Japanese bombing raid on Yuanling made such a strong impression on me that morning that the mental picture her words inspired has never left me.  I’ll quote just a few lines from that paragraph:

“Then I heard humming, faintly at first, like the summer sound of bees around a hive. Gradually it became more sure, a droning song sustained on one note. … The drone song grew louder rapidly until it filled the whole sky and the air between the hills with malignant ecstasy. … Through the opening in the wall, I saw tiny airplanes turning in the sky over the far end of the city.  Raindrops glinted under them.  … Only when I was pushed down onto my stomach did I realize that those raindrops were bombs.”

BJ4BJ and I spent much of the rest of the day talking about her short stories, and how she planned writing more, vignettes that would eventually form the chapters of her memoir. She told me about her girlhood in China, her experiences of the war, of being one of the only Caucasian children in Yuanling, and feeling even more like a stranger as a teenager in the United States.  She told me about returning to China in the 1970’s during the height of the Cultural Revolution with Dave and the two China born daughters they’d adopted in the 1960’s.  She told me about returning again in the 1990’s, and floating high over Yuanling in a boat, now that the city of her childhood was drowned by the raised waters of the Yuan River Dam.  She told me how her father was one of the last Americans left in China when the Communists took over in 1948, how he was denounced and put on trial and convicted as a spy, marked for execution.

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Highlights from ART NY 2017

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Another year, another visit to the ART NY expo.  Here are pictures of some of the works that intrigued me this year (last year’s can be seen here).

Some famous names are included here among the up and comers, like Picasso, Banksy, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Hirst, Koons, and Botero (above, and again further down).

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Christian Vincent

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Carole Feuerman

“ART” Song #1

Jeff Koons and Banksy, side by side:

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ART 31

a Koonselfie

Kwang Ito Shin:

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ART 12

Jessica Potenza

ART 13

Corvengi Mikaelian

“ART” Song #2

Next 3: Zorikto Dorzhiev

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ART 17

Dashi

Liechennay:

ART 18ART 19

AET 20

Gil Bruvel

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The “Grande Dame” is Back in the Opera

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“You are like a circus-horse.  As soon as you hear the music, you start dancing.”

That’s the loving joke my father used to make about my mother, most likely in German amongst their Berlin friends, since “Zirkuspferd” (circus-horse) is a word in the German idiom, a more glamorous, theatrical alternative to the mundane, desultory “workhorse”.

Well, my mother is “dancing” again.  The “80 year old Grande Dame of Opera”, as the Berliner Zeitung referred to her, is playing hooky from retirement in the Opera Lab Berlin production of Mauricio Kagel’s “Staatstheater”, which caused such a fuss during its 1971 Hamburg world premiere that the composer required police protection.

Here is Opera Lab Berlin’s promotional video of their production, directed by Michael Höppner, and concluding its run in Berlin today:

Opera Lab Berlin – Staatstheater von Kagel from Vincent Stefan on Vimeo.

Opera Lab Berlin’s website says “Kagel set Staatstheater with the concept of musical theater itself, its conditions and possibilities. This is typical of Kagel’s black-humored, partly grotesque, partly absurd approach but it also leaves room for interpretations and even new conceptualisations of the piece. getbildtextThe only formal requirement is that it must be no longer than 100 minutes duration.”

My mother would tell me details of the rehearsal process that would confuse and intrigue me.  I first gathered that the opera was about retired opera singers in an old folks home haunted or even driven mad by their memories.  But as that may be how the action begins, the opera itself becomes something far larger, absurdist, elusive, even audience-participatory.  It sounds to me like the love child of Eugène Ionesco and John Cage … joining an orgy with the Blue Man Group.

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CHERRY BLOSSOMS GALORE!

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Back in the BBG

You don’t know just what you’ll see, boy!

Back in the BB

Back in the BB

Back in the BBG

(with apologies to The Beatles:)

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It’s peek cherry blossom blooming season this weekend at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (bbg.org).

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This weekend the BBG is hosting the Sakura Matsuri festival, offering over 60 events and performances that celebrate traditional and contemporary Japanese culture.  The picture below shows the set up the Friday before.  Every year the BBG hosts a festival to coincide with peek cherry blossom season.  Not every year does peek blossoming coincide with the long pre-ordained festival dates.  The BBG can choose the most likely weekend, but weather fluctuations have in the past brought on peek cherry blossom blooms up to week away from the festival date. This year’s timing would work out perfectly.

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It’s not just the cherry blossoms currently blossoming in the BBG, although they are of course the big event this weekend.  I’ll share some pretty pictures from around the gardens before continuing cherry blossom overkill.

And some Vivaldi Four Seasons.  Spring, of course.

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SPAMALOT infiltrates EMILY DICKINSON in A QUIET PASSION

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Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in “A Quiet Passion”

Arthur:
But I’m alone
(Patsy: oh no you’re not!)
So all alone
(Patsy: I’m here you twat!)
All by myself I’m all alone

 

I’m All Alone (from “Spamalot”) – Tim Curry and Michael McGrath

What do Monty Python and Emily Dickinson have in common?  Nothing, probably, except that they both employ the English language.  Perhaps a Monty Python sketch may have parodied the Belle of Amherst, but surely a serious biopic about her would not reference Monty Python, would it?  And yet…

We were watching “A Quiet Passion”, Terence Davies’ exquisitely crafted movie about Emily Dickinson, luminously embodied by Cynthia Nixon in one of her most compelling, multi-layered performances.  The movie is both a traditional biopic and a willfully original work in that it dutifully follows a life span from youth through adulthood to death, but rather than constructing traditional dramatic arcs to illustrate Dickinson’s life, it skips fleetingly yet deeply from moment to moment, each rendered as short and dense scenes of outward simplicity and inner richness, in what I imagine is a conscious effort to have the cinematic dramaturgy mirror the shape and effect of Emily Dickinson’s own poetry, which is often heard recited, clear and elusive all at once.

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It’s a movie likely to divide audiences.  I was engrossed throughout.  Ed felt like he was “watching wallpaper”.  Which may explain why his mind was free to catch the Monty Python moment.  During a scene late in the movie when Dickinson is feeling bereft and wandering the rooms of her home alone, somber piano music is playing in the soundtrack. Ed leaned toward me and whispered “Spamalot”.  I thought “What?” and listened closely to the doleful piano melody.  Yes, it did sound like “I’m All Alone”, King Arthur’s comically pathetic ballad from Act Two of the Monty Python musical “Spamalot”.  But surely that was just a matter of one melody coincidentally sharing a few notes with another melody, much like “Memory” from “Cats” shares similarities with Ravel’s “Bolero” or “West Side Story’s” “I Have a Love” echoes Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung”, to name just two famous examples.  I lightly boxed Ed’s arm in a comic rebuke for making such a silly connection while watching a sorrowful moment in this film, and mentally reminded myself to check the music credits at the end of the movie to find out what 19th century piano piece Terence Davies really did employ, and which must have a melody that would over a hundred years later be coincidentally mirrored in a Monty Python tune.

I was in for a surprise.

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Putting it Together and Together and Together and Together and Together

Art isn’t easy.  Any way you look at it.

After seeing the current revival of “Sunday in the Park with George” and enjoying another live performance of its seminal song about “the art of making art”, I found myself remembering the many different versions of “Putting it Together” we’ve seen over the years, and how Stephen Sondheim was compelled to rewrite its lyrics, depending on whether the art being made was visual, or audio, or cinema, or theater.

In the original musical, Act Two’s modern day George sings “Putting it Together” during a reception after the unveiling of his latest high tech art installation.  The video above shows Mandy Patinkin as George wrestling with balancing the art while securing the funding, juggling personal integrity and p. r. compromise.  When “Sunday in the Park with George” first came out, songs like “Sunday” and “Everybody Loves Louie” and the title song got the most attention.  But then Barbra Streisand decided she wanted to open what would become one of her most successful and celebrated records, “The Broadway Album”, with “Putting it Together”.  Except she felt she needed the lyrics to reflect the artistic struggles she experiences as a recording artist.  Which would necessitate some targeted rewriting of lyrics.

Would Sondheim agree to changing “Putting it Together”?

Barbra asked.  Stephen consented.

Now where George exclaimed “lasers are expensive”, Barbra laments “vinyl is expensive”. And where initially the art of making art is putting it together
Bit by bit-
Link by link-
Drink by drink-
Mink by mink-

now Barbra is putting it together bit by bit
Beat by beat, part by part
Sheet by sheet, chart by chart track by track
Reel by reel
By stack, snit by snit
By meal, shout by shout
By deal, spat by spat
Shpiel by shpiel

So the genie was now out of the bottle.  If Sondheim would help rewrite “Putting it Together” for Streisand, surely he would do it again for the Academy Awards.  And so, in 1996 we get the art of making movie art in the “Putting it Together” opening number of the 66th Academy Awards, sung by none other than Bernadette Peters, Dot/Marie in the original Broadway production of “Sunday in the Park with George”.

Here we’re putting it together with writing and lighting and carpenters and stage hands   and “statistical magicians to enhance it and of course the money to finance it”, plus “signing up a cast to make it thrilling if you can negotiate the billing”, among other movie specific lyrical nuggets.  Whereas Sondheim made only some incidental adjustments to the lyrics for Streisand, here only the first third of the number still use lyrics from the original stage version, the rest is a slew of new cinema centric rhymes.

Just as in “The Broadway Album” version, the changes in the song are not just about lyrics. The structure of the song, or rather musical number, is revised to suit the medium and the needs of this particular performance.  In the original Broadway version the song is constantly interrupted by dialog and musical asides pertaining to the plot; in the Academy Awards performance clips and snippets of movie dialog are inserted, and the song sections are reorganized to suit the framework of an Oscars opening number.

The Streisand recording, although it does include some incidental dialog, is the most streamlined version of “Putting it Together”.  That, combined with the huge success of “The Broadway Album”, explains why it is now the most well known version of the song.  And why now “Putting it Together” is the most well known song from “Sunday in the Park with George” (even becoming an ad jingle for Xerox).

So, “Putting it Together” has chronicled the art of making visual art, albums, movies. What about the art of making theater, singing on stage, as Patinkin and company were when first introducing “Putting it Together” to the world?

Look no further:

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SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH JAKE – Will it Lead to Sunday in the Cinema with Jake?

 

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When you see a theater production of a piece you know well and love well, after having  seen wonderful and celebrated productions of the piece many times before, including the original Broadway production, and watched the dvd of that production and listened to the cd of its original soundtrack countless times… and then find yourself weeping often and for long stretches during the performance, more than ever before, it’s not just love of the piece and accumulated history with it that is so moving;  something really special is happening at that moment on that stage with that performance and these performers.  Such it was for me at Saturday’s matinee of “Sunday in the Park with George”.

Ed and I treated ourselves to the revival of “Sunday in the Park with George” concluding its limited Broadway run this weekend and starring movie star Jake Gyllenhaal and Broadway darling Annaleigh Ashford in dual roles as the painter George Seurat and his great-grandson, also called George, and as Seurat’s mistress/model Dot and her granddaughter Marie.  (Robert Sean Leonard, no slouch as movie star or Broadway lead himself, shows up in a supporting role, his playbill bio dispensing with credits and simply stating “After I saw the original production of this musical I went directly to Colony records, purchased the tape, and then wore it out on my Walkman.  I am deeply honored to be here.”)

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Jake Gyllenhaal as George Seurat

The theater world reacted with happy surprise to discover how well Jake Gyllenhaal could sing the immensely challenging role of George during a concert performance last October (Annaleigh Ashford’s vocal bona fides and suitability for the role of Dot/Marie had already been fully established in Broadway musicals like “Kinky Boots”, just listen to her hilarious, powerhouse rendition of “The History of Wrong Guys” below*).  A limited Broadway revival run was quickly arranged for February through April.  In advance of performances, Jake Gyllenhaal posted the following rehearsal video with this message:

“This is what happens when Riva Marker (the badass president of NineStories) and I invite Cary Joji Fukunaga to rehearsals for our new Broadway musical. Check out this video we made!”

The experience of the live performance in the Hudson Theater Saturday combined with consideration of the “rehearsal video” above leads me to wonder whether a movie version of “Sunday in the Park with George” starring Jake Gyllenhaal may be in our future.  This may all just be conjecture and wishful thinking on my part, but let me explain why the particular qualities of this revival convinced me that a wonderful movie version with these leads could be made of this idiosyncratic musical, and why the mere fact of the “rehearsal video” suggests to me Jake Gyllenhaal may be actively working to make that movie a reality.

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CANNIBALISM IN THE CARS – a Musical Take on Mark Twain’s Succulent Satire of Congress

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Mark Twain

Congress … yuck!  A distasteful subject!  Quite literally even, according to Mark Twain.

Every year Congress gives us more reasons to loathe it.  This year perhaps more than ever. Thinking ill and making fun of Congress is a sport that goes back to the beginning of the republic.  Mark Twain, if anyone, is probably America’s foremost critic and satirist of Congress.

“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”

These are just two quotes from Twain about Congress specifically and The American Way in general.  There are many more like that and quite a few of them made their way into my Mark Twain musical “beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN“, which also features the following excerpt in which Twain’s distaste of Congress is quite literally, in more ways than one, hilariously mixed up with no less unappetizing a subject than cannibalism.

By the way, that percussive sound you’ll hear during the reprise “In December on a Train” at the end is the singers gleefully clinking knives and forks in rhythm.

Enjoy, or, I should say, bon appetit:

CANNIBALISM IN THE CARS

 

JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICA

 

ALL:

Riding on a train in South Dakota

On a journey through America

On a long long trip to Indiana

Wide stretched the plain and sky cut by the horizon

 

MAN:

There I sat beside a politician

Once a congressman of able skill

That fellow did regale me with quite a tale

Of a scale bigger than whale

That would never fail to thrill

 

IN DECEMBER ON A TRAIN

CONGRESSMAN(with others):

In December on a train

Riding through the endless plain

Men that numbered twenty-two

Passengers and crew

Not one lady, no children too

 

Suddenly the skies grew dark

Lightning flashing like a spark

Then the snow began to fall

In a vicious squall

Covering the plains, tracks and all

 

All around the train the snow was falling, ever falling

Wind was blowing, snow banks growing

Train was stalling, train was slowing

Snow came to the window top

Till finally and fatally we reached a creaking stop

Fifty miles from any town

With no help around

And the snow was still coming down

 

We all shoveled snow in vain

Stoked the engine of the train

But we stayed helplessly stuck

Without any luck

In a high and wide snowy muck

 

We had wood to keep us warm

Through the days of endless storm

But there was no food to eat

Not a scrap of meat

Not even a lone grain of wheat

 

So for days on end we’d wait for succor without supper

Eating nothing, lots of nothing

Getting hungry, oh so hungry

Somewhat angry, but more hungry

After four, then five, then six, then seven days of pain

It was clear that we all knew

What the twenty-two

Gentlemen must do on that train

 

GENTLEMAN #1:

Gentlemen – it cannot be delayed longer! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!

SnowTrain

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The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps Plays The Soundtrack to Our Story

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The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps Symphonic Band

Saturday night we attended the Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps Symphonic Band performing a concert at Symphony Space titled “Once Upon A Time … The Soundtrack to Our Story”, with music referencing and inspired by the history of the Gay Rights movement as well as individual stories presented first hand via representatives from The Generations Project.  It was a moving, festive, musically rousing affair.

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The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps Marching Band

The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps is best known for their marching band, always a highlight at every year’s Pride March as well as many other public events.  While the marching band is very reminiscent of your typical All American marching band, except that it is far more fabulous, the Symphonic Band has a repertoire that, while including typical marching band arrangements of popular tunes, also embraces classically symphonic music.

The Symphonic Band, conducted by symphonic director Henco Espag, is as large if not larger-than-your-typical symphony orchestra, but instead of a string section – which usually takes up the majority of individual players in a classical orchestra – here there are more woodwinds, more brass and more percussion.  Specifically piccolos, flutes (over a dozen), oboes, english horns, bassoons; clarinets (about 20 “regular” clarinets, and then additionally:) E flat clarinets, alto clarinets, bass clarinets, contrabass clarinets; soprano saxophones, alto saxophones, tenor saxophones, baritone saxophones; trumpets (over a dozen), plus heaps of french horns, trombones, bass trombone (just the one), euphoniums, tubas, and finally nine percussionists and one guitar/electric bass player.  Around 120 players.

So at their best it can make for a very rich and dynamic sound.  And we got that aplenty Saturday.

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Kyle Post

Our affable Master of Ceremonies was Kyle Post, who announced he had just come from playing a six foot drag queen in a Broadway matinee performance of Kinky Boots.  Kyle is also credited with being a “life coach who helps artists and creatives live out their dreams with wild authenticity”.

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Kyle Post in Kinky Boots

He gave a short preamble setting the scene for the Pre-Stonewall Gay Rights movement, and then the band played a “Hair” medley of Aquarius and “Let the Sunshine In”, after which Kyle announced he wished he’d been prepared to respond by returning to the microphone in nothing but a loin cloth and long haired wig.

The capacity audience surely would not have minded.

The epochal event of the Stonewall Riots was represented musically by a dramatic rendition of Gustav Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War” from The Planets.   I can only provide a traditional recording of the original arrangement, but imagine all string parts substituted by flutes and woodwinds, with extra heaps of added brass, all playing to the hilt, and you will get a sense of what I considered the highlight of an evening which had many.

Mars: The Bringer of War – Gustav Holst (The Planets)

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Alicia Hall Moran

Gay Life in the 1970’s was represented by “Amaparito Roca” (Jaime Texidor) and “Music for Lovers” (Bart Howard), with guest singer Alicia Hall Moran (who replaced Audra MacDonald in the Porgy and Bess tour; one could hear a clear similarity in vocal timbre).

The AIDS crisis occasioned the playing of Wataru Hokoyama’s “Echoes of Memories”, which allows me to share one of two rehearsal videos of pieces from the night’s program the Lesbian & Bay Big Apple Corps has posted on their YouTube channel.  The performance on Saturday was even richer, crisper and more moving.

The first act closed with a joyous rendition of “It’s Raining Men” (Paul Jabara and Paul Schaeffer, yes, the Paul Schaeffer of Late Night fame).  Alas, the arrangement was more serviceable than wildly exuberant.  What would it have been like if “It’s Raining Men” had been arranged and performed on the level of Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War”?  There’d have been another riot.  A riot of fabulosity!

So for the nostalgic fun of, I’ll include recordings of the original Weather Girls singing “It’s Raining Men” (unfortunately missing my favorite part “I feel stormy weather moving in – In the thunder don’t you lose your head – Rip off the roof and stay in bed”) and the 1998 “Sequel” featuring original Weather Girl Martha Walsh and none other than RuPaul adding some extra sass as well as including my favorite section:

 It’s Raining Men – The Weather Girls

It’s Raining Men … The Sequel – Martha Walsh featuring RuPaul

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