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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PRE-K 2 GOES ITS OWN UNUSUAL WAY – a surprise diversion in the ongoing saga of Mr. Danny’s Most Sung Song

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1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games

Another year and another group of Pre-K students are learning “We’re Singing” AKA Mr. Danny’s Most Sung Song – this would be the third yearly installment in what is evidently and unexpectedly turning into a continuing series (the first two installments are both copied below).

And so the new-to-school 4 year olds, after learning to sing and perform how “we clap our hands together” and then “we tap our feet together”, were invited to come up with their class’ own third and fourth sung and performed action.

Pre-K 1 went the traditional route:

We stomp our legs together – stomp stomp stomp – stomp stomp stomp (everybody stomps their legs)

We nod our heads together – nod nod nod – nod nod nod (everybody nods their heads)

 

Looking at the list of popularly chosen activities over the many years I have been teaching this song (see below),  stomping our legs comes up as an oft chosen option, and nodding our heads is well represented by the even more popular shaking of heads.   So far so good and usual.

Pre-K 2 had other ideas.

When “clap our hands” and “tap our feet” were duly taught and practiced and I opened the floor for additional alternatives, the first suggestion was “gallop”.  Gallop?  We had to ascertain what galloping was and who was most likely to gallop.  That would be a horse. But did it use its hands or legs?  It occurred to me that the answer to that question may not be as obvious, scientifically speaking, as my initially mentally jumped to conclusion.  Still, we decided we’d opt for the legs, since we have already availed ourselves of our hands for clapping.  Then came the tricky assignment of figuring out how we would uniformly mimic galloping with our own legs while still managing to stay in place and sing the song together in our “circle spots”.  Finally we mastered singing and performing:

We gallop our legs together – gallop gallop gallop – gallop gallop gallop

 

After that I asked with a certain amount of bemused anticipation what our final thing we would do together should be.

“Crawl” was the first suggestion.  Crawl…

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Oh Good Grief

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My father is getting company.

My mother told me today that my parents’ neighbor and friend Conrad has succumbed to the cancer he’d been battling for several years.  Last year he and his wife Ulrike were so taken by my father’s tree internment at the south side of the American Red Oak at Stahnsdorf cemetery that they asked my mother if she approved of them selecting one of the other sides of the same tree for their family grave.  My mother liked the idea.

They were neighbors in life.  They will be neighbors in death.

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On the Anniversary of My Father’s Death

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My father, Abraham Ashkenasi, died on this date last year.  Above is the last picture I took of him, the last day I saw him in person.

It was February 16, 2016.  Two days earlier my mother called me to say my father was in the hospital and the doctor said there was a 50/50 chance he would not survive the night. I was about to leave for a production meeting ahead of the tech rehearsals for the workshop production of my musical “Speakeasy“.  Instead I purchased a plane ticket, worked out with my director how the show would manage without me during tech week, and flew from New York to Berlin, not knowing whether my father would still be alive when the plane touched down at Tegel airport the following morning.

My mother picked me up and told me Dad had made it though the night, but his situation was precarious.  His doctor considered him a dying man.  He would give no time estimates, but his attitude suggested days, rather than weeks or months.

In January Dad seemed well enough to plan a trip to New York.  He and Mom were going to come to New York in March to see the final performances of “Speakeasy”.  But early February there was a change and they announced his condition didn’t allow him to fly after all; so they cancelled their trip.  I realized then that the assumptions I had made of my father surely still having several good years with us may need adjusting, and I planned an April trip to Berlin, during the school Spring break when I wouldn’t be teaching in New York.  But even that adjustment was woefully optimistic.  The February 14 phone call from my mother came as a considerable shock.  None of us expected my father’s condition to deteriorate so dramatically so quickly.

The timing could hardly have been more awfully “inconvenient”.  I could only carve two and a half days in Berlin before I had to return to the production of my musical.  I knew I was very likely seeing my father for the last time, and I think he knew it too, but it wasn’t openly discussed.

I still don’t think I have the words, or yet wish to find the words, to describe what this circumstance felt like.  I knew I was at a loss for many words then and there; and because of that, and the accompanying sense of helplessness, a certain need to document, to do something, I took some pictures with my phone.  Of us the family, and of Dad in his hospital bed.  Most of the shots of him are not ones I would wish to share, but the final shot, the one above, of Dad napping and Mom looking on, is one that radiated a calm that seemed comforting.

After I took that picture, without much thought I turned the phone onto myself to document what I felt was etched into my face.

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The Lovers of Grand Army Plaza

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The photo above is one of my personal favorites I have taken during my random photo taking walks around New York City.  It is of the Bailey Fountain in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

GAP2The reason I am posting this today is because when it is Spring the Bailey fountain will start gushing water again periodically.  It remains resolutely dry and still in the winter.  Spring has officially begun, but it is still resolutely wintery cold in Brooklyn today. Freezing cold, with blustery winds.  Perhaps posting this picture will help Spring hurry along.  I’ve joked that this year winter has come in like a lamb and is leaving like a lion, because it was so mild in January and February but snow storms and cold alternated discombobulatingly with warm spells in March.

I’m ready for a real Spring now. For warm weather to allow the Bailey Fountain to splash the Lovers of Grand Army Plaza with sexy condensation.

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Emma Thompson Tackles Tricky Tuplets in “Beauty and the Beast”

 

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This weekend the Disney live-action remake of the 1991 Disney animation classic “Beauty and the Beast” made a big splash with audiences, critics, and, especially, the box office.  I saw it Friday and was completely enchanted.  The movie smartly recreates in live action all that is beloved about the original, with eye-poppingly baroque visual effects, good writing and fine acting, while adding just enough winning new material and occasionally cleverly tweaking the familiar beats too.

The one tweak that got my attention so much I decided to write about it here comes in the new rendition of the title song “Beauty and the Beast”.  Emma Thompson steps out of the formidable shadow of the beloved Angela Lansbury to essay her own lovely vocals as Mrs. Potts, the singing teapot.  But unlike Angela Lansbury, Emma Thompson finds herself having to smoothly glide through some tricky rhythmic obstacles.  Listen and hear for yourself:

Beauty and the Beast – Emma Thompson (music: Alan Mencken; lyrics: Howard Ashman)

At the 1:01 mark this “Beauty and the Beast” turns into a waltz, in 3/4 time, something that didn’t happen in the original.

BntB1991In the original we see Belle and Beast dancing a waltz while Angela Lansbury sings about the tale as old as time, but the music nonetheless remains steadfast in common time,  1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4…  and the melody continues the rhythmic pattern set forth at the beginning of the song and followed through to the end, a phrase of four eighth notes followed by a longer note Beautyscreenshot(Tale as old as time — Beauty and the Beast  —  da da da da daah — etc.)

It appears that for the remake the decision was made that when Belle and Beast start dancing their famous waltz the music should join them in 3/4 time; and so it now does, subtly but definitely at the 1:01 minute mark in the recording, staying in 3/4 until the 2:34 minute mark.  But how does that change the melody of the song?  Is it rhythmically rewritten to accommodate the new time signature?  Nope.  bntbemmathompson

Emma Thompson keeps singing the song as if she was singing regular phrases of 4 eighth notes starting on a downbeat and followed by a long final note on the next downbeat. If anything, she holds onto that steady 4 note phrase more rhythmically evenly now than she does during the first minute, where she sings those phrases more freely.  In holding on to the steady 4 while underneath her the orchestra is playing a constant 3, Emma Thompson is proving herself the master of a very tricky tuplet.

 

 

Tuplet?

What the heck is a tuplet?

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SNOW SONGS for SNOW DAY (& a PI Song for PI Day)

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It’s a Snow Day here in the Northeast.  New York City is basically shut down and everyone is staying inside.  What was projected to be a nasty blizzard for the city has been downgraded to an unpleasant mix of snow, sleet, rain, wind and cold, but other areas in the Northeast are being hit much harder.

So while we wile away the day indoors with hot cocoa and books and Netflix, how about some Snow Songs? (And since this is also 3/14 AKA Pi day, I’ll throw in a bonus Pi song too).

Let’s start with two songs actually called “Snow”, both from movie soundtracks:

Snow – Gustavo Santaolalla – Brokeback Mountain

SnowBBM (1)An idyllic, relaxed take on snow.  Not the snow storm but the cool calm snow blanketed mountain landscape afterwards. And Jake and Heath keeping warm by the fire, and keeping warm under the blankets too…

Gustavo Santaolalla received an Academy Award for his twangy, subtly soaring score for Brokeback Mountain.

Snow – Abel Korzeniowski – A Single Man

single-man-4-1Abel Korzeniowski should have received an Academy Award for his aching string score for A Single Man, but alas he wasn’t even nominated.  This track, Snow, in contrast to Santaolalla’s calm Snow, is agitated and ominous, in keeping with the snow framed nightmare vision of the deadly accident it accompanies.

Quick, let’s move on to a prettier, happier musical take on snow;  snowflakes waltzing, to be specific:

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BIG LITTLE LIES’ Ideal COLD LITTLE HEART

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I have been following the HBO’s A-level mystery soap “Big Little Lies” and have been transfixed by the title credit music.  It begins with a haunting hummed falsetto motif that, after a few repeats, becomes the accompaniment to a plaintive, raspily sung soul melody.

A little internet research informed me this cool music was excerpted from Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart”.  On Itunes there were two versions one could download. The 9:57 album cut (from Kiwanuka’s “Love & Hate”).  Or a 3:30 minute radio edit.

Ten minutes seemed like too much of a good thing, especially when I only knew I loved the minute I heard during the “Big Little Lies” credit sequence.  So I opted for the radio edit:

Cold Little Heart – Michael Kiwanuka – Radio Edit (3:30 minutes)

ColdLittleHeartWhich starts with that haunting intro.  And after a quick verse chorus verse chorus go around there is a quick fade out, just as the music hints at an intriguing coda.  A coda that plays over Big Little Lies’ title credits, but is not included in the radio edit.

It sounded truncated.  I was curious what else, in addition to the title credit coda, was missing.  I decided to plunk down an additional $1.29 for the ten minute album cut.

It’s a three course meal.  With plenty of salad and appetizers before the main course, and a tasty dessert after:

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MOONLIGHT – the triple least “Oscar Baity” Oscar Winner

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“I just hope the weird pandemonium doesn’t overshadow the fact that a $1.5 million independent film by a black director about black, gay, poor people was named Best Picture.  The process to get there was very weird, but it’s an amazing thing.”

  • Ava DuVarnay

Someone on Facebook off-handedly commented that surprise (in so many ways) Best Picture Oscar winner “Moonlight” was “a little too Oscar baity”.  And I took the bait, by incredulously commenting that, if anything, “Moonlight” may be the least Oscar baity film ever to win.  LGBTQ protagonists/love story?  African-American cast?  Micro-budget indie?  Films with just one of these criteria struggled to just get nominated, but never won.  And sometimes even when they were so highly acclaimed they could not be ignored, they still somehow got slighted, see “Carol” last year with 6 nominations but none for director or picture, or “Selma” the year before with a picture nom but then just one more, for song.  (And then there’s the homophobic backlash that bedeviled the most acclaimed movie of its year, “Brokeback Mountain”…)

And what does “Oscar Bait” even mean?  It’s a lazy term that used to be applied to big historical epics or British prestige pics or anything Harvey Weinstein releases, or as of late any movie that celebrates Hollywood and Actors (Best Picture winners “The Artist”, “Argo”, “Birdman”, and 14 time nominee and 6 time winner “La La Land”).  Or that snarky moniker is simply directed at any film that appears to have been produced with Academy Awards hopes in mind.

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Tarell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the play “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” & Barry Jenkins, who adapted the script and directed “Moonlight”

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#OscarsSoCrazy – The Worst Best Thing that could have happened to La La Land and Moonlight.

In a moment that will be hard to beat as the strangest, most gasp-inducing thing to have ever and might ever again happen at the Oscars, “Moonlight” was revealed to have been the actual Best Picture winner after “La La Land” had been mistakenly read off the wrong envelope somehow handed to Best Picture presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.  “La La Land” was the clear popular front runner expected to win, and already the recipient of 6 Oscars that night, while “Moonlight” was the beloved underdog, the film many hailed as a deeply moving masterpiece.  But few believed the small, very-low-budget poetic movie about being gay and black and living amid the scourge of drugs would best the ravishing valentine to love, musicals and movie history.  That it ultimately did, even in such a spectacularly weird way, is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to both “Moonlight” and “La La Land”.

la-la-landFirst, how did it happen?  How does the film that won Best Director (Damien Chazelle) not also win Best Picture?  Director/Picture wins used to be the norm at the Academy Awards.  But it isn’t anymore.  Ever since The Academy expanded the Best Picture list of nominees to be up to ten pictures, there have been more splits between Picture and Director than not.  One reason, and I believe the main reason this year, is that the new system has votes for Best Picture tabulated differently than for all the other categories incl. Director.  For Director, Academy members simply vote for one out of the five nominees.  Whoever gets the most votes wins.  But for Best Picture, because there can be up to ten movies (there were nine this year), Academy members are asked to rank their top five choices in order of 1-5 on what is called a “preferential ballot”.  PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accountants who somehow got the wrong envelope into Beatty’s hands, never reveal vote tallies, but it is possible for “La La Land” to have received the same leading share (plurality) of votes for director and picture #1 rankings.  Let’s pull a number out of the air : 35%.  And let’s pretend “Moonlight” and its director Barry Jenkins both got the second most votes for Director and Picture #1’s : 30%.  “La La Land” would win best director.  35% wins the plurality vote.  But to win Best Picture, over 50% of ballots must end up in the winning movie’s column; so the amount of #2 placements “La La Land” and “Moonlight” received on the ballots that listed the other films on the #1 spot  becomes very important.  A movie may not get the most #1 votes, but if it picks up most of the #2 votes it can overtake the front runner.  This is what apparently happened last year when “Spotlight” won Best Picture while the perceived front runner “The Revenant” received Best Director; and it appears to have happened again this year.

moonlight_2016_filmSo that’s the likely how, but what’s the why?  Sasha Stone at Awards Daily  theorizes that front runners that are divisive don’t fair well on the preferential ballot.  You can’t just have the most people put the film at #1, you also need most of the rest of the voters to put it at #2 or #3, not at the bottom of their preferential ballot.  So, was “La La Land” divisive?  Somewhat.  There have been several articles and voices that praised “La La Land” while also criticizing it for a perhaps blinkered or naive attitude towards jazz and Hollywood dreamers.  There were also those who felt, with everything going on in America right now, that this was not the year for the Academy to elevate escapism over social significance, even while acknowledging how reductive it is to box in “La La Land” with the “escapist” label and “Moonlight” with the “socially relevant” label.

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MANHATTAN BRIDGE and Associates

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A Grab Bag of Bridge Photos, Bridge Songs and Bridge Memories.

Art Garfunkel lays himself down like a bridge:

Bridge Memory #1 (Spies and Walls)

Adele’s love ain’t water under the bridge:

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Speakeasy Highlight Reel

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Chet Cheshire and NY Denizens sings “Speakeasy”

It’s the one year anniversary of the workshop performances of “Speakeasy – John and Jane’s Adventures in the Wonderland“.  To mark the occasion, here are some screen shots of the Speakeasy Highlight Reel, a 13 minute edit of selections from the musical, featuring excerpts of many songs, and functioning as a visual / aural synopsis of John and Jane’s fantastical adventures.

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Jane and John, before things start getting “curious”.

The Speakeasy Highlight Reel may be viewed by request only via a secure private online link.  To watch it, please send your email request to dannyashkenasi@gmail.com.

Meanwhile, these screenshots also function as a bit of a shorthand to most of the Speakeasy plot (find workshop performer credits here).  I will include links to many of the articles about Speakeasy and its evocation of 1920’s Queer history that have been posted on Notes from a Composer in the past two years.  To check out them all, seek out The Speakeasy Chronicles in the archives and/or go to the Speakeasy page.

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Above and to the right, John and Jane, after wondrous dreams, go through the “looking glass” and down the “rabbit hole”.

Below, Roberta White (i.e. the white rabbit) goes slumming in Harlem.

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Meeting Julian Carnation and the Florists

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