Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Balm for the Wounded Spirit

Once again, Terry Teachout has provided the blogosphere with an irresistable new meme: Name ten pieces of music that comfort you in times of extreme stress and duress.

Increasingly, my answer to this question seems to be, "Whatever's in the CD player." If I were pressed to give a more particular answer, it might be "anything by Ravel." But since we're looking for particular pieces of music, here's a list of five. They're not especially profound (with the exception of Ravel), but they're not bad: Think of them as classical "comfort food."

1. Maurice Ravel, Piano Trio. Ravel wrote only one piano trio, so there's no need for me to number the thing or specify a key. The entire work is a masterpiece, but the second movement ("Pantoum") and the finale are my favorites.

2. Gabriel Faure, "Offertoire" from Requiem (in John Rutter's reconstruction of the 1893 version). Faure's Requiem is easy to sing, but incredibly difficult to sing well. Still, I love the second movement, the finale of which modulates unexpectedly from the gloom of B minor to a glorious B major.

3. Francois Poulenc, Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence. What is it with me and second movements? Or pieces that modulate from major to minor and back again? (Actually, I think I know the answer to that latter question, since my own attempts to compose music -- long ago -- have a similar tonal instabilty.) Poulenc's set of four Lenten motets has a corker in the number-two slot, with "Vinea Mea Electa." There's relatively little contrapuntal activity in "Vinea," much of which has the penitential character of plainchant.

4. Ned Rorem, "Tranquillo" from Symphony No. 2. Here's yet another second movement, although this one remains in a major key throughout. Rorem's three-movement Second Symphony isn't great (especially when compared to his majestic Third Symphony), but the "Tranquillo" is as beautiful a piece as he's ever written, and deserves to stand on its own as a concert encore. The hymnlike melody, Rorem claims, comes from a setting of a George Peel poem (Rorem is an undisputed master of the art song). He not only used the tune for an interlude in his Second Symphony, he recycled it twenty years later for A Quaker Reader, a collection of organ pieces. I like the organ prelude, but the symphonic version may be my favorite: It has a bewitching simplicity which is anything but austere. (The budget label Naxos -- which despite its low prices has maintained a commitment to quality recording and performance -- recently issued a CD of Rorem's first three symphonies. It's a must-own.)

5. Virgil Thomson, Louisiana Story Suite. Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story was a corporate-sponsored documentary about oil drilling in the Louisiana bayous. In the early 1950s it made the British Film Institute's first "Sight and Sound" poll of the ten best films -- which is a bit much, I think. Even though Louisiana Story is an excellent film, I think I prefer Flaherty's earlier Man of Aran for its clearly improvised technique and unconventional rhythms. Still, for his score to Louisiana Story, Thomson won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize, to date the only one ever awarded for film music.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim! (along with a few notes on the death of musical theater)

Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim turns 75 today. Turner Classic Movies is celebrating with an evening of films personally programmed by Sondheim himself. One movie Sondheim scripted is understandably missing from the schedule: a grotty, Gay-baiting murder mystery from the mid-'70s called The Last of Sheila. No one I've met has ever been able to follow its labyrinthine plot, and the characters are so pedestrian that no one seems to care. But for those who can't get enough of knife-wielding homosexual maniacs, Sheila is available on DVD.

Sondheim’s most recent show Bounce, which has yet to open on Broadway, startled Washington, D.C. audiences with his first same-sex kiss. Theatergoers let out an audible gasp, when two male characters (one of them a lead) gave each other a tiny but unmistakably sexual peck on the lips. The reaction was simultaneously odd and understandable. Musical theater has long been the domain of Gay men: Gays write the shows, and sometimes even star in them. But serious same-sex relationships are seldom if ever depicted on the musical stage.

Musicals, after all, are about boys who meet girls -- or at least, they were until Sondheim came along. Technically, Sondheim's first show as composer and lyricist was the Plautus-inspired A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was so deliberately bound to musical-comedy structure that it bore few traces of his distinctive voice. (Indeed, Forum's self-conscious, self-referential deployment of theatrical conventions might make it the first postmodern musical.) His second effort as composer and lyricist, Anyone Can Whistle, would be considered the first "authentic" Sondheim musical. Yet Anyone also used a standard musical-comedy structure in which a main couple and a secondary couple wooed and won each other over the evening. Later shows like A Little Night Music and Bounce would reiterate the formula, though only Night Music would have something like a traditional musical-comedy ending.

But Sondheim's best-known shows take theatergoers' romantic expectations and smash them to rubble. His breakthrough hit Company focused on one male character who couldn’t commit to a single relationship: Traditional romantic closure was out of the question, so the show ended on a note of undirected yearning with the admittedly bombastic finale "Being Alive." Other Sondheim shows have featured a discontented middle-aged foursome (Follies), a mass-murdering barber (Sweeney Todd), a money-grubbing composer who sells out his friends (Merrily We Roll Along), an obsessive painter (Sunday in the Park with George), a handful of dysfunctional fairy tales (Into the Woods), and a terminally ill woman whose love for an Italian soldier destroys them both (Passion).

The 1994 Passion might be my favorite Sondheim musical, although it must be staged in an intimate venue lest it lose its impact. (When I saw the show at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, the people who sat with me in the nosebleed seats found unintentional humor in the show's most deeply emotional moments.) It is deeply flawed, with plenty of internal contradictions, and its story of amour folle feels like the sort of coded Gay narrative that graced Broadway stages during the pre-Stonewall era. Even so, it may contain Sondheim's most honest treatment of human emotion, period. Although his lyrics are renowned for their verbal facility, in Passion he sidesteps all cleverness, and suggests the show's old-school Gay sensibility. From the opening song, "Happiness":

All this happiness
merely from a glance
in the park.

In the show's most anthologized song, "Loving You," the dying Fosca comes as close as any of Sondheim's characters to a statement of sexual identity:

Loving you
is not a choice
It's who I am.

Sondheim came out as Gay as Passion opened on Broadway, and the news surprised no one. His collaborator Arthur Laurents -- who wrote the book for the Bernstein/Sondheim collaboration West Side Story as well as for Sondheim's own Anyone Can Whistle -- had been "outing" the composer for some time. That said, most critics found Passion a depressing, alienating show: A few noted that if this was the sort of thing he wrote when he was "in love," they'd rather have the unattached, unloving eminence grise who wrote shows like Follies and Into the Woods.

A few years ago, Sondheim announced that Broadway musicals were effectively dead, and they weren't coming back, ever. Perhaps this was because musical comedy costs too much to produce today, or perhaps ticket prices have become too high for any show that doesn't carry an instant guarantee of success. The new Monty Python musical Spamalot (known among theater wags as "And Now For Something Completely Familiar") suggests that Broadway musicals, with all that singing and dancing, are much too hokey to survive in today's age of self-conscious media phenomena. They're just not with it.

If musical theater really is dead, then Sondheim's recent show Bounce gives it a lively wake, rehashing its most venerable cliches with gusto. An opening scene in Heaven echoes Carousel; the central pair of con-artists evokes a Guys and Dolls-style vaudeville team; a smart-sappy love ballad sounds like vintage Rodgers and Hart (especially in its heartbroken second-act reprise); and frequent rhythmic patter suggests The Music Man's train scene. But by the show's abrupt ending, every affirmative, you-can-do-it platitude of the traditional Broadway musical has come crashing down on the characters. The protagonists don't get hitched, don't become successful, don't make money. They're angry, broke, alone, and dead in the last scene.

Then there's that troubling same-sex relationship, which may expose the real problem with the Broadway musical today. Most of the classic shows are founded on denial, or at least the sublimation, of sexuality. The hetero couples of classic musicals are consistently neutered and nonthreatening. Tevye and Golda in Fiddler on the Roof may have five daughters, but you're never quite sure how they got them, while Professor Harold Hill turns Marian ("the librarian") into an occasion for redemption rather than an object of lust. When sexual feeling does creep into the Broadway musical -- as happens in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey or Porter's Kiss Me Kate -- it's cloaked in winking, nudge-nudge witticisms. Small wonder, then, that the playful sexuality of Kate climaxes in the middle of its first act ... with the infantile spectacle of spanking.

Passion represents Sondheim's first major effort to redefine the sexuality of musical theater, permitting its main characters to act on transgressive sexual impulses on the condition that they die or suffer horribly for their actions. Bounce takes a more radical approach to sexuality, presenting opposite- and same-sex affection without disguises or apologies. Yet as audiences in D.C. illustrated, most theatergoers either can't or won't accept a same-sex couple on the same terms as Curly and Laurie, Dolly and Horace, or Captain Von Trapp and Maria. At the same time, many are unwilling to accept a play that omits the reality of Gay and Lesbian sexuality altogether. The contemporary musical is caught in a double bind: It knows too much to be innocent (Annie notwithstanding), yet can't reveal what it knows to an audience.

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