Archive for May, 2004

Mother’s Day at 1818

Friday, May 28th, 2004

Here’s one for the family readers of this here screed: an image taken in the backyard of 1818 on Mother’s Day. Of particular note: the extreme hair on Son #1:

Anyone Can Whistle – notes toward a production next season

Friday, May 28th, 2004

I put together the following notes in preparation for a proposed concert-style production of Anyone Can Whistle at the Prince Music Theater next season. Perhaps you’ll be inspired, after you read this, to post a comment using the link at the end of this article.

Anyone Can Whistle opened on Broadway in April of 1964 after an out-of-town tryout at Philadelphia�s Forrest Theater. While a few critics praised the show with plaudits like “breathtaking,” “ingenious” and “spectacularly original,” the New York Times opened its hostile review with the statement “There is no law against saying something in a musical, but it�s unconstitutional to omit imagination and wit,” and the show closed after nine performances. Imagination, wit and musical brio, as it turns out, are abundantly evident on the original cast album that was recorded the day after the show closed, leaving Sondheads to ponder (as they did after the failure of Merrily We Roll Along and, more recently, Bounce) how a show with such an exciting score could have fared so badly onstage.

Forty years later, Anyone Can Whistle remains a subject of considerable fascination among musical theater enthusiasts. Meanwhile, an eerie sense of timeliness has crept back into the show�s satirical barbs. In 1964, America was on the threshold of what would turn out to be a prolonged conflict in Vietnam, and in the chill of the Cold War, every citizen was acutely aware of the threat of Communism and nuclear devastation. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination in public places such as hotels, restaurants and movie theaters, was vigorously debated during the spring of 1964 and was signed into law in July, The “counterculture” which blossomed during the “Summer of Love” in 1967 was merely an embryonic presence in American culture in 1964. Today, we find ourselves once more becoming embroiled in an international conflict, al-Qaeda has replaced the Communist Party as the demon du jour, and the threat of terrorism is no longer solely nuclear. In Washington, a conservative Republican majority holds power; our Chief Executive has chosen to surround himself with an insidious clique of advisors, and critics of the current regime are branded as unpatriotic. Women, gays and racial minorities have made significant strides toward equality and there is much talk (some of it lip service) about the value of diversity, but a conservative white hegemony still holds sway at the core of American culture.

It is little wonder that the message of Anyone Can Whistle, which encourages its viewers to question authority and resist the madness of conformity, seems attractive forty years later. On the strength of its legendary score and its putative relevance, the work has received two noteworthy revivals last year: one in London at the Bridewell Theater (January 2003) and one in Los Angeles at the Matrix Theater (February 2003). While these productions, both of which incorporated revisions by librettist Laurents, were well attended, both were judged harshly by reviewers, who found the work plagued by fatal flaws in tone, style and dramaturgical construction. While there is much to admire in this challenging and controversial work, the book of Anyone Can Whistle is viewed by its critics as being problematic, a fact that must be taken into consideration when contemplating a new production.

It is instructive to consider the case of another adventurous Sondheim work that has also been charged with inconsistencies of tone and style: Assassins, currently enjoying a successful revival at the Roundabout Theater Company. Assassins is a work whose tone changes drastically from scene to scene and even from moment to moment. For example, the scenes between Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore and the monologs of Sam Byck both veer unexpectedly from broad comedy to pathos, and songs like The Ballad of Guiteau and Unworthy of Your Love teeter on the fine line separating satire and sincerity. The point, according to Sondheim and Weidman, is not to make everything seem consistent and neat, but to use the devices of theater to stir up uncertainties and raise questions in the mind of the spectator. In the parlance of contemporary computer programmers, the inconsistencies of style and tone are not a bug but a feature. The success of the current production (in contradistinction to its predecessor at Playwrights Horizons) is the way in which director Joe Mantello embraces this fact in his production. He finds a way to give individual moments their proper tone and emotional weight while providing a satisfying sense of unity and overall form. It seems potentially fruitful to approach a presentation of Anyone Can Whistle armed with this insight. At the same time, it is important to be realistic about the degree to even the most sensitive of productions will successfully ameliorate all its book issues.

In contemplating a production for the Prince Music Theater, the following guidelines are proposed:

1. Make the excellence of the music a top priority. Hire high-quality singing actors as soloists, a big chorus and a big orchestra; provide adequate rehearsal time and good sound reinforcement.

2. Examine existing versions of the script (including the authors� most recent revisions) to choose the version that dramatizes the story most effectively, and stage the presentation and coach the actors to present the material with clarity and specificity.

3. Embrace the notion that the piece changes tone significantly from moment to moment. Anyone Can Whistle is a melange, a mosaic in which each individual song and dramatic moment has its own identity. Don�t let a generalized notion of style smother the distinctive ingredients of the piece like a thick sauce.

4. Condition the audience regarding what to expect. Focus on the adventurous subject matter and artistic approach in a way that will (perhaps) minimize perceived problems in dramaturgical construction. Collateral materials (advance publicity, program notes, lobby displays, pre-concert talks) will serve an important purpose in this regard. Use the scheme of production to clue in the audience about what to expect and how to respond.

The most recent Broadway scores

Friday, May 28th, 2004

Here is an article by Stephen Holden at the NY Times about the scores of the current crop of Tony-nominated shows – a rather penetrating analysis, I daresay, with some interesting insights into songcraft, spectacle and the nature of the current musical theater.

The Confusion

Tuesday, May 25th, 2004

I’ve been spending a lot of hours with Neal Stephenson and his new novel The Confusion these days. I enjoyed volume one of his “Baroque Cycle,” Quicksilver, a great deal, even if there were a few pages where I found myself skimming rather than face drowning in a surfeit of detail. The first hundred pages or so of the new book, which is volume 2 in the BC, seemed to start off slow, but I can’t say whether that was a flaw of the writing or just the fact that my tired brain wasn’t up to the density of the author’s inventiveness. However, the book turned a corner for me with its description of the piratical exploits of one of its main characters, and turned into a “ripping yarn.”

In a Metaweb entry, commentator Jeremy Bornstein points out that “(t)he French term “L’Emmerdeur,” which in the novel refers to Jack Shaftoe, is difficult to translate precisely. The literal reading is something like “The guy who covers stuff in shit,” but it’s more like a curse of admiration in this case.” I found myself thinking of a minor character in another Stephenson book – well, actually, the book I’m thinking of is Interface, a book NS wrote with his uncle under the pseudonym Stephen Bury [yes, I know, this is getting baroque…] – a character named Scatflinger. Not that this observation will mean anything to anybody, but it’s a grotesque demonstration of how my overstuffed brain works when given a few minutes of leisure time. Anyway, our guy NS can really fling the scat, and I’m looking forward to volume 3 of the cycle.

Letters from Squeaky

Sunday, May 23rd, 2004

The New York Times has just published Jesse Green’s article about the correspondence between Mary Catherine Garrison, the actress who plays Squeaky Fromme in Assassins, and her real-life counterpart, Lynette Fromme, still in jail at age 55 after her attempt on the life of then-President Gerald Ford.

Long Time No Blog

Friday, May 21st, 2004

Apologies to faithful readers (I suppose there are one or two of you) who’ve dropped by looking for new postings lately only to find the same old stuff. The first half of May was particularly exhausting for me – a sudden sprint at the end of a long race – and I find myself busily reacquainting myself with my sofa cushions rather than doing anything remotely constructive. Last weekend, I helped my collaborator, Albert, move to Philadelphia, a task that entailed loading his massive collection of opera CDs, LPs, books and scores (plus a household item or two) onto a truck and driving to Philadelphia. With the help of my son Alex and his buddy Nicholas, we managed the whole affair in a day – driving to Beacon, loading, driving back to Philadelphia and unloading before collapsing on Saturday night. Sunday there were a few loose ends, including items to be stashed in a storage unit and a busted bed to reconstruct, but the deed was complete, and was I beat! The previous week’s madness was the Prince Music Theater’s gala, for which I stepped in as director and musical arranger at the last moment. The task here included an original song honoring Suzanne Roberts, host of Seeking Solutions with Suzanne on CN8 and the guest of honor at the Prince fete, plus several other musical numbers. Just today I received a lovely note from the Prince recognizing my contributions to the gala – it was a job well done for a good cause, and I even managed to have a little fun along the way.
But now, I’m resting and regrouping, preparing for the coming weeks, which will include…? What? Well, not a production of Gemini the Musical, since that’s been postposed til September. But certainly casting for said musical, along with a possible one-week workshop late in June. A trip to Carnegie Hall so that Kerry can receive his Gold Key award from the Scholastic Writing Awards on June 10. A couple of Phillies games (the Phightin’ Phils have battled their way into the number-one berth in their division), including one tonight. And hopefully a little vacation time as well – we’ll see. And with any luck, a little blogging.
Meanwhile, here’s an image from a recent visit to Philadelphia’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial:

The shadowy figure reflected is Kerry, who has been writing a school paper about Vietnam; the image turned out to be the perfect cover shot for his paper.

New Assassins OCR Planned

Friday, May 21st, 2004

In keeping with this blog’s obsessions with all things Assassins, I am pleased to report that PS Classics has announced that they will be making an original cast recording of the new Broadway production of Assassins. Given the excellence of the cast and the new orchestrations by Michael Starobin (for which he has deservedly received a Tony nomination), this is happy news. The recording session has been scheduled for the day after the Tony Awards, June 7, with an anticipated late July release.