Opera vs. Musicals

Read a great review of conductor John Mauceri’s memoir cum instruction manual, Maestros and their Music. It includes a quote I love, “‘Carmen’, he says, ‘is my favourite musical and Carousel is my favourite opera.’” –Something that has made me go off and buy the book.

I am in complete agreement with Carousel as a favorite opera (Carmen has always been more ‘meh’ for me, but as a musical it certainly is less of a bore). As examples to prove both points, here is the “If I Loved You” scene from Carousel (with appropriate Broadway and opera royalty respectively in Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn).

This is as beautifully crafted as any Verdi  scene and aria and gets me every time.

In contrast, Carmen almost never moves me. (My fault I fear.) But the odd, problematic, yet compulsively watchable film adaptation,Carmen Jones works as a musical in some sense that opera doesn’t. Both can’t dodge a certain campy excess, but the movie, despite its faults, doesn’t over stay its welcome like the opera, and has wit and spirit (something that most productions of the opera, at least the ones I have seen, sadly lack).

The thing they have in common? Oscar Hammerstein II.

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Words and Music: Sondheim on Lyrics

The Guardian has a nice feature called “How we made…” quick interviews of creators of cultural milestones.  Here is a bit from the West Side Story one, Stephen Sondheim on the lyrics he wrote for Leonard Bernstein’s songs.

When we worked together, Lenny would sketch out something that was purple prose not poetry. It screamed: “Look at me! I’m being poetic!” I’d learned from Oscar Hammerstein, my mentor, that the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself. Poetry makes, generally, very poor lyrics unless you’re dealing with a certain kind of show. It’s too allusive, that’s not what you want. When Lenny failed, he failed big. He was always jumping off the top of the ladder. When you’re young, you want to take chances but you get discouraged by failure. I learned, as a composer, to be less square – that you don’t always have to write in four-bar phrases.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/sep/18/how-we-made-west-side-story-stephen-sondheim-chita-rivera-musicals

I have some quibbles with the “the whole point is to underwrite” assertion, but the mix of text and music is no mean art, and achieving that elusive balance is rare, particularly when you weigh the narrative, dramatic, and formal elements. But it  is achieved often in West Side Story. (Here’s Something’s Coming…)

Here is the excerpt from Romeo and Juliet that inspires this…Romeo and pals have been discussing going to the Capulets’ ball.

BENVOLIO

….
Supper is done, and we shall come too late.

ROMEO

I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.

(Something’s Coming indeed.)

Another example of Sondheim’s dazzling ability with lyrics: Someone in a Tree from Pacific Overtures, reportedly one of Sondheim’s favorite songs. Certainly one of mine.

It’s the fragment, not the day.
It’s the pebble, not the stream.
It’s the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.
Not the building but the beam,
Not the garden but the stone,
Only cups of tea
And history
And someone in a tree.

Best Musicals: A Contentious Argument

Of making lists there is no end. Recently, I encountered a list of the 100 best musicals by Chris Caggiano (he of the now shuttered, but still pretty great, Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals blog).

Here’s his list (a little dated).

http://www.chriscaggiano.com/the-100-best-musicals-of-all-time.html

Top 3: Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and Sweeney Todd (with which I do not largely disagree except on the order, Eliza Doolittle is first for me, followed by the Demon barber, and “Just Where Would You Be…?”comes third. There is also a certain Bernstein musical that I would put before all three.

In general I agree with Chris (while noting that it doesn’t take into consideration the last decade).

Another crowdsourced list puts Les Miz tops.  Followed by Phantom and Wicked.

That these would never be in my top 50 probably reflects age more than any more reasonable criterion. Unlike the other two, Wicked at least is great fun.

But really, when there is this to compare it to:

Is there anything more to say?

Fred, Ginger, and Frank

When it’s all too much–a mode I fall into more and more, & alas not without reason, I happen on something like this, which offers a glimmer of hope.

Somehow makes me think of a line by the poet Frank O’Hara,

“I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”

You can’t imagine Fred and Ginger regretting life.

 

30 Days of Music Tidbits: Day 18, Industrial Musicals

Despite knowing all of West Side Story and My Fair Lady by heart as well as living and dying by Sondheim. I had never heard of the phenomenon of the “industrial musical.” Turns out during the mid-20th-century heyday of the art form, companies commissioned musical theater creators to do custom shows for their sales meetings etc.

There is a new book about this odd phenomena and it looks pretty wonderful. From a blurb on their website:

industrial musicals

Through the rare souvenir record albums presented in EVERYTHING’S COMING UP PROFITS, an alternate show-biz universe emerges: a universe in which musical theater can be about selling silicone products, or typewriters, or insurance, or bathtubs. Some of these improbable shows were hilariously lame. Some were pretty good. And some were flat-out fantastic.

 

I guess the practice didn’t die out completely. In 2006, there was a musical at the Wal-Mart share holder meeting. I bet Equity artists were NOT invited.