On the Town with Misty Copeland

Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.
Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.

 

Tomorrow, Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, will begin a two week stint on Broadway. Copeland will join the cast of the latest production of On the Town, playing the role of Ivy Smith. Here is a preview and here is Terry Teachout’s review of the production.

In the world of ballet, Misty Copeland is a ground breaker, redefining long-held views regarding the ideal body type of a star ballerina (she is muscular and five-foot-two and a half). Her celebrity status seems to be building bridges to new potential audiences. This interview provides some background on her extraordinary career.

On the Town, which originally opened on Broadway in 1944 with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, has roots in ballet. It was inspired by Fancy Free, the 1944 Ballet Theater collaboration between Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. At moments Bernstein’s score for Fancy Free may remind you of Stravinsky (5:07), or the bluesy sounds of Gershwin. This impetuous music is far from the blocky, squarely symmetrical phrases of traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century ballet music. Listen for all the fun, irregular, rhythmic surprises and sudden meter changes that continually catch us off guard. Sometimes the music seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but, miraculously, it always works itself out.

Here is Bernstein’s 1944 recording with the Ballet Theater orchestra (predecessor to the American Ballet Theater):

On the Town contains the same delirious, off balance, jazzy energy that we hear in Fancy Free. It’s an idealized snapshot of an optimistic, larger-than-life New York of dizzying vitality, and slender, exuberant skyscrapers. In this carefree dreamscape, a group of sailors are on a 24-hour shore leave during wartime 1944. Nothing seems to matter except the present.

The 1960 studio cast recording, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (excerpts below), showcases the virtuosic panache of New York theater musicians in the golden age of the Broadway pit orchestra. The show’s opening explodes with the frenetic hustle and bustle of New York, New York. Bernstein’s score is filled with subtle, but sophisticated details that you wouldn’t find in the average Broadway song. Listen to the repeating bass line of New York, New York and you’ll hear the first four notes of the melody (2:02, 3:09, and 3:59). Then there’s the downbeat defying, canonic madness of the dance music beginning at 4:45 with its irregular meter changes. Later in the excerpt, Bernstein can’t resist sneaking in allusions to Prokofiev (beginning around 7:00) and Shostakovich (9:15):

 Additional Listening

  • Three Dance Episodes from On the Town: Bernstein’s concert suite is made up of significant dance music from the show: Dance of the Great Lover (from the Dream Ballet, Act 2), Pas de Deux (from the “Lonely Town” Ballet, Act 1), Times Square: 1944 (Finale, Act 1). “I believe this is the first Broadway show ever to have as many as seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts; and, as a result, the essence of the whole production is contained in these dances,” wrote Bernstein.
  • Lucky to Be Me is from near the end of Act 1.
  • Some Other Timethe final song in Act 2, hints at the blues with its lowered seventh.
  • Find the 1960 studio cast recording on iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Fancy Free on iTunes, Amazon.

Lonely Broadway, Circa 1946

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Here’s an interesting historical coincidence from the golden age of American musical theater: At one fleeting moment in the late 1940s, there were three shows running on (or near) Broadway containing songs with strikingly similar titles. The shows had little in common in terms of style or substance. But the three songs, Lonely RoomLonely Town, and Lonely House share an obvious, if superficial bond.

Lonely Room

Lonely Room is a dark soliloquy, occurring near the end of the first act of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the transformative, plot-driven musical which opened on Broadway in 1943 and ran for a record-breaking 2,212 performances. The song offers a brief glimpse into the troubled, isolated world of Jud Fry. Fry, who lives in a smokehouse, is the show’s main villain and outcast. He is an anti-hero, the polar opposite of cowboy Curly McLain. Curly and Jud are embroiled in a romantic rivalry for the affections of Laurey Williams, a farm girl.

Lonely Room gives us empathy for Jud as a character, even though we don’t want to see him triumph over Curly. We are forced to enter the painful desolation of his inner turmoil and to acknowledge his humanity. He becomes a developed character rather than a stick figure “villain.” Our encounter is simultaneously disturbing and life-affirming.

Lonely Room opens with a grating dissonance. Its melody steps up chromatically, mirroring the rising heat of Jud’s emotions. It veers unpredictably into major before being pulled back into a stormy minor. Lonely Room unfolds as a stream of consciousness with its own dramatic arc. In The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies (pg. 42), Dominic Symonds points out the song’s unconventional “A, B, B, C, A, A-extended” structure, noting that at the song’s conclusion, the “A” section is developed and extended “to reveal Jud’s dramatic journey through the song.” Rodgers and Hammerstein would develop this form further in Carousel (1945) with Soliloquy

Lonely Town

The jazzy, escapist musical comedy On the Town opened on Broadway in 1944. The music was written by a young Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The show’s plot follows three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City during the Second World War. Lonely Town is Gabey’s lament at not being able to find romance in the big city.

Harmonically, Lonely Town is restless, constantly unfolding, and never quite going where we expect. Bernstein seems to give a sly nod to Puccini in the final bars of the song. Lonely Town melts into the solitary blues of the Pas de deux dance sequence.

Lonely House

Kurt Weill’s 1946 opera, Street Scene, with a libretto by Langston Hughes, premiered in Philadelphia and moved to Broadway in 1947. It is set on the doorstep of a tenement on the East Side of Manhattan over two scorching summer days. (The curtain opens on a song called Ain’t it Aweful, the Heat?). Street Scene was based on Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of the same name. Weill offered this description of the story:

It was a simple story of everyday life in a big city, a story of love and passion and greed and death. I saw great musical possibilities in its theatrical device – life in a tenement house between one evening and the next afternoon. And it seemed like a great challenge to me to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.

Lonely House is sung by Sam Kaplan, a teenager who is in love with Rose Maurrant. The song expresses the sensation of loneliness in a large crowd. Here is a performance by Lotte Lenya, an Austrian singer and actress who was Kurt Weill’s wife:

The Joy of Wrong Notes

broken-piano-keysThe element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.

For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Corner from the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.

The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:

Haydn: The Creation

Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:

Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and you’ll understand why it earned the nickname “Dissonance.” Completed in 1785, the work was dedicated to Haydn.

Chopin’s “Wrong Note” Etude

Frederic Chopin’s Etude No. 25, No. 5 in E minor is known as the “Wrong Note” Etude because of its dissonant minor seconds.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

The music of Sergei Prokofiev is full of quirky “wrong” notes. This excerpt from the ballet score, Cinderella is one example:

Ives: Symphony No. 2

The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…

Shostakovich: Polka from “The Golden Age”

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age offered a satirical look at cultural and political currents in 1920s Europe. The Polka lands somewhere between humor and sarcasm:

Schnittke: Stille Nacht

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.

Wrong Note Rag

We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Share your own favorite “wrong note” pieces in the thread below.

Pass the (Deflated) Football

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The Listeners’ Club isn’t a sports blog, so I have no insight into this weekend’s Super Bowl matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. I’ll also leave it to the Columbia University physics department to investigate allegations that the Patriots gained an unfair advantage by using purposely deflated balls.

But, in honor of Super Bowl 49, here is Pass the Football from Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical, Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. In any other songwriter’s hands this would have been a fairly straight forward comic song. Bernstein seems to have been incapable of passing up an opportunity to have fun with witty musical details. The song opens with Coplandesque voice leading. A reoccurring chromatic scale which jumps wildly between octaves accentuates the humor: