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.

The Road Not Taken

images-4The past and the present collide in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The 1971 Broadway musical centers around the final reunion of former chorus dancers of “Weismann’s Follies,” a fictitious revue suggesting the real-life Ziegfeld’s Follies. The two aging couples, Buddy and Sally and Benjamin and Phyllis, have returned to reminisce before the crumbling, old theater in which the Follies once played is demolished. Amid disappointment and unhappy marriages, a sense of lament pervades the story. The ghosts of their younger selves, played by separate actors, occupy the stage around them. Follies is a show about memory, the passage of time, regret, and the fleeting optimism of youth.

The Road You Didn’t Take examines the philosophy expressed in Robert Frost’s famous poemThe Road Not Taken, from a different angle. In Sondheim’s song, Ben brushes aside thoughts of what might have been (“You take one road, You try one door. There isn’t time for anymore. One’s life consists of either/or”):

But listen carefully and you might sense irony lurking under the surface. As Sondheim explains,

It is a man saying, “oh, I never look back on the past, it just wouldn’t be worth it.” And he’s doing it to con himself as well as the lady he’s with [Sally, whom he has not seen in years]. In point of fact, he’s ripped to shreds by the past.

The stabbing “wrong” notes and the restless Steve Reich-like vamp, which leaves little time for true reflection, offer clues to Ben’s unsuccessful self delusion. The Road You Didn’t Take is full of sudden, unexpected key changes and wide melodic leaps. Rather than contemplating a new direction, we suddenly find ourselves thrust onto a new road. Harmonically, the song occasionally hints at the hazy, impressionist language of Ravel (0:15).

Another Follies song which is filled with irony and self-delusion is In Buddy’s Eyes. Sally describes the love she and Buddy feel for one another. Meanwhile, their marriage is disintegrating.

The previous example was sung by George Hearn. This one features Barbara Cook:

But Alive

Lauren Bacall in "Applause"
Lauren Bacall in “Applause”

Lauren Bacall, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 89, will be remembered partly as the seductive, husky-voiced film star who played opposite Humphrey Bogart throughout the 1940s in films such as To Have and Have Not, Dark Passage and Key Largo. Later, she appeared on Broadway. In 1970 she won a Tony award for her role in the musical, Applause. It was her first appearance singing onstage and she was coached by the show’s composer, Charles Strouse. While Lauren Bacall clearly fell into the category of “actress” rather than “singer” in the conventional sense, she definitely knew how to convey the drama of a song.

Strouse seems to have an occasional affinity for songs which start out with quiet energy, gradually build and then explode at the end. A Lot of Livin’ to Do in Bye Bye Birdie is an example. For another example, listen to Bacall sing But Alive from the original cast recording of Applause below. The show is an adaption of the film, All About Eve.

Watch an interview with Charles Strouse and learn about his career as a Broadway songwriter here and here. Read Terry Teachout’s tribute to Lauren Bacall at his blog, About Last Night. 

The Ladies Who Lunch

Elaine Stritch recording the Broadway cast album of Company
Elaine Stritch recording the Broadway cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1970.

Legendary Broadway performer Elaine Stritch passed away last week at the age of 89. She may be best remembered for her performance of the song, The Ladies Who Lunch in the original 1970 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy, Company. 

Company offers a psychological look at the nature of relationships and marriage. It eviscerates the musical theater’s traditional escapism, replacing it with a healthy dose of realism. The song Sorry-Grateful contains the searing line, “You’ll always be what you always were.” That’s not exactly the stuff of fantasy and cheery, unending optimism. At the same time Company is funny. Sondheim once said that he wanted the audience to laugh hilariously during the show and then to go home, unable to sleep.

The Ladies Who Lunch is a bitter, mocking soliloquy in which the character, Joanne, comments on what she perceives as the meaningless lives of stereotypical wealthy middle-aged women. Sung to the audience towards the end of Act 2, the song takes on a Brechtian quality. Martin Gottfried describes it as:

…a sardonic toast to the New York women who have money and intelligence but no purpose, time to do everything of no consequence. In its ironies it admires these overqualified idlers, these glib and sardonic survivors.

In The Ladies Who Lunch, Joanne’s unhappiness is contrasted with the song’s cool, “zoned out” bossa nova rhythm. There’s also the icy quality of the muted trumpets and horns and the flute’s quote of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in reference to the lyric. The song is filled with Sondheim’s sophisticated internal rhyme (“much”, “clutching”, “touch).

In the final verse Joanne includes herself as an object of ridicule (“Here’s to the girls who just watch”). Her final screams are reminiscent of Rose’s emotional breakdown at the end of Gypsy (Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Jule Styne’s music in that 1959 show).

This documentary shows the all night recording session for Company’s original Broadway cast recording. Rodgers and Hart’s You Took Advantage of Me from a 1954 revival of On Your Toes is from earlier in Elaine Stritch’s career.

Send in the Clowns

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

Recently, I ran across Rob Kapilow’s fascinating What Makes it Great analysis of Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns. Kapilow shows how elements of the song’s melody and harmony evoke a complex mix of emotions. 

Written for the second act of A Little Night Music , which opened on Broadway in 1973, Send in the Clowns may be the ultimate anti-romantic ballad. It’s a song about the bitterness, disappointment and the regret of missed opportunity. In an interview, Sondheim offered this description:

Send in the Clowns” was never meant to be a soaring ballad; it’s a song of regret. And it’s a song of a lady who is too upset and too angry to speak– meaning to sing for a very long time. She is furious, but she doesn’t want to make a scene in front of Fredrik because she recognizes that his obsession with his 18-year-old wife is unbreakable. So she gives up; so it’s a song of regret and anger, and therefore fits in with short-breathed phrases.

Send in the Clowns is sung by the character Desirée Armfeldt, a once glamorous but now fading actress. Throughout the song she uses theater references to talk about the failures and regrets of her life. “Sending in the clowns” relates to bringing on the jokes to save a show which isn’t going well. Desirée is also saying, “aren’t we the fools?” 

A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, is simultaneously a comic and tragic farce in which romantic couples are hopelessly mismatched, but eventually find their compatible partner. The show opens with a Greek chorus of five singers and the Night Waltz. At the end, we magically dissolve back into the night, putting human follies in perspective.

With this dramatic context in mind, let’s listen to Judi Dench’s extraordinary 2010 performance of Send in the Clowns. The performance was part of a BBC Proms concert celebrating Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Notice the melancholy loneliness of the opening clarinet solo and listen for those special expressive chords which Kapilow highlights:

MTT’s Old Gershwin Recording

Gershwin CD

Once in a while I accidentally run across a great old recording which makes me stop and listen. While I love new releases, these old recordings offer a captivating snapshot of a unique time, place and style of playing. Recently I had this experience with an exciting compilation of George Gershwin works, which a young Michael Tilson Thomas (popularly known in hip circles as “MTT”) released in the mid-1970’s.

The recording features the original jazz band version of Rhapsody in Blue, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé for Paul Whiteman’s band. The Columbia Jazz Band accompanies George Gershwin’s 1925 piano roll. The other big piece is An American in Paris played by the New York Philharmonic. Promenade (Walking The Dog) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is a bonus track.

But the real heart of the recording is six of Gershwin’s broadway overtures, performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic: Oh Kay!, Funny Face, Girl Crazy, Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Michael Tilson Thomas was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979.

Here is the Overture to Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 political satire with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. As in most Gershwin, the music captures a brash, young, slightly innocent “American” sound. The Buffalo Philharmonic strings shimmer with lush, perfectly blended depth.

The best broadway overtures offer a contrast of tempo, rhythmic feel and mood as they showcase the show’s melodies, ending on an emotional high. In the clip below, this climax comes at 3:39. Listen to the rich weave of the inner voices in the strings and the soaring music which follows. There’s a little something extra here, which I suspect could not be duplicated easily today. It’s incredibly soulful playing. If you’re looking for a great, comprehensive Gershwin CD, this rare gem is well worth your money.

Find on iTunes Find on Amazon

Cheapening Broadway

Times Square 1-2

Ticket prices and the profits generated by Broadway shows continue to soar but how does the experience compare with what audiences were getting fifty years ago? This question came to mind after a recent conversation I had with a student, following her attendance of Troika Entertainment’s touring production of West Side Story.

Initially excited to see a live performance of one of her favorite shows, my student was quickly distracted and disheartened by the empty, thin sound of the production’s greatly reduced pit orchestra which consisted of one violin, one cello, two reeds, trumpet, trombone, bass, percussion, drums and two ADM/piano players. The production’s playbill credits Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal with the orchestrations, even though the majority of their lush, intricately layered string and wind parts ended up on the cutting room floor.

West Side Story begins and ends with the orchestra, from the Prologue which immediately gives us a sense of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks on the rough and tumble streets of New York, to the emotionally conflicted final notes. The score is symphonic, with motivic threads (like the use of the tritone) running throughout. In West Side Story we are constantly pulled between two opposing realities: the ugliest, darkest impulses of humanity and the transcendent nature of love. Most of the time it’s the music coming out of the pit which brings the drama of this duality to life. Would The Rumble be quite as terrifying without Bernstein’s orchestra music? Listen to a few excerpts from the original Broadway cast recording and notice how often the orchestra tells us exactly what the characters are feeling: Tonight, Somewhere, Something’s Coming.

In 2010 Paul Woodiel, a violinist and friend of Leonard Bernstein wrote an excellent Op-Ed in the New York Times called Gee Officer Krupke, I Need Those Violins, which lamented the unprecedented reduction of live musicians on Broadway and the resulting degradation of the product. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Arts wrote another thought-provoking piece called Why We Use the Full Orchestra. This article sheds additional light on the replacement of live musicians with synthesizers in the theater pit.

Does Broadway deliver the same exciting musical experience it did in the past? Some might correctly argue that the influence of rock music necessitated a more electronic and less acoustic sound on Broadway. Orchestrations should fit the character of the show. A huge pit orchestra isn’t needed for every show. In the 1980’s when orchestras were beginning to shrink, Jonathan Tunick gave Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods a chamber orchestra sound not unlike the witty, dry, neoclassical music of Stravinsky.

But imagine what it was like to buy a ticket in the late 1950’s, walk into the theater and hear the lush, full string sound of the My Fair Lady Overture. The sound of a full orchestra is as relevant today as it was back then. We hear it at the movies, in video games and in the concert hall…just not on Broadway:

Or listen to the spectacular lead trumpet playing in Jule Styne’s Funny Girl Overture. The Virtual Pit Orchestra can’t do this. This overture explodes with an energy and jazzy virtuosity (don’t miss Don’t Rain on My Parade at 2:43) that can only come from real, live professional musicians…in this case, some of the world’s finest. Does today’s Broadway offer anything this exciting, before the curtain even goes up?

Next time you open up your wallet to buy a ticket for a Broadway show ask yourself if you’re getting a full, honest product or a downsized, Disneyfied shadow of what used to be. Ironically, at a time when its profits are up, Broadway may be going artistically bankrupt.