Th-th-th-that’s All, Folks!

•2 October 2007 • 3 Comments

In case you missed any September Songs posts, here they are, in order:

September

1

A Few “September Songs”

2

A Bunch of Brecht (and Weill)

3

A Fence of Real Chain Link

4

It’s a Cakewalk

5

Take It All in Stride

6

Betty Boop and the Hi-De-Ho Man

7

Swing, Swing, Swing

A September Songs EXTRA

8

Klezydeco? Zydemer?

9

Calling You

10

Un Rendez-vous

11

Pasta alla Puttanesca

12

George Clooney’s Aunt Rosie

13

Eleanora

14

Kathryn Dawn

15

Wicked, Wicked Game

16

Goodness Had Nothin’ to Do With It

17

Wanna Funk?

18

Songs of the Small House

19

The Byrne-ing Time

20

Sacred Fires

21

Garden of Eden

22

So.

23

Ástor and the Brothel of Buenos Aires

24

“Yo, Yo-Yo Ma, My Man!”

25

Best of Breed

26

Four Beauties

27

It’s the Plural of Opus

28

A Few for Indigo

29

Hero Worship, Part 1

30

Later

Hero Worship, Part 2

Hero Worship, Part 2

•30 September 2007 • 5 Comments

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, got his start in the 1800s. Most scholars see him as a fictional character, though a few think he’s based on an actual serial killer. He always uses a straight razor to slash the throats of his victims; in many versions of the tale, an accomplice, Margery (or Nellie or Charlotte) Lovett then bakes their corpses into meat pies. The cannibalistic trait of the story goes back as far as the myth of Pelops, while the moralistic symbolism of eating one’s fellow man appears in social satire such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” The myth’s imagery of meat pies made from people is almost certainly an allusion to the finale of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the original Roman tale on which it was based.

Sweeney Todd, the musical, is widely seen as Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork. It’s technically an opera. The original 1979 production, which won nine Tony Awards, starred Len Cariou and later George Hearn as Sweeney, and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett; a much-lauded 2006 revival featured Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris. And Tim Burton is directing the film adaptation with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, which is scheduled for a December release.

The story opens with Sweeney returning from the penal colonies in Australia, where he has spent fifteen years on false charges. When he learns from Mrs. Lovett that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by Judge Turpin, the man who imprisoned him, and that his daughter is now Judge Turpin’s ward, he vows revenge. The two become conspirators in a dark plot that results in mass murder, booming business for Lovett’s pie shop, and ultimately tragedy.

Sondheim’s score is one of his most complex to date. It relies heavily on counterpoint and rich, angular harmonies, and quotes the ancient Dies Irae Gregorian chant, both as part of the eponymous ballad that runs throughout the score, and in a musical inversion later on.

Rarely has any show had a more striking opening scene. Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd:

Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett sings about her reputation as purveyor of the worst meat pies in London:

Angela Lansbury and George Hearn doing my favorite song from the show, and perhaps any show, ever — “A Little Priest” (Adamus, there’s a line in here that’s especially for you):

And for pure lyrical beauty, here’s “Not While I’m Around,” sung by Mrs. Lovett’s developmentally challenged nephew Tobias, played here by Neil Patrick Harris:

A much lighter Sondheim musical, inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, is Into the Woods. It intertwines the plots of several Grimm Brothers fairy tales — Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, tied together by an original story involving a Baker and his wife and their quest to begin a family.

In Act I, each of the characters ventures into the woods on one quest or another. By the end of the act, each succeeds and lives happily ever after. Act II is about what happens when you get what you wish for, and when you have to live with the consequences of your actions.

This clip from the 1988 Tony Awards offers a nice overview:

Along the way, Little Red Riding Hood meets the overtly lascivious wolf, who wants to devour her in more ways than one:

You know the story: Wolf eats granny, deceives Little Red then eats her as well, after which a passing woodsman slices the wolf open and out pop granny and Red, safe and sound. Straight out of Bettelheim, it’s an allegory of sexual awakening. She sings about her experience in “I Know Things Now”:

And he showed me things,
many beautiful things,
That I hadn’t thought to explore.
They were off my path,
So I never had dared.
I had been so careful
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited—
Well, excited and scared.
When he said, “Come in!”
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really for scared—
Well, excited and scared—
But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know,
And when everything familiar
Seemed to disappear forever,
At the end of the path
Was Granny once again.
. . .

And I know things now,
Many valuable things
That I hadn’t known before:
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.

Dimwitted Jack sells his pet cow for magic beans, climbs the beanstalk, then discovers that there are “Giants in the Sky” — another clearly Freudian take on the old tale:

Into the Woods is just plain fun in so many ways. Take, for example, this duet between Cinderella’s prince, who has never had anyone run away from him, and Rapunzel’s prince, who complains of the difficulties of wooing a woman in a tower:

Sondheim intermixes sophisticated lyrics and complex tunes with songs that are simple, heartfelt, and lovely. I can think of no better song to end this month-long writing experiment than a piece from the second act of Into the Woods, after several of the characters have experienced tragic loss. It’s powerful and touching, and is my hero Sondheim at his finest:

It’s been a good month. Thanks for stopping by.

Later

•30 September 2007 • 2 Comments

It’s midnight, and I’m too tired to write my last post right now. I told myself, “I’ll just do it later, in the morning.” Then I started singing “Later,” one of the songs from yesterday’s show, A Little Night Music, and thought it might tide you over until I can finish the final September Song.

OK, so the show opens with a trio of songs: “Now,” sung by Frederik as he contemplates the best way to seduce his virginal wife; “Later,” sung by Frederik’s sexually repressed (and perpetually depressed) son Henrik, the divinity student; and “Soon,” sung by Anne, the young wife, as she promises that it won’t be too much longer before she gives herself completely.

This is “Later.” Its chief accompaniment is a lugubrious cello, playing in counterpoint.

Later. . .
When is later?
All you ever hear is “Later, Henrik, Henrik, later.”
“Yes, we know, Henrik,
Oh, Henrik,
Everyone agrees, Henrik,
Please, Henrik!”
You have a thought you’re fairly bursting with,
A personal discovery or problem, and it’s:
“What’s your rush, Henrik?
Shush, Henrik!
Goodness, how you gush, Henrik!
Hush, Henrik!”
You murmur:
“I only—
It’s just that—”
“For God’s sake, later, Henrik!”

“Henrik. . .
Who is Henrik?
Oh, that lawyer’s son, the one who mumbles.
Short and boring,
Yes, he’s hardly worth ignoring,
And who cares if he’s all dammed—”
I beg your pardon—
“Up inside?”
As I’ve often stated,
It’s intolerable being tolerated.
“Reassure Henrik,
Poor Henrik.
Henrik, you’ll endure
Being pure, Henrik.”
Though I’ve been born, I’ve never been!
How can I wait around for later?
I’ll be ninety on my deathbead
And the late, or, rather, later, Henrik Egerman.
Doesn’t anything begin?

See you later.

Hero Worship, Part 1

•29 September 2007 • 4 Comments

A number of years ago I met Stanislav Grof, who essentially created the field of transpersonal psychology and the Holotropic Breathwork therapeutic discipline, at a graduation ceremony in Burlington, Vermont, where he received an honorary doctorate. He was being glad-handed by colleagues and former students and friends, and I waded through the crowd until I stood in front of this great bear of a man. When I opened my mouth to tell him how much his work has meant to me over the past twenty years or so, I suddenly and inexplicably dissolved into sobs. He hugged me warmly. I tried to explain, but the few words I choked out weren’t entirely coherent. I finally pulled myself together and said, “Thank you, just . . . thank you.”

Hero worship can be so embarrassing.

I have no doubt whatsoever that I would be turned into a similar blubbering heap were I ever to meet Stephen Sondheim. Thank goodness there’s little chance of that happening.

The three Sonheim shows that are closest to my heart are A Little Night Music (which I saw on Broadway in 1974 with Jean Simmons as Desirée and Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton as Madame Armfeldt); Sweeney Todd (1979); and Into the Woods (1987).

There’s something about his music — moving but just the tiniest bit discordant — and his witty, sophisticated lyrics that satisfies on so many different levels. His is a profound understanding of the human condition in all its foibles and failings, that peculiar mixture of darkness and light that makes us alive.

Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music is set in Sweden at the turn of the century, and tells the story of a lawyer, Fredrik Egerman, who is married to a beautiful, featherbrained, and inexperienced 18-year-old trophy wife named Anne. He sees an old flame, Desirée Armfeldt, who is appearing in a popular play, and his romantic interest in her is rekindled.

Here Fredrik meets Desirée in her dressing room after the show, and immediately sings the glories of his young wife:

In 1978 someone made a series of extraordinarily bad decisions: to make a film version of A Little Night Music; to cast Elizabeth Taylor as Desirée, then coat the lens with Vaseline, and dub her (badly) on “Send in the Clowns”; to change the setting from Sweden to Vienna; and to cut or alter many of the songs.

The only good thing about the movie was Dame Diana Rigg in the role of Countess Charlotte, the wife of an arrogant, insanely jealous military man, Count Carl-Magnus, who is openly having an affair with Desirée. Charlotte sings about the situation in “Every Day a Little Death”:

Desirée invites Frederik, his virginal wife, Frederik’s stodgy, depressed son Henrik (a divinity student who is in love with his stepmother), and their household staff, to a lavish weekend in the country. Of course Carl-Magnus decides to crash the party with his wife Charlotte and their household staff. The weekend is to be held at the country estate of Desirée’s mother, Madame Armfeldt. She is a profane but dignified old woman who is looking after Desirée’s precocious daughter, Fredrika, while Desirée is on tour. Here she sings a marvelous song about the benefits of a carefully conducted love life:

The first act finale is the marvelous “A Weekend in the Country.” It is the height of midsummer, which in Sweden means that the sun never sets completely. In act two, the characters wander around the vast estate and grounds bathed in a golden twilight. This hazy, limbo-like setting allows them to explore their passions and realize who it is and what it is that they truly desire.

The most famous song from the show, “Send in the Clowns,” is easily my least favorite. Or was, until I heard Dame Judi Dench’s version of it (she played Desirée in the London production):

Clive Barnes reviewed the show for The New York Times when it opened in 1973. He wrote:

At last, resonances and elegances in a Broadway musical! A Little Night Music is heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting. It is Dom Perignon. It is supper at Laserre. It is a mixture of Cole Porter, Gutav Mahler, Antony Tudor and just a little of Ingmar Bergman. And it is more fun than any tango in a Parisian suburb.

Broadway, champagne, food, Cole Porter, and the tango. Ye gods I love this musical!

A Few for Indigo

•28 September 2007 • 4 Comments

The Bunting and I have bunting.jpgbeen friends for a long time. We’re at that point in our relationship where we have a lot of great stories accumulated. We blame all sorts of atrocities on one another.

Like the several days we spent at Walt Disney World. Here I had everything planned down to the minute, just so we’d feel secure and wouldn’t miss anything we wanted to do, and she goes and accuses me of being anal retentive! The nerve!

At any rate, she has already told you the story of our ride on the train that circles the Magic Kingdom. Which is why I thought she might enjoy this:

A couple of days later we were at Disney MGM studios. I insisted on going to see “The Hunchback of Notre Dame — A Musical Adventure.” It featured a cast of medieval puppets and live actors, acrobats all. It was one of the best things ever presented at Disney World, which of course is why it ended its run back in 2002. Still, it was a great day.

We share a shameful love of television. Two shows that debuted in 1990 remain favorites of ours. Twin Peaks premiered in April; by September this marvelous parody had aired on Saturday Night Live:

The other show, which ran considerably longer, was this one:

And this wonderful little snippet was part of the fifth episode (would you be terribly shocked and disappointed in me if you knew that the joint influence of Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure contributed, at least in part, to my desire to drive cross-country and visit the Pacific Northwest?):

Indigo Bunting is always wrapping herself in the most wonderful music. Sometimes she discovers an old favorite of mine; sometimes she’s opening my eyes to something new. And sometimes I discover that we’ve loved the same songs for years, even though neither of us has mentioned it before.Like this week, when I visited her Amazon wish list and saw an album that I must have played daily back in the 70s:

Or the day I discovered we had both memorized most of the lyrics to this show (here’s the original West Coast cast in a clip from the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour):

Lately she’s fallen in love with Nina Simone in a big way. So I think it’s most appropriate to end with this small delight: