Friday, April 07, 2006

Growing Up Musical

In my house, my mother, when home, would gush about the musicals she loved as a girl.  I guess it has something to do with my Welsh blood.  It means that everywhere I go, music is usually burbling at my lips and constantly accompanying my daily life.  It is the refrain from a song that comes to mind at the right moment, thus providing a smart response or an apt observation.  Notably, it can be a conversation starter, although there are those folks who hate musicals, but we will leave them be, for the moment.

Back to the story: my mother would love to recall Gordon McRae, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”  And there was the very pleasant evening spent watching Robert Preston burn up the screen, while set on high simmer, in The Music Man, singing to his love, “Marion, Madam Librarian.”  Thus it was that my little brain was exposed to the notion of big, Broadway story telling.  Story telling that would catch you when you least expected, only to discover tears in your eyes because you had started to care about the characters and the plight.  And the music, oh, the music is so key; the right chord not only suggests artistry but also tone in a dramatic or comic moment.  After high school music indoctrination, I learned to recognize things like deliberate dissonance and holding the resolution out as long as humanly possible to create drama and suspense.  (By the way, the term “indoctrination” is not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy it and wasn’t enriched by the experience of singing in high school; I am just suggesting that like Chinese Water Torture, the key to learning a piece of music is plain old consistent repetition.)

I guess you could say that I have grown up “Musical.”  Not musically inclined, mind you; I think I am one of those people who have skill but not talent.  I mean that I have grown up with the phrases, the characters accompanying me as I moved through life, akin to the transparent Greek chorus for yours truly alone.  It has largely been an asset; like all elements of cultural literacy, being able to make a connecting reference moves conversations along and conflicts more swiftly to resolution.  However, there are times when the musical accompaniment is not helpful.  Just think tracks from Sweeney Todd while trying to celebrate the Holy Mass and you’ll see where that could lead.

How do you grow up “Musical”?  It starts by cutting your teeth on good music, good lyrics and good structure in all music to which you listen.  My sister did that by giving me a good healthy dose of Bread and Alan Parson Project, not to mention, the Beatles.  Those artists paved the way to They Might Be Giants and 10,000 Maniacs.  (That’s for another post.)  But as a youngster, you start with the classics, mainly Rogers and Hammerstein.  Just as you are ready to transition to more mature stuff, the attentive parent whips out a copy of “Carousel” just to seal the deal.  However, if you ever want the child to appreciate a musical, never, never, never show Bye, Bye Birdie or South Pacific.  Trust me.  Those two almost did me in.

Okay, now on to Musical adolescence.  You want to feel grown-up but without all that blasted work which goes with it.  So, whose works am I thinking of?  Give up?  Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Excuse me, that’s Sir Andrew to the groundlings.  Not to say that everything from the piano of Webber lacks merit; it’s just that most of it does.  And that goes double and same for Schwartz, recently of “Wicked” and infamously of “Godspell.”  To Webber’s credit, both “Evita” and “Sunset Boulevard” have and continue to hold up, respectably.  A good revival of “Evita” is just what Broadway could use right now.  When the adolescent is ready to move up, there is only one man to visit: Cole Potter.  Now you are breaking into some lyrical challenges not to mention some musical texture which still surprises me when listened to.  Don’t believe me?  Drag out your copy of “Kiss Me, Kate,” and spin up “Wunderbar” and follow it with “So in Love.”  The fact that the same vocalists are expected to handle the varying material should tell you something.

Now, we move to adult musicals.  How to describe it?  The adult Musical lover discovers complexity not only in music but also in theme and characterization.  I remember the first time I saw Hair on A&E.  I remember thinking how interesting but average the piece was until I saw the tombstone at the end and the company sings “Let the Sun Shine In.”  Right or wrong, for a second, I think I understood the Sixties, beyond the stereotypes.  I could see how they, the young people of that time, might have experienced their world and sensed a fundamental shift happening around them, a ground swell and tectonic adjustment which they could barely manage to stay atop off.  Further, sometimes, the sense of humor plays a part.  Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd currently has my attention.  The story of revenge and fine dining and misguided love brought together with real empathy and pathos, a pathos which transcends the actors because it is present in the composer’s work.  Also, an adult musical is willing to challenge with spareness of structure.  To bring Sondheim back for further praise, the 1978 recording of Company illustrates how to drive an audience nuts and leave them clamoring for more.  In Company, a man tries to decide his future: married or single?  The key is the looseness of time, for the main character is standing outside his apartment door, but for how long.  Is it a moment or is it an actual party?  Is he playing this out in his mind in a moment?  The show doesn’t tell you.  Further, you don’t know if you should really like these characters all that much.  (The ‘70s era pessimism toward institutions like marriage is radioactively present; “The Little Things You Do Together” makes that abundantly clear.)

So, now you know why I break into song parodies whenever I am amused or angry or any old time I feel it coming on.  The musical is simply put a great piece of art; not as high brow as opera but not as pedestrian as other forms of art.

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