Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Musical Theater - A Commentary in Two Acts

Turns out that June 29th is not only my parents' wedding anniversary, it is also the birthday of one of my favorite lyricists, Frank Loesser.  Born to a musical family in New York, his choice of popular rather than classical caused him no end of heartbreak growing up.  Once he caught on though, there was no stopping him.  His parents finally came around.

His songs were written as stories to be told, rather than sung.  He was quite unhappy with the casting of Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit in the film version of Guys and Dolls; he sang too well.  A true New Yorker, Loesser knew that the cadence of Damon Runyon's language was music enough.  Listen.......I got a horse right here, his name is Paul Revere...... are you standing next to me under a street lamp outside an OTB parlor reading the Racing Form and bouncing on the toes of your shoes?  The tune is simple enough for a toddler to hum (just ask the Cuters) and the story tells itself.  The fact that the character is named Nicely Nicely and that the extent of the evil-doing reaches dice with no spots and not much else, well those are just the icing on the cake.  Luck was a lady, Uncle Arvide played matchmaker for Sarah and Sky and Miss Adeline was a poy-son with a cold - my childhood and my children's were experienced to the soundtrack.  There weren't many areas where grandparents and grandchildren could meet over pop culture; Frank Loesser gave us many of those moments.  

I took my parents and my children to see Guys and Dolls at the Martin Beck Theatre in the early 1990's.  The kids had memorized the movie via the wonders of VHS and remote control; they could fast forward through the talking parts and concentrate on the important stuff - the music and the dancing.  Sitting 4th row stage right, we watched the beads of sweat and the twinkles in the eyes of the performers.  They were working hard and enjoying the ride.  Waiting for autographs at the stage door after the performance ended, I was struck by the surprise on the actors' faces.  "Were you in the Chicago company last year at the Goodman Theatre?" I asked one of them?  He'd been memorable then and was equally fabulous on the great white way but it looked as if I were the first person to have mentioned the fact to him His face upon hearing that I remembered him will stay with me forever.  The Cuters got their signatures and we headed for Little Italy, all 5 of us telling anyone who'd listen to sit down, you're rocking the boat.

We saw Aladdin and bought the soundtrack for Disney's Tarzan and hummed Hakuna Matata for a while, too, but none of them had the same staying power.  Don't get me started on Andrew Lloyd Weber and his repetitious and annoyingly monotonous oeuvre.  Just ask the Little Cuter.  After watching Phantom of the Opera with me from the balcony of the Geary Theatre in San Francisco,  she was asked for her opinion by two elderly ladies behind us.  "Honestly, I prefer 'real' musicals, like Guys and Dolls and Showboat.  This all sounded the same."

On a similar note (thus giving me an excuse to append it to this post), I wonder why musicals are miked these days?  Hearing the songs mediated by electronics, I might as well be at home, listening to the record.  Filling the hall with her voice was a pre-requisite for Fanny Brice's inclusion in the Ziegfield Follies; if she could do it why can't today's stars?  Jeannette MacDonald's movies usually include a scene where the doors to the auditorium are flung open so that the passersby on the street can be included in the song.  There was never any indication that her voice wouldn't/couldn't travel that far; she was an opera singer, after all. 

The Cuters and I took G'ma and Daddooooo to see Showboat at the George Gershwin Theatre in 1995.  Unlike the more intimate spaces of the Martin Beck or the Music Box, the Gershwin is a cavernous warehouse of a space, and we were way up in the nosebleed section of the balcony.  We could barely see the players, but their voices were screaming at us from the speakers overhead.  The disconnect was distracting, though the music was still wonderful.  But those little people down on the stage were made smaller by the amplification of their voices.  

Athlete's instruments are their bodies, and, over time, they have gotten stronger.  Why would it not be the same with the human voice? Musicals were performed before electronic assistance was invented.  Is it knowing that the microphone is available which makes the singers unable to project to the back rows of the theater?  Has technology provided an easy excuse once again? I'm not sure.  I do know that Kristen Chenoweth has a very big voice for such a small person.  I wish that I could have heard it, unamplified and in all its original glory, when we saw Wicked.

Live theater should be just that - live.

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