Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Art of Recycling Your Art

Some creative artists are remarkably efficient. If a thought, phrase, or tune doesn't work in one piece, they have absolutely no compunction about recycling it and sticking it into something else. Composer Giaochino Rossini was known for cannibalizing his own creations. As the Wikipedia entry about Il Viaggio a Reims (which was written to celebrate the coronation of France's King Charles X at Rheims) notes:
"Since the opera was written for a specific occasion, with a plot about European aristocrats, officers -- and one poetess -- en route to join in the French coronation festivities that the opera itself was composed for, Rossini never intended for the opera to have a life beyond a few performances in Paris. The composer later re-used about half of the music in Le comte Ory (1828). The overture is typical of Rossini's grander music, crafted for a heavy but precise, high spirited performance. It appears later as a ballet in Le si├Ęge de Corinthe (1826), and though it was not played at the 1825 premiere of Il viaggio, has since never faded from the concert stage. It is frequently recorded and heard often today, though it is sometimes omitted from newer recordings of the opera."
Broadway composer Jule Styne was equally talented at recycling his creative output. On May 26, 1964, exactly two months after Funny Girl opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre, another Styne musical starring Carol Burnett had its premiere just up the street at the Mark Hellinger Theatre.

Although I caught two performances of Fade Out, Fade In (which I really enjoyed), the show was not a success. Burnett suffered a back injury while performing the "Call Me Savage" number and, although Betty Hutton was brought in as a replacement, the show closed after 274 performances. In 1967, Styne was again working with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green on a new musical starring Leslie Uggams entitled Hallelujah, Baby! for which he used the music from "Call Me Savage" in a new number called "Witches' Brew."

Once a character or concept gains popularity, it may get spun off into a variety of new projects.
A more recent trend has been for successful films to be remade into Broadway musicals.
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It's interesting to note that Singin' in the Rain and Fade Out, Fade In were both set in Hollywood in the 1930s. The first show dealt with Hollywood's transition from silent films to talkies. The second show centered around a naive movie usher's sudden rise to stardom. Although more than two decades stand between their premieres, what ties both shows together is the fact that they were written by the legendary team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

In 2009, Singin' in the Rain was staged in Turku, Finland as well as at the Woodminster Amphitheatre in the Oakland hills. This was essentially a revival of Woodminster Summer Musicals' 2003 production, with Darren Fuller, Carl Danielsen, Joy Sherratt, and Susan Himes-Powers all returning in their respective roles. Directed by Joel Schlader, with sets by Gary Barten and costumes by Alison Morris, the evening benefited from Carole Davis's excellent sound design.

Cosmo Brown (Carl Danielsen) and Don Lockwood (Darren Fuller)
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

The production itself is quite delightful, especially Cynthia Ferrer's tap choreography for the big "Broadway Melody" number in the second act. The curtain calls (with twirling umbrellas everywhere) was especially effective. What's interesting to note, however, is how many songs in the score were recycled from previous usage.

How did this happen? The lyricist, Arthur Freed, had originally started out in vaudeville. After being hired by MGM on the basis of his songwriting talent, he wrote the lyrics for many of the studio's movie musicals (often working with composer Nacio Herb Brown). Since MGM owned the rights to their songs, there was no problem cannibalizing their catalogue when it came time to write and produce Singin' in the Rain:

Darren Fuller as Dan Lockwood (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Here's a list of Arthur Freed's songs that were recycled and given a new life in Singin' in the Rain.
Darren Fuller, Joy Sherratt, and Carl Danielsen
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

While the four leads delivered extremely strong performances (there were times when Darren Fuller's facial expressions bore a startling resemblance to John Travolta), special mention should be made of Susan Himes-Powers' portrayal of the ditzy Lina Lamont. Himes-Powers is a familiar face to Bay area audiences, where she is noted for taking on the ingenue roles in many musicals (she recently starred as Anna Leonowens in Broadway by the Bay's production of The King and I).

While her sturdy lyric soprano is always a joy to hear, Singin' in the Rain gave Himes-Powers a chance to use her comedic talents to full effect. The result? She was absolutely hilarious.

Susan Himes-Powers as Lina Lamont
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

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Mention should also be made of a gritty little dramatic song cycle that was recently staged at the Exit Theatre as part of this year's DIVAfest. Lady of the Loin's ten songs were composed by Don Seaver (who performs at the piano) with lyrics by Sean Owens (who appears as the Master of Ceremonies).

This show is meant to be a piece of intimate cabaret theater of, by, and for the folks whose lives are impacted by San Francisco's Tenderloin. But it is essentially a vehicle for singer Shannon Day, who moves through a string of characters, costumes, and styles with relative ease. Billed as "a sizzling tribute to San Francisco's raciest, raunchiest, most unrepentant neighborhood: the Tenderloin -- a dozen stories-in-song, about good girls gone wrong, wronged girls getting the goods, and low-lifes living the high life," Lady of the Loin doesn't always live up to its marketing.

Even with titles like "It's Always A Dame," "The Strut On The Street," and "Homicide's A Gift," the show's songs are quite pedestrian.

There were also some unfortunate mechanical problems at the show's final performance. The cramped space in which Lady of the Loin was performed was hot and uncomfortably stuffy. The sound system was having some burps and glitches and the positioning of Day's head mike (as well as her proximity to the piano) made it difficult to sense any shading or phrasing that could bring a keener sense of life to the show's songs.

Owens has written a series of spoken narratives to introduce the show (and which act as bridges between musical numbers). When taken in the spirit of noir cinema, these passages have a quirky, genre-specific appeal. In such a cramped space, however, they become awkward and lose a great deal of their power.

What did strike me, however, was that the material would be much better served if presented in a different medium. As the show continued to lose steam, I realized that, if its creators could find the money to put Shannon Day in front of a green screen and allow her to perform before video sequences that capture the true grittiness of the Tenderloin's streets and inhabitants, they could have a very powerful set of music videos. My guess is that, when chained together, these numbers might prove to be a highly effective video opera.

Acoustical problems at the performance I attended prevented Day's vocal gifts from shining. I would certainly like to hear her perform under better circumstances, singing better songs, accompanied on a better piano, and with the help of a better sound system. You can watch her perform "Times Like This" from Lucky Stiff (a 2007 show at the Exit Theatre) in the following clip to get a better sense of her artistry:

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The main reason for my disappointment in Lady of the Loin became evident two nights later, when I attended a benefit for the New Conservatory Theatre Center entitled ...And I Played John Lennon's Piano! The True Life Stories And Songs of Steven Schalchlin. Schalchlin is the talented songwriter whose works include The Last Session, The Big Voice: God or Merman? and New World Waking (A Song Cycle For Peace), which received its world premiere at Davies Symphony Hall in a performance by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

While the evening also featured appearances by Jim Brochu (Schalchlin's husband/partner for 25 years) and stand-up comedian Jim David (who is currently appearing onstage in South Pathetic), the show was squarely focused on Schalchlin's achievements as a songwriter.

As the first person to start an AIDS blog on the Internet -- and someone who almost died from the disease -- Schalchlin's writing is intense, from the heart, and deeply personal. His songs are also more inspired and better constructed than those from Lady of the Loin.

It may not seem fair to compare the output of such markedly different talents. But the bottom line is that one exhibits a strength of craft and honesty in his writing that the other sorely lacks. Watch Schalchlin in this clip, singing "Somebody's Friend" from The Last Session and you won't have any trouble grasping the strength of his skills.

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