Sunday, October 31, 2010

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It!

Over the years, I've learned that once a song becomes popular, lots of people will try to change it. They'll try to alter its lyrics or create new arrangements.  Think I'm kidding? Compare the way the Star-Spangled Banner is supposed to be sung with some of its recent "interpretations."

In 1979, Ethel Merman went into a studio and recorded 14 songs the way she had been singing them throughout her career. They were then mixed with a disco arrangement. The final product, entitled The Ethel Merman Disco Album, became a collector's item with high camp value. Here she is, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, performing the disco version of Irving Berlin's hit song from 1911, "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Two recent performances reminded me of the Merm's venture into disco. In one, the music of a great composer from Merman's era was given a loving retrospective. In the other, a classic was subjected to a new interpretation with questionable results.

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Last Thursday, 42nd Street Moon staged a "Jerome Kern Salon" devoted to the work of  one of America's greatest composers of popular song. Although 42nd Street Moon's artistic director, Greg MacKellan, feels that Kern (who died at age 60) was the finest "melodist" of the 20th century, I personally think that title might go to Irving Berlin (who lived to the ripe old age of 101).

The cast of 42nd Street Moon's "Jerome Kern Salon."

The evening featured a multitude of songs from Show Boat, the 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical based on Edna Ferber's novel ("Life Upon The Wicked Stage," "You Are Love," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," and "Bill") as well as such standards as "They Didn't Believe Me," "Pick Yourself Up," "Long Ago (and Far Away)," and "Who Stole My Heart Away?"

As one browses through the list of great songs by Jerome Kern -- ranging from familiar songs such as "A Fine Romance," "The Last Time I Saw Paris," and "Look For The Silver Lining" to lesser known numbers like "She Didn't Say Yes," "I'll Be Hard to Handle" and "Till The Clouds Roll By" one can't help marvel at Kern's romantic instinct and playfulness.

Rebecca Luker with 42nd Street Moon's Greg MacKellan

Although the evening featured Rebecca Luker as a guest artist, Bill Fahrner delivered a surprising and stunningly poignant rendition of "Why Was I Born?" Others in the cast included Pierce Peter Brandt, Debbie de Coudreaux, Alexandra Kaprielian, and Michael Scott Wells. As always, Dave Dobrusky was at the piano

What I love about these salons (in addition to the music) are the oddball pieces of trivia which surface. While I had known that the great theatrical producer, Charles Frohman, drowned when the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed on May 7, 1915 off Ireland's Old Head of Kinsale, I did not know that Jerome Kern was supposed to have left New York with Frohman when the ship sailed on May 1st but overslept after a late night poker game and missed the boat.

An artist's depiction of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915.

In the following clip from MGM's 1946 hit movie musical, Till The Clouds Roll By (a fictionalized biography of Kern's life), a 21-year-old Angela Lansbury sings the rarely heard Kern melody, "Spoon With Me."

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As she grew older, my mother (who died last week at the age of 96) used to joke that the seniors in her assisted living facility used to joke that "the patient is dying of improvement." What did she mean? Probably that every new test doctors wanted to use was less inspired by an ability to cure the patient than by their goal of billing Medicare for services rendered.

Singers often like to put their own personal stamp on a piece of popular music. Louis Armstrong's recording of the title song from Hello, Dolly! became an instant hit on the radio (as did Eydie Gormé's rendition of "If He Walked Into My Life" from Jerry Herman's next show, Mame). While Cher's attempt to sing all the roles in West Side Story is a nice concept, no one ever took it too seriously.

Although I never saw the original production of West Side Story, I've been lucky to see several others ranging from the 1964 New York City Center revival (starring Don McKay as Tony, Julia Migenes as Maria and Luba Lisa as Anita) to the 1980 Broadway revival (starring Ken Marshall as Tony, Debbie Allen as Anita, and Josie De Guzman as Maria) and Opera Pacific's 1987 production (starring Jeffrey Reynolds as Tony, Beverly Lambert as Maria, and Diane Fratantoni as Anita).

Directed by David Saint, the latest touring company of West Side Story (in a production based on the 2009 Broadway revival directed by Arthur Laurents) touched down at the Orpheum Theatre last Wednesday with decidedly mixed results. Much has been written about how Laurents decided to have the Sharks and their girls speak to each other in Spanish in an attempt to  make the show more relevant to today's audiences and give it what Pooh-Bah once referred to as "dramatic verisimilitude." My reaction upon finally seeing the production was that it was a huge mistake (almost as misguided as an all-bear version of Follies with Bruce Vilanch singing "I'm Still Here").

The idea initially came from Tom Hatcher (Mr. Laurents' life partner who died on October 26, 2006), who saw a production of West Side Story in Bogotá, he realized that when Spanish is the audience's primary language, the Sharks become the heroes and the Jets become the villains. As Laurents recalls:
“I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things. The truth is that they’re all killers -- every one of them. I wanted to do a much tougher West Side Story. What I thought 50 years ago, I certainly don’t think today.  A lot of my ideas have changed, and this whole production is radically different from what it was back then.
I said to Tom, 'What if there was some way to equalize the gangs?’ And Tom said, ‘What if the Sharks spoke and sang in Spanish at those moments when they would in life?’ And that was it. That’s when I became interested in directing the show. ‘A Boy Like That’ was originally in Spanish and it was very effective --  for people who knew the show. But once you got past that audience, people had no idea what was being sung. So now, the song is in both languages, first in English then in Spanish. We did the same thing with ‘I Feel Pretty.’ The costumes by David C. Woolard are purposely independent of any particular decade."
"The Jet Song" from Act I of West Side Story 
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Laurents insists that, from the start, the use of Spanish was an experiment and that, when he felt audiences did not understand what a song was about, he restored at least some of its English lyrics. Unfortunately, the approach did not work as well as he imagined.
  • In the lead-up to the song "America," there is some caustic dialogue between Bernardo (German Santiago) and Anita (Michelle Aravena ) which cannot be clearly communicated with the dancers' body language alone. A failure to communicate those sentiments severely weakens the song.
  • Similarly, in the 'I Feel Pretty' number, the audience misses out on a great deal of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics.
  • By Act II of the opening night performance, the Puerto Ricans were alternating between speaking their lines in Spanish and English in a way that diluted their credibility and made the effect seem almost laughable. As a close friend remarked, "If Arthur Laurents was so interested in making this sound more like today, he should have just changed the words 'Krup You' to 'Fuck you!' at the end of "Dear Officer Krupke." 
  • To me, the worst use of this gimmick (and that's all it is, folks -- it's a gimmick) came during the Act I quintet, when Anita, Tony (Kyle Harris), Maria (Ali Ewoldt), the Jets and the Sharks are all describing their feelings about the upcoming rumble. At the moment when the voices all merge, the impact of everyone singing the same lyric is a powerful dramatic statement. That impact was totally lost when the Spanish and English versions essentially drowned each other out.

The Dance at the Gym (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

As my favorite character in J.C. Lee's play, Pookie Goes Grenading, would say: "Dat's just stoopid!"

Joey McKneeley, who had previously worked with West Side Story's original choreographer, Jerome Robbins, and has since restaged the dances in numerous productions, explains that:
"What happened with the choreography, and with West Side in general, is that it had become a museum piece. It became stuck in a time warp, and it started to feel dated. The material is not dated. The subject matter is not dated. The social content speaks so vibrantly to today’s audiences. But the choreography was missing a youthful zest, it was missing passion.
The Dance at the Gym (Photo by: Joan Marcus)
Arthur wanted to break free of that museum quality. And he felt, as did many people, that the show needed to be updated in terms of its appeal to an audience. That included making the choreography look edgier, harder. He wanted to get rid of the musical comedy aspects of the choreography, and take it to a more reality-based place. It was difficult (because it’s not my work) and I wanted to be true to the integrity of the choreography. But if my director wants something changed, I have to try to acquiesce to his needs. How do you change choreography when it is not yours? What parts do you manipulate without losing the original intent or structure? Very challenging!
I had all the resources to pull from: my experience from Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the movie version, the West Side Story choreographic manual, the 1980 revival video, even the New York City Ballet version of the dance suite. Along with my associate, Lori Werner, I started as we have for all the tours...setting what we know. Then, as per Arthur’s suggestion or prodding, I was able to use my insight as a choreographer to adjust a step here or there to help take the show away from its entrenched past and bring it into the 21st century with more edge and energy.
An example is the opening of the show. There is a step called the 'sailing step,' a very ballet looking jump with arms out in second position. If the intent is to make these Jets look intimidating right at the top of the show, then a pretty ballet step defeats the purpose. Simply making the hands into fists gives a hard look to the step, but still communicates the fact that the Jets are in charge of this street and will protect it and fight for it.
I kind of walked a tightrope. But in the end, I think the adjustments that were made to the choreography really were the right things to do for Arthur’s vision.With each actress that plays Anita, you want to build around their strengths. The changes in the choreography (which needed the approval of the Robbins estate) were most extensive in the second act ballet. Tony and Maria, the show’s doomed lovers, are now featured more prominently. Arthur wanted the ballet to be connected a little bit more to the book and the characters. We also left out the nightmare section of the ballet, which is about a third of the piece. Although it completes the ballet’s thought, Arthur felt we could do without it, and everyone agreed. I have since worked on an Australian production of West Side Story, and was able to take some of the lessons that I learned and apply them to that production. However, I went back to the original choreography,"
YouTube allows for curious comparisons.  Here is Debbie Allen leading the "America" number in the 1980 Broadway revival. The choreography for that production was recreated by Lee Becker Theodore (who played Anybodys in the original cast of West Side Story). As you can see, Ms. Allen is a lean, mean, dance machine.

Now, see if you can spot the difference in the number's energy as it was staged by Joey McKneely in the 2009 revival with Karen Olivo as a fleshier Anita. It's slightly slower, the gestures are less exaggerated, and the energy level is much lower (if not a bit anemic). There's no ignoring the fact that, 30 years later, "America" is sending quite a bit less electricity out into the theatre.

Still, some of the production's changes seemed totally unnecessary and occasionally counterproductive:
  • This group of Jets looks so clean that one would imagine they had been brought in from a prep school.
  • Whereas the Jets dress up for the dance at the gym, they seem out of place wearing vests and ties (instead of T-shirts with rolled up sleeves holding a box of cigarettes) on the street. The costume for Diesel (Kyle Robinson) looked like a standard knit Lacoste/Izod shirt. These boys look far too wholesome to be hoodlums.
  • During the "I Feel Pretty" number, an utterly gratuitous piece of shtick has been added in which Consuela (Lori Ann Ferreri) and Maria have a diva-like throwdown to see which soprano can hold the highest note for the longest amount of time.
  • Not only does the abbreviated ballet in Act II diminish its dramatic impact (without the nightmarish aspect of Robbins' original choreography it seems more like a dancing Hallmark card), it's rather strange having the character of Anybodys (Alexandra Frohlinger) sing "Somewhere" (this was originally sung by an offstage voice).
Without any doubt, the strongest member of the cast was Ali Ewoldt as Maria. Michelle Aravena's Anita was powerful but, as Tony, Kyle Harris was having some obvious vocal problems with his upper register. The rest of the touring production's cast included Drew Foster (Action), Ryan Christopher Chotto (A-rab), Grant Gustin (Baby John), Joseph J. Simeone (Riff), Nathan Keen (Big Deal), and Jay Garcia (Chino).

The adult roles were well played by John O'Creagh (Doc), Stephen DeRosa (Glad Hand), Mike Boland (Officer Krupke), and Christopher Patrick Mullen (Lieutenant Schrank). Leonard Bernstein's music is still thrilling after 53 years, even if opening night had some rough moments in the orchestra pit.

As an interesting piece of trivia, the actor playing Tony in this company (Kyle Harris) also played Tony in the hilarious Web Site Story. If you'd like to see a fascinating adaptation of West Side Story, the following 21-minute clip is of West Bank Story (which received its world premiere at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and, at the 79th Academy Awards, won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film). Enjoy!

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