Monday, October 10, 2011

Stepping on a Rhyme, Stopping On A Dime

Great ideas don't always pan out. A novel can lose its course just as easily as an opera can implode under the inaccessibility of its score. A ballet that one hoped would be a thrilling experience can turn out to be surprisingly dull and uninspired.

Although there are no guarantees that any artistic venture can or will live up to its publicity, that doesn't stop people from trying to make miracles happen. But it's not simply a case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.

When taken out of their original context, certain ingredients lose their potency. A musical style that was once the rage of the Continent may now seem frivolous and/or tedious to modern audiences. Poetry that may once have inspired great passions may fall flat on its face when translated for another time and culture.

I often like to compare the success of certain works of art to a chef's success in delivering a perfect soufflĂ©  to his dinner guests.  The slightest variation in oven temperature, ingredients, moisture -- even the shape of the pan -- can have a dramatic impact on the final product.

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One of the great songwriters of the 20th century, Cole Porter is remembered for his enchanting melodies and crackling wit. His scores for Anything Goes (1934), Jubilee ((1935), Red, Hot, and Blue (1936), Leave It To Me! (1938),  DuBarry Was A Lady (1939), Panama Hattie (1940), Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Out Of This World (1950), Can Can (1952), and Silk Stockings (1957) all introduced songs that went on to become popular hits. Many songs from Porter's Broadway shows and movie musicals have since become classics of the Great American Songbook.

Despite having strong casts, other Cole Porter shows were less successful with critics. Let's Face It (1941), Something For The Boys (1943), Mexican Hayride (1944) and Around The World (1948) are rarely mentioned. A 2004 film biography entitled De-Lovely (starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd) turned out to be a major disappointment as well as a crashing bore.

In September, 42nd Street Moon presented a Cole Porter Salon with Lee Roy Reams and Pamela Myers as its star attractions. Something about the evening seemed decidedly "off" -- as if Porter's songs were starting to blur into one another. I was mystified by the evening's inability to gel.

In 1933 Porter wrote the songs for Nymph Errant, a star vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence which became the hit of London's West End. Due to the star's ill health, plans to transfer the production to New York (as well as make a movie musical of Nymph Errant) never came to fruition.

The plot is fairly simple: Evangeline Edwards and her classmates are about to graduate from a Swiss "finishing school." Whereas her friends quickly find love and intrigue in all sorts of places, Evangeline tours the continent and remains a virgin. Hailed by many for her beauty, her body remains surprisingly untouched by human hands.

Sharon Rietkerk as Evangeline Edwards
in Nymph Errant (Photo by: David Allen)

42nd Street Moon recently revived Nymph Errant using the original 1933 version of the script (as opposed to an updated version created in 1999 for the Chichester Festival Theatre in England). The passing of eight decades has not been kind to this show. In fact, other than 1988's disastrous Winnie,it's hard for me to remember sitting through a musical with such a tedious first act.

Nymph Errant's two big hits occur in Act II, when Evangeline (Sharon Rietkirk) sings a brilliant Porter lyric entitled "The Physician" and Haidee Robinson (an American girl who has just joined a harem) tells the story of "Solomon."

I can't fault 42nd Street Moon's cast, who were constantly jumping in and out of various roles, for the musical's overall lethargy. Sharon Rietkerk was an appealing Evangeline with a solid soprano. Michael Kern Cassidy mugged his way through a series of overly broad characterizations ranging from a French schoolboy to a harem eunuch.

Alexandra Kaprielian did her best to channel Ann Miller in her singing, speaking, and tapping moments while Erin-Kate Whitcomb mined comic gold from her characterizations of a very butch Englishwoman and a Russian lesbian who had an axe to grind with "Georgia Sand."

Leanne Borghesi had no trouble belting out "Solomon" while Kelly Sanchez had a nice turn singing about the joys of "Plumbing." I especially liked Nancy Jo Sale's performances as the dizzy Aunt Ermyntrude and Mme. Celestine Arthur.  Sadly, despite Greg MacKellan's energetic direction, Nymph Errant struck me as a dismal dud.

Thankfully, "The Physician" was performed by Julie Andrews in Star! (the 1968 movie musical based on the life of Gertrude Lawrence). You can enjoy it in the following video clip without having to sit through the rest of Nymph Errant.

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Equally frustrating is a new documentary about the international spread of hip hop culture entitled The Furious Force of Rhymes. Joshua Atesh Litle's film, soon to be screened at the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival, suffers from a bizarre and curious fault which has everything to do with poetry and rhyme and very little to do with hip hop's political context.

Although rap music may have originated in New York's black ghettos, Litle treats hip hop as a form of "transnational protest music." Throughout The Furious Force of Rhymes audiences are introduced to Israeli Jews, marginalized French Arabs, East German skinhead punks and West African feminists who all share a common musical language.

As Litle explains in his production notes:
"I discovered that you could find at least one rapper in just about every country in the world. So I quickly realized I had to develop some criteria to decide what countries I would feature in the film. The first thing for me was that there had to be a substantial scene; it couldn’t just be one or two groups. There had to be a real, local, hip hop movement. Next, in my subjective opinion, the music and the rapping had to be good. A lot of countries had fledgling hip hop scenes but they still hadn’t really figured out how to flow in their own language or how to make good beats. I also discovered that in other countries where they spoke English (like the U.K. or Australia) there was a common tendency toward copycatting American Rap. Because they spoke in English, they would often lift lines and even rap with a Black American street accent. But as soon as people started rapping in non-English languages, they were forced to start to tell their own stories, to figure out how to flow in German or Japanese and, as a result, they created something that seemed more original to me than what the non-American Anglophone rappers were doing. 
I decided fairly early that, with the exception of the United States itself, I would only be going to non-English countries. Of great importance to me was that the lyrics had to be political or address the social issues of the country and those issues had to be serious ones. This became an essential criteria and eliminated countries like Japan, where hip hop is huge but it’s mostly middle-class Japanese adolescents partying or pretending to be American street thugs. So although some of the music is good, and the cultural aspect is interesting, it didn’t really seem valid to me.
The last thing that had to do with the long-form shape of the film was to avoid repeating the same issues from one country to the next. There had to be an evolution in terms of the kinds of social or political problems people were facing (issues of racism in France are different from the issue of conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, which is different from the social marginalization of white former Soviet East German kids). This decision moved me outside of the African Diaspora. At various times there was a temptation to move exclusively from one black community to the next -- for example, from the U.S. ghetto to Brazilian favelas and to the South African townships. In the end I decided to move outside the Diaspora." 

Even though Litle was able to download many samples of international hip hop music, filming on location presented numerous challenges, not the least of which were confrontations by local gangs.

Litle, who was in college during what he calls "the golden era of hip hop" (when he was influenced by groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy) has always felt a strong connection between rap music and the social oppression of minorities. His documentary clearly demonstrates how people all over the world have adapted American street music to their own causes. But the following snippet from The Furious Force of Rhymes demonstrates the film's greatest (and ultimately unavoidable) weakness.

As audiences watch these Palestinian rappers, they will be confronted with two distinct challenges:
  1. With a handheld camera erratically recording the action, it's extremely difficult to read the film's subtitles in order to understand the translation of each rapper's words.
  2. Without any fluency in the language being used by the rappers(as well as its regional slang and/or dialects), it's impossible for anyone other than local audiences to appreciate the rhyming that might impress -- or even thrill -- if it could only be understood.
As a result, what one sees throughout Litle's documentary are marginalized young men and women from all over the world mimicking the threatening poses, hand gestures, and body language routinely seen in hip hop music videos. As the filmmaker explains:
"I think it’s powerful in the film to see not only the connection between the many black artists worldwide, but also the profound way in which other people, including Israeli Jews and East German white guys, have adopted American black music as their own. In that sense, the film is not only about the black struggle but about universal humanism and the collective need outsiders of all stripes feel for artistic expression. And, of course, the profound influence American Blacks have had on world culture."
Whether or not you are a fan of hip hop music, The Furious Force of Rhymes offers an international sampling of how it has been adopted by other cultures.  Here's the trailer:

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