Friday, September 2, 2016

In Matters of Life and Death

In 1938, Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael wrote a song which gained popularity in a most unusual way. Like "Chopsticks", it was easily performed by people with no musical training. Living rooms throughout America were soon filled with the sound of people picking out the tune of "Heart and Soul" on a piano.

Loesser's lyric was a bit more poetic than Carmichael's tune:
"Heart and soul, I fell in love with you,
Heart and soul, the way a fool would do,
Because you held me tight,
And stole a kiss in the night...

Heart and soul, I begged to be adored,
Lost control, and tumbled overboard,
That magic night we kissed,
There in the moon mist."
The "heart" of the matter and the "soul" of a person have always been key elements in storytelling. Although the way they are presented in various media may vary widely, each element lies at the core of shaping the emotional truth of a human experience.

Songwriters of every generation contribute to popular culture. In recent years, San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon has held a series of musical salons honoring such famed composers as Cole PorterJohn Kander, Jerry Herman, Frank Loesser, and Jule Styne. Unlike popular singer-songwriters (Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Lady Gaga, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and BeyoncĂ©), composers for musical theatre are rarely seen as performers. Celebrations of their music usually take the form of revues which may be created for a gala benefit or are written to be performed as a staged presentation.

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TheatreWorks Silicon Valley recently presented the American premiere of The Life of the Party, a new revue celebrating the work of singer-songwriter Andrew Lippa, whose prodigious output has ranged from novelty numbers to traditional musicals; from song cycles to an oratorio (I Am Harvey Milk); from a concept opera (I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk) which was performed by Lippa and Kristin Chenoweth at its world premiere to a five-movement orchestral work entitled Rising Tide which, following its world premiere at the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra with Lang Lang as piano soloist, will be recorded in China.

Singer-songwriter Andrew Lippa in a scene from
Life of the Party (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The Life of the Party was originally produced, directed, and co-created by Lippa's long-time friend, David Babani (the Artistic Director of the Menier Chocolate Factory) in London. In order to avoid zipping through a composer's song catalog (and only performing snippets from 40-50 numbers), Lippa and Babani opted for a semi-staged production in which songs from Lippa's musicals would be sung by an ensemble of four artists capable of giving the audience a feeling for what some of the songs felt like in their original dramatic context (some of Lippa's shows have had relatively short runs).

Perhaps most important is the fact that Lippa opted to perform in both productions, giving them the rare benefit of having a living composer performing his own music. The evening began with Lippa performing a droll number he had written for Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday.

Lippa's 2013 musical, Big Fish, may have flopped on Broadway, but that doesn't mean that his score should be ignored. In addition to "Be The Hero," I was particularly impressed with the dramatic poignancy of "I Don't Need A Roof" and "Fight The Dragons."

The Life of the Party's first act also included numbers from Lippa's first musical, 1995's John & Jen. In addition to "Bye Room" and "Out of My Sight," I was especially moved by Sally Ann Triplett's heartfelt rendition of "Just Like You!' Lippa and Damian Humbley soon reappeared as two dog-eared male submissives in service to the newest dominatrix in town, (a radically transformed Cinderella) with Teal Wicks making it crystal clear that "Cindy" wasn't about to take any shit.

There was a notable contrast between "Live Out Loud" and "The Widow Zuma" -- two songs from 2004's A Little Princess (which received its world premiere at TheatreWorks) -- and the hilarious "Christ Almighty," in which Sister Severia, the domineering headmistress of Our Lady of Suppressed Desire Academy for Rambunctious Young Girls, describes how she copes with unexpected challenges.

Lippa's The Wild Party (2000) recently received a stunning production from San Francisco's Ray of Light Theatre. In addition to demonstrating how he was inspired by the Act IV quartet in Verdi's Rigoletto (Bella figlia dell'amore) to write a quartet of his own ("Poor Child") for The Wild Party, the ensemble performed "Let Me Drown" and "The Life of the Party." Sally Ann Triplett had a fine time singing Lippa's lewd and lascivious plea of a desperate dyke ("An Old-Fashioned Love Story").

Andrew Lippa (Gomez) and Sally Ann Triplett (Morticia) perform
a song from The Addams Family (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The second act included several numbers from Lippa's most successful musical, The Addams Family (2010), including "When You're An Addams," "Pulled," Tango De Amor," and "Just Around The Corner." Damian Humbley did a beautiful job with Uncle Fester's song ("The Moon and Me"). Lippa brought the evening to its emotional peak with his rendition of "You Are Here" from 2013's oratorio, I Am Harvey Milk.

I found myself reacting more strongly to the wistfulness of a song from Lippa's upcoming musical (with a book by Jules Feiffer) entitled The Man in the Ceiling. Having been workshopped at TheatreWorks in August 2015 as part of last year's New Works Festival (and earlier this year at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York), the show -- which attracted development support from Disney Theatrical Productions -- will receive its world premiere next spring from the Bay Street Theater with Lippa portraying Uncle Lester.

There were many things about The Life of the Party that appealed to me. First and foremost was the opportunity to experience a living composer with an ingratiating stage presence perform his own songs. Because much of Lippa's writing has not entered the mainstream of popular music, it was quite refreshing to hear many of his songs without already knowing them by heart. It's easy to see the influence Sondheim has had on Lippa's work. However (and this happens a lot less often than one might wish), Lippa has obviously built a potent musical vocabulary of his own and honed his storytelling craft over the years. At 52 years of age, he has miles to go before he sleeps.

Lippa and his ensemble received strong support from musical director William Liberatore with Morgan Large's sets and costumes and Tim Lutkin's lighting adding a tremendous sense of style and simplicity to the evening. Performances of The Life of the Party continue through September 18 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here to order tickets).

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One of the most captivating films screened at the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival was Fritz Lang's bizarrely global love story entitled Destiny (1921). The film begins as a young woman (Lil Dagover) unexpectedly loses her bridegroom. She attempts to strike a bargain with Death (Bernhard Goetzke), who is more than weary of his work. As a result, Death sends her on a time-traveling world tour, with stops at the City of Believers in 9th century Persia, Venice during its annual Carnival celebration, and Imperial China. Throughout her travels, the woman seeks the wisdom and understanding that will allow her to enter Death's eternal garden and be reunited with her lover.

Lil Dagover watches dead souls pass through a wall in 1921's Destiny

The deal Death offers is a simple one. The young woman must save someone from death if she is to facilitate her beloved's return to life. Beyond posing the question of whether the power of love can ever conquer death, Lang's film also puts the young woman to the test of sacrificing herself so that someone less fortunate might live. With live musical accompaniment by the Stephen Horne Ensemble, the screening of Destiny left viewers with plenty of food for thought. In his program essay, Jay Weissberg noted that:
"It’s estimated there were 525,000 war widows in Germany the year before Fritz Lang made Destiny in 1921. In each of those households there was an empty place at the dinner table, just as there were hundreds of thousands of empty places in the homes of parents, siblings, and lovers. When Lil Dagover, draped in a Persian cat and cradling a dachshund in her arms, enters the dining room of a tavern early in the film and notices the vacant spot where her fiancĂ© was just moments before, audiences of the time would have felt their own pang of loss. Destiny is about a young woman trying to reverse that loss, to negate the void that a reluctant Death has created. It’s a film of visual mastery brimming with fantasy, anchored by stunning sets and peppered with whimsical humor, which provides some relief but also knows loss cannot really be cancelled. It is Lang’s first truly great movie."
A young woman (Lil Dagover) pleads with Death
(Bernhard Goetzke) in a scene from 1921's Destiny
"Is Destiny a pessimistic work? That depends on your point of view, but it still offers great comfort. There’s the forbidding, unbroken wall enclosing Death’s realm, its irregular rock-face like petrified dinosaur skin; the Orientalist vision of the Caliph’s City of Believers, Arabian Nights in miniature; a simplified, cruel Renaissance Venice whose empty spaces create a sensation of agoraphobic danger; and the delightful whimsy of the China section, full of stylized curlicues and exaggerated natural forms. And then there are the special effects, from ghostly apparitions passing through Death’s door-less wall to the flying carpet said to have inspired Douglas Fairbanks for The Thief of Baghdad. Much remarked upon was the animated Chinese scroll that apparently Lang himself meticulously shifted on a black velvet wall 800 times in order to make it seem alive (the film was then rewound in the camera, to create the multiple-exposure effect)."
A scene from 1921's Destiny set in a mythical part of China

Having undergone extensive restoration using prints gathered from six different film archives, Destiny's visuals are made more striking by the colored tints used in the various locations to which the young woman travels and the exotic sets designed to represent ancient Persia, Venice, and China. As she watches the candles of dying souls burn out before her, the young woman realizes that she is caught in a useless battle against time. The trick which finally wins back her lover? The painful realization that, instead of hoping to bring him back to life from the dead, she should join him by relinquishing her life instead.

A scene from Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921)

The following clip allows you to watch Lang's film in its entirety. As a silent movie, it has surprising emotional and spiritual depth, with a wealth of imagination stretching the very limits of what was a relatively new technology 95 years ago.

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