Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Care and Nurturing of the Gifted Child

All too often special education gets a bad rap. For some, special ed is seen as a dumping ground for problem children who can't make the grade. For others it is seen as daycare for children with autism and other clinically-identified diseases which keep them from participating with their peers. But what about the truly gifted child? What about the child whose gifts defy the mainstream?

What about genuine brainiacs like Stephen Hawking and Bobby Fischer? What about child prodigy musicians? What about the child savant? One thing I always liked about Smallville was how, despite their adoptive son's staggering superpowers, Jonathan and Martha Kent tried to keep his life as a teenager as normal and stable as possible.

Suppose you're a 6'5" African American who is head of the chess team. Or your parents think you're the only Asian child who plays the violin like a god.  What if your daughter's skin is green? What if, at the first parent-teacher meeting, you are forced to confess that you castrated your precious little boy in the hopes that he'd make it big in show biz? Say what you want about JonBenet Ramsey's parents -- at least they didn't mutilate her!

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Fans of baroque music are well aware of the role of the castrati in operatic history. From the great Farinelli to the last living castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, the circus freak of classical music has been a source of much research and fascination. In her 1982 best seller, Cry To Heaven. novelist Anne Rice tried to recreate the Italian society in which the castrato thrived.

Mexico's Teatro de Ciertes Habitantes recently brought its controversional production of Monsters & Prodigies:The History of the Castrati to San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Try to imagine the bastard love child that evolved from dueling productions of Peter Weiss's The Persecution And Assassination Of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed By The Inmates Of The Asylum Of Charenton Under The Direction Of The Marquis De Sade and Cirque du Soleil! Then dress the kid up and put him in a Handel opera like Agrippina, Ariodante, or Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Here's how the company's publicist describes Monsters & Prodigies on its website:
"A theatre/opera mise-en-scène that undertakes an unprecedented artistic, social and cultural phenomenon: the history of the castrated, prodigies and monsters at the same time, children born in poverty who were propelled to the range of stars in the frivolous constellation of the great courts of Europe. Through a dramatized conference presented by a two-headed Siamese, surgeon and opera columnist, the audience is taken to a three-century journey, transporting them from the succulent extremes of the baroque to the beginnings of the technological 20th century, where beauty has been annihilated by reason. With a precise and wild gaze, ironic and reflexive, a group of virtuoso actors/musicians, monsters and prodigies at the same time, they infuse life to one of the most sublime mysteries in history: the incomparable voice of the castrati."
Monsters & Prodigies reenacts the primitive medical techniques used to perform an orchiectomy, describes freaks of nature that could only have resulted from acts of bestiality, discusses the unique kind of  sound produced by castrati (which caused baroque audiences to swoon in ecstasy), and explains some of the societal problems faced by castrati whose surgery was only partially successful. One unfortunate man, who was still able to produce sperm, appealed to the Pope for permission to marry -- only to be ordered to have a second surgery to complete the job properly. Others were turned into show business freaks whose careers began as confused prepubescent boys and often ended in depression.

Many a surprise awaits the audience, even if the Monsters & Prodigies tour did not bring along its dancing horse. There were centaurs and harpsichord players, cannons and asscheeks. This was the first time I had ever seen someone blow a conch shell to its full, eerie effect (as well as the first performance I ever attendedthat featured a raucous food fight between the cast and the audience). Not content to merely describe how Venetian nobles seated in opera boxes liked to spit on the audience below them, one member of the cast let fly with a healthy amount of phlegm. Another actor, portraying a lewd and lascivious Venetian, kept grabbing his crotch while telegraphing his sexual desires with his tongue.

With a great deal of English text flashing by on Supertitles (most of the evening was performed in Spanish, with a few terse asides in French, Italian, and English), it was often hard to focus one's attention. What cannot be understated, however, is the tremendous theatrical skill and vocal technique of the company's performers. Here are some highlights of the production (note that the final moments of this clip are accompanied by an early recording of Alessandro Moreschi -- who died in 1922--  singing the famous Ave Maria).

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When the pre-Broadway tryout of Wicked opened on May 28, 2003 at the Curran Theatre, many people were eager to see how composer Stephen Schwartz and his collaborators would go about adapting Gregory Maguire's controversial novel, Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West, for the musical stage. It was obvious that, despite a huge and impressively-designed physical production, Wicked needed some major alterations. When a theatre friend from New York asked for my reaction, I told him that I loved the thrilling first act curtain, but left the theater whistling the lighting cues. The truth is that, when I saw the show two weeks into its San Francisco tryout, I had an unexpectedly severe reaction which almost ruined the experience for me. 

My unease was directly attributable to a very peculiar problem. Having studiously read Maguire's much-publicized prequel to L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I found myself expending far too much mental energy during the performance keeping track of minor characters, events, and subplots that had obviously been excised in the process of adapting the work for a musical presentation.

Following the San Francisco tryout, the show underwent a two-month period of extensive revisions. Joel Grey replaced Robert Morse as the Wizard of Oz. The roles of Boq and Doctor Dillamond were also recast. After opening on October 30, 2003 to mixed reviews, Wicked received Tony Awards for Eugene Lee's set design and Susan Hilferty's costume design. Idina Menzel was honored for her performance as Elphaba however, in a decision which shocked many theatergoers, the Tony Award for Best Musical went to Avenue Q.

Since then, the show has broken box office records in cities around the world while achieving near-cult status with alienated teenagers who empathize with Elphaba's struggles for acceptance. The Broadway production frequently sells out and, even in the midst of the current recession, sold 94% of the house for the week ending February 1, 2009.

In an interview with San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter, producer David Stone recalled that
"There was a particularly bad moment before we started rehearsals in New York, and I went to the men's room, and when I came back there was a note on my desk saying, 'Dear David, I can't do this anymore. I quit. You can use my score but please take my name off the show, and from now on, only speak to me through my attorney.' By the time I had finished reading it, Stephen had come back and said, 'OK, maybe that was a little hasty.' I ended up framing the letter and hanging it on my wall."
Five years after its Broadway opening, Wicked has returned to town for an extended run, this time at the Orpheum Theater. As part of the promotional material posted on the Shorenstein-Nederlander website, audiences can now learn the details of the herculean effort involved in moving the show from the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles to San Francisco's Orpheum. Another web feature includes a fascinating Q&A with orchestrator William Brohn (highly recommended reading).

On opening night I had a much happier experience with Wicked than I did back in June of 2003. Under Joe Mantello's direction, the show has obviously found its mark, punctuating many musical moments with much greater accuracy than during its tryout. The cast has greater confidence in the material and audiences are wildly happy with the results. The San Francisco cast featured Carol Kane as Madame Morrible, Tom Flynn as Doctor Dillamond, Nicolas Dromard as Fiyero and David Garrison as the Wizard.

Teal Wicks and Tom Flynn (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The bulk of the show rests on the shoulders of the two witches. With Kendra Kassebaum as Glinda and Teal Wicks as Elphaba, the San Francisco production has two well-balanced leads whose vocal strengths and comic timing solidly anchor the production. In its revised format, Wicked has become a much more audience-friendly vehicle for relating how the two girls were brought together at Shiz University and how their rivalry for the love of Fiyero forced them apart.

Kendra Kassebaum and Teal Wicks (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Schwartz's score shines in numbers like Popular, What Is This Feeling, Defying Gravity, I'm Not That Girl, and For Good. For once, the sound engineering at the Orpheum did not overwhelm the music (a frequent problem in this theatre). Although Wicked may have had a rocky delivery and postnatal incubation, there can be little doubt that the show's commercial success has cemented its place in musical theater history. 

To help celebrate the show's opening night Coit Tower, the Ferry Building, the War Memorial and City Hall were bathed in green light for the occasion. San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has been pushing an eco-friendly green policy throughout his administration, was in the audience, glowing like an LED. Or maybe he had just worked out.

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