Sunday, September 13, 2009

Blasts From The Past

It's hard to believe that a quarter century has passed since Madonna recorded Material Girl back in 1984 (my, how time flies when you're having fun)! As they reach for their IPod Nanos, Palm Prés and BlackBerrys, today's technology keeps young people's thumbs all a-Twitter. Suppose we look back at what things were like in the good old low-tech days:
Whether one chooses to focus on fashions of the 1940s, film noir, Art Deco, or the innocence of the Eisenhower era, nostalgia can be a powerful force in selling tickets and moving product. In 1974, when MGM released a compilation of production numbers from the studio's legendary movie musicals as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, millions were thrilled to relive moments from their earlier movie-going days. The success of "That's Entertainment!" led to two sequels and, in 1985, a movie aptly entitled "That's Dancing!"

Today, an entire generation of dance fans derives enjoyment from watching the magic of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while reality shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance have achieved stellar ratings while establishing major entertainment franchises. When one looks back to the original source material, however, one can't help but recognize the transition from silent film to talkies as the moment when Hollywood embraced movie musicals with a vengeance.

Thanks to the efforts of visionaries like Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed, many song and dance numbers were seen around the world. However, it's interesting to examine how successful 20th century songwriters were in transferring their musicals back and forth between stage and screen. Three great songwriting partnerships ended prematurely due to one artist's untimely death:
  • Rodgers & Hart: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had a series of hit musicals on Broadway that later became Hollywood films. Between 1919 and Hart's death from pneumonia in 1943, they wrote songs for 28 musicals and worked together on more than 500 songs. Rodgers went on to work with Oscar Hammerstein II on a series of award-winning Broadway musicals. Following Hammerstein's death in 1960, the composer teamed up with Stephen Sondheim, Martin Charnin, and Sheldon Harnick.
  • The Gershwins: George and Ira Gershwin were the toast of Broadway and Hollywood until George Gershwin died at age 38 following surgery for a brain tumor. After his brother's death, Ira Gershwin worked on several Broadway shows with Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen and Arthur Schwartz.
  • Adler & Ross: Richard Adler and Jerry Ross hold a unique place in the history of the American musical. Their two shows (Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game) were Broadway hits during the 1950s that became successful movie musicals. When Ross died at the age of 29 from complications of bronchiectasis, their winning streak ground to a tragic halt.
If one were to examine the success of postwar songwriting teams whose book musicals were successful on Broadway as well as in Hollywood, one might be surprised at their "batting averages." Only Adler & Ross scored 100%. Consider the following:
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If one were to cite the three "L" words of Broadway musicals, they would probably be Lerner, Loewe, and lyricism. The recent staging of Brigadoon by Woodminster Summer Musicals offered a sobering reminder of how much lyricism and blatant sentimentality have vanished from modern musical theatre.

Brigadoon, which debuted on Broadway in 1947, was Lerner & Loewe's first big hit. The show scored strongly with Broadway audiences because of its beautiful score, its fresh plot, its exotic setting, and its thrilling choreography by the great Agnes DeMille. Vincente Minnelli directed MGM's 1954 film version of Brigadoon with Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, and Cyd Charisse in the lead roles.

Dancers from Woodminster's production of Brigadoon
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Back in the 1960s, Jean Dalrymple mounted a series of revivals of popular Broadway shows at the New York City Center. My first exposure to Brigadoon came while I was in charge of the "Around New York Commission" that was part of Midwood High School's student government. (A curious piece of trivia: The faculty advisor for Midwood's student government at the time was Joseph Grebanier, whose son, Michael Grebanier, plays first cello for the San Francisco Symphony).

The 1963 revival starred Sally Ann Howes as Fiona MacLaren, Peter Palmer as Tommy Albright, Marlyn Mason as Meg Brockie and one of New York City Ballet's star dancers, Edward Villella, as Harry Beaton. While the score was completely new to me, I was much too young to appreciate the book's constant struggle between 20th-century cynicism and the kind of wholesome love that could cause a village to disappear into the Scottish mists, only to be seen for one day out of every 100 years.

Mr. Lundy (Stu Klitsner) explains the miracle of Brigadoon
to Tommy Albright (Scott Grinthal) and Fiona MacLaren
(Susan Himes-Powers). Photo by: Kathy Kahn

In 1981, Michigan Opera Theatre's production of Brigadoon was transferred to Broadway. Five years later, the New York City Opera mounted a successful production of the show at the New York State Theatre in Lincoln Center.

More than 35 years after my first experience with Brigadoon, I'm amazed at how much Lerner & Loewe's score improves with age. There is a tenderness to the lyrics that one never finds in modern musicals. The songs are incredibly romantic -- often downright wistful.

Sentimental ballads like "Waitin' for My Dearie," "The Heather on the Hill," "Come To Me, Bend To Me," "Almost Like Being In Love," "There But For You Go I," and "From This Day On" remind audiences of a time when it seemed like love could conquer any obstacles. Meg Brockie's two lust-driven comic numbers ("The Love of My Life" and "My Mother's Wedding Day") still bring down the house with ease.

Meg Brockie (Juliet Heller) and Jeff Douglas (Robert Moorhead)
Photo by: Kathy Kahn

Seen outdoors in the 2,028-seat Woodminster Amphitheatre on a warm, summer night when the crickets were furiously chirping, Woodminster's production starred Scott Grinthal as Tommy Albright and Robert Moorhead as his cynical friend, Jeff Douglas. Bay area regular Susan Himes-Powers lent her sturdy lyric soprano to the role of the love-lorn Fiona while Juliet Heller scored strongly as ever-ready Meg Brockie. Others in the cast included Todd Schlader as the unhappy Harry Beaton, Bill Fahrner as Andrew MacLaren, Michael Foreman as Charlie Dalrymple, Meg Jaron as Maggie Anderson, and Stu Kiltsner as Mr. Lundy.

The scene in which Mr. Lundy explains the miracle of Brigadoon becomes more and more poignant as one ages and acclimates to a world filled with strife and tragedy. Ably directed by Joel Schlader (with choreography by Jody Jaron), Woodminster's production recaptured the thrill of DeMille's famous wedding-day sword dance.

While doing some research online, I was surprised to discover that, back in 1966, ABC aired a special 90-minute television production of Brigadoon starring Robert Goulet, Sally Ann Howes, Peter Falk, and Edward Villella. Although it has never been released on DVD, you can watch it on YouTube in serial segments (it's interesting to note how the opening segment of the music has been orchestrated to sound a lot like Lerner & Loewe's Camelot) :

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In August, the Galatean Players Theatre Ensemble performed their new musical entitled Rivets (which celebrates Rosie the Riveter) on the SS Red Oak Victory at the site of the historic Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond's Rosie The Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.

Several weeks later, I attended the world premiere of a new work commissioned by Berkeley's Shotgun Players entitled This World In A Woman's Hands. A three-year long project that began with community outreach as playwright Marcus Gardley interviewed residents of local nursing homes who had worked in the Richmond Shipyards during World War II, This World provides some long-overdue back story to the people who inspired such names as Rosie the Riveter, Wendy the Welder, and Dorothy Dynamite. In his director's notes, Aaron Davidman states that:
"The collective effort of 93,000 men and women working around the clock in shifts daily at Henry J. Kaiser's shipyards in Richmond, California from 1941-1945 was inspiring. It was the largest mobilization of civilian life in the history of this country and the sheer volume of materials, and the speed with which they were turned into ships and planes and weapons is astonishing. Perhaps the most enduring image of the effort is Rosie The Riveter, immortalized by the compelling advertising artwork of the time. She is a symbol of mythic proportions: the housewife who rises above her personal needs for family and comfort, dons dungarees and a blast shield, and goes to work for the common good.

While we wouldn't know it from the "We Can Do It!" ad campaigns, Rosies came from many ethnic backgrounds, and the challenges women of color faced on the job were formidable. To understand the complicated social and economic challenges facing Richmond today, in our clearly not post-racial society, we need to know the whole story of the moment when Richmond and America were changed forever."
Margo Hall as Gloria B. Cutting (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Among the many assets of Shotgun's production is the strikingly folksy (and extremely cost-effective) musical score by Molly Holm. In an interview with Shotgun's managing director, Liz Lisle, the composer explains that:
"Circle-singing is an improvisational/compositional tool that I learned from working with Bobby McFerrin in the original Voicestra. I have used it a lot in my classes and ensembles over the years. Many of the compositions for This World were derived in the same way. I ran a series of vocal trainings where I gave the actors experience in the kind of music that I do: music that grows out of the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements of traditional jazz, avant-garde or free jazz, blues, North Indian raga, modal improvisation, Afro-Cuban music, new or experimental music, and extended vocal techniques.

My life-long love of jazz is heard here and I am in love with the music of the African Diaspora: early African-American work songs, shouts, and spirituals; Yoruban (Nigerian) sacred songs from the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion; Afro-Brazilian music; and Senegalese drumming that my brother Carl has studied and recorded extensively. Linda Tillery, an African-American "roots-music" virtuoso (one of my favorite singers and a mentor) has played a big part by doing several workshops with the cast of This World. In particular, she brought us the mesmerizing Texas prison work song, "Ain't no mo' Cane on Dis Brazos."
Dawn L. Troupe holds Margo Hall (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

All it takes is one look at Lisa Clark's massive set of wood scaffolding that fills the Ashby Stage to realize what an ambitious project This World In A Woman's Hands represents. In addition to the invaluable community outreach which helps to justify an arts organization's mission (and stimulate fundraising), this show gives Richmond a unique piece of drama as working history.

Gardley's play goes a long way toward explaining the racial barriers and women's struggle for equal pay that provided a huge push toward the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In addition to telling the story of Richmond's "wisdom tree," it also makes audiences painfully aware of the jobs and pride that women working in the shipyards were forced to relinquish after men returned home from the War to reclaim their jobs.

Beth Wilmurt as Helena (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

This World In A Woman's Hands includes a dramatic reenactment of the Port Chicago disaster and describes how women were still expected to report to work within 24 hours (even after picking up the charred body parts that had been flung far and wide by the explosion). While Shotgun's all-female cast works very tightly as a musical and dramatic ensemble, special kudos go to Beth Wilmurt as Helena, Dena Martinez as Maria Saint Fay, and Liz T. Rogers-Beckley as Sapphire Harbor.

Margo Hall delivers a fierce interpretation of the play's protagonist, Gloria B. Cutting (a poor, illiterate black woman from Louisiana who left her family and traveled to Richmond with dreams of becoming a welder, only to get slapped down, exploited, and eventually be transformed into an activist). In her blog, one of the shipyard's survivors, Betty Reid Soskin, writes:
"I'm hoping that the community's young people will be well represented in the audience. They truly need to be made aware that they are the descendants of the extraordinary ordinary people who helped to save the world from Fascist domination 69 years ago. I believe that this Gardley play can provide some of the background that's been missing from their history books, and that has tragically cheated this generation of youngsters of their rightful legacy ... the sense of belonging ... the feeling of being part of something larger than themselves -- that thing that provides the sense of worth that gives life meaning and that just might possibly provide for today's children the now-missing will to survive in an often unsympathetic world; a world where their only power seems to be the ability to instill fear in others."
This World In A Woman's Hands runs through October 11 at Ashby Stage. You can order tickets here.

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A very different type of "blast from the past" can be seen in Ang Lee's delightful new movie, Taking Woodstock. Two great British actors (who are now concentrating on character roles) almost steal the movie from actors portraying an idealistic younger generation.

Mamie Gummer, Jonathan Groff, and Demetri Martin

As the parents of Elliott Teichberg (Demetri Martin), Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton play a frustrated, angry Jewish couple whose broken-down Catskills hotel is threatened with foreclosure. Staunton's performance as a scared control freak whose fury knows no bounds is riveting. In the following clip, you can watch her discuss her experience working with Ang Lee.

Others in the cast include Eugene Levy as local farmer Max Yasgur, Jonathan Groff as aspiring rock entrepreneur Michael Lang, Emile Hirsh as a local Vietnam veteran, Kevin Sussman as a hunky gay carpenter, and Liev Schreiber as the unlikely voice of reason wrapped up in the body of a butch drag queen who's packing heat. The film is beautiful to watch (like almost anything Ang Lee does), but is especially worth seeing to witness Imelda Staunton's powerful performance. Here's the trailer:

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