Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gifts From One Generation To Another

As people grow older, the concept of legacy starts to nag at their consciences. What will they leave to their children (assuming they have any)? What mark will they leave on the world? Will they have achieved anything memorable in their lives or will their memory simply blend into oblivion.

People with sizable estates are usually quite careful about setting up legal guidelines so that their prized possessions (as well as liquid assets) can be distributed according to their wishes. In some cases, many of their belongings may be auctioned off to raise money for their family or for a designated charity (the October 7 auction of the estate of Beverly Sills brought in $519,075).

For many artists, everything they create becomes part of their legacy. Whether their work involves composing music, painting portraits, making sculptures, or writing novels, there is a strong probability that their work may live on -- and gain in value -- long after their demise. Royalties may accrue to their heirs. A seminal idea may inspire other artists.

As a result, the three R's many of us grew up with ("readin', writin', and 'rithmetic") have been redefined to include "repossession, restoration, and reinvigoration." One of my favorite books is Aaron Lansky's thrilling Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued Over A Million Yiddish Books. Two others examples of how people can give a cultural gift to another generation were recently seen in San Francisco.

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Soon to be screened at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival is a beautiful little documentary entitled Miracle in a Box: A Piano Reborn. This new film by John Korty documents the story of what happened when Leone S. McGowan donated a Steinway grand piano (model L, six foot; 1930) to be given to a “worthy student of piano at the University of California, Berkeley” as the grand prize in the First Berkeley Piano Competition.

As viewers watch the piano being delivered to Berkeley's Callahan Piano Service, they get a front row seat from which they can witness the deconstruction, diagnostics, and dimensions of restoring life to an 80-year-old instrument. While some may already have seen Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037, Korty's film explains why it costs more to recondition a Steinway than to build an original. Along the way, several professional musicians discuss the problems they have had trying to get the right tone from a piano.

Narrated by John Lithgow, the film features insights from concert pianist Garrick Ohlssen, opera composer Jake Heggie, and jazz artist Tammy Hall. One interviewee mentions Glenn Gould's legendary problems with balance and describes how the recent use of computer programs that can help to fine tune an instrument could even have transformed someone as notoriously fussy and miserable as Gould into a much happier musician.

Pianist Glenn Gould

The winner of the competition, young Jared Redmond, gets to talk about some of the personal challenges of getting through a piano competitions. At the end of the piano's restoration, a dinner is held at the Callahan Piano Service facility to celebrate the rebirth of an almost 80-year-old Steinway. Anyone interested in the craft that goes into building a piano, the mechanics that influence the sounds coming out of a piano, and the technology that is now used to help tune a piano will be thrilled by this documentary. Here's the trailer:

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In an entertainment industry that constantly seeks to rework classic films of yesteryear with casts headed by today's rising stars, it should surprise no one that popular operas have been reworked for Broadway audiences. Premiered at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo, Egypt on December 24, 1871, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida quickly became a mainstay of the operatic repertoire.

Updated to the first year of the American Civil War, the action in My Darlin' Aida was moved from Memphis, Egypt to General Farrow's plantation outside of Memphis, Tennessee. The show (which opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on October 27, 1952, and ran for 89 performances) provoked the following comments from Time Magazine's reviewer:
"Aida, Amneris and Radames of Verdi's opera become respectively a lovely slave girl (Elaine Malbin), her imperious young mistress (Dorothy Sarnoff) and a Confederate officer (Howard Jarratt) who loves the slave girl but is engaged to her mistress. The story is a tangle of Negro uprisings, hooded night riders, beatings, and death for the lovers.The result, though not dull, is fairly distressing. No opera better lends itself to spectacle than Aida, and thanks to Lemuel Ayers' opulent sets and costumes and a $250,000 outlay in non-Confederate money, My Darlin' Aida is often bright spectacle enough.
As for the story, its bloodhound violences have more bang than the opera's rather bloodless grandiosities; but My Darlin' Aida is a mass of strident cliches, puerile dialogue and hack vulgarities. As for the score, though its glories remain, they are dented and tarnished by embarrassing lyrics, new bits of orchestration, and musicomedy voices. In undertaking My Darlin' Aida, librettist Friedman was frankly inspired by the success of Carmen Jones. But there are great differences, not just between him and the much defter Oscar Hammerstein II, but between the parent operas themselves. Carmen has a vivid, earthy, human story; Aida's is unreal and faraway. Carmen, again, has the theater blood of the opera comique; Aida possesses both the stiffness and the elevation of truly grand opera. Where many operas—La Traviata, Tosca, La Boheme—might be at home on Broadway, not only must the story of Aida be revamped; the finer values of the music must be half destroyed."
The Broadway production of Elton John & Tim Rice's transformation of Aida into a rock opera opened at the Palace Theater on Broadway on March 23, 2000 and ran for 1,852 performances. The show has since toured extensively. Productions been mounted in Israel, Brazil and Australia and there have been numerous high school productions.

Georges Bizet's popular Carmen received its world premiere at the Opera-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875. Produced by Billy Rose (and with a new book by Oscar Hammerstein II which placed the action in an African American community) Carmen Jones opened at the Broadway Theater on December 2, 1943 and ran for 503 performances. Produced by Otto Preminger, the film version debuted in 1954 with a cast headed by Dorothy Dandridge (whose singing was dubbed by a young Marilyn Horne), Harry Belafonte, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll and Pearl Bailey.

In 2001, MTV produced Carmen: A Hip Hopera written by Michael Eliot, with music by Kip Collins. Headed by Beyoncé Knowles and Mekhi Phifer, the cast featured Mos Def, Jermaine Dupri, Wyclef Jean, and Lil' Bow Wow in supporting roles.

Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operetta, The Mikado, premiered at the Savoy Theater in London on March 14, 1885. The Swing Mikado opened in Chicago in 1938 with an all-black cast and choreography that included "The Truck" and the Cakewalk (this production was subsequently produced at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco). On March 23, 1939, The Hot Mikado opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in a jazz/swing version with an all-black cast, starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Although the following clip has no sound, it contains some rare footage from the Mike Todd production of The Hot Mikado that was performed at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair with a cast of 200!

1962 brought the debut of The Cool Mikado, a British film starring Frankie Howerd, Lionel Blair and Stubby Kaye that transformed the operetta into a comic gangster story in contemporary Japan. In 1975, The Black Mikado was set on a Caribbean island. In 1986, a new version of Hot Mikado premiered in Washington, D.C. Here's a clip of "Three Little Maids" with the cast of the 1995 West End production.

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Giacomo Puccini's beloved opera, La Boheme, had its world premiere at the Teatro Regio in Turin on February 1, 1896 and has since become one of the most frequently performed operas in history. In 1959, singer Della Reese scored a big hit with her adaptation of Musetta's Waltz into the song "Don't You Know?"

On January 25, 1996, Rent (Jonathan Larson's rock adaptation of Puccini's opera) opened off-Broadway. In April of 1996, it moved to the Nederlander Theatre where it ran for 5,124 performances and developed a cult following of "Rent-heads." To date, Rent has grossed more than $280 million worldwide.

Yet another national tour of Rent touched down at the Curran Theatre this week to the delight of an audience filled with screaming teenagers. Although they certainly had themselves a great time, I did not share their enthusiasm for a number of reasons.
  1. Acoustics: With the level of amplification past the pain threshold, it was all I could do to get through the evening without developing a throbbing headache. Since the median age of the SHNSF subscription audience does not exactly coincide with the readers of Tiger Beat magazine, I'm willing to confess to a generational disadvantage. Pumping up the noise to a possibly illegal level of decibels can't hide the banality of so much of Larson's script and songs. I also found myself wondering if, without the help of such severe amplification, the cast could get through eight shows a week without doing serious damage to their vocal cords.
  2. Songwriting: Songs like "I'll Cover You" and "Without You" are genuinely affecting. While Larson's Seasons of Love has engraved itself on the national consciousness, the rest of the score is a lot of noise without a whole lot of music. Although I found much of the score genuinely annoying, after listening to Maureen's big number I can definitely say that Larson's score needs more cowbell.
  3. Stage Direction: Michael Greif's stage direction struck me as surprisingly ineffective because of the cast's tendency to perform "at the audience" rather than "to the audience."
  4. The care factor: I've seen enough obese sopranos singing the role of Mimi bring tears to the faces of opera fans, but there was little emotional heft to this performance. I'm no prude, but pushing your tightly-clad ass up in the air is not enough to make an audience want to eat out of your hand.
  5. Diction: I always find it strangely counterproductive when shows that are so frightfully overamplified manage to distort sound to such a horrid extent that diction becomes a lost cause.
  6. Timeliness: With its numerous references to AZT, AIDS homophobia, and other problems from the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Larson's musical is starting to seem quaint. At 37, Anthony Rapp (one of the original cast members who sang the role of Mark) is starting to look like a young Woody Allen in a sweater.
When not cringing from the auditory onslaught, I enjoyed the performances of Justin Johnson as Angel Schunard, Michael McElroy as Tom Collins, Lexi Lawson as Mimi Marquez, and Shaun Earl as Paul. Others in the cast included Adam Pascal as Roger, Jacques C. Smith as Benjamin Coffin III, Haneefah Wood as Joanne Jefferson, and Nicolette Hart as Maureen Johnson.

Critics occasionally find themselves sitting through a production that has been hyped to the skies without sharing the public's well-documented enjoyment of the piece. On such evenings, it helps to remember the old saying that "Opinions are like assholes -- everyone's got one." However, as I left the Curran Theatre with my ears ringing, I remembered my reaction to seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber's infamous cash cow, CATS.

Several years after the show had opened at the Winter Garden Theatre, I bought a $10 standing room ticket for a matinee performance. By the time the matinee let out, I felt as if I had earned a $25 refund.

Several years passed and a touring production of CATS opened in San Francisco. As luck would have it, a friend of a friend was in the cast. We bumped into each other one afternoon in the locker room at The Muscle Sisters.

"How come I didn't see you at our opening night?" Danny asked as he threw his arms around my neck and kissed me. Then he stood back, smiled and whispered "No need to apologize. We both know this show is just a whole bunch of aerobics with lots of weird hair!"

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