Monday, April 4, 2011

Doing It For The Children

Rich or poor, healthy or frail. every child born into this world is accompanied by a set of expectations.  On April 19, 1945, when Rodgers and Hammerstein's second musical opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre, Carousel broke new ground with its extended aria for the male lead.

In the following clip, John Raitt (the original Billy Bigelow) performs the famous Soliloquy during 1954's "General Foods 25th Anniversary Show: A Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein." Although I was fortunate enough to see Raitt perform in the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center's 1965 revival, more than half a century after this video was recorded, his electrifying performance still sends shivers up my spine.

Two decades after Carousel's Broadway premiere, a song from the hit musical, Mame, summarized the doubts and regrets of someone watching the child she raised turn into a person she can't understand. Jerry Herman's poignant lyric for "If He Walked Into My Life" reads as follows:
"Did he need a stronger hand?
Did he need a lighter touch?
Was I soft or was I tough?
Did I give enough?
Did I give too much?
At the moment when he needed me,
Did I ever turn away?
Would I be there when he called,
If he walked into my life today?

Were his days a little dull?
Were his nights a little wild?
Did I overstate my plan?
Did I stress the man
And forget the child?
And there must have been a million things.
That my heart forgot to say.
Would I think of one or two,
If he walked into my life today?

Should I blame the times I pampered him,
Or blame the times I bossed him;
What a shame!
I never really found the boy,
Before I lost him.

Were the years a little fast?
Was his world a little free?
Was there too much of a crowd,
All too lush and loud and not enough of me?
Though I'll ask myself my whole life long,
What went wrong along the way;
Would I make the same mistakes
If he walked into my life today?
If that boy with the bugle,
Walked into my life today."
* * * * * * * * *
Currently onstage at the New Conservatory Theatre Center is Keith Bunin's three-character play, The Busy World Is Hushed, an exercise in spirituality that examines just how easily a person can use his or her faith as a form of denial. As directed by Dennis Lickteig, Bunin's drama focuses on three characters:
  • Hannah (Lindsey Murray), a middle-aged priest eager to examine a newly-found gospel for clues about the life of Jesus. Hannah was once married to a priest who, when she was three months pregnant, committed suicide by walking into the ocean from a nearby beach on the coast of Maine.
  • Thomas (Justin Dupuis), Hannah's unstable gay son who has a long history of running away from home and avoiding contact with his manipulative mother. Thomas is back in town for a while, searching for clues about what made his father tick and locking horns with Hannah in their never-ending battle over which is more important: Hannah's faith or her family.
  • Brandt (William Giammona), Hannah's new employee. A frustrated writer whose father is dying from a brain tumor, Brandt is intelligent, respectful, and somewhat shy. Het is also quite surprised when Hannah suggests Brandt could be a good influence on her son and urges him to follow through on his feelings for Thomas.
Brandt (William Giammona) and Hannah (Lindsey Murray) in
The Busy World Is Hushed (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The first thing to grab one's attention upon entering the Walker Theatre is Megan Wilkerson's unit set, which has books piled all over the stage (many of the book lovers in the audience were practically itching to turn the books around so they could read their titles). But as Bunin's play unravels, one thing becomes crystal clear.

If, like me, you are an atheist, The Busy World Is Hushed is not going to have the same dramatic impact it does on people of faith.  As New Conservatory Theatre Center's artistic director, Ed Decker writes:
"In this world it is pretty hard to escape the morality police or the bickering over which God is the true God. This is especially true when it comes to LGBT concerns.  To me, pinning down divinity is like rolling loaded dice -- the outcome is always skewed and depends entirely upon who is in control of the game. I say this not out of any disrespect but as someone who is avidly and relentlessly searching for spiritual clarity.  The Busy World Is Hushed asks its audience to find quiet in the midst of the constant noise of our existence.  To complete what matters most -- family, faith, and most of all, what is in our hearts."
Brandt (William Giammona) and Thomas (Justin Dupuis ) in
The Busy World Is Hushed  (Photo by: Lois Tema)

In Bunin's play, it soon becomes obvious that Hannah relies on her faith for guidance in every detail of her life. The fact that her son sees right through her -- and unsuccessfully dares her to be honest with him -- is far too threatening for Hannah to let go of the guiding force in her life. When Thomas learns that Hannah actually encouraged Brandt to have an affair with him, he loses what little respect he had left for his manipulative mother.

Months after Brandt and Thomas have broken up (and Thomas has once again disappeared), Brandt and Hannah are reunited when Brandt's father dies. Not knowing who to turn to, Brandt has asked Hannah to perform the funeral service. The play ends on a practical note as Hannah tells Brandt: "Let's go bury our dead."

While it's easy to admire much of Bunin's writing, I know I'm in a distinct minority as an atheist. Much of Hannah's dodging and weaving over issues of faith, the veracity of the gospels, and her vision of Jesus strikes me as little more than religious claptrap. If anything, The Busy World Is Hushed seems more like a play about  parental betrayal than it does about two young and badly wounded gay souls searching for the meaning of life.

* * * * * * * * *
As long as we're talking about what it means to be a nonbeliever, I should mention a song from 1975's big hit musical, A Chorus Line, whose sentimental popularity has eluded me for years. With music by Marvin Hamlisch, Edward Kleban's lyric for "What I Did For Love" reads as follows:
"Kiss today goodbye,
The sweetness and the sorrow.
Wish me luck, the same to you.
But I can't regret
What I did for love, what I did for love.

Look, my eyes are dry.
The gift was ours to borrow.
It's as if we always knew,
And I won't forget what I did for love,
What I did for love.

Love is never gone.
As we travel on,
Love's what we'll remember.

Kiss today goodbye,
And point me toward tomorrow.
We did what we had to do.
Won't forget, can't regret
What I did for love."

I have always considered that to be one of the most vapid lyrics ever written. And yet, while watching The Piano in a Factory (a beautiful Chinese movie that recently screened at the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival), I finally found a drama that could justify Kleban's lyrics.

Unlike the way The Busy World Is Hushed tries to explore one's ability to find strength in one's faith, The Piano in a Factory is squarely focused on one's ability to find strength in music. Indeed, much of the film's appeal rests on a person's ability to finger a fake keyboard (that has been painted on wood) and yet, in one's mind, hear the full beauty of the music.

Chen Giulin (Qian-Yuan Wang) introduces his daughter to
his make-believe piano keyboard

Chen Guilin (Qian-Yuan Wang) is a recently divorced steelworker who also plays the accordion in a small band that frequently performs at weddings and funerals. His ex wife, Shu Xian (Qin Hailu), who is in decidedly better financial condition, is trying to lure their daughter away from him with lots of presents.

Chen Giulin (right) and his band performing at a rainy funeral

However, the young girl has a passion for practicing piano, even if she does not own a piano of her own. When his daughter announces that she will go live with whichever parent can buy her a piano, Chen Giulin quickly sizes up his situation. Realizing that he has no talent as a piano thief, he begs his friends from the steel factory to help him build a piano for his young girl.

At the moment when The Piano in a Factory easily could turn maudlin or be transformed into yet another story about a bunch of aging friends trying to pull of another heist for old time's sake, Meng Zhang's beautiful film heads off in a totally unexpected direction.

Chen Giulin (Qian-Yuan Wang) makes music in the snow

With the steel mill being shut down, the workers need something to do with their skills. Rummaging through junkyards and the ruins of abandoned buildings, they decide that it would be too difficult to build a piano from wood. But, with their skills as steel workers, they could probably build a metal piano for Chen Giulin's daughter. One worker whose arm is in a sling because he was caught stealing mah jongg tiles insists on doing his part.

What sets The Piano in a Factory apart from so many other films its wonderful score -- a combination of classical music along with some Chinese and Russian folk songs that are accompanied by an accordion. Chou Shu's gorgeous cinematography adds an extra layer of magic to the proceedings. The film's grand finale, as the newly-built steel piano is lowered into position before Chen's daughter by a factory hoist, is pure cinematic magic. Here's the trailer:

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