Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Music That Makes Whales Dance

Written in 1943 (at a time when Hitler and Mussolini were hell-bent on conquering Europe), The Madwoman of Chaillot did not receive its premiered until December 1945.  French playwright Jean Giradoux made the heroine of his drama, Countess Aurelia, an eccentric old woman who managed to defeat a greedy cabal of oil executives determined to tap fossil fuel reserves that had been discovered directly under Paris.

In November 1968, I attended the very first preview Dear World (a musicalization of The Madwoman of Chaillot starring Angela Lansbury as the Countess Aurelia). After an intense Boston tryout at the Colonial Theatre that included massive revisions and key changes in the show's creative team, Dear World finally opened on Broadway on February 6, 1969.  The general consensus was that the production values weighing down the new Jerry Herman musical had nearly smothered an intimate and delicate tale of the age-old battle between love and greed.

The recent news that Betty Buckley will star in a February 2013 London revival of Dear World at the Charing Cross Theatre brings hope that Herman's romantic score will have another opportunity to charm theatregoing audiences. Taped during a tribute to the show's original star, the following clip shows Tyne Daly singing a medley of "Each Tomorrow Morning" and the Countess Aurelia's wistful solo, "And I Was Beautiful."

Every now and then, a great number written for a Broadway musical disappears when the show closes prematurely or if the song is dropped from the musical's film adaptation. A magnificent torch song written for a woman (Dorothy Loudon in 1978's Ballroom) that takes on new depth when sung by a man, is the achingly poignant "50 Percent." In the following clip, Michael Feinstein performs this heartbreaker (composed by Billy Goldenberg, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman) and gives it a fresh new meaning.

In the following clip from this year's Broadway Backwards 7 fundraiser, Andrew Rannells sings "The Music That Makes Me Dance," a torch song composed by Jule Styne (with lyrics by Bob Merrill) that was introduced by Barbra Streisand in 1964's Funny Girl but replaced in the film version with "My Man" (a song made famous by Fanny Brice, who first sang it in the 1921 Ziegfeld Follies).

I've always loved the title of this song ("The Music That Makes Me Dance") and think of it often while watching a film. Why? Because many a film gets an incredible boost from its musical score.

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This phenomenon becomes especially noticeable in documentaries about wildlife. Just as there are lost treasures in song, there is a tremendous amount of natural beauty in the world that can both inspire and educate audiences. As someone with a deep appreciation for the wonders of nature, I was thrilled by a recent opportunity to kick back and enjoy the BBC's award-winning series, Frozen Planet.

The cinematography in this series is breathtaking, sometimes almost beyond belief. However, the following three clips are especially interesting for the way in which the audio balance shifts between the narrator's voice, the dubbed-in sounds of nature, and the subtle underscoring by George Fenton and Barnaby Taylor.

Compare the delicacy of the orchestrations in the above clips with the full-blown symphonic score used in the trailer for the series:

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While Frozen Planet is narrated by David Attenborough and Alec Baldwin, Samsara has no words. A new release from Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson (who worked together on 1985's Chronos and 1992's Baraka), Samsara follows in the tradition of Godfrey Reggio's "Qatsi" trilogy of nonverbal documentaries (1982's Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, 1988's Powaqqatsi: Life In Transformation, and 2002's Naqoyqatsi: Life As War).

While its filmmakers describe Samsara as "a guided meditation on the concept of life, death, and rebirth," director Ron Fricke readily admits that “half of this type of filmmaking is the music. It’s 50/50. The music embellishes the experience with feeling -- it’s the dialogue, but it’s in a feeling form.”

While Samsara (a Sanskrit word that means "the ever-turning wheel of life") takes audiences from the exotic fancy of Cambodian dancers to the wonders of Hawaii's erupting Kilauea volcano; and from a Chinese prison (where exercise routines resemble rehearsals for a giant music video) to the intimacy of a child's baptism, Samsara offers a feast for the eyes.

Without a word, the filmmakers use the editing room to give viewers an "artistic" vision of how the production line in a munitions factory (that will eventually equip children with assault weapons) has a similar rhythm to the giant circular facility wherein aspiring golfers can practice their swing. Vegan viewers might not enjoy the assembly-line footage of Chinese poultry and pork processing plants which leads to an ironic overhead view of consumers heading for the checkout area of a giant Costco-like warehouse facility.

"These films are made in the editing process based on the reality of the imagery that we've collected," explains Magidson. "But it's much easier now for people to say no. There's a lot more concern. They ask whether [the film] will make them look bad or not."

From aerial shots of daylight breaking over Sarahan sand dunes and footage of sandstone caverns in Nevada to the Palm Islands (an artificial archipelago in Dubai) and the creative output of Tibetan monks painting intricate sand mandalas, Samsara contrasts nature's freestyling art with man's quest for symmetry.

From swarms of pilgrims visiting Mecca's famous Grand Mosque that encircles the Kaaba (Islam's holiest place) to the tranquility of a lush Thai countryside dotted with magnificent temples, Samsara can easily overwhelm viewers with its wealth of images. Here's the trailer:

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