Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Hollywood Royalty

Now that this year's Oscars have come and gone, this is as good a time as any to examine the degradation of Hollywood celebrity.  What began nearly a century ago with the founders of United Artists (Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith) being hailed as Hollywood royalty has become a sad parade of celebutantes and media whores.

When I first saw the title of Douglas Anthony Cooper's essay (Anne Hathaway: The Most Horrible Person Who's Ever Lived), I almost didn't want to read it for fear I might "throw up in my mouth." But I'm glad I did, and strongly recommend that you read it, too. Cooper's piece says an awful lot about how the media circus currently fed by gossip rags, pushy paparazzi, bitchy bloggers, and preening publicists has not only cheapened the discourse but conspired to destroy people's lives.

Once upon a time, Hollywood stars were worshipped like gods and goddesses. No photographers were trying to snap pants-less crotch shots as someone stepped from a car. Nor were they terrorizing people in traffic and threatening the lives of innocent bystanders with their self-aggrandizing stunts. Recently, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turned the tables on two celebrity photographers and recorded what happened in the following video:

February was a superb month for indulging one's nostalgia for Hollywood royalty (the kind that inspired fans long before the media escapades of Liz & Dick, TomKat, and Brangelina. Whether witnessing two of Hollywood's greatest stars from the silent film era or enjoying a musical which spoofed the transition from silents to talkies, three shows offered an intoxicating reminder of what it was like when talent, power, and millions of fans worked united to support true Hollywood royalty.

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The main attraction at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Winter Event was a screening of that 1924 Douglas Fairbanks classic, The Thief of Baghdad, accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. While this silent swashbuckler and scenic spectacle benefits immensely from the merry athleticism of Fairbanks and his undeniable charisma as Ahmed, there are plenty of campy moments in the script (most notably when the Princess's suitors are introduced to the court as "the Prince of the Mongols, King of Ho Sho, Governor of Wah Hoo and the Island of Wak").

With snatches of music from Alexander Borodin's opera, Prince Igor (1890), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite, Scheherezade (1888), the film's eye-popping Art Nouveau production design by William Cameron Menzies offers audiences nearly three hours of dazzling entertainment. Whether one is entranced by Ahmed's muscular torso, devilish grin, and incredible feats of bravery or tickled by the performances of  Sojin Kamiyama (as a villainous Mongol prince who bears a striking resemblance to filmmaker John Waters), Anna May Wong as a Mongol slave, Mathilde Comont as the corpulent Prince of Persia, and Tote Du Crow as a soothsayer, this epic of the silent screen is a genuine crowd pleaser.

And why shouldn't it be? Inspired by a tale from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, The Thief of Baghdad was one of the largest and most expensive silent films made prior to 1925. In May of 1924, Science and Invention magazine published a story entitled "The Mechanical Marvels of The Thief of Baghdad."  The film features a winged white horse, a magic carpet, a fake dinosaur, a beautiful princess, and a beggar with the biggest set of balls in Baghdad.

Douglas Fairbanks stars in 1924's The Thief of Baghdad

It's interesting to note how the male physique and Hollywood's depictions of masculinity have changed over the past century. Fairbanks was notoriously devoted to physical fitness.  Because of his hyperathleticism, he was able to move with the grace of Vaslav Nijinsky (whose performances in Michel Fokine's ballet, Scheherezade, a major attraction of Sergei Diaghilev's famed Ballet Russes). In fact, the gym on the studio lot bore a sign that read "Basilica Linea Abdominalis" (Waistline Temple). And yet, by today's standards of buffed, steroided and tattooed action heroes, Fairbanks would have seemed wiry at best.

Vaslav Nijinsky as Ahmed in Scheherezade

The Thief of Baghdad includes some of Hollywood's earliest experiments with the use of piano wire for specific effects (such as Ahmed's magical rope which can instantly uncoil and rise into thin air). But seeing is believing. Thankfully, the entire film is available on YouTube. Enjoy!

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By the time Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford extricated themselves from their first marriages, they were known far and wide as a Hollywood power couple. After divorcing her first husband, Owen Moore, on March 2, 1920, Pickford married Fairbanks 26 days later. Their European honeymoon became a celebrity spectacle in every city they visited.

By that time, they were partners in United Artists and Pickford (born Gladys Smith) was well on her way to becoming the highest paid woman in America. Following their marriage, they settled into Pickfair and began to create the kind of celebrity lifestyle for which Hollywood has since become famous.

Mary Pickford in a scene from My Best Girl

Born in Toronto in 1892, Pickford (whose mother was a fierce negotiator) usually approached business matters from a position of power. She became the first actress to head up her own production company. By 1916 (when she was just 24 years old), her contract guaranteed Mary the right to approve advertising, choose the writers and directors for her films, and pocket half the receipts from her movies.

Unfortunately, by the time her last silent film, My Best Girl, opened on October 21, 1927, The Jazz Singer (which had opened two weeks prior) was the talk of the movie industry. Although, during the 1920s, Pickford became one of the most famous women in the world, she retired from acting in 1933. In 1976, she received a special Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

On June 24, 1937, Pickford married Charles "Buddy" Rogers, a popular band leader who had co-starred  in 1927's Wings and My Best Girl. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival followed The Thief of Baghdad with a screening of Pickford's last silent film, a romantic comedy based on mistaken identities.

Mary Pickford and Charles "Buddy" Rogers in My Best Girl

Directed by Samuel Taylor, My Best Girl featuired Pickford as the loyal stock girl, Maggie, working in the Merrill Department Store who must put up with the antics of the boss’s playboy son, “Joe Grant,” who has just gone to work for his father’s business. It doesn’t take long for Maggie to peg Joe as “the dumbest stock boy in the world.” But she can’t help falling for his charming smile and beautiful eyes.

Soon, Joe has been promoted, become Maggie’s boss, and they’ve fallen in love. But Joe is already engaged and Maggie has yet to discover his true identity. Although My Best Girl has some great comic moments, its true strength lies in the charm of its two leads (who were falling in love with each other when  they made this film). You can watch all of My Best Girl in the following delightful video clip.

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Pickford wasn't the only silent film star whose screen career came to a crashing halt with the advent of the talkies.  In 1952, MGM released Singin' in the Rain, a movie musical starring Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor,  Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen that became one of the world's most beloved films.

First adapted as a London stage vehicle for Tommy Steele in 1983, the musical has since undergone numerous revisions. Diablo Theatre Company recently presented Singin’ in the Rain with Keith Pinto, Ryan Drummond, and Melissa WolfKlain stepping into the roles created by their charismatic counterparts at MGM.

Keith Pinto as Don Lockwood filming The Dancing Cavalier
in Singin' in the Rain (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka/Tracy Martin)

Since it was first adapted for the musical stage in 1983, this show has gone through numerous revisions (I first saw it on Broadway more than 25 years ago in a production directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp). In 2009 it received an excellent revival from Woodminster Summer Musicals at their outdoor amphitheatre.

The great songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed ("All I Do Is Dream of You," "Make 'Em Laugh," "You Are My Lucky Star," "You Were Meant For Me," "Good Morning," "Would You," "Broadway Rhythm" and the show's title song) remain as endearing as ever.  However, I was surprised by a solo number in Act II for Lina Lamont ("What's Wrong With Me?") that seems to have been added to the current performing version during the 2012 runs in Chichester and London.

Melissa WolfKlain (Kathy Selden) and Ryan Drummond
(Cosmo Brown) in  Singin' in the Rain
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka/Tracy Martin)

Unfortunately, Diablo Theatre Company's production (directed by Bay area stalwart, Dyan McBride) direction) proved to be a surprisingly mechanical and lumbering affair.  The show got an extra boost of adrenaline during the tap routines choreographed by Staci Arriaga but, with an extra-long first act and a somewhat ragged pit band, this production of Singin’ in the Rain lagged considerably. A great deal of dramatic momentum was lost during Kelly James Tighe’s awkward set changes.

Keith Pinto as Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka/Tracy Martin)

For some people, the greatest part of a staged production of Singin' in the Rain is actually watching water pour down from the flies during the show's title number. But there's so much more to this musical (including the comical attempts to get its strident silent film star, Lina Lamont, out of the way of the budding romance between Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden).

The three principles worked extremely hard to keep the audience happy (I was especially impressed with Ryan Drummond's performance as Cosmo Brown). Alas, Mary Kalita’s carefully crafted, brassy portrayal of the stupid, jealous Lina didn't quite seem to hit its mark.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Revisiting The Classics

Every now and then it helps to revisit a classic work of art from a different perspective than the one you've grown used to. After witnessing the American Repertory Theatre's new production of The Glass Menagerie (starring Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bolger), Ben Brantley wrote a fascinating ArtsBeat column for The New York Times entitled "Theatre Talkback: Old Works, Born Anew." That very same day, The Hollywood Reporter published an article entitled "I Was Rob Lowe's Snow White: The Untold Story of Oscar's Nightmare Opening."

These articles only served to reinforce the underlying message of J.C. Lee's new play, Luce, which was recently featured as part of the Aurora Theatre Company's series of new play readings for its Global Age Project. An extremely talented and prolific young playwright, Lee has found a provocative new way to ask theatregoers the age-old question: "How well do you really know someone you love?"

Playwright J.C. Lee as a "gay bandit"

Last weekend's Winter Program from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered audiences a chance to wonder just how well they knew two classic tales which, over the years, have acquired so many cultural imprints and branding opportunities that people assume they know these stories upside down and inside out. As audiences discovered while seated in the Castro Theatre, such is not always the case.

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The original version of Snow White was first published 200 years ago by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.  Since then, the fairy tale has appeared in numerous versions.

On October 31, 1912, a Broadway play entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Little Theatre with Marguerite Clark starring as the titular princess. While most people are familiar with Walt Disney's 1937 version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which was the first full-length cel animated feature film), the original Broadway production served as the inspiration for 1916's silent film version of Snow White (also starring Marguerite Clark).

Walt Disney saw the 1916 silent film version when he was a 15-year-old newsboy. Its enchanting prologue begins with a Santa Claus-like figure placing a series of dolls on a dining room table. The dolls magically come to life and enact the story of Snow White.

There are some unexpected laughs for modern audiences early in the film when Prince Florimond (Creighton Hale) arrives at the court to request his cousin's hand in marriage. The audience roared when the evil Queen Brangomar (Dorothy Cumming) noted that the Prince was so much younger than her. After insisting that Florimond wait a year before returning to her castle to claim and marry Snow White, Brangomar tersely explained the child's sudden absence by claiming that "she's been sent to a boarding school for backward princesses."

Marguerite Clark as Snow White with Creighton Hale
as Prince Florimond in 1916's Snow White

The silent version of Snow White does a beautiful job of capturing the young maiden's innocence and generosity of spirit. Is it any wonder that, when discovered sleeping by the seven dwarfs, one of them comments "I don't know if girls can talk."

Snow White (Marguerite Clark) with one of the dwarfs

The Walt Disney Family Museum is currently presenting a special exhibition entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic (which is on display through April 14). A restored print of the entire 1916 film has recently been uploaded to YouTube by the Cinema History Channel. You can watch it in its entirety below:

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Most of my experiences with the Faust legend have been through opera. These include:

Back in the late 1960s, when I first started attending opera, Gounod's Faust was frequently performed by the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera at their new homes in Lincoln Center. The New York City Opera created a new production of Boito's Mefistofele for Norman Treigle, which became a high point of the American basso's career. In 1989, Sam Ramey starred in Robert Carsen's brilliant production of Mefistofele that was televised over PBS and will be revived this fall at the San Francisco Opera).

In 1986 I had a curious opportunity to experience all three operatic treatments of the Faust legend. That fall, the San Francisco Opera revived Wolfram Skalicki's production of Gounod's Faust with Francesca Zambello directing a cast headed by Justino Diaz, Luis Lima, Alan Titus, and Mary Jane Johnson. The New York City Opera revived the famous Tito Capobianco production of Mefistofele with John Cheek the title role, Robert Grayson as Faust, and Marianna Christos pulling out all stops for Margherita's mad scene.

Earlier that year I had suffered through a bizarre production by David Pountney at the English National Opera (on loan from the Deutsche Oper Berlin) which managed to be both boring and unnerving. In my review for the Bay Area Reporter, I wrote:
"Stefanos Lazaridis's dangerously shaky and decidedly clumsy sets included long banks of steel file cabinets which were precipitously perched above the stage and then slanted down toward the footlights at an angle of nearly 45 degrees. Below this unit piece, people disappeared into a steeply-raked, slatted floor which rested above a series of trapdoors. Although there were Nazis, an old car, and three mysterious students from Krakow in this production, I will readily confess that this was one instance where I didn't have the slightest fucking idea of what was happening onstage. The only thing of which I can be sure is that numerous chairs in London's ancient Coliseum Theatre fell apart as soon as their occupant sat down in them that night. So, for that matter, did the guiding concept behind this unfortunate an extremely bizarre production."
San Francisco's Silent Film Festival presented F.W. Murnau's 1926 version of Faust (the last film he made in Germany) as the grand finale of its Winter program. Those familiar with Murnau's work from films like 1927's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans know him to be a master of lighting and shadow. In the following clip from Faust, one can see how he has used smoke and fire for dramatic effect.

Murnau's adaptation of Goethe's Faust also adds a motivating factor that is missing from the Gounod and Boito operas. Early in the film, Mefistofele and an Archangel are seen arguing over who rules the earth. When the Archangel mentions Faust, he inspires Mefistofele (who spreads an ominous cloud that carries the plague throughout Faust's village). Frustrated by his inability to help villagers whose families are dying from the plague, Faust then summons Mefistofele (who is only too happy to indulge the aged philosopher in exchange for Faust's soul).

Murnau's film is a filled with haunting images that range from terrified faces to a giant Mefistofele hovering over a miniature village. Emil Jannings is a fleshy force of malevolence while Gosta Ekman's portrayals of the younger and older Faust are often quite touching. Camilla Horn's Gretchen and Yvette Guilbert's lusty portrayal of Marthe Schwerdtlein provided strong dramatic foils to the two male leads.

With so many musical adaptations of the Faust legend available on recordings (Hector Berlioz's 1846 oratorio, La Damnation de Faust quickly comes to mind), I found the music by Alex Smoke Menzies in the above video clip to be quite disappointing. On Saturday night, local organist Christian Elliott supplied a much more appropriate and foreboding accompaniment on the Castro Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer.

Cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Pieter degree Rooij

However, in researching clips from Murnau's Faust, I stumbled across a fascinating essay by the Dutch cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologistPieter de Rooij, who described how he had essentially reworked Murnau's film to match up the action with the musical score written for another version by the American composer, Timothy Brock. De Rooij points to a new area of combined dramaturgy and musicology that might find its home in Cyberspace. His essay (in its entirety) reads as follows:
"This video, a special edit prepared and presented by me, Pieter de Rooij, shows the first part of the domestic version of Murnau's Faust in a slightly different way than usual. It's the result of an experiment I did to find a way to combine the 'domestic cut' of Murnau's film Faust with Timothy Brock's brilliant score, written for another version of this film, the so-called 'export version.' Let me explain a little bit further what I've done and how and why I did this."
Gosta Ekman and Emil Jannings in F. W. Murnau's Faust
"F.W. Murnau's masterpiece-film Faust was released in 1926. There are seven known versions of the film. The most well known version is the so-called 'export version' with English titles, that premiered in December 1926 in the USA. That export-version is 10 minutes longer than the newly discovered 'domestic version' a couple of years ago, the domestic version being the original 'German print' (the one with German titles that was shown at the time in German cinema theatres). The export print is slightly darker and softer, lacking the detail and clarity of the domestic version. Incidentally, the differences between the export and the domestic version are considerable. There's no difference in terms of the overall structure of scenes and story line, but the pacing and lengths of scenes often vary greatly. There are often striking differences in the order and in the composition of shots, the domestic version certainly being the superior of the two."
Mefistofele (Emil Jannings) and Faust (Gosta Ekman)
fly through the sky in F. W. Murnau's Faust
"Timothy Brock's orchestral score, written for the Faust-export version is a masterpiece, a fantastic accomplishment, perfectly keeping with the operatic and epic nature of the film. The way Brock uses operatic- and leitmotif-storytelling and story developing techniques in his music for the export version of the film is absolutely stunning. But, as soon as Brock's score is played with the domestic version, picture and sound are almost everywhere out of sync, that is, numerous details and leitmotifs of the score then miss the point, lose their 'iconic' meaning and strength and simply can't work as they do so perfectly in the export version. Isn't it possible then to combine Brock's music with the greatly cut and very clear print of the domestic version? The answer is 'no' when you play the music along with the domestic film in its original speed. The answer is 'yes' (that is, in my opinion) if you manage to adjust the speed of numerous sequences of the domestic film. Only when countless sequences are 'manipulated' in terms of duration the music is able to work once more on the pictures (and vice versa) as it does in the export version."
Emil Jennings as Mefistofele in F. W. Murnau's Faust
"I took it as a challenge to try to make Brock's music work as well in the domestic cut version of Faust and with this aim in mind I've edited the complete domestic Faust. I think the result of my editing is quite interesting. After the changes I made in the duration of countless sequences (a time-consuming job that requires precision and a lot of patience) I personally think this brilliant music now also works very well for the complete domestic version. For me the result has been quite spectacular. I've tried to keep the duration manipulation of sequences within reasonable measures, in order to maintain as much as possible the natural look, tempo and feel of the domestic Faust version. I use all of Brock's score and all of Murnau's film, there's no material left out by me. Enough said, hope you'll find this 'experiment' as fascinating as I do and I hope you'll enjoy this video." [Pieter de Rooij / August 2011]"
I mean, really....Who knew? You can watch de Rooij's version of Murnau's Faust in its entirety in the following clip:

Monday, February 18, 2013

Learning From The Masters

One of the more delicious quotes floating around the Internet claims that "Creativity is intelligence having fun." Whether one points to an elaborate Rube Goldberg type of contraption or the refined elegance of this handmade Cthulhu ski mask made (made with 20% egg protein yarn), as the old Cunard Line slogan proclaimed: "Getting there is half the fun."

One of the blessings of living in a major arts center is the opportunity to attend master classes by some of the world's great musicians. While in town to perform with the San Francisco Symphony, pianist 
Stephen Hough spent some time working with three piano students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Hailed far and wide as a polymath, Hough is a gifted teacher who gives students a much deeper understanding of the times in which some composers lived, the cultural traditions of their society, and how various performance practices have impacted their music over the years. While working with a student here in San Francisco, he stressed that it's okay to take certain liberties with Beethoven's music because, in Beethoven's time, the composer was well known for his poor hygiene and a habit of spitting on the floor while at the piano.

What's so fascinating about Hough's master classes is his encyclopedic knowledge (not just of music but about what is happening around the world) and his generosity and good humor in sharing his knowledge. Even for pianists who are already performing on the world stage, he is invaluable as a mentor with regard to phrasing, interpretation, musical shading, performance mechanics, and the subtlest of nuances. In the following clip, he is seen working with pianist Wu Qian on Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #12.

Although no video is available from Hough's February 13 master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there's about 40 minutes available on YouTube that shows Hough working with a student on Liszt's Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitudeat at the Peabody Conservatory of Music a few days prior in Baltimore. Here's the first of the four video segments. Watch, listen, and learn.

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Last weekend, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival packed the Castro Theatre for its jam-packed Winter event (which ran from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.). Although the full-length features included 1916's Snow WhiteDouglas Fairbanks starring in 1924's The Thief of BaghdadF.W. Murnau's 1926 version of Faust; and Mary Pickford starring in 1927's My Best Girl, I was particularly taken with a trio of shorts by Buster Keaton. Known throughout his life as "Old Stoneface," Keaton engineered many brilliant mechanical gags, performed his own stunts, and made some of the most elaborately calculated tricks of physical comedy tricks seem completely effortless.

Anyone who has struggled to put together a piece of furniture from Ikea will find himself laughing hysterically while watching 1920's One Week, in which Keaton and his bride (Sybil Seeley) try to construct a build-it-yourself house they have received as a wedding gift.  One Week was actually inspired by a 1919 Ford Motor Company educational short about prefabricated housing entitled Home Made.

Buster Keaton and his "build-it-yourself: house in One Week

As you watch One Week (which includes some of the actual devices that were shown in the making of Home Made), keep in mind that none of Keaton's stunts were planned on a computer or rendered with CGI scripting. They were all performed live and without the use of miniatures (Keaton's trick house was built atop a large turntable).

If you want to see an example of example creativity as "intelligence having fun," watch the opening sequence from 1920's The Scarecrow as the 5'6" Buster Keaton and 6'3" Joe Roberts sit down to one of the most elaborately choreographed breakfasts (truly an engineer's wet dream) that you will ever see in your life.

Buster Keaton with 'Luke"

After numerous scenes in which he is pursued by Fatty Arbuckle's pet dog, Luke, watch how Keaton launches an extended romantic/comedic arc with the innocent act of tying his shoelaces and segues into a multi-vehicle chase scene (escalating from horse to motorcycle) that ends up with one of the speediest marriages on record. The planning, timing, and coordination are immaculately executed.

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In 1921, Keaton created the first of many brilliant camera tricks for The Playhouse. According to Wikipedia:
"Keaton's portrayal of nine members of a minstrel show required the use of a special camera shutter. It had nine exactingly-machined strips of metal which could be moved up and down independently of each other. Elgin Lessley, Keaton's cameraman, shot the far-left Keaton with the first shutter up, and the others down. He then rewound the film, opened the second segment, and re-filmed the next Keaton in sequence. This procedure was repeated seven more times. The camera was hand-wound, so Lessley's hand had to be absolutely steady to avoid any variation in speed. Keaton relied on a metronome to guide him, not a problem in a silent film. It was decades before Keaton, who masterminded this, revealed his technique to other filmmakers."
Watch Keaton carefully as he takes on numerous roles, swims through a flooded orchestra pit, and clowns around as a cigar-smoking chimpanzee. It's a tour de force conceived and executed by an artistic genius..

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The Silent Film Festival recently announced plans for a three-day mini-festival (June 14, 15, 16) which will be devoted to nine silent films by Alfred Hitchcock that have recently been restored by the British Film Institute. The following clips offer an appetizer of the line-up (click here to order passes).

The Pleasure Garden (1925)

Downhill (1927)

The Ring (1927)

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

Champagne (1928)

The Farmer's Wife (1928)

The Manxman (1929)

Blackmail (1929)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Return of the "Message" Musical

Musicals are one of America's most beloved forms of entertainment. Audiences have been cheering tap dancing ensembles, dream ballets, rousing choruses, and witty comedic numbers since the 1866 Broadway premiere of The Black Crook. Here's Elaine Stritch performing a classic "list song" from the 1927 Rodgers & Hart adaptation of Mark Twain's popular novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Although the plots of many musicals have been built around love stories and comic devices, a growing number can be identified as "message" musicals. Whether commenting on religious persecution, racism, controversial  medical issues, interfaithinterracial, and same-sex relationships, the creative teams for many shows have given their audiences new opportunities to discuss the political issues of the day. Here's Rose Marie Jun (known primarily for her role as Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show) performing Harold Rome's "Sing Me A Song With Social Significance" from 1937's Pins and Needles, a musical revue performed by members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU).

Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, 1927's Show Boat dealt with the controversial topic of miscegenation. In 1933's As Thousands Cheer, Ethel Waters shocked audiences with Irving Berlin's poignant "Supper Time," a song about a woman whose husband has just been lynched (As Thousands Cheer was also the first Broadway show to give an African American star equal billing with the white performers headlining its cast).

In 1941, Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill's musical, Lady in the Dark, starred Gertrude Lawrence as a fashion magazine editor who was undergoing psychoanalysis. In 1945's CarouselRodgers and Hammerstein touched on the topic of domestic violence.

While most of the kudos for Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 hit, South Pacific, were showered upon Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, Myron McCormick, and Juanita Hall, it was William Tabbert (as the handsome, young Lieutenant Joseph Cable) who sang "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught." This song was considered indecent, pro-Communist, and inspired one legislator to label its justification of interracial marriage as "a threat to the American way of life." According to to Wikipedia, while South Pacific was touring Southern cities, lawmakers in the state of Georgia introduced a bill outlawing any entertainment containing "an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow."

In 1951, when Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted Anna and the King of Siam (a best-selling novel by Margaret Landon) and transformed it into The King and I, they depicted a foreign culture in which women were treated as chattel and slaves yearned to be free. In 1954, The Pajama Game scored a hit with a story about factory workers threatening to strike for a living wage.

Harold Prince's influence as a producer and director can be linked to such politically sensitive musicals such as Flora, The Red Menace, Evita, and Fiorello!). In 1957, West Side Story presented an updated version of Romeo and Juliet in which the Montagues and Capulets were transformed into two rival street gangs (the Sharks and the Jets).

In 1964, Fiddler on the Roof tackled the antisemitic persecution of Jews during Russia's pogroms. When Fiddler vacated the Imperial Theatre, it was replaced by Cabaret, the Kander and Ebb musical which depicted the rising antisemitism in the last years of the Weimar Republic.

Sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll brought counterculturalism center stage with 1968's Hair and 1969's Oh! Calcutta! Soon Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman were tackling the Westernization of Japan in 1976's Pacific Overtures while, in 1986's RagsJoseph SteinStephen Schwartz, and Charles Strouse focused on Jewish immigrants and the women who worked in New York's sweatshops (some of whom died in 1911's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire).

In 1983, La Cage aux Folles (written by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein) melted the hearts of countless heterosexuals just a few short years after Anita Bryant and the religious right had begun scapegoating the LGBT community. In 1992, James Lapine and William Finn brought the AIDS epidemic to the musical stage with Falsettos. In the following clip, Michael Rupert sings the heartrending "What More Can I Say?"

In the past 25 years, musical theatre has often aimed for cultural relevancy.

Barely six weeks into 2013, Bay area audiences have witnessed the world premieres of two new "message" musicals of surprising strength. One deals with current efforts to reform immigration and create a path to citizenship for those who entered the United States illegally. The other follows a woman on a journey of introspection that follows a path surprisingly similar to the one traveled by Siddhartha (the Guatama Buddha) many centuries ago.

What makes these two musicals so interesting is not just their subject matter (or the creative path they followed to their world premieres), but also the funding which helped to make them possible.

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On August 1, 2001, the DREAM Act was introduced by Senators Dick Durban and Orrin Hatch. Since then, immigration reform has faced a rough and rocky uphill battle.

Following passage of the California DREAM Act, the Marsh Youth Theatre embarked on creating a new piece of musical theatre which focused on undocumented students living in the Bay area who lived under the constant threat of deportation. Using the methodology and and techniques of the Voice of Witness Education Program, members of MYT's Teen Troupe gathered oral histories for In and Out of Shadows from people in their own social circles as well as those referred to them through community organizations such as:
J. Adan Ruiz as Juan in the Marsh Youth Theatre's production
of  In and Out of Shadows (Photo by: Katia Fuentes)

Backed by additional funding from NALAC (National Association of Latino Arts and Culture) and the Creative Work Fund, the show's musical score (composed by MYT Director Emily Klion and  George Brooks) was inspired by the sounds of jazz, hip hop, and Mexican Mariachi music. As director Cliff Mayotte notes: "For many of the performers in this production, these stories are not disembodied tales, but accurate reflections of heir day-to-day experiences. There is real power in being able to tell your own story and real power in bearing witness to the person telling it."

Bianca Catalan and Angelina Orrelanos are two of the
teenagers in In and Out of Shadows (Photo by: Katia Fuentes)

Playwright/poet Gary Soto was tasked with transforming the oral histories collected by the students into a piece of theatre about the experiences of undocumented teens living in the East Bay communities of Richmond and Pinole. As he recalls:
"As a Mexican-American author of 40-plus books, I have a large readership among Latino youth (arguably the largest in the country) and have visited more than 400 schools during the last 20 years. Elementary through college, students know something about my writing. The focus of my visits has been schools in the San Joaquin Valley (which houses a large undocumented workforce in rural labor). I've also visited lots of schools in the Los Angeles basin and am aware of the struggles among urban youth. For several years I was a board member of the CHA House, an educational program that brings youth from their small hometowns (Coalinga, Huron, and Avenal) to study at UC Berkeley. I have never asked, but I suspect that about half of the parents of these children are undocumented.

In and Out of Shadows is not dumbed-down theatre; it's really clever theatre. There's music, there's dance, we have a squirt gun incident, and we'll be throwing candy into the audience. It was worrisome to me that some groups weren't represented because they wouldn't come forward (not one Chinese student was interviewed). There may be risk, but we don't think La Migra (the border patrol) would show up to gather up some of the kids and parents in the audience."
Playwright, poet, and author Gary Soto

In and Out of Shadows is filled with stories about kids who didn't want to change their name when they snuck across the border, teens who went on vacation in Mexico and were stopped by immigration authorities when they tried to reenter the United States, and those whose families consisted of documented and undocumented immigrants. From the hard-working Filipino-American mother who is arrested and threatened with deportation after her employer is investigated for failure to pay his taxes to the affable jock from British Columbia, the evening is peppered with Tagalog, Spanish, Spanglish and other languages commonly heard in the Bay area.

Louel Senores and Deanna Palaganas (Photo by: Katia Fuentes)

Whether one focuses on the young man with no skills except his abundant charm or the girl who wants to become a doctor; whether one looks at the pair of boys who want to become DJs or the Indonesian girl who tells her friends about her native country, as the students struggle to prepare their personal statements for an AB 540 conference at UC Berkeley, they share what it was like to have to be sedated with cough syrup or crawl through sewers in order to enter the United States.

And what do these children look like when they become adults? Here's the founder of Define American, Jose Antonio Vargas (who, in 2008, was part of the Washington Post's team of Pulitzer prize-winning journalists who covered the shootings at Virginia Tech) as he recently testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times, Vargas stressed that:
"There are no words to describe just how much stress and heartbreak my immigration status, and my choice to go public with it, has caused my grandmother. Because of her I almost did not speak out about being undocumented. But it was also because of her -- and my grandfather, who died in 2007, and my mother, whom I have not seen in almost 20 years -- because of all their sacrifices, that I will be able to speak in Congress. I am here because of them."
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In 2007, the Marsh Youth Theatre created Siddhartha, The Bright Path (which was revived in December of 2010). There's a new Buddha figure in town (a female version) as the protagonist of an impressive new musical being performed at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley through March 10 (click here to order tickets).

The Fourth Messenger is much more than a pleasant surprise. This is an intelligent, skillfully crafted, and extremely ambitious piece of music theatre about spirituality and self discovery that demands the attention of any serious theatregoer or student of religion.

Poster art for The Fourth Messenger

Written by Tanya Shaffer (whose Baby Taj delighted TheatreWorks audiences at its world premiere in October of 2005), The Fourth Messenger is far from a formula musical. As Shaffer explains:
"For years I’ve been drawn to the legend of Siddhartha Gautama (it’s such a mythic, archetypal journey) but I knew I had to find my own way into the story. It wasn’t going to be some historical pageant. It had to be urgent, contemporary, and immediate. Buddha’s teachings are profound, poetic, and timeless but there were elements of his life which a modern audience might find troubling. Those elements -- the moral questions and conundrums -- became my way into this ancient story and provide the juice that drives the narrative forward.

A lengthier rehearsal period also allows the actors to find a lot more subtlety and nuance within their choices. After years of concert-style readings, it’s quite a revelation to see the transformation that takes place when a scene is fully staged. Sometimes, after a public reading, audience members would say to me that they saw it all in their heads; they didn’t miss the other theatrical elements at all. At the time, I felt that too. But now, as the scenes come to life before my eyes, I find them infinitely richer than they’ve ever been. The comic scenes are much funnier when they are fully physicalized. The poignant moments, too, are infinitely more moving when the actors are able to fully embody their characters, so that their reactions and choices are transmitted through action and gesture as well as face and voice."

Annemaria Rajala as Mama Sid (Photo by: Mike Padua)

Driven by Vienna Teng's densely-written lyrics and propulsive score, The Fourth Messenger opens in a tense newsroom where a publisher (Will Springhorn, Jr.) is facing diminished ad revenues. As his editorial staff hungers for a big news story to debunk, his lover Raina (Anna Ishida) returns from her father's funeral.

Although she's pretty torn up over the loss of her Dad, Raina also thinks she might have found the story that will save Sam's business ("The Next Big Story"). When Sam reflexively assigns it to a young male reporter, she calls him on it and demands that he let her interview the latest trendy guru, a mysterious woman named Mama Sid (Annemarie Rajala) whom  Raina suspects is a fraud.

When Raina arrives at Mama Sid's ashram, she thinks Sid's trusting, emotionally needy followers are either brainwashed or crazy. As they wrestle with their compulsions and obsessions ("Monkey Mind"), Raina finally gets a chance to interview Sid, who sings of "The Human Experience" and begins to open up about her previous experiences. For some reason, Sid feels compelled to divulge her past to Raina, starting with her youthful crush on Yasha (Barnaby James) and the sheltered existence she enjoyed while being raised in a gated community ("Bois Riche").

As Sid describes her traumatic exposure to poverty and disease outside Bois Riche, her story deepens and takes numerous unexpected turns. By the time the audience learns that Sid is actually Raina's mother (who abandoned Raina shortly after she was born in order to seek her own path in life), Shaffer's musical has the audience emotionally involved in the story and, often, on the edge of their seats.

Mama Sid (Annemarie Rajala) and Raina (Anna Ishida) in
The Fourth Messenger (Photo by: David Allen)

A lot has been written in recent years about the growth of online crowd funding services. Last year, Kickstarter boasted that it had raised $150 million for creative projects (more than 2012's operating budget for the National Endowment for the Arts). Songwriter Jeff Bowen ([title of show]) launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $75,000 he needed to record a cast album of his recent off-Broadway musical Now. Here. This.The happy result? Bowen's Kickstarter campaign brought in $89,833!

In addition to money raised through traditional approaches, Shaffer and Teng brought in almost $40,000 through a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo. As the producer/playwright explains:
“We live in a time when it’s more feasible than ever for artists to take matters into their own hands. The decision for Vienna and me to produce this ourselves came about organically. Talking with theaters, we encountered reluctance to even consider a world premiere musical that required a minimum of nine actors and four musicians in the current economic climate. After a few of those conversations, we came to this Little Red Hen moment of ‘I’ll do it myself.’ The response from supporters was immediate, enthusiastic, and truly empowering.”
Sid (Annemarie Rajala) with her close friend, Andy (Jackson Davis) in
The Fourth Messenger (Photo by: Matt August)

Even in a show about Buddhism, money buys artistic freedom. The results were obvious at the world premiere of The Fourth Messenger (which is so much more than a labor of love). Joe Ragey has created a simple yet remarkably elegant unit set which allows for quick and highly effective transitions between scenes. The orchestrations by Robin Reynolds are first rate and, under Christopher Winslow's solid musical direction, Teng's music and lyrics reveal a fresh and exciting new theatrical talent with a distinctive voice of her own ((click here to listen to excerpts from the show's musical score).

Above all, The Fourth Messenger has been beautifully staged with grace, wit, and plenty of dramatic flair by Matt August (who staged Shaffer's Baby Taj and pulls exceptionally poignant performances from his two female leads). Jackson Davis has some fine dramatic moments as Sid's close friend, Andy. Cathleen Riddley, Will Springhorn, Jr., Reggie D. White, Simeone Kertesz, and Barnaby Jones all score strongly in supporting roles.

The Fourth Messenger is a hugely ambitious and refreshingly original piece of musical theatre that is highly recommended. Accessible to contemporary audiences and relevant to today's search for spirituality, I wish it a long and healthy future enchanting audiences around the world. Here's the trailer: