Sunday, June 19, 2016

Musical Treasures That Never Grow Old

One of the challenges of living in a disposable society with a 24-hour news cycle is the difficulty of producing art that will have a long and healthy shelf life. While paintings, sculptures, film, and visual art stand a pretty good chance of surviving the fickle tastes of live audiences, new works of opera and musical theatre must constantly struggle for longevity. Until 1972, the 10 musicals with the longest-running original productions on Broadway were:

Curiously, a memorable theatrical performance isn't the only factor that can keep a show running. Shortly after Pippin opened on Broadway on October 23, 1972, Bob Fosse directed the first television ad for a Broadway show. By the time Pippin closed on June 12, 1977, it had played for 1,944 performances. Following the success of the show's 2013 revival (which ran for 709 performances), a film adaptation is now in the works.

The success of using 30-second TV spots was amplified by advances in computer technology that could integrate marketing, reinforce branding, and attract more tourists through on-line ticketing. Since 1972, musicals whose original Broadway productions have passed the 5,000-performance mark include The Lion King, Les Misérables, A Chorus Line, Beauty and the Beast, Wicked, Rent, and Mamma Mia!
  • The original production of Chicago (which opened on Broadway on June 3, 1975) ran for 936 performances. The revival (which premiered at City Center Encores! and reopened on Broadway on November 14, 1996, has racked up more than 8,100 performances. A film version was released in 2002.
  • Cats, which opened on Broadway on September 23, 1982, ran for 7,485 performances and will soon be revived at the Neil Simon Theatre.  A film adaptation is scheduled to begin production in 2017 or 2018.
  • The Phantom of the Opera (which opened at the Majestic Theatre on January 26, 1988) has racked up more than 11,800 performances on Broadway and become an international cash cow. In 2004, a film adaptation was released in theatres.

Social media (which can be used to build fan clubs, spur audience development, sell show-related merchandise, and help promote touring productions). is one of the primary reasons that the first BroadwayCon (held in January 2016) was such a huge success. This theatrical event seems destined to become an annual tourist attraction in New York City.

Although opera may be a 400-year-old art form, it supports comedy and tragedy with a solid musical foundation. One can easily point to specific musicals that have blurred the boundaries between opera and musical theatre (Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Street Scene, The Most Happy Fella, West Side Story, Candide, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and Martin Guerre).

A recent opportunity to experience a classic Verdian opera (which premiered nearly 150 years ago) and a Rodgers and Hammerstein show (that changed the course of musical theatre when it opened on Broadway 73 years ago) provided plenty of food for thought.
  • Each revolved around frustrated lovers under attack by an unsympathetic villain.
  • Each had a superb score.
  • Each was beautifully produced and performed.
  • Even though I had not seen either work in several decades, each offered new insights and cause for wonder (as great works of art frequently do).
Both performances also delivered welcome moments of reassurance that I was not suffering any auditory loss. In recent years, I've had trouble hearing conversations while dining in restaurants with horrendous acoustics. At performances which were overamplified (especially in San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre), there has frequently been so much sound distortion that I could barely comprehend 25% of a musical's lyrics.

A recent audiology examination showed that, while there is some loss of high frequency hearing (which is typical for people my age), the biggest problem I've been having is with background noise. At the opera, I was able to luxuriate in the splendor of well-supported voices that were projected naturally (without any amplification). At a musical comedy whose sound design was superb, I had no problem hearing any of the show's dialogue or lyrics.

* * * * * * * * *
On March 11, 1867, a five-act opera by Giuseppe Verdi (Don Carlos) received its world premiere from the Paris Opera. Several productions sung in Italian (rather than French) and entitled Don Carlo quickly ensued...

For a new opera to receive separate productions in four cities in the year following its world premiere is quite remarkable. The fact that it was followed by the world premieres of Aida (1871), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1983), as well as revisions to La Forza del Destino and Simon Boccanegra, is a bit mindboggling.

As an extended "work in progress," Verdi's longest opera underwent numerous cuts and revisions during its first two decades onstage.
  • A revised version debuted in Naples in November 1872 (following the opera's disastrous local premiere in 1871).
  • Another revision was unveiled at Milan's La Scala on January 10, 1884.
  • A final revision (which restored Act I's Fontainebleu scene) premiered on December 19, 1886 in Modena
Ana Maria Martinez as Elisabetta in Verdi's Don Carlo
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Based on a 1787 play by Friedrich Schiller, productions of Don Carlo (which takes place during the Spanish Inquisition) rest on a plot filled with political intrigue, economic inequality, royal backstabbing, and the repressed emotions of an heir apparent whose presumed bride was suddenly bequeathed to his uncle in order to preserve the peace following a war between France and Spain. At 4-1/2 hours in length, this opera could easily wear some audiences down were it not for Verdi’s glorious score. As San Francisco Opera’s music director, Nicola Luisotti explains:
“A night with Don Carlo (the sum of Italian romanticism) is a long evening of joy and mystic revelations. Many people cite the grandeur of the duets between Elisabetta and Carlo, for example, or the dramatic confrontation between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor. But, in truth, every page of this opera is a masterwork; every single detail is just what an opera should be. The harmonies are extraordinary, as is the orchestration. Much of the orchestration is the same that Verdi used for Aida but for a distinctive use of four bassoons (as in the Requiem) and two piston cornets and trumpets. There is also a dramatic effect with a tam-tam (a type of gong) at the end. But what is really amazing is the quality of the music itself.”
Don Carlo (Michael Fabiano) and Rodrigo (Mariusz Kwiecien)
in a scene from Verdi's Don Carlo (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“As someone who has conducted most of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, I can say with certainty that Don Carlo is the most important project that was undertaken by Verdi since the start of his career. One reason why it is so powerful is the long creative process that it took Verdi to complete it. The first version, which premiered in 1867, was out of deference to French grand opera with its ballet and epic scale. (The story goes that this original version of Don Carlos still had to be cut by half an hour because the last train left Paris for the suburbs at 12:25 a.m.) The Italian version we are doing, sans ballet, is called the “Modena version” for its 1886 premiere in Modena, Italy.”

Over the course of its history, the Metropolitan Opera has presented 217 performances of Don Carlo. The last time I saw the opera performed in San Francisco was in a 1986 staging of John Cox's production. This summer, as part of his farewell season as General Director, David Gockley produced Verdi's masterpiece using Zack Brown's darkly handsome sets from the company's 1998 production.

Directed by Emilio Sagi (with the help of chorus director Ian Robertson, fight director Dave Maier, and lighting designer Gary Marder), this revival provided an evening filled with magnificent singing. From the leading soloists to Nian Wang's Tebaldo; from the sonorous splendor of René Pape singing King Philip II's aria ("Ella giammai m'amò") to the ethereal grace of Toni Marie Palmertree's Celestial Voice, it was an evening to wallow in the glories of the human voice.

Michael Fabiano (Don Carlo) and Nadia Krasteva (Princess Eboli)
in a scene from Verdi's Don Carlo (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

From Princess Eboli's "O don fatale" to Rodrigo's final aria, "Io morrò, ma lieto in core," Verdi gave his principals some stunning music. From the brotherly love duet between Carlo and Rodrigo in Act I ("Dio, che nell'alma infondere") to Elisabetta's powerful Act V solo ("Tu che le vanità"), this is a score to be revisited from time to time for the sheer magnificence of Verdi's writing.

Nadia Krasteva revealed a lush, dark, mezzo=soprano as the jealous, scheming Princess Eboli while soprano Ana Maria Martinez was rock solid as the dutiful Elisabetta (I'd love to see her onstage as Aida). Andrea Silvestrelli was a blind but forceful Grand Inquisitor.

While one never wants to take a superbly musical tenor like Michael Fabiano for granted, the evening's top honors went to baritone Mariusz Kwiecien for his portrayal of Rodrigo, Marquis di Posa. His is the kind of intelligent and stylish Verdian singing (wrapped in a most appealing package) that has been absent from opera stages for far too long; the kind of music-making that causes the hair on one's arms to tingle with excitement.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo in Don Carlo (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

I tip my hat to Maestro Luisotti and Emilio Sagi for a finely-tuned and intensely satisfying performance of Don Carlo. Here's some footage from the production.

* * * * * * * * *
Let me be the first to admit that there are key moments in opera and musical theatre when I get totally verklempt. From the orchestral lead-in to the Act I finale of Puccini's La Bohème to the final departure from Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof; from the moment when Professor Harold Hill delivers a shiny new cornet to the painfully shy Winthrop Paroo to the gut-wrenching recognition scene in Richard Strauss's operatic adaptation of Elektra; these are not mere moments of sentimentality.

They are moments when the combined craft of composers, lyricists, directors, and designers perfectly mesh to create genuine stage magic. The emotional power of these moments won't grab you when viewed on videotape or even during a live telecast. They need to be experienced sitting in a theatre, surrounded by an audience, in order to savor the frisson of feeling, the gift of grace, the passion and the poignancy, the thrills and chills that are coming over the footlights.

Sam Faustine (Curly) and Jennifer Mitchell (Laurey) in a scene
from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Although I found great pleasure in watching the Royal National Theatre's 1998 production of Oklahoma! (which starred Hugh Jackman) on DVD, the last time I attended a live performance of the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was in the summer of 1990 (when the Los Angeles Music Center Opera staged the work with Rodney Gilfrey as Curly, Rebecca Eichenberger as Laurey, Lara Teeter as Will Parker, Jodi Benson as Ado Annie, Larry Storch as Ali Hakim, Michael Gallup as Jud Fry, and Jean Stapleton as Aunt Eller).

As most people know, Oklahoma! was the first show created by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. When it opened on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre, it broke new ground from the traditional format for musical theatre. Gone was the overture. Gone were musical numbers that had no purpose other than to titillate tired businessmen. Agnes de Mille's creation of a dream ballet (in which Laurey envisions romantic rivals Curly and Jud fighting over her) heralded a new role for dance in musical theatre.

Aunt Eller (Ali Lane ) struts her stuff at the box social dance during a
festive scene from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

When Oklahoma! first opened on Broadway, audiences had a chance to revisit a touching story set in a prairie community in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906 (on November 16, 1907, Oklahoma became the 46th state to join the Union). Long before the Jets faced off with the Sharks, there were farmers and cowmen competing for land, wealth, and women. The villain was a hired hand with limited social skills, a bitter sociopath who resented the fact that everyone around him seemed to be happy and able to find love.

Based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs entitled Green Grow the Lilacs (which included several old folk songs and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), Oklahoma! received some notable plot enhancements from Oscar Hammerstein II. Although Will Parker is mentioned in the Riggs play (but never appears onstage), Hammerstein fleshed out the character, gave Parker two musical numbers ("Kansas City" and "All Er Nuthin") and created a comic subplot in which the only way Will can get the blessing of Ado Annie's father is if he can prove to Andrew Carnes that he's worth $50.

Danila Burshteyn sings about the wonders of "Kansas City" in a
scene from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Broadway by the Bay's production of Oklahoma! proved to be a richly rewarding experience. Directed by Joshua Marx (with actors occasionally making entrances and exits through the main aisles of the Fox Theatre in Redwood City), the evening was blessed by Jon Hayward's excellent sound design. Sean Kana's musical direction was lively and firm, providing solid support for Camille Edralin's choreography. The handsome production was designed by Kelly James Tighe with costumes by Valerie Emmi.

Erin Yvette as the lusty Ado Annie sings "I Cain't Say No" in a
scene from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Casting was rock solid, with Sam Faustine's tender yet masculine Curly providing an appealing to foil to Jennifer Mitchell's constantly teasing and coquettishly insecure Laurey. Erin Yvette displayed great comic chops and feminine appeal as Ado Annie while Danila Burshteyn's Will Parker showed a loving (if slightly-dimwitted) husband to be. Ali Lane's portrayal of Aunt Eller showed concern for her stubborn niece mixed with a stern sense of justice. I was especially delighted by Mohamed Ismail's work as the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim, and Sami Pistoresi's whinnying caricature of Gertie Cummings. As the show's director, Joshua Marx, explains:
“Oklahoma, being originally promised to Native Americans as sovereign land, was being bought off piece by piece and made available to white settlers in land runs starting as early as 1889. The real Oklahoma was anything but civil. With Native American and white settlers fighting viciously over property rights (and no real law enforcement to speak of), the term ‘Wild West’ was no exaggeration. The reality of living in an unconquered land with constant subjection to the elements meant the people of the Territories had to be tough. You had to be at least 21 years old to participate in the land grab, which tells us that no one under the age of 17 in our show would have been born in the Territories by conventional legal means.” 
Mohamed Ismail (Ali Hakim), Ali Lane (Aunt Eller), Sam Faustine
(Curly), and John Melis (Jud Fry) in a tense scene from Oklahoma!
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)
“The road to Oklahoma civilization was hazardous. It could not have been completed by anyone who wasn’t severely motivated by the thirst for a new life in a new land. To continue Hammerstein’s vision and breathe further authenticity into the characters, I thought it only appropriate to give them fair motivation -– even the women. Ado Annie is a woman found living without the traditional values and restrictions of puritanical America and therefore has room to live a life more akin to her desires. Laurey and Aunt Eller are two land-owning women living without male authority. This tells us that they need to have an air of independence, of fortitude. This really influences the way Laurey interacts with male suitors Curly and Jud. A hardy Laurey isn’t the type of woman who can afford a careless relationship with a dangerous man, so our production takes a thoughtful look at this romance. We have gone out of our way to make each and every character within our Oklahoma rich, complex, and entirely three-dimensional.”
The finale of Broadway By The Bay's production of Oklahoma!
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Over the years, I've always been a little bit unnerved by the threatening presence of Jud Fry, the farm hand who lusts after Laurey and sublimates his desire through the 1906 equivalent of porn. Act I's scene in the smokehouse with Curly and Jud (followed by Laurey's agreeing to let Jud drive her to the box social) are designed to creep out the audience. John Melis did a splendid job of showing the handsome, but warped man trapped inside the body of a societal lone wolf.

Following such an immensely satisfying performance, I rode back to San Francisco on a musical comedy high. The next morning I awoke to the horrific news of the bloody anti-LGBT massacre in Orlando, proof positive that 85 years after Lynn Riggs introduced audiences to Jeeter Fry's angry, tortured spirit, his dangerous and desperate descendants continue to stalk America.

Sam Faustine (Curly) and John Melis (Judy Fry) in a scene
from Oklahoma! (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin) 

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