Penman No. 131: Museums and Musicals (Part 2)

IMG_5928Penman for Monday, January 12, 2015

 

LAST WEEK I wrote about museums as a popular form of American entertainment and education, reporting in particular on my encounter with the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia. Musicals are arguably no less educational, except that they educate the heart and spirit rather than the mind.

There seems to be something fundamentally silly about people suddenly breaking into song in moments of high tension (in Bollywood, of course, they’d start shimmying and shaking), but the truth of the matter is (and the magic of the musical is) that it feels just right, and that the characters are singing exactly what we’re feeling. When Nancy sings “As Long as He Needs Me” in “Oliver” or when Tuptim and Lun Tha bewail their lot in “We Kiss in a Shadow” in “The King and I,” we absolutely understand what’s going on, and root even for the most ill-fated love.

Sometimes silliness is pure fun: who could have resisted Mary Poppins (except her famously persnickety creator, P. L. Travers) trilling “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”? Some songs just give you a lift to sing, like “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady,” “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man,” and “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.”

And then there are those rare and very strange moments when a song from a musical just walks into your life, providing the perfect refrain for the occasion. This happened to me 40 years ago, as I waited outside the maternity ward while Beng was giving birth; at that very instant, as if on cue, a song came on over the PA system, and it was the “My Boy Bill Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” where the expectant father wonders what it would be like if the son he expects turns out to be a girl… as our Demi was.

I don’t know what it was that drew me to musicals when I was a young boy growing up in Pasig, except the long hot summer afternoons better spent in a cool dark moviehouse than under a tin roof at home. Ours was a moviegoing family, and I’d already seen “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “West Side Story” in some theater downtown on Avenida Rizal, but the musical that got me hooked—maybe because it coincided with the onset of puberty—was “The Sound of Music.” What this chaste production full of nuns and Nazis had to do with adolescence could be answered by the doe-eyed Brigitta, aka Angela Cartwright, who was Penny in “Lost in Space”; of course I also nursed a crush on Julie Andrews, but she could’ve been my mom. I watched “The Sound of Music” six, seven times until I could recite the libretto and sing the songs by heart. (For fans of “The Sound of Music,” there’s a very interesting story about the writing of the song “Edelweiss” here: http://www.steynonline.com/6683/edelweiss.)

Prurient considerations aside, the old-fashioned Broadway musical (which we Pinoys got in the movie version) had something going for it that Westerns, thrillers, and spy movies hardly ever did: an insistent optimism, even in the darkest and direst of circumstances. “West Side Story” doesn’t end with just a death; it ends with the song “Somewhere,” and a plaintive hope for “peace and quiet and open air;” “Carousel” ends with the redemption of the likeable scoundrel Billy Bigelow, promising that “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (Billy may have gone to heaven, but critics gave “Carousel” hell for changing the ending of the original play on which it had been based.) “Camelot” was probably the first musical I saw that didn’t come with a happy ending, but even Lerner and Loewe couldn’t possibly undo centuries of Arthurian lore.

In a time of AIDS, 9-11, tsunamis, and ISIS, the darkening of the American musical was probably inevitable if not mandatory. One of art’s most necessary functions is to provide relief to the distressed even by the mere recognition and reflection of pain, and today’s less melodic, more dissonant musicals do that, acknowledging that rainbows don’t come with pots of gold, and may not even come at all after a long day’s rain.

I watched my first live Broadway musical—Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which was actually more of a revue—in 1980, from behind a post, the cheapest seat in the house. Since then I’ve been able to afford a few seats with a view, though not by much; as I reported in this corner a couple of years ago, my happiest hours in the musical theater came not on Broadway but in Melbourne, during a rousing Australian production of “South Pacific” that I watched from the topmost row where I sat all by my lonesome, to the amused consternation of the ushers, who urged me to move on down after the lights had dimmed. But I declined, because where I was, I could merrily sing along to “Dites-moi, Pourquois” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.” Having outgrown Angela Cartwright, I now rank “South Pacific” my most favorite of musicals, with “West Side Story” a close second (Beng has a soft spot for “The King and I,” and never fails to cry when Mongkut dies).

On this most recent trip to the States, we caught “Evita” (my third favorite) at the Kennedy Center in DC and a trio of shows in New York: “From Burlesque to Broadway,” a revue of an art form that I wish I’d seen at a more responsive age; “The Bandwagon,” the revival of a forgotten art-about-art opus with three showstoppers (“You and the Night and the Music,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “Dancing in the Dark”) and, finally, the Rockettes Christmas Special, classic Americana.

We stepped out of the theaters freezing in the cold but warm and dizzy with song, fortified against the inevitable anxieties and disappointments of another day.

 

[Images from flixster.com, childstar.com, musicalheaven,com, and amazon.com]

Penman No. 128: Sense by Sondheim

51xVXvpXz-LPenman for Monday, December 22, 2014

 

LAST WEEK, I mentioned having twice seen the HBO documentary on the life and work of the Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, perhaps best known for the song “Send in the Clowns” from his hit 1973 musical A Little Night Music. Directed by James Lepine, Six by Sondheim walks us through the conceptualization and the composition of six of Sondheim’s most important songs: “Something’s Coming” (West Side Story); “Opening Doors” (Merrily We Roll Along); “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music); “I’m Still Here” (Follies); “Being Alive” (Company); and “Sunday” (Sunday in the Park With George).

I’d have to admit that I didn’t know three of these songs; I knew and liked “Something’s Coming” as a big West Side Story fan, and “Send in the Clowns” and “Being Alive” from Barbra Streisand’s Broadway album, but the others were unfamiliar to me, which was just as well, as they were a pleasant discovery of other aspects of Sondheim’s craft.

That craft and the attitude that shaped it was something nurtured by Sondheim from a young age. When his parents broke up, the boy sought a sense of regularity and order, and surprisingly responded well to the routine of a military school. He found a hero in a family friend, the lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, to whom he presented his early attempts at composition, only to receive a coldly professional—and cutting—assessment.

That didn’t faze Stephen, who went on to write the lyrics for West Side Story at age 25—and was unhappy about it, wanting to have written the music instead (Leonard Bernstein did). This was one of Sondheim’s (and any aspiring theater person’s) first and most important lessons: when you’re starting out, you learn to play the part you’re given. And Stephen did, exceedingly well: in the documentary, he talks about writing “Something’s Coming” using a succession of baseball metaphors that emphasized forward motion: “cannonballing down through the sky… catch the moon, one-handed catch!”

Sounds like poetry, but Sondheim is very clear about the difference between poetry and songwriting. While some lyrics may be poetic, songs, he says, have to be understood as they are sung; songs have to advance the dramatic situation, and help the listener grasp what’s at stake in the unfolding drama. Readers can go back and mull over the lines of a poem, but a song has to be instantly comprehensible.

Even so, Sondheim doesn’t succumb to the easy rhyme (the kind of song where you know “remember” will be followed by “September”). The words may be simple, but the ideas complex, as in “Being Alive”: “Make me confused / Mock me with praise / Let me be used / Vary my days.” His collaborators and directors like Hal Prince would agree that Sondheim doesn’t go for the simply hummable tune: he challenges norms, uses his music to put people not at ease, but at odds with oneself, as his characters often are.

His approach seems deceptively easy: “I scour the dialogue for lines. Or I might take a title line, then use its inflections to get the rhythm of the melody.” He likes to write lying down, taking a stiff drink now and then to loosen up. His love of word games (“It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch / to the paunch and the pouch and the pension,” goes one of his lyrics) is mirrored in his collection of vintage board games and puzzles.

Also surprisingly, some of his best songs came as “throwaways” or space fillers, songs written to fill a gap in the drama or to wrap more tension around a character. “Send in the Clowns” was one such song—but here, for all that he maintained about the difference between songwriting and poetry, the poet prevailed. Director Hal Prince had asked Stephen to write the song for the character Desiree, played by Glynis Johns, and Sondheim had initially demurred, believing that the scene was properly the male character Fredrik’s. But he relented after seeing what Hal had in mind, and wrote the song in two days. Glynis would later say that as soon as they heard the first few notes, something stirred in the air and in their bones: they knew that they were hearing the birth of a great song. (The documentary presents it in a lovely montage headlined by Audra MacDonald and featuring, among others, Barbra Streisand, Glenn Close, Patti Labelle, Cher, and Judi Dench.)

But what did “Send in the Clowns” mean? Frank Sinatra, who sang it hundreds of times, professed that he didn’t really know. When I first mentioned the song in this column a few months ago, reader Ivi Avellana-Cosio wrote in from LA to contribute this interpretation, for which I (and surely many readers and karaoke crooners) can only thank her:

“It’s basically a song of deep regret, irony, even anger but with a reference to the theater rather than the circus. Desiree (an actress) and Fredrik are former lovers who meet again after many years, and after many other men for Desiree. Fredrik is now married, but during a weekend in the country, he and Desiree spend the night together and she realizes that he has always been the one she wanted. She proposes marriage, but Fredrik refuses to be unfaithful. The tables have been turned—now Desiree is at last ‘on the ground’ and Fredrik ‘in midair,’ in love with his young wife. Desiree declares there’s no need to ‘send in the clowns’ to cover up a bad situation: looking at Fredrik, she sings, ‘Don’t bother. They’re here.’ It’s heartbreaking, because the truth is that Fredrik is still in love with Desiree. Stephen Sondheim, in an interview, revealed that the song came together for him when he wrote those two lines. He clarified that he used ‘clowns’ because that call—“Send in the clowns!’—was originally used in the circus to divert the audience’s attention when something went horribly wrong, e.g. when the lion tamer literally lost his head. But he meant it in the context of ‘fools” and for a brief moment considered changing the lyrics. It was a good thing he didn’t, because somehow ‘Send in the Fools’ doesn’t quite cut it!”

If you want to hear the rest of Sondheim and all the music that should go with this piece, look up Six by Sondheim on YouTube, and enjoy what I did.

Penman No. 23: Some Enchanted Melbourne

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Penman for Monday, Dec. 3, 2012

PENMAN READERS have been getting earfuls from me about writing and literature these past few weeks, so I’m going to hold off for another week or so about what we discussed at the recent Bedell Nonfictionow conference in Melbourne, Australia, and instead talk about Melbourne itself—a place I fell in love with on my last couple of days there, for reasons you’ll find below.

Except for a brief stopover once on my way home from Sydney, I’d never been to Melbourne, and I was both honored and excited to have been invited to come over for the conference, which was being hosted by RMIT University, right in the heart of the city. I was billeted at the Rydges Hotel, a few blocks away from RMIT, and the location proved to be a godsend, as everything I needed and wanted to see seemed to lie within a half-hour’s walk from the hotel.

I had a choice of airlines to take from Manila to Melbourne, but only Philippine Airlines had a straight, overnight flight that was also ideal for busy people—I left Manila at 8:40 pm and flew into Melbourne (which is three hours ahead) shortly past 7 am, less than eight hours total, with the whole new day ahead. (And let me note my satisfaction with PAL’s new Boeing 777-300 planes, which give you a lot of legroom even in economy, and offer individual entertainment screens.)

A cab ride from the Tullamarine airport to the city center took some 25 minutes and cost AUD$55 (right now, the Australian dollar, which used to trade below the US dollar, is stronger than its American counterpart). Tipping isn’t required or expected in Australia—where good minimum wage legislation has made sure that workers don’t depend on gratuities for their basic income—but anyway I handed back my $4-plus in change to my Indian-Australian cab driver, who must’ve been happy he’d picked up a Filipino. (“I knew a girl from the Philippines once,” he told me, pronouncing “Philippines” with a long I, “and she called me Pogi.” He also introduced me to the “hook turn”—an unusual and apparently uniquely Melburnian traffic practice that involves driving up to the middle of the road if you’re about to make a right turn and just hanging there until you get the green light.)

I’d arrived too early for my hotel room to be ready, so I left my suitcase with the desk and promptly began exploring my environs—initiating, in the process, the Melbourne leg of my daily one-hour constitutional. (Since I depend on GPS and an Internet connection—using a free Nike app for the iPhone—to track my walks and count my calories, I had to go on data roaming, which reminds me to share this tip with my fellow footloose Filipinos: try Globe’s Bridge Data Unlimited or BDU program, which gives you what its title says for a flat fee of $40 for five days or $27 for three days, all around the region, including Hong Kong and Australia. It saves you from having to look for the nearest Starbucks for the free wi-fi, and from paying exorbitant wi-fi rates at hotels. Look it up on the Globe website or dial *143#.)

As it turned out, the very street next to the hotel was Bourke Street, one of Melbourne’s main shopping arteries. I had no intention of spending a single dollar on frivolous goods even before I’d uttered a word at the conference to earn my keep—but three hours to kill on Shopping Boulevard proved to be a prescription for disaster, and I happily walked out of the David Jones store with a new raffia plantation hat, for the price I would’ve paid for a new Parker Duofold. There, I told myself, goes the Penfolds shiraz I’d been planning to splurge on; it was going to be the cheap, old Hardys or tap water from this day forward. But instead of wallowing in buyer’s remorse, I took finding that souvenir within my first hour in the city as sheer serendipity. While summer in Australia was still a few days down the road, nothing seemed more perfect for me in Melbourne than that straw hat, putting me in a good mood for the rest of my stay and keeping my balding head warm through the chilly evenings.

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Founded in 1887, RMIT University (the old Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) is one of the world’s top 100 universities, with strengths in engineering and communications. It occupies a sprawling campus in Melbourne’s city center, in buildings that range from Victorian yellowstone to quirky postmodern. And that, I would come to realize, pretty much described Melbourne itself—a crazy-cut mix of old and new, of tradition and innovation, of the safe and predictable and of the risky and risqué. Across our RMIT building—topped by a green blob that threatened to devour the building like a sci-fi nightmare—was the venerable State Library of Victoria, on whose front lawn people sunbathed and pleaded various causes ranging from the plight of Palestine to same-sex marriage.

I fell for Melbourne on my fourth and last day, when I took a more circuitous walking route across the Yarra River, which was filled with rowers practicing their strokes. Viewing the city from its South Bank, I could appreciate the quaintness of the 102-year-old Flinders Street Station, still holding its own against the onrush of the new century. The banks of the Yarra were litter-free, the water looked clean enough to swim in, and the air was clear and cool and kind to my walker’s lungs; how long would it be, I thought, until I could see a Pasig like this?

But my biggest surprise still lay ahead: just a few hundred steps short of completing eight kilometers, I decided to hit that mark by exploring the blocks behind my hotel—which happened to be in the Chinatown/theater district—and stumbled on the lovely Princess Theater. Playing, for the last two days, was a touring production of South Pacific (featuring, as Bloody Mary, the Filipino-Australian singing sensation Kate Ceberano).

I’m a sucker for Broadway—especially the old, romantic, sunlit Broadway of the ‘50s and ‘60s—and I can sing nearly every word of the South Pacific soundtrack, but had never seen it onstage. When I first learned that I was going to Melbourne, I’d Googled the city, and had seen this production mentioned and wished fervently that I’d get to see it; but I’d simply assumed that the Princess was too far out of my way and that I’d have no time for theater. But now it was right there in front of me—the stuff of my boyhood dreams, beckoning me like Bali Ha’i.

It was my last evening in Melbourne, and I’d accepted an invitation to an early dinner at my hotel with a bright, young Filipino-Australian couple, Fatima and her husband Rick Measham. But they’d said that they also had a show to catch at 7:30, so I figured I was safe if I booked a ticket for the evening performance. “What’s the cheapest seat in the house?” I croaked to the lady at the box office. She handed me a seat plan and X’d the topmost row: “$89.99.” I gulped—I’d never paid $90 for any show, not even on Broadway; but this was South Pacific, and I was in the South Pacific, and I would probably never see it again for the remainder of my sorry life, so I forked the money over.

I later told the Meashams that I was also going to the theater after dinner. “What show?” South Pacific. “That’s hilarious,” said Fatima. “We’re going there, too!” So we all walked the two or three blocks to the Princess, and I went on up to my eyrie in the bleachers. I was all by my lonesome in my row, and, taking pity on me, the usher invited me to move down, but I told him I was happy where I was—for there I could and did sing along, my straw hat on my lap, as the wondrous play unfolded far beneath me, and I felt my juvenile crush on Mitzi Gaynor surging back, even as I remembered my girl back home and wished she had been next to me in Melbourne.

The soundtrack was still playing in my earphones as I boarded my flight home the next morning, and I felt younger than springtime for having taken those few extra steps around the block.

Penman No. 12: A Spectacle of Orientalia

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Penman for Monday, Sept. 17, 2012 

I BELONG to a generation that grew up on Broadway musicals—before Broadway got all dark and grungy, and even if we’d never been to Broadway at that point. Thanks to the movies and to vinyl, it was perfectly possible to be transported from Boni Avenue in Mandaluyong to Salzburg and Manhattan, or from Barrio Malinao in Pasig to the South Pacific and Siam. It’s hardly surprising that today, as a grown man approaching 60, I can still sing songs from South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Camelot with the verve, albeit without the voice, that I had at 17.

I’ve since had the opportunity to catch some musicals on Broadway and the West End, and while I’ve marveled at the visual and vocal pyrotechnics of such modern classics as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, I miss the brave optimism of the old musicals—where, even in death, there was always a glimmer of hope in the end (“You’ll Never Walk Alone” in Carousel, “Somewhere” in West Side Story). I didn’t know then that this defiant cheerfulness was part of a commercial formula; I didn’t care. All I knew was that it felt good to whistle a happy tune, and that, approaching my crush du jour’s abode, I wanted to burst into a heartfelt rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” outside her window.

And so when I recently received an invitation from a long-time Penman reader and correspondent—the accomplished musical theater director Freddie Santos—to a preview performance of The King and I, there was no way that I was going to resist or refuse. The show took place at the Newport Performing Arts Theater at Resorts World a couple of Sundays ago, and my wife and I (or, as I rechristened the two of us, “The Beng and I”) arrived three hours early to see what the Resorts World buzz was all about, being staunch denizens of the North.

“I feel like I’m in Macau” was Beng’s first impression, and soon it was my jaw’s turn to drop when we entered the plush and capacious Newport Theater. It seemed like a daunting cavity to fill, but nothing fills space like music, and as soon as the overture began and the curtains rose, we were all elsewhere.

I had seen the Yul Brynner-Deborah Kerr film version of the musical many times, and so I wondered how Freddie Santos was going to convey all that convincingly in a practically all-Filipino production, but I needn’t have worried. Freddie earns this shameless plug: this is a wondrously good show, so good that The Beng and I will gladly return as paying patrons with friends to see it all again.

In a sense, The King and I is almost pre-programmed to succeed—which only raises the bar for any director assigned to it. Most musicals can be lucky to have more than one or two showstoppers that people will be singing afterwards (say, “I Know Him So Well” from Chess and “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line)—often without any idea of where the song came from. The King and I has at least seven of them: “I Whistle a Happy Tune”; “Getting to Know You”; “Hello, Young Lovers”; “We Kiss in a Shadow”; “Something Wonderful”; “I Have Dreamed”; and “Shall We Dance”. (The most difficult piece of all of these to essay—“Something Wonderful”—brought Beng to tears, although, without meaning to diminish Gina Respall’s achievement, I should add that Beng cries every time she sees The King and I, particularly when Yul Brynner dies in the title role.) Incidentally, Gina—as the sympathetic Lady Thiang—is a Filipino performer now based in London, where she has also played the role.

As was to be expected, the veteran Leo Valdez played King Mongkut with comic aplomb and authority. Monique Wilson (on leave from the London Performance School where she is a department head) inhabited her character thoroughly.

No Broadway musical can be complete without a pair of star-crossed lovers—think of Joe Cable and Liat in South Pacific, and of Tony and Maria in West Side Story—and the Tuptim-Lun Tha subplot in The King and I lends the narrative a romantic urgency that counterpoints the Anna-King relationship, which never goes beyond mild flirtation. Tanya Manalang as Tuptim and Lawrence Martinez as Lun Tha carried their duets with powerful poignancy.

The sets and costumes—the latter sourced directly from Thailand—were sumptuous. The allegorical “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” playlet was a masterful demonstration of ingenious stagecraft.

Of course it isn’t just Orientalia on display; after all, there’s no more quintessential East-meets-West piece of theater than The King and I. The 1951 Rogers and Hammerstein musical—based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 bestseller Anna and the King of Siam—purports to chronicle the contact between the British Anna Leonowens and Mongkut (great-grandfather of the present King Bhumibol) and thereby the incipient modernization of Thailand, but the academic in me has to add, at the risk of being a spoilsport, that the truth was far more prosaic than the play, which one critic called “a confection built on a novel built on a fabrication.” Some online sleuthing will quickly reveal that there was a real Anna (1831-1915) and she did go to the Siamese court to teach Mongkut’s wives and children for almost six years, and Mongkut did find her “a difficult woman,” but no, they didn’t waltz around the room “on a bright cloud of music.” Indeed, the movie musical was banned in Thailand when it first came out.

That said, people go to musical theater not for history and scholarship but for spectacle and romance. This unabashed and otherwise silly translation of human emotion and experience into song and dance is after all, from the very outset, a conscious departure from fact and reality, striving for truths of the heart rather than of the mind. Trust the historians and the journalists to lay out the facts, which can and should be appreciated in their own good time; but these momentary fictions and our need for them are also, inalienably, part of what make us human.

In other words, The Beng and I had an enormously good time, and we spent the long ride home singing along to the soundtrack I played off my iTunes in the car. The next morning, I took my usual walk around the UP Oval, with the Peabo Bryson-Leah Salonga version of “I Have Dreamed” streaming through my ears.

The show opened to the public just last Saturday and will run until December, with ticket prices ranging from P1,000 to P2,400—certainly not loose change for cash-strapped Pinoys, but think again of how much you’d be saving by not having to fly to London or New York for the chance of enjoying a world-class musical experience.

(Photo by Geoffrey Yusooncho)