Penman No. 130: Museums and Musicals (Part 1)

Penman for Monday, January 5, 2015


IF THERE’S anything in America I keep returning to—aside from the flea markets and antique shops—it’s the two things I consider to be among the country’s prime cultural resources: its museums and its musical theater.

Both are, at heart, forms of popular entertainment. While museums are arguably more educational, the first American museums, we’re told, began as collections of curiosities that attracted entrepreneurs like the showman P. T. Barnum, who bought up bizarre objects and juxtaposed them with such live attractions as bearded ladies and exotic animals. The American musical, on the other hand, descended from burlesques and operettas imported from Europe, livened up by chorus girls and minstrel songs, until (notes theater historian Mark Lubbock) Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern came up with Show Boat in 1927 and refashioned the musical as a play unto itself, beyond the pastiche of production numbers that it had been.

I suppose I should be adding “major-league sports” to this list. The NBA is, after all, one of America’s biggest exports, with a global cultural impact that extends far beyond the ballgame itself. As a graduate student in Milwaukee, I spent whole Saturday afternoons enjoying double-headers at the baseball park, and I once cut a class in Shakespeare to watch Michael Jordan pull off a last-second three-pointer to beat the hometown Bucks (and despite being Bucks fans, we all stood up and cheered). And then there’s Hollywood, America’s mammoth fantasy machine.

But sports and movies can now be had on satellite TV and even your iPhone. Museums and musicals—I’m thinking Broadway and off-Broadway here—are still best experienced live, despite the likely availability of much of the material online or on DVD. Many Americans themselves apparently agree. A 2008 article that came out on National Public Radio reveals an interesting statistic: the total combined attendance for all major-league sports (basketball, baseball, football, and hockey) that year was estimated at around 140 million, against the estimated attendance at American museums, pegged at 850 million.

I landed in Washington, DC on my first American visit 35 years ago, and I’ve been returning to the Smithsonian Institution ever since, looking at but never tiring of the same old things: Abraham Lincoln’s hat, George Washington’s dentures, the Hope Diamond, the Space Shuttle, the giant squid. Every pilgrimage to the Smithsonian (and, in London, to the British Museum) transforms me into a wide-eyed boy, seized by the collar and shaken into speechlessness by the majesty of history.

On this last sojourn, as I reported last week, a visit to the exhibition of historic signatures at the National Archives Museum proved to be one of the highlights of our museum-hopping. But we visited other equally arresting exhibits, most notably the MacArthur Memorial Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

I’d always been fascinated by this monumental figure—who, like many monuments, came with more than a deep fissure or two. I was born too late to appreciate him as the liberator of occupied Philippines, but I’d always nurtured a vague memory of going to the Luneta as a boy to see him, one 4th of July, a day of floats and big horses. I later suspected that memory to be false, until I confirmed, online, that MacArthur had indeed made one last sentimental journey to the Philippines in July 1961, when I was seven.

Norfolk seems an odd place for a MacArthur Memorial; it’s a Navy town, and he was an Army man through and through, and West Point—where he had served as superintendent—would have been far more logical. But his mother’s family was rooted in Norfolk, and Douglas himself would have been born there had not his father Arthur, himself an Army officer, been assigned to Little Rock, Ark., where Douglas was born in 1880.

Some things surprised me at the MacArthur museum: first of all, the discovery that it was also his and his second wife Jean’s resting place. The first thing you notice upon entering the memorial, flanked by rows of flags from various campaigns (Bataan, Corregidor, Leyte, Lingayen, and Manila are prominently cited), is the sunken crypt in which the two tombs lie side by side. Second, I was struck by the number of Philippine items and references in the place—perhaps logically so, because even Arthur himself had been a general in the forces that occupied Manila in 1898.

Third—although I should have expected this—there was absolutely no mention of Isabel Rosario “Dimples” Cooper, the Scottish-Filipino actress who became Douglas’ girlfriend in between his marriages (his first wife, Louise Cromwell Brooks, had been a socialite). A fourth discovery was of interest only to this hardcore fountain-pen collector: the famous Parker “Big Red” Duofold, already an iconic pen when MacArthur reportedly used one to sign Japan’s surrender papers with on the Missouri, turned out to be a smaller lady’s version loaned to him by Jean.

There were recordings of his speeches, and I listened closely. MacArthur spoke famously simple words. His “I shall return” pledge ranks among the most familiar of rhetorical refrains; less known but equally moving was his farewell to West Point, two years before his death in 1964: “When I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.” But the verbal simplicity came out of a complex man, one who could fearlessly take on what he saw to be the communist colossus (and be sacked for his perceived recklessness in Korea by President Truman) but who was, by many biographical accounts, a mama’s boy.

It was, all told, a most impressive exhibition, amplifying a figure already larger than life to begin with. I suppose my biggest surprise was my own continuing fascination with this Big White Man, in the way that I’ve often wondered about the postcolonial (or should that be neocolonial) chic we attach to names like “McKinley” and “Rockwell,” especially when they involve high-priced property.

Those of us who luckily came too late to experience the horrors of the Second World War can argue all day about the moral wrongs of American imperialism and the self-serving designs of America on the Pacific—and would very probably be right. But in these days of tension in the South China or West Philippine Sea, we might end up wishing a MacArthur were around to do what no pragmatic politician in Washington or Manila today would imagine doing.

Next week, the musicals.

Penman No. 12: A Spectacle of Orientalia


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)