Friday, July 8, 2011

Carousel Part 1

(We are interrupting our regularly scheduled series "What Used To Be Home" to present the following special reports on Carousel. We will resume our regular feature shortly. Please stay tuned.)

Anyone -- and that's almost everyone -- who's been involved in a lengthy and all-consuming project that all-of-a-sudden is over understands the feeling of what-do-I-do-now-? when that moment of finality has snuck upon on you. The wedding, the thesis for your degree, the exhibition, whatever it is, is over and done with, and now you have all this time one your hands. "Ruddigore," at least the Encore Theatre's production of it, was history. The hall was dark, the sets were packed up and sent to somewhere in Efrat, even the cast party was over. Except for the articles that I and one or two other cast members would write and the much-awaited DVD that would come out a month or so later, there would be nothing more to be said or seen. The verdict: a succès d'estime ("a book, movie, or play that is successful with critics but not with the public, or the success that is gained through critical acclaim").

Most of the time, once your all-consuming project is over, it's over, and your life is returned to you. Sometimes it's not; you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. ("Pick Yourself Up," Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, from the film "Swing Time, 1936. If you were curious.) And once in a while, you actually have a choice in the matter. For instance, I was having a conversation with one of women in the "Ruddigore" chorus who was trying to decide if she wanted to be in the next production, or not. The thing is, the conversation was taking place while we were waiting our turns at those auditions. Talk about ambivalence. (As I had discovered, some of the players get involved for one production and then disappear, never to be heard from [literally] again; some do a few shows; some do one a year; some get involved whenever there is a specific part for them; and then there are 'the faithful,' the ones who come back show after show because they love the opportunity to perform. Me? I guess I'll hang around as long as my voice holds out and I can move with some agility around the stage. I don't want to be cast as a mummy in "Aida.")

The next show for Encore was going to be Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." That's where my mixed feelings would come from-- the show itself, in fact, almost their whole repertoire. I don't have the same negative opinion about R&H's work as I do about "Les Mis" or "Phantom of the Opera." (OK, I do despise "The Sound of Music." I think it's fair to say that Do-Re-Mi is about the worst song this duo ever wrote.) Still, as far as I'm concerned, Rodgers and Hammerstein is definitely a step down from G&S. With the music of "Ruddigore" still ringing in my years, I listened to an original cast recording of "Carousel" from the Naxos catalog (which anyone can access from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra website.) Why is everyone in the cast always singing the same part? Isn't there any harmony? I often think of a distinction that Irving Berlin made: (I'm paraphrasing) We [he and his colleagues] all wrote some fine songs, but he [George Gershwin] was a composer. Sir Arthur Sullivan , who really was a composer, wrote music of great complexity for soloists, duets, trios, quartets, madrigals with six part harmony, patter songs, ballads, and it would have been unthinkable for an entire cast to be singing the same words and the same melody at the same time. Richard Rodgers wrote some very fine music, but it's nowhere near as interesting or as challenging.

Then there is Oscar Hammerstein The Second (the first being his father, a theatrical impresario). It would be pointless to compare his lyrics to those of W. S. Gilbert. More relevant, eighteen years before "Oklahoma" arrived on Broadway to a rapturous reception, a little review, The Garrick Gaieties, opened at a theater of the same name in New York -- with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by the first "H," Lorenz Hart. The standout number from that show was a disarmingly simple song which began: "Summer journeys/ To Niag'ra/ And to other places/ Aggravate all our cares./ We'll save our fares./ I've a cozy little flat/ In what is known as old Manhattan./ We'll settle down/ Right here in town./
We'll have Manhattan,/ The Bronx and Staten/ Island too....." It was the original R&H's first memorable song. People sang it then and some of us will still break into When balmy breezes blow/To and fro from time to time. George Balanchine, whose first language certainly was not English, called Hart "The American Shelley." It takes some kind of genius to rhyme "Niag'ra' with "aggra"-vate in such a way that you might not even notice what's going on right under your nose. What is most endearing, though, about Hart's work is not his considerable rhyming facility, but the anguish and impracticality of his lyrics. He was a deeply troubled man who became more and more erratic in his work habits as the years went by (he would leave his hotel room to buy some cigars and reappear two days later), and he needed Rodgers to write the music first so he would have to rise to the challenge of fitting his lyrics to Rodgers' melodies. Finally, their partnership ended, more with a whimper than a bang, when Hart couldn't and wouldn't work on "Oklahoma." Cowpokes and surreys, with or without fringes on the top, were not his métier -- and he knew enough to quit while he was ahead.

The other day (and I'm well ahead of myself here), I was listening to the ladies of the chorus as they sang something from the second act of "Carousel," Common sense will tell you that the ending will be sad....... and I thought to myself, can anyone imagine Lorenz Hart writing about 'common sense?' Three years before "Oklahoma," Hart wrote these lyrics for the score of "Pal Joey," ......I'm wild again/ Beguiled again/ A simpering, whimpering child again/ Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I...... Or consider: My funny Valentine, sweet comic Valentine/ You make me smile with my heart/ Your looks are laughable, unphotographable/ Yet, you're my favorite work of art...from "Babes in Arms." Nothing prudent, practical, or common-sensible here.

"Not only did Rodgers's music provide a structure for such intricate rhymes, its sonority (Cole Porter once quipped that every Rodgers melody had a certain "holiness" about it) served as a perfect counterpoint to Hart's cynical urbanity. Rodgers himself said that the secret of their best songs was a clash between a 'sentimental melody and unsentimental lyrics,' a clash punctuated by caustic rhymes." (I found this quote on page 97 of Philip Furia's book, "Poets of Tin Pan Alley.")

In a way, it's a matter of taste. When I get myself a cup of the excellent hafuk (cappuccino) sold throughout The Land, I drink it the way it comes; my daughter drowns it with sugar. I prefer the juxtaposition of the bitterness of the bean and the inherent sweetness of the milk; Natania doesn't. And musically speaking, America -- during and post-WW II, needed a different kind of entertainment, something more emotionally inspiring -- even if a little blander.

My knock on Hammerstein's lyrics is that I find them conventional most of the time and perhaps a tad too syrupy. They usually serve as verbal coat hangers for Rodgers' melodies which, come to think about it, do have a "certain holiness'" to them -- most of the time (just not "Do-Re-Mi"). Where Oscar II was unsurpassed -- and I have to respect him for this talent -- was his ability to create a coherent, integrated book; for, like W.S. Gilbert, he wrote all the dialogue himself (although it would be a stretch to call Gilbert's plots coherent). Every song, every conversation, every gesture, every choreographed step was there for one reason only, to advance the story line. Most of the songs wouldn't make any sense outside of their carefully created context; which is why, despite their familiarity, with few exceptions, they're rarely performed apart from the shows. It would be hard to imagine a nightclub chanteuse or a jazz quartet going on stage and starting with, I'm as corny as Kansas in August....... But the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows do work, are splendid entertainment, and are fun to perform. It could be a lot worse. At least I don't have to sing Master of the house....... Count me in.

1 comment:

Mory Buckman said...

I hadn't heard of Hart. It adds a very sad dimension to the Rodgers & Hammerstein plays to know that Rodgers had a better collaborator beforehand. And I can see that attitude in Carousel, where Rodgers writes bright and cheery music expecting cynical lyrics to provide a contrast. And Hammerstein couldn't provide those lyrics. But then I do have to ask why Rodgers never tried to broaden his range the tiniest bit. If you're doing a play about ugly things, you need some ugly music in there. But every single song in Carousel is bright and cheery. I may have laughed out loud a bit at the song "The Highest Judge"; it was just so ridiculous that those words were set to that music.