Aug 24, 2021

'Harmony': Pop Musik, 1935 Edition


In 2014, L.A.'s Center Theatre Group hosted a run of the Barry Manilow/Bruce Sussman musical 
Harmony, a historical musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a real-life musical group from 1930s Germany who managed to entertain millions despite the encroaching Nazi shadow. With the recent announcement of the musical's New York debut, it seemed as good as any to reprint my feature on the musical, which CTG commissioned from me for the program.

Comedian Harmonists: Low Comedy in High Art

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

German popular music of the 1920s and '30s wasn't all marches and schottisches (a slow polka). There was also a good deal of American-influenced music on the airwaves and in the dancehalls—so much so, in fact, that the world's first courses in jazz theory and performance were taught not in New Orleans or Harlem but in Frankfurt, Germany. It was there, in 1928, at the venerable Hoch Conservatory that a young Hungarian composer, Matyas Seiber. began teaching a “Jazz-Klasse." American pop hadn't just come via records and sheet music either, but in the flesh: Josephine Baker had played Berlin in 1925, and Paul Whiteman made a splash there a year later. In turn, Germany spawned its own bandleaders, including Eric Borchard and Stefan Weintraub, leader of The Syncopators. Dance-band sounds and harmonies soon found their way into the music of modernist composers like Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, and by the end of the decade, records by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were German radio staples. American-style pop and jazz, not to mention modernist music, had social implications as well as entertainment value: They may not even have known it at the time. but its practitioners and advocates were on the front lines of a culture war that would have real casualties within a decade. On one side were those, like the Hoch Conservatory's director, Bernhard Sekles, who defended his school's popular music courses by saying, "An infusion of 'Negro' blood can do no harm." On the other were critics, either openly allied with or at least sympathetic to the Nazi party's racist theories, who saw jazz and pop as part of a "plague" of “Negro noise.” Of course, popular music was also suspect to these reactionary critics because so many of Germany's bandleaders, popular singers and nightclub owners happened to be Jewish. In the ensuing Nazi campaign against "decadent" art and artists, pop music was a particularly expedient scapegoat, since by silencing it—as the Nazis officially did in 1935, after a two-year campaign of pressure and propaganda—they could also effectively silence some of Germany's most popular Jewish public figures. Among these were members of the vocal sextet the Comedian Harmonists. The band was formed in 1927 by Harry Frommerman, an unemployed actor who'd heard some records by the American vocal quintet The Revelers and figured he could put together a German group along the same lines. Frommerman placed an ad in the Berlin Lokal-Anzeiger and was soon joined by a former rabbi from Poland, Roman Cykowski; a Bulgarian singing waiter, Ari Leshnikoff; an operatic bass, Robert Biberti; a young medical student, Erich Collin; and a skilled pianist, Erwin Bootz. But this eclectic group did more than sing close-harmony versions of American jazz standards, German folk songs and novelty numbers. What put them over the top, says Bruce Sussman, is that the Harmonists also included deft musical and physical comedy in their act—hence the qualifier "Comedian." Sussman, who wrote the book and lyrics for Harmony, a new musical about the Harmonists, with Barry Manilow writing the music, turned himself into an expert on the band after seeing Eberhard Fechner's 1977 documentary. "The piece de resistance of their act was the overture to The Barber of Seville," says Sussman, who like Manilow traveled to Germany to do research. "The lights were turned out, and you'd hear The Barber of Seville, and it sounded like a chamber orchestra playing. The lights would slowly come up, and it was six guys replicating all those instruments." If that sounds a bit like the kind of concert-hall antics later practiced by the likes of Victor Borge and PDQ Bach, that's not far off, Sussman says. "These were guys who found low comedy in high art. Their virtuosity was extraordinary; it was also hilarious."  For his part, Manilow makes a headier comparison. "They were the Beatles of Germany," says Manilow. "Every time I play Germany, I get into a limo and I say to the driver, 'Do you know Comedian Harmonists?' It doesn't matter whether the guy is young or old, they all know them. These men are still the Beatles of Germany." While in Berlin, Manilow scooped up not only all the Harmonists records he could find, "I went into a Tower Records store there, and there was an entire wall of their CDs." There was also a collection of "Shlagerparades" ("hit parade" collections) from each year of the 1920s and '30s. “That was where I began—I studied the pop music of Germany during the time they were huge,” says Manilow. How was it? "It was fantastic. Song after song after song was interesting and emotional and filled with interesting orchestrations. And the singers—they had their hearts on their sleeves, or they were funny." Not all of it was such unalloyed fun. Amid the jazz and semi-classical and novelty tunes were plenty of marches, including a Bolshevik ditty that inspired an idealistic song in Harmony. Less inspirational but no less memorable: “I actually found a Nazi marching band song," says Manilow. "It was creepy to listen to, but I can tell you, it was brilliant. That's what's so disgusting: They were brilliant and they were monsters at the same time." Though Harmony is decidedly not a Holocaust musical—its narrative ends in 1935—its dramatic grist is indeed the Nazi-led war against multicultural modernity. The pop music ban of 1935 didn't just effectively disband the Harmonists; a reconstituted, Gentile-only version of the group, with the unwieldy, state-mandated name Meistersextett, found nearly their entire old repertoire off-limits. "When the new group tried to do their show and follow guidelines that said they couldn't do songs composed by Jews, with lyrics by Jews, arranged by Jews, or published by Jews," says Manilow, "the only song they had left was 'I Have a Cactus on My Windowsill.'" Indeed, for all their occasionally pointed comedy, the Harmonists were popular entertainers, not protest singers. But their very existence was enough to offend the Third Reich. Says Sussman, "This group represented the very diversity that the German nation at this point was saying was toxic. Not only were there Jews and Gentiles in the group; there was a Bulgarian, an Italian, a Pole, they were from all strata of class. The definition of harmony, the non-musical definition, from the Greek, is diverse elements brought together in a unified synthesis. They were the embodiment of that." When the Nazis later shut down the pop music courses at Frankfurt's Hoch Conservatory in 1933, they didn't just end a brave effort to keep German musicians’ chops current with the sounds of the day. They also nipped in the bud Seiber's ambitious plans for the school's next course of study: vocal jazz. The Comedian Harmonists could have led a master class.

Jun 15, 2021

From the Review Files: Laurents Gets His Revenge on 'West Side Story'

Karen Olivo and cast of the 2009 revival. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Is West Side Story really all that? I've always been much more smitten with the score than with any other aspect of the show (let alone the overrated film, sorry not sorry). Last year I had occasion to review Ivo van Hove's controversial new staging for America magazine, but I still recall the show's previous Broadway revival, a very mixed affair which I reviewed for The Sondheim Review in 2009. I excerpted the review in a previous post; below is the review in its entirety. For the record, the show ran from March 2009 to January 2011.

The librettist’s job may be the most thankless in musical theater: On hand to supply the crucial architecture of story and to spackle the edifice with patches of dialogue, they are otherwise forced to stand aside as the structure they’ve built gets filled in with the songs and dances that give the musical theater its raison d’etre. Adding insult to injury, reviews tend to notice the libretto only when it is found wanting, while credit for a show’s success usually goes to the choreographer/director, the composer, or the star.

If ever a libretto stood in shadow, it was Arthur Laurents’ stark gang-war update of Romeo and Juliet for the century-splitting 1957 musical West Side Story. The idea, after all, had originated with Jerome Robbins, and arguably reached its true fruition in Leonard Bernstein’s vibrant, sense-rattling score—not only its series of deathless songs, with lyrics by a young, crafty Stephen Sondheim, but the sinuous, brawling dance variations with which Robbins definitively dramatized the story’s sex and violence.

Laurents is now having a revenge of sorts, and it is indeed a dish served cold. The new West Side Story he’s directed on Broadway whirs and struts, and occasionally retains its power to startle. The dances, restaged vigorously by Joey McKneely and executed with style and sweat to spare by a tireless company, are nearly worth the price of admission; they remain the show’s enduring treasure, and make us long for a string of dance shows worthy of the town’s best hoofers. But unlike last year’s Broadway revival of Gypsy, in which Laurents’ salutary focus on the book only burnished its glow of perfection, this new West Side Story suffers noticeably from a relentless foregrounding of the show’s weakest link. There’s a good reason this book stayed in the shadows, after all.

Sondheim’s famous discomfort with his sophisticated lyrics for “I Feel Pretty”—a problem addressed if not solved in the new production by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deft Spanish translation—cuts to the heart of West Side Story’s story problems. Would Maria, an “uneducated Puerto Rican girl,” really sing such tricky internal rhymes in English, Sondheim memorably posited? “She would not have been out of place in Noël Coward’s living room,” he quipped. Fair enough, but once you pick at that loose thread, the whole cloth starts to unravel: What gritty lower-class teen, Puerto Rican or otherwise, would sing a note or dance a step of West Side Story?

Once Laurents goes there—makes concessions to “realism” by having the Sharks speak and sing partly in Spanish, by making the Jets superficially dirtier and shaggier than before (they don’t even wash up for the dance), and by adding an extra jolt or two of violence—we have no choice but to go there with him. And that’s when we start to wonder: Why do the Sharks get idiomatic Español while the Jets remain saddled with “frabbajabba” and “spit hits the fan”? Why this slab of Spanish in one scene, and that swathe of English in another? For a form as marvelously artificial as musical theater, it’s death for an audience to start to think this way.

In the world of opera or ballet—forms with which West Side Story has marked affinities, and in which it could stand with some of the greats—we might not mind the thin characterizations, the precipitous emotional leaps, even the half-baked social criticism. By this measure, Laurents’ book is no worse than, say, the libretto of La boheme. But if Laurents really wants us to fix our attention on his script—“trip to the moon,” “loving is enough,” and all—then he can’t blame us for noticing that what may have shocked audiences in 1957 seems quaint now, and that in grafting Shakespeare’s plot to a mid-century urban setting he replaced the Bard’s language with sub-Odetsian hokum and added little in the bargain.

We should be able to get past this, of course, and maybe a visionary director without such a clear axe to grind—Bartlett Sher, while we’re wishing—could have taken us there. Indeed, for whole scenes at a time, we can see past Laurents’ buttonholing to the better production that might be built around Karen Olivo’s long-limbed, tempestuous Anita, or Curtis Holbrook’s volatile skinhead Action, or even Josefina Scaglione’s doll-pretty Maria, though she’s under-directed here and hopelessly dampened by Matt Cavenaugh’s arch, milquetoast Tony. Indeed, much of the dance at the gym and “Cool,” and all of Olivo’s “America,” could be lifted whole into that dream West Side Story.

So might a fair amount of Miranda’s Spanish dialogue and, in particular, his lyrics. Though they stick out somewhat sorely in Laurents’ conception, “Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”) and “Hombre Asi” (“A Boy Like That”) deserve a long life beyond this production. So, most definitely, does West Side Story.

Apr 1, 2021

The Passion of La Falconetti

For a time around the turn of the aughts, I and the crew at Back Stage West did an annual "Actors We Love" issue. Over the years the folks I wrote about included Alyson Hannigan, Bob Balaban, Ernst Lubitsch's informal repertory ensemble, the entire company of Theatre of Note—and Falconetti, the star of one of the great films of all time. As I'm about to be a guest on Alissa Wilkinson and Sam Thielman's great podcast Young Adult Movie Ministry to talk about this film, I've revisited my piece on this indelible performance, and share it here with you.

Actors We Love: Maria Falconetti

Mysterious Ways

Back Stage West, June 5, 2003

A cloud of mystery shrouds the actress known to her colleagues simply as "La Falconetti"—even her name, it seems, was open to debate (recorded as Renee at birth, listed in later credits as Maria). Born in Corsica and dead at 54 in Buenos Aires—unofficial capital of mysterious expatriates—she was for a time a celebrated actress/producer of light comedies on the Paris stage. And yet her only film performance, in Carl Theodor Dreyer's anguished 1927 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a raw, riveting portrait of the martyr's spiritual transfiguration. Who was this woman, and where did this otherworldly performance—probably the greatest ever recorded on film—come from?

Accounts of the film's making reveal that Dreyer and Falconetti didn't know where it came from—and that because they knew they didn't know, they cradled this enigma as, in Dreyer's words, "a secret that...should be experienced and not explained." It is known that Dreyer shot the film in sequence, but there are also disturbing reports from the set that he made Falconetti kneel on stones to get her to cry, and he relentlessly repeated takes to get her to go further and further emotionally, to break her, to mold her. This apparent aesthetic sadism may explain a few of Falconetti's more pained expressions, and one should never underestimate the ways a grueling shoot can seep into the emotional color of a sensitive performance. But there's no way to explain the overwhelming power or Falconetti's Joan, undimmed over the decades, except as inspiration of singular, even divine nature.

Based on the transcripts of Joan's trial before a special assembly of the Inquisition, Dreyer's film begins in a courtroom and ends at the stake, spending most of the interim in Joan's cell. There are no establishing shots to speak of and only a fleeting few in which we see Falconetti's whole body; she's disconcertingly small and stiff in these moments. Whole books have been written about the ways Dreyer stretched and subverted the film medium with disorienting angles, multi-valenced sightlines, and discontinuous editing—there are almost no cuts on an action, and only a handful that carry a figure from one shot to the next. And there has been a full accounting of the way Dreyer's severe minimalist aesthetic attains its curious timelessness; Jean Cocteau famously said the film was like "an historical document from an era in which the cinema did not exist."

But there can be no accounting of Falconetti's performance, which transpires almost entirely on the landscape of her dark, unmade-up face, except to record moments: the impossibly wide in eyes of a near-fanatic hearing divine voices, receding to the half-lidded despair of a prophet who understands she'll be misunderstood; the childlike eagerness to trust the hypocrites who dangle Holy Communion before her as a bribe, turning to wracked, tearless sobs of bitter defeat when she realizes the betrayal; the beatific, triumphal glow as she finally overcomes her accusers with an innocence so boundless they eventually crumble in awe. All of these register so strongly, and in such pore-gazing close-up, as to be almost unbearably intimate and moving. Indeed, after a while, though it's a silent film, we can hear Joan's breathless "oui."

If the ephemeral Falconetti left few reliable records of her life, in Passion she left something more: the miraculous leap of the spirit from the body into the camera's watchful, omniscient eye.
Rob Kendt

Jul 8, 2020

The Moment 'Hamilton' Slips Off Track

Cross-posted from Train My Ear.
For a blessed few years I was among the New York Times's freelance theater correspondents most likely to be assigned features about new rock or pop musicals. Perhaps this cover story on "band musicals" for American Theatre was my calling card; in any case I feel fortunate to have written for the paper of record about Dave MalloyStew, the Shaggs, Michael Friedman, Sting, and more recently, Conor McPherson's Bob Dylan musical.

That must also be the reason I got the call, in early 2015, to write a preview feature on a new hip-hop musical at the Public Theater by the guy who'd given the world In the Heights, and that's how I ended up at maybe the show's third preview there. I'd like to say I knew from the start that Hamilton would hit the world like a hurricane; I knew that it bowled me over with its ambition, heart, and sheer lyrical brilliance, but I too joined in debates about whether it would "play" for a wider audience on Broadway. At the time I compared the buzz created by Lin-Manuel Miranda's intricate, word-drunk lyrics to that of Sweeney Todd; and I think, as is too often the case Sondheim, the lyrical onslaught can lead some to overlook or take for granted the sophistication and tunefulness of the score that supports them. Hamilton contains multitudes: both dense, agile raps and big-tuned pop songs, as well as a battery of recitative, all woven together with consummate compositional artistry. And I think it's no coincidence that the show's best songs, "Satisfied" and "Wait for It," employ a full arsenal of both hip-hop flow and rich pop melody.

All that said, I confess that I haven't gone deep on the score or replayed it frequently since my first few hearings of it onstage. For one thing, as with most Broadway cast albums, it's too rich a meal to snack on, and it's not actually very enjoyable to listen to without giving it my full and sustained attention, something that is hard for me to come by without planning. Hamilton also happens to be one of those pop culture staples, like Seinfeld or the Beatles, that you almost don't need to immerse yourself in deeply to feel soaked in; it's somehow everywhere all the time, as if it were always there.

Still, my tween son's fervent embrace, and incessant replaying, of the cast album in recent years has imprinted much of it on me afresh. And there's one part of it that has always brought me up short in the best way. It's early in the show, in the midst of the bravura, dick-swinging expository song "My Shot," when Hamilton is holding forth over beers with a new crew of New York tavern buddies—and he very suddenly pauses (at 2:40 in the clip above). The music drops out to a snap click, and brash young Alexander has one of his rare moments of dubious introspection. It is worded as if addressed to his comrades, but it seems clearly to be an internal monologue:
Oh, am I talkin' too loud?
Sometimes I get over-excited, shoot off at the mouth
I never had a group of friends before
I promise that I'll make y'all proud
The whole section feels out of time, despite the click, like the downbeats are suddenly missing, with the song only snapping back into focus with Laurens's enthusiastic reply: "Let's get this guy in front of a crowd!"

There are plenty of other instances in this long, through-composed score in which Miranda steps out of or plays with the rigid clockwork of the 4/4 beat, and layers in complex phrasing and ambitious meters. But this section has always sounded almost free-tempo, or otherwise trickily metered. Counting it out, though, I can see that it's just four standard bars, and I've learned to hear the crucial 1 and 3 beats in each measure. But look at how oddly they're distributed:
(beat, two) Oh, am I talkin' too loud?
Sometimes I get over-excited, shoot off at the mouth
I never had a group of friends before, I promise that I'll make y'all
Proud...Let's get this guy in front of a crowd
The phrase that feels especially unmoored, and where until I took the trouble of counting I would always lose the meter, is—not coincidentally—perhaps the show's most nakedly vulnerable, certainly up to this point: "I never had a group of friends before." The plaintiveness and plainness of that statement, spoken more than rapped, stands out so sorely in the midst of the song's crackling bravado and rat-a-tat rhythms that Laurens's confidence in Hamilton's eloquence almost registers as a punchline. You want to put this sad, needy guy in front of a crowd?

But this private moment of doubt, as definitive Hamilton deconstructer Howard Ho points out in a new video, is linked throughout the show to an earlier trauma—the devastation that rained on St. Croix and put young Alexander on intimate terms with death, so much so that "it's like a memory" to him. This is the eye of the hurricane he's never really left behind, and through which he fundamentally sees the world. More than all the Revolutionary history lessons and poptimism of the Hamilton phenomenon, it is the character Hamilton's intense, brutally foreshortened view of life, scarcity, and striving that gives the show its unique gravity.

Jun 4, 2020

'A Good Stomping Band'

The cast of Backbeat. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
Cross-posted on Train My Ear.
Some years ago I was hired to write the program notes for the Center Theatre Group's production of Backbeat, a stage musical Iain Softley adapted from his pretty-good Beatles biopic. I never got a chance to see the show, as it didn't make it beyond its L.A. run in early 2013. But it did give me the excuse to geek out about the Fab Four's early days, and to re-litigate a debate that raged through my high school years: Were the Beatles really rock 'n' roll? Here's the full text of it.

For a certain generation or two of music fans, it is the fundamental disagreement, the Coke-or-Pepsi, Yankees-or-Mets, blond-or-brunette divide of rock ’n’ roll: Beatles or Stones? Though the lads from Liverpool clearly dominate in terms of sales figures and cross-generational appeal, the rude boys from Dartford inevitably have the edge in any argument where the standard is rock credibility. The Rolling Stones, the reasoning goes, were scruffy white bluesmen who sang frankly about sex and violence, and were more likely to spend offstage hours shagging and shooting up than showering—in other words, the rock ethos personified—while the Beatles, with their sunny major-key harmonies and singalong choruses, were essentially English music-hall tunesmiths with pretensions to seriousness. The Stones sang “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” the Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

If this back-and-forth continues, as it tends to, it will be another point against the Beatles that they retreated early, like hothouse flowers, from the pressures of live performing and became hermetic pop artistes with the studio as their canvas, while the Stones have ever and always been indefatigable strut-and-sweat showmen, a working band unafraid to face down any crowd, and indeed are still rolling well into retirement age.

There is, of course, no winning such an argument, which is why it blissfully rages on. Still, the Beatles partisan looking to shore up the band's rock credentials might cite the rowdy, punishing Hamburg apprenticeship that is the chief backdrop of the new stage musical Backbeat, based on the 1994 film of the same title. The long hours they logged on the stages of seedy clubs in that rough-and-tumble city's Reeperbahn was the Beatles' conservatory, trade school, and frat house—the crucible that transformed them from half-cocked dabblers to what one observer called "a good stomping band."

It was no ordinary touring gig the Beatles undertook to Hamburg, first in 1960, then four more times through 1962. These were days when rock bands were still something of a novelty, and club owners and booking agents were accordingly trying novel approaches in programming them. Was this loud new music meant for giddy underage teenyboppers, or for heavy-drinking adult crowds who'd as soon throw chairs as sit on them? Was it music to dance to, or music to watch strippers dance to? Bruno Koschmider, a former fairground showman and WWII veteran, took a maximalist approach when booking music at his Reeperbahn nightclubs, most of them former strip clubs frequented by prostitutes and their johns: require bands to play relentlessly all night, for as long as six to eight hours, in return for as much beer as they could down and some pocket change.

The Beatles, eager teens that they were, were up for the endurance challenge (and later, when energy flagged, got through it with the help of pep pills called Preludin). John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stu Sutcliffe formed the core quartet; they hastily recruited a drummer, Pete Best, and headed in a van to Germany posing as vacationing students, since they didn't have the requisite work permits (most of the group had only just acquired passports, this being their first trip abroad). There they encountered a port city quite a bit larger, rougher, and more decadent than the port city of Liverpool they knew. Given filthy lodgings behind the screen of a movie theater called Bambi Kino, the Beatles settled in for a 14-week initiation that would include a basic rock 'n' roll curriculum of sex, booze, brawling, destruction of property, and, most importantly, the fine art of entertaining indifferent, even hostile foreigners.

The legendary stage marathons at Koschmider's clubs—and later, the stage of a rival club owner, in a breach of contract that led an angry Koschmider to get them deported—were so integral to forming the band that would later conquer the world that they served as a case study in Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book Outliers. Gladwell counted their roughly 1,200 working nights in Germany as an example of his "10,000-hour rule"—the notion that a certain intensive amount of time spent practicing and preparing is as crucial to "genius" as talent. Gladwell quotes John Lennon:
We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over.
In Liverpool, we'd only ever done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at every one. In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.
Indeed, the Beatles' strongest claim to rock 'n' roll cred is not that they put in the hours and became a cracking live band but that they learned to work it. Faced with an unresponsive audience, and famously admonished by Koschmider to "mak show," Lennon—soon followed by McCartney and his bandmates—started to act like a wild man onstage. As Beatles biographer Philip Norman put it in Shout!, Lennon "began to go berserk onstage, prancing and groveling in imitation of any rock 'n' roller or movie monster his dazzled mind could summon up."

Those long hours required not just new ways of playing but a whole new repertoire: to their usual trove of Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent covers, the Beatles added more American rhythm and blues, along with novelty songs like "Peppermint Twist," even a bit of jazz. One observer recalls the Beatles gamely trying to play through a standard off sheet music—something a feat, given that they didn't read music. These cover tunes, which fill out the playlist of Backbeat (including "Long Tall Sally," "Twist and Shout," "Money," "Rock & Roll Music," "Kansas City"), were among the raw musical material that John and Paul (and later, George) would mine for their original songs. And much as the vast number of hours they spent playing in Hamburg gave them that much more practice as musicians, the breadth of material they had to learn, absorb, and interpret in those years served as a crash course in rock music theory, composition, and arrangement.

The Hamburg days also famously marked the birth of another Beatles signature: their style. Though Stu Sutcliffe's girlfriend, the artist Astrid Kirchherr, denies any special credit, the haircuts she gave the lads, which her set called "exi" (for "existentialist"), became the template for the Beatles' moptops. Though by the time we Americans met them, they were dressed in identical Edwardian, collarless suits, the Beatles who first returned from Germany favored leather jackets and cowboy boots. It was a sleek teen-rebel look that, combined with their newfound musical confidence and raucous stage show, immediately bowled over English crowds. Most Beatles historians, in fact, mark the beginning of Beatlemania to their first Liverpool show after Hamburg, in December 1960, when, as biographer Bob Spitz put it, they "squeezed every nerve of the local rock 'n' roll scene" by throwing up a "wall of grinding sound and [a] veil of black leather."

Does this settle the case for the Beatles as authentic rockers? Maybe not. But if their experience seems typical now, it is partly because the Beatles set the type: a troupe of promisingly creative teens who don't quite finish art school or learn a trade but instead run off and join the rock circus. Besides, what other art school dropout became a rock god? Why, bluesman Keith Richards.

May 28, 2020

Best Showtunes Evah

Cross-posted from Train My Ear.
Some years ago Adam Feldman at Time Out New York asked me to contribute some entries for a grand list of "Best Broadway Songs of All Time." I had nothing to do with the voting or the ranking (the Top 3, if you want to cut to the chase, were "Rose's Turn," "O'l Man River," and "Finishing the Hat"), but I was offered a choice from among the chosen 50 songs of which I wanted to write about, and was happy to land some of my favorites (lots of Rodgers, and both Tesoris!). The whole thing is worth a read, featuring pieces by Feldman, David Cote, Raven Snook, and James Gavin. Here are my contributions, with the number in the list they held.

5. “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (1949)
Good music is onomatopoeia in reverse--sound formed from, and hence transmitting, meaning. That’s certainly the case with this swooning mini-aria, which wraps a pro-forma romantic message in a creamy musical envelope; even without Hammerstein’s lyrics, typically warbled by an operatic baritone with a heavy European accent, Rodgers’s tune by itself conjures ephemeral intoxication. And lest this song’s stand-alone hit status and oddly speculative second-person voice (“You may see a stranger”) make us forget: This love bomb drops in South Pacific’s first scene, where it functions as a marriage proposal. Who says no to that?

14. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel (1945)
The best of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s secular hymns had a dual purpose in its original setting: as a bit of grief counseling for newly widowed Julie Jordan after her husband’s suicide, and as a climactic high school graduation anthem for their daughter. To meet both demands, Hammerstein contributed almost entirely monosyllabic lyrics and Rodgers banked his fire, keeping things folk-simple till the arrival of the title phrase, for which he unleashed a cloud-bursting chord per syllable. The song’s repurposing has continued: It’s the official club anthem of Liverpool’s soccer team.

18. “Aquarius” from Hair (1968)
For a musical purportedly running on hippie flower power and gloopy starshine, it’s striking that Hair's bookends are a pair of bad-ass minor-key blues chorales: this funky, driving opener and the rafter-shaking closer “Let the Sun Shine In.” Wafting in like stage fog over a brooding organ and a siren-like wail of guitar feedback, “Aquarius” may proffer dubious astrology and peacenik platitudes, courtesy lyricists James Rado and Gerome Ragni, but composer Galt MacDermot’s churning, darkly tuneful music both grounds and elevates it.

12. “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
Some theatre songs are whole plays in miniature; that this is one of them maybe shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s based on one of the Sholem Aleichem folk tales not used for the show’s main plot. As such it’s less an “I want” song than an “I am” song--a wistful introduction not to the things that drive the poor milkman Tevye but to how he sees himself. Amid the affectionate domestic humor of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics is an insight the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, insisted the writers keep: This is a man whose ultimate idea of luxury is more time to pray and read the Torah.

23. “Lot’s Wife” from Caroline, or Change (2004)
This stunning 11 o’clock number would be overwhelming if it all weren’t so clearly and forcefully laid out by playwright/lyricist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. As Caroline, an embittered black maid who has squabbled over pocket change with the young son of the Jewish family she serves, wrenchingly weighs her complicity in her own misery, she tears through shifting meters and styles, presses words through multiple meanings (“Pocket change change me,” a climactic cry of “Flat!” that piles spiritual and musical connotations onto her hot iron), and reaches a kind of truce with her own rage.

29. “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (2015)
A great theatre song goes places, but few travel as unexpectedly far and deep as this ebullient epiphany from the musical of Alison Bechdel’s memoir. The first trip is back in time, as 43-year-old Alison recalls her 10-year-old self admiring a butch lesbian she glimpsed at a diner; but the song’s real journey is the steep inward dive inspired by that shock of recognition. Lisa Kron’s lyric judiciously balances childlike precocity with stereotype-free hindsight, as Jeanine Tesori’s music spins subtly swelling cartwheels underneath, but the genius move is to leave blank space for young Alison to literally think out loud: “I feel…” and “I” and “…” Into these spaces a whole heart, and a lifetime, can rush.

39. “Something Wonderful” from The King and I (1951)
Open-hearted, ploddingly earnest Oscar Hammerstein II could be underrated in the indirection department. After all, he gave this strange, and strangely moving, pep-talk anthem to a supporting character, Lady Thiang, at a pivotal point in the impasse between the show’s quasi-romantic leads. As the King’s elder wife lauds, with a mix of damning faint praise and sincere special pleading, her monarch’s fickle, flickering greatness, she somehow makes Anna--and us--feel it. It doesn’t hurt that Richard Rodgers rose majestically to the occasion, crafting a monumental, angular musical portrait of the song’s offstage subject.

44. “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! (1943)
The musical’s version of the screwball comedy trope of the Lovers Who Can’t See They’re in Love, the “Of course I’m not in love with you (yet)” song has many fine exemplars (Carousel’s “If I Loved You,” Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” Guys and Dolls’s “I’ll Know”) but few as witty, playfully reciprocal, and, yes, sexy, as this bit of romantic gamesmanship, which features one of Richard Rodgers’s most felicitously constructed and artfully ornamented tunes (listen for the sly inversion of notes on “Don’t throw” and “Don’t start”).

46. “Anything Goes” from Anything Goes (1934)
Cole Porter wrote more than his share of durable melodies, but arguably his true metier was this kind of brittle, urbane word jazz, a kind of proto-hip-hop in which rhythmic flow and rhyming invention were everything. Though his original lyrics, full of wicked references to scandals and contretemps of his day, have often been censored or substituted with less topical variants, a listen to his original demo reveals that it isn’t arrangers or interpreters who’ve made Porter’s standards rock: The high-wire syncopations, feints, and sheer brass are all built into the original model.

49. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady (1956)
The first act of Shaw’s Pygmalion ends with Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle indulging in the luxury of a cab ride home to her Drury Lane digs. My Fair Lady’s first scene ends similarly, but not before she imagines--in this jaunty, syncopated minuet, one of many seemingly effortless, ageless gems in Lerner and Loewe’s score--earthly comforts so modest (heat, chocolate, a chair) that the song would be heartbreaking if it weren’t for its warm grin. It’s the “I want” song of someone with little reason to believe she’ll attain it, and it’s all the sweeter for it.

May 21, 2020

Sondheim vs. Weill's "Fruity" Sixths

Cross-posted from Train My Ear.
If you forced me to make a list of favorite composers, Kurt Weill would be at the top, Maurice Ravel would be second, and, though I'm not exactly sure about the order after that, Stephen Sondheim would definitely be in the Top 5 (don't ask me to name the others in the pantheon, I don't want to get distracted here). The affinities here are not incidental, I don't think: These are three composers who craft music of the highest sophistication in popular forms, and whose harmonic language, to varying degrees, works the outer edges of Western tonal music, flirting with and sometimes bedding down eagerly with dissonance. All are first-rate tunesmiths not content with mere tunes, whose signature chords are thicker than simple triads.

Those signature chords make all the difference, though: Weill, as has been widely noted (including by me), is known for his use of major sixths (think of the third and fourth note, under "shark bites." in "Mack the Knife"; it's a chord that has a ghost of its own relative minor key in it, and as such naturally feels haunted, irresolute). Ravel is king of the ninth—major, flat, all kinds (as Herbie Hancock demonstrates here), an alternately splashy and expansive or curdled and cramped chord sound.

Meanwhile Sondheim, as Steve Swayne details in his essential book How Sondheim Found His Sound, took a lot of his harmonic tastes from French composers, including Ravel, as well as from film composer Bernard Herrmann (who would be in my own Top 10). Herrmann loved the major/minor seventh (the opening chord of the Psycho theme, which you can hear all over Sweeney Todd; spelled in C, you'd play C Eb G B-natural). From his French influences Sondheim took a love for sevenths, ninths, and elevenths, even thirteenths—odd-numbered chord extensions which, if you add them up, often form whole other chords, schmeared on top of the root chord (try C E G in the left hand, Bb D F; you could call this a C11, or Bb over C, though to make it truly Sondheim-y, take out the E on the bottom). Sondheim's harmonies, true to his less-is-more aesthetic, can also sound stark rather than full, subtractive rather than additive: As I noted in that parenthetical, he often avoids the third of a triad so you can't quite place whether a chord is major or minor, instead layering it with a jagged 2 or a 4. The result is a suspended, or sus, accompaniment figure, a nervy, open-ended chord that is arguably his signature sound (think of the opening of Company or Pacific Overtures, to just name two examples). It's a tic that, while Sondheim executes it brilliantly, has become something of a musical theatre cliché, as Dave Malloy has noted.

In any case, the throughline here, as always in my favorite music, is harmonic adventurousness, singularity, flavor. And to my ears Sondheim and Weill, in particular, sound related, cousins in off-kilter tunesmithing. Consider this great Sondheim film theme. Maybe it's the chamber jazz chug of the orchestration, but this sounds sneakily, smokily Weill-like to me:

Sondheim's contemporaries, Kander and Ebb, were obvious Weill-o-philes; his influence is quite naturally all over the Weimar sounds of Cabaret, and they have acknowledged his influence in all their work. Sondheim's longtime collaborator in pushing the musical theatre forward, Hal Prince, was such a Weill fan that he helped created the misbegotten, neither-flesh-nor-fowl Broadway fan-fic show LoveMusik (in which, for the record, I found much to admire). But it turns out that not only does Sondheim not acknowledge a debt to Weill. He is a non-fan, and has expressed that distaste in no uncertain terms. In a scathing footnote in Swayne's book, he reports this exchange, from a 2003 interview:
SONDHEIM: I never liked [Weill's] stuff except for Threepenny, and some of his American stuff I like. There's a rumba version of "Girl of the Moment" in Lady in the Dark—I mean, I like so little of his stuff I can pick out the pieces I like—it's the theme that goes with the lyric [Sondheim sings]: "Hoping I'd discover some wonderful lover." And that about covers it. What I love about Threepenny is how harsh and dissonant it is. I like it when it's played by a small band. But outside of that, Weill's musical language is anathema to me.
SWAYNE: Anathema?!
SONDHEIM: Well, in the sense that I don't like it. I mean, anathema like those fruity chords with the added sixths. They make me come all over queasy.
Okay. That's some strong stuff. While Terry Teachout has helpfully pointed out that Sondheim probably does not mean "fruity" as an anti-gay slur—"it's more of a wine term," as he put it—this quote hit me like a ton of bricks. To know that Sondheim hates Weill is a bit like hearing your parents fight in the next room. (Or maybe it's analogous to the weird frisson my friends and I felt when we read one songwriting hero, Randy Newman, diss another, Elvis Costello.)

Years later I had occasion to reach out to Sondheim for a story I was writing about concert revivals of two musicals Weill wrote with Maxwell Anderson, Lost in the Stars and Knickerbocker Holiday. I already knew of his distaste for Weill's music, but I was curious—given that Sondheim's shows are often cited as examples of experimentation with form at the contested boundaries of the musical and the opera, a la Bernstein, Blitzstein, and Weill—if he had any thoughts about the two shows I was writing about. I couldn't use his response for the story but it's relevant here:
I know the scores well, having seen the original Lost in the Stars (my favorite songs being "Big Mole" and "White Man go to Johannesburg," if I remember the titles correctly), and I know Knickerbocker Holiday through recordings (going back to the original 78s). But I'd rather not comment, as I'm not as big a fan of Weill's songs as others are, and I wouldn't want to offend people. Also, I don't think Weill's American shows are experimental in any way (it's the actual songwriting that accounts for the unusual, quasi-operatic feel), except for Lady in the Dark, all of which wouldn't be helpful to your premise.
So yeah, that's a more gracious, non-argumentative diss than "anathema." And "except for Threepenny" is a big exception, right? I can hang onto that. Also taste is taste, whaddya gonna do? Sondheim's capacious, tendentious lyric books proved he's got his opinions and he's sticking to 'em.

I couldn't leave this there, though. Slur or not, that "fruity chord" comment still stuck in my craw. I don't have a lot of Sondheim scores lying around, and I only have limited time to take apart all of his songs. But one score I do have a copy of is one of my favorites of his, Pacific Overtures, which I love especially for its harmonic affinity with 20th-century French or French-adjacent composers (De Falla was one of his main inspirations for its harmonic sound). Accordingly there are lots of sus chords (they basically underpin all of his towering masterpiece, "Someone in a Tree"), ninths, and the like. I was about to give up when suddenly, staring right at me from the midst of the spare, lovely "There Is No Other Way," I saw it and cried out, vindicated, "I caught you!" It's in the song's exquisite B section, under the central word in the phrase "the bird sings" (at 1:55 below):

I mean, can it be a coincidence that that searing, yearning harmony—which I had the privilege of hearing the song's original singer, Alvin Ing, reprise in his inimitable tenor in a 1998 revival at East West Players—is among my favorite moments in all of Sondheim's music? The Bard of Turtle Bay may have felt queasy about employing that "fruity" chord here, but he sure did save it for a big payoff. Or maybe he just prefers not to do anything twice?

Footnote: Randy Newman later reversed himself on Elvis Costello.