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 want...to....” and “I...um…” 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.

May 18, 2020

Flashback: Rich Media

When I first arrived in New York City 15 years ago I didn't land a full-time job right away—it took me more than a year before I landed one writing web features for TDF—but among my freelance gigs was writing previews for a program company called Encore Magazine, which had accounts with both BAM in Brooklyn and UCLA Live (and still owes me money for some of my work, if memory serves). For that outlet I got to talk to Kronos Quartet's David Harrington, Sydney Theatre Company director Robyn Nevin, Marianne Weems of the Builders Association, playwright Rinne Groff.

I also found myself interviewing then-NY Times critic Frank Rich, who had hung up the theater beat a dozen years before to become a popular op-ed writer, and was doing a public appearances tour that included UCLA. Minus the contemporary references to Bush and Jayson Blair, it feels like much of his critique—of the dumbing down of media, alternative facts, etc.—could have been printed yesterday. As I republish that interview here, I've bolded one paragraph that jumped out at me now, about the response of artists in hard times. I think you'll see why.

(I will only add that though this interview was conducted quickly over the phone, Rich graciously wrote me a thank you note, and years later when I was flailing a bit, agreed to meet with me and give me some career advice. He told me I should try to diversify my coverage—write about anything other than theater, if I could, just to expand my options. Oops!)

Without further ado...

Encore Magazine, November 2005
by Rob Kendt

A critic is not always critical. Even though his 13-year reign as The New York Times' chief drama critic earned him the unaffectionate appellation "The Butcher of Broadway," Frank Rich was as fervent a champion—of Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett, John Guare, Richard Greenberg, among many others—as he was a scourge.

These days, however, Rich is very much a critic, in that word's other, more polemical connotation: As an op-ed columnist for the Times, he has used his bully pulpit to excoriate the country's cultural and political right wing, whether it was ganging up on President Clinton, politicizing arts funding, getting behind a Biblical movie with ostensibly anti-Semitic sympathies (The Passion of the Christ), or, most recently, taking a nation to war on faulty intelligence. As such Rich has joined an anti-Bush Administration chorus at the Times that includes Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Maureen Dowd.

At his upcoming talk at UCLA Live, Rich is likely to touch on these issues, not to mention on the topic of the theater in America, on which he still keeps an eye. But his central theme, he said recently, will be on the radically evolving media landscape and what it means for American democracy.

"I'm going to talk a lot about the way the media culture has changed, to create an alternative vision of reality that doesn't correspond to reality as we know it," Rich said, previewing his talk. From cable news to the Internet, a plethora of outlets now delivers news and entertainment in such a feverish cycle that the well-established journalistic practices of thorough and sustained reporting, Rich feels, are being ignored or compromised.

Of course, the response of many conservative bloggers, not to mention a network like Fox News, is that they are simply countering the disguised "liberal" bias of the mainstream media with their own undisguised perspective.

"I don’t buy the premise," Rich replied. "Obviously The New York Times and LA Times have left-of-center editorial boards; the Wall Street Journal has a conservative editorial page; Washington Post has a centrist editorial page. But reporting is really separate in those organizations. It's crucial to me that news organizations try to stick to reporting—always fallible, but still objective reporting. I'm less concerned about the seeming and somewhat fake conflict between liberal and conservative media than between news media that try to give you objective reporting, and another kind of media, which overheats the atmosphere, turning news into entertainment."

He admits, of course, that "there's always been an entertainment aspect to news. As George Clooney's film Good Night, and Good Luck shows, when Edward R. Murrow wasn't going after McCarthy, he was interviewing Liberace. But that kind of dumbing down has been ratcheted up in the past decade by the explosion of all kinds of electronic media."

"Weapons of mass distraction," Rich called the products of this new media marketplace, giving credit for the pun to "one of my favorite writers from L.A., Larry Gelbart." That phrase implies a level of intention. Does he think there's a conscious attempt by media companies to keep audiences and readers so distracted by tabloid news, celebrity titillation, and political shouting matches that they never ask more serious questions of their elected leaders? Or is this just a case of untrammeled media supply meeting insatiable lowest-common-denominator demand, which happens to converge with the wishes of the powerful to remain unaccountable?

"The jury is out," Rich said. "I would argue it's probably a bit of both. But convergence is the more likely scenario. The consolidation of the media plays a role, and we're still learning to what extent the interest of media companies determines this."

Rich works for a media company that has sustained some blows to its integrity, from the Jayson Blair scandal to the Judith Miller saga. More recently, the Times' introduction of TimeSelect, a paid subscription service that charges $7.95 a month or $49.95 a year for op-eds that were formerly available for free, including Rich's, has generated its share of controversy.

"TimeSelect was a business decision—no writer was consulted on that," Rich said. "It's way too early to tell whether it's successful or not. I approve of the principle. Organizations like The New York Times, which spend an extraordinary amount of money on news reporting, have to figure out a way to pay for that. If the Times can't have any income, then we'll just have bloggers. There's nothing wrong with blogs, but on the other hand if we don't have extensive reporting, we're not doing our job."

One medium that consistently rises to the occasion despite long financial odds is the theater. Even on the heavily commercialized and corporatized Broadway circuit, losing money is the norm, not the exception. It's no surprise, then, that the stage is still one place that alternative voices emerge.

"If you look at history of American theater, it has always—more perhaps than any other form in America—been activist at times of national trauma," Rich said. "In the 1930s, during the Depression, the Group Theatre and Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre did very political theatre, not only about the economic situation but about race and the rise and fascism. And way before Hollywood started doing it, issues like Vietnam were raised on Broadway. It happened again with the AIDS epidemic, which was particularly traumatic for the theatre. That was one of the things I noticed when I started reviewing theater: The people I covered were literally dying, and the theater responded."

Now, with another unpopular war in the headlines, theater is responding with everything from the Off-Broadway revue Bush Is Bad to David Hare's Iraq-themed Stuff Happens. One reason for the proliferation of topical theater is practical: "The theater has less of a development process. You can pull the trigger faster with a play than you can by making a movie or writing a novel."

The other reason is one this professional opinion shaper can admire unreservedly.

"In none of these periods has the theater changed the world," Rich said. "What's moving about it is that theater people tried to use it to change the world. That impulse seems not to die."

Apr 30, 2020

The Private Canon, Vol. 2: Major-Minor "Mbombela"

Cross-posted from my music blog Train My Ear.

With the music I cherish most, it’s the sound that matters first and above all. I don’t just mean sound in the purely aural sense—i.e., the timbre of the instruments, the resonance of the voices, the dynamics and tone and pitch. These are not unimportant. But harmonic content is the real substance of music to me—the chords, basically, and the mysterious ways they work together to create something more than the sum of their notes. Harmony is as elemental to the meaning and potency of music as color and shape are to visual art, or time and space are to theatre and film, and it is the thing my ear, and my soul, most hungrily seeks out and clings to. The unique harmonic sound worlds of Weill and Ravel, for instance, are what put them at the top of my pantheon, as much or more than their brilliant orchestrations or compositional technique. And harmonic fluency or daring or pungency, whatever you want to call it, are what draw me, initially and decisively, into the orbit of any artist, whether it’s Joni or Jobim, Rameau or Rihanna.

All of which is preamble to attempt to explain my abiding love for “Mbombela,” the opening track on the 1965 collection An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. I happened upon this as an LP in the wake of Paul Simon’s ecstatic Graceland tour, which was arguably as important as the record itself, as it introduced his fans (including me) to two South African musical giants, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and singer Miriam Makeba. An Evening is misleadingly titled, as it’s not a live record and features only two duets between Belafonte and Makeba, who mostly offer reverent solo renditions of traditional tunes in Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, and Swahili, backed by choral arrangements not unlike the isicathamiya later made popular by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Mbombela” is one of the duets, which means it has harmony in a more basic sense—that of two voices entwined.

The song also has an intrinsic harmonic power both delicate and searing. One key reason it stands out is in its departure from the mostly-major-key world of popular and traditional South African music. (I remember Paul Simon telling the slightly condescending but apparently true story of how guitarist Ray Phiri introduced a relative minor chord into the song “Graceland,” a rarity in South African music, in an imitation of something he’d heard in Simon’s other music.) "Mbombela" starts with an achingly subtle guitar ostenato that hovers with a ghostly glow throughout, with four chords topped by a D: G9 (essentially Dm over a G), a Csus2, G9 again, and a D major.

Over that Belafonte begins with a 7-note melody marked out mostly in fourths, at the heart of which is a very strange, almost microtonal shift from Bb, which over the G chord forms a minor-key sound, to A, over the C chord—a 6th interval that evokes C’s relative minor (Am). Sixths are famously smudgy, ambiguous chords; they were a favorite Weill’s and are a tic of Elvis Costello’s, among countless others (as I detailed in this post). Between that odd G-minor over a G9 in the guitar, slipping into a C6 (with a discordant D, or suspended 2nd, atop it), we’re already in thick harmonic territory.

When Makeba comes in, she sings a lot of fourths and fifths over Belafonte—bright, splintery intervals that catch in the ear. And then, her keening rasp complementing his duskier rasp, she both sweetens and sharpens that minor-major chord change, singing a B natural over Harry’s D, for a sunny major G chord, only to drop to the G over his Bb, a passing minor cloud, but oh what a mark it leaves. Her final slide down to an F gives us a glimpse of G7, but then hangs over the next chord, creating the sound of a C11 (or, more precisely, with Belafonte’s A and the D suspended over the C in the guitar part, something like a D-minor chord over a C). That is some seriously stacked harmony! And damn if it doesn’t wound the ear in the best possible way.

I knew that “Mbombela” meant “Train Song,” because the record sleeve said so and you can hear it plainly in the chugging rhythms and the “Shuku, shuku, shuku” refrain and the winding accordion solo—this is literally a “choo choo” song. But it’s not a cheery railroad chanty but a version of “Wenyuk’umbombela,” a protest song by Welcome Duru about the trains that carried migrant workers long distances to work in apartheid South Africa. And while I discovered many other lovely renditions online, none has quite the intoxicating chord voicings of the Belafonte/Makeba version. My research tells me I should attribute these to arranger Jonas Gwangwa, who clearly resonated with the aching melancholy of the song’s lament, “The train is departing,” and found an ideal musical—which is to say a harmonic—expression for it.

Apr 22, 2020

The Private Canon, Vol. 1: Ven Bernabe y Lamento Jarocho

Cross-posted from my music blog Train My Ear

In my decades of listening to and thinking about, and occasionally making, music, I’ve had some widely shared crushes and obsessions (Beatles, Jimi, Eilish) and joined plenty of fervent cults (Yes, Costello, Sondheim). But I’ve also developed what I think of as my private canon—deep cuts or relative obscurities that I rank among my favorites but which don’t seem commensurately well known or highly acclaimed. Tunes like Peggy Lee’s “Sans Souci” or Dylan’s “No Time to Think,” or the Harry Belafonte/Miriam Makeba duet “Mbombela,” or a wild punk waltz called “Palindrome” by the Ophelias, or the entire catalogs of English guitar goddess Charlotte Hatherley or Texas gypsy jazz combo Café Noir...I could go on like this all day. These are the songs I loved putting on mixtapes for friends back in the day, songs I wish someone would make a hit by covering or dropping into a popular movie.

Or blog about. Many or most of the songs I love I couldn’t possibly get away with covering myself, and my moviemaking dreams were put out to pasture even before I finished film school 30 years ago. But I can apply my critical ear and pen to them here, as I’ve done for a series of formative album replays and other assorted music. As the hours of social isolation stretch ahead, I plan to do just that.

I’m going to start with a favorite I’ve taken for granted for 25 years and just recently made some new discoveries about—and how often can you say that about a beloved song?

I went through a Latin music phase in the early ’90s, inspired after a woman I briefly dated mentioned in passing that she liked salsa dancing. That was enough to send me to Ritmo Latino to snap up some cassettes (yes, cassettes), including some cherished Tito Puente joints and a Celia Cruz/Sonora Matancera hits collection, Tesoros Musicales. The woman and I soon parted ways, but I was left with some lifelong companions. I’ve already written about my love for Tito’s Tambo, but the Cruz/Matancera tape had a lot of great stuff on it too (“Pulpa de Tamarindo” is a particular favorite). For me the real keeper, by a long shot, is “Ven Bernabe,” three-and-a-half minutes of mysterious perfection, alternately sinuous and punchy, with the rhythmic equivalent of an earworm in its title phrase—a hard clave variation with its strongest accent on the 4—and a resolute refusal for much of the song to land on a strong downbeat. Though it has the horn blasts of classic son montuno and the angular piano filigree of Latin jazz, they don’t follow the usual patterns, to my ears at least; they keep eluding capture, even as they spin their own fascinating nets. This persists even after something curious happens exactly halfway through, at 1:45: The song shifts down to a slower gear for some ballad-like verses, only returning to the springy opening riff for the last 20 seconds or so. Before we go any further, here it is:

Until last week I hadn’t looked under the hood of the song or checked its lyrics. I discovered that it first appeared in 1959 on the album Cuba’s Foremost Rhythm Singer, and that it is not one song at all but a mashup of two: “Ven Bernabe,” by Santiago Ortego Gonzalez, a Cuban composer who also wrote another Cruz/Matancera song, “De Cuba A Mexico”; and “Lamento Jarocho,” a bolero by the legendary Mexican troubadour Agustín Lara.

Mexico is a relevant connection here, as well as what I would call a certain race consciousness. While “Ven Bernabe” seems to be about an ornery malcontent who’s broken up a “fiesta” of “los negros” (the “barracon” to which the singer calls him was a term for barracks holding Black slaves), “Lamento Jarocho” is an ode to the “bronze race” of Veracruz, who perhaps not coincidentally gave Mexico its preeminent folk music, son jarocho. Lara’s lament is far more sympathetic than the harsh street cry of “Bernabe,” lifting up an “an entire race full of bitterness” that is nevertheless “born brave” enough to “suffer all (their) misadventures.” While I’m not versed enough in Latin American colorism or the intra-racial dialogue around Celia Cruz’s Afro-Cuban heritage to speak of this authoritatively, there is clearly a Gulf-of-Mexico exchange, a bit of folkloric cross-representation, going on in the marriage of these two songs, and it goes deeper than its musical stylings. You can get some sense of it here, in a later concert Cruz did in Mexico with the Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco. When she breaks into “Lamento” (at 2:00), you can hear applause of recognition from the Mexican audience:

Throughout a career spent mostly in post-revolutionary exile from her native Cuba, Cruz was a kind of ambassador of the Americas—not only of music from Cuba, but of sounds circulating around the Gulf of Mexico from throughout and within the African Diaspora, fused with Indigenous and colonial musics—and in this sense she was clearly one of the great American artists. It turns out that “Ven Bernabe” isn’t just a banger that happened to catch my ear—it may be among the finest artifacts of that unique ambassadorship.

In my research I turned up this great broadcast version:

I was able to find only one recording of “Ven Bernabe” by itself, without “Lamento Jarocho” fused to it, from a 1981 record by Leo Soto:

This cover of the Cruz/Matanera arrangement, by Federic y Su Combo, embellishes both the piano and vocal parts, divertingly if with diminishing returns:

As for “Lamento Jarocho,” this is the lachrymose Lara original:

And a popular, big-bandish version by Toña La Negra:

Bringing it full circle, this “Lamento” by Orquesta Aragón is strongly in the Cruz/Matancera vein. "De Cuba A Mexico" indeed: