Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Noël à Broadway (France Musique, Arte France, Camera Lucida, aired on French TV December 22, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was an interesting concert from Paris which we got on a download, given just three nights before — December 22, 2017 — and called Noël à Broadway. Despite what you might think from the title, it was not exclusively a concert of Christmas-themed songs from Broadway musicals, nor was it a trotting-out of the same old Broadway chestnuts that usually get sung whenever a symphony orchestra decides to try out the musical repertoire. There were a few familiar songs, notably “Food! Glorious Food!” from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and “Do-Re-Mi” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music — heard twice, once as part of the program and one as part of an infectious encore in which the audience was encouraged to join in — but mostly this was a quite ambitious program of little-known and not-quite-so-little-known music from composers including Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim (though nothing from their one collaboration, West Side Story), Jule Styne, Danny Elfman, Jerry Bock, Meredith Willson, Frank Loesser and Jerry Herman. The solo singers were imported from the U.S. — I’m assuming that of the two women Deborah Myers was the vaguely Black-looking solo soprano and Cassidy Janson the red-haired white mezzo — anyway there were two women and also two men, tenor Damien Humbley and baritone Nathan Gunn. The show was conducted by Mikko Franck — I have no idea whether he’s any relation to César but he’s an oddly gnome-like creature, with a facial resemblance to the young Elton John while his body comes closer to the current one, who conducted much of the concert sitting down, in a weird position in which his left leg rested on the podium on which a conductor usually stands while his right leg hung over the podium and its foot rested on the floor below the podium. At times — notably when the selection he was conducting headed for a climax — he’d get up and continue conducting standing up. He began the program with the overture to Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 musical Candide, which has a tangled production history — the original book was by Lillian Hellman but for some reason she withdrew the rights to her adaptation, so Broadway producer Harold Prince commissioned Hugh Wheeler to write a new book, also based on the original novel by Voltaire and worked to fit Bernstein’s songs (which could be performed as written since the original lyricist, John Latouche — most famous for writing Cabin in the Sky with Vernon Duke and, like Bernstein, Bisexual — hadn’t withdrawn his rights), for a 1974 revival in which Bernstein was not personally involved. In 1988 Bernstein worked over the material for a third time, hiring John Wells as book writer since Wheeler had just died, and that version was recorded and released by Deutsche Grammophon and was in fact Leonard Bernstein’s last recording.

The musical has never really found an audience but the overture has become a favorite piece on light-music concerts — deservedly, for it’s a light-hearted romp that sounds vaguely like an opera overture from Voltaire’s time (the 18th century) but with added sass and verve from Bernstein’s knowledge of show music and jazz. Then the orchestra played the introduction to Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! — his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist that was an immediate hit in London and on Broadway in 1964 and was filmed four years later in a movie that won a thoroughly undeserved Academy Award for Best Picture (but then the film that stood far and above any other movie from 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture! At least Citizen Kane got nominated!). I’ve always disliked Oliver! because I thought it drowned Dickens’ dark tale of street urchins and thieves in London in goo and treacle, but the opening instrumental music and the verse to the famous chorus, lamenting that the poor boys in the orphanage (played by an all-girl choir, by the way) have nothing to eat but gruel, are surprisingly dark and gloomy — but then came the famous “Food! Glorious Food!” chorus, and though I loved the French accents with which those French girls sang (the adult choir, which came in later, sang with less noticeable accents, I suspect because they’ve had more of a chance to study and learn English as a second language), the piece still seems way too sappy for the subject matter. Then we got to the good stuff: not only did whoever programmed this concert offer at least two back-to-back comparisons of how different composers “set” the same story, juxtaposing Leonard Bernstein’s little-known and Jule Styne’s better-known settings of Peter Pan, they gave us a chance to hear two quite beautiful Bernstein songs, a ballad called “Build This House,” eloquently sung by Deborah Myers, and a “Pirate Song” that not only owes quite a lot to Gilbert and Sullivan but offered the chilling call from Captain Hook to his crew to “drink blood!” (The original 1950 production cast Jean Arthur as Peter Pan and Boris Karloff as Hook, and despite Karloff’s long association with horror films he’d never played a vampire on screen and would do so only once later — in the 1964 Mario Bava Italian film Black Sabbath five years before his death.)

Apparently Bernstein intended Peter Pan as a full-fledged musical but only five songs — those two plus “Who Am I?,” “Plank Round” and “Peter, Peter” — made it into the finished production, while the LP Columbia released in 1951 contained none of the songs: it was a spoken-word album of the book portions of the show with Bernstein’s contribution relegated to incidental music. The rest of Bernstein’s songs weren’t rediscovered until 2000, a decade after Bernstein’s death, and a few recent productions have tried to recombine Bernstein’s songs with Sir James M. Barrie’s original play. “Build This House” is a transcendently beautiful ballad and the “Pirate Song” is at least fun. Then the show presented the well-known ballad “Never Never Land” from Jule Styne’s 1954 Peter Pan musical, whose success quickly drove Bernstein’s from the stage — most people who encounter Peter Pan today do so from either the Styne musical or the Disney animated film, both of which make the story even more sentimental than it was in Barrie’s hands (the 1924 Peter Pan film, on which Barrie advised, is a far tougher and more “adult” piece that strongly hints that the real reason Peter Pan doesn’t want to grow up is he doesn’t want to have to deal with his sexuality). “Never Never Land” is a beautiful song but it seemed dull and ordinary compared to Bernstein’s masterpiece — setting up a pattern that continued throughout the concert: Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s songs just seemed to inhabit a far more sophisticated, musically and dramatically, world than the rest of the material. After that came the second juxtaposition of two composers’ “takes” on the same fairy tale, in this case Cinderella — Damian Humbley came out to sing a beautiful rendition of the song “Ten Minutes Ago” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella, in which Prince Charming extols the virtues of the heroine he didn’t even know existed until, you guessed it, 10 minutes before, a nice and efficient juvenile lead’s ballad that paled next to the songs performed right after it, “Hello Little Girl” and “On the Steps of the Palace” from Sondheim’s fairy-tale mashup Into the Woods. I’m not that persuaded by the show as a whole — I think Sondheim had written his masterpiece, Sunday in the Park with George, one show before, and Into the Woods has a lot of clever bits but also a lot of the sorts of too-clever bits Sondheim inserts into his scores just to show how clever he is — but once again the juxtaposition between an efficient and effective Broadway composer and a genius of musical theatre was one in which the genius won, hands down.

The finale to the first act featured all four soloists in yet another remarkable song that deserves to be better known than it is, “Some Other Time” from Bernstein’s 1944 musical On the Town. This story of three sailors on a one-day leave in New York City and the women they hook up with during that one day was originally based on a ballet called Fancy Free — though Bernstein didn’t use any of the ballet’s music in his score for the musical — and was underwritten for production by MGM, which put up the backing for the show in exchange for the film rights. When Louis B. Mayer saw the show he decided Bernstein’s music was hopelessly uncommercial; he put the project on hold for five years and, when he ultimately green-lighted it, he threw out most of Bernstein’s songs and substituted new ones written by Roger Edens (best known today as Judy Garland’s vocal coach) with the original lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. “Some Other Time,” a wistful ballad in which two of the sailors and their new-found girlfriends lament their imminent parting but insist they’ll meet again “some other time,” is yet another beautiful, wistful ballad that would have been a major asset to the film and would have given Frank Sinatra, cast as one of the sailors, the ballad feature he was hoping for from the film. (He actually did shoot a performance of Bernstein’s “Lonely Town,” but it ended up on the cutting-room floor.) Then came the intermission of the original concert, which was marked on our video by a title announcing that the concert would resume after the intermission while we watched the empty stage and bandstand — a welcome change from the way intermissions are handled in the dwindling number of classical-music telecasts on American TV, with three-ring circuses of intermission features, film clips, interviews and promos for the network’s other shows. (It gave me a chance to finish washing the dinner dishes and to remake the bed.) The second half of the concert did contain some specifically Christmas-themed material, but not all of it: it opened with an instrumental suite from Danny Elfman’s score for the film The Nightmare Before Christmas — which I haven’t seen since it was relatively new and I remember as charming but not great, which can be said of Elfman’s music as well. The most interesting part was the quote of the famous shrieking string theme from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho towards the beginning. Then the chorus came out for “Twelve Days to Christmas” from Jerry Bock’s musical She Loves Me, based on The Shop Around the Corner and a cunning satire of Christmas consumerism — it rips off “The Twelve Days of Christmas” both melodically and lyrically, and each chorus is faster as the shoppers get more panicky as Christmas Day draws closer. After that the soloists performed Meredith Willson’s “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” — usually the title is given as “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which is the first line of the lyric, but according to the Wikipedia page on the song the words “a Lot” didn’t appear in Willson’s original title. (It was also the only song on last night’s program that was not from a stage musical or a film.)

Then Deborah Myers, who was far and away the best of the four soloists, came out and did a tour de force rendition of “Do Re Mi” assisted by the children’s chorus and, at the end, conductor Franck; of all the people who’ve plowed their way through the score of The Sound of Music since Julie Andrews made the classic 1965 film version, Myers came closest to the clarity of Andrews’ diction. (True, there are other ways to “read” this music — like Mary Martin’s on the original Broadway cast album and Federica von Stade’s on the beautiful late-1970’s Telarc CD of the complete score — but the mega-popularity of the film has established Andrews’ reading as the standard.) My only disappointment was that Franck followed the original stage scoring, in which the solost goes low on the final “Do,” ducking the two big high notes at the end of the film version that reportedly had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon because they were just out of the comfortable range of Andrews’ voice (the story is that Nixon demanded to be in the film instead of just dubbing two notes for Julie Andrews, so they cast her as one of the nuns who sings “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”) — from the overall range of Myers’ voice, I suspect she would have had no trouble nailing two big high notes! Then tenor Humbley did a nice rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Frank Loesser’s score for Guys and Dolls — he did it beautifully enough I’d like to see him as Sky Masterson in a production of the complete show, but it’s not the best song from the score and I’d have rather heard him do “Luck, Be a Lady” instead. After that they performed “We Need a Little Christmas” from Jerry Herman’s score for Mame but made the mistake of giving the lead to Cassidy Janson instead of Deborah Myers — Janson sang well but with little of the authority Angela Lansbury brought to it in the original stage production. That was the end of the printed program, but there were two encores — “No One Is Alone” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods and a reprise of “Do Re Mi” in which the audience, which until then had been kept off-screen by the TV director, was not only shown but got to sing along and were clearly enjoying the experience (and Myers’ vocal was as electrifying on the reprise as it had been the first time out with the song). Though its connection to Christmas was rather tenuous at best, the Noël à Broadway show was a lovely evening of music, well (and idiomatically, despite the French chorus and orchestra) performed and fun, intensely moving in the Bernstein and Sondheim songs and at a good Broadway standard for the rest.