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periclesthais
Pericles (Wayne T Carr) and Thais (Brooke Parks), tempest-tost, he grieving, she dead (Shakespeare’s Pericles, directed by Joseph Haj, scenic design Jan Chambers, Folger 2015)

… your present kindness/makes my past miseries sport … (Pericles)

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Anita (Natascia Diaz) and Maria (Mary-Joanne Grisso (from this season’s West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Parker Esse, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Signature 2015)

Friends and readers,

Any one who comes to this blog regularly could come to the conclusion that here in the Washington DC area we’ve had a spate of politically-atune, actuated, effective films and stage plays from Antigone to Trumbo, or this blogger is obsessively seeking these out and writing about them. Where I went has of course not been pure serendipity, nor do I deny enjoying telling others what I’ve seen and recommending what’s significant. Nevertheless I have here mirrored without making any effort the reality that the last few months in DC and Virginia have seen staged and screened as many or more relevant, pertinent, and grounded as deeply in human psyches and family and socially pressured-dramas as in any time I’ve been here over a few years (or in New York City, where I came from in 1980).

This year’s Pericles and West Side Story are en rapport too. Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre was not written with the refugee exodus from the Middle East into Europe of 2015 in mind; Sondheim and Bernstein’s West Side Story was written and a stupendous hit more than 40 years before the endless war abroad, spread of guns with daily massacres, whipped up hatred for “the other” in the last year or so of the Republicans running for President. But effortlessly the first was made to speak to us about powerless wandering individuals in a vast world of treachery, betrayal, exploitation and nature’s indifference, and the second couldn’t help but show us the same violence intrinsic to American male culture as is found in the Oxbow Incident (for example), or city streets then and movie theaters (or agencies, stores, malls, wherever today), the power of the gun to kill so easily, and ethnic hatred.

My desire to demonstrate the moving marvel that is the Oregon production of Pericles re-created here at the Folger is made easy for me by directing the reader to Susan Galbraith’s A Magical Pericles, DC Theater Scene. If you don’t believe her, Kate Wingfield is grudging; I’ve read the play several times (I once planned to write my dissertation on one of Shakespeare’s late tragic romances, of which this is the first, the others Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) and was re-persuaded the first two acts are by him but from a very bad or corrupt quarto where what we have is half-remembered scenes (the man is trying hard): many lines here and there his, passages, the fishermen’s language jokes, e.g.,

    The blind mole casts
Copped hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is thronged
By man’s oppression, and the poor worm doth die for’t …

They say they’re half fish, half flesh. A plague on them! They ne’re come but I look to be washed. I marvel how the fishes live in the sea … Why, as men do a-land — the great ones eat up the little ones …

Die, koth-a? Now gods forbid’t, an I have a gown here, come put it on; keep thee warm … a handsome fellow … we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting days, and moreo’er puddingg and flapjacks

    the rough seas, that spares not any man,
Took it in rage — though, calmed, have given’t again
I thank three for’t.

The which hath fire in darkness, none in light,
Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men;
He’s both their parent,and he is their grave,
And gives them what he will, not what they want.

the whole conception his, reminding me of The Merchant of Venice and as a first full run of the motifs of the late romances.

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The production turns into self-reflexive parodic comedy (with an unacknowledged wink) some of the more stilted passages, and into semi-dumb show the paradigmatic moments, investing what adult emotion fairy tales allow until the moment Shakespeare’s text emerges at the first great tempest. Carr is up to it:

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The god of this great vast, rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell; and thou that hast
Upon the winds command, bind them in brass,
Having called them from the deep! O, still
Thy deaf’ning dreadful thunders; gently quench
Thy nimble sulphurous flashes! — O, how, Lychorida,
How does my queen? — Thou stormest venomously;
Wilt thou spit all thyself? The seaman’s whistle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
Unheard — (III:1)

Pamela Roberts also is eloquent and makes detail about the production by me unnecessary. I should add the use of computer-generated movie-like images in across the walls (as seas, stars, islands) worked beautifully (as these did in Antigone earlier this year).

In addition, the Folger team has had the intelligence to put on-line stills from some of the more wondrous, narrative:

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Amando Duran as Gower comes from the grave and ancient (even to Shakespeare) poetry to play narrator —

tragic and funny moments from the play.

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The three fishermen, in the center Michael J Hume who also plays Pericles’s wise moral mentor, Helicanus, and then turns into the vamp-bawd, of Mytilene:

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U. Jonathan Toppo one of the fishermen, now her sidekick pimp, Boult.

It’s more than a wondrous production. I saw something as deeply uplifting from Pericles at the Delacorte with Jim in the 1970s. It taught me what I know about books: years later the same work speaks to you in a way consonant with your life in a new time. This time watching people who died or were thought to be dead brought back, death conquered, I was brought to tears. Pericles is Lear in reverse. When Pericles says to his daughter, Marino, now found , “Thou beget’st him that did beget thee,” and “This is rare dream that e’er dull sleep/Did mock sad fools” (V:1) I thought of Jim he appears to me in my dreams. If you want to have your spirits cheered for this winter solstice, and live in the DC area or can get there, you can do no better.

But I also liked how they managed to do (as in The Tempest and Cymbeline) capture the malice, envy, indifference to suffering, sale of souls and bodies that is the world in other of the scenes, from hired assassins, to fishermen, to pimps:

Marine: “Thou hold’st a place for which the pain’st fiend/Of hell would not in reputation change/Thou are a damned doorkeeper …
Boult: “What would you have me do? go to the wars, would you? where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one (IV:6)

I wish I could find as accurate reviews of Eric Shaffaer’s most recent Sondheim (he is ever in charge, and this was his choice for the Christmas mainstream-enough program). I can find none. Nor are they generous with photos (foolish). Esse and Gardiner do little that is original or different or especially inspired. They try to follow the original Broadway production, with the difference that they have a lot less to work with (props, space, dancers, money for supremely good dancers and minor roles). They also alter some of the silent staging so that Tony and Maria are seen to go to bed together the one night they are together, and the white gang just about rapes Anita when she comes to warn Tony that Chino has a gun. I assume my reader knows the story and characters of this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet story.

The decision which seemed to me most right was to turn the production as much as possible into sheer dance and song. The story and characters became part of an expressionist dance.

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The white male gang

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Anita (Natascia Diaz was the strongest performer on stage, she exhilarated the audience as no one else did)

But (as with Shakespeare), the work can carry itself if everyone will but try, and that’s what happens in this production. The crowd of dancers, actors, singers are there in front of you interacting in visceral ways.

You also see what makes for a lasting classic: the older work gets new electric relevancy when it’s redone in another era. When Chino gets a gun and kills Tony the meaning now is different: we see how much easier it is to kill. They had Maria take the gun from Chino and her words cursing it had a new resonance. Also the speech of Doc against whipped up hatred. There is no place for these lovers and their ideals. This is one not to miss this year too.

Haj says in his program notes that Pericles is a play of survival, loss, maturation, and reconciliation. There’s not much to reconcile. Shakespeare opened with a cruel incestuous king and his daughter; Pericles left his baby, Marina, with a queen out of Snow White; having buried his beloved wife, he wanders griefstruck, alone. When the gods or fortune are finished playing their games with him, he exhibits acceptance, resignation, expansive relief. Gower has told us again and again what we are seeing is “in the old story” if you cannot believe. If it is all improbable, including several abandonments, the actors on the stage filled the roles with an intense enough identfication from somewhere.

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A balancing act on a swing

The program notes for West Side Story tell of the 1950s gangs in NYC, the immigration into the northern cities of the US from the south, and into NYC in particular, hispanic people from Latin and South America (listen to Juan Gonzalez about Puerto Rico’s position as a century-old colony), the destitution and poverty of the slums, the violence resorted to by the males excluded from economic hope. We all know homicides, racism, inequality, violence is as intrinsic to American experience today as it was then. Signature sees this musical as “plea for tolerance, acceptance and love.” I was impressed by how it ended on another widow — like Natalie Wood in the movie, Mary-Joanna Grisso who gives the most moving performance of the ensemble, genuinely convincing, plangent, trembling, leaves the stage swathed in a widow’s cape and shawl. Her brother, lover and fiancee all dead, Anita last seen racing away in a seething rage for having tried to forgive, and been near raped for her efforts.

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No lack of women in widow’s scarves today

Ellen

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Emily Blunt as the Baker’s wife going it alone …

The way is dark
The light is dim
But now there’s you, her and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help you when you return there.
— from the Choral Into the Woods

Dear friends and readers,

Jim loved Sondheim’s musicals, and I’ve just spent an hour or so perusing my and Yvette’s Christmas gift to him one year, the tall beautifully bound, Look, I made a Hat! (covering the years 1981-2011),

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most of which is by Stephen Sondheim, and contains full and partial accounts of many musicals (not all produced, some just in the idea stage, some extant just as a coupe of songs, a costume design), but for Into the Woods enough of the dialogues, most of the songs, and thinking and ideas behind the stage productions to enable the reader to re-enjoy and understand what he or she has just seen and heard.

Of Into the Woods Sondheim begins by writing that the first act is farce and the second tragedy. As many people know by now, the matter consists of at least 6 folk and fairy tale figures conceived as ordinary people who (like Six Characters in Search of an Author) must enact quests, all of which require them to go into the woods where they collide with one another, and do not exactly live happily ever after by the end. Many may not know Sondheim and James Lapine also saw the characters as “first achieving their goals, and then dealing with the consequences of what they did there.”

They did not follow Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment: Sondheim says this book is cited as their source by many people because it’s so well-known. Sondheim seems to dislike Bettelheim’s book and refers to Bettelheim’s terrible behavior at his aslyum. He says what James (who wrote the book) was interested in: “the little dishonesties that enabled the characters to reach their happy endings;” he was “sceptical about the possibility of ‘happy ever after'” (so could not be a Bettelheim person as Bettelheim justified the cruelty of the tales by the happy endings, which he insisted children believed in).

James’s play, Twelve Dreams, shows he was drawn to Carl Jung; they talked to a Jungian psychiatrist; learnt all the tales they chose were known in versions virtually around the world. The exception is “Jack and the Beanstalk” which seems to be a British Isles folk tale. Sondheim much preferred Grimm versions to those of Perrault (and says Disney and US school vesions come from the French). The gimmick was to mash the tales together. Sondheim gives Lapine credit for the elegance of the interweave. They ended up giving 3 midnights for the Baker and his wife to supply the witch’s demands before she’d give them a child:

The cow as white as milk,
The cape as red as blood.
The hair as yellow as corn —
The slipper as pure as gold.

As to himself (he writes the lyrics and music, the core of all opera), he sees the result as a musical about parents and children, about their relationships. Songs are about the experience of learning and gently ironic about what’s learnt. Sondheim remarks that the Baker and his wife are a contemporary urban couple trying to survive and to have a baby. What remains in my memory from Disney’s version is the Baker’s wife seeing Rapunzel’s hair rushing madly to the tower to wrest it, climb up and scissor it off. So Disney captures a current US obsession one finds in married women (they must become mothers).

The photos chosen are from a 2011 production done in Regent’s Park, London. The pages include sample scores, and handwritten notes and songs first written out in fairish copies reproduced. One of the photos is so large but scrumptious because of the park setting; the witch’s outfit is superb. There were no children in any of the parts; adults give the roles more depth.

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“Our Little World:” Rapunzel and her mother-witch clinging and rocking

Onto this year’s Disney movie: I didn’t need to read the the songs and dialogues and outline to recognize that Sondheim and Lapine’s stage play had been changed well beyond the needs of a film. the movie is directed by Rob Marshall, and the credits for writing are to James Lapine. There is a name given to someone else for the screenplay on the film credits, but it does not appear on IMDB. So like a translator a central person responsible for the movie is not named — perhaps he worked his screenplay from Lapine’s to Disneyfy it, and then they collaborated?

When we got out of the theater, Yvette recounted to me all the many literal large literal changes: while on stage and in the movie the baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) and Jack’s mother both die, in the movie Rapunzel (Macknzie Mauzy) does not kill herself after having a nervous breakdown from those years in the tower, but rather has a short episode of PTSD and is rescued by one of the princes.

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The Disney film Rapunzel is at least not altogether well

In the movie the evil witch (Meryl Streep) self-destructs rather spectacularly; in the play she lives on. Each of the changes has the effect of making for more (however serendipitious) justice and less misery. The play is further disneyfied by an over-production that overpowers, prettifies, drowns out the striking moments of exceptional embodiments of some of the characters (e.g., Johnny Depp as the wolf capering into nothingness) and the singing and acting of the lyrics smooths out to make neutral witty lyrics that mock heterosexual romance.

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Promotional still of Johnny Depp as the wolf, and Lilla Crawford as Little Red

As I watched the movie reminded me of our last year’s time with the Disney Saving Mr Banks: two child stars at the center; the anguish of frustrated husband-hero (here the Baker, James Corden, last year Mr Banks).

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At Regent’s Park an adult actor played Jack

There was not one seat unfilled in the auditorium (and yet the movie was playing on two screens) of this house meant for a mass audience I don’t usually sit among so the laughter at inanities further got in the way, not to omit an opening nerve-wracking full half-hour of tremendously noisy, flashing trailers for action-adventure fantasies and crude teenage sequels.

Nonetheless, not all disquiet could be removed, and this masterpiece retains some of its power and intense vivacity: by the middle of the second hour, I was sufficiently intensely engaged that I was surprised by grief when Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) burst into the song lyrics of “No one is alone:”

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Others may deceive you.
You decide what’s good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone …
Cinderella to the Baker (in original version sung to Little Red who suddenly misses her grandmother)

Jim has left us halfway through the wood. At the moment of that song, of the plangent music, I was reminded of how strangely filled with his absence the world everywhere now is, the very air I see registers he’d not there by its color, wherever I go I wish what even this fairy tale wouldn’t grant, wipe away death, the past year and one half and return to the comfort of his presence. He would not have liked this movie adaptation but would have gone for the sake of the day’s togetherness.

I began to cry and Yvette & I held hands. She felt and knew too. This is not the only passionate adult number. There’s the witch’s sudden appeal to Rapunzel, “Stay with me:” “Don’t you know what’s out there in the world? … Stay at home … Who out there could love you more than I? …

Stay with me
The world is dark and wild
Stay a child while you can be a child …

Or the “Agony” of the two princes (Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen). What can have caused this “disdain”? or her vanishing? Not every thing in life revolves around love and human need for company. Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) worries about starving; Jack (Daniel Hutttlestone) is attached to his cow:

Exclusive... Tracey Ullman Films "Into The Woods"
Jack is fonder of the cow than his mother

The “indecisive” Cinderella (the wittiest moment of the whole experience) does not trust to anyone, “The skies are strange/The winds are strong.”

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She realizes her dress and shoes are stuck in sticky-pitch the prince has laid across the steps to halt her nightly flights

Even the plucky Little Red is not unflappable. Indeed the the sky’s air is filled with a fearful giant who stands for whatever you want. Sondheim’s characteristic staccato rhythms keep interrupting with aphoristic fragments that linger in the mind: “how do you say to a child who’s in flight./Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight.” “Children will listen,” and the lyrics from the musical’s secondary big and repeating number, are justly famous:

Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you.

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The five characters left to leave the wood and live together at the close: Baker, new baby, Cinderella (who doesn’t mind some cleaning she suddenly says), Jack and Little Red

There is much sheer situation comedy too: the vexed characters argue at cross-purposes, accusing one another of being at fault.

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The Baker attempts to reason Little Red into giving up her red cloak

As to romance, it seems Chris Pine is a new heart-throb (Disney people know what they are doing when they cast roles):

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It’s significant to note that there is not one African-American actor on the screen who is visible — except perhaps fleetingly in non-speaking walk-on roles.

I thought Disney ruined Streep’s ability to perform when her aging face was transformed into a youthful mask of such thick wrinkle-free flesh it was clear they didn’t want anyone to identify her as a 50+ year old woman who has some realities of aging. Can’t have that. Of all the performers she seemed least able to overcome the Disneyfying all around her. Maybe she was trying too hard.

Still, especially if you’ve never seen the musical before, or haven’t seen it for a long time (my case), I recommend going, perhaps on off-hours and with a determined attempt to come in just as the actual movie is starting (avoiding attached trailers).

Like so many people in my area (and as far as I could see from the TV news across the US), Christmas day has become a day to go to a movie. The parking lot of our local huge 12 screen movie-house was filled by the time Yvette and I left at 3:30 pm.” Two movies were sold out: The Imitation Game (I do mean to go by myself next week) and Unbroken. If the holiday is still centered in the family, the family no longer spends the whole day home together. Probably wise. Hard to say how many do this as the roads were fairly empty. The streets quiet. I like the quiet of the streets, few people about, later in the day in pairs or little groups or alone, walking with pets.

It may be becoming commoner to do “a Jewish Christmas:” She and I went to an Chinese restaurant I remember going to nearly 30 years ago (not on Christmas), a small one which has Peking duck and well-cooked other dishes at a reasonable price; and while we didn’t need a reservation, by the time we left (after 5 pm) there was a 20 minute wait for a table. We enjoyed talking of the movie afterwards: Yvette has a good memory and regaled me with the details of a production she said she, I and Jim had seen some years ago at Mason University and we talked of the individual actors’ careers and performances.

In the evening my cousin just my age (woman, like me, many years married) phoned me and I was good hour on the phone with her catching up. A planned tentative Boxing Day with my other daughter, Caroline, at the National Gallery (the museums in DC on the day after Christmas are most of them open and crowded with shows mounted for just this holiday time) did not come off today. Among other things, I had the time wrong: Georgian Cinema begins January 12th. But the place will have this unusual early film exhibit, which I will go to in a couple of weeks.

I will ever remember the summer the Kennedy Center allowed Eric Schaeffer to take over the place with his direction of some 8 Sondheim musicals. How Jim, I and Yvette went to 6 (at a high price). How at the end of the summer, the day of the last performance of A Little Night Music (the last of all the performances), there were acts going on all over the building, some seemed spontaneous. How Jim loved best Passion and A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along (not enough well known, a bitterer one about the cost of a successful career whose gimmick is to tell the story backwards). Jim nonetheless wanted to see them all and if any came into our area, or we were in any place where one was showing, he’d choose it as one of the theatrical events we’d go to.

As I read the book last night I found myself regretting I had not sat down and read it with him, nor the one I bought him the year later for Christmas, Finishing the Hat (covering the years 195-1981),

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more and earlier musicals told of, younger photos of him, with an essay on Rhyme and Its Reasons, which I will today.

I regret all the time I spent at my computer, on the Net, and not with him. I feel an irony in that I deluded myself I had company, made myself not so alone by my time here; well here I am condemned to do it for life, or until I can’t any more when I’m too old. Like some fairy tale.

Once in a while he’d say “you don’t pay attention to me,” half-teasing. I have to tell myself if he had wanted me to spend more time with him, he’d have asked for it and because he had a way of putting things that compelled my immediate assent if the utterance was serious, I would have. Sometimes I think he didn’t want me all that close. Anyway that’s what I tell myself (the little dishonesties the characters tell themselves in the tales) in this great absence I must live with everywhere and all the time.

Ellen

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