Sunday, November 27, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Believers and Those Who Have Lost Faith (on George Furth's and Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along)

the believers and those who have lost faith
by Douglas Messerli

George Furth (book, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart), Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) / 1981 / the versions I saw were from 2010, at Crossley Terrace Theatre at the First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood and the production on Saturday, November 27, 2016 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts/Bram Goldsmith Theater

Howard and I first saw Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical, revised from a version of Off-Broadway in 1994, at the Crossley Terrace Theatre at the First Presbyterian Church in  Hollywood in 2010. I remember it as a very pleasant amateur production with a small, somewhat difficult-to-hear combo playing from off stage. One of the local Los Angeles reviewers, Philip Brandes, described it as “Making the most of modest resources, a heartfelt, committed revival from Actors Co-op,” which “shows why this under-appreciated Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical has steadily risen in stature since its initial commercial failure….” Other local reviewers equally praised it.
        Inexplicably, Howard does not recall our attending it, but I remember several of its excellent songs, including “Not a Day Goes By” and the musical’s final number which—since the play moves backward from 1976-1957—is actually the first sentiments of the work’s three major characters, a lovely song of the belief in their futures, “Our Time,” which expresses the hopes of every generation, this witnessing the New York flyby of the Russian satellite, Sputnik.  “Old Friends,” the funny-angry song “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” “It’s a Hit,” and “Good Thing Going” were also among the musical’s high points. But I also recall that both Howard and I were startled by a work, based on a 1934 play by the famed writing team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which expressed such clear cynicism. Probably because I had already spoken, in several pieces of Sondheim’s dark cynicism in other works, I chose not to review the piece that year. And, “as the days go by,” I’m happy now that I didn’t comment on it in the 2010 volume.
     For now—having just come away from the wonderfully produced and marvelously acted and sung version, directed by Michael Arden for the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills—I realize just how wonderfully theatrical Sondheim’s and Furth’s musical is, despite the cynicism it expressed for its lead character Franklin Shepard (Aaron Lazar), who falls into the spider’s web of singer-lover Gussie Carnegie (Saycon Sengbloh), that the other central figures had, in fact, retained their faith in the future, even if, in the very first scene, Franklin’s friend Mary Flynn (Donna Vivino)—who gets incredibly drunk at the Hollywood party to celebrate the clearly mediocre movie he has just produced—so berates his hangers-on that she will never again be allowed to be in Franklin’s presence, just as his other “old friend,” Charley Kringas (the truly marvelous Wayne Brady) has previously been banned. By the end of this first scene, the last in the musical’s chronology, Franklin, having now been abandoned by his second wife, Gussie, is left alone with no one but himself to help him understand how seriously he has fucked up his life.
      Over the course of 20 years of particular scenes—in the musical’s backward scenario, from 1976. 1973, 1968, 1966, 1964, 1960, 1959, and 1957—we watch the gradual devolution of Frank from a dreamer about creating serious music (the only thing he’s really good at) to a  man who cheats on his first wife, Beth, and later his second wife, Gussie, and is willing to give up almost all of his formerly challenging concepts for mediocre projects that produce money but offer little intellectual or spiritual challenges. Those who most loved him, one by one, are forced to admit his hollow core, and do so in quite painful terms, particularly in Charley’s on-TV interview—in another highly embarrassing moment for Franklin—“Franklin Shepard, Inc,”—and, after the first scene breakdown, in Mary’s own rendition of “Not a Day Goes By” (sung oddly enough—while making it utterly apparent that Mary has perhaps a deeper love for him that his fiancée—as a trio between Franklin and his new wife, Beth). In almost every step along the way, Franklin, because of his selfishness, inner greed, and lack of true feeling, makes the wrong decisions—winding up with all the praise of his fawning “blob” mob peers and lots of money, but with no self-respect; while the formerly diminished Charley, whose last name their first producer, Joe Josephson  (Amir Talai) cannot even remember, receives a Pulitzer Prize for his plays—the writer’s not very believable symbol for true recognition of talent; and, even if she can no longer write, Mary had, at least, a best-selling novel—equally non-convincing, but again a symbol for the audience to perceive that she has talent. In short, for all Franklin’s financial success, by play’s end (represented in the work’s beginning) he has very little to show for all of his wonderful dreams, for which everyone previously loved him.
       To stitch all of these various “scenes” together, Sondheim—always a genius with ensemble pieces—creates a series of “transitions” with songs such as the title work, “Merrily We Roll Along” and the “Blob” songs, as well as numerous repetitions and reprises. Today, particularly, in a grandly produced production such as this one, with full sets (a maybe overly-busy representation of numerous bulb-lit actor’s mirrors and larger mirrors which reiterate both the theater world and the self-consciousness involved with those portrayed) and a wide range of believable costumes (both by Dane Laffrey) I finally realized just how innovative Sondheim’s musical was in 1981, when it bombed after 16 performances (more about that below). As director Arden wrote in the program: “

        I think they [Sondheim and Furth] wrote this musical a little before 
        its time because I can’t imagine anyone having a hard time following
        it now. If anything, Merrily provides us an opportunity for reflection.

        I have a history of tearing up whenever I see what I might describe as a near-perfect musical. The great acting and singing of these actors, particularly given the various trajectories in which the plot took them from their earliest dreams and imaginations, left me with very few moments of dry eyes, and sometimes, embarrassingly—but I still proudly admit—I even had to control an occasional sob. As I’ve often written, when it comes to the American musical, I am a true sentimentalist—particularly when comes to any musical from 1940-1960, and any Sondheim musical after.
        And this time round, Merrily We Roll Along seemed not simply cynical, but a story of moral precaution. One can chose, with careful thinking and emotional response, which way to go; and, particularly with the collaboration of friends, one can devote one’s life to the more complex and difficult, instead of giving into the demands of those who find that music and art have to be “hummable” and simply popular in order to, as Gussie puts it, “get what you want.” The continued “question” of ensemble members, “how did I get here?” is absolutely made clear in Sondheim’s and Furth’s lucid work. Whether or not Franklin will be ever able to perceive that answer is open to question, but by the time the musical finishes, revealing his former glorious belief in his own generation, we no longer care, for he has desperately failed to live up to his own dreaming.

Los Angeles, November 27, 2016

Monday, November 14, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Send in the Clowns" (on Philip Glass' opera Aknaten)

send in the clowns

by Douglas Messerli

Philip Glass in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Ridell, and Jerome Robbins (libretto), Philip Glass (music) Akhnaten: An Opera in Three Acts / Los Angeles, LAOpera, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion / the performance Howard Fox and I saw was a matinee on Sunday, November 13, 2016

For me, it’s admittedly hard to know quite what I feel about Philip Glass’s operas, particularly the three signature works, Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagrapha (1980), and Akhnaten (1984), all three which, since visiting the last opera yesterday at the LAOpera company’s production, I have now seen in excellent productions.
      Surely they are all beautiful pageants, with the chordal collection of the composer’s repeated and shifting motifs often creating sounds of shimmering perfection. In all three productions, the sets and costumes were innovative and, in Akhnaten, quite stupendous in their effects. In all the productions I’ve seen, the singers and other figures were superior. Particularly, in Akhnaten, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges sang quite brilliantly, with the LAOpera Chorus performing at the highest level (despite the unfortunate collapse, in early scene of the opera, of a chorus member, which required several of her fellow singers to help her off; we can only pray that she was not seriously hurt.).
      Despite the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s continued acoustical problems, the LAOpera orchestra, this time under the baton of the young wunderkind conductor/composer Matthew Aucoin, came through well, except in a very few instances where, from my balcony position, we heard more tuba than other instrumentation. The audience, far more diverse than usual and, seemingly, quite sophisticated and eager to enjoy this production, clearly took immediate pleasure in it.
       And yet…in all three works, two of them sung in ancient languages, and the earlier work often singing the language of counting, my companion Howard and I both felt a kind of ennui as the singers moved through space in snail-pace deliberateness, shifting from opera’s more-standard narrative sweep to an opera made up of images closer to tableaux vivants than to normative theater.
      I feel strange to appear to be expressing dissatisfaction with that fact, since I have long expressed my love of just such a narrative technique in the works of Djuna Barnes, and in the filmmaking of Sergei Paradjanov, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and others. Perhaps it’s just not as effective on stage, particularly when accounting a rather exciting tale such as the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten’s fascinatingly short life. In fiction you can combine, as does Barnes, the “stops” in the fiction with a strong narrative overlay, using the temporary tableaux as evidence for the effects of the story. In film, directors such as Paradjanov link their tableaux vivants into a series of narrative events. But in theater such as this, in which is no true narrative structure, the time-stopped scenes become mere spectacle.
      While Einstein featured the abstract, the mathematical and scientific theories of the thinker, and Satyagrapha dealt with the sometimes equally abstract world of politics, Akhnaten’s is a world of religion, and a radical new religion to boot.*
     Perhaps it is appropriate, at least in the early and late scenes, to bathe the new pharaoh’s, and, later, dead pharaoh’s experiences in the slow and measured pace of rituals, letting the driving music, most excitingly presented in tympani and brass (there are no violins in this darker-sounding work) create the inner narrative energy. This Egypt is still a dark place of priests who worship dozens of deities, all of whom must be given their due before the new King can be crowned. And it is not accidental that for the first 20 minutes of this opera, the work’s hero is entirely speechless, often while nude—in short, vulnerable and even unprepared for his soon-to-be glorious clothing. Indeed, this King remains partially naked, and therefore, an easy target throughout much of his life.
     It is also clear that the drop-dead love duet between Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti might not allow for more action than the two walking slowly across stage, each swathed in an endless train of red robes that become intertwined. After all, Tristan and Isolde often stand—at least in most productions—in near motionless scenes to sing their great love duets.
        I can even understand why Akhnaten’s great hymn to the sun, a lovely, quiet piece which Costanzo sings in the very front of the stage—again, while appearing naked, with a gossamer robe to which are appliquéd breasts and, now, a vagina where he real penis once was located—does not require nor even want much movement.
       Yet even later events when Akhnaten sings, quite agitatedly about his vision of a new city to celebrate his sun god, or, when he and his family are coming under attack from the Egyptian citizenry for his insistence on a near-monotheistic worship (scholars now argue, that, at least in the early years, Akhanaten’s world was much more open for individuals to maintain some of their older beliefs), or when the Pharaoh actually comes under attack, being killed in front of his wife, mother, and six daughters do we really need the same slow pace?
       To somewhat entertain us, director Phelim McDermott sends in the clowns—in this a team of British jugglers who throw balls and other objects, mostly circular—paralleling, of course, the father and mother sun from which Akhnaten argues he has emanated. Yet even their actions are often slowed down as they are forced to slowly crawl across the stage floor and move gradually in and out of the singers. And when they do suddenly spring into actions, quite adeptly tossing their balls and clubs through the air, they appear as more of a distraction than an integral element of Glass’s work. 
       Strangely, while Glass’s score hardly even lets up in its driving momentum, the fact that he generally prefers to skip stage action or slow it down to such a gradual motion that it appears they are moving in a kind of dream space, he also enervates his characters to such a degree that they appear, themselves, to be unreadable hieroglyphs, and become difficult to comprehend in real life.
        Akhnaten and his world, indeed, are difficult for our time to comprehend, since most of his city, art, and communications were destroyed by his son Tutankhamun and the later pharaoh Horemhab. But it would have been nice, just once, to see these figures behave like real human beings instead of historical ghosts. And, despite the long length of this opera, I’d have given up the jugglers any day just to hear another, more revealing aria by Akhnaten and Nefertti.
        I can only commend LAOpera, however, for staging this stunningly scored work. Perhaps, in the future, we can get a less mannered presentation of it.

*I should add that, although the opera seems to give tribute to Akhnaten for his attempt to change his country from polytheism to monotheism, and Freud, in his important study From Moses to Monotheism attempts to connect those changes with Akhnaten’s rule, I am, personally speaking, not so sure I mightn’t prefer the early Egyptian and later Greek and Roman polytheism, which I recount in several of the essays of this volume. These people, at least, lived with a far larger ability to assimilate different religious views. As we know, monotheism most always tended to want to destroy all other religious viewpoints, a history of religious monotheism which remains with us even today, and helped to give rise to groups such as ISIS and even the American Klu Klux Klan.

Los Angeles, November 14, 2016