Saturday, December 29, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "A Dance of Death" (on Strauss' Salome)


A Dance of Death (On Strauss' Salome)
by Douglas Messserli

Richard Strauss Salome / Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD Series," / Bridge Theater, Los Angeles on Saturday, October 11, 2008

Howard and I attended the high definition live performance of Strauss's opera Salome in late 2008; but its appropriateness for inclusion in the 2002 volume became immediately apparent. This opera is, after all, almost an inverted paean to the subjects of love, death, and transfiguration—although no one in this work—except perhaps for the necrophilic Salomé—can be said to be in love or spiritually exalted at its end.

Strauss's libretto, based on Oscar Wilde's French play, is almost painful to endure, moreover, because of its characters' confusion of love with lust, death with power, and transfiguration with insanity. Each of its major characters is doomed from the outset by his or her perverse behavior through which each desperately strives to attain something that cannot be given.

The Syrian Captain of the Guard, Narraboth, desires the untouchable Salomé, destroying himself when he witnesses her mad acts.

Herodias, Herod Antipas's niece and the former wife of his brother, Herod Philip, has married her uncle/brother-in-law to the outrage of many in Judea, receiving widespread damnation by Jochanaan (John the Baptist), whom Herod has, accordingly, arrested and imprisoned. The historical Herodias also wanted power and ultimately forced her husband to demand he be named King of the Judea provinces which he controlled; but in Strauss's version she primarily seeks the restoration of her "good name."

The historical Herod also sought further power, but in the opera is seen primarily lusting after his sixteen-year-old daughter, willing to promise anything if she will reveal herself in her legendary "Dance of the Seven Veils."

Once Salomé has witnessed the man behind the outraged voice in the chambers below the great terrace to where she has escaped from the dinnertime leers of her father, she desires to sexually control the prophet, who emphatically rejects her.

Jochanaan obviously seeks his freedom, but is even more committed to the damnation and redemption of the entire family. If their desires emanate from the lusts of self and body, his stems from an equally perversely unforgiving faith.

In order that this unhappy family and guests might obtain what they desire, each also gives up something that will end in self-destruction. As I have already reported, Narraboth gives up his life. Herodias sacrifices her own daughter to her husband for the possibility of destroying Jochanaan, and, in so doing, further dooms her "good name." Herod will be forced to give up his protection of the holy man, Jochanaan, resulting in the wrath of the Sanhedrin and his Jewish subjects and perhaps in the loss of his kingdom (in fact, soon after John's and Christ's death, Herod Antipas was banished by Caligula to Gaul). Through her dance, Salomé gives up, symbolically speaking, her chastity, and through her murder of Jochanaan, loses her sanity and ultimately her life (the historical Salomé did not die, but was wedded to Herod Philip, her mother's former husband). For his faith, condemnations, and disdain of Salomé Jochanaan sacrifices his head.

Salomé's frenzied dance, accordingly, can be understood as a ghastly dance of death, an abandonment of all things honorable that love, faith, and freedom might represent. It is both a sexual tease and a prelude to the sexual frenzy she later plays out when she is served the head of Jochanaan on a platter. But it is not only Jochanaan's and her own death for which she dances, but for the end of her world, the destruction—so often symbolically sought (and occasionally accomplished) by the younger generation against the old—of her parents and their world.

The Metropolitan Opera productions on screen are almost as good as being at the opera itself, and the close-up perspective is perhaps even better than witnessing the stage in the cavernous space. In this particular production, however, the censors felt it necessary to save the "home" audiences from witnessing Karita Mattila's breasts. But given the limitations of her dance, performed in what The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini aptly described as "Dietrichian drag," perhaps we were thoughtfully spared the spectacle. Although Mattila has a lovely face, and is able to vocally and physically convince the audience of her sexual energy, the very size of her body renders her performance to be more like that of an agile ox rather than a lithe teen. And it is hard to imagine Juha Uusitalo's Jochanaan as eliciting Salomé's intoxication with his eyes, lips, and hair. But then suspension of belief is often a requirement of opera productions, and the performances as a whole were riveting, particularly in Kim Begley's Herod and Ildkó Komlósi's Herodias.

Los Angeles, November 16, 2008

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Two Madams" (reviews of the Met and LAOpera productions of Madame Butterfly)

two madams

the blindfold
by Douglas Messerli
Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto), based on the play by David Belasco and the story by John Luther Long, Giacomo Puccini (composer) Madama Butterfly / the production I saw was a recast in high definition of the Metropolitan Opera production on Saturday, March 7, 2009 with Patricia Racette, Maria Zifchak, Marcello Giordani, and Dwayne Croft

Nearly anyone who has seen an opera knows the story of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Having fallen in love with the dashing American Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton, the fifteen-year-old Cio-Cio San marries him, despite the fact that in doing so she must give up her own family and friends. With Yankee haughtiness and a sense of superiority, Pinkerton scoffs at the American consul's advice that Cio-Cio San is taking the marriage seriously, and soon after, leaves her behind as he sails off to America and, ultimately, a "real" wife.
     Meanwhile, Cio-Cio San trusts that eventually he will return, singing her famed aria "Un bel di," in which she describes one beautiful day when a ship will sail into the harbor, returning Pinkerton to her. Meanwhile, Cio-Cio, courted by local men such as the wealthy Prince Yamadori, refuses to give up her so-called "American" marriage and ardently denies their insistence that Pinkerton has left her for good.

     The consul, Sharpless, has been given the difficult task of reading a letter from Pinkerton to Cio-Cio, reporting that he has been married, and will not return, but she, so delighted to hear any word from her husband, cannot comprehend what he is attempting to tell her, and when Sharpless tries to explain the facts in a more outright manner, she produces her and Pinkerton's son whom she is certain will draw Pinkerton back to her.

     Pinkerton, in fact, has already returned to Nagasaki, and has no intention of visiting Cio-Cio. When he does hear of the child's existence, he, his wife, and Sharpless, convince Cio-Cio's servant Suzuki, to break the news that Pinkerton and his new wife will adopt the son.

     Finally, Cio-Cio, who has been blinded throughout the entire opera to the truth, has her eyes opened, realizing, in horror, her delusional condition. She asks Pinkerton, a man so selfish that he has refused even to face her himself, to return so that she may offer up the child. But we also know that she intends to leave him her own body, committing ritual suicide. Who could not be moved by Patricia Racette's dramatically convincing performance? The Lithuanian-born American next to us—who had never before attended a Met video performance—was in tears, as were Howard and I.

     Belasco the original playwright and storyteller John Luther Long, upon whose work Puccini based his opera, were quite prescient in this fin de siècle piece, establishing a type, the ugly American, which has remained in place for all those years since, particularly in the context of the Korean, Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In Puccini's hands, the dichotomy between the all-consuming Yankee and the self-sacrificing Japanese maiden could not have made clearer.

     Yet, one can only recognize that it is Cio-Cio San's propensity for self-sacrifice is as much a problem in this relationship as has been Pinkerton's greed and disdain of her life. In her absurd innocence, she has been blinded not only to the impossibility that she could be recognized as an American wife, but has forgotten who she herself is and how her traditions and behavior conspire to permit the Pinkerton's of the world to prey upon such youths.

      Puccini poignantly points up this fact by having her son, whom she has sent out to play, wander into sight just as she is about to draw the knife. To protect him, she blindfolds the child, sending him on his way. But in doing this she merely reiterates her own condition all along. Singing of her hope that her son will remember her at the very moment that she is about to disappear from his life, we can only perceive that were he to do so, it could only bring him great pain for the rest of his days. In Anthony Minghella's Metropolitan Opera production Howard and I saw, the child, "Sorrow"/"Trouble" was played by a Bunraku-like puppet, manipulated by three hooded assistants, which visually restated the child's future sense of emptiness, his destiny, perhaps, to join in the world of hollow bodies.

     Accordingly, although the opera ends with a corpse upon the stage, we know that it is already a disappearing thing, representing as it does a way of living that will inevitably be replaced by the avaricious gluttony of the survivors.

 Los Angeles, March 28, 2009
fin de siècle
by Douglas Messerli

Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto), based on the play by David Belasco and the story by John Luther Long, Giacomo Puccini (composer) Madama Butterfly / the production I saw was by the LAOpera, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, on December 9, 2012

Although there are many good things about this Los Angeles Opera production, based on an earlier San Francisco Opera version—including the singing of Milena Kitic as Suzuki, the ever-resilient bass-baritone of Eric Owens (some of his tones lost, however, to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s unpredictable acoustics), and the basically excellent performances of Oksana Dyka (as Cio-Cio-Sun) and Bradon Jovanovich (as Pinkerton)—it would be simply unfair to compare this with the brilliant Anthony Minghella Metropolitan Opera production I saw in 2009. Although she has a strong soprano voice, Dyka simply is not a good match for the fragile, butterfly-like character. Singing at the top of her voice, one could certainly hear Dyka’s lyrical tunings, but she hardly seemed like a humble, obedient 15-year old which Patricia Racette more thoroughly convinced us she was. I look forward to hearing, at some point, Dyka’s Aida or Tosca.

       The heavy reliance upon shifting screens may certainly be appropriate to the period, but the design has somehow aged, and the placement of Pinkerton’s Westernized bed in the midst of this spare set was jarring. Jovanovich also has a fine, strong voice which he used to great purpose in the LAOpera production of The Birds in 2009. But here he seemed, at times, to be trying to sing out against his powerfully-voiced wife. But these are surely quibbles about performances that the audience apparently quite enjoyed—as did Howard and I. I might just note that the usually “jump-up-to-applaud” Los Angeles audience remained mostly seated at opera’s end.

     What struck me most while watching this production was just how connected to the works of the fin de siècle was Puccini’s 1904 opera. Beginning in the 1880s, writers such as Oscar Wilde, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Arthur Schnitzler openly challenged earlier moralities, and the characters of their work not only dismiss more conventional behavior, but reject previously moral values with clear hostility. Consider Bertha Garlan, the heroine of Schnitzler’s book of the same name. Bertha, who has lived most of her life in quiet domesticity becomes bored and impatient after the death of her husband, and—seemingly encouraged by a woman friend who Bertha sees as open-minded, slightly-libertine figure—attempts, on a trip to Vienna, to strike up a sexual relationship with a previous acquaintance, now a famous musician. The musician is all too ready to accept the sexual part of the relationship, but rejects any further commitment, leaving Bertha a nearly-destroyed woman who has suddenly behaved licentiously near the end of a life which she has previously lived with restraint and motherly affection. In Schnitzler play, “Hands Around,” men and women strike up brief affairs, each figure moving on, in turn, to another, until the sexual interludes have gone full circle. Wilde’s Importance of Being Ernest proceeds out of a world dominated by lying (the major character participating in what he describes as “bunburying” his way through life) into a society where love seems to be based on one’s first name. Huysman’s Des Esseintes lives his entire life in the delectation of special foods and perfumes, reading obscure texts, and other sensate experiences.

       So too does Puccini’s “coffee-house girl,” innocent though she may be, take up with an affair with a foreigner, delighted with his ultimate proposal of marriage. But Pinkerton, as we know, is a cad, not at all intending to keep his vow, and perceiving his Japanese wife of fifteen years of age (it would be hard to imagine presenting such a child abuser on stage today) simply as something to be toyed with. As he tells the only truly moral figure of the opera, the consul Sharpless, someday he will have a “real” marriage with a American woman.

     As callow as he be seen today, Pinkerton was little different from almost any major fin de siècle figure, men and women willing to throw over everything for a life of sensual pleasures. Despite her utter innocence, so too in Cio-Cio-San willing to marry not only outside her culture, attempting to redefine herself in terms of what American men may like, but is insistent about abandoning her own religion and cultural values in order to explore the “pure joy” she feels from her love with Pinkerton—despite the ultimate rejection of her by all of her relatives including the powerful Bonze. Like Bertha Garlan, Madame Butterfly may have lived a life beyond reproach (much of that depends on how one defines a Geisha), but she is now determined to throw all that away for a man to whom she is immediately attracted (as she admits, she has fallen in love upon first sight). And, although, she describes herself as humble and modest, patient as she explains her real and symbolic climb up to the hill to the house where Pinkerton intends to “install” her, she is also determined to live a better life, presumably in the United States where she delusionally believes her husband will eventually take her and their son.

        Puccini himself lived a sexually open life, living with and rearing a son with his mistress, Elvira, while simultaneously having other affairs with younger women such as Corinna, trysts he described as “cultivating my little gardens.” During the writing of Madama Butterfly the jealous Elvira insisted he marry her, in response to which Corinna threatened to reveal his love letters to the world. In short, the composer was not so very different from his characters, particularly if one sees Corinna as a kind innocent in the whole affair.

       In short, one of the reasons why the audience can emotionally bear the tragedy of Butterfly’s death is not only that we know Butterfly lives in a world of denial—a world of how things should be instead of how they are—but that, despite how despicably Pinkerton has treated her, refusing to even admit his American marriage to her face, she too has been caught up in the liberating spirit of her age. And although all those around her insist that she face the truth, Butterfly stubbornly refuses to admit the consequences of her choices.

      Based on a true-life figure, whose affair with Pinkerton probably occurred in 1892 or 1893, Butterfly herself was seeking experiences outside the range of normative moral behavior of the time, experiences which, while the fin de siècle writers may have often advocated,  also warned, just as Sharpless warns Pinkerton, might lead to dangerous consequences. Unlike Wagner’s heroes whose pure love for one another is betrayed by others and the gods, Puccini’s heroes have only their own desires, selfishness, and self-deceptions to blame for their fates.

Los Angeles, December 10, 2012  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Be Again" (on Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape)

be again
by Douglas Messerli
Samuel Beckett Krapp's Last Tape / production of the Gate Theatre Dublin at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Los Angeles on November 4, 2012

Actor John Hurt's portrayal of Krapp in Beckett's 1958 play is absolutely brilliant, except for, perhaps, the near interminable pause before the actor begins speaking. The stark setting of the play, with a single spots of bright white light, gives a grand theatricality to Krapp's world, a world in which, under the light, he feels safe while being surrounded by darkness wherein, as Beckett himself described it, "Old Nick" or death awaits, a fact Hurt reiterates once or twice by daring, with some humor, to enter, momentarily, the surrounding darkness.

     On his sixty-ninth birthday Krapp, yet again, forces himself to interact with a younger incarnation. It is clear that Krapp has a fixation with his former selves. For years he has recorded tapes describing his life's events, most of them quite meaningless, but some of them of great poetry and sensibility. The tape Krapp chooses on this particular, rainy night, is "Box 3, Spool 5," the day Krapp turned 39.

     Yet director Michael Colgan reveals that what leads up to his playing the tape is as important in some senses as what is actually on the tape itself. The ritualistic acts, Krapp's continual checking of the time, his strange way of eating a banana—he puts the entire banana into his mouth holding it there for a while before biting it off, clearly a bow to the fruit's sexual suggestions—and several of his other actions, including his nearly falling on the banana peel he has tossed into the dark, reveal him as a kind of eccentric fool—in short, the typical Beckett figure. As his name suggests, he is "full of shit."

     Hurt presents Krapp with a kind of valor despite his obvious distancing of himself from the human race. Clearly Krapp's mother has been a monster, living for years in a world of "vidiuity"—the condition of being or remaining a widow. The small things he describes are both comical and life-affirming: playing ball with a dog as his mother dies, awarding the ball to the dog as he hears of his mother's death; attending a vesper service as a child, falling off the pew.

Krapp is an everyday man with romantic aspirations, or at least he was, it is apparent, at age 39, the time when we are all have arrived in the prime of life. Krapp at 39 is both a smug bore,

Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indulgence until that
memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the
howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the
whole thing. The vision, at last. This fancy is what I have chiefly
to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done
and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the
miracle that . . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight.
What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going
on all my life, namely—(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape
forward, switches on again)—

a man who will not regret any decision of his life, and is a man amazingly come alive through the love of a woman whom he describes lovingly in a scene where the two lay in a small punt as it floats into shore through the reeds.

     The older Krapp, who realizes that his younger self could not imagine the loneliness and emptiness of the life ahead, has no patience at times with his past. His new tape, which he begins after impatiently winding the older tape ahead to escape his previous self's blindness, is filled with bitterness and anger for a failed life:

Nothing to say, not a squeak. What's a year now? The sour cud and
the iron stool. (Pause.) Reveled in the word spool. (With relish.)
Spooool! Happiest moment of the past half million. (Pause.) Seventeen
copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries
beyond the seas. Getting known. (Pause.)

He has failed, obviously, even in his writing career. Unlike his younger self, so unregretful of his past, the old Krapp is filled with the detritus of his life, all those materials left over from his disintegration. If the younger Krapp declares himself as only moving forward, the elder would "Be again!"
Be again in the dingle on a Christmas Eve, gathering holly, the
red-berried. (Pause.) Be again on Croghan on a Sunday morning,
in the haze, with the bitch, stop and listen to the bells. (Pause.)
And so on. (Pause.) Be again, be again. (Pause.) All that old
misery. (Pause.) Once wasn't enough for you. (Pause.)
Lie down across her.

He gives up this, his last tape (or perhaps simply his latest) to listen again to his former self describing his sexual moment with the woman in the punt.

       Hurt so painfully suffers and loves his former self—at one moment even embracing the machine through his young speaks—that one can almost hear his heart crack.

Los Angeles, November 6, 2012
A slightly different version of this piece about the filmed version with Hurt was published in My International Cinema (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2012).

Douglas Messerli | "Spiritual Uplift" (on Leonard Bernstein's Trouble iln Tahiti)

Spiritual Uplift
by Douglas Messerli


Leonard Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti / performed by the Pacific Opera Project, Santa Monica, California (the production I saw was on Sunday, April 15, 2012)

In early April 2012, my companion Howard heard on the radio of a young Los Angeles opera company’s plans to revive their first operatic production, Trouble in Tahiti, in a small theater space in a Santa Monica park. He immediately called for tickets.

On Sunday, April 15th, the day after we had watched the HD-live production of the MET’s La Traviata, Howard and I attended this amateur production of the Pacific Opera Project. The singers, all of whom had performed in small companies and in lesser roles in professional opera groups, introduced themselves, first performing—almost as a sort of bonus and promotion for their upcoming production, in Pasadena, of Cosi Fan Tutte—a medley of works from the Bernstein songbook, including numbers from Wonderful Town and West Side Story. Although their performances were certainly competent, the actors hammed-up their numbers a great deal, and their vocal ranges were not always best suited for the musical theater numbers they performed.

Their performance of Trouble in Tahiti, however, was near perfect—at least vocally. Using a minimal set of interlinked, painted walls, the trio of the girl (Tara Alexander) and two boys (Robert Norman and Ryan Reithmeier) perfectly captured Bernstein’s jazz-inspired riffs on “the little white house” in the numerous American suburbs where they exist. Jessica Marmey and Phil Meyer expertly played the central couple, Dinah and Sam, as they fight, battle, and wander through a day in their tortured lives, each escaping into fantasy worlds—Sam into his vision of male-bonded powe-broker and Dinah into the romance of the movie she has seen, loved, and yet mocks. Her lovely aria of a dream world of “a quiet place,” was particularly well done; indeed such longing almost breaks the heart. But this is a couple, after all, who both make up excuses, when they encounter each other in the city, why they cannot share lunch, only to sit, each of them, lonely and unfulfilled.

The remarkable thing about this small production is that, playing where it did, in a small local park in an intimate theater with about sixty audience members, both Howard and I were absolutely charmed by this theatrical experience in way that, after so many years of professional theater and opera, one begins to forget is at the heart of the art. It is a bit like attending a high school performance of a musical or opera about which one has little expectations, but is suddenly astounded by the freshness and resplendent originality of the work. While the film version I review elsewhere on this blog was brilliantly conceived and performed, this smaller production seemed somehow to get at the very heart of Bernstein’s simple two-piece operatic melodrama. And we both left the theater filled with a new kind of wonderment for both the piece and these young performers. Sometimes one simply has to go back to the roots of how one came to love theater and opera in the first place, to rediscover the simple marvel of talented individuals standing upon—in this case—a nearly empty stage and opening their mouths to sing out the pleasures and sorrows of life. Unlike all the productions of operas we have recently seen, the singers of this Trouble in Tahiti stood outside the entrance to the theater after the performance like the minister and chorus of a small town church to greet their congregation. We all shook hands and went home spiritually uplifted.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Pure Poetry" (on Cole Porter's Anything Goes)

pure poetry
by Douglas Messerli
P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, revised by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, revised again by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman (book), Cole Porter (music and lyrics) Anything Goes / the production I saw was on December 1, 2012 at Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

The musical Anything Goes has been rewritten so many times, adding Porter’s songs from other musicals while subtracting several of the original songs, that one might almost describe what I witnessed the other day as a shadow of its first conception, even if, arguably, the layering revisions have burnished it into a better work. Most of the changes, however, have been to the story, and since the silly couplings and un-couplings of the work hardly matter, it is hard to be interested in the “ur-text.” I will be glad to except Timothy Crouse’s and John Weidman’s assurances that they were “purists” “but only to a point.” What is important is that they restored as much of Porter’s score as they could, adding only three wonderful Porter songs “Friendship,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.”
The story, in fact, pretty much lives up to the musical’s title, the characters almost changing partners willy-nilly. This time round nightclub singer (former evangelist?) Reno loves Billy, Billy loves Hope, Hope pretends to love Lord Evelyn Oakleigh but really loves Billy, Lord Evelyn loves Reno, Elisha Whitney loves Evangeline Harcourt, and Erma loves everybody. Enough said. The book—whatever version you choose—makes soap operas, by comparison, look like grand operas. “Frothy” is the appropriate word.

      Yet this chestnut has been immensely popular since its 1934 opening in New York, running 420 performances even during the great depression, and reappearing in successful productions in England and New York in 1935 (261 performances), 1962, 1987 (784 performances), 1989 and 2011 (521 performances). What I saw was a sold-out performance of the touring version of the 2011 production. Why has it succeeded again and again?

     The answer, quite obviously, is not just a cast of talented singers and dancers (a requirement of course!) but Cole Porter, who in this and other works turns what might have been tin-pan ditties into pure American poetry. Sure, the music itself is spritely and often borders on a kind regularized jazz. But those words! No one, not even Stephen Sondheim, can write as wittily idiomatic lyrics while pulling his audiences into a kind of licentious world that hints of everything from adultery and drug addiction to sexual orgies and open homosexuality, with his characters simultaneously hoofing up innocent-seeming line dances across the stage.

      The fun begins with this show’s very first song, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” where Broadway libertine Reno Sweeney (the talented Rachel York) tells Billy about her frigidity concerning everyday life:

                                 I get no kick from champagne.
                                 Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all,
                                 So tell me why should it be true
                                 That I get a kick out of you?
                                 Some get a kick from cocaine.
                                 I’m sure that if I took even one sniff
                                 That would bore me terrific’ly too
                                 Yet I get a kick out of you.

The whole idea of sexual excitement being likened to a “kick,” compared to champagne and cocaine would be unimaginable in Irving Berlin’s near-Puritanized romances. Berlin could be funny, even witty, but couldn’t be funny, witty, and naughty at the same time. When Berlin’s characters said they loved someone they meant it, for all time. For Reno and numerous other characters of Porter’s world love my haunt one, even torture one, but it was seldom seen as permanent and could even be an everyday occurrence, something to traffic in, something someone might what to “buy”—just like champagne and cocaine.

     Or consider the wonderful shifts in the notion of “friendship” in the song titled that. It begins as a song of spirited support of one being for another, in this case the musical’s two major “hustlers,” Reno and Moonface Martin (the 13th most wanted criminal):

                  If you’re ever in a jam, here I am
                  If you’re ever in a mess, S.O.S.
                  If you’re so happy, you land in jail. I’m your bail.

But gradually as they each try to outdo one another is imagining life-saving necessities, the song becomes a kind of contest which reveals that underneath their “perfect friendship” there is not only an open competiveness but a true hostility:

                  If they ever black your eyes, put me wise.
                  If they ever cook your goose, turn me loose.
                  If they ever put a bullet through your brain, I’ll complain.

The lyrics grow even more outlandish as they imagine the worst for one another:

                   If you ever lose your mind, I’ll be kind.
                   And if you ever lose your shirt, I’ll be hurt.
                   If you ever in a mill get sawed in half, I won’t laugh.

It finally ends with imagining each other being eaten by cannibals, in which the second half answers “invite me.”

     These are not the words of supportive human beings, but of criminals who might turn on each other in a minute. Pluming the unconscious depths of American’s fascination with violence—notably present in the entertainments of the 1930s—Porter has created almost a paean to the macabre, a world wherein people land up in jail, put bullets through brains, lose their minds, get sawed in half, and are consumed by cannibals, lines somewhat reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’ observation “the pure products of America / go crazy” and Allen Ginsberg’s opening line in Howl: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….”

     Hearing once more the musical’s title song, “Anything Goes,” I realized that, once again, the most important thing about this work is its lyrics—which unfortunately, in the quick-paced rhythms, got somewhat lost in York’s rendition; suddenly it became clear to me that the original Reno, played by Ethel Merman, with her emphatic pronunciations of every word, may have been the perfect Porter interpreter.

     Like the peeved reactions of conservative parents through the mid 1960s, Porter presciently reiterates the very same issues of change in his opening refrain:

                                    Times have changed
                                    And we’ve often got a shock,
                                    When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
                                    If today,
                                    Any shock they should try to stem,
                                    ‘Stead of landing of Plymouth Rock,
                                    Plymouth Rock would land on them.

The song goes on to explain the topsy-turvy morality of the contemporary world:

                                     The world has gone mad today
                                     And good’s bad today,
                                     And black’s white today,
                                     And day’s night today,
                                     When most guys today
                                     That women prize today
                                     Are just silly gigolos

Porter might almost have added: “Or are gay today.” Indeed, Porter does add himself, indirectly, to that list:

                                     Good authors too who once knew better words,
                                     Now only use four letter words
                                     Writing prose, Anything Goes.

The incessant repetition of the word “today” simply reiterates the inescapable contem-poraneity of it all, the insistence of this song’s presentness without past or future. Porter’s world—at least in this musical—is without guilt or consequence, a godless place where “grandma’s who are eighty” sit in nightclubs getting “matey with gigolos,” where  “mother’s pack and leave poor father” to become “tennis pros,” and “The set that’s smart / Is intruding in nudist parties in studios.”  It is a world we all imagine we live in or, at least, might liked to have lived in, even if the truth is something far different; and for that reason, the elderly audience with whom I sat at the matinee performance, instead of being even slightly taken aback, leaned forward with complete enthusiasm, as the cast tap-tap-tapped.

In such an “anything goes” atmosphere Porter was freed up to even question the normal structure of his songs, to query and even challenge the standard introductory lead-ins and normalized language of Broadway music:

                           I feel a sudden urge to sing
                           The kind of ditty that invokes the spring

                           I’ll control my desire to curse
                           While you crucify the verse.

                           This verse I started seems to me
                           The Tin-Pantithesis of a melody.

                            So spare us all the pain,
                            Just skip the darn thing and sing the refrain…      

Of course, what they sing is “delightful, delicious, de-lovey, delirious” in its de-construction of the English language, letting themselves go in thrilling, drilling (de-de-de-de) of words that suggest being out of control.

Indeed, Porter’s lyrics almost always seem to be slightly over the top, about to spill over into pure ridiculousness as they finally do in “You’re the Top,” where the same couple, Reno and Billy, again in an attempt to outdo one another, compare each other with almost anything that comes to mind, from the Louvre Museum, to a symphony by Strauss, to a Shakespeare sonnet and even Mickey Mouse. Blithely jumping across the bodies of outstanding individuals, expensive drinks, glorious visions of nature, national institutions, celebrity salaries, to end in marvelous industrial creations, moving across the whole society as if it were all of one glorious piece, again not unlike Williams in his Spring and All.

                                        You’re the top!
                                        You’re Mahatma Gandhi.
                                        You’re the top!
                                        You’re Napoleon Brandy.
                                        You’re the purple light
                                        Of a summer night in Spain,
                                        You’re the National Galley
                                        You’re Garbo’s salary,
                                        You’re cellophane.

Never has the simple metaphor been used to such an extreme example! At one grand moment the couple compare each other to the great romantic poets only to suddenly drop into the most banal of American consumer products:

                                         You’re Keats.
                                         You’re Shelley,
                                         You’re Ovaltine. (,)

hinting at the purist poetry possible!

Los Angeles, December 4, 2012

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Mariachi to Merman" (on Dan Guerrero)

mariachi to merman
by Douglas Messerli
Dan Guerrero (writer and performer) ¡Gaytino! / East Los Angeles, East Los Angeles College, October 4, 2012

On my companion Howard’s 66th birthday, we attended a performance of ¡Gaytino! performer and producer Dan Guerrero. The performance, which recounts much of Guerrero’s life was presented in conjunction with a show at the East Los Angeles College museum of the Chicano artist, Carlos Almaraz, who, as a close childhood friend of Guerrero’s, played a large role in Guerrero’s memories.

      The two grew up together in East Los Angeles and moved, temporarily in Almaraz’s case, to New York together, sharing for a while a small flat. Guerrero was gay and Almaraz, at least later in his life, was bisexual.

     Guerrero’s entertaining and somewhat self-satirizing show is subtitled “Mariachi to Merman, Sondheim to Cesar Chavez,” and the rage of those extremes are, in part, his defining life experiences. To a mostly student audience of primarily Chicano students, Guerrero explained that he grew up without defining himself as anything but a second generation American; although his parents were of Mexican background, he did not define himself in the 1940s and 1950s as either Chicano or Latino. Yet, without him quite realizing it, he grew up at the very center of the Mexican-American culture in that his father, Lalo Guerrero, was the famed mariachi composer-singer. In a recent interview, Guerrero recounted what he also reveals on stage:

I was just a kid when Mom took me to see Dad
perform at the Million Dollar Theatre in downtown
Los Angeles, one of the great movie palaces built
back in 1918. By the early 1950’s, changing demo-
graphics kicked in and it became the cultural
center for LA’s Spanish-language community.
You got a great black and white film from the
Golden Age of Mexican cinema and a live variety
show with the biggest names from Mexico and the
biggest Mexican names from this side of the border.
Dad walked out on that stage and, when applause
broke out, I knew he was special and not just a “regular”
Dad like my friends’ dads. He belonged to a bigger
audience than just Mom and me. I knew it at that

Late in his life, Lalo, who has been described as the “Father of Chicano Music,” was awarded a

NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1991, and was named a National Folk Treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1980. President Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts, the first Chicano to receive that award.

     Yet, for much of his life, his son tried to dissociate himself from that music and the world with which it was associated. At one of his very first Broadway performances, Ethel Merman, singing “Some People” in the music Gypsy spoke what felt was directed at him. He sings a few stanzas in his performance with great Mermanian gusto.

     In New York he took acting and dancing lessons, and tried out for dozens of roles, but as he jokes, there weren’t many roles for Latinos. Of course there was West Side Story, but, he admits he wasn’t the gang type. During these years he had to control what now describes as an “expansive” nature, resist being, what was then described as being “light in your loafers.” When Almaraz returned to Los Angeles and art school, Guerrero admits feeling utterly lonely, alone in the city he loved.

     Although he did get several acting roles in summer stock companies—groups, he jokes, so sexually charged that he even had sex with a woman—he gradually realized that his dreams of being on the Broadway stage grew fainter. Almost by accident, learning on the job, Guerrero began an actor’s agent, becoming very successful, casting numerous figures in works as different as A Chorus Line and Cats. Among his several well-known clients was a very young girl, who, however, was extremely wise as she sat in his office suggesting roles: Sarah Jessica Parker. Involved with the casting of the musical Zoot Suit, a musical about the 1940s Chicano community in Los Angeles, Guerrero’s life suddenly came full circle as he reencountered not only the music his father had created by actor friends such as Lupe Ontiveros and others he had known previously.

     That event changed reinvigorated him, encouraging him to return to Los Angeles, where he suddenly began to embrace all of the culture he had previously shunned. Working with everyone from Sondheim to Tommy Tune, Guerrero now cast mostly Chicano and Latino actors, and forged friendships with people who had known and respected his father, including the labor agitator Cesar Chavez, at whose funeral he organized the Chicano actors’ contingent. Years before Chavez had suggested to his father where to perform, based on places at which he planned to rally.

     Of course he also reforged his friendship the boy who as a child he’d know as “Charles,” the now renowned artist Carlos Almaraz, who tragically died of AIDS in 1989.

     By turns campy, vaudevillian, and historian, Guerrero tells a fantastic tale in ¡Gaytino! that results in laughter and tears.

Los Angeles, October 8, 2012