Posts Tagged ‘musical theater’

I have saved Passion for last not only because it is the most recent addition to my list of favorites, but also because it is a difficult musical to explain. It is a difficult musical, period. It challenges its audience to the extent that for some, it is an alienating experience. I know this firsthand because the first time I saw Passion was on DVD many years ago, and my husband hated it. It really pushed his buttons, he hated the characters, he didn’t care one way or another about the music. In fact, it’s the only musical I introduced to him to which I remember him having such a violently negative reaction. 

We went together to see a production of Passion during our recent trip to London – yes, my husband loves me – and it was seeing it live that made me realize what a masterwork it is. My husband didn’t hate it this time around either, although we did have a lively discussion afterwards. The thing with Passion is, it grows on you over time, over multiple listenings/viewings, and through your own life experiences. That first time I saw it, I don’t think I had the necessary insights to understand it in the same way that I understood it this past November. And if I see it again in five or ten years, I fully expect it to be a different experience yet again.

Stephen Sondheim is an amazing composer and an equally dazzling lyricist (in fact, he got his professional start as a lyricist), and those skills are clearly in display in this, one of his latest shows. The score is romantic and lush, the melodies much more memorable than in many of his shows, and the inclusion of martial drum rolls ties nicely into both the show’s themes and even some of its lyrics (“They Hear Drums”). The show features a chorus of male soldiers who comment on the action (and spread gossip), and some of the music overlaps on itself (two people singing at once, for example, but not in a traditional duet) in a way that is almost dream-like … or perhaps crazy (the craziness of romantic love or the craziness of solitude, loneliness, and disappointment, depending, and sometimes a bit of both).

The story centers around a love triangle of sorts. At the apex of the triangle is the Italian soldier Georgio, who is having a passionate love affair with the married Clara. When he is transferred to a provincial outpost (and one at which he is very miserable), they swear to continue their love affair through letters. At his new post, he meets his commanding officer’s sickly cousin Fosca, who is ill, obsessive, depressed, and manipulative. Do you see where the difficulty of this show starts to come in? Especially when I tell you that by the end, Georgio has fallen in love with Fosca and thinks his love affair with Clara meant nothing.

Here is where I see the brilliance in this show. However much we’d like to believe otherwise with our happily-ever-afters and our formula romances, love is messy. It’s unreasonable, it doesn’t play by predictable rules, and it comes at unexpected times and in unexpected forms. And love is shown in high relief as being messy in this show. Through the course of events, Fosca gradually learns how to love unconditionally instead of being trapped in the grasping, needy obsession that she begins with. Georgio as well learns what it means to love unselfishly and to love above all else. He asks Clara to run away with him, and she refuses; while she insists he holds her heart, she is held back by her motherly love for her child. She asks him to wait until her child is older, but ultimately he decides he no longer wants such a carefully arranged, rational relationship. What he wants instead is the no-hold’s-barred passion, both the beauty and the ugliness, that Fosca offers him.  So while this show is something of a tragedy, it’s a happy tragedy because the characters have gotten somewhere and they have learned a deep abiding truth, which perhaps matters more than continuing on indefinitely in their old, miserable ways.

The difficulty is that Fosca is so truly unpleasant and unsympathetic, particularly at the beginning of the show. It subverts our narrative expectations to have Georgio choose her over the beautiful and romantically appropriate Clara. Watching Fosca play her manipulative little games with Georgio fills us with aversion. Personally I believe this makes the ultimate transformation of the characters that much more powerful. And it takes me back to the main point of this essay, which is this: love is messy. And yet even out of a dysfunctional and terrible love can come something beautiful. Relentlessness can show itself as either obsession or an unconditional love that is without price.

The first meeting of Fosca and Georgio:


An example of the manipulation games of Fosca:


A short example of the Soldier’s Chorus:


The end of Georgio and Clara’s relationship:


Georgio revealing he loves Fosca:


And with this post, I finish my series on my favorite musicals. Hope you enjoyed!

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Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the Songwriters’ Showcase at Theatreworks, a theater company in Mountain View. One of the reasons I adore Theatreworks is because of their dedicated commitment to supporting new works in both straight plays and musical theater. They put on a New Works Festival every spring and often stage world and regional premieres for theater in development. And every winter they host a writers’ retreat (for those working on musicals) that concludes with a performance showcasing what the writers have been working on – the Songwriters’ Showcase I previously mentioned.

I noticed certain trends in the material presented at the showcase that I’d like to discuss. Now, the retreat program is fairly small at this time and only four works-in-progress were showcased; the limited sample makes it dangerous to extrapolate out beyond this program with much confidence. Indeed, these trends may not even be indicative of an overall pattern in the retreat program. But nonetheless, they provide food for thought.

First off, of the four works presented, all four were being worked on by teams of two, and each team consisted of one man and one woman. Every team was made up of a composer/lyricist and the playwright or book writer (the one who writes the script and develops the story). This mirrors the trend in the wider world of combining the work of composer and lyricist into one crucial role, instead of dividing it into two integral jobs as was done earlier in musical theater’s history (think Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb, Lerner & Loewe, Schonberg & Boublil, to name just a few). Examples of more recent composers who are also lyricists (sometimes very excellent ones) include: Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, etc.

Another interesting fact about these teams was that in three out of four cases, the man was the composer/lyricist and the woman was the playwright. See all those names above? Also all men. So this might be reflecting a wider trend as well. (An interesting side note: when I took my required 20th century music history course, we studied pretty much no women composers. When the prof was asked about it, he said that no women had produced work that stood out enough to be included in a survey course. Ouch.)

One of the works was a fairy tale-like story directed at a children’s theater audience. Fairy tales are a perennial hit, not just for Disney but also for children’s musical theater, so this is a smart financial choice (although the piece needed some work to have the correct children’s theater “feel”, which in its present state is a bit uneven). The songs were for the most part derivative, easily recognizable as being a certain “style” and indeed sounded Disney-esque, which in a show like this is not necessarily a bad thing at all.

The other three musicals, all of which were directed primarily at an adult audience, were concerned with issues of race. One show revolved around  the Weathermen of the 60s and 70s, one was about the life of Madam C.J. Walker, a black entrepreneur and philanthropist who was also the first woman to become a self-made millionaire (she specialized in hair products for black women). The last one was partly based on the Scheherazade framing story in the Arabian Nights, but with a modern component featuring a romance between a Jew and a Palestinian. While race was a main issue addressed in the shows, only one person in the eight on the creative teams was a person of color (I can’t speak to religious affiliations, of course).

Which musical do I most want to see in its completed form? Without a doubt I’m most excited to watch the one about Madam C.J. Walker. Both the script writing and the music crackled with vitality, and it has the potential to be a fascinating show exploring both Madam C.J. Walker’s life and accomplishments, and her troubled relationship with her daughter.

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