Monthly Archives: December 2019

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (64) ·

We studied the buildings, and made plans of them, of the natural geography and topography of the courtyards, barns, outhouses, and main structures of the estate. We studied the customs, the marriage ceremonies, the run of everyday life, the details of husbandry. We brought back with us from the village clothes, shirts, short overcoats, dishes, furniture. Not only that—we also brought two living specimens of the village life with us, an old man and an old woman. (MLIA)

HOW A JERRY HERMAN SONG LANDED A TRIPLE PUNCH ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/27; via Pam Green.)

A comedy number from the flop “Mack & Mabel” found the unexpected sweet spot between Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim.

It was always a canard that Jerry Herman, the big-thump tunesmith, and Stephen Sondheim, the big-think musical dramatist, represented opposing and hostile camps.

 

In fact, they were doing the same thing: finding ways to make characters sing as they must. Herman’s Mame couldn’t have pattered a list of cannibal puns any more than Sondheim’s Mrs. Lovett could have belted a brassy ballad about the boy that got away — though both perfectly suited Angela Lansbury, who introduced “If He Walked Into My Life,” in “Mame,” and “A Little Priest,” in “Sweeney Todd,” 13 years apart. The difference was in the stories Sondheim and Herman, who died on Thursday at 88, wanted to tell, leading their songs where they had to go.

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IRISH THEATRE IN 2019: A DRAMATIC YEAR THAT LEFT THE FUTURE UNCERTAIN ·

(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 12/7.)

Theatre in Ireland this year was bookended by two crises, a state of play mirrored by the work  

It was a dramatic year for theatre, bookended by two moments of crisis. The first played out in the full glare of public attention. The other, which is happening now, has been observed more quietly, if at all.

Barely one week into 2019, Irish theatre was once again a news story. On January 7th, an open letter lambasting the Abbey’s production model, for Abbey directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren’s perceived overreliance on staging co-productions and insufficient employment opportunities at the National Theatre, among other grievances, was signed by 312 theatre professionals.

So began a turbulent year for the Abbey, which dealt with the fallout in media statements, a tense committee hearing in the Oireachtas, and a series of meetings with industry representatives, finally yielding commitments and outcomes. By the time it announced its programme for 2020 this month, with a balance between self-produced and co-produced work that did not appear radically different, the outcry had faded away, either because communication between involved parties had become clearer, or because such an explosion of protest could only immolate the building or fizzle out.

Overshadowed by the furore at the time was the kind of co-production in question, when Karl Shiels brought his dark double-bill The Ridleys to the Peacock. This might have been a breakout moment for Shiels’s Theatre Upstairs, the actor/director’s tenacious home for short-form new writing, and a launch pad for new careers.

Sadly, it turned out to be the theatre’s swansong: a couple of months later, Theatre Upstairs announced its closure after nine years in business. In any circumstances, the end of a venue committed exclusively to new work would feel unnatural, like the loss of promise. But that sensation became unbearably tragic in July when Shiels, a tireless advocate for new artists and energising audiences, died at the age of 47.

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Photo: Irish Times

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, HELLO, DOLLY! COMPOSER AND BROADWAY LEGEND JERRY HERMAN DIES AT 88 ·

(Mark Kennedy’s article appeared in Time Magazine, 10/27.)

Tony Award-winning composer Jerry Herman, who wrote the cheerful, good-natured music and lyrics for such classic shows as MameHello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles, died Thursday. He was 88.

His goddaughter Jane Dorian confirmed his death to The Associated Press early Friday. He died of pulmonary complications in Miami, where he had been living with his partner, real estate broker Terry Marler.

The creator of 10 Broadway shows and contributor to several more, Herman won two Tony Awards for best musical: Hello, Dolly! in 1964 and La Cage aux Folles in 1983. He also won two Grammys — for the Mame cast album and “Hello, Dolly!” as song of the year — and was a Kennedy Center honoree.

Herman wrote in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition, an optimistic composer at a time when others in his profession were exploring darker feelings and material. Just a few of his song titles revealed his depth of hope: “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow,” “The Best of Times,” “Tap Your Troubles Away,” “It’s Today,” “We Need a Little Christmas” and “Before the Parade Passes By.”  Even the title song to “Hello, Dolly!” is an advertisement to enjoy life.

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Photo: Jack Robinson—Hulton Archive/Getty Images

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (63) ·

We exaggerated the outward and external side of manners. . . . . This resulted in naked naturalism. And the nearer it was to reality, the more ethnographical it was—the worse it was for us.  There was no spiritual darkness, and therefore the outward and naturalistic darkness proved unnecessary. It had nothing to round out and illustrate. Ethnography choked literature and the art of the actor. (MLIA)

MAKING SHAKESPEARE SING: ON VERDI: CREATING “OTELLO” AND “FALSTAFF”—HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE RICORDI ARCHIVE ·

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York of Books 12/19.)

Verdi: Creating “Otello” and “Falstaff”—Highlights from the Ricordi Archive

an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, September 6, 2019–January 5, 2020

Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings

Scenography by Osbert Lancaster for a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at the Edinburgh Festival, 1955

The process of adapting a play into an opera is a little like forcing the original text to drink a concoction out of Alice in Wonderland: some aspects of it will shrink or evaporate, others are magnified to unrecognizable dimensions, and the whole thing falls through music’s rabbit hole into a parallel world where very different laws apply. This fraught alchemy has bewildered many a composer. Sources that seem unimpeachably strong (classic plays, beloved movies, Great American Novels) can wilt or fail to catch fire when set to music, while material that might seem slight, simplistic, or impractical can, in the hands of an inventive composer, reveal unsuspected power and hidden depths. Sometimes, if seldom, one has the sense that a play, a novel, or even a real-life incident came into being mainly so that it could be reincarnated as an opera.

Giuseppe Verdi’s last two operas, the Shakespearean diptych of Otello and Falstaff, together constitute my favorite case study in what happens when a play is made to stand up and sing. Both the source material and the musical adaptations are works of singular beauty and power. To study these operas alongside their sources is to see what is gained and what is lost, what remains intact and what is transformed, when a complex human drama is adapted from speech into song. Otello is an exceedingly rare breed, practically a unicorn: a masterpiece based on a masterpiece. And Falstaff, a long-pent-up belly laugh of a piece that Verdi unleashed on the world after a lifetime of composing tragedies, achieves something rarer still: it is a love letter to Shakespeare that expands on Shakespeare’s work, putting Sir John Falstaff center stage in a work that’s big and bold enough for his irrepressible, irresponsible spirit.

These two operas are the subject of “Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff,” a gem of an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Curated by Gabriele Dotto, the former director of publishing at Ricordi, Verdi’s publishing house, it affords an engrossing glimpse of the vast collaborative effort required to bring an opera into the world. By the time he wrote Otello and Falstaff, Verdi was a national icon, as famous and familiar as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and it is touching to see evidence of the care that a huge team—engravers, printers, costume designers, painters—put into the creation of this old man’s uncannily youthful last works.

Verdi loved Shakespeare throughout his life, but it took decades for his music to become Shakespearean. He came of age during what has become known as the bel canto period of Italian opera, during which the glorification of the human voice was composers’ fundamental priority; bel canto literally means “beautiful song” or “beautiful singing.” Works from this era—by composers such as Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti—are distinguished by long, sensuously unspooling melodies and passages of fast, florid vocal gymnastics; the harmonic palette is simple and the harmonic progressions few and familiar. An aesthetic whose central focus is the wonder of the beautifully produced voice inevitably lets some other aspects of the art form fall by the wayside: one generally doesn’t turn to a bel canto opera for an evening of taut, seamless drama.

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Photo: Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings

Visit the Morgan Library online  

ALAN BENNETT: DIARY ·

(from the London Review of Books, 12/19, where he reads the entries.)

1 January 2019, Yorkshire. The New Inn, the village pub, always lays on a quarter of an hour of fireworks at midnight, which we can see if not actually from our bed then certainly from the bedroom window. Brushing my teeth this morning, I catch a glimpse of my New Year self and am depressed to see how depleted I’m looking, though not quite as much as Raymond Briggs, who’s pretty much my age, and a good documentary on whom we watched earlier yesterday evening. He’s almost two-dimensional, thinned to a knife blade. Still, he drives, which after the latest bout of arthritis in my ankle, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do.

7 January, Yorkshire. On the war memorial at Malham is the inscription:

Live thou for England
We for England died

I don’t know if this is a quotation, or an injunction that was, as it were, custom-made, but I find it – if only slightly – misplaced, and I don’t wholly concur, as the sentiment reduces what was a sacrifice to more of a bargain: we did this for you, now see you do your bit in return by living in a way the dead might have approved (whatever that might be). It’s an admonition, which I don’t like, but war memorials often take this finger-wagging tone. ‘Do better.’

8 January. My six-monthly aorta scan at University College Hospital. Due at 12.30 I’m early, so that by 12.45 I’m back home. It’s a model service, today’s radiographer a bearded young man who asks about Allelujah!, and shows me the screen and how he measures the width of my (quite small) aneurysms. Good young medics always cheer me and offer hope, not for my future but for the world in general.

19 January. Wake this morning thinking of a line that I’ve always remembered Burt Lancaster delivering in a costume drama. Caught out after curfew, he says: ‘I am apothecary Manzoni on an errand of mercy for the Sisters.’ What the film was I’ve no idea. The Crimson Pirate? Doubtless some LRB-reading cinema buff even sillier than I am will be able to tell me.

26 January. We are comfortably ensconced in our Weekend First seats at King’s Cross when John Bercow comes along the platform. Not quite the elegant, slightly flamboyant figure one sees in the Commons, he’s in a scruffy suede jacket and, according to the trolley attendant, sitting in standard class, where he is happy to have a conversation about Brexit and related matters. I’m hoping he will come down the train at some point, when I’d shake his hand and say how much of the country is with him. However, when we get to Grantham, my eye is taken by an old man with an enchanting blond Labrador, and now Bercow comes along the platform and the dog makes a great fuss of him, the old man equally delighted.

9 February. This evening we watch the much vaunted The Favourite, which is good if a bit – and perhaps deliberately – casual about period details and language, ‘letters’ becoming ‘mail’ and (a battle I had in The Madness of King George) the occasional ‘OK’ and ‘fine’. The film owes something to ours, beginning slightly as I intended to begin, with the court seen from the cramped perspective of the royal servants. Not looking at the monarch is made something of a feature, though not as specifically as we tried to do, and our film was more physical than this is allowed to be. ‘Cunt’ occurs quite often, possibly less as a deliberate attempt to shock than to show how down to earth these courtiers were. Or it may just be laziness, there being some skill in inventing euphemisms or devising elaborations that get round obscenity. Still, an enjoyable film, if an anachronistic one, e.g. ‘the opposition’ not a feature of Parliament in the 18th century.

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Photo: Keplarllp.com

200 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE, AND STILL LEARNING ONSTAGE ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/18; via Pam Green.)

Lois Smith, Estelle Parsons and Vinie Burrows on age, agility, perseverance and steering clear of “self-pitying old” roles.

“I am rarely cast as an ingénue anymore,” Lois Smith was saying on Monday afternoon. It was a joke, obviously, and her fellow actresses — Estelle Parsons, 92, and Vinie Burrows, who recently turned 95 but rounds that up to 96 — burst into laughter.

At 89, Smith was the baby of this bunch. Between them, they have more than 200 years of performance experience, including the film “Lady Bird” and the title role in “Marjorie Prime” (Smith), the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” and the sitcom “Roseanne” (Parsons), the American premiere of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” and experimental work with the director Rachel Chavkin (Burrows).

They’re still busy adding to their résumés: Parsons currently at the Public Theater in Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day,” as a character whose name translates to “The Old One”; Smith on Broadway, with a talky role in Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance”; Burrows back Off Broadway next month in “Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories,” at the Mint Theater Company.

In the room with them, you’d never guess their ages from their appearance, only from the discussion’s vintage details — as when Burrows and Smith tried to figure out what they might have worked on together, and the closest they got was a play each of them did on Broadway with Helen Hayes. (Burrows was in the original 1950 production of “The Wisteria Trees,” Smith in the 1955 revival.)

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Photo: Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (62) ·

The spectator would not be bored in looking at us and listening to us; he would find it pleasant to believe us all of the time, for the spiritual content of Gorky and of ourselves would justify and round out the tendential parts of the play and the empty moments of the performance, which, under other circumstances, might become specifically theatrical stuffing and nothing else. (MLIA)

CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (61) ·

It was necessary to enter into the spiritual springs of Gorky himself, just as we had done in the case of Chekhov, and find the current of the action in the soul of the writer. Having made our own a part of the Gorky soul, we would have the right to speak, to interpret the contents, the thoughts, the plot of the play [The Lower Depths], to act simply, without any unnecessary strain or effort, without the necessity of persuading someone, of propagating something. (MLIA)