Sunday, January 27, 2013

Musical Memories

Whenever My Fair Lady plays on my stereo (or now on my ipod) I am always taken back to being six-years- old and going to see the movie version of the Lerner and Loewe musical with my father.  He took me because I was infuriated that Audrey Hepburn had beaten Julie Andrews out for the Academy Award that year. I could not imagine how Eliza Doolittle could possibly have been better than Mary Poppins!  Daddy took me to the movie because he wanted me to see what was so special about My Fair Lady. 

 I had seen Mary Poppins for my 6th birthday. It was a memorable birthday all round. After attending Mary Poppins,  I came down with a case of lice - much to my mother's horror.  I remember sitting in the living room of our home, Mother picking through my hair with some ghastly medicine burning my scalp - the both of us crying all the while.  But I digress.

I recall sitting transfixed through My Fair Lady and can say that it was quite possibly the moment I fell in love with musical theatre.  I remember bounding through the front door of our house on Resh Place and reciting Henry Higgins' famous "Damn, damn, damn, damn" to my mother and not getting in trouble for cursing -  "I've grown accustomed to her face..." what a line! What a moment.  My heart was utterly captured and the course of my life was set.

The role of Eliza eluded me as a performer, but I still have every word of the score memorized as if I'd played her. In fact, it will always be the role that got away.

Funny how those roles stay with us.  Last night I saw the movie Quartet.  It is a charming film about a group of aging singers and musicians who live together in a retirement home for musicians in England. As I sat in the audience, I couldn't help thinking of how I'd fallen in love with  My Fair Lady at six  and   how I was sitting in another movie theatre forty-seven years later, gray and vocally out of shape, watching these grand thespians, opera singers, and musicians still clinging to their favorite roles,  reciting the number of curtain calls they'd taken. Roles that last a life time.

It is touching and life affirming.  I fell in love with the theatre all over again. The passion, the eccentricity, the ego, the pride, and the poignancy of the  inevitable passage of time reflected in dressing room mirrors and shaky soprano voices.
I adore the bigness of personality and the joy that comes from a line, verse, or chorus belted out by a group of performers gathered around a piano.

To this day, I hear the swelling of those strings at the end of "I Could Have Danced All Night,"  and my heart soars, my throat tightens and my eyes brim  with tears. Sitting in that movie theatre last night, watching Quartet,  I was grateful that Daddy had taken me to see My Fair Lady when I was six- years -old.  

 I am grateful that I have spent my life loving musical theatre.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Amour Up Close and Personal

I recently saw the film, Amour directed by Michael Haneke. This exquisitely crafted, unsentimental, and honest look at caregiving and the end of life made me nod my head more than it made me wipe a tear. In fact, I didn't shed one.  I found myself more often thinking, "Yes, that's right. That's the way it is." I would upon occasion grimace at a scene remembering my own experience as a caregiver. The story of Amour is direct and accurate. Hearing the character Anne's cry from the shower "hurts" made me shudder recalling standing outside of my mother's door hearing her cry out "cold"  as the nurse struggled with nozzle in hand.  Watching the nurse give the character Georges, instructions on turning and sheet pulling brought me back to my brother's bedside as he lay helpless, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the love of family.
The serious and at times empty look in the  husband's eyes - whose days had become about diapers and feedings - eyes behind which conflicted, unimaginable thoughts dwell in hopeless resignation.  "Yes," I nodded. Those were my eyes. My thoughts.

The pacing of the spoon to the mouth. The slow, labored swallow. The boredom of the fixation on how many spoonfuls went down. The fumbled aim. The tight lips refusing another bite. The impatient jamming of just one more. "Yes," I nodded. I, too, pushed the spoon just that way and felt the frustration of the turned head and the terror of the anger that bubbled up within me.   Complete control and complete lack of control collide in those tiny moments bringing life into focus in a frame so small it is no wonder it was so readily captured in the film, Amour.  At the bedside, life becomes a series of close ups.

The tenderness, the humility, the dependence, the humanity, the exhaustion, the struggle - it is all there to see - raw and true through the camera's lens and in the hands of a masterful, courageous storyteller.
The bedside is its own world.  It can be a lonely place.

 Even the cruelty of indifference and the insensitivity of a callous caregiver is captured. I recalled my own vigilance and authority as I monitored the actions of hired help.  The bed must be supervised, dignity protected, and personhood preserved no matter how diminished it may appear. Caring for the dying is not a job.  It is a calling.  And not all are called to do the job.

Upon occasion, the window opens allowing mystery and mysticism to bring a renewed sense of awe when the meaning of life and the journey to death all seem sacred  and where birds lead the way to a crematorium or bring a message of comfort. Yes, that too, I experienced. Again, I nodded.  This is a film for anyone who has been there.  This is a film that will open the eyes of anyone who hasn't.
It is not a good time.
It is a good film.

 I emerged from the theatre, dry eyed, somber, and grateful.  While the bedside has brought me to my knees in anguish it has also taught me the greatest lessons in life.  We don't talk about it over dinner or polite conversation but my experience with death has made me the person I am today.  To understand me is to understand that I have pulled the dentures out of my mother's mouth to brush them and have wiped my brother's bottom and held both of their hands as they drew their last breath.  This is not a badge of honor. This is life in close up.  I am grateful to have been able to identify with this film so personally. It reminded me of where I have been. It reminded me that we are much stronger than we ever imagine ourselves to be.  It reminded me of the hospice workers who face this story every day.
It reminded me that at the end of life, compassion, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, patience, humility, and gratitude are essential compass points.

 But the one true guide is amour.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Did You Hear the People Sing? Another Critique of Les Miserables the Movie

What choice do I have?  Everyone's a critic, right? So can you blame me for weighing in on the most anticipated movie event of the season?  Especially when the movie is a musical? The  musical I just directed last spring? Indulge me.

The movie version of Les Miserables is a cinematic masterpiece. Director Tom Hooper gives the viewer the panoramic scope of revolution and the close up brutality of its effects on Victor Hugo's iconic characters.  The movie drags you along through the dank, dreary, and desperate time through streets, sewers, and along the Seine with tight frames and sweeping cinematic shots. Les Miserables the movie does what a movie can and should do as a visual medium. Naturalism and realism are expected in film and Hooper delivers.

Which is why Les Miserables the cinematic masterpiece made me appreciate Les Miserables the theatrical masterpiece even more.

There have been other non-musical movie versions of Les Miserables, the most notable being the one with Liam Neeson as Valjean.  Hugo's story is epic and requires epic  story-telling one way or the other.  It's a great story.

What makes Les Mis the musical singular in the history of musical  theatre is its score! Boublil and Schoenberg wrote and composed a score as powerful and soaring as the story. It is in the best sense, an opera.   Schoenberg's music serves the story note by note, measure by measure from crescendo to crescendo - from recitative to soaring ballad - forte to pianissimo - the music is what makes the musical.

And the music is what was missing in the movie.  Oh sure it was there - kind of.  Boublil and Schoenberg both are credited as part of the screen writing team.  Somehow, in the mix, Boublil  forgot about his partner. In a musical that makes my insides explode with emotion with the thunderous and brilliantly woven  four- part barricade sequence, I was caught up in the realistic slaughter of idealistic students without the accompanying musical underscore.  It was there, buried beneath the rubble - barely audible most of the time.  There were selected moments when the music did what it is capable of doing - the heart breaking strings swelling  as we take in the deadly toll of the battle but the music was secondary to the visually graphic cinematography.

Don't get me wrong - I know that movies are a visual genre.  But oh how I missed Fantine's powerful belt in I Dreamed a Dream and the stillness of Valjean's Bring Him Home. Taking nothing away from Ann Hathaway's cheek bones, which we saw aplenty - or Hugh Jackman's mop of curly hair that barely grayed over the decades - both of whose performances I thought were credible with an abundance of tears in close ups that made the songs intimate at best and unmoving at worst...and so let's talk about Russell Crowe.
What were they thinking? Two of the best songs in the musical reduced to a semi-spoken, choked performance by a non-singer is perhaps the most grievous offense of all to the score.

In terms of storytelling, I thought the placement of I Dreamed a Dream was a startlingly good choice and the addition of the song Suddenly that Valjean sings about Cosette helped fill out a weak plot point in the musical.
Master of the House lost its charm although it had more than capable performances by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers.  Directorially, the much needed comic relief descended into the dark abyss with the rest of the story.

They might have shaved thirty minutes off the movie had they simply picked up the tempos which were at times dirge-like serving the close up naturalistic approach to the songs.
This worked best as Marius (Eddie Redmayne) sang Empty Chairs at Empty Tables - though "the grief that can't be spoken"was there in abundance as the tears poured down the young man's face. His voice still soared where it needed to. Hooper left most of the Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius songs alone and that was a good choice.
But what happened to Eponine (Samantha Barks)? Somehow, her character felt diminished - albeit rain drenched for A Little Fall of Rain - she disappeared at the end - a love story lost in the shadows.

So what does this all prove?  As a theatre director and advocate, it reminded me that plays and movies are completely different genres. The theatre by its very nature is larger than life and an epic story like Les Mis can be told simply, representationally, and effectively with the creative expanse that can happen only on the stage and in the imagination of the audience.

And a great score like Les Miserables should be sung.