Fantasy in Musicals

I’ve been playing a lot of shows in the last week. As part of a commitment for my own personal growth, I’m looking at a lot of new (to me) scores. Any piano playing is useful to me, but since my particular interest is in directing, I decided to focus on shows for which I can get both script and score at the SU library.

I ended up with this collection, mostly because I wanted to look at Camelot.

Because I already had this checked out, I decided to go for other shows in the set. Surprisingly, we didn’t have all the scores for some of the more well-known shows. So the first four shows I looked at were:

Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Score by Frederick Lowe

Book by Dale Wasserman
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Music by Mitch Leigh

Book by Moss Hart
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Music by Kurt Weill

Book by Joe Masteroff
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Music by John Kander

I realized that these shows have some interesting parallels and contrasts, so I wanted to take a couple of minutes to compare them.

First, a quick synopsis of each one:

  • Camelot is the story of the establishment and downfall of King Arthur’s Order of the Knights of the Round Table. Established as an ideal of using military power to moral ends, it is torn apart when Guinevere falls in love with Lancelot and they run off together.

  • Man of La Mancha is a loose adaptation of Don Quixote, framed by an imaginary episode from Miguel de Cervantes’s life. While imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes acts out episodes from his famous novel for the diversion of his fellow prisoners.

  • Lady in the Dark is the most unusual in construction. By recounting a series of dreams in therapy sessions, Liza Elliot tries to figure out why she’s feeling lost and sad. In between sessions, she tries to balance her personal life with her work as head of a magazine.

  • Cabaret tells the story of Cliff Bradshaw, an author who spends time in Berlin just before the ascension of the Nazi party, where he falls in love with Sally Bowles. His landlady falls in love with a Jewish merchant, and the Kit Kat Klub offers surreal commentary on the story and politics.

So in each of these stories, fantasy or imagination has a significant part to play. In Camelot, Arthur’s imagination carries him to great heights of achievement before it collapses. Man of La Mancha is built around the idealistic delusions of an old man highly detached from the world. Lady in the Dark illustrates Liza’s dreams in a surreal, highly stylized manner. And Cabaret revolves around side comments in the imaginative world of the club.

The first thing I noticed is that the shows pair up in interesting ways. Camelot and Man of La Mancha are idealistic interpretations. Arthur’s optimism about the ways of the world is undiminished throughout. Even at the very end, he remains idealistic. On the eve of battle he finds a young boy and send him off to tell the story of his “one brief shining moment” at Camelot. He hopes that it will give cheer to the world forever.

Man of La Mancha is, in many ways, a story about optimism. Don Quixote interprets every moment as an adventure, a joy. His imagination elevates everyone—innkeeper becomes lord of a castle, a weathered prostitute becomes a lady worthy of adoration. Even as he is robbed blind toward the end, Don Quixote believes he is being entertained by an exotic prince and princess. When his illusions are shattered by the Knight of the Mirrors, it is a blow.

In both of these stories, fantasy is a good thing. It excites the nobler parts of humanity. Lancelot is first stirred by finding an ideal higher than his own perfection. Arthur wants to escape the warring local factions and senseless violence of the world. Guinevere wants to exercise her own will. The Round Table gives them all this.

It is ultimately brought low by the flaw in human nature: love. Guinevere and Lancelot fall in love deeply. Arthur sees but cannot interfere for fear of wrecking what he has wrought. Even in the final scene, with the two men on opposing sides and Guinevere lost to him, Arthur has a conference with the two of them and laments that he could not overcome these weaknesses.

Don Quixote’s fantasy ennobles Sancho from servant to squire. We don’t see the relationship develop (it’s established in the opening number), but Sancho is devoted to him. What we do see is Aldonza’s transformation to Dulcinea. Don Quixote insists to her at every step of the way that she is a lady, that she has dignity, that she deserves his loyalty. This despite the fact that every other part of her life tears her down.

When we meet Aldonza, she is a maid and prostitute in a seedy in. She’s preyed on and exploited by muleteers and she uses what she has (her looks, body, and attitude) to manipulate them as best she can. When Don Quixote is star-struck at her, she laughs him off. It’s not until she sees him doing his devoted vigil in the courtyard, that she truly speaks and listens to him. What he says (the famous song “The Impossible Dream”) awes her.

In the end, Aldonza gets what the little boy Tom does not get in Camelot. Arthur is still alive at the end of the show, so he gets the final reprise. In Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote expires after the stress of having his illusions destroyed and then restored. Aldonza takes up his song and leads the final reprise of “The Impossible Dream”

In both cases: fantasy = optimism.

Now let’s turn our attention to the dark twins. These have a surprising number of historical parallels, but let’s stick with the stories for this post.

There is never a question in Lady in the Dark of whether Liza’s dreams are good or bad. It’s made clear in the opening scene that she is disturbed by them. And her presence in a therapist’s office is a clear sign that the progress of this show will be her interpreting her dreams and solving the problem.

And in Cabaret, the dream and fantasy is a kind of collective subconscious, where an attractive roommate becomes two, and an unusual attraction becomes dating a gorilla. There is a continuous tension between the unnatural joy in the club and the growing storm outside. In the end, Cliff escapes while the other characters hide in their illusion.

Liza’s dreams are populated by people she sees, her memories, and her fantasies. In the first dream, she is the most beautiful, interesting woman in the world. A far cry from her daily life. In the second, she is simultaneously at a high-school reunion and a wedding to a man who in real life is available but whom she does not love. In the third, her indecision becomes a kind of circus and trial where she is instructed to make up her mind.

Only in the final dream of her childhood is the true history revealed. The song she’s been humming all show is a kids song she sang, her family told her she was ugly and should never wear blue, and she has always lost when in conflict with other women. Once she understands the problem, Liza is able to step up and solve her own problems—taking action for herself and what she wants.

Cabaret does not have such a happy ending. Although Cliff is able to escape Germany without issue, Sally returns to the club where she believes she will be safe. Fräulein Schneider, the landlady, believes it will all blow over. Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit seller, thinks getting away from Fräulein Schneider will disguise him enough to escape Nazi scrutiny. Although we do not find out what happens, at the end of the show even the shoddy, deep-rooted cabaret feels like a tin shack in a hurricane.

In this case, fantasy is a kind of sedative. It deadens the senses of those caught up in it. Only Cliff, the most down-to-earth character, is able to see what’s really happening and go. In that sense, he has more in common with Ernst Ludwig, our primary Nazi.

In these shows, fantasy = darkness.

It’s interesting to note that of these shows, three of them are from the 1960s. Only Lady in the Dark precedes, them, having run initially in 1941.

Obviously all of these shows are different. But in each case, the characters struggle with imagination, fantasy, or dreams. In some cases the struggle ends with a victory for the character (Lady in the Dark) or his cause (Man of La Mancha and Camelot). Only in Cabaret is the victory of fantasy a loss for the world.

I should write longer posts about each of these shows, but I wanted to at least share these thoughts, since the parallels almost defied coincidence.

Updates of All Kinds!

Hello and welcome back!

If you’ve been watching this site, you’ve undoubtedly been bored, as nothing has happened here since January.

But now things have kicked off! I’ve done a fair amount of revision over the last few days, and there is more to come. It will take me a while to get everything cleaned up and consistent, but it’s something.

In addition to site updates, here’s an unfairly brief summary of my life recently.

Big Changes

In March, I found out that I had been accepted to Shenandoah Conservatory, to study conducting there. This program has been highly recommended by several people who I respect, and I jumped at the chance to be involved.

I accepted the offer and resigned my job at Magnolia West High School. I finished out the end of the year (earning a UIL Sweepstakes trophy in the process!) and moved to Winchester, Virginia. I’m renting a house with several other grad students, and I’m sitting on the couch as I type this.

I’ve spent the time since my move working with Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, the summer stock program run by the conservatory. In addition to showing me around the school, I’ve had a chance to interact with faculty and staff who I will be working with during the year. Needless to say I’ve spent plenty of time at the piano and in the library.

I was awarded a partial assistantship, which was recently converted to a full assistantship, which will cover many of my expenses in exchange for my work. I’m excited to see what that will lead to!

Other Events

At the same time, I also left my job at Advent Lutheran Church, where I’d been playing since December of 2018. I am incredibly thankful and blessed to have worked with Pastor Kim and with Scott MacAdow there, and I learned a lot. I also finished my studies with Dr. Dave Englert, and earned my Service Playing Certificate from the American Guild of Organists.

Before I moved, I had a chance to go one last time to UIL State Solo & Ensemble. I accompanied about 20 students, including covering for two students who I had never worked with but found themselves in need.

The move went smoothly and I enjoyed seeing many parts of the country. You can check out my Instagram feed for pictures of the travel.

Looking Forward

My time with SSMT has nearly ended. I’m still playing for some occasional rehearsals while David, the main rehearsal pianist, is busy with shows. But it allows me many free days and not much to do.

So with the remaining summer, I’m making a point of sightseeing and preparing myself for the fall. I’m playing plenty of piano and reading a lot. I hope to visit friends in Washington, D.C., and possibly even in New York City before the summer ends.

And of course I’ll be updating and filling this site in as well. No excuses, since I have plenty of free time.

The Best Laid Plans


It’s been a bit since I wrote here. In fact, from what I can see of my publication dates, it has been almost a month. A lot has happened in that time. Here’s a quick run-down:

  • Thanksgiving 2018. I had actually scheduled a post for this day, but I never finished editing it for publication. The gist of it was this:

I am thankful for my loving family and friends, for the actors and musicians I’ve worked with over the last year, and for the incredibly fortunate life I have to to be able to do this and to pursue it.

  • Church Organ at Advent Lutheran Church. This has been a big focus of my life in recent weeks. As I begin working regularly, I’m having to spend more time developing skills and picking up repertoire for Preludes, Postludes, and Offertories. This was quite a challenge at first, but I’m finding that my pace has increased as I’ve gotten familiar with the instrument.

  • Application to Arizona State University. I submitted my application on the afternoon of November 30, just before the December 1 deadline. I am still waiting to hear back. One of my references sent me a copy of her recommendation letter and I was really honored by the glowing terms she used to describe my work.

  • Magnolia West Choir Concert. This past Thursday was our annual “Merry Mustang Show and Auction” at MWHS. This concert is a huge undertaking, as it is one of our main fundraisers for the year. In addition to the longest concert of our year (about an hour and a half), we present a silent auction of gift baskets made by our students (and constructed by the head director), and a live auction of decorated Christmas trees by parents. All of this money goes toward student scholarships. It’s a genius idea, and I’m always excited to see how it goes. This year was quite stressful, as we seemed to be a little behind the curve on things. The two days leading up to the concert I didn’t even have time to stop for lunch between paperwork and rehearsals.

  • Pride and Prejudice at Fourth Wall Theatre Company. I returned to my favorite local professional company to see “Pride and Prejudice” in an adaptation by Kate Hamill. I still haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on comparisons, but my two companions were intimately familiar with it and seemed to have a good time. It took some liberties with the plot in the interest of time and comedy but it was, as always, well-acted and exciting.

  • Application to Shenandoah Conservatory. Last night, a friend helped me re-record the interview portion of my application to SU. I’m hoping to edit that together with video of myself leading rehearsals so that I can submit in the next few days. I know it’s well ahead of their January deadline, but I’d rather be done with it so I can enjoy my holidays.

Upcoming events are of course Christmas 2018 and New Year 2018-2019. I have Christmas eve services at the church that I will put on the calendar as soon as I have sorted out the repertoire. I need to make a Christmas list to send to family this weekend. I need to start making plans for the new year.

Oh and I need to continue to post here regularly…

Show Thoughts: Der Fliegende Höllander at Houston Grand Opera

It’s been years since I saw an opera live. I’ve listened to many recordings, and watched a few video recordings, but I haven’t seen one live.

A lot of factors coincided for me to finally get back. First, I’ve never listened to or seen this particular work. Second, I committed (with mixed success) to having a new artistic experience every week. Finally, HGO is returning to the Wortham Theatre Center for the first time since hurricane Harvey flooded the area.

So I decided to go out and see if opera holds up after immersing myself in musicals for a few years.

The experience of going to the opera has always been one of particular grandeur. Especially opening night, when the excitement of a high-end social function adds on to one of the most luxurious artistic experiences. Stereotypically, at least.

It’s a little different when you’re up in the back. The back of the balcony has always been the place for those who are more interested in seeing than in being seen. There are lots of stories of the great composers sitting up in the back watching the masterworks of the previous generation.

A quick sidebar, the opening night of an opera (Salome by Richard Strauss) is how Alex Ross chose to start his book “The Rest is Noise” which is an incredible overview of the course of 20th century western art music.

So guess where I was sitting. I was two rows in front of the back wall, all the way in the top. So far up that I joked on Instagram about renting opera glasses. It was a fun experience though. I hope to do try it again soon.

Let’s get to the opera now!

A quick summary of the plot of Der Fliegende Höllander:

Act 1 occurs on a ship in the sea. Daland, the Norwegian captain and crew despair of surviving the storm, but it finally clears up and they rest. They leave the helmsman to watch, and as he dozes off he sees a ghostly ship with red sails. The captain of this ship, the Dutchman, comes aboard and in a soliloquy to the audience explains that he is only allowed on shore for one day every seven years due to a curse.

When Daland greets him, the ghostly Dutchman asks for hospitality and offers uncounted riches in exchange for marrying his daughter. Blinded by greed, Daland heartily agrees and excitedly takes the treasure away.

In Act 2, we find the wives and female relatives of the sailors working away in a factory. To pass the time, they sing songs to themselves. The Daland’s daughter, Senta, sings about the plight of the legendary Flying Dutchman and how much she adores him from afar. When news that the ship has returned, the women run to see their men.

Senta’s lover, Erik, confronts her, begging her to be careful. He had a dream that her father came home with a mysterious stranger and she left with him. Senta listens with great interest, and when her father shows up with the Dutchman, she is even more excited as he is the man of her dreams. She eagerly agrees to marry him.

In the third act, the sailors and women are celebrating their return. They invite the Dutchman’s crew to join them, but the crew replies with a terrifying, ghostly moan that sends everyone fleeing in fear.

Erik confronts Senta, and when she pushes him away, he pulls her in and kisses her, just as the Dutchman comes to find her. He accuses her of unfaithfulness and bitterly makes to leave. To prove her faithfulness even unto death, Senta throws herself from the top of the wall and frees the Dutchman from his curse. The final moments show them reunited in paradise.

The story is pretty compelling, really. Just reading there, it sounds like a solid, interesting plot. But it also sounds like about 45 minutes worth of dialogue. The show ran about 2.5 hours, with constant music and three long scenes.

This means that things are a little slow at times. For example, the Dutchman’s first aria runs nearly ten minutes of exposition. It consisted almost entirely of the Dutchman wandering around the stage. The portion of Act 3 where the sailors invite the dutchman’s crew takes somewhat longer than expected too, though it has some amazing musical moments.

I have two other quibbles with this work. Then I’ll talk about the fantastic moments.

One is an issue with the text of the work. It does an excellent job of setting up all the elements of the story, but it doesn’t quite solve its own problems. My biggest frustration was that Senta never addressed her fascination with the Dutchman, and he never questions how eager she is to marry him. There would be some interesting conversational material, if the work took the time. Perhaps an idea for someone else to revisit?

My other complaint was the proportions of the stage. It’s an odd one, but it has annoyed me for awhile. In large theatres, the proportions of the stage usually reflect the size of the hall. That is, they are usually large and deep. It’s architecturally satisfying, but leads to odd proportions onstage. Living rooms become cavernous halls, walls are extended up into infinity, or (in this case) ship decks become a massive open space. It just seems incongruous to me.

I should point out that that last point is not just a problem with opera stagings. It happens with musicals and plays too. I started on a tangent, but that will be a different article later.

Let’s finish this thing off with a few superlatives. Melody Moore, who played Senta, was phenomenal, performing high her high notes with ease and great character. She had a few low notes that were warm and rich enough that I initially though the role was for a mezzo-soprano. Her performance of Senta’s ballad about the Dutchman was fantastic.

Andrzej Dobber, who played the Dutchman, was fine. He had a rather thankless entrance, with great presence undermined by a rather plodding aria. It felt longer than it probably was, but the staging didn’t help much. In the later acts he was much more engaging, and his presence was absolutely intimidating and arresting.

But of course, with my choral background, I was drawn to the choral writing. Performed by the Houston Grand Opera Chorus, every moment of ensemble singing was incredible. All three acts feature the chorus at times, and the balance and color throughout was awe-inspiring. It almost matched the orchestra color (every time the horns came in with the Dutchman theme, I got a shudder).

Overall, an excellent experience and I highly recommend it. From the very back of the balcony, you can’t quite see the last moments, but the rest works quite well. Hope to see a show from down front some day, but for now I’ll enjoy the music from somewhere.

Busy Few Days

Thanks to my faithful reader for reminding me that I’ve been lax in posting on here. It’s been a busy few days and I’m still recovering. I’m not sure I can coherently reflect on what’s going on in my life. I feel like I’m still running ahead of things, and I will finally have some recovery time this week and weekend.

In the meantime, here’s what’s going on:

  • Last weekend I saw “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” at Fourth Wall Theatre Company. There was a lot to reflect on, and I hope to do so more at length soon. My main impressions: an incredibly compelling show and an excellent cast and production. I highly recommend it.

  • My students performed a concert last night, which was well-received. I’m glad to have a first performance behind us, and a second one coming soon. We sing at the football game next weekend, and then we have been invited to Men’s Choir Festival at Sam Houston State University in a few weeks.

  • I’m preparing for a trip to visit one of my options for graduate school. That will be next weekend, after the football game performance.

  • Teaching is going well. My students are progressing as expected, and even ahead of my schedule.

  • I’m continuing to practice piano and prepare for my graduate auditions. I’m also assisting a friend with his college voice lessons. I’m generally trying to do more

I thought I would get less busy when my last show ended! But between this and a social life, I feel barely able to stay on top of things. I already feel sleepy.

Seriously, though, I intend to get back to writing somewhat regularly around here very soon.

Post-Show Thoughts

Its’ been a bit since I posted. Part of that excuse is the busy schedule of a show, plus a full time job. But now that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has closed, I have time to reflect.

Looking Back

It’s been a fairly crazy (for me) summer. I had an ill-fated trip to the Grand Canyon, a micro-vacation to Austin, and an eventful, extensive rehearsal process for a musical.

The last one was of course the biggest part of my schedule. Rehearsals 4 days per week left little time for anything else in the evenings. The show was a massive success, selling out more than half of our 10 performances. I’ll update the show page soon with pictures and more info.

Toward the end of the summer, I made it a goal to have one new artistic experience every week. Previous sights included trips to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Island ETC in Galveston, and my first show at The MATCH.

Of course I also inaugurated this blog. Now that the show has closed, I have time to stop and think and reevaluate.

Looking Forward

For the first time in nearly three years, I don’t have a show coming up. It’s still taking a time to settle in.

I’ve been music director and/or pianist for 12 shows since fall of 2015. In that time, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and experience on how to work with singers, directors, musicians, and the challenges of a musical theatre score.

I still have a lot of room to grow, and I’m looking forward to trying that now that I have a little time to focus myself. I want to do more score study, more piano practice, and more observing of other musicians.

I’m back in piano lessons, and after a recent exciting day as an organ substitute, I’m thinking of getting back in to organ lessons as well. I also recently came into possession of an accordion, so that may be in my future too.

I’m looking at attending graduate school if I find a program that I like and that will let me in. Doing some campus visits this fall, and applying. I will know by March or April of next year.

In the meantime, I have a choir to direct and I’m seeing another show this week. I made recordings of my playing piano so I can do some self assessment. I just bought a new score. The Woodlands Chamber Music Project is going to pick up. I’m reading more and exploring more.

So look forward to seeing new posts here!