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.

All Er Nothin': Rodger's and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! on Broadway

During my trip to NYC this week, I had a chance to buy rush tickets to one show for a Wednesday matinee. I was on the fence, divided between Beetlejuice and the new production of Oklahoma! Taking advice from several people, I bought tickets to see Oklahoma!.

It was astounding.

I should preface this by saying that I have never seen or worked on a production of Oklahoma!. You can see that on my Music Director portfolio here. Before seeing the show, I knew the broad outlines of the plot, and I’d listened to the original cast recording. Incidentally, I also found these arrangements by Nelson Riddle that I really like.

I also read an article years ago about the original production of this show at Bard College (more about that in a moment). It completely fired my imagination and planted the idea of completely stripping down a show to examine its story closely.

So when I got a chance to buy the ticket (and sit on the front row, no less) for a reasonable price, I was in.

This production of Oklahoma! stays true to the text of the original book and score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on a play called Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, it was adapted in the first collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein. They of course went on to other great shows including South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and Carousel (among many others).

This interpretation was a concept by Daniel Fish and originally staged at Bard College in 2015. He has continued to refine it through a few other iterations until it landed on Broadway this year. It received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and is currently playing a limited engagement at the Circle in the Square Theatre Center.

Once again, I saw most of the original cast. Curly is normally played by Damon Daunno but I saw his understudy Denver Milord, who seemed perfectly natural in the role. Laurie was played by the stunning Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Jud (her other suitor, an awkward outsider) was Patrick Vaill. This serious love triangle is given comic contrast by Ado Annie (Ali Stroker), Will Parker (Jimmy Davis), and Ali Hakim (Will Brill).

There is no ensemble, only a collection of featured roles including Aunt Eller (played by Mary Testa), Cord Elam (Anthony Canson), Mike (Will Mann), Gertie Cummings (Mallory Portnoy), and Andrew Carnes (Mitch Tebo). The only person with no speaking lines is the Lead Dancer, an enigmatic figure who appears only once as the performer of the dream ballet. That was Gabrielle Hamilton.

The show is accompanied by a country band, including guitars, fiddles, mandolin, bass, and accordion. The band and instruments can be seen here.

With all the names out of the way, let’s get to the show.

First, I was astonished by the appearance of the theatre. Much like my comments about Hadestown, I like a show that strikes the audience as soon as you walk in the door. In this case, the entire space, floor to ceiling (including under the chairs and basically every flat surface) was covered with smooth, untreated plywood. The far wall of the theatre (which would be “upstage” by most definitions) was the same surface, but painted with a vague pattern of rolling fields and a distant farmhouse.

The front row of the audience is actually onstage, seated at long tables covered with white paper and with a crock pot every few feet, steaming away. These were full of chili which was served with cornbread at intermission. The tables are recessed slightly below stage level.

There were two cutouts near the “downstage” end where the band members played. This made them visible while also out-of-the-way. They were able to interact occasionally with the players (as when Gertie shows off her wedding ring or when Curly plays duets with them during the box social). There was a visible tunnel entrance on the downstage end and three hidden doorways on the upstage end.

I don’t want to summarize the show, and my impressions are far too numerous to mention. So I’m going to spit them out in whatever order they come to me. I’m also not going to divide them up into positive and negative as I did with Hadestown.

  • The arrangements suited the show perfectly. It was country flavored without being authentically country. You’d never confuse it with stuff played on a country music station, classic or modern; It’s neither Patsy Cline nor Jason Aldean. But it mostly works!

  • There were two scenes played completely in the dark, two scenes played in surreal green light, and two scenes that used live video projected on the wall. These were highly impactful, but didn’t obviously connect to the otherwise fairly natural look of the show. I would have liked to see these woven in more logically, with a clear pattern of meaning.

  • The country accents and acting were essentially natural. I felt like I could run into these people on the street. That being said, Hammerstein wrote more than a few turns of phrase that sound country but aren’t. “I’ve known what’s right from wrong since I been ten” just doesn’t flow as naturally as “since I wuz ten” or even “since I’s ten”.

  • The chili was surprisingly good. (I was worried. As a displaced Texan, I have my favorite kinds of chili. I didn’t expect to like it.) However, it wasn’t really integrated into the show and felt more like a gimmick than it did a vital part of the concept.

  • The Characters of Will and Ado Annie were comically exaggerated but too much. They were clearly not the brightest bulbs, but both very sweet. Ado Annie’s song “I Cain’t Say No” worked better for me than it did in the Tony Awards. And it felt like she was saying “Why would anyone want to say no?” rather than “I don’t feel comfortable saying no” or something. This was a girl who is happy-go-lucky with her sexuality.

  • I have read complaints about the writing of Ali Hakim as a broad middle-eastern stereotype. He’s supposed to be a pseudo-Persian con-man traveling salesman. In this one they did away with all pretense of exoticism except for a wild beard. I thought it worked well.

  • The dream ballet was interesting and really well-executed. But it was also so abstract that I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Interestingly, it was also performed mostly to recorded music, allowing for more colors that weren’t available to the band.

The ending…oh my. (Spoilers from here to the dividing line). In the original version, as related by my friends, Judd arrives at Laurie and Curly’s wedding drunk and gets into a fight where Curly accidentally kills him. There is then a perfunctory trial where Curly is exonerated and sent off on his honeymoon.

In this version, it’s all slowed down and surreal. Jud is not obviously drunk. He gives a revolver to Curly, who, after a long moment, shoots him (Jud darts toward him, which sets him off). Curly and Laurie are spattered with blood until the end. The courtroom scene is played slowly and deliberately, with Aunt Eller steering things. She masterminds the not-guilty verdict.

The final reprise of the title song is almost robotic, cheerless. The actors go through the same motions as during the earlier version, but there are no smiles, no cheer. It’s really kind of unnerving, especially with the remains of the scene still spattered around the stage. If you leave this show smiling broadly, you’ve missed the point.

I want to finish this by giving my overall opinion of the concept. I admire its originality and commitment. This concept is really about the script and the acting. Everything else is meant to serve that. And for the most part, the orchestrations, choreography, and set design did add to it. I don’t think it’s the “definitive” interpretation of Oklahoma! (if one exists), but it’s a highly compelling one.

I hope to one day be involved in creating a show that is so singular in its vision, and that is able to strip away the expected finish in the interest of emotional honesty.