Friday, June 01, 2007

Singing The Book

Thomas Garvey, in his relentless but necessary focus on the new, (or more rightly newish,) works on Boston stages, does a breakdown of the new musicals that have proliferated in the mid-sized theatre scene here in Boston. (Focusing on Brown's Parade, LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See, and Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party.)

But elsewhere Brown's music and lyrics failed to catch fire; like Lippa, he tends to write direct, almost banal recitative, and then tries to shape these flat statements into song, as in the following lyric to the murder victim:

Did you ever hear her laugh?
When she laughed, you swore you’d never cry again.
Did you ever see her smile?
Her smile was like a glass of lemonade.
And she said funny things,
And she wore pretty dresses,
And she liked to see the pictures at the VFW Hall,
And she loved ridin’ swings,
And she liked cotton candy,
But I think she liked the pictures best of all.

Or this bald statement of identity politics from Leo:

I'm trapped inside this life
And trapped beside a wife
Who would prefer that I'd say "Howdy!",
not "Shalom!"
Well, I'm sorry, Lucille,
But I feel what I feel
And this place is surreal,
So how can I call this home?

Is this sort of thing Sondheim's fault? Perhaps - or at least it's the
fault of those who too-easily buy into the idea that the musical should
"progress" into opera. There's no reason at all why the lines above shouldn't be lines in the book (except, of course, that they're not very good!).

Carl Rossi, reviewing Parade on writing on Larry Stark's Theatermirror, points out the following:

The problem with New Musicals --- apart from their being tuneless and for steering a genre that once celebrated the Life Force into darker and darker waters --- is that there is far too much music in them. ...A current example is PARADE at the SpeakEasy Stage: Alfred Uhry, writer of two celebrated plays about the Jewish Experience in the American South, tells the real-life story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew living in post-Civil War Georgia, accused of murdering a young girl who worked in his factory; Mr. Frank was tried, sentenced and lynched though his fate was apparently based on anti-Semitism, media hype and political strings being pulled. Perhaps I should say that Mr. Uhry tried to tell Mr. Frank’s story for his libretto constitutes but a quarter of PARADE’s running time; the rest is composed by Jason Robert Brown in that sung-through way that was once a novelty but is now a commonplace and his score is more noisy than passionate, more busy than memorable. Song and dance, when used well --- and appropriately --- can be an invaluable shortcut in illuminating human nature compared to spoken drama which takes longer; when overused, stage music --- being stylized expression ---
leads to mere skating over surfaces...

Both these reviewers seem to illuminate what some of the problem of Parade is. In combination with the above observations, I would suggest another possible solution as well:

Parade is one of those rare cases where an argument can be made that the play is far, far too short. Here, finally, is an idea that is worthy of a good, solid three hour-plus turning over of challenging ideas and interesting historical questions, along with human emotions and motivations. And to top it all off, the historical story comes complete with its own built-in Three Act Structure.

Act I: The Murder And Initial Investigation.
Act II The Trial And Sentencing
Act III The Investigation of the Trial and the Commutation of the Death Sentence.

What would be wrong with a good 50 Minute to one hour act for each of those? Expand the book a little, (after all, you have a Pulitzer Prize Winner writing for you,) and explore some of the idiosynchrosies of those involved.

In the First Act of Speakeasy's Parade, Timothy John Smith as Reporter Britt Craig, is truly first rate with, for my money, the evening's best number, "Big News." This boozy reporter sings about the lack of anything newsworthy happening in the slow, hot Atlanta summer. But suddenly, the reporter is sidelined quickly, and in the second act there seems to be a glancing acknowledgement that he has had some type of change of heart. Let's find out more about him. Let's also explore Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, who was given the order to get a conviction, only to have it start to be overturned by the very man who ordered him to do it. The real Dorsey did eventually become Governor, but how did he feel about allying himself with the KKK supporters who took up his cause.

As well, there are all of the political and social issues that Thomas Garvey brings up in his review:

Alfred Uhry, of Driving Miss Daisy fame, simply failed to dramatize the fascinating crux of this case: why did Atlanta turn against the Jewish Frank and instead trust the testimony of African-American Jim Conley, who most likely committed the crime? Both were members of minority groups, after all, and if anything, one would imagine - to put it in the horrid calculus of bigotry - that Frank's religion would trump Conley's race (especially given the assimilation of Jews into Atlanta society at the time). Yet the opposite occurred - the mob sided with Conley; but why?

We need more time to examine these questions, and I am not sure that just cutting down on tunes would be able to get it done in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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