2016: A Space Oddity
by Roberto Friedman
Some symphonygoers get up on their high horse about film screenings at the concert hall accompanied by full orchestra, calling them "orchestra karaoke." But Out There always enjoys these events, and the San Francisco Symphony has a full and worthy Film Series this season. It began last weekend with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and continues in the new year with On the Waterfront (Jan. 7-8, 2017), Raiders of the Lost Ark (April 14-15) and Casablanca (June 2-3). Great films all.
Director Stanley Kubrick's space-age masterpiece 2001 was always notable for its brilliant cinematic use of music, and hearing the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus perform the score, conducted by Brad Lubman (Chorus director: Ragnar Bohlin), was sublime. In a pre-concert talk, The Musical Imagination of Stanley Kubrick, musicologist Kate McQuiston discussed Kubrick's famous attention to visual and musical details in his films, including the journey of classical music in 2001. No one had linked outer space, visually, with classical music, aurally, but Kubrick was there first. Now it's hard to imagine Star Wars et al. without John Williams' thundering brass and octave-spanning chords, all clearly inspired from 2001.
Concert music included excerpts from Johann Strauss ' waltz "By the Beautiful Blue Danube," Richard Strauss ' tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, and the Adagio from Khachaturian 's Gayane ballet suite. Kubrick also used four avant-garde compositions by Gyorgy Ligeti that employ micropolyphony, the use of sustained dissonant chords that shift slowly. This technique was pioneered in Atmospheres, the only Ligeti piece heard in its entirety in the film. Other Ligeti works in the film include Lux Aeterna, the second movement of his Requiem, and an electronically altered form of Aventures. The Chorus sang the spots off the modern music.
2001 is not our favorite Kubrick film (that would be The Shining ). It's slow and tedious in parts, really more of a cinematic tone poem than a conventional narrative. Its last chapter, from Jupiter to infinity and beyond, is something of a light show and avant-garde concerto. There was a reason we smelt pot smoke wafting outside Davies Hall. But when the Symphony launched into the great Zarathustra fanfare, the audience went nuts. Or perhaps, in honor of the film's first segment, we should say they went ape-shit.
Anyone who loves musical theatre knows the thrill of the standout number that brings an audience to its feet in tumultuous applause. Sometimes it comes at the first-act finale, sometimes it's the so-called "11 o'clock number," sometimes it pops up unexpectedly, but such a crowd-pleasing moment always brings the rush of a vivid theatrical encounter. It's the subject of a new book from theatre writer Gerald Nachman published by Chicago Review Press, Showstoppers! The Surprising Backstage Stories of Broadway's Most Remarkable Songs.
First Nachman has to define the term, and what he comes up with seems similar to what that Supreme Court Justice said about pornography, i.e., you know it when you see it. He quotes choreographer-performer Tommy Tune in his introduction with an insightful definition. "Showstoppers endure because it's the one chance for the audience to take the show away from the performers. 'We will not let you go on with the show – it is our turn to celebrate!'"
Then the author has to choose which numbers he'll discuss, and he comes up with dozens, from early Broadway history through the so-called Golden Age, straight through to that ne plus ultra, Jersey Boys. (Jersey Boys?) But truth be told, most of the chosen are no-brainers, like "Some People" (Gypsy ), "I Cain't Say No" (Oklahoma! ) or "Adelaide's Lament" (Guys and Dolls). Others are perhaps more idiosyncratic choices: "Put on a Happy Face" (Bye Bye Birdie), "If He Walked into My Life" (Mame), "Sherry" (Jersey Boys). But all of them seem to have legitimately stopped the show at one time or another.
Showstoppers! is a cornucopia of theatre lore, easy to dip into for descriptions of favorite shows. In each case, Nachman describes the reaction to the showstopper upon its premiere – often the standout tune was a dark horse, or the expected highlight was a dud – then dispenses any "Backstage Dish" he could dig up. The author's obvious interest and expertise in his topic result in telling observations. For example, in a discussion of "Shall We Dance?," a showstopper from The King and I, Nachman remarks, "Dancing is a tried and true theatrical metaphor, a kind of vertical foreplay, often used in shows to suggest an unacknowledged longing." Then he takes the metaphor to its logical conclusion. "'I Could Have Danced All Night' from My Fair Lady ends in a similar covert, proper musical climax, as Eliza whirls through the room before collapsing in a big easy chair, exhausted, in a kind of postcoital pant." Give Eliza a cigarette.
The essays on numbers that can claim showstopper status are interesting, but Out There readers want to know the "Dish," so here are some highlights. From My Fair Lady: "When Julie Andrews auditioned, she was told, in a burst of enthusiasm, 'That was absolutely adequate.' Andrews was less than adequate once rehearsals began. After three weeks, [Rex] Harrison stomped out of rehearsal, shouting, 'If that bitch is here on Monday, I'm quitting the show.'"
"During the Andrews solo 'Without You,' Harrison was directed to stand in place and just listen, but he said, 'I am not going to simply stand onstage and make a cunt of myself while this girl sings at me.'" (Brits have a different, more casual relationship with the c-word.)
"Harrison, every inch as much the womanizer as Alan Jay Lerner, once told Lerner when they were comparing their mutual female problems, 'Alan, wouldn't it be marvelous if we were both homosexual!,' which directly or indirectly led to Lerner's wry song, 'A Hymn to Him,' in which Higgins wonders, 'Why can't a woman be more like a man?'"
From Annie: Dorothy Loudon, as Miss Hannigan, sang "Little Girls" as "an antidote to the show's high sugar content; in real life, said a cast member, Loudon really did hate little girls, little actresses most of all. She once told [Andrea] McArdle , 'If you make one move on any of my laugh lines, you will not live to see the curtain call.'"
From Wicked: "The wicked witch has no name in the original L. Frank Baum book, so [Gregory] Maguire devised one for her by using Baum's initials: LFB." This became Elphaba. Thus spawning a million middle-school re-enactments of "Defying Gravity."
Game, set, match
The San Francisco Symphony's new Debussy CD, reviewed in these pages last week, includes that composer's Jeux, generally thought to be about a game of tennis. But a sharp-eyed reader was immediately reminded of this passage from Homintern, also recently reviewed. In it, author Gregory Woods is quoting legendary dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky 's diary directly:
"The story of this ballet is about three young men making love to each other. Jeux is the life of which Diaghilev dreamed. He wanted to have two boys as lovers. He often told me so, but I refused. Diaghilev wanted to make love to two boys at the same time, and wanted those two boys to make love to him. In the ballet, the two girls represent the two boys, and the young man is Diaghilev. I changed the characters, as love between three men could not be represented on the stage."
Never a dull moment in 1913 Paris.