Authenticity, Truth and Humor
in Political Musical Theatre, Yesterday & Today

(c) 2017 by Leonard J. Lehrman New Music Connoisseur, 2017, v. 23 #1, pp. 4, 8-10
[Portions in brackets were cut by the Editor from the printed version of this article.]

THE POLITICAL THEATRE/REALITY SHOW which brought us to the present state of U.S. politics would seem to dwarf or distort almost anything that could be created on stage, casting shadows on efforts like Michael Moore's and even Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. But a number of new musical efforts (and revivals) at coming to terms with history and its importance for today have certainly been worth viewing and reviewing. As the war on poverty has degenerated first into the war on terrorism and now the war on truth, it becomes more and more important not to lose sight of authenticity and courage in real characters of the American political past and present.

[York Theatre]

Capturing the pre-Trump era of hope and optimism triumphing over cynicism, York Theatre presented T. Cat Ford's 70-minute political cabaret How to Be an American Sept. 17-25, 2016 and Joshua Rosenblum's 90-minute Mark Felt, Superstar Jan. 7-15, 2017. Each was performed without intermission, moderately successfully, more so than the revival Feb. 25-Mar. 5, 2017 of Jerry Herman's Dear World, based on Jean Giraudoux's Madwoman of Chaillot starring a dotty but alas only half-convincing Tyne Daly, upstaged by the deliciously daffy Alison Fraser, in a total cast of 13. The Ford and the Rosenblum had casts of 4 and 5, respectively, with standouts Tim Jerome among the 4 men in the former, Vanessa Lemonides, the lone woman in the latter.

Ford's well-chosen baker's dozen songs leaned heavily on 1901-42 repertoire of George M. Cohan and the team of Gus Bryant & Vincent Edwards, plus asides from Martin Luther & Francis Scott Key, sarcastically ­ and all too prophetically - extolling "honest graft." Three of the performers played instruments as well as singing - Jerome on percussion, Frank J. Paul ukulele, and Dan Manjovi at the piano. Going in and out of soliloquy and narration, the show was built around the career of New York's Tammany Hall machine politician George Washington Plunkitt (Jerome), with a message, again all too prophetic, that "Education doesn't count in politics." Authenticity was marred only slightly as Herbert Hoover's slogan, "a chicken in every pot," was anachronistically intoned decades before his time, which the playwright admitted was "poetic license." Basically, though, the show served as a reminder and quasi-prequel of successful political musicals from Of Thee I Sing to The Cradle Will Rock to Fiorello!

Rosenblum's show, stage directed by Annette Jolles, has book, music, lyrics, musical direction and piano accompaniment all by him, and also contains a baker's dozen songs, with some memorable numbers like Nixon's song sung by Michael McCoy, "I Am Not a Crook"; "Who Is Deep Throat?" (the name Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein gave the secret inside informant in their book - also a song title: "All the President's Men"); and a clever blues solo that tearily stops the show, pondering "how Audrey Felt felt," not knowing what her husband had been doing, and ending her own life in 1984, 21 years before his secret would be revealed: Mark Felt (1913-2008), embodied here by Neal Mayer, was a morally ambiguous character, to say the least. Convicted of crimes against leftists in the FBI's Cointelpro program, he was given a pardon by President Reagan in 1981. Would that have been issued, had his role in exposing Watergate been known at that time? And were his motives for that exposure as pure as those of others like Ellsberg, Manning, Snowden or (arguably) Assange? Or were they not at least partly built on jealousy for having been passed over for the Director's job when J. Edgar Hoover died?
Rosenblum lets us ponder that, without resolving it, but poses the inevitable questions: "Could there even be a Deep Throat in our own era?" and "What would he tell us today?" How can one not concur that "the lessons of Watergate loom larger than ever" now, and "it's important to remind ourselves of a time when the truth mattered"?

[Falling Man]

I don't have a lot to say that hasn't already been said about Kenneth Fuchs' monodrama for baritone and instruments, Falling Man, on a text by J.D. McClatchy, taken from a novel by Don DeLillo. It's a very effective, affecting piece, which I heard sung by Jarrett Ott twice ­ once on Apr. 29, 2016 at Symphony Space with union musicians hired by the Center for Contemporary Opera, and once with Juilliard students on Oct. 7, 2016 at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, where Eric Fischl's slightly erotic sculpture "Falling Woman" was displayed and also discussed ­ though I didn't see much relation between the two works other than their titles, and the source of their inspiration: 9/11. There also did not seem to be any significant difference in quality between the professional and the student performers.

[The Cradle Will Rock]

Which leads us to the revival of perhaps the most important political musical in US history, Marc Blitzstein's paean to unionism, composed in 1936 and premiered in 1937: The Cradle Will Rock.
The 80th anniversary of that premiere was commemorated with a plaque to Blitzstein in his hometown, Philadelphia, June 12, 2017. (Links to videos of the ceremony and reception concert are posted at http://tinyurl.com/MBmarkerPlaylist). The same month, the Saratoga Springs Festival presented the work's first orchestral performance since NY City Opera's miscast, poorly-recorded rendition of 1960. That year, Lotte Lenya told me (in December 1970), Blitzstein had asked Lenya to play the Moll, but she declined, and recommended Tammy Grimes (who, when I met her, told me she had not known of Lenya's recommendation). Unfortunately Grimes' Irish-accented dialog with the Harry Druggist of William Griffis makes one think one may be listening to Juno or Finian's Rainbow rather than The Cradle Will Rock!

John Mauceri, responsible for unearthing all the sketches and cut sections in his Scottish Opera versions of both Leonard Bernstein's Candide and Blitzstein's Regina (for better or for worse, but always interestingly), was Saratoga's conductor, with an excellent group of opera-trained singers, headed by Ginger Costa-Jackson (the first time, I think, that a Carmen has been cast) as the Moll, Matt Boehler as Mister Mister, and Christopher Burchett as Larry Foreman. A grant from Blitzstein's nephew Stephen Davis will enable this version to be released on CD. (A smaller grant from the same source has also just funded the creation of a legible score of Blitzstein's 1935 Children's Cantata, Workers' Kids of the World, Unite! The piece was slated for but never received a full performance. International Opera Theater has expressed interest in premiering it next year in Italy.)

[Among the most interesting reviews, which includes an interview with director Larry Edelson, was that of Blitzstein/Bernstein fan and self-styled "composer/conductor/librettist/director of nine operas" Daron Hagen in The Huffington Post. Unfortunately he misquotes the very first line of the opera, "I'm checkin' home now" ­ not "I'm goin' home now," and misspells the title of Eric Gordon's Blitzstein biography ("Mark," not "Marc" the Music) as well as the names of most of the singers. And Cradle was written in 1936, not 1935, conducted by Bernstein in 1947, not 1948. But his comments on the newly-heard orchestration are vivid and appreciative.

I personally found the experience ear-opening, since most productions of the work, with piano or small combo (which seems to have been Blitzstein's original intention, and was emulated by me at Harvard in 1969 and by Tim Robbins and his brother in the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock), are based on the original piano score. That's what Blitzstein played from, and Bernstein told me he personally preferred. Stylistically it bears marks of Hanns Eisler's and the Composers Collective's proletarian, down-to-earth influence. The full orchestra score, in contrast, is full of clarinet, sax, and Hawaiian guitar blowziness, indicating an even stronger Kurt Weill influence than just the Mission Scene, descended directly from Johnny Johnson, the first Weill work Blitzstein would praise in print, and which he heard right before starting work on Cradle.

Hagen's own interest in the subject is manifest in his new opera on Orson Welles, Cradle's first director, announced for Chicago in September 2018. His words are, however, to be taken with more than a grain of salt. A video posted at https://youtu.be/nOHOIKGUwog with him accompanying Gilda Lyons in what he calls his "arrangement" of Cradle's key song, "Nickle [sic] Under the Foot" mangles the music even worse than the spelling of the title, and is, alas, a horrific example of how not to perform Blitzstein. Fortunately there are numerous other versions available online, including the most popular, Patti LuPone's, which is actually not quite complete musically and is danced as much as sung; Helene Williams', recorded in Vancouver (https://youtu.be/TRlVf-a7s6c); Evelyn Lear's, with Blitzstein at the piano, in 1956 (posted at https://youtu.be/PMfyrqRbDOA; Blitzstein accompanying himself at the piano, a 1938 recording that had been misfiled, and which I discovered in the archives in 2004, releasing it on Original Cast CD in 2005 - posted at http://sotm.labornotes.org/2011/10/nickel-under-foot; and Liz Filios', recorded (twice) this past June in Philadelphia (see https://youtu.be/wgqwrg6iv38.)

As for the piece's remaining relevant, the cartoonishness of its characters who cavort at the beck and call of tycoon Mr. Mister and his family is rescued by the cleverness of both music and text, and the realization that today's reality in Washington often seems even more cartoonish, as well as horrific, in the denigration of religion, science, the arts, the press, education, and immigrants (see Scenes 3, 9, 6, 4, 8 and 5, respectively). New productions, with piano, in English, have been announced by the Kurt Weill Foundation for this fall in Baltimore, Winter Park, FL and Lisbon, Portugal, as well as next spring in Glassboro, NJ.]

[Dietrich Rides Again]

Fighting incipient American fascism is the theme of the stage work Blitzstein wrote right after Cradle, his anti-war No for an Answer, which was shelved in June 1941 (after Germany invaded Russia) and revived in NY only once, in 1960, though Howard da Silva's daughter Maggie; a director in Holland, and I have been agitating for it for years. Medicine Show's expression of interest in it drew me to their most recent anti-fascist, anti-war production, which ran Aug. 31-Sept. 17, 2017: Dietrich Rides Again, and which I reviewed at http://soundwordsight.com/?p=2298.]

Marlene Dietrich (December 21, 1901 ­ May 6, 1992) is certainly a figure deserving of memorializing and emulation in this 25th anniversary year of her death, "at a time," writes Director Oliver Conant, "when Americans are becoming increasingly anxious and uncertain about the ugliness, bigotry and moral incoherence" of which we see more and more each day, and "are looking for examples of people who combined talent, glamour, sexiness and high principles.  What better way," he asks, "to recover these values?" With this noble purpose, he has co-written and co-designed this show in collaboration with its star, 24-year-old Polish-American Justyna Kostek, though the real star of the evening is the pianist Jojo Mainelli, who accompanies from memory his own arrangements of 11 songs Dietrich sang.

[I hope we may look forward to No for an Answer at Medicine Show or perhaps at York? The latter has announced plans for a modern, country music adaptation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. That's the play Brecht & Eisler adapted in their anti-racist, anti-fascist Roundheads & Pointedheads, which they were working on when Brecht first met Blitzstein and inspired Cradle. The work has also never had a full NYC production with Eisler's marvelous score, though Karyn Levitt has been touring internationally singing Eisler's songs, including two from this show.
Of course the York does have to be careful: At least one patron canceled his subscription over an anti-Trump speech from the stage. Artistic Director James Morgan proposed writing him a friendly letter, suggesting they get together and perhaps go out and "grab some pussy." I chided him, advising rather the high road, recalling how Dorothy Parker replied to the request to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence: "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think!" (One of Blitzstein's best songs was a setting of Parker's poem "War Song" - see https://youtu.be/ZeAVmmb3I4c0.)]

[Scalia/Ginsburg ]

Last but not least on our political musical theater list is a work much enjoyed at Glimmerglass Aug. 4, 2017, mentioned in our review (at http://soundwordsight.com/?p=2278) of a Donizetti opera there, but not in Opera News' coverage of the season. Perhaps that's due to the magazine's relatively recent policy of not covering performances with piano only. Or perhaps because the work is not really an opera, but rather a parody pastiche, piecing together quotations, both musical and textual. [In this regard, Derrick Wang's Scalia/Ginsburg reminds me of two works of my own: Beowulf or The Great Dane, performed at Harvard in 1970, Cornell 1977, which quotes from 30 sources in 15 minutes, out-Schickeleing P.D.Q. Bach; and Hannah, a Biblical opera premiered in Germany in 1980, in NY in 2014, the only footnote-replete libretto I had ever seen ­ until now. Wang's work is that of a consummate attorney and composer. I can think of at least five composers who seriously considered studying or did study law early in their careers ­ Schumann, Tchaikovsky (the subject of a beautifully sensitive musical portrait given by NYFOS at Merkin Hall Jan. 24, 2017), Stravinsky, Joel Mandelbaum, and myself. But Wang seems to be the first to succeed equally in both fields, and his Scalia/Ginsburg is a triumph of both citation and original, musical synthesis.]

The premise builds on the actual friendship of the Supreme Court's most progressive and most reactionary justices, who found common ground in a love of opera, and who both loved this piece, the libretto for which was published in the Columbia Law Journal of Law & the Arts, with prefaces by both justices, and footnotes citing their words (from opinions and interviews) and the musical quotations used "from Händel, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Offenbach, Bizet, Sullivan, Puccini, Strauss, et al."
(See links from the composer's website, http://derrickwang.com/scalia-ginsburg/.)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg particularly loved being portrayed as a coloratura diva (Mary Beth Nelson here), and Antonin ("Nino") Scalia (sung by tenor William Burden) appreciated the portrait of his hard-working Italian immigrant father. Originally premiered in Castleton, VA in 2015, the work was revised for Glimmerglass in 2017, taking into account Scalia's death on Feb. 13, 2016. It now has him exiting the stage with "The Commentator," a contemporary (re?-)incarnation of Don Giovanni's Commendatore (Brent Michael Smith), with a parting verbal shot at Ginsburg: "You're still wrong!" Humor is thus allowed to alleviate the tension that still rankles over the Garland/Gorsuch controversy as to who should have succeeded Scalia on the Court. And perhaps that's the only safe, sane way we can hope to get through this period: with humor.


LEONARD LEHRMAN is the composer of 229 works to date, including 11 operas and 7 musicals, and Founder/Director of The Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus. He edited the 3-volume Marc Blitzstein Songbook, authored the Greenwood Press bio-bibliography, and adapted/completed 20 Blitzstein works, including the opera Sacco and Vanzetti. He has been writing for NMC since 2001. [Website:] ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com
 
 

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