CULTURE & THE ARTS
New Life for Two Musical Works from 1978 AUFBAU 62:24 Nov. 22, 1996 p12
[original title: New Life for 2 Works Born in 1978: Working and Jocasta]
Copyright by Leonard J. Lehrman & AUFBAU Oct. 27, 1996
It wasn't just the Yankees that came alive last week in New York, to be reborn as champions for the first time since 1978. Two other entities that first saw light that year asserted themselves here as well: the 1978 Broadway musical Working, based on Studs Terkel's book of the same name, was revived in Old Westbury; and Jocasta, an opera on a 1978 text by the French feminist Helene Cixous (b. 1937), originally with music by Andre Boucourechliev (b. 1925), was half-performed with new music by Ruth Schonthal (b. 1924), on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Jocasta [by Ruth Schonthal
I say "half-performed," because the new music is only half-finished, and because the event was billed as a series of two "open rehearsals," with singers and actors using scores, accompanied by the composer at an upright piano. The evening was a presentation by Voice & Vision, a new company that is barely a year old and is dedicated to "developing the voices of women and girls." [Artistic co-director Marya Mazor, director of the work-in-progress, teaches at a Catholic girls' school partially in exchange for the use of the theatrical space on East 4th Street.] Some impressive names and talents have been assembled among the supporters (JoAnne Akalaitis, Len Berkman, Olympia Dukakis, Estelle Parsons) and actors, especially Mary Hernandez, who speaks half of the title role. Even more impressive was Frederick Neumann on tape as the prophet Tiresias. Marie Ann Chenevey sang Jocasta, while David Travis tripled as both a chorister and the sung and spoken Oedipus, as actor Michael Potts made a belated entrance, coming from a film shoot.
[Marya] Mazor discovered the libretto in the Yale Library five years ago. (Its original title is actually "Le nom d'Oedipe: chant du corps interdit" - "The Name of Oedipus: Song of the Forbidden Body.") Not caring for the music by the Bulgarian-French composer Andre Boucourechliev, which she says she found "very 1970s - 'oo-woo-woo-woo,'" she started working on the piece dramatically, in a translation by Judith Graves Miller and Christiane Makward, even before finding a composer with whom to collaborate.
Ruth Schonthal (not "Schoenthal," as the program calls her), a (Jewish) Hamburger who also studied at Yale - with Paul Hindemith - having arrived there by way of Berlin, Stockholm and Mexico City, proved to be both creative and adaptable. The new work is characterized by its creators as "post-modern," but the piano tremolos tended, no doubt inadvertently, to evoke pre-modern melodrama. Only in the fourth of six sections presented was there anything as modern as forearm tone-clusters to be heard. One hopes the budget will eventually permit an orchestration that will do credit to the composer's imagination, and that the barely-begun solo choreography by Dawn Saito will have a chance to develop, along with this small company.
Another small company, this one known literally as "A Small Company in America (ASCIA)," has been going strong on Long Island for over a decade now, first in Sea Cliff, and now in its new theatrical space at the Salten Center of New York Tech in Old Westbury. I had the pleasure of conducting their Leonard Bernstein-Douglas Moore double-bill six years ago, and their current production of Working is certainly their most impressive since then, the fourth accompanied by Yelena Polezhayev at the keyboard, with Paul Castellano on guitar. Co-founder Penelope Grover is a standout as the hooker and a housewife, with her son, her husband, and her brother all doing star turns. But the most delightful presence is that of the stunning Pamela Lewis who walks away with the show every time she speaks or sings. The company omits two numbers as well as the migrant-worker context for a lament in Spanish, substituting a James Taylor song to fill in. (The other music is by Craig Carnelia, Stephen Schwartz, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, and James Taylor.)
They add a few up-to-date bits, like one inspired by the film "When Harry Met Sally." But who can fault them in the terrific enthusiasm they bring to a work with which they (and most of us) can so obviously and easily identify? "People that write commercial jingles," said Rip Torn in Studs Terkel's book, "make more money than people that write operas. They're more successful by somebody's standards. That somebody is the salesman and he's taken over. To the American public, an actor is unsuccessful unless he makes money." ASCIA may not be making much money, but by any fair standards, their efforts are definitely a success.
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