Great Song, Terrible Idea — Part I

June 14, 2011

At one point during what you might call a heated discussion, Ron said to me, “One of the main reasons you have a unique ability to regurgitate lyrics is because you’re one of the few people who listen to them in the first place.”  It was a point that I couldn’t argue with.

And one thing that happens when you listen to a lyric is that you actully listen to what a song says.  And it occurs to me that there are a lot of songs I love that give really, really dicey advice when you think about it.  Here’s the first in an occasional series.  (And please, feel free to add your choices in the comments below.)

Make Someone Happy — “Make someone happy and you will be happy, too.”  First of all, there are some people who will never be happy.  So if you’re making your happiness rely on them getting to happy you’re totally wasting your time.  And I can think of a number of occasions where I’ve given a lot of happiness to others and I’ve certainly received satisfaction — but happiness???

Marry the Man Today — “…and change his ways tomorrow.”  This seems like an instant road to divorce court. (BTW, great quote from a NYTimes article about a man taking a family trip to Disney — “…which prove again a useful principle for all couples: don’t try to change each other. Study and subvert each other. “)

Don’t Cry Out Loud — “…just keep it inside and learn how to hide your feelings.”  And then pay for years of therapy.

I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love — Does that mean you’d rather stay when it’s bad?

When In Rome I Do as the Romans Do — FYI, whenever I’m out of town I cheat.  As Dr. Phil might say, “How’s knowin’ that workin’ out for you?”

Words of wisdom from Mark Waldrop

June 11, 2011

Mark Waldrop who directed Sutton Foster’s cabaret act had this passage in the CD’s album notes — words many, many performers need to take to heart:

“Pulling off a really great club act is one of the toughest feats in show business — even for a Broadway star like Sutton.  It takes so much more than assembling a list of songs and knocking them out of the part (which pretty much defines a really bad club act).  For the entertainers who elevate this intimate art form, the song list becomes a vehicle for delivering a distillation of their own unique personalities.  A friend of mine once said that the tricky thing about doing cabaret is that you have to be yourself on purpose.  This seemingly simple requirement has tripped up a surprising number of otherwise brilliant performers.  There’s no character to hide behind.  It’s just you up there.  To thrive in this setting, you have to be comfortable in your own skin.”

Did you like it?

June 11, 2011

Until one has really found one’s footing as a person or an artist, it can be difficult to know what to say to someone whose work you’ve just seen and found deeply flawed.

The terrific advice columnist Cary Tennis answered that question in one of his Since You Asked columns in Salon.  He quotes a story Jason Robert Brown told about being young and being invited with a friend by Stephen Sondheim to see Passion in previews and dinner afterward.

“They try to disguise their opinions but it is clear to Sondheim that they didn’t like the show, and it makes things very uncomfortable. Sometime after this very awkward dinner, one of them calls Sondheim to patch things up and this is what Sondheim reportedly said:

“”Nobody cares what you think. Once a creation has been put into the world, you have only one responsibility to its creator: Be supportive. Support is not about showing how clever you are, how observant of some flaw, how incisive in your criticism. There are other people whose job it is to guide the creation, to make it work, to make it live, but that is not your problem.

“”If you come to my show and see me afterwards, say only this: ‘I loved it.’ It doesn’t matter if that’s what you really felt. What I need at that moment is to know that you care enough about me and the work I do to tell me that you loved it … If you can’t say that, don’t come backstage or lean over the pit to see me. Just go home … Say all the catty, bitchy things you want to your friend, your neighbor, the Internet …

“”Maybe someday down the line I’ll be ready to hear what you have to say, but at that moment, that face-to-face moment after I have unveiled some part of my soul, however small, to you: That is the most vulnerable moment in any artist’s life. If I beg you, plead with you to tell me what you really thought … then you must tell me, ‘I loved it.’ That moment must be respected.””

Also a great article from the NYTimes on what to say / not to say to someone going through severe health isssues.

Discovering Monica Zetterlund

June 9, 2011

I’ve gone a bit gaga over YouTube clips of a Swedish jazz singer named Monica Zetterlund.  Here she is singing Some Other Time with the Bill Evans (!!!!!) trio. 

It’s what I call Blond Jazz.  It just has such a fascinating lack of affect or connection on the part of the singer that it really clears the way for the audience to project their own thoughts onto a huge blank canvas.  For this sort of work, maybe it helps to sing in a language that’s foreign to you.

On hiatus…

January 17, 2011

OK, when I opened the Washington Post this morning and saw the review of Sutton Foster’s show at the Kennedy Center that was totally off my radar, I realized how inattentive I’ve been to this blog. 

In explanation, I really have been busy with my new job and I’ve been planning Ron & my wedding which is happening next month.  So I’m going to make official what my loyal readers have suspected, that I’ll be taking a break from doing this blog until April.

It’s comforting to know that I leave you in good information hands, with Matt Howe’s terrific cabaret site and the DC Cabaret Network blog and Web site.

Here are brief versions of things I’ve been meaning to do longer items on:

Please also keep checking the Cabaret at Germano’s Calendar.  Some great acts are scheduled, including Lonny Smith, Paul Pompeo, Marianne Glass Miller and Eileen Warner doing their Cabaret About Nothing as well as the ever-dependable Gary Rubin and Guss Moss not to mention some fascinating-sounding programs.

I had mixed feelings about Sunset Blvd at Signature.  Although I loved the staging, I had quibbles with Florence Lacey’s portrayal of Norma Desmond.  And part of me wonders if the problem came from her singing the role too easily.  Could it be that watching a performer struggle and triumph with material (e.g. Elaine Stritch in Night Music) is more interesting than watching someone apparantly coast through difficulties?

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and AnecdotesSpeaking of Mr. Sondheim, Finishing the Hat is a must read for any singer, actor, or writer.  Although Sondheim has insightful and cutting analyses of many Golden Age songwriters (fascinating observation: Ira Gershwin tries to be as brilliant with his lyrics as George is with the music and fails) his most biting analysis is saved for his own work.  However, he offers many structural notions about theater writing and how they subsequently shape performances that make it a must-read for performers also.

Two more really fun books: A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers by Will Friedwald is an amazing reference volume with highly-insightful essays on a large number of performers.   Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and the Biggest Flop of the Season – 1959 to 2009 is a fun, dishy look at fifty years of Broadway musicals.

I saw Andrea Marcovicci do her torch song show at the Oak Room.  If you ever have a chance to see her in this venue, you’ll really get the essence of pure cabaret.  She is an exquisite storyteller and makes everyone feel that she’s singing only for you in her living room.  Shelly Markham’s accompaniment is genius for his ability to know how to fit into Marcovicci’s musical needs.  And the show she did was a triumph of structure, especially given the great humor she  managed to conveyin what could be a realy downer topic.

Sad news on the passing of Margaret Whiting.  What was missing from the coverage I saw was her great contribution and support of the contemporary cabaret scene, including the teaching she did for the O’Neil cabaret program and her constant presence on the scene in New York.

Two from the NYTimes…

December 27, 2010

Two articles today that I found noteworthy:

Could it be that melisma is dying?: “Ms. Aguilera has been one of the foremost practitioners of the overpowering, Category 5 vocal style known as melisma. The female pop stars who have dominated the charts this year rarely opt for that approach. Their ascent makes it clear that melisma has retreated, while pop, which has just wrapped up one of its best years in at least a decade, has benefited from a return to less frilly, less bombastic vocal showcases.”

A great quote from a profile of operatic soprano Marina Poplavskaya : “I’m always a victim, torn between a mad tenor and a crazy baritone,” she said. “But not only sopranos are victims. In life we all are victims.”

Oklahoma – OK ?

November 23, 2010

I first saw the new production of Oklahoma! that’s inaugurating the newly-refurbished Arena Stage thanks to a friend involved with the production who got me tickets to the invited dress rehearsal. Given that the curtain call hadn’t even been staged at that point, I felt it wisest to suspend any public comment about the venture.

My overarching impression of the show was that it was a venture of a director who didn’t like musicals and was theatrically wary of spectacle. In addition, there seemed so much effort in trying to re-think Oklahoma — starting with a dumb-show sequence instead of Aunt Eller on the porch churning butter, beefing and hottening- up the role of Judd, cutting verses and reprises, changing Laurie from a soprano ingénue with spunk to a charmless, hostile belter, aggressively non-traditional casting, limiting the dance in the performance to the dance breaks in songs rather than have it imbue the program – that I wondered in part why even do the show.

Other things also annoyed me like the set pieces that seem to block audience views of the action, a lifeless, under-staged, under-harmonized title number, and an unfinished-looking set. But there were bright spots, particularly E. Faye Butler as Aunt Eller and June Schreiner as Ado Annie.

I was also fortunate to see opening night two weeks later as the guest of another friend involved with the show.

As the world knows, the leading lady had been replaced by this point by Elisha Gamble singing the role gorgeously and exuding masses of charm every moment she is onstage.

But during the show it struck me that Molly Smith really seemed to want to direct the play Green Grow the Lilacs and not the musical Oklahoma! Every time a musical number came along, I really felt that it was interrupting Smith’s attempt at storytelling – ironic for the show that most famously integrated musical numbers into the dramatic action, and was famous for billing itself as a “musical play” rather than a “musical comedy.” I also questioned a musical where the fight choreography seemed to be more compelling and featured more prominently than the dance choreography.

But I have to confess that mine seems to an idiosyncratically cranky take on this venture. Ron who went to opening night with me was practically turning cartwheels coming out of the theater. The show has become the highest-grossing venture in Arena history and has even extended. Evidently the Rodgers & Hammerstein people love the show. And I haven’t talked to anyone who has seen it who doesn’t love it.

A general rule for cabaret performers filtering feedback is that 30 audience members will have 30 different reactions to anything and that one person’s favorite number will be someone else’s most annoying moment in your show. But if you get the same reaction from 29 out of 30 people it would be wise to listen to it. I’m feeling that about what seems to be a general consensus on Oklahoma! Okay.