Crossing Boundaries in 4 Musicals: Bernstein, Bock & Harnick, Lerner & Lane, Red Emma & Rasputin at Bard, Folksbiene, Irish Rep, and the Tank, by Leonard Lehrman

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September 7, 2018 by Admin

Crossing Boundaries in 4 Musicals:

Bernstein, Bock & Harnick, Lerner & Lane, Red Emma & Rasputin

at Bard, Folksbiene, Irish Rep, and the Tank

by Leonard Lehrman © 2018

 

Bernstein’s Peter Pan

In 1939, when Leonard Bernstein conducted Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock at Harvard in its Boston premiere, which Blitzstein flew up to attend, it changed the lives of both of them.  Blitzstein was already working on his new anti-fascist anti-war opera, No for an Answer, which he would shelve two years later after Germany invaded Russia.  But its songs would haunt Bernstein, especially a Lullaby: a phrase from it, he told Jack Gottlieb, would recur repeatedly in his own music. (See https://youtu.be/IjUL_UeQSKg.)  Another song, “In the Clear,” which has been performed and recorded by Muriel Smith, William Sharp, and Dawn Upshaw, is a kind of portrait of the artist as a young man, as seen by his wife in the play (modeled after Blitzstein’s sister, in real life).  The lyrics included the following words, cut from the final version, and never recorded (yet), though printed in The Marc Blitzstein Songbook, v. 1, p. 54-55:

There was once a boy whose mind and body flew up

In the semblance of a man.

Now it’s time he grew up

As we know he can.

But he’s still Peter Pan.

Even though cut, the image seems to have remained in Blitzstein’s mind, as he described his work in Notes that were only slightly self-deprecating, apologizing for his still limited grasp of dance forms: “I’m still a growing boy” – at 35(!).

In any event, when Bernstein was invited to write incidental music, and then wrote songs as well, for a 1950 Broadway production of James Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan, starring Jean Arthur as Peter (at right) and Boris Karloff as Captain Hook (seen below), he called on Blitzstein for help, designating him as “my deputy” for the production while he was in Europe, conducting.  There’s considerable correspondence (and corroborative oral history, provided by Eric Gordon and the late Brent Oldham) which indicates that Blitzstein revised much of Bernstein’s work, including the lyrics to the best song in the show, “Dream With Me” (see https://youtu.be/W7BbO9z_VDI) which was cut in 1950, but restored as the crowning jewel at the conclusion of this summer’s revival and revitalization of the show at Bard (June 28-July 22), inspired by a recently-released Koch CD of the songs sung by Linda Eder (see https://youtu.be/TMeCa2d885U, and other excerpts on YouTube.)  Like virtually all of the songs in the show, they were written to be sung by the character of Wendy, since Jean Arthur did not sing.  Erin Markey, a lesbian performance artist, writer, former stripper, and cabaret mezzo with top extension, worked hard at the songs and managed to put them over well at the performance we attended.  (She does not seem to have recorded them though, yet.) 

Playing opposite her as Peter was not another tomboyish female but rather the gender-bending queer artist Peter Smith, whose character struggles with his feelings toward Wendy. Wendy’s own identity struggles begin with the song, “Who Am I?”, which becomes a kind of leitmotif throughout the show. (A 1968 version of this song by Nina Simone insinuates reincarnation as a subtext, about which more below.) Their inability to relate sexually is highlighted by coital embraces that literally fall apart as he drops her repeatedly.  Jack Ferver did the choregraphy, and also danced as Tinker Bell – another gender-bender in Christopher Alden’s unorthodox staging. Other characters’ individualities were contrastingly muted with William Michals doubling as the snarling Captain Hook and henpecked Mr. Darling (traditionally cast that way); and the multi-faceted Rona Figueroa tripling (quite untraditionally) as Mrs. Darling, Tiger Lily, and the Crocodile.  The nearly upstaging “star” of the whole show was an old Coney Island shark-painted flying machine, found on e-bay and taking up all of stage left, that spun around at intervals, carrying various cast and ensemble members, including mermaids, relieving the need for any traditional Flying by Foy. The small instrumental ensemble of 6, reduced by Garth Edwin Sunderland from the full orchestration, served the music well. 

Most of us know the 1954 Mary Martin-Cyril Ritchard Broadway & television version, with songs by two teams, Carolyn Leigh & Mark Charlap, and Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Jule Stein, welded together by the genius of Jerome Robbins.  When I first saw it, not long after seeing Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, in which the title character was sung by a boy, I wondered why Peter Pan had to be played by a woman, and even tried, for a year, to organize my community to do a production of it that I could star in. Those dreams went unrealized, at least until Harvard, when I staged, and also starred in, Blitzstein’s autobiographical I’ve Got the Tune, with Leonard Bernstein in attendance (http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/adaptations/I’veGotTheTune.html).  But my poor little brother Paul (may he forgive me) for years was called “Tink” to my “Peter,” and at my pleading, my little sister Betty, born in 1955, was given the middle name “Jane,” after Wendy’s child.  (She’s never quite forgiven me that either!) I remember discussing a possible production of the piece at Harvard with Andrei Bishop, who later went on to a distinguished career at Lincoln Center.  “I always wanted to put Peter on the couch,” he said – which was sort of what happened in the 1991 Robin Williams-Dustin Hoffmann film, Hook, wasn’t it? – but felt somewhat stymied by the flying problem – “’cause you have to make all the damn children fly too!”  At Bard, Wendy was the only Darling child, so at least that problem was solved, so to speak.  I did miss, though, the adoption of all the lost boys at the end, which was not in Barrie’s play, but was a heartwarming ending to both Broadways shows, in 1950 and 1954.  At a talkback after the matinee July 11, the cast related the plays’ passages about mothers’ anxieties over separation from their children to the current brutal treatment of immigrants.  But does that make the narcissist in the White House as sympathetic as the play’s troubled protagonist? (Helen Shaw in the Village Voice even called this “a feel-bad version”!)  I hope not.

Fiddler at the Folksbiene

Jerome Robbins’ genius is with us more than ever, this being not only Bernstein’s but also his centennial year.  And Fiddler on the Roof, his homage to his Russian (& Ukrainian) Jewish heritage, remains one of its greatest manifestations.  It was Robbins who found the kernel of the piece that became the opening number: “Tradition.”  Defending customs and habits as part of one’s identity, and then seeing barriers fall, is what the show’s about, as Tevye’s daughters marry a) for love, not wealth; b) for an ideal, not anything practical; and c) out of the culture, or at least out of the religion, altogether.  In Robbins’ hands, the story became so universal that when the work was performed in Japanese, in Japan, lyricist Sheldon Harnick was asked how he could know so much about the traditional Japanese family! 

But this very universality in a way also limited the specific power and pathos of the original Yiddish  stories by Sholom Aleichem, on which the musical was based.  In English, Tevye compliments Fedya on being “a person,” but what he really meant was “a Mensch.”  And that’s only one, though perhaps the clearest, example of how strong the effect can be when a piece is performed in a different language, which has a claim to be (paradoxically) the virtually never-before-heard “original” one.  The most vivid La Bohéme I ever saw was at the Opera Comique in Paris, in French.  Madam Butterfly is even more poignant in English (or in Japanese, I would imagine) than in the composer’s Italian.  Mira J. Spektor’s The Lady of the Castle (see https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmhHI8m9j-Xst8i8OfZDIvB8qZTds8MvO), based on an Israeli play which takes place in Europe, came across so dramatically in its European premiere, in German, that even she had to admit: “It loses in the original” English! 

And so it is, now, at last, with this Yiddish Fiddler.  I was reminded of my own experience with the show, as the first Jew to conduct it in Berlin, at Theater des Westens, in 1983, written up in Jewish Currents and posted here: http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/articles/jewishcurrents2.html

Wolfgang Reichmann (1932-1991), I called “the consummate Tevye of our day,” though the Wikipedia article on him, which mentions his several films, the most famous being the French Le neveu de Beethoven, mentions neither his Tevye nor his Moses in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in Munich, on which I coached him. The naturalized Swiss, Galician-born quarter-Jew brought to the role a human dimension rarely seen in other Tevyes: the “disease” he complained to God about humorously was poverty, not the tsuris he got from his henpecking wife. And his grief over his daughter Chava’s conversion and marriage to a Russian may have been the most moving portrayal of that scene since Maurice Schwartz’s in the film Tevye und Seyne Taychter

Reichmann also very consciously integrated Yiddishkeit of all kinds into his interpretation: he even rewrote practically the whole translation, changing all those “verrückt“s to “meshuga“s, “Sabbat” to “Shabbes,” “Passah” to “Pessach” and so forth. His changes were in fact so extensive that the original (non-Jewish) German translator from the English threatened to sue.

(There’s also a Viennese German version, by the way, by the late great Gerhard Bronner, which translated “If I Were A Rich Man” into “If I Were A Rothschild,” drawing on the original Sholom Aleichem, as does the current Yiddish translation.) The Theater des Westens settled for Reichmann’s speaking mostly Yiddish in an Anatevka where everybody else (except the Lazar Wolf of Viennese actor Peter Heeg) speaks Hochdeutsch! Although the situation was a bit reminiscent of Alexander Kipnis’s singing Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera in Russian with everybody else singing in Italian, the audiences loved it. “Even for an American,” I wrote, “the sound of the work in a language so much closer to Sholom Aleichem’s original produces a less witty but so much more haimish and profound effect than any mere entertainment.”

And that’s how I felt about this new version by the Folksbiene, directed by Joel Grey and conducted by Zalmen Mlotek, with Zisl Slepovitch featured as solo klezmer clarinetist at the Jewish Heritage Museum in the Battery, which opened July 4, 2018, is still running there, and may run forever, until and unless a decision is made to move it to Broadway.  For the piece is truly more than a musical, having often, aptly, been called “the Jewish national opera.”  An interesting discussion with Sheldon Harnick and Joel Mandelbaum on whether the piece is an opera, or not, was featured as part of my Sept. 2, 2014 lecture on Jewish Opera at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, posted here:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmhHI8m9j-XtaWDSABaKCX_2o2XU02VeQ

The cast, led by Steven Skybell as a wiry, energetic Tevye and Mary Illes as an unusually sweet Golde, had worked hard on their Yiddish (for 23 of the 26 it was entirely new) and it showed, though some of the Russian coaching was a bit off.  Then again, the Russian that appears in the script is a bit of a mishmosh, with lots of Ukrainian mixed in (“Na zdrovye,” for example vs. “Na zdorovye”).  The fun challenge was following the supertitles, which sometimes stuck with Harnick’s English lyrics, even when the Yiddish differed from them considerably, and sometimes went for a literal translation of the Sholom Aleichem dialog, which Warsaw native and immigrant to Haifa, Israeli writer Shraga Friedman (1924-1970) had taken pretty much directly from the original.  Some of my favorite songs in the show, which were dropped from the original Broadway production and/or cut from the film, are still missing, including “The Richest Man in Town” (see https://youtu.be/VZOm0oTE1e4 and https://youtu.be/lBfNaJBBsnE), “When Messiah Comes” (https://youtu.be/pfWay4hh5HY, https://youtu.be/lZE8L5dp3rs and https://youtu.be/BzdndQnEnD8) and “Any Day Now” (https://youtu.be/w86JrtziqGw, https://youtu.be/FkROMfHE-fE and https://youtu.be/5AsIG-jhMIA), though I was pleased to hear a few lines from the last of these, incorporated into a scene where Perchik is teaching the youngest 2 of Tevye’s 5 daughters. May Fiddler become to the Folksbiene what Threepenny Opera has been to the Kurt Weill Foundation.

On A Clear Day at the Irish Rep

I’m not going to spend as much time on these last two musicals as I did on the first two, since we hadn’t requested and didn’t receive press tickets for them, but rather paid for our seats.  But the Irish Repertory Theatre’s efforts at reviving Alan Jay Lerner’s and Burton Lane’s ESP musical, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, starring Melissa Errico, running thru Sept. 6 at the Irish Repertory Theatre, certainly merits mention and attention.  In a very provocative NY Times piece last July 15, the actress wrote of her efforts to rescue both this piece and My Fair Lady from layers of misogyny that seemed part and parcel of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner’s attitude towards the heroine in each work. Not that Lerner hated women; he just seemed to have a terrible time trying to figure them out – and married seven of them(!).   With the retirement of Frederick Loewe after Camelot, Lerner needed a new composer and was fortunate enough to find Lane, whose greatest success was, and remains, the 1947 Finian’s Rainbow, with E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg.  The new team collaborated in 1965 on Clear Day and in 1979 on Carmelina, which will have a much-looked-forward-to revival by the York Theatre next January. 

Clear Day is a musical about Extra Sensory Perception and reincarnation.  The leading actress gets to play two different characters with different accents.  But unlike Eliza Doolittle, who transforms from lowbrow cockney into highbrow quasi-royalty, these two characters are from different centuries and never find a middle ground.  In this production, Errico seems almost to step outside of character to observe as an aside, with a Brooklyn accent, how much fun it is to do a British accent.  But unlike Shaw’s Pygmalion, this drama is both creaky and kooky.  Daisy Gamble gets to sing one of the show’s three very fine songs, urging plants to grow: “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here.”  The second one, the love song, “She Wasn’t You,” sung with almost Wildhornian chops by tenor John Cudia, she also gets to sing, in this version, as “He Wasn’t You.” And then there’s the title song, mellifluously introduced by Ben Davis as her psychiatrist, and subsequently reprised repeatedly throughout the show.  Well, that’s two more good numbers than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows each usually have.  “Beguiling” but “murky” was Jesse Green’s verdict in the June 29, 2018 NY Times.  If you can, go see it, while you still can.

Red Emma and the Mad Monk at The Tank

Alexis Robian’s play about Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916), with music by Teresa Lotz, directed by Katie Lindsay opened Aug. 16 and closed Sept. 1.  But it may come back again, in some form.  Jay Reise’s opera Rasputin, which Frank Corsaro orgiastically staged  at New York City Opera in 1988 “without a body stocking in sight,” as he proudly proclaimed, received its Moscow premiere 20 years later.  And the list of musical and theater works inspired by Emma Goldman ranges from Tintypes to Ragtime to the three operas inspired by Howard Zinn’s 1976 play by Gary Kuleisha (1986-1995), Elaine Fine (2004-2005), and myself (1984-2007) (see http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/EG.html); my May 13, 2015 lecture on the subject, with musical examples, is posted here:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmhHI8m9j-XttuohNkviH-RuTjLTowkgY.

Suffice it to say that this latest work, which combines the interesting stories of these two charismatic Russians, born the same year, with a much less interesting story of a spoiled American 12-year-old seeking identity (political, sexual and otherwise) on the internet, manages to touch on a lot of historical issues relevant to the present – even to the extent of including some mostly annoying videos of Trump’s “alternate facts” and “fake news” nonsense playing in the background.  The music is less challenging than the issues raised, though I would not go so far as one critic, whose review was posted at the theater, who urged scrapping the score altogether in favor of expanding the narrative.  Trans actor Maybe Burke incarnated the confused 12-year-old; African American actress Imani Pearl Williams was Emma, who enjoyed the company of cousins Sasha Berkman (Fernando Gonzalez) and Modest Stein (Jonathan Randell Silver, in a slew of roles – I called him “the Martin Short of the production”; he also played a sinister, little-known but very real Putin supporter, originally from Chechnya, named Vladislav Surkov); and Drita Kabashi stole the show as a cross-dressing Rasputin (among a few other roles).  There was comedy, there was political argument, and there was entertainment.  So what more could one ask for Off-Off-Broadway?  A little more musical inspiration, possibly, and perhaps a weightedness more on the side of affirmation than frustration; though given the current political situation in our country, and Russia, one can hardly blame the playwright or the director for that!

 

LEONARD LEHRMAN is the composer of 232 original works, 65 translations and 18 adaptations, listed at http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/. He also edited the 3-volume Marc Blitzstein Songbook for Boosey & Hawkes (1999-2003) and authored bio-bibliographies on Blitzstein and Elie Siegmeister for Greenwood (2005) and Scarecrow (2010).   His newest opera, his 12th, A Loveletter from Rosa Luxemburg, will be premiered by Helene Williams at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ Jan. 13; Community Church of NY Jan. 15 & 20; and Long Beach Library Jan. 26.  Those programs will also include Lehrman’s Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus and soloists in the finale of Siegmeister’s I Have A Dream, the Brecht-Eisler Roundheads & Pointedheads in Lehrman’s translation, and world premieres of both Blitzstein’s Children’s Cantata, and an Emily-Dickinson collaborative setting by Lehrman & Joel Mandelbaum: “Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?” He and Ms. Williams will also be performing at Temple Reyim in Newton and Makor in Brookline, Mass. Nov. 11-12; at the NY Composers Circle salon at the American Opera Center Nov. 18;  and with Caryn Hartglass in a Bernstein program at Port Washington, Wantagh and Long Beach Libraries Oct. 5, Nov. 3 & Nov. 25.  Trinity Church in Roslyn, where Lehrman has just been named Artist-in-Residence for 2019, will host concerts with him on Oct. 14, 2018 at 4PM featuring the ALBA Consort of the Long Island Baroque Ensemble in the premiere of his setting of Alex Skovron’s “The Last Word,” funded by the first NYSCA Decentralization Creative Indivdual Artist Grant ever received by a Long Island composer (see http://liherald.com/valleystream/stories/triangle-fire-composer-wins-state-arts-grant,100601);  and in 2019 for Holocaust Remembrance Day May 2, his Dakule Trio June 23, and his 70th Birthday Celebration Aug. 18.  This is his 17th article for soundwordsight.com.


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