Monday, April 26, 2010

The Best Musical I’ve Never Seen: A Look at Parade

" don’t make sense the way the world can let you fall.” ---Parade

At first glance, the true story of a young girl’s brutal murder and the fate that befell the man falsely accused of the crime might not seem like the likeliest inspiration for a Broadway musical. And yet, this story laid the foundation for my new favorite musical and one of the best musicals I’ve ever encountered despite never having seen it, Parade. You could say that the stories behind the gruesome Sweeney Todd or the (fittingly) miserable Les Miserables also seem unlikely for musical and yet these have gone on to become icons of the Great White Way. I consider myself a Broadway buff but I had no idea this musical existed until a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon the Original Broadway Cast album on iTunes by accident and found myself immediately struck by the poster (see above). When Parade premiered on Broadway in 1998 with a book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (both won the Tony for it), and directed by Harold Prince, it closed after only 39 previews and 84 performances. This isn’t surprising. It’s a dark, disturbing show and probably not what most people go to the theater to see. I’m now kicking myself for not seeing it when I had the chance even though I was only eleven at the time and probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Now I’ve listened to not one but TWO recordings of Parade so many times I have most of the songs memorized. I’m currently reading a book about the case and I’m cursing Netflix for not carrying the documentary PBS made about it last November. Chalk it up to my ever reliable obsessive personality. It may not seem like a likely musical, but Parade is brilliant and I wish more people knew about it.

Of course, as if being ashamed of my failure as a Broadway fan weren’t enough, I’m also ashamed by my failure as a true crime fan. I had never heard of this case before discovering the musical. The simplistic run-down will shortly follow.

A word of warning. I am about to unashamedly spoil how Parade ends. However, this is one instance where I feel going in knowing the ending makes for a more enriching experience. It is, after all, a piece of history.

On Saturday, April 26, 1913, the day of the Confederate Memorial Day parade in Atlanta, Georgia, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan went to the pencil factory where she worked to collect her pay for the week. Early the next morning, her body was found in the factory basement. She had been strangled to death after possibly being raped. Despite a lack of concrete evidence and conflicting stories from his accuser, suspicion fell on 29-year-old Leo Frank, the factory superintendent, a man set apart in the community by his Northern upbringing (he had been born in Texas but raised in Brooklyn) and by his Judaism. Frank never stopped professing his innocence and his wife, Lucille stood by his side throughout the sensationalized trial. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Two years later, the governor of Georgia commuted the sentence to life in prison after reviewing the case, effectively ending his political career in the process. An outraged mob took matters into their own hands, kidnapped Frank from the prison farm where he was being held and lynched him on August 17, 1915 in Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marietta not far from her grave. The case ultimately led to a revival of the KKK and the formation of the Anti-Defamation League, a major civil rights organization. It is now remembered as a gross miscarriage of justice and a tragic reflection of American anti-Semitism, particularly acute in the South at the time.

The show opens in Marietta, Georgia during the Civil War with an idealistic young Confederate soldier going off to fight for the freedom of the South. Over the course of the haunting opening number “The Old Red Hills of Home,” the years go by and come to a standstill on April 26, 1913, Confederate Memorial Day. The same soldier, now a bitter old man with only one leg, sings again of Southern pride and honor, mourning a faded past that’s still alive and vibrant in the minds and memories of the people. Leo Frank, however, can’t bear to join in the festivities. He’s bewildered and alienated by everything he sees. He misses Brooklyn and the security of a community he belonged to. Even his wife, Lucille, a lifelong Georgian, acts more Southern than Jewish. To Leo, the two seem so antithetical, he doesn’t understand how you can be both Southern and Jewish. The show wisely avoids making Frank a wholly likeable character. In fact, in the beginning, he’s almost unsympathetic. He comes off as incredibly close-minded and judgmental remarking that his neighbors “belong in zoos.” He can’t even warm himself to Lucille who desperately wants to make the marriage work but is too timid to get close to him. At the start of the show, their relationship is a cold one. After the murder and Leo’s arrest, this characterization becomes surprisingly effective and highlights one of show’s most powerful statements: just because a person is different and/or difficult to be around doesn’t make him a murderer. It does, however, make him an easy target.

As Leo falls prey to the political maneuverings of a community hungry for a scapegoat, other factors enter in to seal his fate. His status as an Other, a college-educated Jew from up North, destroys him in the public’s eye. An unscrupulous journalist seeing his chance at a career-making story starts a smear campaign against Leo casting him as an unhinged pedophile. An anti-Semitic zealot arrives in town calling for his head. The prosecuting attorney provides Mary’s friends with false testimony, manipulating their grief to his advantage. The show provides subtle, powerful commentary about prejudice, the media, child labor, class conflicts, racial tensions and the danger of groupthink. Meanwhile, the case forces Lucille to summon the inner strength to stand by her husband and fight for his innocence when no one else will. After being married for years, she and Leo slowly start falling in love. This love story acts as the emotional core of the show and makes the ending all the more heartbreaking. Mary Phagan’s murder is never portrayed as anything but the tragedy it was, but in Parade, Leo Frank becomes its other victim.

Now please take into account I have not actually seen this musical. Everything you’ve just read is the result of my reading reviews and plot summaries (thanks Wikipedia!) and listening to the score almost non-stop since I discovered it. Writer Alfred Uhry, who grew up Jewish in the South and also had to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting facets of his identity, managed to create characters who breathe as individuals, not as stereotypes. Incidentally, his grandmother—the same grandmother who inspired the title character of his Pulitzer prize winning play, Driving Miss Daisy—was a friend of Lucille Frank’s. Of course, I’m judging from the taunting tracks of dialogue I’ve heard on the London cast recording. When I finally see the musical, I’ll be able to contribute further on the book.

The score, which Jason Robert Brown started writing when he was only 24, is truly astonishing and deserved every award it got. It catered shamelessly to my ever-growing love of early 20th century music combining ragtime, blues, traditional hymns, and gospel. It beautifully evokes the time period. The lyrics are quietly poetic and move the story along while also reflecting the inner feelings of the characters. Since much of the first act takes place during the trial, some songs emerge from fantasy sequences conjured by the witnesses’ false testimony. For example, when several of Mary’s friends testify that Leo made sexual advances towards them in the factory, Leo performs a lively song and dance number showing his attempts to seduce them. In this song, he transforms from a nervous, priggish man to a charismatic lecher. The effect of the song is to show us how nonsensical the charge is. By now, we know Leo could never act this way. However, heard out of context, it could give someone a very different impression. Parade is one of those musicals where few of the songs can stand on their own but it doesn’t matter. In every song, there’s a real sense of story. They're so intriguing that listening one grabs your attention like a hook. You have to listen to the rest and find out what's going on. Incidentally, some of the most beautiful songs are also the darkest. One of the most heartbreaking songs in the show “My Child Will Forgive Me,” sung by Mary’s mother at the trial is achingly lovely like a mournful lullaby, but it ends with a moment of biting racism.

I’ve become so enamored of the music that I’ve acquired two versions of it: the original Broadway cast recording and the recording of the 2007 Donmar Warehouse London production. Though I prefer Brent Carver as Leo Frank on the OBC album, on the whole I think I like the Donmar Warehouse recording better. It includes a few new songs written especially for the production and best of all, it has dialogue. The album gives the impression of a radio play complete with whole tracks of dialogue and sound effects. You can listen to it and get the whole story. Also the Donmar Warehouse used dual and triple casting (one actor playing two or three roles) and I’m a sucker for that. And what do you know, the Donmar Warehouse recording is on YouTube in its entirety (see Track One below)! But get a hold of them both if you can—support your local libraries! I really can’t choose. They complement each other. Listening to the album of a musical is a lot like reading a book--you have to imagine everything. I’ve seen pictures of the cast, sets, and of course, the real people who inspired the characters, and winced at how much they differed from how I imagined them. Still, as soon as I get a whiff of Parade playing live somewhere nearby, I will be going to see it.

Parade is not a history lesson. As always, certain liberties were taken for the sake of story—for example, the real Leo and Lucille Frank were very happily married before the murder. There are those, including Mary Phagan's relatives, who believe Leo Frank was the killer but that's a question for Hermes.* But the story that inspired it is very real. Look at it as musical and use it as a jumping off point to discover the history. It’s a story everybody should know.

*Question for Hermes: A question that probably won't have an answer in our lifetime. Refers to Ancient Greek mythology. The god Hermes escorted the dead to the Underworld. In other words, it's a question to ask Hermes on your way to the Underworld after you die because you won't find out before then. Suggested by Marie Phillips's Gods Behaving Badly.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"When I looked on thee, I heard a strange music." A Look at Salome by Oscar Wilde

"If thou hadst seen me thou wouldst have loved me. I, I saw thee, Jokanaan and I loved thee. Oh, how I loved thee." --Salome, Oscar Wilde

The macabre tale of Salome and John the Baptist has become something of an urban legend—if a story out of the New Testament can really be called an urban legend. As it says in Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod imprisoned John for badmouthing his new bride (and former sister-in-law) Queen Herodias. It didn’t help, of course, that John’s baptisms were drawing an uneasy amount of attention to his cousin from Galilee but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s been supposed that Herod feared (or believed in?) John too much to put him to death so John lived for awhile as Herod’s prophet-in-residence albeit under lock and key. This was cold comfort to Herodias however, who still had to endure John’s insults—John was as well-known for his tactlessness and disdain of women as he was for his prophecies. According to Matthew, all this came to a head (woops) when Herodias’ teenage daughter, Princess Salome, agreed to dance for Herod in exchange for a special gift. After completing the now-infamous Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome (working her mother’s will, many believe) asked for John’s head on a silver platter. And never the type to welch on a deal, Herod delivered.

I’ve read Biblical commentary that says the whole Salome episode never happened, that Herod’s decision to finally kill John the Baptist was purely political, but who really knows? In popular culture, the name Salome (pronounced Sa-lo-may), like the name Lolita, has become synonymous with sexually precocious and/or manipulative girls. However, in the Bible she comes across as little more than her mother’s airheaded minion, a cipher who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the gravity of her deadly request. This was the image of her I had in my head when I sat down to read Oscar Wilde’s version—which I hungrily devoured in one sitting (it’s only 60 pages long). Written in French in 1891, translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas in 1894, and banned from the British stage until 1931, this one-act play has gone on to inspire an opera, a Ken Russell movie, a pivotal plot device in the classic film Sunset Boulevard and countless other works. It’s no wonder. Wilde’s Salome is a fascinating, complex anti-hero, as cold-blooded as she is painfully sympathetic, and anything but a minion.

Set on an eerie moonlit night outside Herod’s palace, the play opens on a Greek chorus of guards, soldiers, and pages who gossip about both the prophet and the princess. The men present who aren’t besotted with Salome, regard her with suspicion and fear and John the Baptist (called Jokanaan here) makes everybody nervous. Princess Salome shortly joins them after fleeing the palace to get away from Herod. Salome recognizes her ethereal beauty as a potential weapon and isn’t above using it as such, but she also sees it as a curse, especially since her stepfather’s lascivious gaze follows her everywhere. It’s then that she first hears a thunderous voice coming from Herod’s prison. It belongs to the half-crazed holy man and it intoxicates Salome immediately. But once she has Jokanaan at her disposal, she finds he isn’t as receptive as her average suitor. He spurns her and preaches at her and yet, he arouses her more than any man she’s ever known. For the first time, she finds herself actually in love. The two engage in a lyrical battle of wills—she tries to crack his resistance while he tries to reform her—and together, they inch toward a doomed conclusion.

I loved Salome. It was one of the most bewildering, thought-provoking and emotionally satisfying reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. As soon as I finished it, I skimmed through the scant 60 pages, scribbling down favorite passages in my notebook, eager to keep them with me for further inspection. One week later, it still has a hold on me. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read by Oscar Wilde. Yes, the language is poetic and sensual (sometimes to a fault) and it has its sharp, witty moments, but more than anything else, the sense of forboding at the heart of the work makes it come alive. His Salome is at once the victim of a seriously dysfunctional family, a gleeful murderer and a young girl heartbroken over her first love. She experiences a passionate awakening, as unapologetically sexual as it is emotional, but it’s mingled with morbidity. From the start, Death is never far away. The harbingers abound. To my delight, Salome also has a fairy tale quality to it. She is a princess in love, after all and once again, True Love’s Kiss, ever the transformer, is the objective. In the world of this play as in the world of fairy tales, things happen in threes, there’s a great deal of repetition, and morality thrives albeit in a deeply twisted way. Also John the Baptist curiously has Snow White’s coloring—white skin, black hair, red lips—and much is made of this. Much, much, much. In fact if I can fault this play at all, it’s that the descriptions, similes, and metaphors go on a long time almost to the point of implausibility, but they do suit the piece by reflecting the decadence of the world at hand. However, pretty language aside, like many fairy tales, this is, at heart, a grisly story. Just think about why Salome might want John the Baptist’s head. Is it pure punishment or is something else on her mind? And holy man or no, it’s hard to feel sorry for him. He has the sexist, arrogant attitude of a Chosen One and while his message is sincere, his rejection is cruel. Whether or not you think Salome’s own cruelty outweighs or complements her pain and her passion is up to you.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

In Which Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar Band Together to Vote The Passion of the Christ Off the Island

Whenever this time of year rolls around -Easter Sunday and the week leading up to it- I remember that we do, in fact, own The Passion of the Christ on DVD. We came to own it by way of my devoutly Catholic grandmother who received it as a gift (I have no idea who gave it to her), got through the first half hour, and then gave it to my mother because she “didn’t want it in the house.” Direct quote! And that’s how we came to own The Passion of the Christ. My mother still hasn’t seen it. She’s said that on some distant Good Friday, she will finally sit down and watch it but thankfully, that Good Friday has not arrived.

Remember The Passion of the Christ? It came out six years ago before Mel Gibson went nuts, caused a big stir and for awhile it was the only movie anybody could talk about. I saw it in the theater with a big group of friends who came armed with King-Size boxes of Kleenex and scowled when I got popcorn. Before the movie started, they had to kick people out of the aisles and sent somebody to the front to tell us to make sure we had everyone in our party accounted for because it was playing so many different theaters. Then this person said, “And now The Passion of the Christ” in this stone cold voice as if we were at a funeral. Which we were, in a way, I guess. It was all very intense and we used the tissues and I didn’t eat the popcorn, but when I look back, the movie itself is very much a blur. A handful of images stayed with me (Gethsemane, St. Veronica, the Marys cleaning up the blood, that freaking dead donkey) but more than anything, I just recall the loud groan that escaped the entire audience when we collectively decided we couldn’t take it anymore. It may have been when the cat-o’-nine-tails appeared but who really knows. It was violent, I cried and when it was over, I never wanted to see it again. It was about Jesus’ death, not Jesus himself. Worse, it was Jesus’ death as Torture Porn.

I know the crucifixion was brutal, but why make that the point? The Passion all but flashed BE GUILTY at us every few minutes. The man and his teachings took a decided backseat to THE DEATH. I think they had some flashbacks to better times but I honestly can’t say because I watched most of it between my fingers and I haven’t seen it since. You need to be in a certain mood for gore and guilt, and that mood doesn’t find me often. It’s not a movie that makes you say, “Well, I’m bored. I think I’ll watch The Passion.” And it’s definitely not a movie I want to celebrate Easter with. No, for that, I need a musical. A musical about Jesus, his life, his teachings, AND his death. Two, in fact. These are, of course, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, both released in 1973 and as different in style and tone as it is possible to be. They are two of my favorite movies and Easter isn’t complete without them the way Christmas isn’t complete without The Muppet Christmas Carol and A Christmas Story.

Whatever your beliefs, one thing cannot be denied: the story of Jesus is a good story. You’ve got a cast of wild characters (John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Judas, Pilate, Herod, the Devil etc.) led by a hero who has gone on to inspire virtually every major hero in Western culture from King Arthur straight on to Harry Potter. Throw in philosophy, temptation, betrayal, false accusations, thwarted love, political intrigue, murder, redemption, and of course, good vs. evil, and it makes a riveting tale. It almost begs to be set to music.

And now….

Godspell - "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord!"
Directed by David Greene, Written by David Greene and John-Michael Tebelak, Songs by Stephen Schwartz. Starring: Victor Garber (Jesus), David Haskell (John the Baptist/Judas Iscariot), Katie Hanley, Merrell Jackson, Joanne Jonas, Robin Lamont, Gilmer McCormick, Jeffrey Mylett, Jerry Sroka, Lynne Thigpen

Godspell updates the Gospel according to Matthew to modern day New York City (modern day being, of course, 1973). John the Baptist crosses the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and recruits eight ordinary people (including a waitress, a student, a cab driver, a parking lot attendant, and a model) going about—and vaguely dissatisfied with—their daily lives. He baptizes them in Central Park (in Bethesda Fountain!) and prophesies the coming of one mightier than himself. When Jesus appears, clad in rainbow suspenders, a Superman shirt, Chuck Taylors, and clown makeup, he leads the group through the now deserted streets of New York as they act out the parables and learn to love each other.

Godspell makes me so happy. It’s campy, it’s dated and yet it’s one of the most joyful, life-affirming movies I’ve ever seen. The songs, some of them lifted straight out of the Bible, are beautiful (and catchy!) and the message is one to live by no matter what you believe: love one another, pure and simple. It acts as a beautiful showcase for New York City. For most of the movie, thanks to gorgeous cinematography and clever editing, the ten characters appear to be the only people in the city. The effect is magical, making New York seem like another world. I can’t walk by Bethesda Fountain now without wanting to jump in and splash around. And Godspell is the only movie where I can see the Twin Towers and not feel devastated (though their prominence during one number always gives me the chills).

As for the acting? Ham. Easter ham, if you will, with honey. But it suits the piece so well. After all, they are a bunch of adults purposely acting like little kids. They act out the parables with slapstick, funny voices, and heartbreaking sincerity. They also look like real people, not like STARS, though they all have star talent. Look out for the late Lynne Thigpen, better known to folks of my generation as the Chief from “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” Victor Garber (a very young Victor Garber) might be my favorite onscreen Jesus. So often in movies Jesus is portrayed as a slightly sedated figurehead spouting Biblical quotes as if he were reading off a day calendar. Garber’s Jesus has charisma and a playful tenderness, showing the depth of love he has for his disciples even in moments of anger, which is how I like to think of the real Jesus. And somehow when he quotes the Bible, he makes the words his own. Haskell is also excellent as both John the Baptist and Judas, providing occasional moments of darkness and doubt. Most of the show is built on innocent happiness, but when the tone turns from light to dark, it turns with a vengeance. I usually spend the last 20 minutes weeping violently, not because of blood and gore, but because I can feel the genuine grief of Jesus and his disciples. I wish they had shown us this in CCD. It’s a wonderful approach to the New Testament and a must for the Easter season.

"Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord"

"All for the Best"

And now for something completely different…..

Jesus Christ Superstar – “Every time I look at you I don’t understand / why you let the things you did get so out of hand.”

Directed by Norman Jewison, Screenplay by Norman Jewison and Melvyn Bragg, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book and Lyrics by Tim Rice. Starring: Carl Anderson (Judas Iscariot), Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ), Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene), Barry Dennen (Pontius Pilate), Bob Bingham (Caiaphas), Josh Mostel (King Herod), Paul Thomas (Peter), Kurt Yaghijn (Annas), Larry Marshall (Simon the Zealot)

Filmed on location in Israel, this iconic rock opera opens with a tour bus arriving near some ruins in the middle of the desert. A group of theater performers file out, don their respective costumes, and set out to reenact the last week of Jesus’ life. The theory behind this show was to portray Jesus like a contemporary celebrity, caught up in and bewildered by his fame. It also wisely chose to retell this famous tale from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, the Great Traitor and according to Webber and Rice, Jesus’ right-hand man. When we first meet him, Judas is having some serious doubts. Jesus seems to have gone power mad, letting the people think he’s actually the Messiah and refusing to give anybody a straight answer about anything. He’s also been hanging with Mary Magdalene a lot lately and Judas thinks she’s bad for the movement. Yet another movie where Mary Magdalene is incorrectly portrayed as a prostitute but what can you do? To make matters worse, the High Priests see Jesus as a threat and are eager to get rid of him. Meanwhile, Jesus is having some doubts of his own. Feeling his end drawing near and the weight of his mission bearing down, he isn’t sure what the point of it all is. When all is said and done, will he be remembered? Has he done anything worth remembering?

The story unfolds like it does in the Bible showing us the entrance into Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the arrest, and finally, the crucifixion, but there is no dialogue; everything is sung. And the music is glorious. In my humble opinion, Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been as good as he was with Tim Rice (and doing shows based on the Bible). Like so many of my musical tastes, I inherited Jesus Christ Superstar from my mother who spent her teen years rocking out to the Original Studio Recording, or “the Brown Album” as she calls it. It informed my spirituality at a time when it was really hurting and it’s still a go-to when I need some consolation. The movie version provided the perfect visuals to go along with the album. The choice to film in the Israeli desert lends the film an air of authenticity and the cinematography is stunning. Some shots are so beautiful they make you want to pause the movie and just enjoy them the way you would a painting. Also Jewison tones down the violence, choosing instead to focus on the emotions at hand, which makes for a more indelible experience. The Crucifixion is one of the most unsettling pieces of music I’ve ever heard combining the sound of the nails being hammered with the laughter of the crowd, weeping, dissonant voices, and Jesus’ final words. And yet, there's no blood.

Superstar was quite controversial when it first came out and still is in some circles. Some find the idea of Jesus singing rock music (or singing period) offensive, while others think the modernity of the show implies a cavalier attitude. The movie drew additional controversy because Judas, the “villain,” is played by a black actor while Jesus is played, as usual, by a fair-haired white actor. However, in Superstar, Judas is not a villain. He’s a fleshed-out, human individual who is seriously concerned about Jesus’ intentions and sees handing him over to the authorities as the only option. Also Carl Anderson is so good in the role, I really can’t see anybody playing him. You see Judas’ pain, his love, his guilt, and his confusion. In song, no less. As for Jesus, Ted Neeley is quietly passionate with the weight of the world in his sad eyes. His rendition of Gethsemane (one of my all-time favorite songs), in which Jesus pours out his anger and doubt to God, is astounding. Jesus too is a complex, fully human character who, shockingly, does not want to die and isn’t convinced that he should. I think this is why so many people respond to the piece. Every character in Superstar is a multi-faceted individual: Mary Magdalene who loves Jesus even though she doesn’t understand him, the High Priests who see killing Jesus as the only way to keep their people safe, and Pilate who wants to help him but doesn’t know how. Even King Herod who serves as welcome comic relief shows surprising shades of gray. There’s also a fascinating element of fate in this movie. Everybody’s playing the role set out for them. Judas betrays Jesus because he has to. Jesus submits to death because he has to die. The characters all have free-will, but they all make the choices they are supposed to make. It’s fated and there’s nothing they can do. The movie drives this home by reminding us that these are not the actual characters we’re watching; they are performers acting out an ancient story.

"The Last Supper"


A word of warning! As you may have gathered, both of these movies bleed the 70’s. Three of the five men in Godspell have afros, including Jesus. During the title song in Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas gets backup from a trio of “angels” who evoke the Supremes and wear curly white fright wigs. However, though the costumes and hairstyles are dated, the material isn’t and if you can look past the more glaring crimes of that crazy era, you might discover an enjoyable, surprisingly powerful double feature.

Happy Easter!