Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What is this life but the beauty of improvisation?

For Christmas this past year I asked for and received the original cast recording of The Glorious Ones, a musical by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. These composers are best known for their popular hits Ragtime, Seussical, and Once on this Island, but they are also the composers of some gorgeous lesser known pieces like Dessa Rose, A Man of No Importance and, most recently, The Glorious Ones. I have fallen head over heels in love with this musical and would love to see it produced with my theatre company. I am just bummed out it took me so long to discover how wonderful it was.

I had heard of The Glorious Ones when it ran at Lincoln Center in 2007. Once the performance rights became available I took a look at it, but determined from reading the plot synopsis that it wouldn't have a broad enough appeal...that it would really only mean something to actors. Then for whatever reason I popped it on my wishlist at Christmas time, and soon I had a new obsession.

Notable members of the original cast were Mark Kudisch as Flaminio Scala. Kudisch recently appeared on Broadway in 9 to 5 and was in, among other things, the successful 2004 revival of Assassins. Another cast member was Natalie Venetia Belcon, who rocketed to stardom as the put upon and hysterical Gary Coleman in Avenue Q. She takes a drastic turn here playing the voluptuous and sexy prostitute Columbina. I had the privilege of seeing both of these actors live (twice for each!) in Assassins and Avenue Q...both radiate charisma and were no doubt a fiery onstage couple.

The Glorious Ones is based on a novel by Francine Prose, and tells the story of a commedia dell'arte troupe from Italy in the 17th century. This art form depended upon certain types and utilized masks and improvisation to develop performances. This musical follows Flaminio Scala and his troupe of actors, all of whom fall into a certain type: the charismatic leading man, the sly harlequin, the quack "dottore", the old miser, the voluptuous leading lady, the devoted dwarf, and the elegant Moon Woman. The troupe endures (as does any theatre troupe to this day) a great deal of backstage drama involving unrequited love and perceived conspiracies. Early in the show the company travels to France, where they present an outlandishly perverse (but hilarious) performance and are promptly kicked out. While most of the actors are forgiving of Scala for making fools of them, they begin to wonder how things would work under new leadership. Scala typically plays the leading man, but is pushed aside by the troupe into playing the comedic role, considered secondary to the lead. He is replaced with a more youthful actor. Hurt and discouraged, the passionate Scala takes an extreme action. The show ends with him asking (I'm paraphrasing) "Did anyone notice I was here?" The answer, we conclude, is yes, for we are transported into the future as comedy developed: there are references to the three stooges, Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, and more. Because of the work of Scala's troupe and others like it, the art form of comedy has flourished.

The show is filled with people whose lives revolve around the stage, but you don't have to be a theatre junkie to get it and love it. The concepts are simple: Loving something, loving someone, and wanting to be remembered. The beautiful ballad "I Was Here" pontificates on the latter idea. We want "to be known for what little we've done". "The Comedy of Love" is a tragi-comic duet between two members of the troupe who pine for those who do not love them in return. The lovely song "Opposite You" is a truly unique way for two people who love the stage to express their love for one another. These are concepts we can all relate to.

On the other side of the coin there is the hysterically lewd "Armanda's Tarantella", the play within a play in which a young woman from a convent travels to Italy and wishes to learn something new every day. She enlists four men to help her. They teach her to "dance a tarantella", "blow the piccolo", "ride the pony", "stuff the sausage" get the picture. (This is the play that gets them kicked out of the French court). Also a lot of fun is the fiesty duet "Making Love", sung between Scala and his mistress, Columbina.

But my favorite moment in the show is the song "Improvisation". Scala sings this to his downtrodden troupe after they are ousted from the French court. If I may, the wonderful lyrics:

I've gone without bread

Lived close to the bone

Got into deep water and sunk like a stone

But now and again I have risen and flown like a kite.

And God help the people who don't get the joke!

Who won't risk a failure, who won't go for broke!

I dare them to stand in our boots in the mud for one night.

For do what they do, or say what they say,

I'd rather be me at the end of the play.

For what is this life but the beauty of improvisation?

Scenes of amazement and constant surprise to us all!

We live each moment as if we were children discovering creation!

We rise or we fall but it's always glorious!

This beautiful song touches me on a very personal level, particularly with the trials and tribulations I've experienced through my theatre company. Throughout the musical various characters are removed from the "types" that they normally play. They are separated from how they have always thought of themselves, from what they always expected to be. Many of us have experienced this feeling...."how did I end up here?"

More than a backstage commentary, The Glorious Ones shows us that even the smallest of contributions makes a difference. Whether you are performing on Broadway or doing community theatre, or, in layman's terms, running a multi million dollar corporation or owning a mom and pop store; whether you're what you thought you'd be or if life took you in a different direction than you had always planned, if you love what you're doing, it matters. A bit idealistic, perhaps, but hey, when the chips are down, I could use that.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Anne Frank, the musical?

It's true. There is a musical version of The Diary of Anne Frank. I have gotten some pretty priceless reactions when I've told people that my theatre will be doing this next year (one friend almost spit out his wine). But hold the skepticism if you will, and think about it. I did a post not long ago about odd topics for musicals. You can read it here. But the gist is that dark subject matter has made for some wonderful and even popular musicals...but when you look at the subject matter on its own it sounds odd.

The musical is called Yours, Anne. I absolutely adore the music from it. The show openly admits to being based on the famous play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, as well as on the diary itself. Recently I had a conversation with a professor at the center for Jewish Studies here in Madison, Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin. She has written about Anne Frank and is quite passionate about the story. Her first question for me, about 60 seconds into the conversation, was "Is it sugary?" She went on to elaborate on the fact that she is often disappointed by adaptations of Anne's story because of the way she is portrayed...basically as an eternal optimist. She alerted me to the criticism the famous play (which was the basis for the movie adaptation) has received over the years: It takes the historical context mostly out and focuses on Anne as an inspirational character.

In case you aren't familiar with the details of the Anne Frank story: She was a German Jew living in the Netherlands at the time of the Nazi occupation. Her father owned a spice factory, but when the Nazis started seizing Jewish businesses, her father transferred ownership to an Austrian gentile friend. In 1942, when things were getting worse and more Jews were being deported, Otto Frank, Anne's father, arranged for the family to go into hiding. They went sooner than planned when Anne's sister Margot was summoned to a work camp. Their hiding place was behind her father's office building in what Anne called "The Secret Annex". They lived with another family, the Van Pels family (called the Van Daans in the diary and dramatic adaptations) and a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer (known in the diary as Mr. Dussel). While there, Anne kept a diary. The diary is remarkable because her transition from girl to young woman is extremely obvious, especially as she accepts the reality of what is going on in the outside world. First the issues at hand are those typical of a teenager: Worrying about physical appearance, boys, movie stars...but as she grows up she learns to analyze her surroundings and the people she lives with with a very unique precision. Her last diary entry was August 1, 1944. The Secret Annex occupants were arrested on August 4, 1944. All were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to various concentration camps around Europe. Anne died in the work camp Bergen-Belsen in April of 1945, a month before the camp was liberated. Of the occupants of the Secret Annex, only Otto Frank survived. He returned to find Anne's diary saved by a family friend, and had it published. It has since been translated into 67 languages and, next to the bible, is the most widely read non-fiction book in the world.

Any dramatic adaptation of the story should be a window to the historical context, and it must never be forgotten that Anne suffered a horrific fate, as did millions of others like her. To portray Anne Frank as an eternal optimist and an inspiring literary figure is incorrect. Through the years Anne Frank has become a commodity, and her story of a brief romantic affair with Peter Van Pels, one of her co-hiders, has become the selling point for the book and movie. The movie trailer paints it as a romance!

Goodrich and Hackett, who won countless awards when it debuted on Broadway, but drew criticism from some for it's sugar coating the story. Meyer Levin, an author of the time, maintained that his version of the Anne Frank story, which he had shopped to producers, was phased out in favor of making the story less "Jewish". Oddly enough, Otto Frank supported that idea, telling Levin he did want it to be "a Jewish play".

Yours, Anne incorporates some of the optimism found in other adaptations. However, the underlying musical quality sets the tone for a much darker storyline. With only spoken lines on the page it can be harder to convey impending doom. However, the haunting songs from Yours, Anne give a sense of the danger that awaits the residents of the Secret Annex. Good music heightens the story it is telling, and the music in Yours, Anne does just that: It adds another layer to an already stirring story.

As I've discussed before, its all in the execution. The libretto of Yours, Anne leaves room for the actress playing the title role to go either way with the character. I will direct our theatre company's production, and it is my hope to help our actress make Anne into a fully realized and flawed individual, much like she really was. I do believe that the music captures the mood very effectively, and truly embodies Anne's remarkable personality. I look forward to making this show one that can reach everyone but also one that does not discount the historical context.