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 amazon.com 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".....you 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.

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