The Golden Apple

Two weeks ago I received my long-awaited copy of a full-length recording of Lyric Stage’s production last year of The Golden Apple. And not long-awaited merely in the sense of my having wanted it since hearing last fall that it was coming, but long-awaited in the sense of my having craved a full-length recording ever since first learning about the show some thirty-odd years ago, back in my college days.

This is the first complete recording of the greatest musical you’ve probably never heard of. It was a big hit off Broadway in 1954, then moved to Broadway and bombed, probably due to very poor promotion as much as anything. The show is fully sung, with no spoken dialogue, so the one-disc original cast album preserved less than half of the music and didn’t give much of a sense of the piece as a whole. The sound quality of the original cast album is also not all that good.

But not long after coming across a used copy of the LP in the late 1970s, I also found a used copy of the libretto (which Random House had published) and I quickly got to love the show, or at least as much of it as I could get to know.

In the last decade I’ve also gotten copies of the piano-vocal score and a bootleg recording of mediocre quality of nearly the whole show (both gifts from Dave), and through those I had gotten something of a sense of what the entire score is like. (There was also a semi-staged production by 42nd Street Moon some years back that Dave and I went to two performances of; it was a welcome chance to hear the whole score, but with piano accompaniment only, and unfortunately the company didn’t seem to really understand the piece, either musically or dramatically.)

It is insane that such a great musical has had to wait sixty years for a complete recording of good quality. This last couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling grateful to have lived long enough to listen to it.

Despite being so little known, The Golden Apple seems to me to be one of the most influential musicals ever. You know the often-used (and much overused by now) device of writing the score to a musical as a pastiche of one or more distinctive popular styles that are in some way related to the period and/or setting of the story? Like the way Bernstein wove a series of pastiches of national musical styles into Candide to reflect Candide’s travels around the world? Like the way Sondheim wove a series of pastiches of bygone popular song styles into Follies? Like the way Kander and Ebb wove a series of pastiches of Kurt Weill-esque numbers into Cabaret? The Golden Apple did that first, and brilliantly.

The recording is taken from live performance, rather than being recorded in a studio, so it isn’t always completely polished. However, the performers are terrific (the chorus is a little sketchy here and there) and they get it: they get the show, get their characters, get the words that they are singing. The orchestra sounds wonderful. The musical direction is intelligent and sympathetic, and the orchestra sounds very good.

The Golden Apple is a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the style of American folklore and folk humor, as though the story took place in a small agricultural town in Washington state in the early 1900s. Helen is a farmer’s daughter, and Paris is a traveling salesman from the big city on the other side of the mountains. Minerva, Juno, and Aphrodite become the town’s most important and socially influential women — respectively the town librarian, wife of the town’s mayor, and wife of a general. Ulysses is a captain in the army, just back from the Spanish-American War. When Helen runs off with Paris, Ulysses leads his men to the big city to bring her back, and gets caught up in a series of big-city snares — Madame Calypso is a leader of society, Scylla and Charybis are tycoons manipulating the stock market, and so on.

Most of the score is written with the flavor of American folk music (Moross was part of Copland’s circle, and his music has a similar feel to Copland’s — later, Moross would go to Hollywood and basically define for us all what Hollywood Western film music sounds like), but Ulysses’s mishaps in the big city are written as a series of vaudeville turns (in some cases based on actual vaudeville numbers, just as in Kander and Ebb’s score for Chicago, though as with Chicago, we are now so far from vaudeville that I’m sure not one person in a thousand nowadays gets any of the specific references). So there’s a sharp contrast in the second act, where suddenly the music sounds like you’ve slipped into a different show.

I don’t know of any earlier musical that contained anything like this vaudeville sequence. And if it wasn’t a direct inspiration for the pastiche numbers in Candide (Latouche was the original lyricist for Candide, by the way) and the Loveland sequence in Follies, I will eat my laptop.

After several listenings, I don’t think most of the performances on the new recording have quite the richness of those on the original cast recording. But they are very good all the same, and imbued with a deep understanding of who the characters are and what they want. A lot of care was taken, both by the singers and the musical director, to make sure the words were clear and meaningful. The quality of the recording is so much better than that of the original cast recording that I am hearing all sorts of details in the music that I hadn’t noticed before.

Dave (whose knowledge of recording history is vast) has pointed out to me that the poor quality of the original cast recording was probably a matter of unlucky timing. The show was probably recorded shortly after its Broadway opening on April 20, 1954. (Recording the show soon after opening was and still is the usual practice. Curiously, the liner notes don’t give recording dates, though they do list two different conductors, which may mean the show was recorded in two or more sessions. In any case, it can’t have been recorded during the off-Broadway run, because the recording includes Charlotte Rae, who wasn’t in the show until it moved to Broadway.)

The show, however, had the bad luck to be recorded by RCA, which was not focusing much attention on musicals at that point. If it had been recorded by Columbia, where Goddard Lieberson was a strong advocate for recording musicals, it probably would have gotten better treatment. But RCA was focused on classical music, and in fact in mid-March 1954 had begun experimenting with stereo. During the next few months, RCA recorded among other things Toscanini’s final two concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, concerts by Reiner with the Chicago Symphony and by Munch with the Boston Symphony, and a studio performance of the Franck Symphony by Cantelli with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Dave suspects, then, that RCA’s best sound engineers would have been working on the experimental stereo recordings during that period, and that RCA would have assigned a second-rank recording team to The Golden Apple.

Second Fifth

Last week Dave and I went back for a second look at the Aurora Theater’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July, which we’d seen at a late preview and enjoyed. Wow. The performances have really deepened a lot, and the whole production is really engrossing. As Ken Talley, Jr., Craig Marker now has a stronger and more palpable sense of anger and frustration bubbling under the surface — he hadn’t really found it yet in the preview we saw — and it makes the story cohere better; Ken hides his despair under a surface of wry quips and indifference, but the more we can sense in the first act that this is a mask he uses to avoid dealing with painful but important issues, the more powerful the second act is when the painful issues start breaking out to the surface.

The whole ensemble is very sharp. Elizabeth Benedict, playing Ken’s Aunt Sally, whose performance I thought was one of the best things about the preview performance, is if anything even stronger. And the rest of the cast is up there with her now.

I was surprised at how much more I liked the play seeing it a second time after just a few weeks. I knew the play already when we saw the preview, but I hadn’t read it in many years; this time, seeing the first act again but with the second act clear in my memory from just a few weeks ago, I was startled to realize that I hadn’t ever noticed before how nicely written the first act is. It’s kind of amazing how much we learn about the characters and their situations and relationships in the course of what feels like a very loosely organized first act. A group of friends and family have come together to scatter the ashes of Uncle Matt, but Aunt Sally can’t decide if she’s really ready to scatter them. People dither about getting dressed, they change their minds about whether to go, they gossip about each other and rehash old issues (that they claim are all behind them, but of course they’re not), and by the end of the first act we know enough to care about these people and wonder how they are ever going to get past their old griefs and make new starts. It’s lovely playwriting.

Fifth of July at the Aurora

Last week Dave and I went to a preview for the Aurora Theater’s production of one of Dave’s favorite plays, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July. It’s a lovely production, and the acting was very good all around, though here and there it did feel just like a preview performance, with the characterizations sometimes a little roughly sketched in, still needing to deepen and fill in some details. We’re planning to go back later in the run and see how things have developed.

One thing Dave loves about Fifth of July, which debuted in 1978, is that it may well be the first successful American play in which the central character is a gay man and yet the story is in no way about the fact that he’s gay. Being gay is just there, just another thing that particularizes him, like his hair color or his accent; if he were straight, the relationships and the story wouldn’t be hugely different. Wow, a play where people like us are just ordinary people, part of the fabric of the world, no big deal. What’s more important to the story is that he lost both legs in the Vietnam War and hobbles around on fiberglass prothenics and crutches, and that he’s given up on what he thought he was going to do next with his life, but he hasn’t told friends and family about this or come up with anything else to do instead. Meanwhile, his aunt still hasn’t gotten up the wherewithal to scatter her late husband’s ashes as he requested, even though it’s been several years since he passed away.

It’s a good play about how life stalls out on us sometimes, and we have to figure out how to let go of our past hopes and find a way to move forward. We hope to get back for a second time.

Gok! Blit! Blasny Blasny!

Dave and I just got back from a really wonderful production of Larry Shue’s farce The Foreigner at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre. I saw the first off-Broadway production starring Anthony Heald in the late 1980s, and I became an instant fan and saw it one or two more times (I forget now which). I’ve not seen it again till now, though I’ve reread it several times over the years with great pleasure; I don’t know why the play isn’t done all the time, but it isn’t. This production seems just as good to me as the off-Broadway production was, though of course it has its differences and is weaker in some ways and stronger in others.

Ryan O’Donnell’s performance as Charlie, the phony “foreigner” of the title, is quite different from Heald’s (or at least my memory of it) but in some ways he’s even more convincing in the role than Heald was. That may be something of a backhanded compliment, as Charlie is such a total nebbish at the start of the play, but be that as it may, O’Donnell nails the nebbish and then nails every step of Charlie’s transformation. I thought Aaron Murphy as the slow-witted Ellard was the other standout — my memory may be weak but I don’t remember Ellard being played with so much detail and so much heart off-Broadway. But the whole ensemble is just really, really good.

Larry Shue died young, not long after writing The Foreigner; had he lived, we wouldn’t be talking about how The Foreigner was his last play but about how it was the first play in which he’d really mastered his craft. It’s an intricate farce, the sort of comedy where you spend the first twenty minutes being shown dozens of assorted bits and pieces of story and character, and then you spend the rest of the play gasping with delight and disbelief as the playwright takes this assortment of gears and pulleys and ratchets and puts them together to make an astonishingly tricky and hilarious clockwork machine. And yet in this play Shue also created a number of genuinely memorable characters who don’t feel mechanical at all, some of whom you even come to like and care about, even as you’re laughing at the impossible tangle they’re getting themselves into — or at least I do. I’m a big fan of Shue’s earlier farce, The Nerd, too, but in that one the characters never really stop feeling like the playwright’s puppets; The Foreigner has a heart and soul that The Nerd doesn’t. It’s a huge shame and a great loss to us all that, once he had brought himself to this level of mastery of the craft, having at last found his way to a distinctive and confident voice as a playwright, this is the only play that Shue then had time to give us.

Really fine production of one of the best farces I know. Definitely worth a visit. Gok! Gok! Blasny blasny!

More Thoughts About Mirandolina

The Mercury News reviewer generally likes Center REP’s Mirandolina a lot, but she calls it a “door-slamming farce” and says that it never quite achieves the “fever pitch” she thinks it needs.

Alas, Goldoni, the great Venetian playwright famed for “Servant of Two Masters,” is sometimes funnier on the page than the stage. Near, former head of San Jose Repertory Theatre, directs with a light touch, but the first act lacks pep, and the last act needs more of a breakneck pace to make the farce pop. A little more speed would give the zaniness more zip.

I think she’s right in thinking — despite the excellent production — that the play itself comes across as a bit thin, especially for a play widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces in Italian theater. But I think she’s wrong in assessing why; she thinks the production isn’t zany enough, but I think the problem is really that the play loses some of its character in translation.

Goldoni’s play is more of a comedy of manners than a farce. Goldoni was writing in reaction to the commedia dell’arte of his time, which had become tired and formulaic, repeating the same slapstick gags over and over. On the one hand, Molière breathed new life into commedia dell’arte by taking its small-town character types and making them grander and more important, using comedy as a way of mocking and satirizing what he saw as important evils of society. Goldoni went in the other direction, keeping his characters at a more human scale, but drawing them less like cartoon characters and more like real people. But for that to work for us, we have to perceive the humanity in them, not just see them as stock characters in a zany farce.

Molière’s larger-than-life characters transcend cultural borders more easily — Tartuffe and Orgon and Harpagon and Arnolphe are larger-than-life social monsters whom we can recognize in our own society even if the details of 18th-century Paris society are a mystery to us. But Goldini’s more human-sized characters — innkeepers, servants, merchants, rural nobility — are woven into the fabric of 18th-century Tuscan and Venetian society, and Goldoni took it for granted that his audiences would be familiar with their quirks and foibles simply from living among people like them every day. These characters tend to seem remote to us today, and they have concerns that can seem more artificial than real to us. So it’s hard to bring them to life in a way a modern American audience can understand and connect with.

One way to accomplish that might be to rewrite the plays a bit. Goldoni’s best-known play in English, for example, is The Servant of Two Masters, but it’s most often done in versions that are more freely adapted, tightening the story and broadening the farce. Center REP’s version does a bit of this: The long, hilarious swordfight in the second act, for example, is an interpolation; in the play as written, the fight is interrupted almost as soon as it begins.

Another tactic is to move a play from 18th-century Italy to more modern times. A popular version of The Servant of Two Masters in English, for example, moves the action to London in the 1960s. I did this sort of thing myself (though not with a Goldoni play) with The Riot Grrrl on Mars by “translating” the characters and situations to modern equivalents that the audience would recognize more readily and with less need for explanation of the cultural assumptions being made along the way. The original opera, L’Italiana in Algeri, has a story straight out of the commedia dell’arte in which a young, determined Italian woman journeys to Africa to rescue her lover, who has been kidnapped by pirates on the Mediterranean, from the Bey of Algiers; in The Riot Grrrl on Mars, a young, determined punk rocker flies to outer space to rescue her boyfriend, who has been abducted by a UFO, from the King of Mars.

Center REP’s Mirandolina tightens the dialogue a bit, updates the rather formal Italian to breezy modern English, and adds a few songs and that splendid swordfight, but even so, it mostly stays close to Goldoni’s story and characters. That gives us a more direct view into Goldoni’s play, which is a good thing, but it can also make situations and characters seem quaint to us, which is not so good. We American playgoers have to stretch a little harder to see the humanity that is shared between Goldoni’s world and our own. A worthwhile stretch to make, all the same.

(Now, if it were me translating, I’d probably have made the Marquis the arrogant head of a once-successful dot-com that has recently gone bust, and ….)

Mirandolina at Center REP

Dave and I went to Walnut Creek Saturday for a preview performance of Center REP’s new production of Mirandolina! Mistress of a Tuscan Inn, an English-language version of the 18th-century Italian comedy La locandiera by Carlo Goldoni. We had a great time, and we’re planning to go back for a second look later in the run.

It’s a terrific production. The characters are strongly and strikingly portrayed by the excellent ensemble, headed by Tracy Hazas (who I don’t recall having seen before) as Mirandolina, an innkeeper who unwisely keeps the man she truly loves at arm’s length, partly because she’s too busy managing her inn, but mostly because two of her regular guests are smitten with her, and as they are both important men, she wants to keep their patronage by not dashing their hopes. One is a sour and haughty nobleman by birth who is constantly borrowing money to live on (played by Mark Anderson Phillips, who I think we last saw playing Oscar Wilde and an assortment of other roles in Mark Jackson’s Salomania! a few years back); the other is a brash, wealthy merchant who has recently purchased the title of count for himself (played by Michael Butler, in a more flamboyant role than I think we’ve seen him in before). The rivalry between the Count and the Marchese, each trying to one-up the other in front of Mirandolina, works to Mirandolina’s benefit — particularly when the men compete in giving her expensive gifts.

A third man comes to the inn, a misogynistic cavalier (Gabriel Marin, a longtime favorite). Mirandolina is angered by his disdain for women and decides she’s going to use her wiles to make him fall in love with her. At this point it’s easy to be reminded of Much Ado About Nothing, but the situation is different — and morally dicier — because Mirandolina does not actually love the cavalier, but is seducing him only to get revenge for her wounded pride. Meanwhile, the man she really loves, her butler Fabrizio (Ben Euphrat), waits on the sidelines with growing frustration. A couple of touring actresses having a lark between stops (Lynda DiVito and Lizzie O’Hara), wearing theatrical costumes and pretending to be noblewomen, add to the complications.

All this is played out on a wonderful, brightly colored set (by Nina Ball) that revolves to show the various locations in and around the inn. A swordfight that staggers from room to room as the set keeps spinning is a high point of the second act.

Goldoni’s comedies seem to be hard to pull off in English. I’ve read or seen six or seven, and in all of them his dramatic construction is loose, in the commedia dell’arte style; he evidently meant his performers to have a certain amount of room for improvising and bringing their own personalities with them — indeed, in 18th-century Italy, if his plays hadn’t provided those opportunities, the best performers wouldn’t have wanted to do them. That makes the plays a challenge to do in a different time and place where commedia is not part of the culture.

And then the plays are gentler and warmer than, say, the similar comedies of Molière and Gozzi, whose sharper, more satirical caricatures travel better across cultural borders. Goldoni poked affectionate fun at the manners, society, and even the dialects of Tuscany and Venice, and those things don’t mean much to us Americans.

This adaptation doesn’t really find ways of bringing those aspects of the play to life, I think, and as a result the play itself comes across feeling like a thinner and more conventional farce than it really is. But Timothy Near’s direction is sure-handed and most importantly the cast is strong, so it all works anyway. Lots of fun. We’re going back.

Fade Out-Fade In

Hoo boy! I’m a sound engineer! After several years of procrastination, I actually set up our as-yet-unused-other-than-for-gathering-dust USB turntable, learned enough about Audacity to import the audio from one of my old LPs into my laptop, divide it into tracks, add fade-outs and silences at the ends of the tracks, and export it all into WAV files that I can then import into iTunes and thence onto my smartphone. Listening to the result through earbuds now — sounds pretty good.

I picked the original cast album of the little-known 1964 musical Fade Out-Fade In to work on first. It’s not a great favorite of mine by any means, but it’s fun for a listen now and then, and I don’t have it on CD. Hopefully this will be the start of transferring a lot of my old LPs into digital format.

Fade Out-Fade In was a spoof of the early days of Hollywood, tailored for the particular talents of Carol Burnett, who was just becoming a Broadway star and hadn’t yet abandoned stage for television. (That she did precisely that so soon after opening night resulted in a threatened breath-of-contract suit and is probably why the musical isn’t all that well known, but that’s a whole other story.) Many of the lyrics, which are by Comden & Green, are too facile and jokey by half for my liking, and others (such as that for the title song) seem bland and generic to me, but there are a few gems, including a Shirley Temple parody called “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged” and a mock femme-fatale number titled “Call Me Savage”.

Some of the music, which is by Jule Styne, is really good, especially if you stop paying attention to the words. (Some of the songs, though, are just Styne writing deliberately corny period numbers, as he did quite a bit — I tend to think of this as his “vo-do-de-oh mode” — granted, he was terrific at it, but a little of it goes a lot way for me, and in some Styne scores, including this one, there’s quite a lot of it.) A song for the egotistical leading man (played by Jack Cassidy), called “My Fortune Is My Face”, has got some of the strangest chromatic harmonies Styne ever put into a song. (It has one of the show’s funniest lyrics, too, IMHO.) “I’m With You” is meant to be a parody of the cheesy, overblown Hollywood ballad, but it seems to me it would be a darned good song if it had less cheesy lyrics. “My Heart Is Like a Violin” is an even more exaggeratedly romantic ballad, with an even cheesier lyric and a big, overblown orchestration to boot, but I find it a really appealingly quirky tune all the same.

The Lamplighters’ Candide

Dave and I went back this afternoon to see the Lamplighters’ production of Candide — which is playing this weekend at the Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek — another time. There’s one more performance in W.C. tomorrow, and then the following weekend they play in Mountain View. It’s a terrific production, full of liveliness and humor and color and satire.

There are also a lot of friends and colleagues of ours in the production, which makes it a double pleasure for us. Phil Lowery, who directed the 2009 steampunk production of my adaptation of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, directs this production, and does a terrific job; Adam Flowers, who sang Hoffmann in that same production, has two very funny turns as the governor of Montevideo and a wealthy slaveowner in Surinam; Kelcey Jay Poe, who both choreographed that production and performed in the ensemble, both choreographs and performs in the ensemble in this production; and then there are Jennifer Ashworth, Sam Rabinowitz, and Bill Neely from last year’s production of Die Fledermaus, or The Bat Bites Back, and John Rouse from the first production (in 1996) of my Bat out of Hell, and Arie Singer, who I met a few years back when she took part in a reading of a work in progress of mine, and so on. Great fun to see so many people I have worked with and admire and love in such an enjoyable production.

Dave and I were particularly impressed by the fact that Jennifer, who is one of the two performers alternating as Cunegonde, does something in the final lines of “Glitter and Be Gay” that takes it over the top in a way that totally works (or it did for us, anyway), is hilarious, and that we don’t remember ever seeing done before — and we’ve both seen the number performed a whole lot of times by now. I won’t give away what it is that Jennifer did, because half the fun was that we totally did not see it coming.

I also have to mention the awesome comic excellence of Phil Wong, who is playing the role of Cacambo, a character from Voltaire who has not been used in other versions of the musical. Personally, I am torn. As a librettist I am very conscious of dramatic structure, and from the point of view of libretto structure (which is quite a different thing from, say, novella structure), omitting the character of Cacambo is very obviously a good idea. However, I am also a playgoer, and Mr. Wong is really, really delightful to watch, even totally stealing the show from the rest of the cast at a few points; this is the first time I can recall seeing him, and if the writer of this libretto had not included Cacambo, I wouldn’t have had that pleasure. So, like I said, I’m torn about that.

The production is sort of a staged concert version. There’s no real set, just a simple platform that runs along the back of the stage and a ramp that comes diagonally forward from it. But each of the show’s many, many changes of place — from Westphalia to Holland to Paris to Lisbon to Cadiz, and that’s just Act One — brings on a fresh wave of colorful costumes for the company, so there’s always something eye-filling going on.

As for the particular version of Candide that the Lamplighters are doing, however — well, it’s a great tribute to the talents of Phil and the cast and the rest of the company that the show is as enjoyable as it is and that the audience remains enthusiastic to the end, because this version of the libretto is an overlong mess. The show runs a bit over three hours, even though this production is briskly paced; it’s just that this version of the libretto includes rather too many songs and takes rather too many detours along the way.

There have been many revisions of Candide over the decades, so there are lots of songs to choose from if you want to create yet another. A couple weeks ago, after we saw this production for the first time (and had immediately decided we wanted to see it again), Dave was wondering about where the different songs had been used and was comparing recordings, and he noticed that this version — which is the Royal National Theatre version, first done in 1999 — has exactly the same songs as Bernstein’s own “final revised” version from 1989 but in a different order. So I’m guessing that the Royal National Theatre’s intention with this version was to use all the same songs that Bernstein chose, but to fit them all into a libretto that sticks more closely to the order of events as given in Voltaire’s novella.

One big problem, it seems to me, is that this libretto sticks far too closely to Voltaire’s novella. In this version, Voltaire (played from the conductor’s stand by Baker Peeples) is actually before us as the narrator, often reciting to us long stretches of the novel that, however witty they are, do not exactly serve to hurry the story along. Furthermore, the songs often convey to us the same things that the novella does (which, after all, is the function they were written to serve). This means that if Voltaire reads to us a considerable chunk of the corresponding portion of the novella first, as happens over and over again in this libretto, the songs lose some portion of their punch and surprise.

Then again, a number of the songs in this version seem to me to be just plain in the wrong place. Ever since the New York City Opera version in 1982, for example, it seems to be the thing to have the Act One Finale occur in Spain with the decision to travel to the New World. But the show was originally written to have the Act One Finale occur later in the story, in the New World when Candide decides to travel to the fabled city of El Dorado. I find this more recent placement of the finale disconcerting (and did when I saw the 1982 version, too) because the contrapuntal finale is based on the song “My Love”, which is sung in the New World and which, therefore, we aren’t going to hear until Act Two. It’s as though you were listening to a Beethoven symphony and for some inexplicable reason the orchestra decided to play the complex development of the main theme before it had played the unadorned main theme by itself even once. Musically, that’s just wrong, so wrong. It robs the finale of its sense of building on music you’ve heard earlier, and then in the second act it robs “My Love” of its own musical effectiveness, because it feels now like a reprise, not a new song.

Then there is “We Are Women”, which surely must have been written for when Cunegonde and Old Woman are in Venice, or at least nearing Venice, or perhaps at the very earliest when they are still in South America but have already made the decision to go to Venice. The music suggests a tyrolienne (especially when we get to the all-but-yodeling countermelody), the lyrics make several explicit references to Italy, and it was clearly part of Bernstein’s scheme that the music for Candide would be in a hodgepodge of national styles that reflected Candide’s whirlwind travels through Europe and the New World. So when the women sing the duet immediately on arriving in, um, Montevideo, it feels like it got accidentally bumped into the wrong scene.

Using the song at this point in the story also has the effect of clashing with “My Love” immediately following, because the whole point of “We Are Women” is that Cunegonde is consciously deciding that she will use her feminine charms to survive (and putting the song in this position means that she is saying that she is going to seduce the Governor in order to get things from him), while the point of “My Love” is that the Governor is trying to seduce Cunegonde; she hasn’t done anything to attract his attentions, and in fact the Old Woman has to pressure her into entertaining his offer at all.

(Which is yet another reason why “We Are Women” would work better leading into the Venice scene: because that’s where Cunegonde is at the stage in her character development that she is ready to express those ideas, to own the decision to prostitute herself. Back in Montevideo, she is in denial, willing to sell herself if the price is right, but rationalizing to herself that she’s doing it only for noble reasons, still hanging on to her illusions about her honor and virtue. The Cunegonde who sings of her “virginal condition” in “My Love” and who has to be pressured by the Old Women into negotiating a good price for her sexual favors is not yet the Cunegonde who can boast brightly in “We Are Women” about men’s inability to resist her sexual attractiveness; and yet this version of Candide puts the latter song right before the former.)

Then there’s the way “The King’s Barcarole” is used near the end, with Candide’s overhearing of it being how he gets the idea to start a humble farm. This seems to me like a bad place and use for the song for several structural reasons. First, the humor in the song lies in the slow and pompous formality with which the six kings are conducting their discussion — but then, is such a slow and pompously formal song, sung by six very, very minor characters in your story, really what you want to put this late in such a long show, when the audience is getting decidedly impatient for the main characters’ story to reach its conclusion? Second, if Candide really gets the idea for his farm just from overhearing this song, then has he actually learned anything from his adventures? Isn’t he showing that he’s still quite willing to go and base his whole life on the philosophizing of silly people? All he’s doing, really, is transferring his naïve faith from Dr. Pangloss to six silly kings passing by; he has yet really to learn to think for himself.

And then third, a librettist who is fashioning a libretto around these songs does not need in any case to contrive an explanation for why Candide decides to buy a farm, because Candide tells us himself that this is his dream in the lyrics of “Oh Happy We”, way back in the first scene of the show. Indeed, it seems pretty likely that this is exactly why the farm is mentioned in that song in the first scene, so that when Candide makes his decision later in the final scene, we’ll see that he is thinking for himself at last after a lifetime of letting others do his thinking for him. If you’re going to use the songs, why not let them carry the parts of the story that they were written to carry?

After all the criticism I’ve just made of this version of the libretto, I now have to hang a uey and say that the libretto nevertheless passes what for me is the single most important test of any version of Candide: Whatever else, “Make Our Garden Grow” at the very end of the show has gotta move you. If this finale feels false and overblown after all that has come before it, if I don’t tear up at least a little, if I find myself feeling like the characters have done nothing and learned nothing to justify their singing of these eloquent verses set to this glorious music, then the libretto has failed in its single most important job. I’ve seen the 1974 Broadway revival version and the 1982 New York City Opera version performed (the former twice, the latter only once but by the NYCO itself), and both have left me dry-eyed and unsatisfied at the end. This 1999 version, though, not only moved me but had me actually crying, beginning at that wonderful moment in the final chorus when the entire company is singing and orchestra drops out, leaving the company singing without accompaniment. It’s such a simple musical effect, but amazingly powerful when the moment feels true, and it felt true to me at both performances I saw. For all that I have been grousing about a number of the choices that the writer of this libretto made, the final effect, at least in this production, is deeply moving.

For me, the best version of the libretto to Candide is still probably the original one by Lillian Hellman. It moves swiftly; it’s pointedly, bitingly funny; and — maybe this is important only to me, but hey — the structure of its story is the one that the songs were actually written to work with. I say probably the best, though, because I’ve never actually seen Hellman’s original libretto performed; I’ve only read it, but many times and with a lot of pleasure. It clearly has its problems, too, but boy, I wish I could see half the talent and effort go into strengthening its few flawed scenes that has gone into replacing it altogether. When a revival was planned in the 1970s, Hellman was told that another writer was being brought in, over her objections, to revise the book, and in response Hellman refused permission for so much as one line of her writing to be used at all. But Hellman is no longer with us, and I continue to harbor the hope that I might live long enough to see her estate give permission to use her book with revisions — and of course that the revisions will be well done.

In the meantime, I think this is a terrific and enjoyable production and well worth seeing. This version of the libretto is awkward in a lot of ways, but it’s serviceable. The performances are excellent. And of course the score is brilliant, both musically and lyrically. Very good stuff.

Indian Ink at A.C.T.

Dave and I saw Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink in a new production at A.C.T. this week. Good production of a good play, part satirical comedy and part historical romance.

My only serious problem with the production was that the pacing gets draggy here and there, particularly in the second act. A certain deliberateness in the pacing is more of a necessity than a problem, as the Geary is a very big, echoey theater, and dialogue can be hard to catch if taken at a pace that would be normal in a smaller theater; and then on top of that many of the characters speak in Indian accents that make the words harder to catch. But at times the pacing slows down even more than that, presumably for the emotional effect, and, for my taste anyway, there are a few too many of those times and they go on a bit too long.

The acting is terrific all around — especially, I thought, Brenda Meany as a British poet visiting India in the 1930s, Firdous Bamji as the Indian artist who paints her portrait while she is there, and Anthony Fusco as the nerdy modern-day academic who is looking — a lot too hard and a bit too literally — for evidence of a love affair between the two of them.

My only serious problem with the play is that it’s so similar to Arcadia in so many ways. Arcadia is such a striking and powerful play that Indian Ink feels a bit pale by comparison, and it’s hard not to compare given how much the two plays have in common. (Both plays tell two stories, one in the past and one in the present; in both, the present story concerns a comically stuffy academic who is researching the past story, so that we can see the conclusions that the academic is reaching — often laughably wrong — right alongside the past events themselves; in both plays, past and present share the stage at times; and in both plays an important part of the setting is a single table that is used in both past and present stories, eventually coming to hold props from both stories at the same time. Some of the correspondences are even fairly specific: In both plays, for example, a photograph of a painting that is in some way misidentified, and which appears on the dust jacket of an academic biography, becomes a significant clue in the historical puzzle. Perhaps there is a comedy-romance to be written someday in which a professor of theater history tries to untangle the exact relationship between the two plays, leading perhaps to a climactic scene in which both plays are rehearsed, though two years apart, on the same stage at the same time.)

Still, Indian Ink is a lovely play in its own right with a lot of beauty and a lot of juice in it. The relationship between the poet and the painter, as they get to know each other and share their differing views on art, is terrific comedy of manners and very endearing at the same time.

Stoppard has revised the ending, I understand; though Dave and I also saw the 1999 production, I don’t remember much about it (that was the year of my brain surgery, and my memories of things in the six or seven months before the surgery are very muddled), and I can’t find our paperback copy of the play, so I can’t yet compare the two endings. I did feel that the new ending was a little too long and drawn out, giving the audience the strong feeling two or three times that this is going to be the final scene, only then it isn’t. This may be a problem as much with the pace slackening, though, as with the construction of the ending; I’d need to see it another time or two to decide what I think about it.

The set, costumes, and lighting are stunning, simple but full of deep, rich colors; you can see photos from the production here.

Pygmalion at CalShakes

Last week, Dave and I saw Pygmalion at California Shakespeare Theater. It’s a wonderful production.

What was so remarkable to us is that we’ve both seen the play several times, including a very good small production at Butterfield 8 less than a year ago (I also saw Peter O’Toole and Amanda Plummer on Broadway back in the 1980s), and we have seen the movie with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller several times, and then of course we have also seen My Fair Lady both on stage and on screen a few times; and yet in this new production there were a lot of new discoveries for us along the way, especially in the second half.

Anthony Fusco’s Higgins is freshly thought out, it isn’t much at all like Howard’s or Harrison’s or O’Toole’s, and yet it’s a completely convincing characterization that, for me anyway, held a number of new insights into the character and his part in the story. Same with Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle: she never once seemed in any way to be in the shadow of Wendy Hiller or Julie Andrews or anyone else, but gives a thoroughly fresh interpretation of the role that works well, is completely in keeping with the play, and yet frequently had me reacting with surprise to some new reading she gave to a line or new shade of color she gave to a moment. Wonderful stuff.

The whole cast is terrific. And James Carpenter just about stops the show twice with his two brilliant scenes as Alfred Doolittle. Jonathan Moscone’s stage direction is fresh and inventive, and entirely in keeping with Shaw’s intentions. (He does fiddle with the text of the play a bit, trimming some scenes and making use of a few things from Shaw’s screenplay for the movie; it works well.) Shaw’s famously unresolved ending, which neither the movie nor the musical saw fit to follow, works beautifully here — after the Butterfield 8 production, I was saying to friends that it was the first time I’d seen a production that followed Shaw’s ending and made it feel like the perfectly right and inevitable ending to the story; this production now makes two times I have seen this happen.

One more week. We’d love to get back for one more look, but I don’t think it’s in either our schedule or our budget. I highly recommend this production. Yum yum yum.