In some sports and intellectual pursuits, results are evaluated both by the success of the final product and the “degree of difficulty” of the attempt. By this system, the figure skater, gymnast or test-taker gets a better grade for doing a harder thing even if the performance is not flawless than for a perfect execution of something routine.
In the theatre, too often, we don’t acknowledge that some things are harder than others. Shows, especially in the commercial arena, are either “good” or “bad,” hits of flops. I have before me a stack of recently released compact disks of musicals from both categories. Some are the result of new production, some commemorate past works in newly digitized form.
A chorus of singing prisoners
Given the task of reviewing them, the temptation is pretty much to bludgeon the current crop about the face and neck using the magnificent Rodgers and Hammerstein 50th-anniversary boxed set as club, with the new Broadway cast recording of Guys and Dolls held in reserve. Kander and Ebb and McNally’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit Phantom–how could these discs share the same laser light as Carousel starring John Raitt and Jan Clayton, or Alfred Drake invoking the bright golden haze of Oklahoma!? No–the American musical has certainly, by this crude measure, gone into eclipse, with the exception of a few solar flares put out by Sondheim and Finn.
In Kiss of the Spider Woman, Manuel Puig’s hallucinatory, psychodramatic story of political terror and aesthetic salvation, we have the makings of a major work of music-theatre. There is conflict and tension and atmosphere enough for Verdi, and the element of the fabulous enters organically via one character’s technicolor, celluloid fantasies. The “high-concept” contributions of director Harold Prince and his set and projection designer, Jerome Sirlin–not to mention a chorus of singing prisoners and Chita Rivera bedecked in spidery Florence Klotz frocks–create a theatrical tour-de-force that’s still pulling them in.
So why, then, is the CD (a 1992 RCA Victor release) so uncompelling, so cloying? Why does the experience of listening to Kiss of the Spider Woman recede so quickly to the background of one’s consciousness? If we apply the “degree of difficulty” standard, we have to allow Kander and Ebb a pretty good score a priori. Kiss is a tough, rich subject that mixes torture, sexual tension between a gay man and his straight cellmate, and colliding levels of reality.
And let’s recognize the Kiss album’s legitimate strengths. The music given to Molina, the flamboyant window-dresser, and Valentin, the political revolutionary, is almost always clearly character-specific. The performances by Brent Carver (Molina) and Anthony Crivello (Valentin) are emotionally packed, well-sung and crisply articulated. Rivera is in fine, expressive voice throughout. There are a few numbers, particularly “She’s a Woman,” that remind us of Kander and Ebb at their plaintive, lyrical best (in the style of “A Quiet Thing” from Flora, The Red Menace, which is my candidate for their best single song).
Extraordinary made ordinary
But the recording exposes, more clearly than any in recent memory, the dark side of the “degree of difficulty” standard: Kiss’s music and lyrics do not begin to rise to the level of the material, and so the final impression left by the cast album is one of an extraordinary thing made ordinary, pedestrian, pleasant–like the freezer-section versions of exotic ethnic entrees.
Listen to almost any song and be reminded of 50 other Kander and Ebb tunes, which in turn remind us of that amalgamated songwriting team of Harnick and Bock and Comden and Green and lesser Loesser, Lerner and Lowe. Suddenly we’re not in a prison cell in an unnamed Latin American country; we’re unmistakably on Broadway, where the neon lights (and the cheerful key signatures) are bright.
“Aurora” features the standard show-tune device of wispy recitative accelerating into bouncy rhythms alternating with a third style copped from another tradition, in this case the tango. “Blue-bloods” tries to muster up some Sondheimesque patter energy, and segues seamlessly into the next number (“Dressing Them Up”). But whenever lyricist Ebb reaches for something more original and difficult, as in the parallel duet “Gabriel’s Letter/My First Woman,” Kander’s music lets down. Taken individually, the tunes seem collections of notes that don’t quite scan with the rhythms or the emotions of the words; then, when the two parts come together briefly, the result has an air of accidental about it, as if some arranger long-removed from the project was called upon to make a medley and chose the wrong two songs to smash together.
Overall, the CD release of Kiss of the Spider Woman especially in light of the show’s Tony awards and its monster-hit status–illustrates the current impoverishment of the American musical, which mostly seems to be stuck in a kind of hazy, pleasant mid-century mist.
Which brings me to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the team that got us to mid-century in such spectacular style. If you are wary–and we all should be–of Golden Age myths, of “it was better when” nostalgia, of the belief that drama generally has been going downhill since Aeschylus, a tour through the R&H 50th will make you nervous. This “anniversary collection,” issued by MCA Classics in a four-CD boxed set, contains original cast recordings of Oklahoma! (the “Theatre Guild Musical Play” that in so many ways started it all), Carousel and The King and I, along with a fourth disc called “The Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection,” featuring R&H oddities and covers. The unsurprising but chastening truth that emerges from listening to these recordings is that it was better back when.
Rodgers and Hammerstein emerge (or re-emerge) as infinitely more various than any of our contemporary writers or composers. The stylistic range of the songs within Carousel or, even more dramatic, among the three shows reproduced here–is vast. The word-setting and emotion-painting of Rodgers’s music is almost always directly supportive of Hammerstein’s lyrics, which although capable of a touch of the goony (especially in South Pacific) are usually as supple and muscular as speech, as elevated as organized poetry. The synthesis these two achieved is the more remarkable because, although there is a discernible Rodgers and Hammerstein sound, it does not dominate the material they work with, but rather emerges from it: Oklahoma! sounds a little bit like Carousel, but somehow they both sound as if they spring from their own local habitation and not from 42nd Street.
The performances on these old recordings are instructive, too. Once your ear adjusts to Alfred Drake’s extremely patrician-sounding Curly, his great voice and most important his sense of freedom in phrasing and shaping a musical line are thrilling. Celeste Holm’s Ado Annie is exuberant and unashamed a scale of playing approached in contemporary musicals most nearly by Faith Prince in Guys and Dolls.
Clean but soulless sound
On a technical note, modern recording technology (like modern Broadway microphone technique) has given us clean, clear but unspecific and soulless sound. Kiss of the Spider Woman, from an engineering point of view, might as well be a top-40 concept album, not a stage musical. Studio values have triumphed over the unpredictable energy of the theatre, where some people are louder and more present than others; where singers place their voices to reach the balcony, not their hairpieces; and where the imaginary walls are not covered in anechoic sculptured foam. The R&H collection, though clearly studio-created, has the feel of the stage behind it. Perhaps this is simply the result of the different (less technologically supported) performance conditions of the day, both in the theatre and in the recording studio, but I sense a different philosophy of performance at work that transcends the availability of this or that electronic gizmo.
The fourth CD in the anniversary set is an adorable collection including such out-of-the-way items as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” sung by Bing Crosby and Trudy Erwin with the Sportsmen Glee Club, or “Dites-moi,” sung in regrettable English and French by the redoubtable Hildegarde and Orchestra. There are some sublime moments on this disc, too, including Carousel’s big rouser, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” sung plangently in 1945 by Judy Garland with a splendid orchestra and chorus behind her. After the three big shows in this collection, this record is a witty dessert course.
The most apparent conclusion that one reaches from listening to this 50th anniversary set in close juxtaposition to the best contemporary writing (of which Kiss of the Spider Woman is a genuinely accomplished representative) is how innovatively and variously Rodgers and Hammerstein responded to their source texts. And their original performances had a musicality, an energy and a verve that modern performance style, conditioned to its detriment by modern sound technology, cannot match.
Let us listen and learn from these last 50 years. Let’s not shy away from ever-higher degrees of difficulty in our musical theatre, but let’s be bolder and less formulaic in our responses. And let us value but, for everyone’s sake, not overvalue those musicals (like Kiss) that reach for something great and ultimately fall to earth without quite attaining it.