It’s wonderful, just as you said–beautiful music, beautifully performed, beautifully produced,” said a friend of mine who had gone to see the musical Wings at my urging. “But” she hesitated”something kept nagging at me. It’s well why would a woman with a stroke sing?”
Fair question Wings, which premiered in October at the Goodman Studio Theatre in Chicago–and which heads, on the basis of nearly unanimous rave reviews, to New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater for a run March 9-April 18 is a musical about a woman who suffers a cerebral “accident” that robs her of the ability to speak. Based on a 1978 one-act by Arthur Kopit, Wings is a work of remarkable contrasts–compact and intimate in scope yet sweeping and ambitious in its implications; funny and touching and tragic and transcendent all at the same time. It features a lustrous quasi-operatic score by Jeffrey Lunden that reflects such influences as Stephen Sondheim, Samuel Barber and minimalist Steve Reich, yet ultimately speaks in its own distinctive musical vocabulary; a libretto by Arthur Perlman that’s a model of lean grace infused with torrential subtext; and, in Michael Maggio’s staging, a fusion of emotive, technically precise performance and darkly dazzling visual and aural design.
Yet for all its craft, the key to Wings lies in a simple question: Why would a woman with a stroke sing?
It’s a given in musical theatre that people speak and sing with equal ease. No, let me amend that: In musical theatre, people speak with ease but sing with urgency, because the cadences of spoken language are no longer rich enough to communicate their intense emotions. In Wings, the intensity is at a life-and-death level. The heroine, Emily Stilson, is a 70-ish woman unexpectedly hit by a stroke. In her youth a daredevil aerialist who walked on the wings of biplanes, Emily is suddenly robbed of the normal perceptions of time and space with which we gauge our place on this earth. Her prim little living room, furnished with just an old chair and an even older record player, is transformed into a void in which Emily floats as if gliding on air (the actress playing Emily represents her spirit, while her body, unseen by the audience, lies immobile).
In the first, entirely musical, portion of the work, Emily sings as she describes her sensations of being transported from a concretely physical world to an ethereal one. Later, as she partially recovers from the stroke’s effects, she and the other characters (including a doctor, a nurse, a therapist and several patients) speak and sing; the drama’s climax, in which Emily suffers a second stroke and dies, is again entirely sung.
Poetic license aside, the music in Wings adds a dimension of rapture that mutes the potential horror of Emily’s battle with illness and death, exposing the spiritual concerns inherent in Arthur Kopit’s original play. In the introduction to his script, Kopit writes that his Wings is “essentially about language disorder and its aberrations.” But the focus on the strange verbal patterns exhibited by his aphasic heroine is relegated to secondary status in the musical. Passages that fascinate with their quirkiness when spoken are inevitably made lyrical when refitted with rhyme, meter and melody; and the sung sequences are so beautiful that the dialogue between Emily and the people trying to help her is rather flat by comparison.
Inner and outer worldsOrder now
In the Goodman production, the opening sequence depicting Emily’s stroke is genuinely, terrifyingly disorienting due largely to Richard Woodbury’s quadrophenic sound design, which enveloped the intimate, 135-seat studio, and to Linda Buchanan’s surrealistic set, a darkly luminous compression of the co-existing inner and outer worlds Emily inhabits. (A sense of almost unbearable tension is added by a simple device elastic bands stretching at odd angles across the front of the stage.)
But after the disturbing opening, the score communicates such a sense of peace and quiet rapture that Emily’s final farewell seems less a tragic loss than a transformative victory. Wings seems less about medicine than metaphysics.
But the music has a more earthly function as well. As they researched the subject of aphasia treatment, Lunden and Perlman observed stroke victims at Beth Israel Hospital in the Bronx. There they met a music therapist named Connie Tomaino, whose work inspired them to make the character of Amy, a therapist in Kopit’s play, into a music therapist. Amy plays the accordion and leads the patients in such songs as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “When the Saints Go Marching In”–tunes Connie Tomaino really played, sometimes with the breakthrough results of triggering memories and physical action in silent, inert patients. “Because music resides in a different part of the brain from speech, patients who can’t talk can often sing,” explains Lunden. A music-therapy session in Wings prompts Emily to sing a Charleston number that was her theme song as a wing-walker, “Daredevils in the Air”–which, in a touch that gives the musical subliminal power, contains most of the thematic material heard in the rest of the score.
Groping for words
“The challenge was to find a way to structure it as musical theatre and yet retain the sense of a woman groping for words,” says Perlman, who first saw Kopit’s play more than a decade ago at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. prior to its Broadway run. The solutions include the compositional technique of fragmentation, in which the elements of a fully developed song can be shattered just as Emily’s perceptions are, and the use of an electronic sampler, into which Lunden fed taped phrases of vocal and instrumental music that would later be played back in altered form.
Linda Stephens, a Chicago actress who had played Emily in Kopit’s Wings in Atlanta a dozen years earlier, conveys just the right blend of fragility and tensile strength for Emily who responds to her illness with the almost exultant sentiment, “What a strange adventure I am having!” Stephens is also an accomplished instrumentalist who easily sight-read the score, allowing her and director Maggio to embark quickly on the process of creating a densely textured characterization. Maggio responded personally to the story of a person struggling against medical adversity: at the time he first encountered Wings, the director was recuperating from a risky double-lung transplant whose success ended his life-long battle with cystic fibrosis. Maggio’s staging of Wings displays a profound sense of energy and mobility which reinforces the sense that Emily’s real life is the one being lived by her free-floating spirit apart from her immobile body.
One reason Perlman and Lunden turned to Wings as a source was purely pragmatic: “These days,” says Perlman, “you have to be concerned with keeping your pieces small.” Intended for an intimate playing space, with just a five-person cast and a small band augmented by synthesizer, Wings surely fit the budgetary bill. But this work, so diminutive in scope, is filled with enormous implications the musical theatre seldom dares address.