Tag Archives: music

Making Magic on Broadway

By Marc Williams

The Tony Awards are Broadway theatre’s version of an Oscar, recognizing the highest levels of achievement in commercial theatre. This year’s nominees include a revival of Pippin, a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1972 and hasn’t been seen on Broadway since that original production.

Pippin poster

Pippin was conceived by composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who is best known Godspell and, more recently, the Broadway mega-hit Wicked. Schwartz began working on Pippin as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University and after achieving a seemingly overnight success with Godspell in 1971, the 23-year old Schwartz and his collaborator, Roger O. Hirson, were able to find a producer willing to put Pippin on Broadway.

Like Schwartz’ earlier hit Godspell, Pippin had great popular appeal. The scores to these musicals contain pop/rock songs that became crossover hits on top-40 radio. The original Off-Broadway cast recording of Godspell’sDay By Day” climbed to the #13 position on the Billboard Top Singles chart, while songs from Pippin were recorded by the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson (solo), the Supremes, and Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield. On stage, Pippin was a bona fide Broadway hit, running over 1900 performances–one of the longest runs in Broadway history. An interesting side note to Pippin’s successful run was its very effective marketing campaign; Pippin was the first Broadway musical to use clips from the production on a television advertisement. The famous “Manson Trio” dance number was featured in this minute-long television commercial that is credited for generating much of the musical’s early ticket sales (pardon the water mark):

Ben Vereen as the Leading Player in Bob Fosse’s 1972 production of Pippin.

While Pippin enjoyed popular success, the script and score were not embraced by the influential New York critics. In his New York Times review, Clive Barnes called Pippin a “trite and uninteresting story with aspirations to a seriousness it never for one moment fulfills.” He similarly wrote of Schwartz’s score, “It is a commonplace set to rock music, and I must say I found most of music somewhat characterless.” However, Barnes praised the production as a whole, noting its inventive staging and choreography, the work of the stage designers, and the triumphant performance by Ben Vereen as the Leading Player.

Bob Fosse.

Barnes and other critics took notice of Bob Fosse’s work in particular, which deemphasized the script’s naïve and passive title character and focused on the dark, dangerous agenda of the musical’s ringmaster, Vereen’s Leading Player.

Stephen Schwartz.

Rather than Schwartz’ story of a young man’s search for fulfillment, Fosse viewed Pippin’s plot as the story of a young man being seduced into self-destruction. In an effort to support the theme of seduction, the production visually evoked burlesque and carnival performance, highlighting themes of sexual exploration and discovery. The 24-year old Schwartz, whose musical influences were more James Taylor and less Jimi Hendrix, perhaps had not imagined his musical with such a seedy underbelly and as a result, the rehearsals for Pippin were famously contentious, with Fosse, Schwartz, and Hirson battling for control of the production’s tone. Eventually, Fosse banned Schwartz and Hirson from attending rehearsals!

Some criticism of Schwartz and Hirson’s work is warranted. The story is fragmented and the central action unclear. The musical’s original ending is among the most jarring and dissatisfying endings one is likely to find in a musical. Structurally, Pippin is incomplete and any production of Pippin seems to require additional directorial focus in order to hold the entire script and score together into a cohesive evening of theatre. Fosse seemingly knew this, and his work earned him a Tony Award in 1973 for Best Director of a Musical; Fosse also won a Tony Award for his iconic Pippin choreography.

Diane Paulus

Forty years after Fosse’s original production, a new production opened on Broadway April 25, 2013. Directed by Diane Paulus, the new production has been called a “natural extension” of Fosse’s, a Pippin for a 21st century audience. If Fosse’s production was suggestive, Paulus’ production seems to opt for excess. Fosse’s dancing ensemble, for instance, was conceived as a group of traveling burlesque clowns. Paulus’ vision for these traveling players is less burlesque, more Cirque du Soleil. In fact, Paulus’ production employs a troupe of Canadian acrobats that creates a sense of grand spectacle throughout the show. If Fosse’s production is a story of seduction, Paulus’ production seems a story of astonishment. Here is a glimpse of Paulus’ new production:

Much has changed on Broadway since Fosse’s Pippin opened in 1972. The 1980’s was an era of musical spectacles, lavish musicals like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon that boasted some of the most eye-popping visual effects ever seen on stage. More recent musicals like Wicked and

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark have continued that tradition into the 21st century. In my BLS course, Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss musical spectacles and how 21st century audiences have come to expect a certain degree of “eye appeal” at a Broadway musical. With many of these musical spectacles, the stage designs are frankly more impressive than the scripts the designs are attempting to support. Some of these productions could be called “style without substance,” in spite of their commercial success. In the case of Paulus’ Pippin, it seems the director is using the fad of musical spectacles not to distract from the script’s flaws but rather to enhance the script’s central action and deliver a story about amazement to an audience that demands to be amazed. Given the positive reviews and ten Tony Award nominations Paulus’ production received, one wonders if Pippin is poised to be a Broadway hit yet again.

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An interesting “Making of…” feature published on the New York Times’ website, demonstrating how Paulus and her collaborators conceptualized Pippin’s famous opening number, “Magic to Do.”

Just Squeeze

By Matt McKinnon

I have a secret:

I love the accordion.

It gets worse:

I play the accordion.

Years ago, this would not have been an issue.  There would have been no need for secrecy.  The accordion was one of the most popular instruments for kids all over the country to learn.  From the end of World War Two until the late fifties and early sixties, the accordion was king.

And then came Elvis Presley, Rock and Roll, and the electric guitar, which moved from being a percussion instrument playing rhythm accompaniment to the lead guitar of contemporary pop music.  (And the reason that “Guitar Hero” is a billion-dollar franchise and “Accordion Hero” a practical joke gone viral.)

It turns out, once your typical American kid got one look at the now iconic Elvis with his guitar, accordion sales plummeted, as did the instrument’s standing in popular music culture.

But the accordion didn’t just lose its popularity.  That would have been fine.  I rather enjoy having interests and hobbies that are not popular.  But the accordion is not just “not popular,” or even unpopular: it has taken on the persona of nerdiness, the epitome of square and boring, old fashioned, and lame.
It has spawned a minor industry of jokes:

What’s a gentleman?  Somebody who knows how to play the accordion, but doesn’t.

What’s the range of an accordion?  Twenty yards if you’ve got a good arm!

What’s the difference between an accordion player and a terrorist?  Terrorists have sympathizers.

What’s the difference between an onion and an accordion?   No one cries when you chop up an accordion.

What’s the difference between an accordion and a concertina?  The accordion takes longer to burn.

What do you call ten accordions at the bottom of the ocean?  A good start.

What’s the difference between a chainsaw and an accordion?  A chainsaw can be tuned.

What’s the difference between a dead skunk in the road and a dead accordion player in the road?  There are skid marks in front of the skunk.

You get the picture.

Or maybe you don’t.  So here’s a couple of pictures of “famous” accordion players from popular culture to help.

Not exactly an instrument that exudes “cool.”  Or anything other than disdain.

Or is it?

It turns out, the accordion is one of the most popular instruments in the world, and is well represented in musical styles as diverse as classical, traditional or folk, and even pop and rock.  Predominantly used in the traditional music of everyday people, the accordion is central not only to the polka-dominated styles of Central and Eastern Europe, French Bal-musette, various Italian folk styles, and traditional English (Morris), Scottish, and Irish music, but also to the  Klezmer sound of Ashkanazi Jews, French-derived Quebecois music, the Cajun music and blues-derived Zydeco of Louisiana and the Gulf coast, the conjunto sound of the Tejaň̃o and Norteno music of south and west Texas and northern Mexico, the Forró music of Brazil, Cumbia and Vallenato from Columbia, the Cueca of Chile, the Argentinean tango, the Merengue of the Dominican Republic, and even the Trot music of South Korea.

In fact, the country that not only produces the most accordions but also has the largest number of accordion players in the world is China.  Yes, China.

So I’ll see your Steve Urkel and raise you a Clifton Chenier.  You be the judge of if he’s cool or not.

The Threepenny Opera

By Marc Williams

The Threepenny Opera at UNCG

UNCG Theatre began performances of The Threepenny Opera Wednesday evening.  While it is best known for the song “Mack the Knife,” The Threepenny Opera is a tremendously important piece of 20th century dramatic literature and is certainly among my favorite plays.

While the play does indeed feature lots of music, it isn’t an opera in the traditional sense–it isn’t “sung through,” so most of the text is spoken.  This balance of spoken dialogue and song may seem akin to musical theatre–but The Threepenny Opera doesn’t really fall into that category either.  In most works of musical theatre, singing emerges from intense dramatic situations; a character may need a song to express an idea that words alone cannot capture.  In The Threepenny Opera, songs sometimes relate to the dramatic situation but just as often, the songs are only tangentially related to what is happening between the characters.  And in some cases, the song is a complete interruption of the action.

The creators of this piece, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were artist-activists and viewed every piece of theatre as a political statement.  To them, a work of art either supports the status quo or challenges the status quo.  To encourage their audience to think objectively and politically about the situations in their plays, they worked to prevent the audience from developing an emotional connection with the play’s characters.  This attempt became known as the “alienation effect,” and resulted in a style of performance that keeps the audience at an arm’s length from the play’s action. To achieve the alienation effect, characters might directly address the audience, reminding them they are only watching a play.  Design elements might be merely suggested rather than rendered in a realistic, lifelike manner.  Performers might deliver lines sarcastically or without realistic expressiveness, ensuring that audience members won’t empathize with the character.  And in the case of The Threepenny Opera, like many other Brecht plays, songs are used to interrupt or comment upon the action.

In my Big Plays, Big Ideas class in the BLS program, we read another Brecht play, The Life of Galileo, and discuss the ways in which Brecht alienates the audience to ensure they observe the sociopolitical circumstances that inform the characters’ behavior.  In studying other works of dramatic literature from a variety of historical periods, we find that the alienation effect was not invented by Brecht and Weill at all.

Projections and suggested scenery demonstrate the alienation effect in The Glass Menagerie.

Theatre artists in Ancient Greece employed such alienating effects in their work, and many artists in the decades since Brecht have incorporated alienating effects into their work as well.  Even Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, often considered a work of 20th century realism, is in fact inspired by Brecht and contains a variety of alienating devices.

Have you encountered the alienation effect in the theatre, or on television or in a movie?

Bobby Darin sings “Mack the Knife.”

Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper starred in a 2006 revival of The Threepenny Opera.  This performance is from the Tony Awards broadcast.

Are You Ready for Some Football?

By Marc Williams

I’ll begin by confessing that I am among America’s truly die-hard football fans.  I follow football throughout the year, even though the season only lasts about four months.  Serious fans like me are thrilled this morning: the NFL’s 130+ day lockout appears to be ending today following months of intense negotiations.

During the past few months, analysts have criticized both owners and players in news articles and fans have sounded off on sports talk radio.  Given America’s economic struggles, how could these sides complain about having to share $9 billion in revenues?  While the owners initiated the lockout, most of the criticism I heard seemed to be directed at the “overpaid” NFL players.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and NFL Players Association Director DeMaurice Smith, right.

Listening to talk radio over the past 130 days, I often heard fans suggesting, “the players should be more grateful–I’ll go play football for a fraction of what those guys make.”  Every time I listened to the radio, I heard someone cite his $30K salary, how hard he works, and how happy he’d be to play football for the minimum NFL rookie salary, which was $325,000 in 2010.  What many fans fail to realize is that these players earn a minimum of $325,000 because they have specific skills and physical attributes that are exceedingly rare and have found a way to capitalize on those traits.

Consider one of my favorite players, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, as an example.  In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt covered the first 40m of his record-breaking 100m run at a speed of 8.6m/second.  When Calvin Johnson was entering the 2007 NFL draft, he was timed at a similar distance at about 8.4m/second, only slightly behind Bolt’s pace. These numbers are especially notable since Bolt, the 100-meter world record-holder, weighs only 198 pounds while Johnson weighs almost 240 pounds. Further, Johnson is 6’5” and has a 42” vertical leap (four inches better than NBA star Kobe Bryant’s). Johnson, like most NFL athletes, possesses not only exceptional football skills but also a rare combination of size and athleticism.

While these physical attributes are indeed rare, many argue that twenty year-olds have no business earning so much money for simply playing a game.  After all, many of us go to school, earn degrees, work from the bottom-up in our chosen fields, taking years to earn promotions and raises, and never approach the $325,000 minimum NFL rookie salary.  Is this evidence that something is out of whack?

Shakespeare

Perhaps what is truly out of whack is the notion that education, job skills, and a lifetime of service should entitle one to fame or a generous salary.  Consider Shakespeare as an example.  Unlike most of the successful poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was not college educated.  His success generated enormous jealousy from writers who had “paid their dues” through university education.  To this day, there are scholars dedicated to attributing Shakespeare’s work to other individuals from Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth herself, arguing that an uneducated son of a glove maker couldn’t possibly be the author of Hamlet and King Lear.

 In my BLS course on Shakespeare, we discuss this “authorship question,” a premise I dismiss as snobbery.  Perhaps Shakespeare was simply brilliant; an individual with exceptional skills who was creative enough to find a way to apply and capitalize on those skills.  Mozart composed his first opera when he was twelve years old—there is no accounting for that kind of genius.  Isn’t the same true of professional athletes? When we express jealousy about the financial success of professional athletes, are we jealous of their unique gifts or are we jealous because we haven’t figured out what to do with our own talents?

Usain Bolt breaks the world record in the 100 meters, Beijing 2008:

Calvin Johnson in action:

It’s Not Just for Who Anymore?

By Marc Williams

A funny thing happened on the way to my DVR.  I watched the 2011 Tony Awards and enjoyed it.

Here’s a little back story:  my background is in theatre as both an actor and director.  When I was studying theatre as an undergraduate and for a few years after that, I always watched the Tony Awards live and always enjoyed them.  However, the Tony Awards has been holding on by a thread to its relationship with CBS due to historically low ratings.

In order to boost ratings, the American Theatre Wing has spent the past decade trying to validate the Tonys as a major celebrity event.  The Tonys looked to Hollywood, borrowing their celebrities for Broadway’s big night. Whichever Hollywood star happened to be on Broadway that season was begged to attend and present awards at the Tonys.  In 2004, for example, Sean Combs, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, and Scarlett Johansson presented awards—and their presence was endlessly emphasized by the broadcast.  Theatre icons like Helen Mirren and Joel Grey were virtually ignored.  This, to me, was not a celebration of Broadway but rather a desperate attempt to make Broadway seem relevant to a broad audience.  I understand the desperation.  In my BLS classes, we discuss the role of theatre in a variety of historical eras, including our own.  While students connect intellectually and emotionally to the plays we study, many students have trouble conceptualizing the texts as live performances; and that’s no surprise, really, because many students have never been to the theatre.

The Tony broadcasts of the past decade have literally begged the television audience to visit Broadway, using the glamor of Hollywood to sell its appeal.  These efforts have always seemed disingenuous to me.  Why can’t Broadway showcase its own stars?  If the work is solid and well-executed in the broadcast, surely audiences will want to see it in person. On these grounds, I’ve refused to watch the live broadcasts for the past few years.  I recorded them on my DVR and watched a few days or weeks later, skipping through all the stuff that I knew would annoy me. A few days ago, I watched the 2011 ceremony, which had aired live on June 12.

Host Neil Patrick Harris delivered an opening number that smacked the Tonys back into reality, both acknowledging and poking fun at the theatre’s niche audience.

The opening number even acknowledged that Al Pacino is “too famous” to participate in the song’s gag.  And I can’t imagine previous broadcasts would have mentioned Joe Mantello’s presence in the opening number–it was a joke only theatre fans could love. It was clear that the 2011 ceremony would be different from the recent broadcasts that had so annoyed me—and indeed it was different.  I watched every second of the broadcast, as it celebrated Broadway and avoided phony attempts to legitimize theatre’s place in popular culture.  I even found myself laughing hysterically at what appears to be Broadway’s biggest hit in years, The Book of Mormon (a new musical written by South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

I immediately went to my computer to try to score a pair of tickets and plan a trip to New York.  I thought to myself, “yes! This is exactly what a Tony broadcast ought to make us do.”  The Tonys didn’t beg me to come to Broadway; they showed me something that I actually want to see.  I don’t know if next year’s Tony Awards will be as genuine as the 2011 ceremony but I am hopeful.

A side note:  I didn’t score tickets to The Book of Mormon.  The show is nearly sold out for the next six months.

What are “liberal studies” anyway?

By Marc Williams

This entry begins the official blog life of UNCG’s Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  We’ve begun our Facebook life with some discussions on education.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile to begin our blog with the term “Liberal Studies.”  What exactly does that mean?

Image from "Education in Ancient Greece," Michael Lahanas

The phrase derives from artes liberales (“liberal arts”), which describes the kinds of knowledge (“arts”) that free citizens (“liberated”) should possess. This definition of liberal arts can be traced from Ancient Greece all the way through the Middle Ages.   Artes liberales can be contrasted with artes illiberales, which refers to a kind of education intended specifically for economic gain (such as vocational training).    The branches of knowledge that comprise the liberal arts include mathematics, music, literature, logic, rhetoric, grammar, and oratory.  In this regard, a “liberal studies” education is intended to be broad in focus and inclusive of a variety of disciplines.

Most universities today offer degree programs with a liberal arts structure. First-year university students are often surprised by how many courses are required outside of their intended field of study.  “How will a philosophy course help me if I want to work in advertising?”

One answer to this question comes from a recent Carnegie Foundation study, recently outlined on Businessweek.com by William M. Sullivan:

More than ever, American business needs leaders who are creative and flexible enough to innovate in a complex, competitive, global economy. The recent near-collapse of the world economy underscores the importance of business professionals who can act with foresight and integrity, aware of the public impact of their decisions. […].

The Carnegie Foundation study found that undergraduate business programs are too often narrow in scope. They rarely challenge students to question their assumptions, think creatively, or understand the place of business in larger institutional contexts. […] .

The study, soon to appear as Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession (Jossey-Bass/Wiley), went in search of business programs that set out to provide students with more than tools for advancing their careers, as important as those tools are. […].

Not surprisingly, this report suggests business programs include a healthy dose of liberal arts courses—courses that specifically develop the analytical and critical thinking skills required to deal with ambiguous and complex questions, as well as courses that manage to connect to the business curriculum.  These critical thinking, analytical, and creative skills are precisely the focus of the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  To learn more, please visit http://www.uncg.edu/aas/bls.