Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Memory Show

Last night at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield we saw a most unusual piece of musical theatre: The Memory Show. The book and lyrics are by Sara Cooper and the music is by Zach Redler. It is billed as a comic tragedy and is difficult to categorize. There are funny moments, a lot of sadness, and a bitter reality about the horrors of Alzheimer's disease.

The writer of the book, and possibly the composer, seem to have gone through the role of care-taker for a parent suffering from this disease. The accuracy of description of the disease as the mother goes down the inevitable slide into insanity rings very true to anyone who has experienced this trauma.

I have watched several of my friends live through the drama of Alzheimer's and I, myself, have acted as a care-taker to someone suffering through sixteen years of Parkinson's disease, which has many of the same debilitating symptoms as Alzheimer's. Trust me, there are very few comic moments happening during the course of either disease. It seems an odd subject to set to music unless one is writing a tragic opera.

The play with music; one can hardly call it a musical comedy, is in one act of about ninety minutes. It begins with the mother making fun of some of her mental problems when she is still aware of what is happening to her. As the play continues the humor becomes darker and darker and the ending is as tragic as any opera I have ever seen.

The two women who played the roles of the mother and the daughter invested an enormous amount of talent and energy into their parts. By the end of the play they were both in tears. They are Leslie Kritzer and Catherine Cox.

The music was of an odd 'stream of conciousness' variety which eventually, to me at least, became annoying. Today, when talking to my good friend, Nancy Ford, who is an experienced composer for the musical theatre, she said that many of today's young composers are trying to write like Stephen Sondheim. Unfortunately, only Stephen Sondheim has the genius to do that. I felt the play could have stood on its own merits as a straight drama.

Barrington Stage this season has both thrilled and disappointed me. Their Sweeney Todd was fabulous; Freud's Last Session, which I had seen last season, held less impact on a second viewing that it did at first. Pool Boy was a fun romp through life among the rich and theoretically famous. Art, bored me to tears. Absurd Person Singular had a funny second act; acts one and three were much less amusing.

Julie Boyd is a fine director and it may be when others take her place at the directorial helm, things don't work as well. I hope that next season fares better than this one.

William Finn heads the workshop which produces new musicals like this one. He teaches at NYU. The products of the workshop seem to have a common theme and flavor. 'Clever' is the word that springs to mind. I think more variety of style would produce a more interesting group of songs and shows.

But this is only my opinion. We are lucky to have Barrington Stage in the area. I hope that it pulls itself together and has a great season next summer.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Sad Commentary on our Times

A dear old friend of mine from my days in New York City years ago used to say when something untoward happened, 'It's a sad commentary on our times'.

I was recently asked to perform with a young singer at a benefit cocktail party. After the food and drink and a couple of speeches, we were announced and she began to sing.

People continued talking as if someone had merely turned on a radio. One woman actually finally said 'We are really enjoying your singing even though we're talking.'

No kidding.

Apparently people have become so used to having background music in elevators, super markets, and their IPods, that the idea of a real person singing before them is an oxymoron.

Even at the Met, there is always some idiot in the balcony who screams out 'Bravi' before the last high note is out of the tenor's mouth.

I remember seeing Christa Ludwig sing 'Morgen' of Richard Strauss a few years back. At the end, during the piano postlude, she stood with her eyes closed and her hands clasped before her. No one dared utter a sound until she moved one finger, at which point, there was an ovation.

I have seen the same thing happen with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. At the end of performances of her husband's incredible Neruda Songs, no one dared clap for several seconds.

I realise that these cases are more formal venues than singing at a cocktail party, but talking so loudly while someone is singing that the pianist can't hear the singer is really beyond the pale.

Miss Manners, please help!!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sing On! Sing On!, and she did!

One of the most beautiful voices on the stage today. Cornflower blue eyes that matched the stunning necklace she wore with her black ensemble. Angelic blond hair. She strode on stage to thunderous applause and proceeded to wow the packed house at the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barington, Massachusetts. Her voice is a little lower but no less appealing, she is a good bit larger than her days as 'Marian the Librarian', but Barbara Cook is a hard act to follow. Oh, she's 83!

We were lucky enough to be in the front row for tonight's performance and I'm so glad we were. For an hour and a half Barbara Cook commanded the stage, backed by her very able trio. No 'Glitter and be Gay' anymore, but a wonderful repertoire of songs by an amazing panoply of composers. Her intense investment in each song was palpable. In one sad song by Alec Wilder, tears slipped down her cheeks. This is hard to fake on stage.

Her voice, now singing in a lower tessitura, still held that youthful beauty I remember when I saw her in The Music Man and She Loves Me all those years ago. Her patter was as intriguing as her singing. She lambasted Catherine Zeta Jones for her performance in A Little Night Music; a well-deserved criticism. I heard Jones sing 'Send in the clowns' on the Tonys and couldn't believe that she was given the award for best actress in a musical! As Barbara said: 'I have never seen so much acting going on on any stage!'. Acting but no singing.

Barbara Cook, on the other hand, is all about singing. It is rare to find a singer at 83 years of age who can convince you she is 23! But Barbara does it in spades.

Many of her songs were familiar show tunes but she also had chosen some really 'out-there' pieces, which she delivered with verve.

Needless to say, there was a standing ovation at the end of the show from the packed house. What is it that keeps us old timers coming back on stage? Yes, I place myself in the same generation as Barbara and I, too, am still performing. It's the love that floods over us from the audience as we stand there in a spotlight having done what we were born to do.

I wrote a book called Sing On! Sing On! some years ago. It is all about keeping one's voice beautiful and healthy right into what I now laughingly call OLD AGE. I doubt if Barbara ever read it, but she didn't need to. Here's to lots more years of hearing her sing as beautifully as she did tonight.

At one point she remarked that she has been told that she was a part of the Golden Age on Broadway. She said she didn't realize that at the time. She was too busy worrying about her hair and her figure. She said that when she looks back at pictures of herself from that era, she looked gorgeous. She then said ,'I guess when I'm a hundred and two, I'll look back at today and think the same thing.' No question!! Sing On...and on and on, Barbara!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Le nozze di Figaro, old style

Yesterday we decided to watch a DVD of Le Nozze di Figaro that was filmed at Glyndebourne in 1973. I had watched it before, but it reminded me of the wonderful singing that was going on in that generation of artists. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was directed by John Pritchard and the cast included Knut Skram in the title role, Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna, Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, Benjamin Luxon as the Count and Frederica von Stade as Cherubino. Now where would you find a cast like that today?

Remarkable singing was the norm in this performance. Knut Skram, the Norwegian baritone sang with a fine vocal technique and physical agility that made him an ideal Figaro. The wonderful Ileana Cotrubas impressed me again as one of the finest lyric sopranos I have ever heard. Her beauty of tone was matched by her flawless technique. She was radiant in the role. I saw her many times at the Met and was always impressed with her artistry.

Kiri Te Kanawa was elegant and in fine voice as the Countess. This was relatively early in her career, as it was with the other singers, and she has gone on to become a legend in Mozart and Strauss operas. Her Marshallin was a joy to remember. Her recent brief appearance at the Met in La Fille du RĂ©giment showed some wear on the voice, but she brought off what is usually just a speaking role brilliantly and added a song, which the Duchess doesn't usually sing.

My good friend, Ben Luxon, was in his glory as the Count. His rich baritone voice and his amazing presence on stage, electrified the role. Frederica von Stade was in her prime as Cherubino and sang very well.

The thing that struck me about the singing was that, especially in the case of the sopranos, no one seems to be able to sing like that any more. Seamless lines, natural vibrato, gorgeous spinning tone. Today's crop of Divas seems to go for loud and wobbly. Bring back the good old days!

I know that I have been spoiled by the wonderful singers I have heard in my 80 years, but this listening experience brought back many happy memories of the Golden Age of singing, 20th Century style. Today's young singers should listen to some of these great artists who no longer are on the operatic stage. Some of today's voice teachers should probably do the same!