This month’s in-depth look at a particular musical will take a look at the Disney Theatricals musical adaptation of Aida, a show that has always been rather problematic for me but which has a popular following amongst a particular group of musical theatre fans. I am going to endeavour to complete this analysis in about 20 parts, over the course of the month of May.
For those who are unfamiliar with Aida, it is a musical theatre adaptation of the Verdi opera of the same title via a children’s storybook adaptation by Leontyne Price. The book of the musical was written by Linda Woolverton (with Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang), with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from the libretto of the show.
Aida is preceded by an overture (with orchestrations, as throughout the show, by Steve Margoshes) that opens with a dramatic crashing of cymbals, quickly giving way to an urgent bassline that is driven rhythmically by the timpani as a restless rhythm by the strings and guitar plays over the top. A horn, joined almost immediately by flutes, oboe and guitar, cues us into the melody of the “Aida” motif that will become familiar to us later in the play. The signal to us is: “Expect drama, tragedy, something epic”. The overture then adds romance to that mix, by incorporating snippets of “Elaborate Lives” and “Written in the Stars” before leaving us with a quieter rendition of the restless rhythms and melodic motif that opened the overture.
This overture is short, sweet and to the point. Its strength is that it gives a fairly accurate hint as to the dramatic tone of the musical. Its weakness is in the 5 bars that deal with the “Elaborate Lives” introduction. But for those bars, it sounds like we’re being prepared for a lush score in the tradition of the musical play, one that reflects both the dramatic impulses of the world of the play as well as the world of the play itself. For example, there is something North African about that repeated restless rhythm that evokes not only the idea that this musical will be dramatic, but which also points toward the exotic Egyptian setting. The 5 bars of “Elaborate Lives” sound like little more than a poor transition between two primary musical themes, too much like a pop intrusion into the score, rather than as a signal preparing us for a musically eclectic score in which popular music plays an integral role. Less than 2 minutes into the show, Aida already shows signs of an identity crisis.
Act 1: Prologue
The show proper starts off with a prologue, as many of Rice’s musicals are prone to do. What this prologue should do is introduce the characters, the concept and the narrative; and set up the conventions to be used for telling the story in this adaptation of the tale.
The scene is set in a museum, with a mannequin of Amneris presiding over a display of Ancient Egyptian artefacts. The depiction of the scene, from the ‘chic and beautifully dressed’ crowd who are visiting the display, to the displays themselves (‘a model of a soldier with a bow’, ‘an ancient burial chamber’) are realistic and detailed, signalling the manner in which we should invest in the drama and what expectations we might have of it. A musical play in the mode made popular by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, perhaps, rather than a musical comedy. Two of the crowd – who we will very soon realise are the reincarnated spirits of Aida and Radames – are drawn to the tomb and the meeting of their eyes sets in motion the action of the play. This communicates that we are here to be enlightened, in line with our expectations of this production as a musical play, on the nature of true love. The idea of enlightenment, as opposed to mere entertainment, is another convention of the musical play, so it seems that our expectations are confirmed even further. Perhaps what cements our expectations is the sound of a flute, creating a mystical, North African sound that also falls in line with the conventions followed by the musical play.
But then, a synth takes over, the atmospheric flute gives way to pop music-style chords and a drumbeat and Amneris begins to sing. Perhaps this isn’t a musical play in the Rodgers and Hammerstein mode after all. A rock opera, then? An almost completely sung-through form of musical theatre, allowing for a few moments of isolated speech, with an eclectic mix of musical styles not always logically related to the era in which the narrative takes place and episodic storytelling that alternates elaborate sung scenes that may be complex in their composition (see “A New Argentina in Evita or “What’s the Buzz?” in Jesus Christ Superstar) and intimate, introspective solo moments that communication the emotional states of being of the characters involved (see “On My Own” in Les Misérables or “Pity the Child” in Chess). All right, that could work – though I’m not certain why a rock opera would require three librettists credited to the writing of the book. Let’s go with it.
The first song, “Every Story is a Love Story”, frames the story with an overt message that we are meant to take away from this play. Rice’s lyrics incorporate a sloppy tautology in the second line. The structure of this song uses the titular phrase, substituting a number of synonyms and descriptive phrases for the word ‘story:’
Every story, tale or memoir,
Every saga or romance
Whether true or fabricated
Whether planned or happenstance…
All are tales of human failing,
All are tales of love at heart.
Is there anyone who doubts that a romance is anything but a love story? Rice also tends towards overly literal and crass descriptions that work against the ethereal quality evoked by the music and perhaps even compromise the character of Amneris through the use of language that doesn’t seem to be suited to her, like ‘just a thirty-minute ride’ or ‘rough and ready’. Both are easy and clichéd euphemisms for sex and one wonders if that is in alignment with the Romantic conventions that this story will have to use because of its very nature. Certainly, the point of this adaptation doesn’t seem to be the reduction of the narrative and its themes to one that deals with basic human instincts, so is there any justification for including references such as these. The latter is meant to offer contrast to the lyric, ‘finely spun’, so something like ‘roughly woven’ would have worked better here: it has a better dramatic texture, sings more easily and doesn’t deny that sex is related to love, but like the narrative of the rest of the play does, it keeps it in the subtext where it belongs in this particular story.
These four quatrains conclude with the idea stated in the title, but not before saying that all stories are ‘tales of human failing’. This lyric caught my eye because it indicates attitude, one that is subjective and pessimistic. Does love offer no triumph at all? Or is it only through great endurance that humanity is able to make a success of love? It’s an interesting idea, and it does line up with the idea behind this framework with the spirits of Aida and Radames having survived the ages to meet in a place and time where they finally can be together.