May is a mad month. A month of random musings about various topics related to musical theatre. Feel free to share your thoughts on each topic in the comment box below.
The Scariest Song in Musical Theatre
When I think about scary songs in musical theatre, the first show that springs to mind is Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It mean, the scariest song in musical theatre just has to be something from Sweeney Todd. But which one? I find the vamp that plays under “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” truly unsettling. Really scary. And then there is the Judge’s song, though I think this is rather more creepy than scary.
The one I am going to go with is “Epiphany”. When naming this song in such a discussion in the past, I was once told that Sweeney is so unstable throughout the show that this really isn’t really the deeply frightening, revelatory moment that I think it is. My response? I think that assessment somewhat shortchanges both the show and the character. There may be some instability in the character at first, due to what he had experienced in London when he was known as Benjamin Barker, what has happened between then and his return to that city, and the things he has discovered since his return. But there is a clear development from the bitter, hurt and yet hopeful man who returns expecting to find his wife and child waiting for him to the man who realises that this is impossible and then to the ‘demon barber’ he becomes after “Epiphany”. Furthermore, what is absolutely brilliant about Sweeney Todd is that “Epiphany” does not represent him completely losing his mind: it represents a crack in his mind, one which only engulfs him fully in the moment when he realises that the Beggar Woman he cast aside in his first moments in London is his wife. That the character’s development is so much more extended a process makes the loss of his mind all the more human, all the more effective and even tragic when compared to other adaptations of the Sweeney Todd legend (including the Tim Burton adaptation of the stage show itself), which all get lost in the melodrama that is the foundation of the story in its most basic form.
So “Epiphany” it is. Oh, well – I’ll throw in a runner-up for good measure: “Lonely Room” from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma!. There’s a song that also reveals the complexity of what is going on beneath the surface of a character.
So – what would your choices be?
“The Police Agent’s Aria” from The Consul. That was the point when I knew the opera would be awesome. “The Nightmare Duet” is also pretty creepy, but also hauntingly beautiful.
I agree with the sentiment, but opera and musical theatre are not the same thing at all – something all the hysterics protesting the new adaptation of Porgy and Bess from an opera into a musical would do well to remember. There’s a reason why The Consul won Menotti the Pulitzer Prize for Music and not Drama.
First, people are protesting the new Porgy and Bess production because many of the changes are stupid. People have already been producing it as a musical for years before someone got the bright idea to add an accordion to “Summertime.” Besides, I can think of precious few examples where adapting an opera into a musical has been a good idea.
Second, The Consul might not’ve gotten the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but it did win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical. Most of Menotti’s work opened on Broadway under the heading of “music drama,” and I recall at least one book that considered it a musical along the lines of The Most Happy Fella.
Actually, people are protesting the new Porgy and Bess production because Stephen Sondheim wrote an open letter steeped in bias to The New York Times and they are jumping on the bandwagon. Some of the stuff upon which everybody is hysterically basing their bandwagon protest was all out there long before Sondheim wrote his letter, but it was only after his letter was published that other people starting jumping up and down. So what do we get? People who can’t think for themselves screeching about a couple of press quotes and some early notes in a download from the show’s website whose only actual link to the production itself is that they represent one tiny part of the still ongoing process that is creating it. Had any of these people seen the show or even so much as a press reel or bootlegged rehearsal clip? No.
Furthermore, when Porgy and Bess has been produced as a musical previously, it largely has not worked as a musical because it is either simply a shortened opera or a sorry attempt to shift the genre by adding dialogue to the piece, a la Trevor Nunn, without actually re-investigating the relationship between drama and music that defines the piece as an opera in the first place. So frankly, I welcome an attempt that radically re-investigates the nature of the piece rather than applying a few cosmetic changes to the opera and pretending that this is enough to allow the piece to shift from one form to another.
As for the accordion, people to whom I’ve spoken who have actually seen the show as well as those whose reports I’ve read online mostly seem to think it’s a non-issue and that it’s barely (if at all) noticeable in the orchestration. Besides, that’s not the kind of idea that transforms an opera into a musical, but you know that, right?
The new ending is the thing that still seems to bother most people and perhaps this will still shift prior to the show’s opening on Broadway or even during its current run. After all, this is basically the equivalent of and out-of-town tryout. Things change when they are in the process of being adapted. Not everything that originally appears in a production ends up in the final production. If it did, we would still have Carousel opening with Mr and Mrs God instead of the brilliant “Carousel Waltz” and a Camelot than ran longer than four hours.
Your argument that there are few examples where an opera has been adapted into a musical successfully doesn’t erase the fact that there are indeed some, generally ones that have been radical departures in one way or another – so this is perhaps not an entirely futile endeavor.
Finally, to get back to The Consul, I would imagine the basis upon which the New York Drama Critics’ Circle awarded an opera a prize for Best Musical is the fact that it was on Broadway and that they didn’t know how else to acknowledge it at the time, much in the same way that the Tony Awards has awarded Best Musical prizes to shows that are not musicals (like Contact, which was a great show that deserved some recognition, but not in the musical theatre categories) and nominated people involved in those shows for other awards that are traditionally reserved for those involved in musicals. The award from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle clearly had everything to do with the fact that The Consul was a show on Broadway that had music in it and nothing to do with its form itself. It was an award made to an opera at the expense of the musicals of that season simply because it was deemed appropriate by someone that it had to be recognised it some way. I love Menotti, but it isn’t musical theatre.
The thing is – the location of venue does not define the nature of a piece of theatre. When an opera appears on Broadway, it is still an opera. The idea seems to confuse people quite easily, but it is quite simple. When a musical plays in an opera house, it is still a musical. As for the heading of “music drama”, that term or the term “music theatre”, were used historically – certainly during the 1950s – as terms synonymous with opera in a manner distinguishing them from musicals, the difference as it were between “music theatre” and “musical theatre”. As for the book you recall and The Most Happy Fella, there’s certainly a more convincing argument in favour of The Most Happy Fella being a “music drama” than there is in favour of The Consul being a musical – but that’s a discussion for another day.