Top Ten 'Old' Stuff I saw/heard in 2010 (part 1 of 5)
1. The Sopranos: The Sopranos does not mark a beginning, it marks an end. In The Sopranos we see the end of America’s fascination with organized crime, the end of America’s white immigrant working class, the end of trust in the nuclear family, and the end of America’s illusions about the price of success. It is, in every way, a show about deaths. It does not glorify the importance of death, a la Six Feet Under, but it does accept death as life’s natural end. It does not glorify violent people as misunderstood, a la The Godfather, but it allows us to see violent people as humans who have redeeming qualities weighted against their brutality. But whatever else The Sopranos is, it‘s above all a moral parable about humanity’s desire to convince itself that we act in good faith in spite of all evidence to the contrary. We invariably slump into our seats a little as Tony is ‘forced’ to kill friend after friend, Paulie turns violent after the slightest insults, Carmela finds an infinite number of excuses to maintain her lifestyle by staying with Tony, Christopher puts off his desire to find something better than mob-life, and hundreds of peripheral characters who are drawn to the danger of criminals like flies to shit. Like Westerns before them, images about the mafia are embedded in the American DNA. At their beginning both Westerns and Mafia movies glamorized outlaws by portraying them as taking what more privileged people refused to give. As time went on, both gradually exposed the rot behind that myth, until finally a work came along that exploded our illusions finally and forever. In Westerns, it was late John Wayne’s movies like The Searchers or True Grit which showed the hatred and bigotry that motivated the Old West. In mafia movies, we went from the paean to organized crime that was The Godfather to the pathos of Godfather II, to the uneasiness of Goodfellas. And finally, here was a piece that made us realize how dangerous it is to view criminals as heroes even as we became ever more drawn to them. With every season, we become more complicit in the evil perpetrated on the screen. And by exposing the rot at the core of our desire to see glory in violence, The Sopranos both became an elegy for an enormous chunk of the American Dream, and a Premium Cable Requiem for the dominance of a medium that made us feel the American Dream so intensely.
2. Company: I saw Stephen Sondheim’s Company when I was fifteen at a college performance. It was an eminently forgettable affair.......seriously, I forget everything about it. Most Sondheim is beyond the understanding of adolescents, but no show proves more over-the-head of immature people than Company. Sondheim is not comprised of tunes that narcissistic music-theater fans can belt, nor are his shows (or should his shows be..) virtuoso displays for set designers. Sondheim’s shows are written for adults with adult problems. It goes without saying that the sheer craft of the wordplay is beyond the comprehension of most music theater buffs, but the real miracle is the fact that the wordplay is married to so much dramatic meaning.
Company is a perfect musical. Not since Mozart has music theater ever had a composer who can hold form, humor, pathos, design, love of life, and melancholy in such impeccable balance. The musical is a series of vignettes, each of fundamentally equal length and packed with equally intricate emotional complexity. Like The Marriage of Figaro, it is one of those exceedingly rare pieces of theater that isn’t about the people we wish to be or fear being - it’s about us exactly as we are. But Mozart only repeated his operatic miracle three or four times. Sondheim has done it at least a dozen times over. At this point, who knows? By the 90's it may have made him the most accomplished writer for the theater since Shakespeare himself.