Wednesday, May 2, 2018

It's Not Even Past #20 - The Crisis of What is Art Part 4 - West Side Story - Rough Form - Everything I've Ever Written About WSS

As cinematic as New York is, it can’t hold a candle to the amazingly cinematic vistas and open spaces of the Western United States. New York is ultimately not a place for movies, it's a theatrical one. I don’t need to tell you that everything about New York is over-the-top, you’ve all been there and seen the buildings, the people, the music, the clothes, the dirt and shit, the ever-appealing presence of sex and the ever-haunting specter of death.  Everyone in New York is there to play a part, eager to say their peace and then some to whoever is around to listen, and perhaps they’re so eager to speak because nobody else wants to listen.

It also helped that Sondheim worked in an era when economics were entirely different. When he began his career in the early fifties, the price of a balcony ticket at a Broadway Show was barely two dollars! Two dollars! Today, two dollars is less than the surcharge you pay for ordering Broadway tickets online. Even as late as the mid-1970’s, fifteen dollars was considered an extremely expensive ticket. 

What this meant for artistic quality is that Sondheim could gauge the tastes of the average theatergoer far more reliably than any Broadway songwriter of our day. To be sure, the average theatergoer was far more educated than the average American, but the average American theatergoer was simply middle class couples, with the husbands receiving an unremarkable college education provided by the GI bill. Their tastes were too plain for the grandeur of classical music, too white for challenging jazz, and too unrebellious for rock. They grew up on ‘white jazz.’ One might think that such an audience would limit what theater composers could do, and perhaps it did. So many musicals of the Rodgers and Hammerstein ilk, considered so revolutionary in their day, now seem penny plain and generic. 

What this meant for Sondheim was that he could learn his craft in the Golden Age of the Musical and the twilight of the Great American Songbook. In a manner no rock musician ever needed to, Sondheim had to learn precisely what made songs stay in the memory. The difference in age between Sondheim and Bob Dylan is only eleven years, but the gap in approach between the two is as long and wide as an ocean. Sondheim is all craft, Dylan is all intuition. By the time Dylan was thirty-five, most of his greatest songs were already written. At the same age, Sondheim was only getting started. 

As the decades wore on, Broadway lost its audience to Rock. This new audience inhibited a musician like Dylan terribly, who is by all accounts most comfortable in small, appreciative clubs. Dylan was thrust into the role of poet-seer for his generation, and at the same time subject to market forces that made the hermetic enigmas of meaning in his songs exasperating to a mass audience. 

But as Dylan struggled, Sondheim thrived ever more. The raise in ticket prices alienated the general Broadway audiences from traditional musicals. If the general public paid more, they wanted to know they were getting more for their dollars, so they thrilled to the movie-like spectacle of Andrew Lloyd Webber productions; about which it was commented that “you go home singing the scenery.” 

By the age of 30, Sondheim already did the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy - the two of which many people still regard as the zenith of the entire artform. In his early 30’s, he added a third masterpiece at the generally accepted zenith of American Musical Theater for which he wrote both the lyrics and music: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And yet it was only in the 1970’s, in his 40’s, that Sondheim transcended more than simply a composer of musicals into the creator of an entirely new and still undeveloped kind of theater. 

The (relatively) more expensive ticket prices of the 70’s meant that a genius like Sondheim was free to appeal to a more educated audience. As the ticket prices went up, Sondheim became ever more experimental, ever more searing, ever more profound. In the early 70’s, he’d done the music and lyrics for a second trilogy whose depth left the first trilogy in the shade. 

In 1970 was Company, the American Non-Marriage of Figaro or a Mid-City Night’s Dream, a realistic and dramatic work so utterly perfect that there doesn’t seem a single word or note out of place. Just the next year came Follies, a musical about retired showgirls which parodies the empty cliches of the old style songs and the heartlessness of show business without mercy. Two years later followed A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night - another perfect work. Taking place in 1900, it uses the artificialities of opera to capture all of opera’s soaring longings without any of opera’s bombast. Three years thereafter is Pacific Overtures, a Japanese-style work about American imperialism, a work so experimental you wonder if it could possibly be by the same composer. Three years thereafter, Sweeney Todd, a horror musical about a serial killer in 19th century London. According to some the ‘Great American Opera’, to others  (clearly including Tim Burton) it’s a grand and fun melodrama. To me, Sondheim’s answer to Greek Drama - for all its macabre humor, it has a pessimism about fate that is positively Sophoclean. Two years later comes Merrily We Roll Along, which I’ve actually neither seen nor heard at all yet.

'But then comes the 1980’s, and the full splendor of a Shakespearean genius. After the failure of Merrily, Sondheim was ready to give up completely. Instead, he ascends to a still higher level of genius - one that becomes positively Shakespearean. In 1984: Sunday in the Park with George about the French artist, Georges Seurat, in which Sondheim positively announces that he will be a creator ‘for ever.’ 

And then, three years later, comes Into the Woods, a musical about Fairy Tales in which the sugary pap of Disney is utterly upended and crushed. For me at least, this is perhaps the greatest, most perfect and virtuosic, most profound work of theater since King Lear. I’m very serious when I say that there are moments when this endlessly inventive work strikes me as even beyond places Shakespeare goes. 

In 1990, we come to Assassins, an American Macb-th or Gotterdammerung, a theatrical black hole,  apocalyptic enough to haunt you with fears about what humanity is capable. Finally, to Passion, the American Tristan, a work about love and obsession that is almost like a final consummation. After Passion, what greater intensity was there to capture?

The diversity of what these works require from a creator is impossible for the rest of us to conceive. Like in Shakespeare and Mozart, you can’t really find Sondheim in the characters. Perhaps Sondheim’s persona is present in Bobby from Company, but there still remains the problem that Sondheim is gay while Bobby seems quite contented to ‘remain’ straight. The only exception real exception in which you truly feel the character speaks for Sondheim is in Georges Seurat, whose main quality as an individual is that he seems autistically obsessed by his work to the exclusion of everything else in his life. I doubt anybody would ever accuse Sondheim of autism - he comes across in interviews as superbly communicative and empathetic towards people, but you could never get a sense of his personality from his characters - all you can tell is that they appear to him from places of infinite empathy and craft. 

Like Shakespeare and Mozart, no matter what intensity lies in store, there is almost always a return home to balance, with no perceivable dogma or agenda, just an infinite-sided creative self that has no desire to do anything but bring the audience to a place of infinity. I don’t know if he will be remembered as our Shakespeare, our Tolstoy, our Michelangelo, but we’ll never produce anyone better.

Miller and Williams were both dinosaurs by the time they were fifty. When American movies were as good as they began to be in the late-60’s, there was no reason for theater to merit people’s attention. Year by year, more of the best talent went westward to California, and Broadway had the ‘leavings.’ During the first half of the century, if you wanted to understand America, you had to spend some time in New York or Chicago; but in the second half, you had to spend that time in the West.

In the following generations, if you were at gifted writer of dialogue, it was almost a given that you went into movies, not theater. A screenwriter doesn’t have nearly as much power as a playwright, but in today’s world, a successful screenwriter makes thousands of times more money and has an audience thousands of times as large. Even if the power dynamic between director and writer is reversed in movies, it is this very reversal which ensures that the director who interprets his work will be hundreds of times more competent than the directors who generally get their hands on a playwright’s work in the theater.

Generally speaking, to be a writer in contemporary America that devotes himself to the theater rather than film or TV, you either have to be one of three things: insane, mediocre, or of a specialty much narrower than an American. Arthur Miller understood what it meant to write plays that speak for the American everyman, but if you asked him to write about any other subject, he wouldn’t know how to do it. In an era when the world is dominated by niches, a work of art can’t plausibly presume to speak for everyone. 

I'm sure I was far from the only person in the audience who feels that way. West Side Story is so much a part of the American DNA that it's impossible to go through life in America without encountering it at all sorts of felicitous moments. If you've never heard a song from it, you might as well have never heard Bob Dylan or James Brown. And yet, since my childhood, West Side Story had very little to do with my life, yet it was such a prominent part of my life's fabric until I was 14 that it never felt as though it left me. All through the time I familiarized myself with Company and Sunday in the Park with George, with Candide and the Jeremiah Symphony, playing in the pit for Wonderful Town and screwing up the violin solo in the Chichester Psalms, watching Bernstein's Mass in Baltimore with stinking revulsion and Sweeney Todd in London with unalloyed joy, the score of West Side Story which I could practically sing and orchestrate from memory was there. Yet this weekend was the first truly sustained acquaintance I've had with the show in nearly twenty years, and what a weekend it was...

The problem is, Leonard Bernstein hated the movie music, and accused the orchestrator of destroying his score. It's not a completely unfair accusation. The movie 'overture' completely destroys the shock of a Broadway Musical beginning with a ballet of gang warfare. The 'Somewhere' ballet sequence is completely cut out, and songs as wonderful as 'One Hand, One Heart' and 'A Boy Like That' are hacked to pieces. Every potentially controversial line which Sondheim wrote is replaced by something thoroughly bland so that it doesn't offend the delicate sensibilities of Middle America. But it's also true that some scenes are better than in the original score - America is better when sung and danced by the entirety of the Sharks and not just their women, Officer Krupke and Cool switch places for the movie, and the switch makes far more sense than the original order. 

But there are other problems - most importantly, the movie itself isn't that great. As the central pairing, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood kind of stink. They suck out all the energy of their scenes together. Marlon Brando was eager to play Tony, and even if he was nearly 40, he'd have been a much better choice to play a street tough gone soft than this no-name would be matinee idol who resembles no one so much as Zeppo Marx. But at least Beymer had an adequate voice. Natalie Wood couldn't even sing her part and Marni Nixon had to be brought in every day to anonymously cover for her bad singing. As for her acting, she's at least better than Beymer. Though if she were acting next to Brando, god knows if she could have kept up. Perhaps the pair that was meant to be was Wood and James Dean reuniting for the first time since Rebel Without A Cause (a movie whose influence on the musical cannot be overestimated), but by the time this movie was made, Dean had been dead for almost six years. If the movie has a great performance, it's George Chakiris as Bernardo, and the movie never recovers after he dies. Rita Moreno is good as Anita, but not as great as people say - using her energetic body language to convey a "stock Latina" rather than a fully individual character.

But some of the problems can't even be blamed on the movie. The score is amazing, but it's schizophrenic - two musicals in one. Leonard Bernstein was fully able to create the jazzy Gershwin-like atmosphere of the streets, and when the play demanded Verdi-like operatic love, Bernstein provided the required over-the-top passion in spades. The problem is that this over-the-top passion has no place in a show like West Side Story. It is a pre-modern sentiment within an entirely modern story. In an era of arranged and shotgun marriages, when marriages of convenience were the norm, love as it’s experienced on the pre-20th century stage was the norm. Most people experienced (or expected to experience) a few days of true love in their lifetimes. So the immediate declarations and the extravagant sentiments of those scenes were probably much truer to their experience than it is to ours. But West Side Story demanded something much less mawkish than it was provided.

Much has been made of the fact that Arthur Laurents's book (script) is not up to the standard of the rest of the show. The truth is, Laurents's book is great - except when it isn't. He has the full measure of these violence-crazed, oversexed street thugs who secretly harbor true intelligence, but when fancies turn to thoughts of love, he has no idea what to do. Tony has got to be one of the stupidest characters ever written by a playwright, and the script gives no indication that he was ever anything but a love-crazed wimp who fell for Maria because of some kind of supernatural sign. Maria is a much, much more well-developed character - always the more pragmatic-minded of the lovebirds. Laurents was the only member of the creative team who wasn't a certifiable genius. But what American playwright of the era could possibly have equalled the other three. Arthur Miller? Tenessee Williams? Neither would have been right for it - Miller would never have understood how to write about love, Tenessee Williams would never have understood how to write about street smarts. Maybe some of the golden-age Hollywood screenwriters could have done it. What about the Epstein Brothers who wrote Casablanca? There's a team who understood both love and the streets!

The truth is that the great glory of West Side Story was always the dancing. The whole show was Jerome Robbins's idea, and there had never been a 'serious' musical in which dancing was so crucial to a show's success. Robbins's choreography was always like an encyclopedia of dance styles - the Dance at the Gym has the rival gangs trying to control the whole stage with the Sharks rhumba-ing while the Jets do the Chicken, or think of Fiddler on the Roof when the Russian peasants weave a Kazatzky through the raised arms of Hassidic Jews dancing the Hora..Jerome Robbins, like Leonard Bernstein, was a genius who killed his own talent. Both of them thought that Broadway was beneath them, and strove mightily to create masterpieces in their respective classical corpuses which eluded them for the entirety of their careers. They never understood that rhe classical worlds of music and ballet as they envisioned them never existed, nor would it ever. Broadway was, in fact, the American classical world. Because regardless of genre, greatest masterpieces are as populist in nature as they are elite, representing the perfect fusion of intellect and emotion. The 20th century classical world was simply to stuffy to accommodate anything which smacked of emotion, just as many more popular groups are too stupid to accommodate anything which smacks of intellect. It is generally agreed that Bernstein or Robbins never created anything so memorable for the concert hall and ballet stage as they did on Broadway, and when they left Broadway, Broadway never had a chance for a plethora of achievements to equal the best in film and popular music. But their absence did pave the way for one towering figure to accomplish alone what no creative team ever did.

Stephen Sondheim is the closest thing we've had in nearly half-a-millenium to a theatrical figure whose achievement equals Shakespeare - and the fact that he did it at a moment when the appeal of live theater seems on the wane makes his achievement that much more miraculous. Unlikely as it currently seems, it may transpire that live theater could soon be obliterated completely by movies, television, the internet, and virtual reality. And if that (admittedly) unlikely historical event happens, Sondheim will be remembered as the last true theatrical genius. But in West Side Story, we barely have any idea of what his talent has in store for us. His hands were completely tied in this work. There were so many 'wrong' moments in West Side Story that his genius could barely show through. How could he possibly turn songs like 'Maria' and 'I Feel Pretty' into something cosmic when the sentiment was completely wrong for the show's plot? When the show gets modern in moments like 'America' and 'Officer Krupke', we see him reaching out to his full powers, but when the show turns pre-modern, all he could do is write lyrics which sound as dumb as in any 19th century opera. For years, people wondered why Robbins, Sondheim, and Bernstein didn't team up again. When they began a failed attempt in the late 60's to adapt a Brecht play into a musical, Sondheim was immediately asked why they hadn't tried to collaborate since West Side Story. His answer was one word: "Wait..."

The fact remains, West Side Story is the Great American Show. The Citizen Kane of American theater – the summit to which every piece of theater before was leading, and every piece since was a reaction. The one-off moment when America’s three greatest young theatrical talents put their titanic egos aside to make a musical together. The result was a sublime achievement on a level that in so many ways has never been equaled in the history of America – a seemless fusion of dance and song, a perfect melding of grand opera with popular idiom, and most importantly, a piece that speaks to the entirety of the American experience; both native and immigrant, on a level that no other piece of theater ever equaled, and perhaps never could. It gives the poorest and crassest of America’s residents a high dignity that humanizes them to people who’d cross the street to avoid these characters. And yet, it’s also totally ridiculous… with gang members speaking in a mixture of slang that probably dated already in 1957 and bad love poetry.

If West Side Story has coherence, we haven't found it yet. And like most great works, every performance has been stunningly inadequate to the task of capturing its full power. The original cast album is still the best, but it feels like a rough draft. The performers are probably better than any since have been, but the details of Bernstein's writing are completely glossed over with bad cuts, shoddy playing from a too small orchestra, and tempos that are clearly faster than Bernstein and Sondheim intended. The movie versiongets lots of things more right than the original, with dancing that's even more involved than the original choreography, and but where it goes wrong it's a travesty. Bernstein's own recording of the complete score is both a miracle and a grotesque disaster. The sheer detail of the orchestral parts come through as never before, and the love music is so utterly beautiful that it's difficult not to be moved to tears by it. But Bernstein made a fatal decision - it would be sung by opera singers. Tony was sung by Jose Carerras with a thick-as-oil Spanish accent (!), and Tatiana Troyanos sangAnita with all the sexiness of a troll. Bernstein made two recordings of the Symphonic Dances - a suite of orchestral music from the score - the first was incredibly sloppy, the second was drained of vitality. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Symphonic Dances much better than Lenny ever did. The 2009 revival at least doesn't rush the tempos ahd contains great dancing, but the orchestra's smaller than ever, and the singing is as bad as on Bernstein's recording. Rather than too operatic, the revival version sounds as though sung by the cast of Glee or Rent - with vibrato-less belting and sliding into notes galore. I have yet to hear much of the 1980 revival, but what I've heard has some enormous strengths. Maybe it succeeded where the others failed, but I doubt it. 

Much, much more successful are the jazz takes on West Side Story. Bill CharlapDave Brubeck, Stan Kenton,Oscar PetersonShirley BasseyBuddy RichChick Corea. Save the original cast recording, every one of these covers is better than virtually any of the classical/Broadway versions we can hear (ok, not Chick Corea...). Jazz saw this score for what it was, a classical olive branch to jazz, and saw all the possibilities of building on Bernstein's achievement. 

There is, unfortunately, something about West Side Story's importance which makes performers either too timid or too ego-driven to do justice to the piece. West Side Story was considered a classic from the moment that unfortunate movie was released. West Side Story has become the first and probably the most important of the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the American Lyric Theater along with Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happend on the Way to the Forum (no doubt a disputable claim) - as important to the American musical theater as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte are to the European (but with Anyone Can Whistle and Candide being potential additions to the center if anybody can ever find convincing ways to stage them). What those three musicals achieved was something that was more than just the achievement of a great individual. It was a triumph, a short-lived triumph, of collaboration.

When talented people go into a room together, it's inevitable that they'll find something about which to disagree strongly. When a collaboration truly ignites, there is no way to keep it on the rails for long, eventually, the ignition explodes. But for those few years when collaborators of genius get together, the results are even better, but it is impossible for a tornado of resentment not to build, and the resentment usually kills the collaboration. Think of Lennon and McCartney, think of Monty Python, think of Gilbert and Sullivan.

But something was in the air at this moment of New York. America was just beginning to stretch its legs to their full cultural reach. The 1950’s was (relatively speaking) the most economically successful, peaceful, hopeful time in America’s history. And this hopeful, peaceful kingdom of happiness required entertainment. But the entertainment got so good that it became art of its own - pushing every conceivable boundary in content and form to which mere entertainment is never supposed to push. The other arts were learning the lesson of movies, and brilliant individuals pooled their talents to make something still more brilliant than any of them could do alone. But these writer’s rooms were so boiling over with talent that all those brilliant individuals could not possibly work together for long. Right at the same time that Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, Jule Styne, and Larry Gelbart were collaborating on musicals; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Gil & Bill Evans were teaming up to make Kind of Blue; Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Michael Stewart, and Woody Allen collaborated to make the original TV sketch comedy - Your Show of Shows; Rod Serling, John Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Arthur Hiller joined forces to create Playhouse 90, a television show with the ambition of competing with the very best of Broadway Theater; Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, and Phil Spector teamed up at Atlantic Records with a who’s who of Postwar musicians to literally create the music of the age; a group of famous actors and singers began hanging out at Humphrey Bogart’s New York house and would eventually become known as ‘The Rat Pack’; a group of gifted students who met at the City College of New York formed the basis of the ‘New York Intellectuals’ and shaped the intellectual discourse of the world by forming journals like The Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent; the Futurians, a group of science fiction afficianados who corresponded since their youths, practically took the science-fiction world by storm and included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Doc Lowndes, Frederik Pohl, and Donald Wollheim. All of these artists went on to brilliant achievements of their own, but it’s arguable that none of them ever achieved such universal appeal alone as they did together, and it’s arguable that never had cultural fare of such intelligence had such universal appeal. But right around the corner lay the 1960’s, John Kennedy, the Civil Rights Marches, the Great Society, the end of the Production Code, Bob Dylan, Lady Chatterly’s obscenity trial, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Beatlemania, and the triumph of individual expression. The classical age of American culture was drawing to a rather glorious end, and in its place would come the Romantic era with its individual expression and cultural scenes and niches. Emphasis in American life on importance of community was replaced with emphasis on the rights of the individual. What was once mass entertainment became Art with a Capital A. The energy which popular entertainment built up by the 1950’s was released in the 1960’s with an explosion of creativity and individuality - even the Movies became a cult of the director’s personality - but the energy released by that decade has subsided considerably. Eventually all that individuality got subsumed by mass entertainment’ more corporate, more generic, and dumber than ever before. It’s possible that more interesting art is being made than perhaps ever before in human history, but who can find the great stuff when there is so much shit around it? And even among the stuff that’s great, how much of it is truly cosmic? How much of it would court lastingness and universality of appeal if it were ever seen and publicized on a large scale? How much of it would still have meaning in 100 years? The difference in quality between West Side Story and even a show as good as The Book of Mormon is the difference between The Marriage of Figaro and Zampa. What... you’ve never heard of Zampa? There’s a reason for that... (nice overture though...)

If you read the back half of our country’s most reputable journals, you’ll inevitably come upon some critic who declares that this next-big-thing, finally, is the ‘Great American Novelist,’ or the ‘Great American Playwright,’ or the ‘Great American Composer.’ But those are the wrong questions. Of course we don’t have a ‘Great American “...”’ America doesn’t “do” novels or plays or symphonies. Don’t get me wrong, we have great novelists and playwrights and composers, but we could never have a single playwright or novelist that means to us what Shakespeare means to England, or what Tolstoy means to Russia, or what Beethoven means to Germany. Europe created the novel, it’s reinvented the theater half-a-dozen times, and the symphony barely ever left Europe.  

But now it is ‘us’ who reinvented theater with the ‘musical.’ And, still around in his mid-eighties, we have a theatrical creator in this country who is the voice of our time as perhaps not even any American filmmaker can equal. There has not been a theatrical artist with Stephen Sondheim’s astonishing proliferation of great work since Ibsen. There has not been a writer for the theater so observant and compassionate for human beings since Chekhov. There has not been a voice of the theater who can make fun out of so much seriousness since Mozart. And there has not been a creator of the theater with this much imagination, this much versatility, this much linguistic inventiveness, since Shakespeare himself.

Like with Shakespeare, Sondheim’s words are like a hallucinogen in which you can immerse yourself to a consciousness altering state. The pure voluptuous pleasure of hearing so many ideas fly past you at light speed is something you can only otherwise get from Shakespeare and Mozart. Yes, Sondheim’s that good, and I envy anybody who has yet to fall in love with his work.

Like Shakespeare and Mozart, like Tolstoy and Beethoven, Sondheim always leads you home. Every dark moment is balanced with a light one, every lofty sentiment with pure vulgarity, every piece of realism balanced with surreal magic. It speaks to the mastery of this creator who holds a mirror up to Nature that Sondheim has the balance which you can only find in the very most immortal.

West Side Story: The Citizen Kane of American theater – the summit to which every piece of theater before was leading, and every piece since was a reaction. The one-off moment when America’s three greatest young theatrical talents: Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim, put their titanic egos aside to make a musical together. The result was a sublime achievement on a level that in so many ways has never been equaled in the history of America – a seemless fusion of dance and song, a perfect melding of grand opera with popular idiom, and most importantly, a piece that speaks to the entirety of the American experience; both native and immigrant, on a level that no other piece of theater ever equaled, and perhaps never could. It gives the poorest and crassest of America’s residents a high dignity that humanizes them to people who’d cross the street to avoid these characters. And yet, it’s also totally ridiculous… with gang members speaking in a mixture of slang that probably dated already in 1957 and bad love poetry, and constant breaking into abstract highbrow ballet whose movements make no sense as often as they do. Such is the unfortunate, confused, ridiculous plight of American theater, which still hasn’t found sure footing 236 years after the founding of the country.

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