Thursday, September 30, 2010

Broadway in Boulder

This weekend I'm off to Boulder, Colorado to participate in the sixth Susan Porter Memorial Symposium, this year focusing on "Classic Broadway and Those Who Built it." My talk stems from my ongoing obsession/fascination with the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" sequence in The King and I, which if you haven't seen, is really something to behold.

Like many Broadway musicals themselves, it's an odd duck, using less than ideologically pure means (minstrel-like conventions and the legacy of the Uncle Tom Show) for ostensibly politically liberal ends. A "puzzlement" indeed, as the King might put it. Especially when you consider it in the context of other, less self-consciously troubled minstrel numbers from the era, such as this killer routine from, of all places, White Christmas.

Indeed, there's something about Vermont and minstrel shows. To cite another movie musical, there's the fantastic "Get Happy" number from Summer Stock. More seriously, but hardly less strange, was Ralph Ellison's encounter with an "Uncle Tom Show" as he was beginning work on Invisible Man in rural Vermont. He famously happened upon:

…a poster announcing the performance of a “Tom Show,” that forgotten term for blackface minstrel versions of Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had thought such entertainment a thing of the past, but there in a quiet northern village it was alive and kicking, with Eliza frantically slipping and sliding on the ice, still trying—and that during World War II!—to escape the slavering hounds.

As for the enduring legacy of minstrelsy, old habits really do die hard. I can only ask you to consider what was the first joke you ever learned to tell. For me, and I would guess many others, it was the old minstrel standard: "-Why did the chicken cross the road? -To get to the other side..." We all, it would seem, have got a bit of minstrel in us...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Glimmerglass and Historically Informed Musical Theater?

The soon-to-be rechristened Glimmerglass Festival just announced plans for its 2011 season, the first under the direction of new General and Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, who will take over as of September 1. Instead of their usual four opera productions, the Festival (notably dropping the word opera...) will henceforth present three operas and one work of American musical theater as part of its summer repertory season. This reconfiguration is interesting enough in and of itself, but they've also added an interesting twist.

It's a fact that opera in America has always operated in tandem with musical theater traditions, and kudos for Glimmerglass for helping to break down the divide between the two genres. And the choice of "Annie Get Your Gun" as their first musical theater offering is telling of their commitment. Had they gone with the more high-arty "West Side Story" or something by Sondheim (where opera companies usually go when they want to go slumming in the non-operatic) we might be more suspicious about the claim. But "Annie" is Broadway all the way...imagine Ethel Merman belting out "Doin' What Comes Nat'rally" at La Scala!

The extra twist is this: per the Glimmerglass press release, the operas and musical will be performed "as intended with full orchestra, large cast and no sound amplification." This will indeed be an interesting experiment, going against the trend of "minimalist" (i.e. less expensive to finance) Broadway productions in recent years, and also taking Broadway into the tricky territory of historically informed performance practice, until recently the province of classical performers. Perhaps the new Glimerglass marketing slogan will be something along the lines of, "Doin' What Comes Authentic'lly."

The claim to "authenticity" (implied in the understated "as intended" of the press release) is of course always dubious, since it's not self-evident that Irving Berlin, much less Georges Bizet, would have ever "intended" their score to be performed a couple of miles from the Baseball Hall of Fame. And as Helmuth Rilling famously quipped, it's great to have period performance practices, but a shame we don't have period audiences. But the claim to authenticity aside, the new profile for Glimmerglass promises to be a worthy experiment. For one we will get to hear what Broadway shows sound like without the microphones. But more important, the Festival can perhaps help chart a middle way for the future of smaller opera companies in the USA. For it's not clear whether anything opera can do, musical theater can do better...or vice versa. So they might as well take a cue from "Annie," and go on with the show, together.