Tag Archives: Dramatic arts

“West Side story” redux

Darker than a musical comedy, less imposing than an opera, more balletic than a song-and-dance show, West Side story’s tightly integrated movement, drama, design, and music signaled an important shift in U.S. musical theater.

Although its unity and coherence have drawn popular and scholarly attention, further study of the work reveals myriad interpretations and approaches—the inevitable result of a collaborative process. The choreographer Jerome Robbins wanted to create a classic, tragic dance vehicle combining ballet and popular styles; for Leonard Bernstein, it would mark the second attempt at writing the long-sought major American opera.

Torn between conflicting desires for popular success and status as a “serious” composer, Bernstein used eclecticism as a starting point for the creation of an accessible American art music. At the same time, pressure to create something “serious” within the compositional environment of the 1950s seems to have led him to employ the tritone both as a structural tool and a unifying surface detail, as well as reflecting the unusually dark subject matter of the work.

West Side story brought together some of the most prevalent and pressing issues of musical and cultural life of its day, from the New York Puerto Rican “problem” to the insurgence of juvenile delinquency. In addition, Robbins’s strongly ritualistic, tableau-oriented vision, with its privileging of male over female characterization, suggests a reading linking the work to longstanding mythical and literary archetypes—but also bringing up questions of the depiction of gender and ethnicity.

Such archetypes also inform Arthur Laurents’s book, one of the shortest on record for a Broadway musical. As in his other socially conscious works, Laurents mirrored Robbins’s dramatic agenda: the creation of an American mythology of urban life that could be contemporary but also lasting.

This according to West Side story: Cultural perspectives on an American musical  by Elizabeth A. Wells (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-402).

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Academy Award-winning 1961 film of West Side story! Above and below, the film’s much-celebrated Prologue.

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Filed under Dance, Dramatic arts

Sound stage screen

In 2021 the Dipartimento di Beni Culturali e Ambientali at the Università degli Studi di Milano launched Sound stage screen (SSS, ISSN 2784-8949), a biannual, peer-reviewed journal devoted to historical and theoretical research into the relations between sound, performance, and media.

SSS addresses a wide range of phenomena, practices, and objects pertaining to sound and music in light of the interconnections between performing traditions and media archaeologies: from opera to musical multimedia, and from cinema to interactive audiovisual platforms. An open-access journal published in English, SSS wishes to redefine the academic study of music as an open field whose boundaries—historical, geographical, and theoretical—are constantly being negotiated.

Below, the official trailer for Christopher Cerrone’s opera Invisible cities, a work discussed in the inaugural issue.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Dramatic arts, New periodicals

Serenatas for Dublin

Johann Sigismund Kusser (or, as he was known in England and Ireland, John Sigismond Cousser) was a Hungarian-born musician who, after a varied and successful career in the German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, settled in Ireland in July 1707.

In Dublin Kusser composed and directed the performances of at least 21 festive serenatas that marked important state occasions in Dublin between 1709 and his death in late 1727. Presented before the elite of local society in semistaged productions featuring costumes, stage machinery, and dancing, these works functioned as something of an operatic substitute in the city’s cultural life.

In 2020 A-R Editions issued Kusser: Serenatas for Dublin (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2020-1963), a critical edition comprising the three serenatas for which music remains extant. Two of these can be proven definitively to be of Kusser’s own composition, and the third, due to its musical style, overall structure, and subject matter, is almost certainly his creation as well. These works provide remarkably rare musical evidence of a key component of the artistic offerings of Dublin’s viceregal court during the early decades of the eighteenth century.

Below, “Come, lovely peace, the conqu’ror calls” from An idylle on the peace, one of the works included in the volume.

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Filed under Baroque era, Dramatic arts, New editions

Audra McDonald and Lady Day

In an interview, Audra McDonald discussed Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille, for which she won the Best Actress in a Play Tony Award in 2014.

“It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly.”

“I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her—and what is fascinating in this show—is that there is never any self-pity. She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been. I don’t think she sees herself as a victim. And she feels an incredible connection to her music—she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”

“One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I’ve been listening to and watching, even audio of her talking about certain songs, so I have a lot to draw on.”

Quoted in “Audra McDonald to return to Broadway as Billie Holiday” by Patrick Healey (The New York times 26 February 2014; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-89300).

Today is McDonald’s 50th birthday! Below, excerpts from her Tony Awards performance.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Sondheim and “Company”

 

Stephen Sondheim’s Company is considered to be one of the first concept musicals, moving in a different direction from the book musicals of creative teams such as Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The construction of Company combines aspects of a concept musical with a psychological narrative. An investigation of the musical’s dramatic layers furthers a metadramatic understanding of Sondheim’s unique and innovative version of the concept musical—a version that refuses to subjugate character development and emotional accessibility for conceptual didacticism.

This according to “Concept meets narrative in Sondheim’s Company: Metadrama as a method of analysis” by Natalie Draper (Studies in musical theatre IV/2 [2010] pp. 171–83).

Today is Sondheim’s 90th birthday! Above, a photo from around the time Company was produced; below, the show’s climactic song, Being alive, from a 2011 concert production.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Popular music

Lady Jing and cultural heritage

 

Created between 1960 and 1961, Escorting Lady Jing a thousand li (千里送京娘) is a kunqu masterpiece that continuously entertains audiences and stimulates discussions on Chinese opera, gender, and politics.

A mid-twentieth century dramatization of a traditional story, the opera narrates a journey in which the young Zhao Kuangyin, the future founder of the Northern Song empire, escorts the beautiful Lady Jing home, falls in love with her along the way, leaves her to realize his heroic dreams, and vows to return to marry her in the future. Theatrically, the opera makes Chinese men and women ask how they should choose between desire and duty, realizing their personally, socially, and politically enforced gendered roles and values.

Having been performed over five decades, the opera and its performance practices and meanings have evolved, generating changing discussions and interpretations. Its recent performances, for example, underscore sustainability issues of kunqu as a genre of Intangible Cultural Heritage, thereby opening audiences’ ears, eyes, and minds to their Chinese cultures, identities, and politics.

This according to “Escorting Lady Jing home: A journey of Chinese opera, gender, and politics” by Joseph Sui Ching Lam (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI [2014] pp. 114–39). Above the original 1961 production; below, an excerpt from a more recent televised version.

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Filed under Asia, Dramatic arts

“Shuffle along”

 

In 2018 A-R Editions published a new critical edition of Shuffle along, which premiered on 23 May 1921 and became the first overwhelmingly successful African American musical on Broadway.

Langston Hughes, who saw the production, said that Shuffle along marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Both black and white audiences swarmed to the show, which prompted the integration of subsequent Broadway audiences. The dances were such a smash that choreographers for white Broadway shows hired Shuffle along chorus girls to teach their chorus lines the new steps.

The editors have assembled the full score and libretto for this critical edition from the original performance materials, and the critical report thoroughly explains all sources and editorial decisions. The accompanying scholarly essay examines the music, dances, and script of Shuffle along and places this influential show in its social, racial, and historical context.

Above, a publicity photo from 1921; below, a recording from the production that includes the show’s breakout hit I’m just wild about Harry.

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Filed under Black studies, Dramatic arts, New editions, Popular music

Kumi wudui vocal culture

 

Ryūkyūan kumi wudui (組踊, Japanese kumi odori) uses a variety of codified vocal techniques to identify the gender and social class of each character. Degrees of musicality, variation in timbre, and pitch inflection are all understood as emblematic of particular character types.

These vocal techniques are constructed within Ryūkyūan society with reference to the Ryūkyūan language, class system, and gender relationships. Many parallels can be drawn between the ways vocal identities are constructed in kumi wudui vocal culture and in other world theater traditions.

This according to “Listening to the voice in kumiudui: Representations of social class and gender through speech, song, and prosody” by Matt Gillan (Asian music XLIX/1 [winter–spring 2018] pp. 4–33).

Below, some examples of kumi wudui vocal types.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Dramatic arts

An aperitif for Lotte Lenya

 

For the opening of a 1976 exhibit on Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the curator, Don Vlack, created an aperitif inspired by Lenya and named in her honor.

Vlack described the drink, which is made with Mandarine Napoléon liqueur and Kritter Brut sparkling wine, as “very much like the great singer in that it is slightly bittersweet, gentle but potent (even volatile), and is, in color, a light orange, the tint of her hair.”

This according to “Lenya: A moment in history (and a drink)” (Kurt Weill newsletter XXIX/2 [fall 2011] p. 9).

Today is Lenya’s 130th birthday! Above, enjoying her namesake aperitif at the opening reception; below, singing Seeräuber-Jenny, one of her signature songs.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Performers

Trude Rittmann, unsung Broadway hero

 

 

Gertrud “Trude” Rittmann was on her way to becoming one of Germany’s most promising young composers when the rise of Nazism forced her to flee to the United States in 1937.

Through her work as accompanist and music director in the New York ballet world, Rittman met Agnes De Mille; the two subsequently collaborated closely on the creation of dance music for several landmark Broadway shows.

Rittmann also created choral arrangements and underscoring for Richard Rodgers, making major contributions to The King and I, The sound of music, and South Pacific, and she worked on every musical composed by Frederick Loewe, including Brigadoon, My fair lady, and Camelot. One of her finest achievements was the original dance music for the Small house of Uncle Thomas ballet in The King and I, created with the choreographer Jerome Robbins.

This according to “A composer in her own right: Arrangers, musical directors and conductors” by Jennifer Jones Cavenaugh, an essay included in Women in American musical theatre: Essays on composers, lyricists, librettists, arrangers, choreographers, designers, directors, producers and performance artists (Jefferson: McFarland, 2008, pp. 77–91).

Today is Rittmann’s 110th birthday! Below, a performance of Small house of Uncle Thomas in 2012.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Dramatic arts