Monday, September 1, 2014

Lessons Learned by Sondheim

Posted on  by Mark Stoddard

In 1973′s original Broadway production of Steven Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, critics whined that Glynis Johns’s voice was just too “unprofessional” and not the kind of voice suited to sing “Send in the Clowns.” Sondheim responded by stating, “I’ll always cast an actor over a singer.”

Which brings me to Les Miserables, the movie. It seems to have made some opera aficionados miserable. They can’t wait to castigate the singing performances. Alas, it’s time for some lessons for the opera and classically trained world from Les Mis. Hard to swallow but essential for the survival and growth of great music.

1. Story and Characters Matter. 
Voce, Voce, Voce is a non-sequitur.
Iain Scott of OPERA CANADA MAGAZINE wrote,
“Rossini said it best when he noted that the three most essential ingredients of Italian opera are Voice, Voice and Voice. Italian opera is all about singing, or rather about showing off the capabilities of superbly trained singers. It celebrates the proposition that the human voice is the greatest of all musical instruments.”

Musical theater and especially musical film is NOT Italian opera. Voice on film is not a statue performance like so much of opera, but is often the least important part of the film. A means to an end.

Musical Theater is about characters and story. Mitzi Gaynor was pummeled by voice critics because of her simplistic voice in South Pacific, especially when compared to Rossano Brazzi as Emile, the plantation owner. But Brazzi’s voice wasn’t used for the movie either — it was Giorgio Tozzi. Of course the selection of Brazzi was also decried by some over the great voice of the Emile from stage. Such convoluted conversations miss the point. Those cast were cast because they could best portray the character and move the story along. Voices are added to finish the picture.

So forget about castigating the movie because you didn’t like the gravelly voice of Russell Crowe, or comparing Hathaway to any number of great voices who have sung Fontine’s pleadings in “I Dreamed a Dream.” It might bring out the critic in you, but it accomplishes nothing and valuable lessons are lost.

2. Audience matters. The makers of the movie knew precisely who their audience was: people who had loved the countless stage versions, or the 10th and 25th Anniversary Specials rolled out by PBS. They knew they had a winner IF they remained true to the general script. And they did, and audiences have flocked to the film. The film will easily gross $200 million more than it cost. They knew their audience and played to their audience. People who have nothing on the line are free to whine about how culturally uncouth people are and how they lack the sophistication to appreciate their brand of entertainment, but people who put their money on the line tend to pay attention to what their audience wants and delivers.

3. Words matter. Some have stated that today’s audiences won’t sit for several hours, won’t listen to music and they are ignorant as to the meaning of operas. Nonsense. Les Mis was 2 hours and 37 minutes. Many operas people won’t attend are an hour or so long. So why don’t people show up in droves for even a shorter opera (let alone a Ring)? Because today’s opera leaders keep insisting they are the librarians, caretakers or docents of opera and refuse to translate the opera’s into a language people understand. Instead they become opera funeral directors.

Les Mis in English is a compelling story that people can listen to and love. Great stories of the operas are nearly as compelling, but to speak down to your audience and demand they either read the words or learn them before they come, or, worst of all, just enjoy the voices even though you haven’t a clue what they’re singing is a recipe for driving audiences away. And no one has done a better job alienating audiences as opera aficionados.

When I worked in the Soviet Union, opera performances were sold out and pervasive. Young people came… because the music was grand and ALL of the Italian, French, and German famous operas were all translated into Russian. They understood the words. Superscript was never considered. Speak so I can appreciate the story. Story, Story, Story, Rossinni.

4. Rising tides lift all boats. I was pillared by opera folks for recommending people see Phantom of the Opera; yes, the one with the dubious voice of Gerard Butler. But I stand by that recommendation because I understand that a Phantom that makes money, encourages other producers to take a chance on other musical-themed movies. Right now is the worst time in the past 100 years for music in movies. As soon as the Jazz Singer gave life to music in movies, Hollywood has responded with a plethora of musicals. 

The 50’s and 60’s were the heyday. Phantom was better than many of those musicals and has a great story, great characters and some very nice voices (some less so, but, so what).

Encouraging people to go to a movie they could enjoy with music helps to continue the trend. Next up was obviously Les Mis and the producers said they saw that Phantom making money was a good omen. Les Mis is now inspiring other theatrical entrepreneurs to consider the next music movie. I hope they succeed. So I encourage people to keep the movement going.

5. Marketing the Arts requires nurture. Similar to the thoughts above, to encourage artists requires audiences who will love and nurture them. Opera aficionados have a tendency to eat their young through withering critical gorging spasms. Critics have little value. 

As Teddy Roosevelt stated at Versaille, “It is not the critic who counts,.. but, the one who is in the arena, who actually strives to do great things… whose face is marred by dust and sweat… matters.” I suppose it makes critics feel superior to point out flaws, but it does no good.

I regularly invite young artists to our home to perform. Some do well, others less so, but all get a chance to improve. Performing does that. Let’s encourage performance. The more they perform the better they can get.

Bottom line: Go enjoy Les Mis. It’s a well told great story and one of the greatest Christian message films ever made; justice vs. mercy, redemption, repentance, absolution, love, atonement and forgiveness in the face of blistering attacks. Victor Hugo has huge logic gaps in all his stories, but his characters and thematic payoff is so strong that audiences continue to flock to variations made on his themes.

Lessons learned some time ago by Sondheim.

First Posted 8/19/2013

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