Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Rant On

Okay, so I'm crotchety. There are some things I like just fine as they were, thank you very much. I mean, what's the point of remaking a film if you're not going to add anything to it? Or covering an old standard if you do a note-for-note and phrase-for-phrase copy of the original? Or if you rip up the original and redo it your way without adding anything much to it?

The three formative albums I listened to as a young child were An Evening with Tom Lehrer, The Fantasticks, and Candide. This explains a lot about me, I'm sure. There were other standards in our household--West Side Story and My Fair Lady, as well as some Rogers and Hammerstein, and any number of my parents' favorites, Sinatra and Streisand and Jobim and Louis Armstrong. Then I started buying records (my first single was "Downtown" by Petula Clark, followed quickly by everything Beatles I could find..). But Tom Lehrer, The Fantasticks, and Candide lodged in my brain; I know those songs and those performances so well that when a breath is out of place it startles me.

Of course, I turned Sarcasm Girl on to all three as early as was reasonable. Candide suits her adolescent snarkiness right now in particular. So when we heard that PBS was showing a staged concert performance we made an appointment to watch. We have now watched. It was a particularly antic production (during the auto da fe number the head of the inquisition shows up to sentence Pangloss to the pyre in the guise of Donald Trump: "Yuh fired!") which worked some of the time. The gags were funny, but they did not permit any emotional engagement at all--and the reason the glorious finale works so well that I can't hear the music without getting teary is that, with all the humor of the show, its events are harrowing enough so that the finale, "Make Our Gardens Grow," is genuinely affecting. The music still got to me--understand, I cry at long distance commercials--but it was the music itself, not anything the production wrought.

But that's not what's bothering me.

The original Candide had music by Leonard Bernstein and a libretto by Lillian Hellman and divers hands (Dorothy Parker added a one liner or two, as did, as near as I can tell, every wit with a pulse at the time). The show did not, as they say, find its audience in Eisenhower America. Twenty years later, give or take, it was staged again; I saw that production, which was wild and vulgar and funny, and still retained an emotional core. The libretto had been largely overhauled by Hugh Wheeler, with some new songs added, others ripped up and reassembled. The production we saw tonight uses the Wheeler libretto, which is now apparently the preferred one (the Hellman libretto has been, um, "retired") and I, for one, don't think it's as good. Not as funny, not as witty, not as true to the book (Sarcasm Girl read the book this fall, and was taking notes on where the plot veered from the original). What makes me sad is that, with the Wheeler libretto now the preferred one, no one is likely to hear the older libretto, certainly not in performance. Which is a shame, dammit.

Perhaps someday someone will hear the original cast album and want to mount a production of the Hellman libretto. Will they be permitted to, I wonder? When you license the rights to a show, are you required to license the preferred version? If you license the preferred version and then, under the radar, revert to the original, would the libretto police hunt you down and beat you with sticks? Pfui.


Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

It is amazing how much things get stuck in our heads. I can't listen to any of the Beatles' greatest hits compilations because I had so many of the original albums that I find I've anticipated the next song on the original album, not the greatest hits. Ditto for Steely Dan Gold which my husband plays.

You know, Lillian Hellman's reputation is so tarnished these days, I think it's going to be even harder to bring back the original libretto.

(I like the style change for the blog.)

5:30 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

(Thanks. I like the look of white on black, but finally decided the readability factor was just not high enough.)

I feel similarly about a lot of revisionist "director's cut" versions of movies, as well as movies which were cut after their first appearance for reasons having nothing to do with the original idea. Okay, so you now have the technology to insert a CGI Jabba the Hutt into Star Wars (which will always be Star Wars to me, not A New Hope). But do you have to? Does it materially improve the film? And why not make it the viewer's choice whether they want the new improved or the classic version (it worked with New Coke and Classic Coke, right?). Grump grump grump.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Like Madeleine, I saw "Candide" when it had its triumphant Broadway (it may actually have been Joe Papp's Public Theatre) revival in the mid-seventies. I knew that it had been first staged twenty years earlier without notable success, but not that the current version was an overhaul.

I can't comment on the merits of the older v. newer version (though, like Mad, I hope that the original remains available in some format besides aging vinyl), but I worry about the attitudes that both Mad and Maureen have expressed, largely because I can tend to share them. New compilations of much-loved LPs from my teens and earlier can leave me feeling vertiginous (especially, as Maureen notes, with the Beatles), and I like the look of 1960s SF paperbacks -- those lovely Ace Specials, the handsome Ballantines, even the echt-genre but appealingly packaged undersized 40 cent Ace paperbacks -- more than those of any succeeding decade.

But I know that someone ten years younger than me feels that way about Seventies styles, and I recognize it for for it is: an inability to appreciate changes in the form or format of things I first loved deeply. This is, finally, nothing more than a lack of resilience: you don't like changes to the way things were when you were young and everything was new and exciting.

This is a very bad attitude, insidious and progressive. Reactionary poops like Jonathan Yardley and Joseph Epstein declaring that modern poetry is no good -- and noting, without seeming to realize the significance of what they are saying, how less worthwhile it is than the exciting stuff that was coming out when they were college and grad students -- are doing exactly this. It is a precipice that everyone who frowns at a cover on the radio (because it's a travesty of the original) is standing on the edge of.

Madeleine, Maureen, and I are Baby Boomers (I hope no young readers here are too shocked to hear this), and the Boomers thought they'd be young forever. Our generation was able to enforce this delusion by keeping our music and values in the mainstream for decades, which we thought was a sustained liberation and was in fact a kind of suppression. (Resentful Xers are right on here.) We are, always, closer to turning into Milton Glaser or Midge Decter -- ack! -- than we think possible.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Okay, a quick check discloses that the "1956 Original Cast Broadway Soundtrack" is available on DVD. And the libretto credits, among others, Richard Wilbur. I knew that once!

10:20 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I can be fairly flexible--I tend to like covers of old songs (even Beatles songs!) that are different from the original. And part of what bothers me is the Baby Boomer Wheezing Reactionary flush that comes over me at times like this. I don't say there shouldn't be covers, remakes, reissues with new covers...but I hate the notion that the original gets lost in the remake/re-edit/etc. We have the original cast album of Candide (actually, I think we have two or three copies on CD). I'm not sure what the DVD is--the earliest performance I could find on Amazon was a VHS recording from 1991; IMDB lists a "Live from Lincoln Center" video from 1986, from which listing I pulled the following:

"The original libretto was by Lillian Hellman. For the revival a new script was written by Hugh Wheeler. Although most of the lyrics by Richard Wilbur the principal lyricist remained, director Harold Prince had 'Stephen Sondheim' rewrite lyrics for several songs."

I yield to none in my appreciation of Stephen Sondheim, who is like unto a really smart god to me...but I still don't find the revised libretto as funny as the original. This is a matter of taste, as well as what bit you first. I miss the Q&A session with Pangloss with which the original started:

"Dear Master, we are sure of course that married life is splendid
but why do married people fight? We cannot comprehend it!

The private strife of man and wife is useful to the nation.
It is a useful outlet for emotions that could lead to war
and social agitation."

On the other hand I can still remember my stunned delight, watching Cunegonde sing "Glitter and Be Gay" while plucking jewels out of the hair of a man in full court drag (the skirted and corsetted dress and one of those towering wigs) who sat, oblivious, in front of her, accompanying the song on a synthesizer, in the 1970s production. I am not without appreciation of the new, really.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Sorry, I typed "DVD" when I meant "audio CD." It's hard to distinguish between the damned things when they are always out of their boxes and underfoot . . .

12:15 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Getting scratched so that you cannot play them, and must buy another copy or do without. Bah. Humbug.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Oh, you have kids too?

As it happened, I was in a music store late this afternoon, and took a moment to check the sheet music for Broadway musicals. They had one for vocal parts of "Candide," and despite a 1974, 1988 copyright notice, it looked to be the original version (Wilbur's name was on the cover).

4:38 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

That's interesting. Of course, I'm not sure what the legal requirements are--whether Wilbur's name must remain on the package regardless of later revision or not. I'll bet there's a whole subset of publishing law that deals with this stuff. Makes my head hurt.

I have resorted to confiscating CDs and DVDs that are left out unprotected. That usually works for a few days, and then the Cannibals start backsliding.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

If you confiscate CDs and DVDs that are left out of their boxes, doesn't that send the signal that you will put them away if the kids don't?

7:34 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

It sends the signal that they don't get to use them for a month. Or sometimes longer, if I forget about it. I'm really patient, until I'm not.

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jesus, madeleine, did we grow up in the same household? to this day, if i get drunk with my brother in downtown minneapolis, we'll run up an alley lined with fire escapes and start screaming, "chino! chino, come and get me too!"

lehrer was seminal too. and the fantasticks, as we've previously covered.

dare i ask? jesus christ superstar?

4:58 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Well, parts of Jesus Christ, Superstar. It's about the only Andrew Lloyd Webber I can listen to...

9:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, i know. it's always risky bringing up "superstar." like jack black's rant on the bipolar nature of stevie wonder's career in High Fidelity, you have all that glorious 5/4 funk on one hand ("39 Lashes" and simon the zealot's song in particular), and on the other, you have AJL's remaining ouevre.

so i took a shot. it sounded like we otherwise had identical, formative albums in our pasts.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh. that's me by the way.


2:01 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Hiya, Barth. I don't think we were raised in the same household. But anything's possible. Is your younger brother an Evangelical Christian and a comic book letterer?

I took Sarcasm Girl to see JCS in revival this fall. I don't think she got it. Maybe I've been a bad parent in that I haven't let her see any of the Biblical epic movies (The Robe or Ben Hur, frex) that warped me, so she doesn't understand the delight of "King of the Jews" or "Gesthemane."

As for ALW, most of the time when I hear excerpts from his oeuvre, all I can think of is the lyric from a long-ago Forbidden Broadway:

(to the tune of "Memories" from Cats)
"Have you heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber?
He's got three hits on Broadway
With the very same score!
You wonder why this song sounds familiar to you?
It's cause you've heard it twice before.
Memory, he's got such a good memory
He will take an old standard
And revamp it to sell.
For instance, this song that I am singing to you?
It's Bolero, by Ravel."

6:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ooo! "For instance, this song that I am singing to you?
It's Bolero, by Ravel." wonderful...

my younger brother is not an evangelical comic letterer. but one older brother is an evangelical, and another is a former comic book store owner (who looks like aquaman!) so clearly there's a time-space breach happening here.


ps. good lord. how did i get AJL for "andrew lloyd weber"? just a lil ol stroke. don't mind me.

6:49 PM  

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