1946 Part 3: Musicals and Miscellany

1946 concluded:

Till the Clouds Roll By. Let me just say: I understand why the copyright wasn’t renewed on this fluffy Jerome Kern biopic from MGM. Even the musical numbers I found wretched and uninspiring, despite appearances by Angela Lansbury, Judy Garland, and others. I didn’t finish watching this one.

Ziegfeld Follies. Oh, MGM, I’m not sure of your aesthetic values, but OK — I get that this is your Fantasia with gratuitous glamor and all the prettiest stars: Cyd Charisse, Virginia O’Brien, Esther Williams. The movie, a series of musical and comedic sketches, is best watched in two sittings. If you survive the weird puppet sequence at the beginning, you’ll be rewarded with a kinky dance number: Lucille Ball cracking a whip at undulating devil girls. Lena Horne has the best song: “Love” (check out Abbey Lincoln’s recording). I’ll overlook Fred Astaire’s balletic dream sequences with Lucille Bremer (thank you, Gene Kelly, for redeeming this genre). Ugh, hokiness even tarnishes the novelty of Kelly and Astaire dancing together in the penultimate act. Yes, all musicals are a little “hokey”, but even I met my limit with the contrived nonsense in Ziegfeld Follies.

The Harvey Girls. “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” is forever emblazoned on my memory from the million times I watched That’s Entertainment as a kid. I was happy to see the rest of the film at last. (Except for The Wizard of Oz, I never could find other Judy Garland features on VHS when I was growing up. Soon I’ll watch The Pirate for the first time!)

After two duds, finally, MGM delivers! I fell for this musical Western about a plucky waitress (Judy Garland, who else) taming the erudite-Doc Holliday-type saloon owner (John Hodiak) across the street. The whole supporting cast has a chance to shine. Angela Lansbury is dynamite as the cynical saloon singer in love with Hodiak. Meanwhile, Ray Bolger exhibits his signature goofy charisma and gets to show off in a dance number. Sweet Cyd Charisse and spicy Virginia O’Brien too each get their own numbers. Clips from TCM

My Darling Clementine. John Ford directs this fictionalized telling of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the OK Corral. Like Stagecoach, it’s a damned fine movie with an excellent cast — so much more than a “Western”. I would have preferred a more historically accurate story. (Their first beautiful error was filming in Monument Valley.) Holliday doesn’t have the genteel Georgian dentist aura that makes him so interesting and paradoxical; still, Victor Mature gives a good performance as Holliday, the tortured consumptive. Despite his unassuming manner, one man stands out: Henry Fonda. I love his Earp: solid, upright, direct, a man who just wants to get a shave without getting shot at. We can all respect that.

La Belle et La Bête. In high school, I started getting into film and even worked at a video store. I prided myself on all the weird tastes I was cultivating and watched whatever I could get my hands on: Black Orpheus, Metropolis, The Red Shoes, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Harold and Maude. La Belle et La Bête was one too and I looked forward to re-watching it.

Jean Cocteau’s fairy-tale is as striking, sensual, and enchanting as ever. I am left with so many favorite shots: the line of disembodied arms holding candelabras, Belle in her riding hood running — slow motion — into the Beast’s chateau, the haloed Beast carrying Belle up the stairs to her room. The film pairs rich imagery with brisk storytelling and atmospheric music. Set in the 17th century, the movie contrasts Belle’s difficult life at home — her bossy sisters, goofy brother, ineffectual father — with the strange, but luxurious life she has with the Beast — opulent dresses, garden walks, no chores. If ever there was an arty film by an auteur director that could appeal to a wide audience, this is it. One of the best fantasy films ever.

Fun slideshow: Jean Marais becoming la Bête.


Make Your Own Season Guide

The last five months took me to a number of performances — way more than I typically see in a such a short period. I will briefly catalog them here in my external memory.

Les Miserables, Imperial Theater. My mom loves Ramin Karimloo, so we took a family field trip to see him star as Jean Valjean. I was initially more excited about the theater itself — old, cozy, dressed in red velvet, home to performances by Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger. I felt giddy about seeing my very first Broadway show. When the music started, I discovered just how deeply the sounds of Les Mis had imprinted themselves on my brain. My mom recalled that as a child I loved “Master of the House” and that’s still my favorite — so many good words from “arse” to “shit”. The visual effects and design impressed me most. The set of half-timbered houses in the Parisian slums stretched beyond the proscenium arch (an excellent use of space), while the battle around the barricades looked like a Delacroix painting. Projection and mist enhanced the scenes in the tunnels and catacombs, and projection again created a cinematic illusion as the revolutionaries walked in place and a street scene moved along behind them (sounds cheesy in writing, but it was a fabulous effect). The theater productions I grew up with took place mostly outside and involved lots of paper mache; I’m still amazed to no end what theatrical engineers and technologists can do these days.

Cecile McLorin Salvant, Historic Sixth and I Synagogue. The night after my show, I went to see one of the brightest stars in jazz today. Salvant reveals her study of the inimitable divas — Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, and Betty Carter — in her own intelligent, playful style. She is a vocal gymnast, but she won my heart with her eclectic song choices, like “The Trolley Song.” And for an encore? She showed her classical training, artistry, and wit by performing Leonard Bernstein’s “I Hate Music.”

Cosi fan tutte, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Despite having never seen this Mozart opera until last November, I have always felt a fondness for it. In high school, two classmates and I learned the trio from Act I “Soave sia il vento” and I’d always known that Cosi fan tutte features voices in all kinds of combinations from solo arias to sextets. This production starring six students of the Maryland Opera Studio was even more glorious than I’d expected and that little cast of six showed effortless endurance through the performance. It’s a goofy plot, but exquisite music.

The Merry Widow, Metropolitan Opera House. Speaking of goofy plots, this 1905 Viennese operetta echoes “Women are like that”, while looking forward to great American musical. Stanley Green’s Broadway Musicals 1891-1916 even includes music from The Merry Widow, which came to Broadway in 1907 and created such a feror it “prompted the introduction of Merry Widow hats, gowns, corsets, and cigarettes.” The reason for my seeing the opera was no history lesson; my mom loves baritone Nathan Gunn, so again we made a family field trip. It didn’t hurt that Renee Fleming, the great opera ambassador and soprano, would be co-starring with Gunn, or that we got to see luxurious Lincoln Center with its massive Chagall paintings and spangly, modern chandeliers. The performance featured gorgeous costumes, can-can girls, and wonderful Belle Epoque touches, but it was missing the pizazz a sparkling musical comedy requires. Gunn and Fleming seemed restrained and I only caught glimpses of their full power. John, mom, and I saw Gunn in recital once, a truly awesome experience, and now I feel compelled to seek out Fleming whatever the ticket price.

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Kennedy Center. Since high school, I’ve wanted to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Everyone in theater and voice had to take a movement class and I remember we watched a video of “Revelations”, Alvin Ailey’s signature piece. It’s iconic movements inflected with African dance stuck with me because I had never seen anything like it. Now, more than ten years later, John and I went to see the company perform three pieces during their annual engagement in Washington, DC: “Odetta” (2014), “Bad Blood” (1984), and “Revelations” (1960). The audience went nuts for “Revelations”, but as Odetta is one of my musical idols, I particularly liked the piece that honored her activism and radiant humanism. I couldn’t help noting too its effective lighting design and set pieces (benches that could be stacked and arranged to evoke any number of items from columns to railroad ties). “Bad Blood” featured various couples dancing fiercely, tenderly, passionately; it was thrilling and so circa 1984.

Choir Boy, Studio Theater. How often do I get to see someone I know in professional theater! My fellow graduate of the class of ’03, Eric, appeared as Junior in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s musical play, which originally premiered in 2012 (I think). The intimate space of the Studio Theater suited the emotional tension of the story, which centers on an elite prep school for young black men and one student’s struggle with his sexuality, identity, and place within the world. If that isn’t already enough to unpack, the play finds its grounding in gospel music, which the characters use in different ways: to find comfort or strength, to express emotions they don’t have words for, to create bonds and friendship. The singing required tremendous versatility, power, and range from the actors. The headmaster stole the show for me with “Been in the Storm So Long”. When he sings, he is exhausted from investigating a violent act that occurred on campus, keeping peace among the students, and balancing the demands of the school’s trustees. Still, he finds strength and hope through music. Regarding the five boys at the heart of the story, I found the actors’ renditions of raw, boundary-testing teenagers pitch perfect.

Dialogues of the Carmelites, Kennedy Center. I end where I began: the French Revolution. Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera follows a group of nuns through their daily life of religious debates, work, and song until the soldiers of the Revolution storm their doors. In the most gripping climax to any play or opera I have ever seen, some 15 nuns are executed, one by one, complete with the slicing sound effect. I can’t say I identified with the nuns or understood the internal turmoil and fearful outlook of the main character, Blanche. However, Poulenc’s music gave me all the tension and emotionality I needed. Alternating between ripping trumpets and lush harps, he is a master of mood and musical foreshadowing. Except for a few hymns, the opera is sung dialogue: more melodic than recitative, but without ever solidifying into any discrete song forms. With such a female-dominated cast, I loved hearing the many textures of the female voice: women who sound like barrels and women who sound like birds. I marveled at the set — three giant versatile walls — a dynamic modern sculpture that played with shadow and light so poetically. The opera may have left me exhausted and unsettled, wondering what kind of death I will have, but I left humming one of the themes.

Where Have I Been?

An accounting so in the future I don’t wonder what happened between February and May . . . While on break from old movies, I haven’t traveled at all, but I have been surprisingly social and a budget patron of the arts. I saw a local production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the East Coast premiere of Moby Dick (the free ticket was a wonderful “thank you in general” gift), The Elixir of Love (cheap seats that threatened obscured surtitles and yet I could see them perfectly), a local musical revue of new shows and revivals from 2000 onwards, a friend’s jazz show, and a simulcast from the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow of the ballet Marco Spada, starring David Hallberg, an American who dances with such panache! At home I’ve discovered the Brazilian singer Adriana Calcanhotto and her album Mare, which moves through so many moods and textures (David Byrne fans need to check it out). To my dance mix, I added two songs from new European bands La Femme (reminds me of the Causey Way) and Metronomy, and a coworker, on discovering our shared affection for Foxygen, got me listening to Tame Impala.

Meanwhile, since the start of the year, I had my own show, performed in two short “recitals” with the amateur adult jazz combo I’m in (and which I miss while I’m off during April and May for various reasons), and will sing at two casual events this week and next (doesn’t sound like much, but compared to previous years? it’s a lot). March was a good reading month. I adored Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore (Sloan) and The Riddle of the Labyrinth (Fox), and especially treasured Life After Life (Atkinson). I didn’t touch a book in April, but had two mild colds. Now we are heading toward the third week of our CSA program and I’m so happy to have fresh, glorious produce again: spinach, mixed lettuces, cabbage, chard, radishes, sweet potatoes, red potatoes, broccoli. It’s spring tonic season!

photo 3.JPG photo 1.JPG

And yet, I can’t resist the call of old movies. A few weeks ago, I saw Metropolis, the restored version with newly found footage and live music. It may be heavy-handed and bloated, but the combination of futurism, expressionism, and Fritz Lang’s beautiful camerawork creates undisputed magic. Now the same theater is paying homage to Charlie Chaplin by showing his shorts and features from 1914-1940. On Sunday I saw seven of his shorts from Keystone including the earliest appearance of “the Tramp” (maybe Chaplin’s second or third film ever. He was about 25 years old.)! These early shorts show the Tramp at his irreverent, anarchic, flirtatious best; the pathos and politics come later. In his debut, “Kid’s Auto Race”, the Tramp is pesky, careless, self-infatuated, a total slob (the program notes mentioned Chaplin’s popular stage act as a drunk — there is a clear correlation). The joke is deliciously meta. “Who is this guy?” a movie-goer of 1914 (or 2014) might ask incredulously, while eagerly awaiting more!

Between now and July I’m going back in time to catch a few movies that came to my attention during the course of the project. Then I’ll return to 1946 (I may end up watching It’s a Wonderful Life in August. Will it still have the same emotional resonance in summer?)


January Dance Party

Somehow a year has passed since I last wrote about songs that have struck me or new music I’ve discovered. Here’s a list of six recent favorites:

In December, I saw a genius burlesque routine performed to an Elvis classic that, scandalously, I’d never heard before! Here he is months before the famous 1968 comeback singing “Let Yourself Go”:

John got me listening to this French duo, whose music is poppy, danceable, and all fun. Their official video for “Oh la la” seems to pay respects to everything and everyone from Thelma and Louise to Vegas showgirls.

I just missed the Australian band Bombay Royale who played in New York and DC for the first time earlier this month. Please come back!! Here’s the title track from their new album of 60s-style Bollywood music. Trust me; it’s awesome!

The Romanian band Fanfare Ciocarlia also passed through recently and I did get to see them in Baltimore. A classic brass band, they know how to get the crowd dancing and, even when the show is officially over, they keep on playing and walking through the audience. They’d already been going strong for two hours and it was a little after 11 on a weeknight; for all I know they were probably playing until the cops shut it down.

Amidst all of NPR’s end of year lists, one gem emerged. I’m in love with Foxygen, their retro textures and multi-part songs. The singer has no one signature sound (it’s like getting many bands in one) and I have fun hearing all the influences in the music: Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, early Pink Floyd, the list goes on. I’m hoping they go on tour this year.

Last fall I heard jazz pianist Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea for the first time and the 1955 recording blew me away. His “Autumn Leaves” is truly epic; he starts big, brings it down, and then builds, builds, builds to a swinging fortissimo climax. Then there’s the tinkling denouement and warm, swirling conclusion.

1943 Jazz Age Genius on Film

I watch not one, but two landmark musicals featuring all-black casts and some of the greatest musicians and dancers of the 20th century. Furthermore, I confirm that my love of Lena Horne has not faltered since I last saw these two films when I was seven years old.

cabin in the sky and stormy weather

First, a note: This post focuses on the musical performances in the two films, but there’s much to explore in terms of the movies’ historical and cultural contexts. Stephanie Zackarek’s short article on Turner Classic Movies provides a starting point for thinking about the depiction of African-Americans in film, the influence of the WWII on race relations, as well as the successes and struggles of black performers trying to break barriers.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Cabin in the Sky presents a moralistic tale about Little Joe (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson), a gambler over whose soul Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram) and a heavenly General compete. Just when Joe seems to settle into the role of good husband and Christian to the delight of his ever-faithful wife, Petunia (Ethel Waters), Lucifer Jr. and his minions (including Louis Armstrong) set the luscious Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) and a winning lottery ticket in his path.

Stormy Weather, meanwhile, employs only the bare wisps of a plot to string together “some 20 musical numbers” (Wikipedia). Tap dancer Bill (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) reflects on his long career. He laughs at the misadventures of his big-talking friend (Dooley Wilson) and longs after his love, Selina (Lena Horne), a fellow performer who refused to settle down. In the midst of Bill’s reminiscences to the neighborhood children, Cab Calloway (as himself) shows up to take Bill to a wartime gala. The fantastic show for the soldiers concludes with Selina and Bill reuniting. Bill Robinson may have been 65 years old and Lena Horne only 26, but starstruck viewers like myself just don’t care.

As historical documents, these movies have tremendous value. The physicality of Cab Calloway, the humor of Fats Waller, and the gravitas of Duke Ellington become fully realized on the big screen. In Cabin in the Sky, Ethel Waters exudes a vibrancy sometimes difficult to hear over the cracks and pops of her earliest blues recordings. She brings a stock character to life and steals the show in the penultimate scene when Petunia confronts her husband and puts on a sassy act to win him back:

Cabin in the Sky also features a short number by John W. Bubbles, “the father of ‘rhythm tap'” (Wikipedia). Other trivia Wikipedia tells me about this important performer: George Gershwin cast him as Sportin’ Life in the original production of Porgy and Bess and Bubbles gave lessons to Fred Astaire. In the scene below, Bubbles plays a gambler who has just gotten out of jail and is making his presence known to everyone at Jim Henry’s:

The two movies not only record important performers of the 1940s, they also document a range of performance styles. Cabin in the Sky is a musical play where most musical scenes take place in ordinary settings as opposed to on the big stage. The major dance sequence, for example, takes place at the neighborhood club “Jim Henry’s Paradise”, where young couples swing dance to Duke Ellington’s Orchestra.

Stormy Weather by contrast focuses entirely on life in show business and subsequently showcases a greater variety of styles (everything from ballet to zoot suits). The movie begins with a cake walk and moves to Ziegfeld-type numbers, featuring giant drums and women in zebra-patterned costumes. The musical numbers become increasingly modern over the course of the film (think an elegantly dressed Lena Horne singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”) as the main character Bill develops his own show and has his own way of doing things. Stormy Weather also takes us off the vaudeville circuit to smaller venues. Blues singer Ada Brown and Fats Waller perform “That Ain’t Right” in a Beale Street club in Memphis:

The movie concludes with a jaw-dropping finale featuring Katherine Dunham’s “Stormy Weather” ballet, swinging Cab Calloway, and the superhuman Nicholas Brothers who perform incomprehensible dancing feats.

Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather may not possess gripping plots, but the performances by highly influential artists are invaluable performing arts history. Stormy Weather in particular serves as a time capsule simultaneously preserving the old forms of minstrelsy that remained popular (at least to white audiences) through the vaudeville era, while also celebrating the work of a new generation of black composers, musicians, and dancers, whose work came to define 20th-century American culture. For any student of American music and dance, these films are required viewing!

Bitter Nights, Sweet Music

After a month long hiatus, I feel refreshed (update: I now have a cold; how quickly the tables turn). I’m writing from a new computer and since I’m not watching movies, I’ve been reading (Canada, Travels with Charley, Broken Harbor), all of which I greatly enjoyed. I also made a dramatic and fruity figgy pudding with a friend, tried out my new baguette pan (with excellent results), and made a Celtic festival bread. I traveled to Seattle for barely two days and packed in trip to a jazz club and an exhilarating run along the waterfront (in addition to that conference I was working at). And while off for a week from work, I discovered during my cleaning spree a copy of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” With Spotify fired up, I embarked on a listening journey. Here are some of the songs and voices that have inspired me since my last post on music.

lovely ladies

Alicone “Sufoco”

The Rough Guide to World Music pointed me to the David Bryne produced O Samba. Alcione is one singer featured on this collection of samba hits from the 1970s and 80s. I love how this song settles into a swaying groove and I find myself getting lost in Alcione’s warm voice. “Sufoco” comes from Alcione’s album Alerta Geral, to which it is impossible not to dance.

Etta James “Fool That I Am”

In the fall I dumped a ton of Etta James and Aretha Franklin on a playlist so I go beyond “At Last” and “Respect.” This ballad blew me away with its tour of all Ms. James’ textures and tones. The tinkling piano, hint of sentimental strings, and pulsing bass give form without crowding out the vocals; there’s a lot going on and yet so much space.

Bonnie Raitt “Nothing Seems to Matter”

Raitt’s second album appeared on the Rolling Stone list. I enjoyed its mix of all my favorite genres — folk, country, blues, jazz — rapped in a warm sound that could only come from the 1970s. Hearing these early Raitt songs reminds me why I love Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, and Judy Collins and also made me wonder how I’d missed Raitt. This is another lovely ballad.

angry boys like to dance

Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces and Gang of Four’s Entertainment both came out in 1979 and feature songs with irresistible, punchy beats. I’ve long been a fan of Elvis Costello, but Gang of Four was new to me. The next two songs are favorites from their respective albums.

balkan brass

My interest in music from the Balkans began with Emir Kusturica’s Underground. Then I saw Balkan Beat Box live. Two years ago, I could not contain my joy at dancing to frenetic brass bands at the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival in Brooklyn. I feel a sharp pain with each passing year that I miss the festival, but I’ll be back. In the meantime, I’ve discovered Slavic Soul Party (based in Brooklyn, where they play every Tuesday at 9:00pm, woohoo!) and the awesome Romanian band, Mahala Rai Banda. I’m waiting impatiently for a US tour.

New Music

…to me, anyway. Ten recent favorites:

The Dø “Slippery Slope”
I heard this band on All Songs Considered and felt overcome by the need to see them live. They visited DC recently and gave an amazing, high-energy show. The crowd erupted over this song with its tribal drums and frenetic saxophone. Another favorite of mine is the folky waltz “Calendar”.

Ruth “Polaroid-Roman-Photo”
While we waited for the Dø to take the stage at the U Street Music Hall, the DJ played this awesome song with a robotic beat, synthesizer, and spoken lyrics. We had to find out who the band was: French new wavers from the 1980s! C’est si bon!

Cate le Bon “Fold the Cloth”
Cate le Bon mixes folk with mildly psychedelic 1960s-inspired, droning rock. I saw her live in DC a few weeks ago and the organist created sounds reminiscent of early Pink Floyd. I find her voice incredibly soothing and love her warm chest voice as much as her ethereal head tones.

Darrell Glenn “Crying in the Chapel”
Round tones, a beautiful 18-year-old voice, and a hypnotizing melody. I heard this through Spotify on an album called “the Original Sound of Country, 1953”; what a treasure trove.

Astrud Gilberto “Dindi”
A perfect summer song for driving with the sunroof open. Sentimental strings like sun through the trees, airy vocals, and bossa guitar. I adore the B section of this song, especially the seductive melody of “Yes, I do/Yes, I do.”

Anita O’Day “When the World was Young”
A perfect song for fall, which nearly brought me to tears when I first heard it this week on a morning commute. I can’t believe it isn’t on YouTube, so spend the 99 cents or whatever it takes to listen to it. The sparse arrangement keeps O’Day’s voice and its emotive quiver in the forefront. She’s alone in the bar at last call.

Lee Konitz “Man I Love” and “You’ve Changed”
The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Jazz introduced me to saxophonist Lee Konitz. Knowing that good jazz singers study horn players, I find his album, Strings for Holiday, a gentle introduction to such exercises. The lush string arrangements accompany Konitz’s lyrical phrasing (and eminently singable solos) beautifully.

Ahmad Jamal Trio “It Could Happen to You”
I’d never heard of pianist Ahmad Jamal until the NPR Curious Listener’s Guide pointed me to his 1958 album, Ahmad’s Blues. I find Jamal’s dynamic, chatty, and triplet-loving playing so much fun. “Taboo” is another favorite from this live album.

Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross “Cottontail”
I first heard a recording of this group in August. They rocked my conception of what vocalists can do and should sound like. They don’t always make pretty music — how liberating! Sounding more like instruments than humans, the trio’s percussive playfulness and close harmonies contributes to their unique style. I also like “This Here”.

Lake Street Dive “Henriette”
On a Saturday night in September with A Prairie Home Companion in the background, the powerhouse voice of Rachael Price made me stand up and take notice. Further delight came still when the band’s bassist, Bridget, provided vocal harmonies. Their sound on the radio was geared more towards the PHC audience — an emphasis on country and roots music. “Henriette” was their bouncy finale. Their albums are a bit different:  there’s the addition of a trumpet, which — to my surprise — I’m not sure that I like. Anyway, I definitely plan to see this group live when they come to town.