Monday, October 09, 2006

Peril under the Proscenium

Gordon, over at Blog THIS Pal!, has set up a mixed CD exchange, with the topic "Law and Order." I reviewed Lefty's disc here. Today it's time to take a look at the melange of musical morsels I put together, the mix entitled "Peril under the Proscenium."

As the title suggests, I decided to go with an all-theater music mix. My thinking was pretty simple - I very rarely get the chance to force people to listen to musical theater, so given that opportunity it would be well-nigh irresponsible to pass it up. So I delved into the recesses of my collection to come up with the following highly theatrical mix:

1 & 2: "Prelude" and "Prologue" - Jake Heggie - Dead Man Walking

I wanted to do something theatrical with the mix - not crafting a story that would run through the mix, but in framing it with some kind of overall arc. I liked the symmetry of starting and ending with songs that effectively told a mini-story, and on top of that of having those specific songs be not mildly, but strongly theatrical - big, dramatic, powerful. I had some trouble finding an appropriate pair, but once I expanded my search into the opera side of my collection, the perfect pair just jumped out at me. The "Prelude" and "Prologue" of Jake Heggie's wonderful, earthy opera Dead Man Walking start the piece out with an appropriately dark, sorrowful mood. The sinuous, twisting, sad melody of the opening orchestral piece serves as a very effective opening to a mix that will be filled with murder, cannibalism, lynchings, gang fights, assassinations, and arrests. That orchestral piece leads directly into a bit of scene-setting, with a young couple enjoying an amorous date in their car in the woods. We hear a country ditty on the radio before the dial is turned, with the couple settling on a romantic "Kenny G"-like smooth jazz piece. (Both pieces were written by Heggie.) Shortly after, we hear the couple attacked, with big, bold blasts from the orchestra underscoring the couple's brutal murder. I love the way a disc intended to look at criminals starts out with so fundamental and horrific a crime, and with music that presents it so directly and viscerally.

3. "Kesa" - Michael John LaChiusa (sung by Idina Menzel) - See What I Wanna See

I love the transition here - the terrified screams of the girl and the violent, panicked outbursts of her killer fading away to the sounds of a sinister-sounding, sexual vamp. In this song we hear a woman contemplate her last moments with her lover, as she welcomes into her bed for one last bout of passion before murdering him. The music is sly but dramatic and Menzel does a fine job of injecting a bit of erotic, sexy urgency into the explicit lyrics.

4. "Mike's Song about Arresting a Particular Individual" - John Adams - I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky

The dissonant, minimalist, yet almost poppy sound of this energetic track stands as a nice, modern counterpoint to the more stately sounds of the previous. Here we have a police officer arresting a young black man for shoplifting a bottle of beer, and in the officer's cocky, angry singing we hear a whole palette of racial disharmony. I also like how this track gives us the perspective of the "Order" side of the "Law and Order" equation on a disc dominated by criminals and their stories.

5, 6, 7, & 8 - "The Trial: People of Atlanta," "Twenty Miles from Marietta," "Frankie's Testimony," and "The Factory Girls/Come up to My Office" - Jason Robert Brown - Parade

I wanted to include a good scene or two in the mix, as opposed to just stand-alone songs, and this mini-section from the musical Parade (which tells the story of a Jew in Atlanta who was falsely accused of brutally murdering a little girl, an employee at his pencil factory) was the perfect fit. We go from the announcement of the trial, to the prosecutor's opening remarks, to the testimonies of the victim's friend and fellow young employees. I love the mix of modern and Southern that Brown gets in his music in this score, and the centerpiece of this section--the haunting testimony of the young girls" is just a gorgeous piece of music.

9 - "The Ballad of Booth" - Stephen Sondheim, sung by Victor Garber and Patrick Cassidy - Assassins

The segue her is nice in that it's another bit of Southern-feeling material and in that it's another lengthy scene. This song-scene, with the Balladeer (a narrator figure) being beseeched to tell John Wilkes's Booth story is a masterful piece of writing. The aria-like centerpiece of the scene, in which Booth passionately defends his actions, is chilling stuff, with beautiful, tender music supporting vile statements. I also like the overt theatricality here, with the gunshots, the interjection of a little scenelet between a fleeing Booth and his partner in crime, and the device of having Booth interact directly with the narrator.

10. "The Vampires" - Paul Simon - The Capeman

Simon's huge flop, which I didn't see in its brief life on stage, has a lot to recommend it, musically. This song has a great Puerto Rican-flavored piano underscore and some nicely sharp and harsh lyrics from the street gang singers.

11. "Mack the Knife" - Louis Armstrong

I wanted to break the piece up with some less-overtly dramatic music, and a swinging rendition of Mack the Knife supplied by Satchmo himself seemed just the ticket.

12. "Strange Fruit" - Nina Simone

I wanted to maintain that distance from the overtly theatrical that Satchmo gives us, but quickly wanted to dispel any lightness his swinging might have provided. Enter Nina Simone's stark, harsh, and unrepentant reading of the Billie Holliday classic "Strange Fruit." Over plaintive and declamatory piano chords, Simone sings the familiar tale of coming across a swollen, lynched body. I love her intense, almost unpleasant reading of this dark song.

13 & 14 "Epiphany" and "A Little Priest" - Stephen Sondheim, sung by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury - Sweeney Todd

The sorbet-like jazz pause is over and we are back into scene territory. Here we have the searing mental breakdown of a song in which Sweeney Todd decides to murder wantonly, followed by a comic but dark ode to cannibalism, with Sweeney and his landlady deciding to serve his victims as meat pies. It's one of musical theater's great scenes, with "Epiphany," in particular" being just a tremendous piece of writing.

15. "Over the Wall" - John Kander and Fred Ebb - The Kiss of the Spider Woman

After the meaty scene that preceded, this short bit from Kander and Ebb's prison-set drama, about a revolutionary and the drag queen he falls into a complex relationship with, seemed a nice follow-up.

16. "Snuff That Girl" - Kevin Hollmann - Urinetown

A fast-paced comedy number keeps the mood going.

17. "The Garden Path to Hell" - Rupert Holmes - The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The light mood takes a slight detour with this slow, beautiful, but sorrowful ballad from the Dickens' musical about a naive young woman led into a life of prostitution and drugs. Cleo Laine delivers a brilliant reading on this song, hitting just the right amount of pathos, pity, and self-awareness called for. Her phrasing on the ending lines ("Ooh, it's such a lovely garden/I'll take you there/I know the path so well?To hell/To hell") is just sublime.

18. "Miss Otis Regrets" - Cole Porter, sung by Ella Fitzgerald

I considered dropping this into the "jazz" section, but liked how it's slow, mellow mood served to prepare us for the final tracks of the mix. It's understatement and solo piano accompaniment does a fine job of clearing the path for the final, more theatrical, cuts from the mix. This, by the way, is one of my all-time favorite Ella performances.

19 & 20 "Gee Officer Krupke" and "The Rumble" - Leonard Bernstein - West Side Story

What theater-based mix centering on crime and punishment would be complete without a nod to West Side Story? I like how these two songs go from the very funny, broad, and almost slapsticky to the tension-filled drama (all done through music, no lyrics) of the rumble. I love those soft, ominous, heart-breaking bells that the the track.

21. "Finale" - Jake Heggie - Dead Man Walking

And here's that symmetry I mentioned earlier. The mix's first song (or song pairing, technically) opened with a brutal murder. The last song begins with a guard shouting "dead man walking," and the musical scene of Joe's (the murderer) execution begins. I'm not a religious man; I'm an atheist. But the imploring singing of "Christ is with you" at the opening here just slays me every time I hear it. The devotion and faith that Sister Prejean is trying to convey to Joe, the murdered she has befriended, is heartbreaking. And when they sing "I love you" to each other? Literal chills, and tears. This is wonderfully dramatic, big-emotioned stuff, and the ensemble and orchestra play it to perfection. I also love how the track starts with a cacophony of sound, lots of counterpoints and different lines intersecting and big, bold sounds. And then all of a sudden, the music is reduced to a simple melody line (that same melody from the beginning, in fact) as Joe is strapped into the table. And, finally, we hear nothing but the beeps and wheezes of the heart monitor and machine as the drug is pumped into Joe's bloodstream. And the opera ends on the sound of the heart monitor flatlining. We begin with a crime and we end with a punishment that many would condemn as a crime in itself.

And that's my mix.

Until Whenever


bill said...

From "Cannibal: The Musical," you could use Hang the Bastard.

Tosy And Cosh said...

. . . becaquse what's a showtune without some cowbell?