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mark steyn on classic musicals


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Not really sure which forum this belongs in -- the "Theatre" forum is primarily about plays, and the "Music" forum tends to be about bands and solo artists -- but since the musicals in question here have been turned into "Films", I'm sticking it here, for now.

There is some brilliant stuff here, methinks. Or at least it SOUNDS brilliant, to these ears. While I have seen the film version of My Fair Lady once, I have never, ever, ever seen Oklahoma!, so I don't know enough about the subjects of Steyn's criticism to critique his criticism in turn. But he sure does seem to know his stuff.

Summer stock

While The New Criterion takes its July/August break, we're posting a couple of pieces on the shows everybody knows and the fellows who wrote them. Scroll down for Mark's profile of the men who wrote Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, Gigi and Camelot, from the Royal National Theatre programme for My Fair Lady. And here's his take on Rodgers, Hammerstein and a landmark show, from the Royal National Theatre programme for Trevor Nunn's 1998 production of Oklahoma! . . .

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I'm glad you posted this, Peter, because it allows me to ask you and the others on the board about the merits of this film. It sounds like a peach, something my wife and I would really enjoy. The director will be in town at the one local theater screening the movie this weekend. I won't make it, but I'd like to keep it in mind down the road as a video rental, assuming it's worthwhile.

Is it? Has anyone here seen it?

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Steyn is right about the superficiality of Oklahoma!'s plot. And while that may not be a problem with the stage version, it does cause one to lose patience with the film. The stakes are somehow much higher during the box-supper auction than during Jud's attempt to stab Curly.

Speaking of Jud, the rest of the film seems like too bright a package in which to wrap his vices: pornography addiction, attempts at arson, murder, and rape. He seems to have wandered on to the frontier from a production of Titus Andronicus, and why Aunt Eller hasn't sent him packing long before the curtain rises is anybody's guess.

The dream ballet sequence is compelling, but someone dropped the ball when it came to staging/choreographing other numbers, particularly "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No," which is just Gloria Grahame standing (somewhat awkwardly) and singing -- without even any cool tracking shots for visual interest. It worked for Judy Garland and "Over the Rainbow"; it doesn't work here.

Some of the supporting cast (Grahame, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert) have acting chops, but the leads (Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones) have none; their dialogue is about as exciting as the faux-wood paneling in your cousin Harlan's doublewide.

Edited by mrmando

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

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Hmmm, looks like this is turning into a 'Film' thread after all. smile.gif

Sorry, Christian, I haven't seen that film, so I can't help ya there.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Steyn is right about the superficiality of Oklahoma!'s plot. And while that may not be a problem with the stage version, it does cause one to lose patience with the film. The stakes are somehow much higher during the box-supper auction than during Jud's attempt to stab Curly.

Speaking of Jud, the rest of the film seems like too bright a package in which to wrap his vices: pornography addiction, attempts at arson, murder, and rape. He seems to have wandered on to the frontier from a production of Titus Andronicus, and why Aunt Eller hasn't sent him packing long before the curtain rises is anybody's guess.

The dream ballet sequence is compelling, but someone dropped the ball when it came to staging/choreographing other numbers, particularly "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No," which is just Gloria Grahame standing (somewhat awkwardly) and singing -- without even any cool tracking shots for visual interest. It worked for Judy Garland and "Over the Rainbow"; it doesn't work here.

Some of the supporting cast (Grahame, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert) have acting chops, but the leads (Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones) have none; their dialogue is about as exciting as the faux-wood paneling in your cousin Harlan's doublewide.

And don't get me started on the accents...

Subtlety is underrated
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I enjoyed that article, Peter. Thanks for the link.

I'm not a great fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and have never summoned up the necessary enthusiasm to watch most of the films. I am a big fan of Lerner and Leowe's My Fair Lady, however. To this day, my favourite place in the whole of London to go and sit for an afternoon is amid the pillars of St Paul's church looking out over Covent Garden.

The film is just fine, in my opinion. I saw it on stage once in the revival directed by Simon Callow and starring Edward Fox as Higgins. It was rather disappointing.

I also love the 1938 non-musical Pygmalion, although I took a while to adjust to Leslie Howard after so long being accustomed to Rex Harrison.

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I agree Alan. I've never been able to enjoy it past the halfway point. Pygmalion is way better, the film as well as the play (caught it at the Shaw about 10 years ago, incredible). My mom loves Rogers and Hammerstein and have seen 'em all. Hate Sound of Music. Love Carousel, King and I, and South Pacific. The best thing about Oklahoma! is Gordon MacRae. Best baritone on fim. Ever.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Now Steyn's got a piece on Lionel Bart and Oliver! up there, on the same linked page as before.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I've always found My Fair Lady relatively, well, boring.

Not I. It's my favourite, by far. I love the wit of the lyrics, pretty nice fit for the Shaw original. The ending's problematic, no doubt - too "romantic" for Shaw, too (I guess) misogynist for now - but apart from that, it's a treat.

Of course, the subjective factor is huge, here. Long before I ever saw the film, I listened to my parents' LP of the music over and over and over. Which planted its hook pretty deep in me.

The only other classic musical I like very much is THE MUSIC MAN. Again, I delight in some of the cleverness - the music lesson comes to mind - and, again, a significant subjective element. The musical was done at my high school the year after I left, and I'd drop by to watch rehearsals and all that, really quite fell in love with the thing.

WEST SIDE STORY has its moments, but I somehow find the progression of the story kind of choppy: it seems to me to lurch from set-piece to set-piece.

My favourite non-classic musical is definitely COTTON PATCH GOSPEL.

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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[My favourite non-classic musical is definitely COTTON PATCH GOSPEL.

Spitball Me Jesus Over the Homeplate of Life! Gotta love the Harry Chapin songs as well as the adaptation of Jordan's gospel adaptations.

Among the classics, Man of LaMancha tops my list (INFP on stage). Camelot pretty high as well. Kiss Me Kate needs a mention ("Brush Up Your Shakespeare").

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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Kiss Me Kate needs a mention ("Brush Up Your Shakespeare").

Yes, I do get a kick out of that one! Buncha gangsters singin' about Bill - "...staht quoting him now..." - pretty funny!

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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  • 3 months later...

Now that I'm all caught up with my Lemony Snicket reading, I figured I'd give Mark Steyn's Broadway Babies Say Goodnight a whirl, and see how his prose reads when it goes on and on for over 300 pages. (Besides, I might as well bone up on the history of the musical before I catch the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera later this week.)

The first 30 pages are plenty interesting, so far -- entertainingly written, and one of many reminders (along with my recent archival animation DVD purchases, which make frequent nods to the days of vaudeville and reflect the aesthetics thereof) that I really need to bone up on what pop culture was like before people could make permanent records of it on wax and on film.

My favorite discovery so far, from pp. 26-27:

In the same category came the Shubert brothers'
Artists and Models
, the first Broadway revues to feature naked women. To comply with local by-laws, the nudes were obliged not to move, so instead, they were draped in cloths connected to strings which the supporting cast handed out to the tired businessmen in the audience. When the strings were pulled, the girls were revealed in all their splendour. To accompany this scene there was a song called 'Pull My String' -- written by J. Fred Coots, composer of 'You Go To My Head' and 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town' and by no means the most distinguished man to find himself penning nude revues.

Gonna find out who's naughty and nice, indeed!

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Kiss Me Kate is the creme de la creme. The lyrics of I've come to wive it wealthily in Padua (particularly the title rhyming with the line, "the people say my God sir what a cad you are," and "where is the life that late I led," have me in stitches every time. And Ann Miller was never so gorgeous in film. Brush up your Shakespeare is wonderful too, "if she thinks your behaviour is heinous, kick her right in the Coriolanus," etc. My Fair Lady is OK but you need to be able to wander in and out of the room because it goes on so long. Pauline Kael famously described it as the nadir of the old studio system, saying, "you can see it rotting up there on the screen." The film of Oklahoma does the greatest stage musical of all a disservice, the English National Theatre version by Trevor Nunn, which you can get on DVD I think, is much better.

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Whoa. From the chapter on 'The Jews', pages 82-83:

[irving Berlin's] life became as emblematic as his catalogue. And, because these are the songs everyone got married to, went to war to, it's always assumed that's how they were written, by an Alley opportunist with an eye to the main chance. We forget how much of himself is in those hits.

'Blue Skies' was composed for his first child, Mary Ellin, at her birth. For his son, there was 'My Little Feller', actually written for Al Jolson's second talkie but coinciding with the arrival of Irving Junior in December 1928:
Sweet as can be

Climbing on my knee

Wait'll you see

My Little Feller...

But Jolson threw the song out in favour of 'Sonny Boy' and Irving Junior died three weeks later on Christmas Day. Does that cast the sentiments of 'White Christmas' in a different light? The song is no jingle; it has a dark chromatic phrase, a daring melodic line, and a plangent, wistful quality: it is, in more ways than one, a Jewish Christmas song. Afterwards, every 24 December, while the rest of America was listening to 'White Christmas', the Berlins would explain to their daughters that they had some last-minute preparations to take care of, leave the house and, as the sisters found out many years later, lay flowers on the grave of the baby brother they never knew they had. When the girls grew up and left home, Irving Berlin, a symbol of the American Christmas, gave up celebrating it: 'We both hated Christmas,' Mrs Berlin said later. 'We only did it for you children.'There is some other fascinating stuff on Berlin's life here, as well as some intriguing observations about the role that Jewish songwriters may have played in transforming the elements of traditional Jewish folk songs into key features of the old American "standards".

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 1 year later...

We don't have a thread devoted to either Holiday Inn or White Christmas, so I wasn't entirely sure where to put this, but since Steyn made many of the same remarks in his book on Broadway musicals (some of which, um, I quoted in the previous post), this is as good a place as any:

- - -

Home is where the snow is

Some songs are hits -- Number One for a couple of weeks. Some songs are standards -- they endure decade after decade. And a few very rare songs reach way beyond either category, to embed themselves so deeply in the collective consciousness they become part of the soundtrack of society. They start off the same as all the other numbers, written for a show or a movie, a singer or an event, but they float free of the writer, they outlast the singer, transcend the movie, change the event. In White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, Jody Rosen makes the case that the subject of his book transformed the American Christmas. There are a couple of what we now think of as seasonal standards that predate Irving Berlin's entry into the field, but neither became a pillar of the Xmas repertoire, because until 'White Christmas' came along there was no such thing. ('Jingle Bells' was written for Thanksgiving.)

In the decade after Bing Crosby introduced the number in Holiday Inn (1942), Berlin's colleagues responded with 'Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow', 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer', 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas', 'Frosty the Snowman' -- all the 'Yule Day gravy' (as Variety put it) that in a slightly different order makes up every Christmas album from Andy Williams to 'N Sync. Rosen doesn't say so, but, in a fragmented culture, these are now the last songs we all sing, whether our tastes incline to rap or country or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They represent the zenith of a universal popular culture we're unlikely to see again. . . .

Christmas was not kind to Irving Berlin. At 5 o'clock on the morning of Christmas Day 1928, his 3 1/2-week-old son, Irving Junior, was found dead in his bassinet. 'I'm sure,' his daughter Mary Ellin told me a few years back, 'it was what we would now call "crib death".' Does that cast 'White Christmas' in a different light? The plangent melancholy the GIs heard in the tune, the unsettling chromatic phrase, the eerie harmonic darkening under the words 'where children listen'; it's not too fanciful to suggest the singer's dreaming of children no longer around to listen. When the girls grew up and left home, Irving Berlin, symbol of the American Christmas, gave up celebrating it. 'We both hated Christmas,' Mrs Berlin said later. 'We only did it for you children.'

To take a baby on Christmas morning mocks the very meaning of the day. And to take Irving Berlin's seems an even crueller jest -- to reward his uncanny ability to articulate the sentiments of his countrymen by depriving him of the possibility of sharing them. . . .

Spectator, December 14, 2002

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm glad you posted this, Peter, because it allows me to ask you and the others on the board about the merits of this film. It sounds like a peach, something my wife and I would really enjoy. The director will be in town at the one local theater screening the movie this weekend. I won't make it, but I'd like to keep it in mind down the road as a video rental, assuming it's worthwhile.

Is it? Has anyone here seen it?

Sorry this is so late, Christian, and I hope you've gone ahead and seen the film - Broadway the Golden Age. It's a really fantastic documentary - he interviews 100 stars from the 40s and 50s, an alarming amount of whom have passed away since the film (I don't think it's related). Great insights. Special DVD extra includes a 30 minute rough cut of a follow-up interviewing present Broadway stars. It's sweet, informative, entertaining.

Joe

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No, I haven't seen it and had, in fact, forgotten all about it. Thanks for reminding me.

I did see Moon Over Broadway, though. Pretty good doc.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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No, I haven't seen it and had, in fact, forgotten all about it. Thanks for reminding me.

I did see Moon Over Broadway, though. Pretty good doc.

Yep, that one's fabulous as well.

I suppose an entire thread could be devoted to favorite theatre films. And probably is already, somewhere on this.

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