Sunday, March 9, 2014

Wonderful Town - The College Edition!

At the recent urging of my frequent Broadway Viewing Buddy (a.k.a. “Dad”), I will be discussing a lovely little show that I just had the pleasure of attending. Ursinus College’s very well-received and well-executed production of Wonderful Town closed last Sunday, so you just missed it!

THE LOGO for the 2003 revival of "Wonderful Town." CourtesyWonderful Town

Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Book: Joseph A. Fields & Jerome Chodorov
Based On: Ruth McKenney’s The New Yorker-published collection of autobiographical short stories; Fields's & Chodorov's resulting play, My Sister Eileen
Broadway Debut: 1953
Tony Nominations/Wins: 5/5!

Wonderful Town follows two sisters from Columbus, Ohio – sharp, witty Ruth and vivacious, blonde (and not Irish) Eileen – pursuing writing and acting careers, respectively, in New York City. They arrive awestruck and immediately acquire lodgings in a most undesirable basement apartment; featuring a “loveable” landlord, “customers” of the room’s former tenant, Violet, and frequent dynamite blasts from the new subway construction mere feet below them. They battle early onset homesickness and make the best of things. Ruth makes the rounds with her stories while Eileen gets free lunches from a smitten Walgreens manager. They chase their dreams and find love while weaving through the lives of other Christopher Street inhabitants: living-in-sin neighbors Helen and the Wreck; sleazy-but-ultimately-redeemed  newspaperman, Chick Clark; Village Vortex nightclub owner, Speedy Valenti (where they each find some amount of success); magazine editor, Bob Baker; some Brazillian Navy cadets with a penchant for the “Conga”; and a slew of Irish cops with a penchant for Eileen.

This musical is a true ode to everything that is the Big Apple. It centers on everything “wonderful” about NYC and what can happen when you venture there to find life and love. It can harden you and make you long for simplicity, but the beat and vibrant energy of the city can also invigorate you and present new things every day. The ambiance and feel of Wonderful Town is upbeat and brightly-colored, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a fluff musical (like 42nd St. or Anything Goes). The songs may not be as recognizable or gritty as others composed by the great Leonard Bernstein. But his score is full of intricate nuances that reflect the overwhelming blur that is NYC. Its unevenness and hectic hustle illustrate a sophistication that surpasses “fluff” musical composition.  I’m not trashing Anything Goes, but the wit is more in the lyrics (Cole Porter’s specialty) with an accompanying snappy tune that takes a back seat to the words instead of the other way around. Bernstein’s style of composition is complex and really sets the mood for the piece (much like Sondheim) and Wonderful Town is no exception.

Ursinus College’s recent production was quite a refreshing thing to see: young people taking a period piece and not only understanding such a bygone bit of American History, but also immersing into that time period and making it believable for audiences. I so often see performances where it looks like the actors are just playing dress-up in front of a period backdrop. But these kids had very little backdrop to play off of (I’m guessing they spent most of their budget on the costumes, which were really good for a college production!). They really invested in the time period they were portraying and it actually looked like they belonged there. Looking comfortable in a time, place, and way of life different from yours is not an easy thing for anyone to accomplish, so it’s especially exciting to see such young performers tackle it like champs. In a world where bigger, faster, shinier reigns supreme, it does an old soul like me good to see young people respecting and working to uphold the significance of a time that is not their own. Bravo, you young whippersnappers!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Something Wonderful - It's good to be The King

My last post was a Top 10 list (in no particular order of preference) of my personal favorite Broadway love songs, in honor of Valentine’s Day. Feel free to go back and have a listen. I’ll wait…

Welcome back! Today, we’re going to discuss the musical that featured song #7 on that list (“Something Wonderful,” for those of you who didn’t feel like having a listen): The King & I.

The King & I
Music: Richard Rogers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Based On: Margaret Landon novel, Anna and the King of Siam
Broadway Debut: 1951
Tony Nominations/Wins: 5/5

I’ve been thinking about “Something Wonderful” for a while now. It’s not one of those songs about loving someone even though they drink or beat you… or both (i.e. “What’s The Use Of Wond’rin’”, “As Long As He Needs Me”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”). It’s more than being a powerless slave to love, despite the man’s shortcomings. This is a song in which the singer loves a man for all the good he’s capable of if he has the right kind of help. At one point, Lady Thiang says, “I am not equal to his special needs.” She is filled with borderline sorrow over not being able to adequately support her conflicted husband, who is flawed beyond mere infidelity (though the guy does have a plethora of wives). She sings about loving a man who needs patience, understanding, brutal honesty, and an ego stroke all at the same time to succeed which she pleads for Anna to give him since she herself cannot. The King is doing very important things and making very important decisions to balance the eastern and western influences in his country and help his people thrive. He was raised on ancient traditions and cultures that demand he show no vulnerability whatsoever. He simultaneously needs to make way for modern advances to prove his prowess and compatibility to the rest of the world while not forcing his nation to adopt change too quickly.  Lady Thiang understands this, but can only watch from the sidelines while he and Anna work it out together.

The King & I raises a lot of fascinating interpersonal commentary in just 3 hours, particularly from the King of Siam (the real King Mongkut was actually pretty fascinating too, but more about him later). At first glance, the King comes across as an obstinate, vain, bully. Then the brilliant songs start and we are plunged into the abyss of the human condition.  The King is aware of the monumental burdens he must shoulder. In “Is A Puzzlement,” he feels extreme conflict about his uncertainty in fields that he believes he should have a firm grip on (since he’s king and all); like what values to instill in his eldest son that will make him a fair, yet dynamic king (and human being) his people will follow.  He grapples with maintaining his country’s traditional eastern identity and monarch-headed system of government while embracing the modern, western cultural influences that will assure his country remain a competitive force among the civilized nations of the world. This conflict eventually gets the best of him.  Anna’s influence strips him of his previous sense of self and throws him into an even bigger pit of conflict and moral pressure. He hands his beloved monarchy over to his son, who begins making big, modern changes for the kingdom, and (**SPOILER ALERT**) dies. It may be good to be the king, but it sure ain’t easy!

On a personal level, the King is a stern disciplinarian with his wives and children. But in “March ofthe Siamese Children,” he is clearly also a loving father. He exerts austerity because he cares about their future and wants them to be educated.  But he shows signs of softness, particularly towards the younger ones. He views his wives as subservient, demure beings, meant to do his bidding. When he first hires Anna, a woman, to teach his family, he expects her to be similar to the other women he’s grown accustomed to in his life. She blows his mind with her intellect and contending demeanor. This eventually grows into a mutual respect and a deep, unspoken love. She becomes what none of his wives, including Lady Thiang, could ever be: an equal confidante. They may butt heads in the beginning; a result of the eastern and western culture (and gender) clash, but once they let each other in emotionally and embrace each other’s positive cultural and personal attributes, they are able make beautiful music together.

Fun Facts:
The real Anna Leonowens was actually Eurasian! She told people she was of Welsh descent to explain her darker skin color. This fact wasn’t discovered until after The King & I was written.

When Gertrude Lawrence (the original Anna on Broadway) died, she was buried in her 75 pound “Shall We Dance?” ball gown.
The real King Mongkut was highly accomplished in his own right: before succeeding his older brother as king, he was a Buddhist monk (and founded a reform order of Buddhism), a multi-lingual scholar, a mathematician, an astronomer, and he set up Siam's first printing press, to print in both English and Siamese… And I thought Yul Brynner was a badass!