Here’s the trouble: I want to write something about two composers who were born 200 years ago and had a great deal of influence on the writing of musicals, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. Trouble is, I’m not an opera fan, don’t attend very often. I saw Rigoletto some years ago; I give a lecture on the history of musical theatre. But there’s something ridiculous about a guy-who’s-not-into-opera telling musical theatre fans about the two titans of opera-writing born in 1813.
A number of Broadway composers love opera, but what runs through my mind are show tunes, often obscure ones. Right now it’s Cole Porter’s It Ain’t Etiquette, since it references Rigoletto:
When invited to hear from an opera box
Rigoletto’s divine quartet
Don’t bother your neighbors by throwing rocks
It ain’t etiquette.
Name drop alert! Speaking of musical comedy composers who love opera, I’ve been thinking a lot about John Kander recently. Some years ago we were rehearsing a couple of his numbers, and I asked whether he’d attend the performance. “When is it? Oh, there’s no way: I’ve tickets to Il travatore that night.” John just had a new musical open off-Broadway, at the age of 86, which leads to the question, “When’s the last time a fellow that old composed a show?” I don’t know the answer, but I do know that Verdi’s Falstaff premiered the year he turned 80. That’s seen as a remarkable achievement. (I recently chided Stephen Sondheim here for his plummeting productivity over the past 25 years. His last new musical opened when he was 78: Road Show – you remember Road Show?)
(A Kander number influenced by opera)
It’s surprising to me that musical comedy writers didn’t think of adapting Shakespeare until Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys From Syracuse in 1938. They surely knew Verdi had adapted the Bard’s plays brilliantly, and successfully. Here and there, he mixes the light and dark, which is something good musicals do. In Macbeth, King Duncan enters a castle where, we know, his hosts plan to have him killed. Things have been dark and forboding, but the entrance is accompanied by a sunny pesante little march: a ditty played against the mood, to creepy effect. You’ll find similar juxtapositions in many a musical, including the first act finale of my Such Good Friends, in which a celebratory number is interrupted by devastating news. A more familiar example is Gee Officer Krupke, which cuts into the tension of West Side Story’s killings and betrayals. Or I Made a Fist, a blithe comedy song amidst all sorts of very heavy goings-on towards the end of The Most Happy Fella.
You know I’m far more comfortable talking about The Most Happy Fella, by my favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser, than I am about Verdi and Wagner. It’s a safe bet he had the old masters on his mind in writing music, lyrics and book for …Fella, the most effective romantic musical of them all. The score makes use of leitmotifs, those little bits of theme that get associated with a character, feeling, action or place. Those employing them are following the lead of Richard Wagner, who used a huge quantity in his Ring of the Nibelung (the original “one ring to rule them all”). And this is not an example of my blowing a dog whistle that can only be heard by a music nerd. They tend to work on our emotions subliminally, fully understood by the heart, if not the head, of the least knowledgeable listener.
In Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, leitmotifs are flowing frequently in the accompaniment. There’s a few at the beginning of Finishing the Hat.
The jazzy bit in the bass has been associated with people enjoying the weekend on an island. Then it goes into the thick chords on long notes that come up at poignant points in the Georges-Dot relationship. Georges goes from thinking about the people he’s drawn to his main model and lover; we’re clued in to this by the shift of motifs. When he sings “I had thought she understood” we hear, on woodwinds, a legato version of the jumping eighth-note theme that has played whenever Georges is applying paint. Then, heading in to the refrain on “if anybody could” we hear the thirds on eighth notes theme that has to do with moving on. Nobody who hears Finishing the Hat thinks it’s merely a song about painting because the subtext, the thoughts about separating from Dot, resound as accompaniment throughout the chorus.
Seems a bit strange to be discussing a Wagnerian device in a score so strongly influenced by seven Frenchmen, Maurice Ravel and Les Six (who came later). But composers all regurgitate stuff that enters their mind. I’m quite partial to Ravel and Les Six myself, yet, when I was 19 and in Lehman Engel’s workshop in BMI, I presented a song called It’s a Mystery To Me and got criticized for Wagnerian chord sequences. Had no idea what those were. It was a mystery to me. But I guess I’d listened to enough classical music for that influence to seep in.
I guess I’m recommending you listen to some Wagner and Verdi (that’s an alliteration, folks) before this bicentennial year’s out. If we’re all reconstituting things we hear, might as well put something good in your ear.