I’m happiest at Christmas

“Credit where credit’s due” has always been a big deal for me. So, when I point out I’m only responsible for the music of Christmas In O’Hare, I hope it doesn’t sound like I’d be embarrassed if you thought I’d written the words. Those are by Tom Carrozza, whose vocal is on the video, and I assume he assembled the images himself. But I wasn’t there. Nor was I there when the recording engineer “orchestrated” my music on computer: The only human accompaniment, I think, was me playing into a keyboard. And now the word that comes to mind is “beehive.” Not just because Tom appreciates a good sculptural hair-do, but I’m compelled to remind you we are all just worker bees – it’s easier to picture ants, actually – each doing our small part to create a transcendent whole.

And do you know about the beehive curtain? When you entered the theatre to see the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, you encountered a huge illustration, black ink on cloth, suspended where a curtain might normally be, but on ropes. It defined the Beehive as the connected set of professions that defined London life: the tinker, the tailor, the hooker, the hustler (oops, drifted into the wrong song there). An organ played a somber fugue, implying there was something blessed about this network. And then, all of a sudden, an ear-piercing steam whistle, like from the world’s noisiest factory, shook you to your core. The beehive drop was yanked down to reveal a colorless street, where dour people moved around like zombies.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because every subsequent production of Sweeney Todd that I know of did away with this prologue. The audience didn’t start the show considering the connectivity of various professions. And, as the evening wore on, they watched a madman exact murderous revenge on tinkers, tailors, shepherds and fops for no particular reason. His sad lot in life led him to lose his mind and so he became a serial killer. Which isn’t nearly as chilling and thought-provoking as Sweeney as emblem of a corrupt system. Society, with its morals not worth what a pig can spit, created its dark avenger.

The cautionary tale I’m mulling over is the trouble directors of revivals inevitably get into when they restage a piece in a different way. Something gets lost – something important. In 1979, Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler and director Harold Prince (I believe the beehive curtain was Prince’s idea) fashioned an interesting musical that had something to say. Sondheim, Prince and Wheeler were no slouches. Three decades later, John Doyle sets his staging of Sweeney Todd in an insane asylum where all the inmates play musical instruments, and not discordantly. When the chorus snarls “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” we don’t feel indicted in the slightest because we know we aren’t inmate musicians: we’re at a safe remove. Currently Doyle’s mounting a vastly truncated Allegro, a 1947 musical nobody ever complained was too long, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, directed and choreographed by Agnes DeMille. No slouches either. Once again, the actors are the musicians. I shall not attend.

I also don’t plan to go to the recently announced star-studded staging of Parade. (What is this, a blog about shows I’m not going to?) Parade‘s a sad historical drama that a lot of perspicacious people seem to admire, leading me to wonder, “Did they see the same show I saw?” I suspect a lot of them didn’t. If you saw that original production, directed by I-remind-you-again-No-Slouch Harold Prince, you were bombarded for more than two hours with a single overly-emphatic message: Southerners, a century ago, were unintelligent belligerent bigots. Now, I suppose if you’d never heard that message before, two hours of hearing it loudly stated over and over again (to pleasant tunes), might be your cup of sweet tea. But for those of us who’d already heard about prejudiced whites down in Dixie, well, pass the bourbon. The theatre was at least one third empty the night I saw it. But those who stayed for the third hour were rewarded by a moving conclusion.

Take Jason Robert Brown’s songs out of context and they play like gangbusters. When tasked with moving Parade’s turgid tale, they sludge along like rotting molasses. So, those who’ve only heard the cast album, or have only encountered those melodies unmoored from Alfred Uhry’s libretto, get a distinctly different impression. When I listened to You Don’t Know This Man on Audra McDonald’s CD, I liked its soaring melody and piqued tone. But when you see a quiet Jewish gentlemen falsely accused of murder and his wife comes out to meet the press, you expect her to say certain things. And, in this song, she says them – exactly what you’d expect her to say. Which is rather dull in the theatre.

I probably seem obsessed by this point. But, in my life, I keep encountering people who assume shows are wonderful because they love the scores they’ve merely listened to. In the theatre, our first responsibility is to entertain the audience that’s in the seats. If we don’t interest them, we’ve failed. If a song, out of context, affects people, well, that’s good news, but it wasn’t the goal. I think there’s many a Brown number that people love, without benefit of seeing it in context, and You Don’t Know This Song.

And why am I writing all this on Christmas? Well, I was recalling all the Christmas songs I’ve written, starting with Joy Will Be Yours In the Morning, a setting of a lyric found in The Wind In the Willows, when I was 12 or 13. As a writer of shows, I’ve frequently had to come up with carols characters might sing, and, for The Christmas Bride, two yuletide tunes employed dramatic irony. I’m Happiest At Christmas, in context, is about the difficult emotion of being forced to feel merry when one really isn’t. For the heroine, the title is ironic. Out of context, though, everybody tells me I’ve written a wonderfully evocative Victorian holiday waltz. Who am I to argue?

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