Archive for January, 2011

Marketing or art

25 January 2011

I like musicals and I like Stephen Sondheim, so wanted to know what he had to say in an 80th birthday interview in The Guardian just before Christmas.

Certainly there are some observations about the craft of the musical – especially lyric-writing – that intrigue. Hammerstein’s “Oh what a beautiful morning”, from Oklahoma, for example:

“Nothing could be more banal,” Sondheim says. “But that song changed the history of musical theatre.” And it did so through simplicity, clarity and repetition.

And reflecting on this seems to have made him regret his own, later, lyric for ‘Maria‘, in West Side Story, with its famous couplet:

“Say it loud and there’s music playing / Say it soft and it’s almost like praying”

Sondheim thinks that this contributed a “wetness” to the words which persisted throughout the show’s romantic numbers. I think I have to disagree: the whole point of the romantic numbers in West Side Story is to create a difference from the directness and toughness of the streets, to build in our minds the idea that Tony and Maria might be able to escape (“there’s a place for us”) from the world of the gangs and the garment district. Sondheim doesn’t have a lot of time for Bernstein, but here Bernstein understood what he was doing.

But the thing that puzzles the most is his comments on Allegro, a failed musical which Rogers and Hammerstein wrote in the middle of a run of huge success. Sondheim thinks he understands what they should have done, and it comes down to this:

“making clear to an audience why you’ve written what you’ve written, and what it’s about. Then if they like it, great. If they don’t like it, fine. But if they don’t like it because they don’t understand it, that’s bad. That is the writer’s fault. If you write it and it’s clear and they don’t like it, that’s not your fault. That’s what art is about.”

But this isn’t about art, it’s about marketing. The history of our art and culture is full of works which audiences didn’t understand, were confused by, and hated, and had to puzzle out over time, from the impressionists to The Rites of Spring to bebop to Peeping Tom. It’s disappointing that someone whose craft is so rich – after 60 years in the theatre – seems to have such a one-dimensional view of art and its audiences.

The image at the top of this post comes from the Academy of Achievement website, and is used with thanks.

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The Lady Eve

22 January 2011

I feel like I’m continuing a mini-series of posts about classic films, but I watched the Preston Sturges’ film The Lady Eve this weekend, and wanted to write something about a couple of the sequences in it. Sturges pushed the screwball comedy into satire in a career that reached its peak in the war years, testing the limits of the Hollywood ‘Hays Code’ censors as he went.

The Lady Eve stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, professional card hustler and unworldly breweries heir respectively, and love, of course, gets in the way of the hustling business. Stanwyck is as sultry as she is in Double Indemnity, but with better intent (watch the clip at the top if you want to see what I mean).

Sturges has many strengths as a writer-director (his scripts always sparkle), and I’ve written about some of these before. From The Lady Eve, there are three distinctive scenes which show his talent.

The first is his inventive use of mise-en-scène, the film word used to describe the way scenes look and film. Early on in The Lady Eve, when Fonda has just joined the liner to sail back to New York, he’s sitting on his own at dinner being watched, it seems, by every unattached woman on the boat. We know this because Barbara Stanwyck is watching the entire room from a mirror – we see it from this as well – and adding a running commentary on the feeble strategies being used by the others, unsuccessfully, to attract his attention. (Eventually, as he leaves, she ‘inadvertently’ trips him, which works just fine.)

Similarly, when Fonda eventually proposes to Stanwyck, the scene’s undercut in two ways; the script has already told us how and where this is going to happen (all part of Stanwyck’s plan), and Fonda’s horse, always in shot, keeps interrupting his speech.

Secondly, he’s adept at building the comic moment. On the boat, Fonda, Stanwyck, and her father are playing poker (this is their livelihood, but Stanwyck has fallen for Fonda and is determined to make sure her father doesn’t clean him out.) Fonda’s $2,000 down, and Stanwyck decides to help him out a bit, by dealing him a decent hand. As the scene unfolds, we see the visual equivalent of ‘see you and raise’, as the card-sharp father improves his hand by a variety of (illegal) means, and Stanwyck undercuts him each time.

And finally, Sturges is a master of ambiguity. We can’t be sure (spoiler alert) until the very last scene that Stanwyck is in love with Fonda rather than simply unfolding the longest of ‘long cons‘, turning down a lucrative legal settlement en route. For the Hays Code censors, who did not permit films to show criminals profiting from their crimes, it must have made for an anxious ninety minutes viewing.

Magic on 34th Street

3 January 2011

Seasonally, I picked up a copy of Miracle on 34th Street in a pile of second-hand DVDs just before Christmas – the 1947 original with Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, not the 1994 version in which Richard Attenborough plays Kris Kringle, or Santa. It has a charm that is lacking in the remake, or come to that in the Santa-on-the-Shopping-Channel version that I stumbled across recently on daytime TV, with Whoopi Goldberg as the doubting sales exec played by O’Hara in 1947.

Looking at the 1947 film from 2010, it’s interesting to see that even then – a decade before the post-war consumer boom really started to accelerate – part of of the rationale for the story was that Christmas had become over-commercialised. But in its original incarnation, Miracle on 34th Street is about the rise of the rational and the decline of magic: Weber versus wizardry, as it were. It is presented as quite reasonable that Doris Walker (O’Hara) should want her daughter (the young Natalie Wood) to grow up without believing in things which are untrue.

Susan, the six-year old, didn’t need to be brattish to move the plot along, and Maureen O’Hara doesn’t need the leaden backstory visited on Whoopi Goldberg to explain why she holds her views. (Come to that, not a line of script is given to explaining why she is a single parent; we could guess, but we don’t need to, and the plot doesn’t need us to either).

No matter how reasonable rationality is, it gets corrupted in the wrong hands. Here, these hands are given to the store’s psychologist, Granville Sawyer. Seven years after Freud’s death, forty years after the work which made his name, Sawyer, unqualified, interprets the pleasure that a young employee gets from playing Santa at his local YMCA as being a psychiatric disorder, rooted (inevitably) in his childhood. When confronted by Kris Kringle, Sawyer uses a mixture of his positional authority and some deception to despatch him to New York’s notorious Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

The courtroom scene that follows is a masterpiece, treading a fine line between the processes of the court, the stories we tell ourselves, popular sentiment, and self interest. The judge, nearing re-election, is desperate not to rule that Santa doesn’t exist; the Macy’s store boss is about to say – rationally – that Santa isn’t real, before seeing in his mind’s eye – equally rationally – his Xmas sales slump.

Eventually (spoiler alert) the lawyer who’s believed in Santa all along – a lawyer is the good guy – gets the proof the court needs: a ‘competent authority’ which believes that Kris Kringle is Father Christmas. The moment that makes this possible is a flash of the blue-collar in the sorting office, rarely seen in films. As it happens, Miracle on 34th Street is unusually deft and knowing all the way through about the way that organisations work. The rational world, it turns out, needs a bit of magic to get along.