Thursday, May 17, 2007

Is a Trap Being Sprung on Spring Awakening?

Update: I was going to write a respectful rant (is that oxymoronic?...) about Peter's column on Wednesday on Spring Awakening, but upon re-reading it, I'm taking a different tack. Really, I am not going to change anybody's opinion, at least insofar at the criticisms of the score go. And heaven known it's not like I'm screaming at psychotic athiests who communicate in CAPITAL LETTERS, right?

So here are some thoughts, only for the heck of it. When Peter notes what's been stated "freely" in the playbill ("The play is set in a provincial German town in the 1890s"), and when he uses this "admission" to assail the lyrics, it seems to me he's really assailing the fact that the playbill says "The play is set in a provincial German town in the 1890s." For it takes him several more paragraphs to really address what it is he really dislikes about Sater's lyrics: "I went through Spring Awakening's CD booklet and examined the printed lyrics for incorrect rhymes. I found 59 of them! 59!" Now, that's fair and fine: I agree that musical-theatre lyrics should be rhymed perfectly. But to me, Peter makes a quantum leap when he suggests that because audiences "have a harder time understanding the lyrics of a song if they don't have perfect rhymes and right stresses to guide them," leading audiences to feel "alienated from the show," this is the reason why "Spring Awakening isn't a box-office smash: "because too many attendees didn't quite catch what the characters are singing..." I can think of lots of musicals in which rhymes are perfect and not every word is understood. For among other things, it seems to me that being able to understand lyrics at all has as much to do with the actor/performer, and, alas, with the sound system -- or, heaven help us, the lack of one! Also, I've never located any bit of empirical evidence corrolating perfect rhyming to successful marketing. "I know this sounds like quite a stretch," he writes of his theory; I'm glad he knows that. The fact is, there are criticism in his essay that far more efficiently reasoned. For one, when Peter talks about the use of mikes and how he "got" the concept for their use in the show ("that when the kids pulled mikes out of their pockets and sang, they were expressing their innermost thoughts), writing "Yes, I got it. I just don't like it" is honest, I'll give him that. And people should always have different tastes. That's what makes a critical ballgame.

Let me add one thing, though, about the mikes. Like Peter, I've seen Spring Awakening three times, and something has changed recently in the show -- maybe I've just noticed it. At the Atlantic, when the kids pulled out the mikes, they did so slowly; there was something furtive and flirtacious, even something sexually daring about it. Now they sort of whip the mikes out: the effect is even less enjoyable for those of us who know about the using of the mikes because we expect them in the first place. While I agree with Peter that the SA cast is wonderful, they may really need someone (hello? Michael Mayer?) to just sharpen things up a little bit. Nutty as this sounds, those mikes needs internal lives of their own -- they really need to be extensions of the characters. (Again, if you hate the idea to begin with, you'll hate my reasoning equally.) I'm just saying this because if there's no intention, no purpose to the way the mikes are revealed, or if the intention or purpose is imprecise, then, yes, it can become a total gimmick, and that would be unfortunate.

But back to Peter's complaint about the anachronistic music and lyrics. Smart of him to mention Godspell, Pippin, Superstar and Joseph insofar as modern man not having much of strong sense of how music sounded in Biblical times or during Charlemagne's reign (I suspect musicologists specializing in medieval and ancient music might, however). What bothers me -- and what I at last realized is the crux of my gentleman's disagreement with Peter -- is that there's no mention of the audience's part in the process, its suspending of disbelief. I'm not at all certain that every song in Oklahoma! necessarily echoes precisely the sounds I would have heard at that time in Oklahoma; I'm not at all sure the music in Act I of Sunday in the Park with George, set in 19th century France, is what I would have necessarily heard in 19th century France. The music in those examples, just to stay on them for a moment, evoke sounds, are redolent of sounds, that one might have heard. But by Peter's reasoning, it wouldn't matter: "the real music that was heard in 1890s Germany bears no relationship to what Duncan Sheik wrote." So the score, to fit his standard, would need to sound exactly like the sounds of 1890s Germany? What relationship does the score of Les Miserables bear to "France: Digne, 1815; Montreuil-Sur-Mer, 1823; Montfermeil, 1823; Paris, 1832" (the settings of the show according to IBDB).

This can go on all night. I'm just saying that there a little bit of sophistry in some of this, and stronger arguments in other parts of this. In my opinion.

I mean, as Peter says, more or less, to each his own, right
Just read Peter Filichia's take-down of Spring Awakening on Theatermania.com...well, not so much a take-down as a post-Tony-nomination preemptive attack. I'm a little short on time this morning, but I'm formulating a response, as I think there's a certain amount of quibbling that ought to be done with what he wrote.

Let me add before I do, that Peter, personally, is one of the most cordial, professional and genuinely warmhearted theatre critics I know, so I'm going to write what I write with nothing but deep respect for him -- and, of course, his mastery of musical theatre, which readily outstrips that of pretty much everyone else. What I also know about Peter is that I won't be likely to get a pissy and petulent email from him, like I got from a certain someone else, using phrases like "from the likes of you" to describe me as if I was nothing more than primordial slime.

More later. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

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3 comments:

YASIN said...

http://yasinearth.blogspot.com/

Jen said...

Since when did a lack of a rhyme scheme mean anything? By his pretzel logic, because Eleanor Rigby only has two rhymes each verse it disqualifies it from being a decent pop song. SA was one of the best musicals I've seen - perhaps in my entire life - simply because it didnt suffer from a terminally "Broadway" sound or score.

Paul said...

I don't know Peter's age, but whatever it is, it is the reason he didn't like the music. HE'S TOO FUCKING OLD. One must really LISTEN to these lyrics (and music) -- it takes work. But the result of the effort is extremely satisfying. It's akin to listening to Sondheim the first time on some songs; many of the old foggies in a Sondheim audience find it too difficult and prefer Rodgers and Hammerstein because it's so "hummable!" But the "kids" who get Spring Awakening, and love the music (as I do), must work a little to get all the words -- but one's ear is attuned to such work when one has spent a lifetime listening to rock and pop lyrics. I suspect Peter has not. To decry the lyrics because they don't rhyme is preposterous. To Peter: get a new battery for your hearing aid, and take a teaspoon of Metamucil everyday. I think you need it.