Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Take Me To The World ... of Mannequins

Dear Muse,

Sondheim musicals and Rapunzel seem to go hand-in-hand in my mind lately. No sooner had I finished talking about Into the Woods' Rapunzel story than I found myself envisioning the perfect song for Rapunzel to sing to Flynn Rider when she holds him prisoner in Tangled. That song? "Take Me To the World" from Evening Primrose.

It just occurred to me that I've referenced Tangled in several of my posts. As Flynn Rider would say, "This doesn't usually happen."
Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

For all intensive purposes, however, this post isn't going to be about Rapunzel. I just used her as an excuse to talk about Evening Primrose, one of my favorite Sondheim musicals ever.

                                                                          Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Evening Primrose 
is another show that I learned about courtesy of my friend DivaStar. As we were rambling around my neighborhood one summery evening, discussing musicals in general, her mention of Evening Primrose sparked my interest. Apparently she (or someone she knew) had studied "Take Me To The World" to perform at some voice class, but as I listened to her elaborate on the rest of the show I became increasingly enchanted by this Sondheim musical I had never heard of before.

I don't think I'm alone in my ignorance, though. In one sense, I can understand its being a lesser-known Sondheim work. Written for television, Evening Primrose aired in 1966 and has since scarcely been revived. And with only 4 songs to its credit, it can hardly be called a legitimate musical. Various artists have recorded the individual songs, of course - but given how few revivals and soundtrack recordings there have been, I have serious doubts as to whether many people today even remember the story.

But they should - it's quite weird and disturbing. After all, how many other musicals do you know of about secret societies in department stores at night where people get turned into mannequins?

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Piqued your interest? Then let's dive into the story.

Anthony Perkins as Charles; Charmian Carr as Ella.
The story begins with a poet named Charles Snell taking refuge from the world in a department store after closing hours. There, he meets a secret group that has lived in the store for years, but whose members forbid anyone to return to the outside world and risk revealing their existence. (I would love to know why - after all, it's not like they're running a drug ring or anything. They're just really controlling for some unexplained reason.) If anyone does try to leave, the "Dark Men" take them away and turn them into mannequins in the clothing department.

Mrs. Monday, the leader of the group, accepts Charles when she learns that he is a poet. While settling into the group, he meets Ella, Mrs. Monday's maid. She reveals that she has lived in the store since she was 6, and has not seen the outside world for 13 years. This brings us to the musical's most popular song, "I Remember."                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Source: via Ariel on Pinterest
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Of all the songs, "I Remember" is the most poignant. Ella sings it to Charles as she tries to capture her fading childhood memories of the outside world, conveying both her nostalgia and longing to see the world again. If you watch the video clip below, you'll see Charmian Carr (Ella in the original 1966 production) do an absolutely wonderful job of portraying the song's emotions. While her voice isn't nearly as good as that of Theresa McCarthy (in the 2001 studio recording), the expressiveness of her voice and her face is captivating to watch, and she speaks with a childish exuberance that is simply charming.

Charles falls in love with Ella over time, realizing that he cares even more about her happiness than he does about living an isolated life and writing poetry. However, Mrs. Monday has forbidden their relationship (again, explanation?), so they take pains to try and hide their budding romance. Eventually, Charles decides to escape with Ella, but not before Mrs. Monday and the others find out and send the "Dark Men" after them. As for the ending - well, that's the disturbing part.

The way I understood the ending (from DivaStar) was that it was left purposely ambiguous, with a Twilight Zone-ish twist. When the store opens the next morning, a couple is standing on the sidewalk staring at two new mannequins in the window display. But, since the camera is aimed at the couple's back and you can't see their faces, it's left to the viewer to decide on a happy ending (Charles and Ella escaped and are the couple outside) or a tragic ending (Charles and Ella got caught and are now mannequins). Although the wikipedia article argues that it's definitely the latter ending, I'd prefer ambiguity so I can believe in the former.

Looking at Evening Primrose in light of everything Sondheim's ever done, this may be his most peculiar work. (Then again, it came out around the same time as that musical about a reincarnated plant esper with low self-esteem, so maybe I should blame the late '60s for churning out supremely bizarre shows.) But I think it's also one of his most creative. And I definitely think more people should know about it and remember it.

So, for your listening pleasure, I have included mp3 files of all 4 Evening Primrose songs below. Although I hope to find the original TV soundtrack someday, for now you'll have to content yourself with the 2001 studio recording (starring a young, not-yet-Dr.-Horrible Neil Patrick Harris as Charles).

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rapunzel and Two Witch "Mothers"

Dear Muse,

I've never been a big fan of Into the Woods. Granted, the musical has good imagery, colorful characters and a compelling plot. But, aside from "Agony" (that one good song), most of its songs have never seemed like worthwhile listening material.

However, my well-worn contempt for the musical changed somewhat after I realized that Into the Woods' song "Stay With Me" sounds almost exactly like "Mother Knows Best" from Disney's Tangled. Although Tangled featured a BIG Rapunzel story and Into the Woods featured a little Rapunzel story, I started to see many similarities between the 2010 film and the 1987 musical.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

First of all, the two songs actually have a lot in common. Both "Stay With Me" and "Mother Knows Best" are about Rapunzel and her witch "mother," and both songs have similar scenarios and ideas. Come to think of it, a lot of the messages Mother Gothel delivers to Rapunzel in Tangled are practically carbon copies of those messages uttered by her Into the Woods counterpart. Is this a coincidence? Or could there really be a connection between Into the Woods and Tangled?

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest
Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

To investigate further, let's break down the similarities between Into the Woods' and Tangled's Rapunzel/Witch scenarios. What do they have in common?

  • Both feature a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship between the Witch/Mother Gothel and Rapunzel.
  • Both the Witch/Mother Gothel play an emotionally abusive and manipulative "mother" (or Beloved Smother) who tries to ensure her "daughter" remains shut off from the world and within her control
  • Both Rapunzels are anxious to expand their limited world, and are both frustrated and made miserable by their "mother's" attempts to "keep them safe." However, the two Rapunzels are just as naïve and impressionable, making it easier for their "mothers" to convince them to stay. 
  • Both "mothers" do this by employing a combination of guilt-tripping and scare tactics, colorfully reinforcing just how dangerous the world is and how much damage Rapunzel would do (to herself and to her mother) if she acted on her rash impulses.   
  • Most importantly: where do both the Witch/Mother Gothel show just how manipulative they are? In their respective songs, of course! Just watch the Youtube videos below and see if you can pinpoint the similarities between "Stay With Me" and "Mother Knows Best."

Uncanny, isn't it? Given how much the songs mirror each other, you'd almost think that Into the Woods directly influenced Tangled ! Still, there is a major distinction to keep in mind as well. While both "mothers" sing about very similar things, their reasons for doing so are entirely different.

Bloggers apeygirl and hellyeahtangled raise an interesting point on this subject: the key difference between Mother Gothel in Tangled and the Witch in Into the Woods is that the Witch appears to genuinely love Rapunzel. Unlike Mother Gothel, the Witch doesn't warn off Rapunzel because she sees her as a gullible ditz who can be easily cowed into submission. Instead, she expresses sincere concern for Rapunzel's wellbeing when she sings to her about the world's dangers. And unlike Mother Gothel, she seems genuinely anxious to preserve Rapunzel's childhood and protect her from the world's harshness.

To Mother Gothel, Rapunzel is nothing but a precious provider of eternal youth and beauty; a resource Gothel uses to prolong her own life. Gothel's intent to keep Rapunzel in captivity is entirely for her own self-benefit. But to the Witch, Rapunzel is like her real daughter, and she coaxes and pleads with her as if she were her real mother. Her intent is to keep her "daughter" from growing up too fast, as well as prevent any harm from befalling her. She cares about Rapunzel as a person, not as a tool. 

Yes, both Mother Gothel and the Witch are manipulative. Both are controlling. And both are fake mothers. But the true motherly love the Witch has for Rapunzel makes her the more sympathetic of the two.

Differences aside, the similarities between the two witch "mothers" certainly are intriguing. Sadly, I have yet to find concrete proof that Into the Woods inspired Tangled, or any evidence that they are in fact related. But the connection can't be pure coincidence - any more than it could be coincidence that Donna Murphy (who voiced Mother Gothel) played the Witch in the 2012 production of Into the Woods. 

Still, whether I dig up actual proof or not, Into the Woods deserves some credit. Given the in-depth analysis "Stay With Me" provoked, maybe the musical's score is a bit more worthwhile than I'd thought.


P.S. The whole Into the Woods/Tangled topic reminds me of when my friend DivaStar played Rapunzel in her high school's production of Into the Woods. She even commented on it in a letter:

Her drawing of herself as Rapunzel inspired me to draw my own picture of her. (I don't know why, but the thought of my brunette friend wearing long golden tresses strikes me as funny. Or maybe it's the thought of her singing "AAAAAAAAAAAA" for long bouts of time. Either way, the image that my mind conjures up is a silly one.)

Monday, March 10, 2014

The New World Symphony Doesn't Always Mean Death

Dear Muse,

Saturday was my 24th birthday - and I began it in one of the strangest ways I've ever begun a birthday: by singing with my church's choir at the memorial service of James Patrick Adams, a college student who died in a car accident on Feb. 28.

I use the term "strange" instead of "depressing" because that's how I felt during the service: strange. Strange because I was surrounded by grieving and sniffling churchgoers, but was unable to feel a thing because I didn't even know the guy. Strange because he was a student at Carleton College, the "rival" college of my alma mater (St. Olaf College). Strange because the accident happened on a road my St. Olaf friends drive on often. Strange because Adams was a few months younger than my brother, and was about to turn 21 on March 17. Strange because he sounded like a guy I honestly would have liked, full of joy and passion for everything in life, from the colors of a sunset to the comraderie of an ultimate frisbee tournament (which was where he and 4 others were driving to when the accident occurred). The combination of these factors wracked my mind with such a whirlwind of thoughts that I had no room for sadness.

While all those things were strange in a general sense, the strangest musical part of the service was when my choir sang "Going Home", a religious adaptation of Dvořák's New World Symphony. My question is, why the New World Symphony? 

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

To be honest, I can appreciate the idea that the church goes for when incorporating the New World Symphony into a funereal hymn. "Going Home" is a beautiful song to use as a farewell, because one can interpret the "new world" as Heaven, and "going home" as going to Heaven/God when your time on Earth is done. Where James Patrick Adams is concerned, I thought it was one of the best songs his family could have chosen to say goodbye with. (See Youtube clip below.)

Nevertheless, I can't help but notice an ostensible connection between the New World Symphony and Death. "Going Home" surely must have been played at countless other memorial services and/or funerals. And it isn't just the church hymn that bothers me; the New World Symphony seems to have funereal significance elsewhere in the media. Case in point: Gisaburō Sugii's 1985 Japanese animated film, Night on the Galactic Railroad.  [CAUTION: Spoilers in the next paragraph.]

When my choir was singing "Going Home" on Saturday, I couldn't help but recall that scene from near the end of Night on the Galactic Railroad, in which the train stops at a station and the characters hear Dvořák's New World Symphony playing (see Youtube clip below). Of course, if you've seen the movie, you know that almost everyone on the train is dead, and the train is heading toward Heaven/the Afterlife/Some Equivalent Thereof. If the New World Symphony's presence in the movie isn't in some way connected with Death, I'd like to hear any arguments to the contrary.

But, despite its heavy association with Death, the New World Symphony doesn't always mean Death. After all, that's not what Dvořák had in mind when he wrote it. According to the wikipedia article, Dvořák actually composed his symphony to reflect the spirit of African-American spirituals and Native American music, as well as capture the feelings he experienced when seeing America's "wide open spaces."

Furthermore, my first memories of the New World Symphony aren't associated with Death; they're associated with my dad's university history classes. Having sat in on more than one of his classes when I was living at home, I know that he always starts them with a piece of iconic music (related to the lecture, that is). One of his regular favorites to use when beginning and ending his "History of the U.S." course is the New World Symphony. For him, the symphony isn't about Death at all - it symbolizes a new introduction; adventure; exploration; discovery. It is emotionally stimulating and (if you're an enterprising young academic) intellectually invigorating, a call to journey across more of our world rather than a call to leave it behind.

So you see, Dvořák's New World Symphony can be just as joyous and fulfilling as it can be sad and gloomy. While it was a perfectly good farewell tribute for James Adams, it is also a good incentive for people to learn about America's history and music (or the wide world in general). Make no mistake: it has equal value on both accounts. Personally, I'm going to keep enjoying it as a symphony of exploration rather than a symphony that makes you sad. But if I'm ever called upon to sing "Going Home" for another memorial, I won't forget that the symphony's mournfulness is just as important as its brightness.

                                                                              Till next time,

P.S. If you're interested in watching the complete Night on the Galactic Railroad, you can check out the subtitled version here.  (I strongly urge you to do so; it is a beautifully animated film, albeit a bit slow-paced.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Zooey Deschanel's Band is Too '60s

Dear Muse,

Many a curiosity for a band/music artist arises through my neighborhood romps with DivaStar. During one of these walks over Christmas Break, I decided to introduce her to k.d. lang. As we strolled along contentedly listening to my ipod, strung together with one earbud in her ear and one in mine (admittedly an awkward way to share an ipod, as neither person can get too far away from each other, and if you walk too close you step on each other's feet), DivaStar made a strange comment:

Even though I never knew that Zooey Deschanel had a band, I decided to take DivaStar up on her idea and see whether this person really did resemble k.d. lang. Now, having listened to She & Him's Volume Two, I can confidently say that Zooey Deschanel sounds NOTHING like k.d. lang. In fact, she kind of sucks.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Of course, the key words here are "kind of." Some of the songs Deschanel sings, like "Ridin' In My Car" and "Over It Over Again", are OK enough to listen to more than once. But that's it: they're OK. In other words, they're the least annoying/dull songs on the album. All the others have a bland, upbeat, girlish sweetness to them that I find unpalatable - mainly because it makes them sound so similar that they're extremely boring. (Music reviewer Rob Dixon says it best when he admits of Volume Two, "the sweetness might not be to everyone's taste though, particularly as on initial listens some tracks can appear somewhat samey.")

Volume Two's overall blandness is even more damning when it leaves its songs devoid of feeling. Take the single "Thieves", for example. I simply don't understand how fans enjoyed this song enough to make it a single; the instrumentation is tiresome, and Deschanel's voice is irritating because it wavers between high-pitched nasally-whiny and girlishly sweet without passion. "Thieves" is a cutesy song pretending to be heartfelt but failing to convey any real heart. How can anyone truly like that kind of song?

(Then again, people loved Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe", and it's exactly the same: cutesy while being insincere and bland. Maybe it's just further evidence that, when it comes to singles, the public will always go for the most generic and flavorless upbeat songs on the pop music charts.)

Still, the worst part about She & Him's bland sweetness is how much it sounds like a bad '60s band. In fact, the more I listen to She & Him, the more they sound like the Beach Boys. And I detest the Beach Boys.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

I know this is a personal bias on my part. But I can't help it; the Beach Boys have irritated me for years. Furthermore, I can't help but recall "Surfin' USA" and "I Get Around" when I listen to She & Him songs like "In the Sun" and "Don't Look Back." Same nasal quality; same annoying chorus; same sort of headachingly-bopping instrumentation; same blah-1960's sound. Even Deschanel's music videos scream 1960's: everybody dresses, dances, smiles, sings, lives and breathes like they're exuding the '60s through their pores. It's corny and happy-go-lucky enough to make the Beach Boys proud.

Don't believe me? Check out the music videos below and see!!

There's not much more I can say about She & Him at present, since I've only heard one of their albums. Maybe the other albums have better songs than Volume Two had ... or at least sound less like a musical '60s advertisement. And maybe the mp3 files of "Ridin' In My Car" and "Over It Over Again" (which I've attached below) will strike your fancy. For now, though, all I know is that k.d. lang puts better expression into her dullest song than Zooey Deschanel puts into her best.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Afterthoughts on "Christmas of Swing"

Dear Muse,

Several months ago I saw the History Theatre's "Christmas of Swing."  Sadly, due to a combination of the-ongoing-search-for-employment and shameful procrastination, I never got around to speaking about it ... until now. But, although the new year is well under way, and although the 2013 Christmas season is a distant memory for many, I still find several things worth mentioning about the show. To do that, let's take a few steps back to December.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

December was when I gushed about that dazzling trio, The Andrews Sisters. If you thought I was excited writing about them, you can imagine my excitement when I heard the History Theatre was putting on a musical show about them at the exact same time. So, on Dec. 15th, I went to see it. Was it everything I expected? Well ... no. In some ways, it was underwhelming, but in other ways it was a nice surprise.

How was it underwhelming?

In part, "Christmas of Swing" was underwhelming because I didn't hear all the big Andrews Sisters hits that I expected to hear  - the only ones I got were "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" at the end, and "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar" as part of a medley. The rest were mostly Christmas songs the Girls either covered or originated ("Jing-A-Ling"; "I'd Like to Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus"; "Christmas Tree Angel"; "Sleigh Ride"; etc.). And, while I had never heard these Andrews Sisters songs before and was grateful to learn they existed ... they were pretty blah, neither life-changing nor memorable. So I could understand why Band3 turned down my invitation to come see the show with me. When it comes to Christmas songs, the Andrews Sisters' stuff is better left alone.

Another nitpick I had regarding "Christmas of Swing" was the lack of compelling plot. The whole thing was basically a musical revue of the Girls recording a Christmas show on Dec. 24, 1944, interspersed with readings of letters from GIs overseas. This resulted in serious cases of mood whiplash, as when the Girls made the transition from happy Christmas songs to letters about bodies being burned or soldiers dying from shrapnel. Such transitions made the show feel really inconsistent. Unfortunately, not even inconsistent transitions can make a weak plot compelling. 

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest                                                                     Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Now for the good stuff. How was it a nice surprise?

Despite not enjoying the Christmas songs, I was pleasantly surprised to hear wartime classics thrown into the mix, such as "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" and "Der Fuehrer's Face" (performed hilariously by Abbott & Costello). I was also impressed by the energy all the performers put into their roles. Ruthie Baker, Stacey Lindell and Jen Burleigh-Bentz did a wonderful job capturing the spirits of Patty, Maxene and LaVerne Andrews (respectively). Occasional appearances by Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Abbott & Costello and Lou Levy (the "fourth Andrews Sister") were pretty enjoyable as well. Plus, the stage looked really cool.

The photo I took of the stage, pre-show. 

But three parts of the show really struck me:
  1. Midway through the show, three of the male actors dressed up like the Girls and mimed performing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" to the audience - playing the original Andrews Sisters recording in the background. That is, until the "real" Andrews Sisters showed up and shooed them offstage.
  2. Around intermission, the actresses broke the 4th wall, speaking directly to the audience members and encouraging them to call out the name of a WWII veteran so they could pay homage to them. The number of people that responded was positively heartwarming; many a name of a friend or family member was raised. Some of these veterans happened to be sitting right in the audience! When they stood up, the actors led everyone in a round of applause for them.
  3. During a dance number, each of the "Girls" brought a veteran/random guy up on the stage to dance with them. That was quite enchanting. 
To top it all, the best thing I took away from "Christmas of Swing" was a new interest in Glenn Miller, big-band pioneer of the 1930s and '40s.

At one point during Act I, Lou Levy came onstage to announce to the Girls that his friend Glenn Miller's plane had disappeared over the English Channel. While it was a sobering moment, it also harkened back to the beginning of the show when Patty, Maxene and LaVerne had sung a feminine rendition of Miller's "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo."  Out of all the non-Christmas songs that the musical showcased, I liked that one the best. Having discovered that Glenn Miller's songs are actually good, I am embarked on a continuing journey to learn more about his music.

My conclusion? Maybe "Christmas of Swing" didn't provide a great overall repertoire to listen to. But it was a pretty good show, with good staging, good actors and good homage to WWII veterans and Glenn Miller. And I'll always appreciate it for introducing me to an additional, catchy, non-Christmas Andrews Sisters song I can share with you. Listen to the video below and see what you think. If you want to read a more flattering/neutral review of the show, check out Renee Valois' article or Cherry and Spoon's blog post.