Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Anti "Feel-Good" Musical

Dear Muse,

Next to Normal comforts me.

Yeah, yeah, I know what you're probably thinking: "What drugs have you been on?! It's a musical about a dysfunctional family where the dad's depressed, the son's dead, the daughter's bitter and alienated from her parents, and the mom's driven to the brink of suicide by the ghost of her son, who she can't bear to let go even though he died 16 years ago!! How is that the least bit comforting??"

Well, how should I put this...? I relate to it. It's something I feel like I understand well.

Not that my parents neglect or abuse me, or that either of my siblings is dead and come back to haunt the family like some grim spectre, or anything like that. Nor are we destitute. Compared to a lot of other families out there, mine is financially well-off. And I have yet to see a family whose members love and support each other to the extent that mine do.

But that doesn't mean it's perfect. Problems arise in my family from time to time, and whenever those problems bubble to the surface, it just seems natural for me to identify with Next to Normal characters like Natalie (the teenage daughter) or Diana (the mother), or compare my life to the lives of the characters in the musical. Next to Normal further convinces me that just because a family is stable in certain aspects, it doesn't mean it's completely stable in others.

I don't think I'm alone in believing that about my family. Every family has issues, and everyone has been involved in a family feud at least once in their life. Every teenager or young adult has, at one point or another, echoed the thoughts of Natalie when she states:

"I wish I could fly,
And magically appear and disappear;
I wish I could fly -
I'd fly far away from here."
                                        - "Superboy and the Invisible Girl"

This musical accentuates that you don't need to be underserved or impoverished to deal with family strife. According to Next to Normal, it's all too clear that even well-off families hide emotional clashes and nervous breakdowns behind their pristine white-picket fences.

Somehow, that's cathartic. Goes to show that, if you're suffering, you're not alone in the world. Other people feel your pain. Realizing this pain in a musical like Next to Normal is a good thing.

Ben Brantley's review of the 2009 Broadway premiere of Next to Normal described it not as a "feel-good" musical, but rather as a "feel-everything" musical. I totally agree with that statement, and celebrate the musical more because of it. Sometimes, when life - or family - gives you crap and you want to feel better about yourself, you don't need a "feel-good" song sung by people who obviously are much happier than you are at the moment. You need an anguished song, a yearning song; a complicated-feelings-song from people torn between two or more points of view. You need to hear a messed-up character tremulously wail a "feel-everything" song, so that you can think either "at least I'm not that guy!" or "someone out there feels what I'm feeling!" Eventually, you'll end up with a buoying dose of schadenfreude and increased optimism about your family's capability to overcome obstacles. (It's got to be better than that of the Next to Normal family.)

By touching upon the emotional mountains and valleys of a middle-class family, Next to Normal comes across as one of the most personally touching musicals I've heard in a long time. Maybe, in its comparison to more unrealistic musicals out there, it's one of the most normal.

                                                                           'Till next time,

P.S. I think the song "Just Another Day" best illustrates the idea of "feel-everything." Give this Youtube audio recording a listen and see what you think. Can you relate any aspects of the song to your life?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Random association

Dear Muse,

I think there is a case to be made for listening to songs in places that totally have nothing to do with the song at all.

For example: Whenever I listen to Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream", I think of how I played it over and over on my ipod walking along the highway from the castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg to Selestat, earlier this summer. (I spent an internship in Normandy, France, and for a little over a week after the internship ended I traveled counter-clockwise around other French regions.) Does it really matter that it has nothing to do with Alsace?

The castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg is seen in the background. 

"Do whatever makes you happy," no matter how random it is. Right? What do you think? 

                                                                   'Till next time,

This didn't actually happen. It would have been funny, tho'. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Turn-of-the-century tunes can be awesome

Dear Muse,

 Is there any decade of music you hate? For me, the answer would seem pretty simple: anything from before 1930. The recordings of music from the 1920s, and particularly the 1900s and 1910s, are ugly. Scratchy, screechy, murmury, tinny, sour, creepy - having these ragtime strains bombard my ears positively makes me cringe.

However, laying my great-grandmother's ashes to rest in her family tomb in New Orleans over Thanksgiving Break gave me food for thought on the subject. She was born in 1905; she grew up with the music I consider "an earache." So she must not have minded it. I tried to wonder whether I could look at such melodies as appreciatively as she - and then I remembered Tintypes.

What is Tintypes? A 1980 musical revue of popular songs from the beginning of the 20th century.  But when the cast belts out those old and forgotten tunes, they seem so awesome. Makes me think,"Hey! Maybe turn-of-the-century music isn't so bad after all!"

Of all the cast members, Lynn Thigpen is the best. Her voice is a wow! She should have been the female protagonist in Purlie; at least her voice would have diminished the overall obnoxious sound of the cast. (This coming from a girl who doesn't mind the children's chorus in Matilda, mind you. I'm very particular in what I choose to dub obnoxious.) By the way, did you know that she was in Tootsie, the movie version of Godspell, and that kids' show Bear in the Big Blue House? I wish she was still living.

The biggest enjoyment of all (for me) is being able to listen to the full musical on a phonograph record. Ironic, isn't it? This is one instance in which I'm grateful that my family owns a record player. (Of course, having a dad who's a history professor who collects old music helps too.)

I can forgive the scratchiness of the record in this case.

Still, if there's one thing I take issue with, it's the musical's pacing. The cast seems so anxious to cram as many songs as possible into the show that they zip from one melody to another, scarcely pausing for breath. (That's why there doesn't seem to be much of a plot.) Heck, Tintypes fits 8 songs into 9 minutes! What other musical does that?! You barely get used to one song before you're thrust into the next! Pay attention, or you'll find yourself struggling to catch up!

I've attached a Youtube video clip from the show so that you can get the gist of what it's like. Although you might not get some of the references they make (such as "airship"), this is like learning history the fun way. And why not? Heaven forbid that people forget the era my great-grandmother lived in! The past isn't meant to be shoved out of your mind so that it can collect dust in a cobwebby corner of the attic. It's necessary to maintain awareness of the faded and long-distant past, and even celebrate it - which is just what Tintypes does.
                                                    'Till next time,

P.S. See how many musical numbers you can count in the video.   ^_^

Monday, November 19, 2012

3 Songs That Poke Fun at Love

Dear Muse,

When a song mocks love, I wholeheartedly embrace it. Don't get me wrong; I don't really mind direct "Hey! I love you!" songs. But mockery love songs are doubly amusing. This type of tune is clearly love-inspired because it has "love" in the title, and/or is crooned from one person to another. However, the singer tries to mask this fact by pretending that they're not in love, or arguing that they're not in love, or explicitly criticizing love while they subtly celebrate it.

Who better to create such songs than Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers & Hart and Rodgers & Hammerstein? I can think of three off the bat that really amuse me, and I'll explain why.

Three R & H Songs That Mock The Idea of Love

1. "This Can't Be Love" (The Boys From Syracuse, 1963 New York Cast)

The first ditty springs from Rodgers & Hart's musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, taking the Renaissance play to gleeful, giddy emotional heights. Take a look at the refrain (sung by Stuart Damon and Julienne Marie):

This can't be love
Because I feel so well - 
No sobs, no sorrows, no sighs.
This can't be love,
I get no dizzy spell,
My head is not in the skies.
My heart does not stand still - 
Just hear it beat! 
This is too sweet 
To be love. 
This can't be love
Because I feel so well,
But still I love to look in your eyes.

Yyyyyeahhhhh....because that's what love is all about, right? Pain and suffering and delusion!! Love here is like a stereotyped affliction: sobs, sorrows, sighs, dizziness, head in the skies, heart standing still, etc. The idea that anyone could be in love and be happy about it is preposterous!!  

But then why would Damon and Marie love to look in each other's eyes? Why would they feel well while singing an obvious love song to each other? THERE'S A CONTRADICTION HERE!!!

2. "If I Loved You" (Carousel, 1945 Original Broadway Cast)

Although this song is a bit different because it's Rodgers & Hammerstein, the song's idea runs in a similar vein to that of "This Can't Be Love." Here are some of the lyrics (sung by John Raitt and Jan Clayton):

If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I'd want you to know.
If I loved you,
Words wouldn't come in an easy way,
Round in circles I'd go! 
Longin' to tell you,
But afraid and shy
I'd let my golden chances pass me by!
Soon you'd leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know
How I loved you
If I loved you. 

Despite not having heard the entire musical (which I'm planning on), I can easily criticize this tune like I did "This Can't Be Love." According to this song, love naturally tongue-ties people and makes them go around in circles (verbally or otherwise). Another limiting sort of classification! There are lots of types of love in the world; you can't just classify love in general as physically and emotionally debilitating. 

Plus, the whole "if I loved you" thing cracks me up. The paradox here is that Raitt and Clayton's characters are arguing that they don't love each other, while singing to each other with intense feeling. Really, who would do that except people really enamored with each other?

(OK, maybe the cast who sings "What Is This Feeling?" from Wicked is an exception.)

 It's so obvious that they're in love. Why delay the obvious with an "if"song? The entire thing is a tease. I would go so far as to say it was ludicrous if I didn't adore it so much. I'll admit, it's a touching and powerful melody. 

3. "Love Never Went to College" (Too Many Girls, 1939 Broadway version)

I haven't heard this whole musical (Rodgers & Hart again) either, but this next song is the funniest of the three. That's because it jabs at Love as a person instead of as an idea. The refrain goes like this (sung by Mary Jane Walsh):

Love never went to college.
Ignorant boy, that.
But think of the joy that he starts.
His work requires no knowledge,
So he can do it
By using intuitive arts.
He just says, "You two kids,
Start falling in love.
I ain't got brains
But I reigns over all these parts."
Love never went to college,
Never had teaching,
And yet he keeps reaching our hearts!

Ohhhh....I see. Love's an idiot. That explains so many of the world's messed-up relationships: Love pairs the wrong people together because he has no knowledge whatsoever.

I guess this is ONE explanation for the Twilight series.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

So, is this song meant to praise Love? Or does it poke fun at a supernatural moron who fosters romance between two people, without rhyme or reason? Or both? What do you think, Muse?

I'll see whether I can't enclose audio links, either in this letter or elsewhere so that you can listen to the songs and get a feel for what I'm talking about. But if it doesn't work now, please bear in mind that I've always been "technologically-challenged," and I'll figure it out eventually.

                                                                                  Till next time (probably after Thanksgiving),

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Letter of introduction

Dear Muse,

Hello there! It's my first time writing a letter to you! Granted, I might have a bit of difficulty at first with these online letters, since I've been so used to writing letters by hand for all of my life. But, if you give me time and patience, I will try to make my thoughts worth your while. There's much I would like to discuss with you about music. 

What about me, you might ask? Well, I'm one of those people that goes around with a song constantly in her head. If I didn't listen to new music all the time, my spirit would probably wither like an unwatered plant. 

Why would I write to you, though? Simply because: whenever I hear new music, I have all these thoughts rolling and tumbling around inside my head, fizzing like electric sparks. Keeping these thoughts bottled up would irritate me; sharing them with you is more useful, since you could give me your feedback and your opinion. Who knows? I might learn something new from you. Then, a new spark of insight would enlighten my mind. 

Of course, the letters I will share with you will fall under certain conditions.

First, I'll only talk about specific kinds of music that I like or find intriguing.  

Second, my thoughts won't necessarily have to do with tempo or time measure or any music theory fluff. (I never invested much time in learning music theory - and much of what I learned, I promptly forgot.) They will mainly entail musings related to the themes or ideas in the musical or song.

Third, I won't necessarily write every day.

Fourth, you will have to bear with my sketchy drawings. I like to draw when I can, although my drawings' quality is not the best. Nor are my drawings always consistent. But, like Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince, I believe I must excuse my drawings to you from the beginning. I share his thoughts on the matter of illustration: "I am not at all sure of success. One drawing goes along all right, and another has no resemblance to its subject. [...] So I fumble along as best I can, now good, now bad, and I hope generally fair-to-muddling" (The Little Prince 19, Trans. Katherine Woods. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, Inc., 1943. Print.).

The annoying angel-character - or muse, whatever you like - pops up every so often in my imagination. My friends and family will also make appearances - but when I refer to them, whether in a cartoon or in dialogue, all except one (who specifically asked me to use her first name) will be addressed under code names. That is the fifth (and last) condition.

Since this was just an introductory letter, I don't count it as an "official music letter." That starts tomorrow. I look forward to it!

                                                                  'Till then,