Friday, February 22, 2013

J-Pop is Unsettling

Dear Muse,

I found a music video the other day that should make you either:

a) legitimately impressed by J-pop, or
b) legitimately unsettled by it. And Japan. And the Japanese culture in general.

Incidentally, it's the opening theme song for the anime series A Certain Scientific Railgun. Buuuuuut.... it's also the trippiest thing I've seen since the anime film Mind Game. Evidently, I should watch more J-pop music videos.


                                                                                                                Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Passion: Why So Mad?

Dear Muse,

You and I both know how often my opinion differs from that of the majority. Still, Sondheim's Passion reminds me again of this fact. Why else would I feel sorry for Fosca when everyone else hates her?

First, what's the story? In the 19th century, two young lovers (Giorgio and Clara) are separated when Giorgio is transferred to a military outpost. There, he becomes acquainted with the Colonel's sick cousin, Fosca, an ugly, diseased and unbalanced woman who frequently has nervous breakdowns. She becomes obsessed with Giorgio and starts tailing him, to his chagrin and frustration. But eventually, due to the power of her love for him (and due to the fact that his lover Clara isn't willing to split up from her husband and child to spend her life with him), Giorgio reciprocates Fosca's love. She dies soon afterwards, but what's done is done.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Now let's look at the first audience reactions. Here's what I don't get: they applauded when Fosca had nervous breakdowns. They were glad she suffered!! One person even yelled, "Die, Fosca! Die!" Sondheim saw this as a case of "the lady doth protest too much," and I agree with him.                                 

There's really no reason to hate Fosca so much. OK, so she hounds Giorgio relentlessly when he doesn't love her, to his embarrassment and increasing (understandable) anger. She even asks him to pen a letter, fabricating his devotion to her. Yes, that's going a bit too far. Yes, she's obsessive, manipulative, and kind of parasitical. But then we get to "Flashback."

It turns out that Fosca has quite a tragic backstory. She married an Austrian count named Ludovic who turned out to be a gigolo already with a wife and child. What's more, he had developed a reputation for courting mistresses and then draining all of their money. By the time Fosca realized this, he had taken all her family's money. When she confronted him with this knowledge, he made no attempt to deny it. He then told her:

Forgive me, my dear,
But though you are no beauty,
I fear
You are not quite the victim you appear.

Well, let us part by
Mutual consent
And be content.
And so good luck and goodbye.
I must go.
Oh, and yes, we haven't
Paid the rent since July...
Just so you know...

                               (copied from Passion album booklet, Rilting Music, Inc., 1994. Print.)

Geez. What a dickwad.

You can understand now why Fosca became the pathetic creature she is. But shouldn't people pity instead of be repulsed by her? Why so mad about Fosca?

Then I discovered a line which might provide a clue - the last line in "Flashback":

Beauty is Power,
Longing a Disease...

Maybe the audience reacted so violently to Fosca because they wanted to identify with beautiful characters, not ugly and pathetic ones. Clara and Giorgio are quite attractive. Of course the audience would root for them instead of sickly Fosca!! Beauty is Power, remember?

Meanwhile, Fosca's longing for Giorgio is portrayed as unpleasant and manipulative, so naturally the audience would revolt against it. Naturally they would agree that it's "a Disease," especially if it's coming from such a repellent person.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

But the truth is, there's pure love within that repellent frame. She loves Giorgio so deeply that she forces herself to live for him, is willing to die for him, and promises to leave him alone (if not forget about him) so that he can be happy. Her love is purer than Clara's, for it's unconditional; Clara's isn't. And, as Giorgio realizes by the end of Passion, "Love within reason - / That isn't Love" ("No One Has Ever Loved Me"). Don't you think that Fosca's Love is the real Beauty? The real Power?

Besides, how can anyone hate the character of Fosca so when they hear Donna Murphy sing something like this?

(Of course, knowing that Donna Murphy also voiced Mother Gothel in Disney's Tangled is kind of weird. But that doesn't change the fact that she has one of the most moving voices I've ever heard.)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

To watch the full 1994 OBC show, click on this link. (You really should watch this, if you love tearjerkers. I don't remember the last thing I saw that made me sob so much or feel so fulfilled at the same time.) Or, listen to a few songs below. After you hear a few more songs from Passion, tell me your opinion of Fosca's Love.

                                                                              'Till the next musical review,


Monday, February 11, 2013

A shimmering star

Dear Muse,

Certain pop idols spring into stardom with one big hit song, and just as suddenly fade from public awareness. They're like fireworks - flaring up in one glorious burst of beauty, and then falling into oblivion. Or "shimmering, glowing stars in the firmament," to paraphrase Lina Lamont (Singin' in the Rain).

I'm not the only one to notice this: Internet music critic Todd in the Shadows has already commented on several "One-Hit Wonders" that I'd never even heard of before. But I wish to comment on a star he hasn't analyzed, whom I greatly admire: Alice Playten.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

In case you've never heard of this actress/singer (many people haven't), let me provide some background info:

Back in 1967, there was a musical called "Henry, Sweet Henry" (for info on the film that inspired the musical, click on this link). Basically, a musical about two rich teenage girls who stalk an older guy.

Yeah, doesn't sound very appealing, does it? Theater critic Clive Barnes thought so too; it was probably his review that caused the show's premature death. Still, one thing about it stood out: Alice Playten's performance as Kafritz. In Henry, Sweet Henry, she played the two female leads' arch-nemesis. But with her electrifying "Poor Little Person," Playten stole the show and was considered more of a sensation than either of her female counterparts or even the male lead. (as written in CD booklet for Front Row Center: The Broadway Gold Box 1935-1988 [Box Set, Cast Recording])

Afterwards, the only other thing she was best known for was her appearance in a classic 1970s Alka-Seltzer commercial. (When I first saw this, I couldn't believe it was the same person who did "Poor Little Person." Her voice is so squeaky!)

Besides being in a few other Broadway musicals and voicing several characters in the TV show Doug, there's not much else to say about Playten. Except that I kind of familiarize with her because we're both singers with Type 1 Diabetes. Of course, she's dead now (due to complications of said diabetes), but the work she did when she was alive gives me hope for my musical future.

So, here's to Alice Playten: a celebrity who shot out in a blaze of glory and who remains, somewhere out there, a "shimmering, glowing star in the firmament."


P.S. The attachments below are two variations of "Poor Little Person." The video is a recording of her performing the song on the Ed Sullivan show - the only part of the show ever recorded. While the video recording is facetious, the MP3 recording sounds much more impassioned & personal. (I suggest you listen to the latter first.)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Flower Drum Song (and Chinese reflections)

Dear Muse,

When I was in college, I once took a class on Asian-American Literature. It opened my eyes to a lot of topics I'd only vaguely contemplated before, such as assimilation, adoption, choosing loyalties and, most of all, the relationships between first-generation and second-generation Asian-Americans. Of course, the fact that two of my cousins are adopted from China helped fuel my interest in the subject.

Anyway, all of these elements inspired me to learn more about Asian-Americans. One way I chose to learn was by reading books like The Language of Blood, Bamboo Among the Oaks, and Only What We Could Carry (I really urge you to peruse them - they're excellent reads). Another way was to listen to Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song.

Flower Drum Song
is a musical based on C.Y. Lee's 1957 novel about a group of Chinese-Americans living in and trying to assimilate into San Francisco's American culture. Needless to say, certain practices portrayed in the original 1958 Broadway show are outdated and stereotyped, so a new (more racially tolerant) version was written for the 2002 revival.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

As with many musicals I listen to, the story doesn't interest me so much as the character relationships and how they're described in the songs. In particular, I found "The Other Generation" and "The Other Generation (reprise)" fascinating. Both tunes revolve around this refrain:

What are we going to do about the other generation?
How will we ever communicate without communication?

One song is sung from the (first-generation) parents' point of view; the other from the (second-generation) kids' point of view. On one hand, the parents lament how incomprehensible and out-of-control their Americanized kids are. On the other hand, the kids sigh that however much they'd like to train their parents to see eye-to-eye with them, adults refuse to keep up with the times. I especially love this verse from the first version (sung by Juanita Hall and Keye Luke):

Hall: ....and when our out-of-hand sons
         Are bringing up our grandsons,
 I hope our grandsons give their fathers hell!

Luke: Can't wait to see it!

Hall/Luke: I hope our grandsons give their fathers hell!!


Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

The songs' refrain is ambiguous enough that you could apply it to any inter-generational conflict, irrespective of race. But wouldn't you agree that (since it's sung by Chinese-American kids and parents) it's best applied to The Joy Luck Club?

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Another song I like is "Grant Avenue," sung by Pat Suzuki of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" fame (also in Flower Drum Song). The lyrics remind me of Christmas Break, when I journeyed to New York City's Chinatown with my Chinese cousin Siena and my aunt and uncle. As we shuffled through the teeming streets, tucking our scarves and hats tighter around our heads and huddling close to one another to fend off the freezing wind, we saw very similar things to what the song describes:

A western street with eastern manners,
Tall pagodas and golden banners
Throw their shadows through the lantern glow.
You can shop for precious jade
Or teakwood tables or silk brocade
Or see a bold and brassy night club show,
On the most exciting thoroughfare I know.

(For the full song, see the music player attached to the bottom of this page.)

Actually, Siena and I did shop in places filled with these things. But when it comes to Chinatown commodities, she prefers animal dishes with loosely-interpreted-English logos to precious jade or teakwood tables. (Incidentally, she's also one of the few people I know who share my love for Sondheim musicals - something I'm extremely happy about.)

"Agony" (from Into the Woods). 

Enjoy the (hopefully not too racially insensitive) songs I've attached below!

                                                                              'Till next time,

P.S. I think it's funny that Pat Suzuki, who's Japanese-American, was cast in a Chinese-American role. How's that for racial insensitivity?

*Photo courtesy of Broadway: The American Musical (Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archives). New York: Compilation Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Universal Classics Group, A Division of UMG Recordings, Inc., 2004. Print.