Saturday, March 30, 2013

Applause: The Bitch Review

Dear Muse,

I never thought I would loathe another character as much as I loathe Carrie Meeber (see Thoroughly Modern Millie rant). That is, until I saw All About Eve. Thank you, Eve Harrington, for proving me wrong. You are a total bitch.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

By now, you've probably read my Applause star review, and thus know the plot of All About Eve. What I didn't elaborate on in my last post was the horrible things Eve does to betray Margo. First, she makes herself an assistant to Margo so that she can study her behaviorisms and acting, and replace her as a younger, more beautiful understudy in her shows. After upstaging (no pun intended) her mentor, she slanders her in every newspaper. Then she tries to steal Margo's lover and blackmail her friends. And even that's not as bad as she gets. Did I mention the parts involving family abandonment, seduction and adultery? No? Watch the movie to find out more about those. She's as evil and unrepentant as they come.

Needless to say, I have anger issues with Miss Eve Harrington.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Eve's bitchiness doesn't change that much when adapted for the musical Applause. Does this mean I hate the movie and musical versions of Eve equally? Welllll.... there actually seems less to hate about Applause's Eve. Why is that?

For one thing, I'm a sucker for anyone who sings well. Unfortunately, Eve has one really nice solo ("The Best Night of My Life"). Yes, I know that what she's saying is done to kiss up to Margo. Yes, I know that none of it's sincere. But she's got such a good voice, dammit. Point goes to her musical seduction.

Another thing that makes Applause's Eve more sympathetic is the tiny backstory she presents in "One Hallowe'en." In All About Eve, I never really understood why Eve did such rotten things. She had no sad history; the only cause for her evil behavior seemed to be her ambition. That's not good enough to make me feel sorry for her. (I only felt sorry for her at the end of the film, after Addison gave her a Breaking Lecture. After, mind you, not during - watching him break her down was immensely satisfying.)

In "One Hallowe'en," however, Applause's Eve suggests that her father's scathing criticism of her 9-year-old self on Halloween turned her into a rebel. She became highly ambitious because she wanted to defy her father; to prove to him that dressing up and acting can make you successful. Sadly, her drive to succeed pushed her way beyond moral limits. So, in Applause, Eve wasn't an all-natural bitch: she was the warped result of a troubled childhood.

There's just one problem with the song. It's a big problem, because without this one aspect the song might have encouraged me to forgive Applause's Eve of her sins. That problem is the song's context.

See, Eve sings "One Hallowe'en" right when she's at the peak of success: she's become an overnight star, has fame and fortune, and has snared one of Margo's friends to help her in her rising career. And, just as she did when she studied Margo before, Eve imitates Margo in the second half of her song. While the first half of "One Hallowe'en" slowly describes a bitter childhood memory, the second half bursts into a rapid, gloating echo of Margo's earlier "But Alive" (see previous post). Unlike Margo's lyrics, which were about breaking loose and enjoying a night on the town, the lyrics here are distorted into a queen bee's victory crow:

Well damn you daddy
Look at your little girl now!
She feels twitchy and bitchy and manic
Calm and collected, no sign of panic
She's alive, she's alive, she's alive
So alive
Everybody loves a winner but nobody loves a flop
No one worries how you got there once you're standing on the top
So I feel up and together and steady
Eager, excited, so come on I'm ready
Ready for the climb
Baby it's my time
You believe it! I'm alive
                                                                              Source: via Ariel on Pinterest
(Full lyrics transcribed here.)

Eve's reference to Margo in the line, "Everybody loves a winner but nobody loves a flop," after everything Margo has done for her, is like a backhanded slap in the face to her mentor. How dare she steal Margo's song and twist it with her nasty words!! The whole second half of "One Hallowe'en" is downright insulting. If I felt sorry for Eve in the earlier part of this song, I hate her again after hearing this part. It reeks of all the unbridled ambition her corrupted film self exposed in All About Eve.

Ultimately, I can feel a little sorrier for the Eve in Applause than the one in All About Eve - but not too much sorrier. Not even Penny Fuller's pretty voice can excuse the musical's character. At least I can agree with Eve on one point - when she talks about being "twitchy and bitchy and manic," she couldn't be more right.


                                                                                       Until next time's non-showtunes discussion,

P.S. Bit of random trivia: Anne Baxter, who played Eve in All About Eve, later replaced Lauren Bacall as Margo in the 1971 run of Applause. Isn't that ironic? The actress who originally played a girl who replaces an aging actress, actually replaced an aging actress to become the star of the show. Kind of like Eve's rising-star story was finally realized in Baxter's becoming Margo... except not really... but don't think about it too hard, or you'll get dizzy.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Applause: The Star Review

Dear Muse,

Ever heard of Lauren Bacall? If you saw this video clip, would it ring any bells?

Whether you idolize Bacall or know nothing about her, she's a remarkable person. Besides acting in numerous film noirs, marrying legendary Humphrey Bogart, and originating "The Look" and the famous "whistle scene" from To Have and Have Not (see above), she impacted popular culture by starring in Applause.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Applause is the 1970 musical adaptation of 1950's All About Eve (starring Bette Davis, George Sanders and Anne Baxter). The story: an aging actress called Margo Channing (played by Davis) takes a forlorn, stagestruck fan-girl named Eve (played by Baxter) under her wing, but the said fan-girl gradually reveals ulterior motives when she incorporates herself into Margo's life. (More on Eve in the next post. This review will be dedicated to the star of Applause.)

Although Davis does a superb job playing Margo in the film, I find Bacall much more interesting as the musical Margo. This is partly due to the last 50 pages of Bacall's autobiography By Myself, in which Bacall discusses her performance in Applause and her analysis of theatre life.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

One detail I loved from By Myself was Bacall's identification with Margo. The character of Margo was insecure, passionate and torn between personal relationships and her theatrical life. She was also extremely sensitive to feedback given about her dramatic performances and to any upheavals in her social world. So was Bacall at the time she took this role. Bacall described her role-play in these terms:

With each passing day I became more submerged in the character of Margo Channing. Some of her frailties had always been mine, some became mine. It isn't that you truly turn into the character you're playing, it's that more hours of the day and night are devoted to work than to anything else. (481)

It was funny enough that Bacall should be playing the same character as her childhood heroine, Bette Davis. Even more ironic was when Davis showed up at one of the shows. As Bacall said, "I almost died. God - the creator of Margo Channing in All About Eve, the definitive performance. My childhood idol was in the audience watching me play her part" (495). Can you imagine how shocking that would be? (Unfortunately, their private conversation afterwards wasn't so comfortable...)

Another thing I loved was Bacall's in-depth analysis of theatrical life. This quote really moved me: 

    I still don't think actors, directors - any creative artists - should be pitted against one another. There is the high in winning, the low in losing - and the human frailty of resentment that the loser feels toward the winner. That uses up energy where it should not be used, energy that is needed. For the real stakes in the theatre are high - they are life stakes. That's what I love about it. You gamble with your life, and that's a gamble worth taking. (493)

Finally, I loved Bacall's performance in Applause because, even though she hasn't got the best voice in the world, man she puts heart into it. According to her autobiography, "I'd always been musical - one of my great frustrations had been my inability to sing" (454). Yes, she's no Streisand. But she tries. And from what I've seen in televised clips of Applause, she's obviously having fun. Much more fun than Bette Davis could successfully portray. (Since Davis plays a much moodier Margo in All About Eve, I really doubt that she'd be able to make Applause's Margo as upbeat as Bacall makes her.)

All in all, I greatly respect Lauren Bacall. She has proven that, despite her shortcomings, she can excel on the big screen and on the stage. Her dedication to her art is what makes Applause enjoyable for me. 

Skeptical? Check out this clip of "But Alive" from the televised version and tell me what you think. I apologize for the video quality - this is the best quality clip I could find on Youtube. (Seriously, though, all gay bars should be like this. Viva the groovy '70s!!)

I've also attached a recording of Bacall's best number, "Welcome to the Theatre", below. You won't hear a song this bitter or this expertly performed anywhere else. And once you read my next post, you'll understand what Bacall is bitter about. On to that bitch, Eve...

                                                                                         - Ariel

P.S. The next post will be a bit different in terms of its analysis. While this one focused on the star of Applause, next time I'll focus on the character of Eve (both in the film and in the musical).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Fantasticks Sucks

Dear Muse,

You know how I said in my Passion post that the majority hated Passion, while I liked it? Well, here's a case of vice versa: The Fantasticks. I don't care that it's been the world's longest-running musical since 1960. I think it sucks.

As the characters say so often in the second act, "it really is a pity," because I've tried to get into this musical. Really, I have. Particularly since my old college friend GamerTron recommended it to me. But several things about The Fantasticks keep me from entirely liking it. (By that, I mean that I only really like one song from The Fantasticks - "Much More" - and that's because I sang it in one of the showcases for Kentucky's Governor's Scholars Program, 5 years ago. When I chose that song to sing, I'd never heard of the musical. Nevertheless, "Much More" has had nostalgic value for me ever since.)

Soooooo.....what are the things that make me wince uncomfortably when I listen to this crowd-pleasing heartthrob of a show?

  • The instrumentation. Whether or not it's due to the original cast recording I listened to, the notes come off as sour, or brittle, or piercing. I can't understand why this bothers me as much as it does, when Sondheim's customary discordance is music to my ears (pardon the pun). Whatever the case, the clashing instrumentation in The Fantasticks prevents me from accepting songs I might otherwise add to my ipod, such as "This Plum is Too Ripe," or "Soon It's Gonna Rain." 

  • The story's presentation. The Fantasticks is very similar to Sondheim's Into the Woods, a story of disillusionment. Two young lovers, Matt and Luisa, get a happy ending by the end of Act I (as the fairy-tale characters do in Into the Woods). But they reject the love match in Act II, undergo harsh real-world experiences (as do Into the Woods' characters .... although their world isn't exactly"real"), and return to renew their vows, bruised but enlightened. 

         Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Frankly, I don't enjoy The Fantasticks' journey of disillusionment that much. Again, it's the presentation that leaves me cold. As if the discordant tunes weren't bad enough, Matt and Luisa's actions sound downright unpleasant - not at all like something I'd want to watch. (Granted, I've never seen the musical. But you can learn a lot from auditory imagery.) Conversely, I can tolerate disillusioning stories in Into the Woods (and other Sondheim musicals) because:

    •  Softer imagery is employed.
    • The actions and decisions Sondheim characters make seem much more relatable and sympathetic. 
    • The presentation in The Fantasticks doesn't seem to emphasize character development so much as gruesome scenes (like those Luisa encounters in Act II). I feel like there's much more stress on character development in Sondheim musicals than there is on gore (Sweeney Todd is an exception, but it's deliberately gory). And when life does get gruesome in a musical like Into the Woods, there's an enjoyable beauty in the way the story is presented. The Fantasticks lacks this beauty; thus, it's not enjoyable.  

But bad presentation and bad instrumentation aren't the only reasons I find this musical unpleasant. Other factors include:

  • The actors. Their voices just grate on my ears. Although I love Rita Gardner when she sings "Much More," the rest of the time she sounds plain obnoxious. Harsh voices are another reason I can't accept "This Plum is Too Ripe." Even if I got over the instrumentation, the actors' screeches would continue to make my ears bleed. 
  • The emotional pain. The struggles the characters come through paint the world in such an ugly light, that when they finish their journey I feel so disheartened. Their final "happy ending" doesn't please me at all, given what I've heard them go through. 
Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

To be clear, it's not that I don't enjoy some painful journeys presented by musicals. Painful journeys in musicals like Passion and Next to Normal (see December post) are cathartic. After seeing characters in those musicals go through hell and come out on the other side, I feel like I've purged something. Maybe because the characters are so complex, so identifiable, or so enjoyable to watch. But The Fantasticks provides me with none of that. Its characters are pretentious, forgettable or harsh; its music is distasteful (for the most part); its story is depressing. In general, it's unpleasant. Thus, the pain it presents makes me feel sullied instead of cleansed. 

There, I've said it. Those are my reasons for why The Fantasticks rubs me the wrong way. But you might have a different opinion. If you respect the musical for any reasons, let me know. I'd be interested to hear why other people like what I consider an earache. 


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

Monday, March 25, 2013

La Cage Aux Folles & Gay Pride

Dear Muse,

I first heard of La Cage Aux Folles through a misunderstanding made in a newspaper article. That is, I was the columnist who made the misunderstanding.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

During the last two years of college, I wrote for St. Olaf's newspaper, the Manitou Messenger. One article I signed up to write focused on the college's 2011 LGBTQ (Lesbian-Gay-Bi-Trans-Queer) Week - or as we called it, Pride Week. The endeavor was fun not only because my interviews taught me much more about LGBTQs than I'd ever bothered to figure out before, but also because my job required me to attend a Pride Week showcase: "Gender Bent."

"Gender Bent" was one of the greatest drag-focused, sexuality-embracing eye-openers I'd ever seen. Mainly because of the way it incorporated its songs : "Take Me or Leave Me" (Rent) sung by two guys; "Green Green Dress" (tick, tick...BOOM!) sung by two girls; "The Bitch of Living" (Spring Awakening) sung by an all-girl cast; etc. It was stupendous to hear these students roaring out their pride, especially one of my freshman friends (a high-energy strawberry blonde with a personality like an electric whirlwind) who later went into acting.

They yelled this at the end of the show. 

Where I flubbed up was in citing the show's "We Are What We Are" as a Ke$ha song. For some reason, my Internet research hadn't led me to the source of the song, so I just assumed it had been transcribed wrong in the program and declared it a representation of Ke$ha's "We R Who We R." And hey, since the song's wikipedia article said that she wrote it "in hopes that it would become a pride anthem," my assumption seemed to fit with "Gender Bent."

Strangely enough, some LGBTQs don't like being associated with Ke$ha. One of St. Olaf's LGBTQ leaders/ show producers e-mailed me shortly after my article was published, protesting that the song was from La Cage Aux Folles, and that they weren't "belting out some Ke$ha." He sounded ticked off about my faux pas.

The reprimand stung and shamed me. Still, since I knew virtually nothing about Ke$ha OR La Cage Aux Folles at the time, I couldn't understand why such a little misunderstanding should earn me such flak. Or, for that matter, why St. Olaf's LGBTQs had such a problem with the pop singer.

(Now, having seen some Ke$ha videos for myself, I get it. Perhaps you would too if you saw her "Tik Tok" video.)              .... -_- ....

As for La Cage Aux Folles, what can I say about it? Ehhhhh....

  • It's less brassy than Cabaret
  • I like that it's set in France.
  • Doesn't leave much of an impact on me. Except for the "We Are What We Are" song - that at least defines the pride of the "Gender Bent" crew much better than Ke$ha does. (Abbreviated version of song attached below.)

LGBTQ Pride, as declared by la strawberry-blonde.

I can't be too harsh about this musical, since I didn't feel too strongly about it.... but just wait until my next musical review.  

                                                                                               'Till next time,

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dixie Chicks: On Morbidity & Symbolism

Dear Muse,

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of country music. It is, next to rap, usually my least favorite thing to listen to. With one exception: the Dixie Chicks.

The Dixie Chicks' music is one of my childhood staples. When my brother and sister and I were little, we had a nanny (a real honest-to-goodness Kentuckian) who would play their albums in her car whenever she had to drive us anywhere. I thought they were OK, until their 2006 album Taking the Long Way came out. Now, this group of women has my everlovin' respect.

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

So, without further ado, here are two of my favorite Dixie Chicks music videos.

Two Notable Dixie Chicks Videos

1. "Goodbye Earl" (Fly)

Remember when I talked about morbid songs in my last post? This song falls into the "enjoyably morbid" category. Yes, it involves murder. But wouldn't you agree that it gives you a satisfied feeling? I feel the same impure delight in listening to this song as I do when listening to Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou cackle over cannibalism in "A Little Priest" (Sweeney Todd).

2. "Not Ready to Make Nice" (Taking the Long Way)

This song was the first single released from Taking the Long Way and is the Dixie Chicks' biggest hit in the U.S. to date. It's not hard to see why. After all, "Not Ready to Make Nice" represents several things.

First, the song is a response to the most controversial blowout in the Dixie Chicks' career: all the flak they received for their open criticism of (Ex)President Bush in 2003.  It is, as member Emily Robison describes, an autobiographical song. So it has historical significance.

(Speaking of history, that really makes me want to watch their documentary Shut Up & Sing...)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Second, it's a case for the irony of American free speech. "You're free to say what you want - just be prepared for protests, death threats and/or other violent responses." Like those the Dixie Chicks received during their Top of the World Tour. (My god, conservative Americans...) The death threats in particular call to mind what Diane Glass said on the subject: "intolerance of legal free speech has always been un-American." 

Hear, hear. Why boast about free speech in America if other Americans call you out on what you say??

Third (and possibly a rebuttal to that last rhetorical question), the song is so defiant that it's glorious to listen to. That's enough of a reason to boast about it, don't you think?

                                                            Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Fourth, the music video for "Not Ready to Make Nice" is symbolically striking. Particularly in regards to "un-American" censorship. There's a sort of liberation in this dramatic put-down. (Natalie Maines speaks in more detail about the "liberating" Incident here.)

Despite the controversy, I still think the Dixie Chicks are fantastic. And they will continue to be until they spark controversy over something I really disagree with. (For the record, I agree with their opinion of Bush. After the 8-year economic and military sinkholes he landed us in, I would love to hear any arguments for why he wasn't a presidential failure.)

                                                                   Next: another showtunes review!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Look Out for the Bus

Dear Muse,

Most Americans haven't heard of the English folk-rock band Steeleye Span. Outrageous, don't you think? But I guess it can't be helped. After all, how many other people grew up with an English folk-rock-crazy Boomer-generation dad who saved all his Steeleye Span LPs from the '70s, and played them over and over? (My dad is just weird - and cool - that way. He's also a good singer. Probably just as well: if he sang Steeleye Span terribly I would have instinctively blacklisted them.)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Steeleye Span's obscurity might also stem from the fact that it was a Revolving Door Band, and many bands of this type lose popularity when their well-loved band members step down and/or get replaced (which happened a lot with Steeleye Span). Hence Maddy Prior's bus metaphor.

Despite their being a Revolving-Door-Bus-band, Steeleye Span has some pretty catchy tunes. Much of what Steeleye Span sings entails ballads, traditional songs or jigs. (A refreshing change from everyday pop, jazz, alternative and country radio.) Combined with electric guitar = TOTALLY WICKED!!!

 (No, not that Wicked.)

Another plus about the band: their albums look epic. 

                                                                      Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Mostly the songs are about elves, spirits, epic tales of nautical adventure ("The Victory"), treacherous maids who kill off unsuspecting men ("Little Sir Hugh"), or sympathetic murderers ("Sir James the Rose"). Though, to be honest, some of those murder-themed songs get into disturbing detail. Just look at these lyrics...

She took him by the milk white hand, led him to the hall
Till they came to a stone chamber where no one could hear him call
She sat him on a golden chair, she gave him sugar sweet
She lay him on a dressing board and stabbed him like a sheep

Out came the thick thick blood, out came the thin
Out came the bonny heart's blood till there was none within
She took him by the yellow hair and also by the feet
She threw him in the old draw well fifty fathoms deep

                                                                  - "Little Sir Hugh" (full lyrics here)

Morbid, right? But it's nonetheless enjoyable for that. As the Dixie Chicks and Stephen Sondheim have suggested (in songs like "Goodbye Earl" and "A Little Priest," respectively), there's nothing wrong with a little morbidity. (I'll get to Dixie Chicks in the next blog post...)

Anyway, try out the following recordings and see what you think. These are just a few of my favorites, including a Youtube video of their 1976 hit single "All Around My Hat". (Don't blame me if some of these become Ear Worms!! You have been warned.)

                                                                                      Onward to Dixie!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Indigo Girls Live!

Dear Muse,

Monday night, I watched the Indigo Girls perform at a live radio show. And It. Was. AWE-SOOOOOOOME!!!!!

Maybe I should explain my background with this duo. To be frank, there isn't much to tell: I first heard about them last week, and started listening to their stuff this past weekend. The following scenario ensued when my mom said:

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

The first Indigo Girls albums I heard were Indigo Girls and Rarities. After that, I started doing more research into this seemingly low-profile independent group. The following is what I gathered from Internet searches and the interviews I heard at the live radio show.

Indigo Girls consists of Amy Ray (from Georgia) and Emily Saliers (from Connecticut), who met in high school in 1980 and began performing together in bars and coffeehouses.

"We had fake IDs," Ray laughingly informed her audience Monday night. (Is it bad that I thought of McLovin?)

When both ended up at Emory University in 1985, they formed the band Indigo Girls. According to Saliers, they chose the name "indigo" randomly out of the dictionary because they thought it "sounded cool."

(What I found ironic was their manager's initial response to their first full-length album, Strange Fire. According to their wikipedia article, he told them their songs were too "immature" for them to get a record deal. How could anyone think those songs are immature, given all the Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Avril Lavigne teenage angst we're barraged by today?!?....not that I have a problem with them, mind you. Still, it's an eye-opening example of how differently people respond to music today as opposed to 20 years ago.)

Ever since their first hit single "Closer to Fine" came out (1988), they've been a duo for over 20 years. And from what I saw last night, they don't look or sound much different from how they were back in the '80s. What could be more awesome than that? I'll tell you what: they're political activists who've spoken out against the Death Penalty and for the environment, Native American rights, and gay rights.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Oh, and speaking of gay rights, they're both lesbians. Coolness factor now over 100. I am in lesbians with this band.

More specifically, I think Amy Ray totally rocks. Granted, my favorite Indigo Girls song is "Never Stop" by Emily Saliers. But Amy Ray is an alto (like me), so I familiarize more with her moody, throaty voice. Plus, her performance Monday night was electrifying. (My mom, who went to see the show with me, agrees on this.) When she strummed that guitar, she did it so fiercely that you could see the energy rippling in currents through her body. I almost thought I saw sparks fly from her.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Such a sight makes me think, "Oh my golly Moses, the woman is a maitre d'expression."

In conclusion, the Indigo Girls show was a great experience for both me and my mom. After all, I have her to thank for introducing me to the band in the first place. But I could have expected folksy fandom to prevail with her. As she says, "Folk is a (Baby) Boomer thing."

The Youtube video below is of the Indigo Girls' first hit single, "Closer to Fine." It was also one of the songs my mom and I heard performed Monday night (lucky us). See if you like this duo as much as I do!

                                                                                Peace out,