Welcome to CAE’s annual pops concerts, cannily timed to brighten the dark days before spring’s return. Back by popular demand, From Broadway to the Met offers show tunes from prize-winning musicals and then turns to some of the grandest of grand opera ensembles.
Men from the Ensemble begin, appropriately, with “Hello” from Tony winner The Book of Mormon (2011). The show’s first song portrays a class where young missionaries in training practice their approach to possible converts. A trio of innovative young talents created the show: Trey Parker and Matt Stone are probably best known for their irreverent TV show South Park, while composer Robert Lopez won both a Tony for Avenue Q and an Oscar and a Grammy for his songs for Disney’s Frozen. “Hello” starts off calmly enough, becomes increasingly manic as the missionaries get into the spirit, and ends with a not-too-shabby imitation of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!
Closer Than Ever (1989) comes from the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum. This intimate show is a revue, with no plot and songs from varied sources; it won the Outer Critics Best Off-Broadway Musical award. Lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., and composer David Shire began working together as undergraduates at Yale in the 1950s. Many songs in Closer Than Ever first appeared in an earlier revue titled Urban Blight, which included brief sketches by Shel Silverstein, Arthur Miller, Terence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein, and others on themes like marriage, divorce, work stress, mid-life crises, and the challenges of urban living. “Three Friends” breathlessly spins through a couple of decades of friendship, with all its ups and downs, in one short song.
A Chorus Line, with music by Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012), lyrics by Ed Kleban, and choreography by Michael Bennett (1943-1987), epitomizes the “backstage musical.” In an audition on a bare stage, 17 young performers compete not for a starring role but for a spot in the chorus line. Over the course of the show, the audience gets to know each of them as an individual—their struggles, memories, frustrations and dreams. “One” closes the show, with all the performers (not just those chosen) in identical gold costumes and doing the same steps. No longer individuals, they have transformed into a chorus line, part of the background for a star we never meet. Focusing on the nature of live theater, the show swept the Tony awards and also won a Pulitzer Prize.
“The Light in the Piazza” comes from a show of the same name, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Grandson of the legendary Richard Rodgers, Guettel performed as a boy soprano at the Metropolitan Opera and later as a touring rock musician before he started composing. Light in the Piazza (2005) takes place in Italy and includes almost operatic numbers in Italian. The story concerns Clara, a young woman with brain damage from a childhood accident. While visiting Florence with her over-protective mother, she falls in love with a young Italian man. Her mother fears that Clara cannot handle love or marriage but relents after Clara sings this song. Clara may not understand the way most of us do, but, as the song shows, she experiences the world freshly and deeply. For her, even light is alive, and her mother at last realizes that she cannot protect Clara forever.
This year marks an important musical centennial. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) holds a leading place in 20th-century culture as a conductor, composer, and the man who explained music of every sort to Americans through more than 50 Young People’s Concerts on TV. His compositions include symphonies, ballets, operas, a mass, and hit Broadway shows. Bernstein composed his operetta Candide, based on Voltaire’s satirical 18th-century novel, at the same time as West Side Story. Candide had a disappointing run when it premiered in 1956; critics praised the music but found the plot a confusing mess. A revival in the 1970s, with extensive revisions in the story line, proved far more successful. “Best of All Possible Worlds” opens the show and presents the extremely optimistic philosophy of Candide’s teacher, Dr. Pangloss. According to Pangloss, absolutely everything, from Original Sin to the latest catastrophic war, leads to good things. The rest of the show questions that premise.
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” brings down the curtain on Hamilton (2015), with words and music by the multi-talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, singer, actor, writer, and winner of both a MacArthur Genius Grant and the Pulitzer Prize. Miranda got his inspiration from Ron Chernow’s prize-winning biography, seeing it as the story of an immigrant, an outsider, who quickly grasps the promise of America and works feverishly to make it a reality. To make his work broadly accessible, especially for younger audiences, Miranda used rap in the score and assembled a multi-ethnic cast that reflected America’s diversity. The show won many Tony awards. Both Chernow and Miranda believe that Hamilton, and the women in his life, deserve more attention, so this final song, which takes place after the fatal duel, reflects the work of Eliza Hamilton, his widow, to honor her husband’s memory and the causes to which he gave his life.
Guys and Dolls (1950), with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (1910-1969), is based on two short stories by Damon Runyon—one about lovable gamblers and con men, the other about a Salvation Army lass. It too won multiple Tony awards. Loesser composed both for Broadway and the movies in a classic “Tin Pan Alley” style. In the show, raffish gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson sings the rollicking “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” at a prayer meeting attended by gamblers who are there only because they lost a bet.
Like Guettel, Miranda, and Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, though now in his 80s, continues to write both music and lyrics for innovative shows, whose subjects range from fairy tales (Into the Woods) and America’s opening of Japan (Pacific Overtures), to serial killers (Sweeney Todd) and political murder (Assassins), as well as more contemporary stories (Company). Sunday in the Park with George (1984) imagines the creation of a famous painting, “La Grande Jatte,” by French pointillist painter Georges Seurat and also the struggles of his great-grandson to fulfill his own artistic dreams. Seurat conjured the scene of families in a park on a Sunday afternoon by using tiny dots of paint in many colors, rather than broad brush strokes; the figures come into focus only at a certain distance. The song “Sunday” occurs twice, first at the end of Act I, which takes place at the park with people strolling around the stage as Seurat paints. As they sing, he suddenly freezes them into the famous tableau as the curtain falls. They do so again at the end, as the younger artist reads his ancestor’s words, only to disappear, leaving the stage a blank canvas, full of possibilities.
Sondheim contributed to the revival of Candide in 1974, writing new lyrics for “This World,” also known as “Candide’s Lament.” In both versions of the show, Candide learns the hard way that his teacher’s philosophy is inadequate for coping with the sorrows of life. Many characters, including his teacher and his bride, Cunegonde, suffer terrible fates, dying, some more than once, by war, earthquake, shipwreck, and execution, driving our hero to despair. But never fear: They all somehow manage to revive and find each other again by the final curtain, committed to living more realistically.
We close the first half with “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime (1998), with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. Like the sprawling novel by E. L. Doctorow that inspired it, the musical mingles fictional characters with real historical personalities. Reflecting the social and racial tensions of the early 20th century, the characters confront interpersonal violence, labor strife, riots, and even terrorism in response to real injustices. Late in the show, Coalhouse Walker, a black musician whose lover has died in an act of racial violence, joins with radicals who threaten to blow up tycoon J.P. Morgan’s magnificent library in New York. Walker eventually negotiates for his fellow radicals to go free and is surrendering himself to the police when they shoot him. Right before he surrenders, he sings this plea for the justice he himself never received.
German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) actually rejected the word “opera” altogether, preferring the term “music drama.” In his 1849 essay “Art and Revolution,” he focused on the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk—an integrated, total artwork that offers a complete sensory experience. He wrote the librettos and music for nearly all his dramas, most based on German history and Norse mythology, and often provided detailed stage directions, too. Tannhäuser (1845) combines history and myth. Tannhäuser, a real-life 13th-century minnesinger (a court troubadour), actually participated in a song contest at Wartburg Castle; the mythical part claims the goddess Venus held him captive in a nearby cave (Venusberg), from which he escaped by praying to the Virgin Mary (Act I). The chorus we sing depicts the arrival of noble guests at the song contest in Act II.
One of Wagner’s early influences was Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826). Considered the first important German Romantic opera, Weber’s Der Freischütz (The Sharpshooter; 1821) is based on a folktale of a man lured to forge magic bullets for a shooting contest in hopes of winning the girl he loves; he doesn’t realize that the price of winning could be to lose his soul. Despite the scary scene in Wolf’s Glen (where he forges the bullets), the opera ends happily, with the hero, like Tannhäuser, redeemed by love. The jolly Huntsmen’s Chorus opens the third act and focuses as much on drinking as on hunting, with accompaniment that mimics the sound of hunting horns.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) had loved Shakespeare’s plays, which he read in translation, since he was a boy, and he created operas from three of them: Macbeth (1845), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. He also considered composing versions of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear, going so far as to commission a libretto for Lear. He admired Shakespeare’s original words for Macbeth so much that he insisted that Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene be a word-for-word translation, not the usual Italian rhymes, and the two Witches’ Choruses stick to the original almost as well. The first opens the opera with many more than three witches, although there are three distinct musical lines. The music may seem a bit cheerful for such sinister characters, but some wonder if Verdi intentionally modeled his witches on gossipy old women in a rural village. We’ll leave that for you to decide.
“Soave sia il vento” by Mozart (1756-1791) provides a rare moment of sweetness in Così
Fan Tutte (1790), an opera mostly characterized by equal parts silliness, cynicism, and gorgeous music. The title means “All Women Are Like That,” by which librettist Lorenzo da Ponte meant fickle and easily fooled. In this trio, the two heroines believe they are bidding farewell to their fiancés who are heading off to war; the other voice is that of a cynical older friend who has persuaded the men to leave and then return in disguise to seduce each other’s betrothed. The women eventually fall for the trick, allowing Don Alfonso to win his bet, with everyone presumably wiser for the experience.
Verdi’s third opera, Nabucco (1842), was such a hit that in the season after its premiere, the opera company added 60 extra performances of it. For an Italian nationalist who longed to throw off Austrian control, the Biblical story of the exiled Hebrew people suffering under the Babylonian rule of King Nebuchadnezzar provided Verdi with much inspiration. In fact, “Va pensiero,” a chorus from the middle of the opera, became an informal anthem of the Risorgimento movement to re-unify Italy. The opening chorus we will sing takes place inside the Temple of Solomon as Babylonian troops advance on Jerusalem. Together, the Israelites prepare for the destruction of the Temple and pray for God’s forgiveness and protection in whatever trials are to come.
Fidelio, the only opera by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), involves a political prisoner whose wife disguises herself as a jailer’s assistant to rescue him. Beethoven composed the earliest version in 1805 but it wasn’t performed until 1815, after the Napoleonic Wars ended. After World War II, the Viennese dedicated the reopening of their opera house with Fidelio, for, once again, the opera symbolized liberation. In the Prisoners’ Chorus, Leonora, the disguised wife, has let inmates out into the prison courtyard, and the music depicts how men nearly broken by prison begin to stand tall and reassert their humanity. One man cautions the rest to speak softly because talk of freedom is dangerous. At first the others comply, but the accompaniment shows the spirit of freedom bubbling up again, even though the men must return, for now, to their cells.
The second Witches’ Chorus from Macbeth occurs in Act III, right before the witches conjure three deceptive apparitions for the worried king. Again, the music has three distinct vocal lines for the witches. The scene provides plenty of opportunities for stagecraft as the witches gather their noxious ingredients and throw them into the seething cauldron. Verdi loved writing storm music, and both choruses depict thunder, lighting, and wind in the accompaniment.
The Pirates of Penzance (1879) by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900) was the fifth of their collaborations for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and the only one to have its world premiere in the United States—in fact, on Broadway! It has a ridiculous plot, like all their operettas, this one involving tender-hearted pirates and an authority figure who knows nothing related to his job (and has about a dozen daughters, all roughly the same age). All G&S operettas also have at least one “patter song” where a character rattles off Gilbert’s complicated rhymes at breakneck speed. Few compare in popularity, or in the number of parodies it has inspired, with “A Modern Major General.” Our version differs from most, however, because we have over 40 people singing it all at once–and a cappella.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791) celebrates the triumph of beauty, wisdom, and rationality after many trials and dangers. Both Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder had a fascination with Freemasonry, which plays out in this opera in recurring patterns of three (like triangles in Masonic imagery) and in its Egyptian ambiance, including the mention of the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris in this chorus. Just as we began this concert with “Hello,” we close with the final chorus of Mozart’s final opera as it celebrates the return of light and beauty to the world.
~ Susan Wladaver-Morgan