Monday, December 19, 2016

A Few of My Favorite Things

When I released “More Fog Please”: 31 Years Directing Community and High School Musicals at about this time last year, it was gratifying to have a brief listing in the top ten books in the specific category on Amazon where this book fit best. However, being a “best seller” on one of Amazon’s hundreds of genre designations is hardly being a “Best Seller.” It was fun, though, and it was definitely a delight to write the book and recall some great memories.

Sometimes people ask me what my favorite show is. I don’t really have one favorite show. I have several: my favorite shows have great musical scores, characters I can care about, an interesting and well-developed story line, and they don’t always have a happy ending. The music in these shows is integrated into the story. My favorites are definitely musical dramas. I wrote about them in my book which (here it comes) is presently available on Amazon at a reduced price in recognition of it having been on the market for the past year plus.

So which shows do I love? I have to list Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Carousel as number one. It’s not the greatest of the three I place at the top of my list. Carousel has a very special place in my heart, as you know if you’ve read any of my books, in particular my first novel, How I Grew Up. The novel is a roman à clef … a fictitious re-telling of actual events. My first experience with Carousel was during my high school days in the nineteen-fifties; a close friend performed the role of Julie Jordan only weeks after both her parents were murdered. Even with its dark subject matter, the show ends with a strong message of hope. I’ve directed it twice with high school students, and each time the impact of the show on those young lives was positive and uplifting. While not every piece of music in the show is memorable (a lot of people don't care for "A Real Nice Clambake," but the casts love singing it!), overall it has a score which is timeless. It also has one of my favorite pieces of music of any genre: “The Carousel Waltz” I think is absolutely brilliant.

Tied for second and third: The Secret Garden and Ragtime. Both have beautiful and wonderfully written scores and strong books, and are based on literary works. And both are an eyelash away from being operas because they have minimal spoken dialogue. I have to admit I love that The Secret Garden was written by two women, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, and the ladies did a great job. Using the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the writers of the musical have added elements of the era of the British Raj to deepen the meaning. There are some references in the book to Mary Lennox’s life in British India, but with music and a sense of the supernatural, the musical moves to another level. The score is stunning, with numerous exciting, poignant, remarkable pieces. I think most people who love the show would agree that the standout has to be a duet for tenor and baritone, “Lily’s Eyes.” I directed this show twice, once with adults in a community theater production, and later with high school students, who were challenged by the difficulties and did a professional, polished and passionate performance.

Ragtime is also an unforgettable piece of musical drama. The treatment by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty of Doctorow’s book is exceptional, and it’s my understanding Doctorow approved of their adaptation. He did not like the film. Hollywood simply didn’t understand what he was attempting. The musicians “got it.” The show is filled with memorable characters and events and the device of breaking the fourth wall makes the show even more intriguing. Of these three musical dramas, Ragtime is the darkest and yet, paradoxically, the most hopeful. The ending is absolutely brilliant. And the music! You can’t do this show without an outstanding pianist, because ragtime is heard throughout the score. There are so many great numbers it’s hard to name one as “best,” but my favorite is a number which begins quietly with solo lines from different characters and ends in a burst of beautiful sound from the entire ensemble. “New Music” is a piece I can listen to repeatedly and never tire of. My young cast, students from seven different high schools, had a life-changing experience by being part of this production. It’s that powerful.

There are chapters in the book about each of these shows in which I primarily discuss the challenges of putting them on stage. Here’s a link to order the book on Amazon. The $10.95 price is good until January 1. People in the Poconos can pick up a copy at the Pocono Cinema and Cultural Center any time the theater is open, for only $10.00, again a price that’s good until January 1. I name lots of names in the book … because it was my privilege to work with thousands of terrific people over those thirty-one years. There are also photos included.