05 June 2013

Far from Criticism

Beverly Sills gave me several bits of good advice when she launched my journalistic career with an interview in her dressing room, in 1976. “You have to do your homework,” she said of being an operagoer. I took her seriously, and by golly, just look at me now: from time to time, I actually get paid to be an opera critic. (Though more often I simply assign myself to cover performances.)

In that interview, Sills also observed that, “If a critic tells you you heard a bad concert, and you had a marvelous time, then it’s still a good concert. It’s just one person’s opinion.”

True indeed, and it’s this truth that gives me the courage to write criticism, even when I’m feeling out of my depth. Hey, this is just one opinion, from someone who has some education and background and sympathy, and who knows how to write. But over time I’ve found that the “one person’s opinion” condition is exceedingly difficult for a reader — including this one — to bear in mind while reading criticism.

Still more difficult are those times when I can’t find in a critique any trace of the performance I actually saw. The urge is to throw the newspaper across the room — a bad idea, since I do most of my reading on a computer these days — and to shout, “What is wrong with you? How did you not get this?”

Steven Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara (foreground);
that’s Nancy Anderson on the stairs.

These reactions come to the fore again this week, as I read some of the reviews of Far from Heaven, the new music-theater piece by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, to a book by Richard Greenberg, based on the film by Todd Haynes. This is show biz: some of the reviews were spot-on, by which I mean overflowing with praise. Others were mezzo-mezzo, and others flat-out baffling. The review that provoked me most went so far as to question whether there is something wrong with musical theater today, citing Far from Heaven as a symptom of a malaise.

As it happens, I do feel there’s something wrong with the American musical today. It’s British, or it’s an amusement-park ride, or it’s both, and it’s generally as dumb as a sock puppet. Thus I feel there’s an urgent responsibility — an imperative — to listen closely to artists who are trying to do something different.

In Grey Gardens, Scott took a documentary film, of all things, and set himself the task of finding the music that only the Beales can hear. He’s up to something similar in Far from Heaven: this is the music of yearning, of desires that can’t be expressed outright. And what they’re yearning for, in the case of each of the three principal characters, is freedom. Freedom to be themselves. Freedom to express themselves.

In the repressive culture of Eisenhower-era America, they can’t do this outright. Therein lies the drama. Scott taps into their very souls and gives them voices (exquisitely tailored to the instruments of the actors onstage, as I observed in an earlier essay). He makes us hear them — and therein lies the art.

It turns out that there’s a lushness and lyricism inside these people. To one another onstage, the passions are invisible and silent: they’re outwardly dull, cramped, repressed, square. Even Raymond isn’t a firebrand; he’s just a guy trying to stay out of trouble and to provide for his little daughter. The most radical step the characters take is Frank’s abandonment of his wife and children in order to live with another man. (How? Where did they go? Surely they didn’t stay in Hartford! What did a gay couple do to make money in those days? Todd didn’t explain, and neither do the creators of the musical.)

But no matter how unlikely the odds, Scott manages to liberate the characters in music, just as Todd did in images. They respond by sweeping us away on the purest emotional level possible. Is this not why, as a culture, we tell certain stories in song?

The score to Far from Heaven goes far beyond words, in the way that music expresses what language can’t, and in the way that American musicals today too seldom remember. On Broadway, the old “prima la musica, doppo le parole” debate appears to have been settled by now, in favor of the lyrics (whether or not the lyrics are any good). Those occasions when music and text balance (as they did in Grey Gardens and Hands on a Hardbody, and as they did in all the greatest Broadway shows) are exceedingly rare; those occasions when the music is strong enough to stand on its own, even rarer.

Paradoxically, the responses of some critics have made me all the more passionate (or staunch) in my own. Yeah, this is just one person’s opinion. But I believe that you really owe it to yourself to experience Far from Heaven.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Great post Bill. I'm tired of anything with heart being dismissed out of hand .