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Musicals, Movies, and Mark Twain: Laughing in the Darkness

Zero_Mostel_-_FiddlerWhen I posed the question to my musical theatre history class, “What do the 1960s make you think of?” I got “hippies, Civil Rights Movement, and WEED.” Okay… fair enough… Now, how to connect that general point of reference to Broadway circa 1964, with its blabbering yentes, shtetls, fathers and daughters arguing about arranged marriages, large bearded men waving their arms, humming “ya dadada”? Enter the documentary, Laughing in the Darkness, which does a pretty great job of it, in fact — managing to trace the sing-songy rhythms and big acting style of Tevye the milkman back to his more sober, historical roots.

I thought I’d share some of the film’s insights here, having recently re-watched it for school. (I discovered it a few years ago at “Chicago’s year-round film festival,” The Music Box Theatre, an independent movie house with an ongoing rotation of indie or foreign films, and more recently, its own production and distribution wing). In addition to tracing Fiddler’s back story, the movie details the winding creative process that characterizes the creation of most musicals – for example, building upon more serious artistic material with a greater bandwidth for complexity, and then, depending on your opinion of musicals, either condensing that material into impressively succinct, musical phrases or watering it down completely.

I’m pretty sure that most skeptics would gain respect for this most middle-school-friendly of performance art forms if they realized how much research and artistic collaboration were distilled into the final, big and flashy product. If the product isn’t always sophisticated, the necessary process of collaboration is. Even the silliest, most superficial-seeming song and dance shows have a sort of hidden, layered intelligence that gets masked by the fact that they look and sound like a musical, the dumb blonde of the dramatic arts. Take a classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical like Oklahoma – do you associate it with a psychologically complex ballet in which the protagonist dreams that one of her suitors rapes her, or do you associate it with ten-year-olds dressed as farmers, bopping to “chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…”? Fiddler on the Roof may be less exuberant, but it too belongs to that oft-produced, often poorly produced category of musicals whose catchy songs and universal themes could easily be mistaken as trite.

Sholem AleichemBut the rambling interior monologue of the character, Tevye, the rhythms of his speech, the ticker tape of his religious and personal doubts, his penetrating but wise-cracking, resigned perspective on his family’s increasingly marginalized existence, all of these elements are pulled directly from the historically based short stories of the first widely read Yiddish author, merchant by day, writer by night, Solomon Rabinowitz. Under the pen name, Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for “peace be with you”), Rabinowitz wrote about the character, Tevye for over 20 years. He was based on an actual village dairyman of the same name, who, just like the character, had several independent-minded daughters and a penchant for chatting up his neighbors.

Like Tevye, Rabinowitz grew up in an insular, rural, Yiddish speaking village (a shtetl) inside the Russian Pale, which was a sectioned-off area for Jewish residents, designated by the Czar. Also like Tevye, mass acts of violence (pogroms) against the Jewish population forced Rabinowitz to migrate, and eventually he found his way to America. By the time he reached the U.S. around 1916, he was considered a world famous Yiddish storyteller, hailed by the Jewish immigrant population in New York as the Jewish “Mark Twain.” Despite being a 47-year-old Russian immigrant who wrote strictly in Yiddish, his stories captured something essential about the American spirit – the tension between old and new, the challenge of preserving one’s heritage within a changing culture, the generation gap between old and young, each progressive in their own way.

Fanny briceThe New York City that Solomon Rabinowitz, aka Sholem Aleichem walked into resembled the song from Spamalot, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Yes, the turn of the 20th century was the gestation period for what eventually became the American musical, spearheaded by Jewish writers and actors: Florenz Ziegfeld, Israel Baline Irving Berlin, Fania Borach Fanny Brice, to name a few.  On some level, a Jewish “sound” – Jewish humor, patterns of speech — were woven into the fabric of the earliest show tunes, from Irving Berlin drawing on the melodies of his rabbi/cantor father to Fanny Brice’s comical Jewish impersonations. Same with Fiddler, about 50 years later, in which lyricist Sheldon Harnick tweaked a lot of Rabinowitz’s original language — for example, “If I were a Rothschild” into “If I were a rich man…”

Sholem_Aleichem_funeralIt turns out that Rabinowitz wasn’t so successful in the states — his foray into playwriting was a huge disappointment and he ended up returning to Western Europe, selling the rights to his stories and travelling from shtetl to shtetl, reciting his works for an adoring following, everyday villagers like those he grew up with. He ended his life in a state of poverty, near-homelessness, and chronic disease, continuing to write, despite the difficulty of holding a pen. World War I forced him back to the states, this time for good. When he died in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral, drawing unprecedented attention to the influence and power of the Jewish American community.

Mark_Twain_by_AF_BradleyThe phrase, “laughing in the darkness” refers to the author’s belief that even the most terrible, unspeakable of circumstances contain humor – not as a form of escape, but as an alternate way of appreciating the irony and injustice of a situation. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote, “Life is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.” The comparison to Mark Twain is apt – as Twain did with American literature, Rabinowitz’s stories, and later, Fiddler on the Roof, use a sense of humor to satirize the injustices and hypocrisy that men are capable of, capture the distinctive, everyday speech of Jewish characters, and create a widespread, popular work based on Jewish culture.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when Fiddler opened. It seems that even in that hairy, free-loving, hippie-driven heyday, America was still coping with Mark Twain-esque, Solomon Rabinowitz-esque questions: how much change can we accept as progressive without losing ourselves? What happens when children exercise the freedom that their parents have given them? Is it possible to laugh through the darkness?

Fiddler_on_the_roof_poster(Food for thought, for the next time you sit through through “Tradition!” “To Life!” or “The Bottle Dance”… I’m sure it will happen soon enough…)

[Photo credits: “Zero Mostel,” Wikipedia Commons, “Sholem Aleichem,” Wikipedia Commons, “Fanny Brice,” License, ky_olsen, CC BY 2.0, “Sholem Aleichem Funeral,” Wikimedia Commons, “Mark Twain by AF Bradley,” Wikimedia Commons]

Home

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.11.54 AMJulie Andrews isn’t so different from her alter ego, Mary Poppins — she radiates respectability, striving to be “practically perfect in every way” with endearing panache. I could have told you that before I read her memoir, “Home”if you teach musical theatre history, she has a way of asserting her greatness, from her narration of the PBS Broadway DVD series to her vocal virtuosity to her string of original roles that lent musical comedy dramatic heft, albeit PG dramatic heft. I’d argue that the most avant-garde theatre-goer finds it hard to hate on a youthful nun, a no-nonsense nanny or an impressionable flower girl when played by Ms. Andrews. She nails the deceptively difficult task of making rather square heroines interesting and memorable. The more I learn about Julie Andrews, the more I realize that the actress shares this sunny, substantive nature. “Home: A Memoir of my Early Years,” covers her childhood and early Broadway career through her acceptance of the film role of Mary Poppins. Tenacity, talent, poise, optimism and an impressive clarity of spirit characterize her pursuit of career and family, not unlike the ingenues imagined by Lerner and Loewe or Rogers and Hammerstein. On the opening night of “My Fair Lady,” Andrews writes

“I distinctly remember feeling like a prizefighter going into the ring; I was the correct weight, I knew what I had to do, my voice had returned, and I was ready as I could possibly be. It was the only time in my entire stage career that I have felt that way.”

The reader is given a vivid backstage tour of this pivotal moment in her career, from the generous advice of composer Richard Rogers encouraging her to take the lead in Lerner and Loewe’s competing show, to her homesickness at the outset of rehearsals to her guilelessness as an actor, prompting director Moss Hart to call off rehearsals and give her a one-on-one, 48-hour acting lesson that “felt like…going to the dentist with an agonizing toothache.” The strain of the two-year run manifests itself in quirky and not so quirky ways — the urge to giggle mid-scene, vocal exhaustion, the need to cover for her co-star’s onstage pranks — but overall, this early chapter reads like a cinderella story: “for every single performance of the two years I played on Broadway, I never stopped working on Eliza. She is such a character, and I have never in my life had as good an acting lesson…”

Her memory of the fear, anticipation and excitement surrounding “My Fair Lady” is fierce, as is her memory of “Camelot,” “Mary Poppins,” a live TV special of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” and so on. The quantity and immediacy of her backstage anecdotes are a reminder that the anxious, demanding and sometimes euphoric work of performing makes for a truly unique, heightened existence, that is, if your career happens to be blessed! Remarks like “there are eight unison notes as the overture begins. Every time I heard them I would think, ‘Oh my God, we’re committed now'” resonate with ahem, yours truly, a lowly production assistant on a gargantuan production of “Miss Saigon.” Never mind that mine was the sweaty job of organizing colossal piles of guns and flags, awkwardly bossing a union crew through helicopter fly-overs, chain link fence rattling, and turn table mayhem, I get a tiny, ridiculous thrill whenever I hear the ominous drum rattling at the beginning of the overture. You know, when I’m standing in an elevator or listening to the radio… Andrews walked with giants, but her walk down memory lane doesn’t speak exclusively to theatre nerds. My fondness for musical theatre is about 10 percent love of musicals and 90 percent appreciation for what it takes to produce them. Similarly, the draw of Andrews’s memoir is her ability to eloquently deconstruct her own success story while retaining a serendipitous sense of show biz magic, probably because she still seems genuinely surprised and humbled by her accomplishments.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.23.41 AM“Home” isn’t solely concerned with the home Julie Andrews found onstage. The literal meaning of the word is equally if not more important to her conception of her “early years,” as demonstrated by the opening sentence of chapter one: “I am told that the first comprehensible word I uttered as a child was ‘home.’” This is followed by a detailed outline of her family lineage and birthplace, the working class village of Walton. She writes lovingly of “Dad,” a.k.a. Ted Wells, recalling bucolic outings together in the English countryside. Dad was a “‘practical handicrafts teacher’” about whom Andrews remembers “wonderful, specific things,” such as his attentiveness to nature, poetry, music and self-improvement through study, as well as his nurturing presence. However, Andrews’s childhood is defined by struggles at home, and this is the context where she first carries the show, drawing on innate resilience, poise and sensitivity. She hints at the complex family dynamics, writing of her parents, “Someone once asked me which parent I hated the most. It was a provocative question and an interesting one, because it suddenly became apparent to me which one I loved with all my being…and that was my father. My mother was terribly important to me and I know how much I yearned for her in my youth, but I don’t think I truly trusted her.”

Andrews’s mother was a traveling vaudeville singer who, in her own words, married Dad because he was “safe” and eventually remarried her partner in the vaudeville act, a performer named Ted Andrews. As a result of her parents’ separation, Julie spent the bomb blitzes of World War II traveling back and forth between Dad and “mum and Ted.” Ted gives her singing lessons and realizes the strength and range of her voice. When taken to a vocal specialist, it is discovered that the eight-year-old Andrews has a fully formed, adult larynx. This revelation sets serious vocal training in motion, providing a much-needed emotional release for a deepening series of ruptures in her family. At nine or ten years old, Puccini arias make Andrews burst into tears, “overwhelmed by the sadness of the lyric combined with the pure sweetness of the melody.” This frustrates her mother but invokes sympathy in her voice teacher, an opera singer referred to as “Madame.” Madame gently steers Andrews toward Handel and says “never be embarrassed when you are moved by music… You will sing them when you are older and your voice is more mature. Right now it would just pull you to pieces vocally. It’s too emotional; too beautiful and sad.”

In a direct but graceful way, Andrews documents the numerous sources of sadness inside her childhood home — secrets, abuse, the emotional ambiguity of her parents’ relationships — then moves briskly to the next event, giving the reader a private, uncontained view of a life in process. For example, walking with her newly remarried mother near the family’s new home in Kent — both the “garden of England” and in 1943, “right in the middle of the flight path between Germany and London” — it is suggested that Julie settle on a more appropriate term of endearment for her step-father. “Uncle Ted” becomes “Pop” with the same suddenness that “Julia Elizabeth Wells,” originally named for dad and her two grandmothers, is handed the name “Julie Andrews.” She candidly covers the many sides of Pop, from their initial dreaded voice lessons, to performing duets with him for Queen Elizabeth, to his ongoing role in organizing their act, to instances of sexual abuse and his descent into full-fledged alcoholism.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.15.29 AMThere’s more where that come from, deeper secrets and other, ongoing hardships. But Andrews’s sufferings are a stark contrast to the Midas touch of her singing voice, her extraordinary friendships with fellow artists, the joyful experience of being a mother herself, and her second wind as a writer. There is a triumphant tone to what she has managed to ask and receive of her life, despite the limitations of her childhood home. About “My Fair Lady,” she describes the rare experience of “threading the needle” — hitting every moment of the show spot-on. It’s a metaphor for her life’s striving, described as “riding the ecstasy all the way home,” the “joy of being a vessel, being used, using oneself fully and totally in the service of something that brings wonder.”

[Creative Commons Licensed photos: Wikipedia and Harper Ganesvoort’s photostream, as well as the cover of the book]

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