April 16, 2023

The performances of Carlos Izcaray’s Requiem are over and done. It appears to have been well received by Alabama Symphony Orchestra audiences, but then the story of the loss of his wife a few years ago which prompted the composition is well known locally so there was understanding of the emotional impulses underlying the music by the listeners. I think this is the fourth Requiem I’ve sung as a chorister since Tommy immersed me in the classical musical world a decade or so ago. This one felt more personal than the Verdi, the Mozart or the Cherubini. With my personal history, I suppose I’m always going to feel a sense of underlying sadness when visiting those works, born as they are out of a place of grief and deep emotional pain, religious, historical, and personal on the part of the composers. I have heard rumors that both the Faure and the Brahms are on the calendar for next season. If that is so, I’ll just be missing the Britten to have hit the top five. Speaking of Faure, this concert opened with a brief piece of his, Pavane (Opus 50) which, after listening to it in rehearsal and performance, makes me understand whence Jerome Kern cribbed ‘All The Things You Are’ .

I wonder if this piece will get much play outside of Alabama? It requires full symphonic orchestra and chorus (and I can tell you from experience that a piano reduction just isn’t going to cut it. None of us cared much for the piece in rehearsal with piano accompaniment but when we were able to hear the orchestral parts, it all of a sudden made musical sense and the piece solidified very quickly after weeks of ‘Huh?’) It’s short for a requiem, only about 25 minutes long. It has some traditional Latin text, and some colloquial English. I don’t know how the symphonic world learns about new pieces or how they get added to standard repertoire these days. Do they trade bootleg recordings over back channel listserves? Are there international associations which review and rate new pieces and suggest them to major orchestras? I haven’t been able to figure out how to sell my books to a wider audience and they’re relatively inexpensive and simply require one click ordering from Amazon, not weeks of rehearsal and several hundred musicians working together in concert.

I returned to the Alys Stephens Center (site of the Jemison Symphony Concert Hall) again today to attend UAB Theater’s production of Into The Woods. The Alys Stephens Center has multiple performance spaces and the Theater Department uses the Sirote (proscenium) and the Odess (black box) spaces for their productions throughout the school year. It was a last minute decision. I wasn’t going to go as I have a bunch of other things I needed to get done but the siren call of Sondheim proved to be irresistible so I ran down the hill half an hour before curtain for a last minute ticket. (And I implicitly trust any musical that has Carolyn Violi as musical director – she is a genius). I have a soft spot for this show in particular as it was the first Broadway musical I actually saw on Broadway on my first trip to New York (original cast – second week of the run). I ended up seeing it a number of times (thank you Billy Livsey) including a couple of second acting episodes when such things were still possible. That original cast had one of the best and most affecting performances I’ve ever seen on stage, Joanna Gleason as The Baker’s Wife. I still hold it up as a yardstick by which I measure others on stage.

This production made some interesting, but unified design choices, throwing out Disneyana for a steampunk aesthetic. The set was inspired by the late 19th century cast iron and rivet behemoths of Sloss Furnaces, familiar to all residents of Birmingham and environs and perfectly in keeping with the Jules Verne look of the costumes. While there were some individual choices in terms of look that I wasn’t especially fond of, the whole production under the direction of Valerie Accetta reached out and grabbed the audience and held their attention for nearly three hours. I’m often a bit non-plussed at college productions as young performers have such a difficult time portraying maturity and middle-age but I had no such qualms this time.

For those unfamiliar with the musical, the first act is a comic romp of fractured fairy tales in which familiar characters such as Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood end up playing parts in a new quest involving a childless baker and his wife who are determined to break a curse. All comes right at the first act curtain, but then the show continues into act two where we learn there is no such thing as happily ever after as life does not end. Deceptions and actions from the first act, seemingly innocent at the time, have enormous repercussions in the second as the fairytale characters are threatened by a crisis that is too large for any of them to handle as individuals.

The show was created in the later 80s, during the Reagan administration, and much was made at the time as to the disparate natures of act one and act two (and the show is often done in schools with just the first act as a rousing good time). I remember having huge debates with my theater friends at the time about the second act and its meanings and themes and whether book writer James Lapine had failed to contextualize his ideas in the drama as it unfolds. The Act II giant who wreaks havoc was considered, at the time, as a metaphor for the cold war (rapidly drawing towards its conclusion but still very real in 1987 when the show premiered) by some. Others considered it a metaphor for the HIV epidemic which was decimating performing arts communities at the time. I could have gone either way but, through the intervening decades, during which I have seen multiple productions of the show of various size, scope, and quality, I’ve come to the conclusion that the question of what the existential crisis is is immaterial.

Societies of all types face crises all the time and they always will. We’re certainly dealing with a number of them currently including the pandemic and its after effects, the devolution of our politics into two armed camps operating in somewhat separate realities, and the slow collapse of public sector health, education, and welfare. None of these was especially prevalent in the 1980s but they are uppermost in our mind now and we can revisit this theater piece with those ideas rocketing around our brains and learn something about ourselves and our approaches to problems from watching these characters grapple with theirs. And that’s what makes a play immortal. It can act as a mirror for each new audience allowing them to see themselves in a new way. It’s the Sondheim show that’s most likely to still be produced a century from now because of this.

Traditional fairy tales have a role in society. They always have. They help us teach our children who they are. They teach about right and wrong. They teach about social roles. They teach that the world is a dangerous place. They are used, as they are so familiar, in propaganda, in mass media, and in attempts to enforce gender conventions that may not be as healthy as we would like to believe. When the brothers Grimm set about collecting up the German versions of these tales for publication in the 19th century, there were ulterior motives in terms of using the impulses of German Romanticism toward unifying German culture (which eventually led to a modern nation state in 1871). We do somewhat the same thing with our Disneyfied versions of the tales which push for mid-20th century American ideals of a golden age that never truly existed.

What has become important to me, and why I now find the show as affecting as I do, is not the fairy tale aspects, nor the banding together to face danger aspects. It is rather the narrative aspects, the understanding of the power of story and how telling the story of what happened and passing it along it perhaps the most important thing we can do as human beings in regards to our posterity. Every generation will make mistakes. Every generation will forget to look back with the understanding that those in the past were just like us and that if we would take the time to understand their stories, we would be a few steps further ahead on the road to enlightenment. I don’t and won’t have children. But I have created and collected enough story, especially about the pandemic, and made a vessel for transmitting it forward with The Accidental Plague Diaries. And someday, far in the future, someone may pick them up thinking once upon a time, there was a middle aged doctor, and his world was falling apart and he was afraid… and here is his story and hopefully children will listen.

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