BEHIND THE SCENES AT GUYS AND DOLLS
The theme of this concert centered around pairings. We ended with a rousing medley from the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.
Is there a darker side to the Scripture passage from which "Beautiful in His Time" was taken?"
Ecclesiastes is a fascinating book, considered to be part of the “wisdom” section of the Old Testament along with Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon. Yet it seems to have a very different message than any other book of the Bible, for it comes across as cynical and fatalistic, especially in the earlier chapters. Most Bible scholars assign the phrase “man under the sun” (that is, on earth) to Ecclesiastes and believe that it was written by Solomon, who would certainly fit the description of “teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem” given at the beginning. But why would Solomon, whom the Bible says had the greatest wisdom of all mankind, say that life is meaningless, as he does in verse 2? We are given at least a partial answer at the end of chapter 1: “The wiser you are, the more worries you have; the more you know, the more it hurts” (Good News Translation).
The passage from which our selection is taken is chapter 3, which contains what is probably the most famous pairing of opposites in all of literature: from “a time to be born and a time to die” to “a time for war and a time for peace.” There have certainly been other musical settings than ours taken from this chapter; I hope everyone reading this is at least aware of The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Our piece begins with verse 11, “He hath made all things beautiful in His time.” That’s a very beautiful way to put it, but perhaps a better translation would be, “Everything is appropriate in its own time” (Living Bible) or “He has set the right time for everything” (GNT). I like how this second translation continues: “He has given us a desire to know the future, but never gives us the satisfaction of fully understanding what He does. So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive.” Doesn’t sound too optimistic, does it? Solomon even questions whether or not there is life after death: “There is no way for us to know what will happen after we die” (3:22 GNT).
But the book doesn’t end here. If it did, I don’t know why it would be part of Scripture because it would just be depressing. Ecclesiastes can be a very uplifting book, but you have to keep going. I once spent several months in a group studying it, and all of us agreed that we had been encouraged. By the end Solomon has found some certainty: “The last and final word is this: Fear God. Do what He tells you. And that’s it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it’s good or evil” (12:13-14 The Message).
What changes were made to Annie Get Your Gun in the 1999 revival that reflect changing social attitudes?
There were two revisions. The song, “I’m an Indian Too,” sung by Annie after she has been adopted into the Sioux tribe by Chief Sitting Bull, was cut. It was considered insensitive to Native Americans, although it can also be seen as a satire about racial stereotyping. Typical lines include: “With my chief in his teepee/We’ll raise an Indian family/And I’ll be busy night and day/Looking like a flour sack/With two papooses on my back/And three papooses on the way.” Perhaps it’s just as well that it was eliminated.
The other change has to do with the perceived necessity for the man in a romantic relationship to feel superior to the woman, especially in areas where male dominance would be expected. So the long-running situation in Annie is that Annie is a better shot than Frank Butler, who has been the sharpshooter star of the Wild West Show until she came along. They come close to marriage twice but each time Frank breaks up with her because she outperforms him. Our selection comes at the very end of the musical, when Frank and Annie have a final showdown. In the original version, Annie is persuaded by Sitting Bull to throw the match deliberately and is reminded of her earlier realization that “you can’t get a man with a gun.” When Frank therefore wins the match, the two decide to marry. So is Annie supposed to go through the rest of her life like this, hiding her light under a bushel and aiming low? By 1999 the foolishness of this type of thing was realized, so now Frank and Annie both deliberately miss shots and the match ends in a tie. Maybe by the next time this musical is revised they’ll just let the two of them do their best and let the chips fall where they may. Hey, Frank! Just deal with it!
What on earth does “Whistle Down the Wind” mean?
Maybe someone can help me out on this one. I’ve done a fair amount of poking around about the musical as a whole and about this song in particular, and I have to admit that I’m stumped. The meaning of the phrase used for the title and the meaning of the musical and song don’t seem to match, as far as I can see. The overall theme of the musical is the faith and innocence of children on the one hand vs. the cynicism of adults on the other. The plot revolves around a fugitive who claims (or seems to claim) that he’s Christ but is actually a murderer. The children believe his claims and try to protect him. Our piece is sung by Boone, the widowed father of three of the children in the story. He tells them that they have to appreciate what they have, little as it may be, and that their mother used to say that if they had each other and were surviving day to day that they had nothing to complain about, leading to the song “It Just Doesn’t Get Any Better than This.” Then Boone says, “No matter how bad things got, your ma always had the words to make them right again” and launches into “Whistle Down the Wind.” The words of the song seem to be from the mother, saying in one verse, “Every signal that you send/Until the very end/I will not abandon you my precious friend.” But the actual meaning of the phrase “whistle down the wind” (versions of which are hundreds of years old) is “to send away or abandon” and is connected to the sport of falconry. So what gives? I really don’t know. Maybe I’m being too English major-y and trying to deconstruct the text. Maybe I’m just being dense. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!
The original inspiration for the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber was a 1961 film starring Hayley Mills, which in turn was based on a 1959 novel of the same name written by an Englishwoman named Mary Hayley Bell,. The novel was set in rural Lancashire, England, but the musical moved the location to a small town in Louisiana. (Do you think that there’s some connection between the two Hayleys? Well, you’re right. Hayley is Mary’s daughter. And yes, she’s also the Hayley Mills of Disney fame, notably in the Parent Trap movies.) Did MHB get the meaning of the phrase wrong, thinking that it meant something like “call for help”? I’m now really curious and have put the novel on hold at the library. Unfortunately, the closest copy is in Wyoming, so it may be awhile. In the meantime, I guess our gallant Chorale women will have to sing the song in the spirit, if not the literal meaning, of the words.
Should you have heard of K. Lee Scott, composer of Lux Aeterna?
Well yes, apparently you should. He’s one of the most prolific composers of church music around today. (And yes, he is a he. For some reason I kept thinking of him as “Kathie Lee Scott.” Oh dear. I just realized why I thought that. And I’ve never even watched Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, I promise.) Anyway, Scott is an American, having studied at the University of Alabama and now serving on the faculty there. The pieces we’re singing sound very British and non-contemporary to my ears.
This set of pieces is not meant as an actual liturgical mass but as a memorial for the dead. Scott has felt free to choose words other than the traditional ones. So for our first selection, “Hear Now My Soul,” he’s chosen to use the words of a 17th-century English metaphysical poet, Richard Crashaw, to describe the coming Day of Judgment (“Dies Irae”) instead of the Latin text. He switches back to Latin for “Pie Jesu” (“Dutiful or Pious Jesus”). The setting of Psalm 121, according to the program notes, was a commissioned piece in honor of someone’s 60th birthday. I’m not quite sure how I would feel about having part of a requiem dedicated to me, but we’ll hope it was taken aright by the dedicatee. This Psalm is often misread to say, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from where (whence) comes my help.” In other words, my help is coming from the hills. But that reading makes no sense. Instead, it reads: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills (and I will ask) from whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord.”
I will point out here that we have another piece, “Serenity,” that is also a setting of a traditional text, “O Magnum Mysterium.” You don’t have to be a Latin scholar to figure out that these words translate to, “Oh great mystery.” But what is that mystery? I was intrigued to read the full translation. The meaning is probably not what you might think. These words actually refer to the Christmas story: “Oh great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!” Something about these ancient words has apparently attracted many composers: our good friend Wikipedia lists 18 of them in addition to Gjeilo who have set it to music. Gjeilo doesn’t give any explanation on his website or on the sheet music about why he chose this text. It’s very mysterious! At least we can know what we’re singing, though, and not just mouth syllables. The gorgeous chords carry the words of the story I was reminded of the wonderful poem by Carl Sandburg, “Star Silver,” part of which reads:
And a baby, slung in a feedbox
Back in a barn in a Bethlehem slum.
A baby’s first cry, mixing with the crunch of a mule’s teeth
On Bethlehem Christmas corn.
Baby fists, softer than snowflakes of Norway.
The vagabond mother of Christ,
And the vagabond men of wisdom,
All in a barn on a winter night,
And a baby there in swaddling clothes, on hay.
Why does the story never wear out?
What serious moral/social issue is addressed in South Pacific?
And the answer is: racial prejudice. If you don't know the plot of this musical and think it's just something lighthearted, you might be surprised by its content. The location is an island in the (where else?) south Pacific during World War II. The central conflict between the two main characters, Nellie the Naval nurse and Emile, the French planter with whom she falls in love, is that Nellie finds it very difficult to accept that Emile has been married before to a “dark-skinned Polynesian” and has two “mixed race” children. It's only after Emile is almost killed in a secret mission to spy on the Japanese forces that Nellie realizes how much she loves him and his children. Another character, the Naval officer Cable, falls in love with a Polynesian girl, Liat, and that romance is also considered pretty scandalous. He decides that he can't marry her because of how his family would react. He's killed during the spy mission. But before he goes off to that fate he sings a very famous (and controversial at the time) song about how prejudice develops: “You've Got to be Carefully Taught.”
Our two selections don't reflect this central theme. “There Is Nothin' Like a Dame” is sung by the Seabees (C.B.'s--”Construction Battalions”) on the island who aren't allowed to date the nurses, since they're enlisted men and the nurses are commissioned officers. So they languish. “I'm Gonna Wash that Man” is sung by Nellie near the beginning of the story, when she's just becoming attracted to Emile. She decides that she doesn't know him very well (the racial issue hasn't arisen yet) and she should just break things off. It's a very funny scene in itself, but it's also pretty hilarious that Nellie's taking a shower onstage but she has to keep her clothes on. (This musical premiered in 1949.)
May I share a personal story here? At some point, probably in the late 1950's, there must have been a TV broadcast of the original Broadway show with Mary Martin. My mother said, “That Mary Martin is funny. She sings 'I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair.'” She even sang a little bit of it. So we made sure to watch it. Well, I was entranced when that song came on. Mary's singing and dancing were a revelation, especially her prancing around with that towel. So that was what you were supposed to do when you performed something! You didn't just stand there. You put it over. (Not that I knew that expression at the time.) Maybe that was the start of my liking for the theater (although I've never been much of an actress—or a singer, for that matter.) So when I was reminded of this incident by our own selection I decided to go on youtube and see if by any chance that performance was still accessible. And it is! I just could not believe that I was sitting in front of my computer watching something I last saw 55+ years ago with my mom. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5DiQsKpEkc if you'd like to see the absolutely definitive version of this song. Try not to get distracted by the graininess or the black-and-whiteness. Just enjoy it. The actual song starts about five minutes into the video. (Mary Martin makes Mitzi Gaynor look like a limp dishrag. If you have no idea who I'm talking about, well, you're just not old enough.)
Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?
You’d think it would be the lyrics, right? Much of the time it is, with a librettist writing the book for the opera or musical and then handing it over to the composer, who writes music to fit the words. Like all human endeavors, though, things aren’t always so simple. Some composers have written music and then asked a librettist to come up with words; some have written both words and music (including Irving Berlin for Annie Get Your Gun); others have teamed up with a librettist and worked together, among them of course Rodgers and Hammerstein for South Pacific.
But for Guys and Dolls the story is really complicated, and we’re not even talking about the plot. G&D borrows its characters and situations from the short stories of Damon Runyon, who wrote in the 1920’s and 30’s about New York’s underworld: gamblers and gangsters and their girls. (I came up with that line. Do ya think I could become a lyricist?) The book had been written already, and Frank Loesser, who had spent most of his career in movie musicals, was hired to compose the music. At some point the book was deemed unusable. I don’t really know why, but George S. Kaufman had been hired as the director and was notoriously picky, so maybe he didn’t like it. (Read Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One, to learn about one man’s experience of working with him.) Be that as it may, Loesser had already written quite a few numbers to go with the original book, so the new lyricist, a radio comedy writer named Abe Burrows, had to make his version fit in with those numbers. Burrows said, “Later on, the critics spoke of the show as 'integrated.’ The word integration usually means that the composer has
written songs that follow the story line gracefully. Well, we accomplished that but we did it in reverse." Interesting side note on the politics of the time: G&D should have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1951, but Burrows had fallen afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee, showing up on a list of suspected Communists, and so the selection was vetoed. No Pulitzer in drama was awarded that year.
What well-known literary theme shows up in Guys and Dolls?
The theme of making deals with human souls. Usually the character is putting his own soul up for grabs, most often in the context of selling his soul to the Devil to get his wishes granted. But in G&D Sky Masterson, the big-time gambler who woos Sergeant Sarah Brown (her title being an obvious reference to the Salvation Army), makes a deal with the souls of others. He bets a dozen men in the floating crap game that is a central motif of the musical the sum of $1,000 against their souls. If he loses, he has to give each man that amount of money but (by implication anyway) their souls will be lost. If he wins, all the men have to go to Sarah’s Save-A-Soul Mission and their souls will be saved. He’s trying to help Sarah out and therefore win her love, as her mission will be closed down if she doesn’t get some sinners to come to the revival meeting. He wins the bet after singing "Luck, Be a Lady," the gamblers head to the mission, and the scene is set for Nicely-Nicely, one of the main characters, to testify (untruthfully—but he’s trying to help!) about the dream that led to his conversion (“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”).
The original story of making a deal with the Devil about one's soul goes back at least to the 15th century with the story of Faust, an embittered philosopher who finds life so unsatisfactory that he sells his soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. There are hundreds or even thousands of versions, used in theater, music, film, poetry, art and literature. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet has the great American orator going up against Satan in a trial to determine whether the soul of Jabez Stone will really be lost. (This story has a great line from the foreman of the jury of the damned: “"Perhaps 'tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence, but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.”) The most famous opera on the theme is of course Gounod’s Faust, but I have to say that I prefer Boito’s Mefistofele, because I like the music better and perhaps also because in this opera Faust is redeemed at the end. (It may also be the case that I have a soft spot in my heart for this opera because I got to be in it and grovel at the feet of none other than Samuel Ramey as he sang "Ecco el Mundo." He made a great Devil. The ending of this opera is sublime, in the literal and figurative sense.) Musical theater has a full-fledged variation on the selling-your-soul-to the-Devil theme in Damn Yankees, in which a man promises the Devil his soul if the Washington Senators can only win the World Series against the Yankees. He gets out of his devilish contract mainly because of the great love he has for his wife.
Actually, if you think about it, the whole deal with the Devil idea goes back to the Garden of Eden. Faust wants unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures; Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The idea of redemption hovers in the background. Genesis 3:15, with God speaking judgment against the serpent, is often called the “proto-Evangel” (“beginning Gospel”) by Christian scholars and commentators: “ And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her Offspring; He will bruise and tread your head underfoot, and you will lie in wait and bruise His heel” (Amplified Bible).
All this has perhaps led us somewhat far afield from the back alleys of 1920’s New York. I think it’s fascinating, though, to see how serious themes can underlie even the most seemingly frivolous material.
Are the composer and lyricist of "A Boy and A Girl" talented and famous, or what?
No better overall commentary could be made than the statement from Eric Whitacre himself that's quoted in our sheet music: “A Boy and a Girl is such a tender, delicate, exquisite poem; I simply tried to quiet myself as much as possible and find the music hidden within the words.” I went onto his website and found a further comment from him: “I’m often asked which of my compositions is my favorite. I don’t really have one that I love more than the others, but I do feel that the four measures that musically paint the text 'never kissing' may be the truest notes I’ve ever written.” To me, “shimmering.” seems a good way to describe the piece as a whole. The music echoes the images of clouds, waves and foam and would make great background music for an Impressionist painting exhibition. (BTW, I got rather tickled with Whitacre's photograph on his website, www.ericwhitacre.com. Brian had mentioned that he's a male model as well as a composer, and so there he is, looking appropriately brooding and tousled-haired. He could be posing for GQ.)
Octavio Paz, our lyricist, was also quite the guy: a Mexican poet, essayist and diplomat who won numerous literary awards including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990. No second-rate stuff for us! He used clouds to symbolize “an awareness of dissolution,” as they are a tenuous balance of water and air. Paz has been translated by some pretty heavy hitters, including Samuel Beckett. Muriel Rukeyser, a noted poet in her own right, is the translator of our lyrics and also of another Paz poem, “Water Night,” that Whitacre set to music. (That piece was commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers in 1995 when Whitacre was only 25. Pretty impresive.)
And, finally, to end this rather disjointed post: Eric Whitacre is one of the artists listed on the great classical album, one that will stand the test of the ages, one that will be put in the next space probe to spread humanity's ideas throughout the universe: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES.