‘In Your Arms’: a Dance Feast in Thirteen Courses

Jess LeProtto and Samantha Sturm bridge styles in Carrie Fisher's vignette

Jess LeProtto and Samantha Sturm bridge styles in Carrie Fisher’s vignette “Lowdown Messy Shame.”
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

The Old Globe bills their latest production on the Shiley Stage as a “dance-musical.”  This creation, however, could also be labeled a “collaboration-ultimo” or “vignette-a-palooza.”  Instead of a standard one, two, or three-person creative team, In Your Arms features ten (10!) vignette-writers woven together by the music of Stephen Flaherty and the choreography/direction of Christopher Gatelli.  Flaherty’s usual writing partner—Lynn Ahrens—adds lyrics on the few occasions that feature them.

Stephen Flaherty's score ties together thirteen vignettes in The Old Globe's new production of 'In Your Arms.'

Stephen Flaherty’s score ties together thirteen vignettes in The Old Globe’s new production of ‘In Your Arms.’

One of the highest compliments to pay to a dance show, however, is a compliment worthy of this show:  it really doesn’t need words.

Set against the stylized backdrop of the Casa di Giulietta—the historic Italian residence that supposedly inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo & Juliet—the piece explores aspects of love across time and circumstance.  The show traverses dance styles from flamenco to ballet to tap to African to ballroom.  The set is perfect in its ability to transform locales, cast light, and disappear completely.  Stunningly effective projections add to the spectacle.

George Chakiris and Donna McKechnie bring depth to Terrence McNally's

George Chakiris and Donna McKechnie bring depth to Terrence McNally’s “Sand Dancing.”
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

The cast includes a dizzying array of Broadway talent, young and old.  Veterans include the stately Donna McKechnie whose vignette frames the entire production.  Thankfully, she sings the title song, and imbues it with grace and gravitas.  Audiences eager to see George Chakiris will have to be content with a cameo appearance, as he joins McKechnie in the latter frame.

The absolute best parts of this whole dance tapestry occur right in the middle.  The four vignettes starting with one written by Carrie Fisher (yes, that Carrie Fisher) make up the heart of the show, feature the most engaging moments of dance with story, and highlight the brightest talents in the cast.  Fisher’s vignette—titled “Lowdown Messy Shame”—is a surprisingly hilarious mélange of ballet and tap narrated by a snarky, Princess Leia’d Jen Harris.  Samantha Sturm is a sweet and spritely prima ballerina here.  Whereas this sequence is laugh-out-loud funny, the following one is heart-wrenching.  “A Wedding Dance” features Marija Juliette Abney and Adesola Osakalumi in the most desperate and evocative moments of the entire evening.  In “Artists and Models, 1929,” Ryan Steele stars as a young model in the decadent Village scene.  His body is beautiful, and he uses it to create some amazing lines.  “Life Long Love” is simply mesmerizing.  Henry Byalikov and Karine Plantadit manage to strike that stunning point of athletic and emotional dance with painful accuracy.

Ryan Steele and Jonathan Sharp share a scandalously beautiful dance in Douglas Carter Beane's

Ryan Steele and Jonathan Sharp share a scandalously beautiful dance in Douglas Carter Beane’s “Artists & Models, 1929.”
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

In Your Arms is a curious creation full of both humor and heart.  A book musical it is not, but the themes and motifs within the piece are accessible and lovely.  It is a delightfully satisfying dance-song cycle. The production runs through October 25, 2015 at The Old Globe.

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Part IV—Broadway Tastes Rock Music

Part IV—Reclaiming the ‘Top Forty’

PREVIOUSLY:  Part III—Examining Early Chart Toppers includes early #1 hits “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Mack the Knife.”

Louis Armstrong's version of

Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!” famously bumped The Beatles from #1. Meanwhile at the theatre, confused audiences wondered when Louis Armstrong would appear onstage.

The fluke of Louis Armstrong’s single “Hello, Dolly!” bumping The Beatles from the number one spot in 1964 is the modern-day equivalent of someone like James Taylor recording “I’ve Decided to Marry You” and it bumping One Direction.  936full-hello,-dolly!-posterDespite Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s status as one of the greats of the jazz world, displacing the Beatles from #1 was an unlikely feat for a 63-year-old trumpeter/vocalist.  His music was as much a part of the Twenties and Thirties as it was the Sixties.  The song itself was written by Jerry Herman for the title character Dolly Levi’s second act entrance.  Like “Mack the Knife,” the song is solidly based in a jazz treatment.  The structure uses a slight variation on the Tin Pan Alley form.  Instead of an AABA structure, “Hello, Dolly!” uses an AAAB structure.  Regardless, it is still a form familiar to the musical theatre ear and easily placed in the jazz style.

The next chart topper from the Broadway realm came from one of the most significant shows of the 1960s.  Hair was among the first Broadway shows to deliberately embrace rock ‘n’ roll.  Hair opened off-Broadway at the New York Public Theatre in 1967 and transferred to the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway in 1968.  HairposterThe show’s hippie themes of love, peace, and understanding contrasted with their edgy score and use of full-frontal nudity.  The show—“An American Tribal Love Rock Musical”—was an experiment for Broadway and a successful introduction of rock ‘n’ roll, although the impact on the show tune remains debatable.  One of the show’s creators, Canadian composer Galt MacDermot, muses: “It didn’t change Broadway much.”  On the other hand, William Goldman in The Season, wrote: “You better believe it’s gonna change things.  There will now be a spate of shitty rock musicals” (Kantor 325).

The Fifth Dimension recorded two songs from the musical Hair combined as one, ushering Broadway rock 'n' roll onto the pop charts.

The Fifth Dimension recorded two songs from the musical Hair combined as one, ushering Broadway rock ‘n’ roll onto the pop charts.

In terms of crossover on to the pop charts, however, the music was ripe for the picking.  Because it was conceived in the rock style and with a rock song structure, there was little adaptation needed to make it appealing to the rock audience.  The group who plucked the fruit was The Fifth Dimension.  The opening of Hair was literally an anthem of a new era, and the age of “Aquarius” sang of that world.  “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”—unlike any of the songs discussed so far—employed a verse-chorus structure, indicative of the rock form.  Additionally, producer Bones Howe thought the song was missing something.  He imagined it needed something of a gospel sing-along at the end.  After seeing the show in New York, he recommended using the last three bars of the song “The Flesh Failures” which was subtitled “Let the Sunshine In.”  The audience joined in singing at the theatre, and thus Howe had the idea to take the two pieces and “put them together like two trains” (Bronson 2003 253).  “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” lasted six weeks at the top.

UP NEXT:  Part V—A Whole New World:  Movie Musicals and Disney considers not only the movie musical as the constant bedfellow of the Broadway show, but also recognizes Disney’s contribution to the survival of the musical on the pop charts.

All research conducted by Bradley J. Behrmann at San Diego State University (SDSU) and submitted on December 11, 2014.  Findings presented at the Student Research Symposium at SDSU on March 6, 2015.  Subsequent presentation at the Musical Theatre Educators’ Alliance Conference at Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, Australia on June 22, 2015.  Bibliography published in final installment.

Part II—The Changing Face of the Charts in the 1950s

Part II—Reclaiming the ‘Top Forty’

PREVIOUSLY:  Part I— Defining a Song’s Popularity Using the Charts looked at the evolution of song chartability from Billboard’s ‘Best Selling Singles,’ ‘Rhythm & Blues,’ and ‘Country & Western’ charts to the current ‘Hot 100’

While it might be easy to “blame rock ‘n’ roll”, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and its takeover of the charts in the 1950s was only one factor in Broadway music’s erosion from the pop charts.  No doubt, rock changed American popular music and created a generational gap, but in terms of chartable popularity, rock did more to unify listenership than to divide it.

Elvis-Presley

Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”/ “Don’t Be Cruel” became the first song in the history of American popular music to attain number one status on all three of Billboard’s major charts in 1956, essentially unifying a disparate listenership.

From 1956-1960, rock ‘n’ roll—particularly a young musician named Elvis Presley—provided the most unity of the three charts and therefore of America’s popular musical tastes to date.  Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” earned the number one position on both the ‘Best Selling Singles’ and the ‘County & Western’ charts as well as placing high on the ‘Rhythm and Blues’ list in 1956.  Later that year, the disc “Hound Dog”/ “Don’t Be Cruel” became the first in the history of American popular music to attain number one status on all three charts (Hamm 126).  But this unanimity dissipated in the early 1960s, returning the markets to their former subcultures with two significant differences.  First, rock ‘n’ roll remained as a mainstay of the newly-created ‘Hot 100’ which was formerly occupied almost exclusively by the Tin Pan Alley genre.  Second, artists who might never have crossed over into other markets were able to find listeners in some cases outside their expected audience.  For example, white listeners who found ‘Rhythm & Blues’ music appealing have helped artists like James Brown, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson earn spots on the ‘Hot 100’ throughout the 1960s.  By and large, however black listeners did not respond as well to music by white performers.  Even the Beatles sold poorly in markets that catered to black listeners.  Still, from this point on, the ‘Hot 100’ marked song popularity across genres in the US.

Broadway music itself shifted in significant ways during the 1940s and 1950s thanks in large part to the “Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution.”  Starting with Oklahoma! in 1943, their shows made strides towards popularizing the musical in Okla_bway_1943terms of record sales but also made strides away from their playability on the airwaves.  While the Tin Pan Alley song form was still alive in terms of the musical structure of Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, the integration of their lyrics to the storytelling started to prove difficult to lift them out of context.  The bench scene in Carousel features luscious music, but the specificity with which Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing their lyrics—not to mention the fluid movement between dialogue and song—didn’t lend for a hit single that could be lifted straight from the score.  Later in Carousel, Bill has a seven-minute journey in “Soliloquy,” much too long compared to a three-minute radio song.  ed90fb45d5b0824f0fd9fa7dfa51b92dThe integrated style they were innovating was meant to serve the story, not sell singles.  This is not to say that Rodgers and Hammerstein were not thinking of record sales.  In fact, Oklahoma! boasts the first original Broadway cast recording that included the actual cast with the actual orchestrations—instead of a big band crooner cover of their songs.  This was beneficial in bringing the home listener a complete experience of a Broadway show.  Sale of cast albums soared.  The original Broadway cast recording of South Pacific was the top-selling record of the 1950s.  But just as Broadway was innovating towards the album and a means of mass-proliferating its music, radio airplay was trending away from it and towards the single.

“[Sondheim’s] songs seldom achieve popularity outside the context of their shows because the composer creates material exclusive to context, to the particular characters for whom the songs are written and the specific situation that precipitates the dramatic revelation.”

-Richard Kislan

Following in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s tradition, Hammerstein’s protégé Stephen Sondheim took the integration of score and story even further.  What Sondheim then did was to create songs that were so intertwined with story that extracting them for the purposes of making a single became nearly impossible.  As Richard Kislan states:  “His songs seldom achieve popularity outside the context of their shows because the composer creates material exclusive to context, to the particular characters for whom the songs are written and the specific situation that precipitates the dramatic revelation” (150).  He goes on further to explain that these songs “defy transplantation with the tenacity of any vital organ determined to remain in the body for which it was designed.”  Imagine “I’m Not Getting Married Today” from Company—a spastic bride’s tongue-twisting tirade on how she is not marrying her fiancé, Paul—on the airwaves.  The general population would not understand the frenetic wordplay, would not be able to sing along, and would wonder who this ‘Paul’ is.  In his book, The Musical:  A Look at the American Musical Theater, Kislan states that the modern theatre song exists to fulfill a dramatic or theatrical function (219).  In particular, the composer uses the theatre song to do one or more of the following:  project character, intensify emotion, create dramatic images, embody a theme, or suggest time and place.  It would seem that if a musical theatre song achieves any of these too successfully, they may have trouble gaining chartable popularity.

UP NEXT:  Part III—Examining Early Chart Toppers includes early #1 hits “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Mack the Knife.”

All research conducted by Bradley J. Behrmann at San Diego State University (SDSU) and submitted on December 11, 2014.  Findings presented at the Student Research Symposium at SDSU on March 6, 2015.  Subsequent presentation at the Musical Theatre Educators’ Alliance Conference at Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, Australia on June 22, 2015.  Bibliography published in final installment.

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