Monday, July 9, 2018

Music Scenes: The Moderate Soprano, Coming Back Like a Song! & Mood Music

Roger Allam as John Christie in The Moderate Soprano. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano tells the story of the beginnings of the Glyndebourne Festival on the lawn of Captain John Christie’s Sussex estate in 1934. Christie (played by Roger Allam), a Wagner fanatic, is determined to use his fortune to make opera count in England, which has a paltry tradition of housing it and an almost nonexistent history of creating it. (The masterpieces of Benjamin Britten are still in the future.) Christie also wants to open a space for his wife, Audrey Mildmay (Nancy Carroll) – the “moderate soprano” of the title, a decade and a half his junior – to perform. His dream is to see Parsifal on his newly erected stage in the first season; he envisions an English Bayreuth. It doesn’t happen. The experts he hires – two Germans, conductor Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson) and stage director Carl Ebert (Anthony Calf), and an Austrian, impresario-in-the-making Rudolph Bing (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who is Ebert’s right-hand man – patiently explain to him that the jewel box he’s built, seating about three hundred, is unsuitable for Wagner, unless, Ebert quips, he puts the audience on the stage and the singers in the auditorium. And, though their critical judgment is that his theatre is “completely unsuited to the serious production of opera” and that “the whole thing has the air of the amateur,” they finally agree to try to make it work because it’s their best option, the Nazis having made it impossible for all three of them to continue to work in Germany. But, to Christie’s irritation, they claim that the size of the theatre and Ebert’s special gift for staging Mozart make him the local composer for Glyndebourne’s debut season. Christie doesn’t get Mozart at all, but he capitulates. Glyndebourne opens with The Marriage of Figaro and CosÌ Fan Tutte, and it’s several years before his experts permit any other composer to be sung there.

The play, which is receiving a charming production, helmed by Jeremy Herrin, at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, is in its smaller way about as unlikely as Glyndebourne was. Who could have anticipated that the leftist playwright David Hare would write something so sweet-natured about an English aristocrat and his opera singer wife, whose theatrical undertaking, in its post-World War II reincarnation (it remained shuttered during the war, Audrey and their children sent off to Vancouver so that they’d be well out of the Blitz), drew cynical press for drawing an audience of “snobs on the lawn”? Hare notes Christie’s Germanophilia (“Flowers everywhere, good houses, clean streets, cultured people, perfect traffic control. I love it all”): he has continued to visit the country annually, even after the rise of Hitler, and his response to the émigrés’ stories about their interaction with the Nazis (Busch, who had refused to discriminate against Jewish artists, was called a traitor and his musicians, wearing swastikas in their lapels, refused to play under his baton) is to suggest that they’re exaggerating and that they would have been better off if they’d figured out some way of making their peace with Hitler. It would have been easy for Hare to depict Christie as an anti-Semite or a dolt on the one hand and an entitled dilettante on the other. Instead Hare treats him with delicate humor and surprising affection, as a man whose devotion to opera and conviction that to make a home for it in England is an act of patriotism that demonstrates an admirable spirit. Rather than burlesquing him, Hare includes the details about his actions in the First World War: that he crossed off his name on the list to receive the Distinguished Service Order because he believed that soldiers, not leaders, should be so honored, and that he read Edmund Spenser to his men at the front. (“Did the men like the poetry?” Bing asks Audrey, who has related this anecdote. “We’ll never know” is her sober reply.) Christie is ornery and sometimes childish, but he owns up to the limitations of his perspective. “I’ll tell you what this is like,” he protests when the three Continentals and his wife gang up on him to prove that Glyndebourne will only work if he cedes authority to the men he has hired to put it into effect. “I’ve been given a train set, a beautiful new train set, but suddenly Mother says, ‘No, you’re not allowed to run it’" – and the simile he’s chosen makes it clear that he knows he’s behaving like a scorned little boy. And the fact is, even if his romantic view of all things German prevents him from understanding the Nazi horror, here as with the project of building an opera house he is capable of being educated. He uses the word “honor” repeatedly in his conversations with Busch, Ebert and Bing. He learns that it applies to them as well, and Hare portrays him, too, as an honorable man.

Audrey is the linchpin of the play: John’s adoration of her puts her in the position of acting as a liaison between him and the trio of artists, even when it comes to the matter of whether or not she needs to audition for them. The term “moderate soprano” refers to the timber of her voice, but her experience has been exclusively in local companies, and she is wise and discerning enough to recognize that her talent, too, may be moderate. John draws a line in the sand, declaring that whatever else he concedes to Busch and Ebert and Bing’s superior knowledge of opera and opera companies, his wife must sing at Glyndebourne without enduring the indignity of auditioning. But she says, quietly, “They can’t employ the chatelaine for no other reason but that she’s married to the man who owns the chateau” and asserts that it would be unethical for them to sign her without an audition. Happily, she passes it: in a lovely scene between her and Rudi Bing, he confides that they have agreed to cast her as Susanna in Figaro because a quality they have discovered in her – Ausstrahlung, which he translates as “anima” (“It’s a question, finally, of who [those who possess it] are. At their heart... And therefore what they emanate. Their essence”) – compensates for the smallness of her vocal instrument. Obviously this description of her professional gifts reflects the quality that makes her the play’s heroine, and the love of John Christie’s life. The Moderate Soprano is a theatrical memoir but it’s also a great love story.

Nancy Carroll as Audrey Mildmay, with Allam as Christie, Anthony Calf as Ebert, and Paul Jesson as Busch. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

The play is narrated in turn by all the characters, including Smith (Jade Williams), the housekeeper (a role Hare added after the original production at the Hampstead in 2015), and though most of it takes place in 1934, Hare continually flashes forward – particularly to 1952 and 1953, when Audrey, sick and then blind, is at the end of her life, and to 1962, when John, blind himself, is reaching the end of his. It’s amazing how much information Hare slips peripherally into the text, some of it about the deterioration of the Christies’ relationships with the men who co-founded Glyndebourne. When Christie can’t get money to Audrey in Canada during the war, she tries to get Busch to land her a job in New York and he refuses, finally proclaiming in a letter that her voice is good enough for Glyndebourne but not big enough for the Met. When John, lacking the spirit to go on with the festival after Audrey’s death, turns it over to his son George, he fires Ebert summarily. Even Carl and Fritz have a falling out, when Carl accuses Fritz of stealing his staging and design for Verdi’s Macbeth for a New York production. And Audrey’s untimely passing is the tragedy that shadows the second act of the play. John, still, nearly a decade afterwards, unable to accept her absence, tries to explain to Bing (a philanderer whose own marriage is a disaster) that “all great love stories end badly... The more you have, the more you have to lose. No greater misfortune than a happy marriage, because it will certainly end in separation.” Yet the play keeps returning to 1934 because it’s the high point of these characters’ collective lives – the best bit, the most fun, though they can’t realize it while it’s happening. Here’s where I think The Moderate Soprano overlaps with Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s great 1999 film about the premiere of The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan, which balances the irrevocably messed-up lives of everyone who participated in it with the ineffable triumph that it becomes nonetheless. Hare winds up his play with the opening night of The Marriage of Figaro in Glyndebourne’s first season.

Among the flawless supporting cast, I especially liked Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as the seductive Rudi Bing. But the play is a tour de force for Allam, a stalwart of the English stage, and Carroll, whose edgy, frightening performance in Wozzeck at the Old Vic last season would never have led me to suspect that she was a sublime practitioner of high comedy. The emotional high point of the production is a scene set in 1953 in Audrey’s hospital room when John struggles to allay Audrey’s panic by reciting the Glyndebourne seasons to her over and over. For Carroll, it’s a display of the other side of the high-comedy coin: the distress that high comedy staunchly refuses to acknowledge. Meanwhile Allam puts his superlative technique to work to show us how his wife’s terror and anguish are carving him up while he reins in his own feelings in order to deal with hers. It’s a rare privilege to see two performances of this caliber in the same show.

Phillip Hoffman as Harold Arlen, David Rasche as Jimmy Van Heusen, and David Garrison as Irving Berlin. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Considering that it doesn’t have a theme or a dramatic arc – and thus isn’t really a play at all – Lee Kalcheim’s three-hander Coming Back Like a Song!, directed by Gregg Edelman on the mainstage at Berkshire Theatre Festival, is surprisingly entertaining. Dramatically, all it has is a premise. On Christmas Eve of 1956, three major American songwriters, Irving Berlin (David Garrison), Harold Arlen (Philip Hoffman) and James Van Heusen (David Rasche), retire to Berlin’s Manhattan townhouse following an ASCAP meeting, have a few drinks, play their own songs and each other’s, and hang out. In the opening minutes Berlin bitches about rock ‘n’ roll, which he claims is going to kill show music, so you assume the show (which runs for eighty-five minutes) is going to hinge on a possible crisis in the history of the great American songbook, but very little of it actually follows up on that idea. Much more of it focuses on the men’s romantic lives – on Berlin’s long marriage to debutante Ellin McKay (his second wife; his first, Dorothy Goetz, died of typhoid fever six months after they were wed), on Arlen’s sorrow over the illness of his wife Anya Taranda (who was institutionalized at the time, though she didn’t die until 1970), and on Van Heusen’s swinging bachelor existence. Kalcheim presents Van Heusen’s sexual appetites as a compensation for his insecurity; he doesn’t consider himself a suitable partner for any woman he’s attracted to. (He didn’t marry until 1969, when he was in his mid-fifties.) The men also reminisce about their careers and Van Heusen talks about his friendship with Frank Sinatra, for whom he wrote many of his most famous songs and whose life he saved by rushing him to the hospital after he slashed one of his wrists following the dissolution of his marriage to Ava Gardner in 1953.

Kalcheim manufactures a lot of soap, but since none of it is very convincing, even when it’s clearly grounded in biographical fact, you don’t take it too seriously. The gossip and the anecdotes are more engaging. Even if you’ve heard some of the stories before – like the one about George Kaufman, whose script for The Cocoanuts was decimated by the Marx Brothers’ improvisations, observing during a performance, “Wait! I think I just heard one of my lines,” or the famous one about producer Arthur Freed rescuing “Over the Rainbow” when M-G-M wanted to cut it from The Wizard of Oz – they’re fun to hear again. Kalcheim has certainly done his research. (He hasn’t been as thorough about maintaining the conversational patter of the mid-fifties; some of the anachronisms made me cringe. Van Heusen wouldn’t have been likely to say, forty years before Jerry Maguire, “She had me at ‘Hello’ about a woman he met horseback riding.) Moreover, we hear all or part of about three dozen songs by three marvelous composers. The musical high point, in my opinion, is Hoffman’s rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” which he and E.Y. Harburg wrote for Groucho to perform in the 1939 movie At the Circus.

The three actors perform their characters’ creations with tossed-off panache, and they bring different energies to the mix. As the eldest of the three friends (Berlin was pushing seventy in 1956), Garrison gives his lines a distinctly Jewish wry wit. Hoffman has the right sensitivity to play Arlen, who – as the other two keep pointing out – knew how to write the blues; Ethel Waters, for whom he wrote “Stormy Weather” and “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe,” among other great tunes, once called him the blackest white man she’d ever met. And Rasche, as the youngest of the trio (Van Heusen would have been in his early forties at the time), gives a touching impression of a hipster who doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in his own skin – and whose close friendship with Sinatra, which he presents as if it were his defining characteristic, is something he feels conflicted about. The casting is ideal, and Edelman does consistently fine work with his three actors. They’re the reason Coming Back Like a Song! doesn’t feel like merely an excuse for an hour and a half of wonderful show tunes.

Seána Kerslake as Cat and Ben Chaplin as Bernard. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

In Mood Music at the Old Vic, Bernard (Ben Chaplin), a celebrated music producer, and Cat (Seána Kerslake), a talented novice singer-songwriter, collaborate on an album. Joe Penhall’s ingenious script juxtaposes the deterioration of their working relationship in the studio with conversations between them and their therapists, between them and their lawyers, and between the lawyers themselves as they challenge each other. The conflict is over songwriting credit. From the outset of the play their versions of the entire process are entirely at odds. Cat reports to her shrink, Vanessa (Jemma Redgrave), that Bernard was the record company’s choice because of his commercial success but that he was also her dream producer for her debut album; Bernard tells his, Ramsay (Pip Carter), that the album was his project and that he chose her because – for the songs he was writing – he needed a female singer. Each claims that the other has a reputation for being difficult to work with. “He’s a producer who thinks he’s an artist,” she explains, whereas he insists, “I am the music.” The tug of war between these two narratives, enhanced by their therapists’ interpretations – especially Vanessa’s, which continually casts her client in the role of victim – and turned into legal melodrama by their opportunistic opposing counsel (Kurt Egyiawan as hers, Neil Stuke as his), makes for a good show. And until the end of the first act it seems that the play is about the impossibility of discovering, given his overbearing air of authority and her hypersensitivity, his years of professional experience and her youth, what the truth really is about who has deserves the lion’s share of the credit for an artistic collaboration. But when, at the end of act one, they win an award for the hit single off the album and he hogs the mic at the ceremony, you realize that it’s really a play about a solipsistic bully who doesn’t mind making mincemeat out of an idealistic and dedicated young artist struggling to hold onto her integrity. (By the middle of act two, even Ramsay is fed up with his own client and can’t wait to get shot of him.)

That’s a less interesting story, though still an enjoyable one. Penhall (the author of Blue/Orange, the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon, and many other plays) is a witty writer, and he clearly had a field day creating Bernard, whose charm is inseparable from his narcissism and his misanthropy, which extends to other musicians and non-musicians equally. “Well, you see the thing you have to understand about bass players is that they’re not musical,” he tells Ramsay, and “Drummers can’t feel pain. They’re like fish.” When Miles, Cat’s lawyer, offers the astute observation, “I think you talked her into changing her songs so that they sounded like your songs and now you’re accusing her of plagiarism,” Bernard explains, “I changed what we had because my musician’s intuition told me that if I didn’t, it wouldn’t work.” When Miles asks what musician’s intuition is, he snaps back, “I wouldn’t expect you to comprehend. Your brain isn’t powerful enough.” Bernard has practically turned narcissism into an art form: when Seymour, his lawyer, suggests that it would behoove him and benefit the record company if he treated Cat with some kindness, he takes a moment to consider and then replies, “No. Making other people feel better doesn’t really make me feel better.” He also protests, “I’ve never exploited anybody who didn’t want to be exploited.” Chaplin, a mostly unheralded performer whose best film work is probably as the covertly bisexual Duke of Buckingham in Stage Beauty, reads these terrific one-liners with an understated panache that makes them gleam, and his own performer’s charisma showcases Bernard’s.

Roger Michell has staged the play expertly on a beautiful, semi-abstract set by Hildegard Bechtler with instruments strewn about it and mics hanging above it like a recording-studio still life; upstage it fades into a pathway that leads to a framed space suggesting a soundstage for an old-style TV variety show. But the play has a very odd flaw, considering its subject matter: we hear hardly any music. That mistake is exacerbated by the fact that what we do hear (composed by David Arnold) is sadly uninspired, and though Kerslake gives an adequate dramatic performance as Cat, she’s a mediocre musician. Mood Music is all about the complexity of making music in collaboration; not to let us in on the fact that the process is a cheat.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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