Monday, September 16, 2019

Song and Dance, Part IV: King of Jazz and Miscast

A scene from King of Jazz (1930).

In their efforts to find ways to showcase talkie performers, in the early days of sound film most of the major studios produced elaborate musical revues featuring their leading contract players. MGM released Hollywood Revue of 1929 (for which Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown furnished the song “Singin’ in the Rain”), Warner Brothers had Show of Shows (which included a speech from Richard III by John Barrymore), and Fox came up with Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 – all decidedly mixed bags, as one might imagine. The only one with an actual concept was Universal’s King of Jazz: it was a loving though tongue-in-cheek tribute to Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra staged and shot by the extravagant stage director John Murray Anderson. Anderson sent it flying madly over budget, and after it opened to terrible reviews, it sank quickly at the box office – and neither Anderson nor Whiteman wound up with a movie career. (Whiteman made sporadic appearances in movie musicals over the next two decades, most memorably in Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.) But Criterion’s lovingly restored DVD reveals a charming, inventive early musical in stunning two-tone Technicolor. The palette – pink and carmine and orange, silver and pearly white, eggshell blue bordering on turquoise (true blue wasn’t possible until three-tone Technicolor was developed) – is elegant, Gatsby-ish; Herman Rosse designed both sets and costumes. And the lighting by Hal Mohr, Jerry Ash and Ray Rennahan adds a touch of expressionism, with purplish shadows deepening the images.

One of the dominant motifs is the bandstand on a rotating platform, where Whiteman’s marvelous musicians play and, on occasion, clown; they are not, alas, named in the credits, though they certainly include violinist Joe Venuti, saxophonist Wilbur Hall and guitarist Eddie Lang, and you can get all their names if you listen to the audio commentary by Gary Giddins, Vince Giordano and Gene Seymour. The other motif is Whiteman’s grinning, full-moon face with a ridiculous mustache that looks like supine quotation marks. He already looks like a cartoon, so it’s apt that the first item in the revue is a Walter Lantz animated sequence wherein Whiteman’s music soothes a lion, a snake wearing a fedora, a couple of wolves and a monkey in “darkest Africa” – as well as a palm tree that sways sinuously to the beat. The numbers are performed by John Boles, an operetta baritone from the Broadway stage who rolls every “r,” bubble-voiced Jeanie Lang, soprano Jeanette Loff, and The Rhythm Boys, a close-harmony trio that featured a very young, rather goofy-looking Bing Crosby in his first movie appearance. They sing “When the Bluebirds and the Blackbirds Got Together,” “A Bench in the Park” and “Happy Feet,” which, along with “Ragamuffin Romeo” and a rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” associated from its 1924 premiere with Whiteman, are the film’s musical highlights. (The delightful score is by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen, though Mabel Wayne penned “Ragamuffin Romeo.”) Boles, dressed unconvincingly as a gaucho, sings the movie’s runaway hit song, “It Happened in Monterey,” as well as the stirring “Song of the Dawn.” In her superbly researched essay for the Criterion disc, Farran Smith Nehme tells us that Crosby was supposed to sing “Song of the Dawn” but had to be replaced when he managed to land in jail for two months after a drunken car crash on Hollywood Boulevard.

Anderson included numbers as elaborate as anything Busby Berkeley dreamed up for Warners (Russell Markert was the dance director and the chorines are The Russell Markert Girls). In fact, Berkeley must have looked at “A Bench in the Park,” which anticipates “Pettin’ in the Park” from Gold Diggers of 1933. Some contain more than a dollop of kitsch, like “My Bridal Veil,” a history of bridal gowns, and a very long finale called “The Melting Pot of Rhythm” that, bizarrely, traces jazz back to Europe and never mentions its African origins. Nonetheless I think King of Jazz is more than a curio; it’s a forgotten small treasure, one of the few pre-1933 movie musicals, like On with the Show and The Big Broadcast (the first feature built around Crosby), that is well worth looking at. (1933 was the year of Berkeley’s pioneering 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 and the year Astaire and Rogers met on screen in Flying Down to Rio.) Kudos to Criterion for its masterly restoration.

Carmen Cusack performing "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton, for MCC Theater's Miscast.

It was my students at College of the Holy Cross who tipped me off to Miscast, the yearly benefit gala produced by MCC Theater since 2011 in which musical-theatre personalities perform musical numbers they would never get to present in the shows for which they were written, usually because they’re the wrong gender or (in the case of songs written for African American performers) the wrong race. I spent about three hours one evening looking at a sample on YouTube and the best ones are enthralling – and then I spent more time after I’d switched off my computer trying to figure out why they work. Cross-gender casting usually makes my eyes roll and my head ache, but as snippets performed in a revue context these numbers don’t have to carry any narrative weight, which gives them an almost abstracted quality. Is the effect Brechtian? The nutty casting doesn’t comment on the song, but the tension between the sex or race or age of the singer and the lyrics does defamiliarize it. I’d say it’s Brechtian in the way the songs are in Dennis Potter musicals, especially Pennies from Heaven, where the voices of popular singers distance you only until you get used to the emotional commitment of the actors lip-synching them – and then they might just knock you on your ass.

A few of the performances I liked are parodies, like Laura Benanti and Christopher Fitzgerald in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Raúl Esparza playing Maria and Anita in “A Boy Like That / I Have a Love.” (I freely admit that my pleasure in hearing these two Hispanic men send up the song, complete with stage Puerto Rican accents, is inextricably tied to my negative feelings about West Side Story, and that’s true for the duet from The Sound of Music too: these pairs are giving these awful, beloved songs precisely what they deserve.) Some of the mismatched numbers are sweet, like Jonathan Groff’s bow to Sutton Foster in a fairly elaborately staged version of the title song from Anything Goes and Mandy Gonzalez’s cover of “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen, which she begins by slipping a prop cast on her arm like the one Evan wears when he sings it at the top of the show and then asking the original star, Ben Platt, to sign it for her. You can’t tell who’s more knocked out – Gonzalez at getting to sing the song for Platt, whom she clearly – and justifiably – adored in the musical, or Platt’s at the sincerity of the homage. Carmen Cusack’s performance of “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton is like a ticklish gender-bending footnote to the musical’s celebrated breaking of racial boundaries. When Victoria Clark sings “Be a Lion” from The Wiz, it’s not just the fact that she’s white that strikes you but also the fact that no one would be likely to cast even a black singer-actress in her fifties in the role of Dorothy. Under normal circumstances the song doesn’t do much for me, but the simplicity and tenderness of Clark’s version took me right to the heart of the dramatic situation – one friend extending encouragement and admiration to another – in a way that made it unexpectedly affecting.

Two of the numbers are truly startling. When Robbie Fairchild sings and dances Cassie’s big solo, “The Music and the Mirror,” from A Chorus Line, the fact that he’s such a brilliant dramatic dancer, possibly the greatest American dancer of his generation and that he’s singing from his dancer’s heart imbues Edward Kleban’s trite, clumsy lyrics with an essential emotionalism that they never have in context; he burns all the gloss off them, all the phony sentimentality. And I’m not sure quite how to convey how good Norbert Leo Butz is on “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls (a song I love). Obviously a white musical-comedy star, even a first-rate one like Butz, can’t perform the song with the knockout bluesy belt of a Jennifer Holliday or a Jennifer Hudson. But sure as hell he can get at the feelings of betrayal, defiance and desperate sexual longing at the center of it. Clark in her way, Fairchild in his and Butz in his are taking the concept of Miscast as far as it can go and making it count in ways that perhaps the people who dreamed it up didn’t even anticipate.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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