Saturday, August 18, 2007

Try To Remember

Over at Yellow Dog, Jeff writes of the 25th anniversary of the CD, and has all kinds of interesting things to say about the cultural histories of technology and consumerism. I'm not nearly so deep, so my question comes more from insomnia: what would a blog look like that was organized around an I-Pod shuffle?



Last night, my I-Pod called up "She Likes Basketball," the deliriously ecstatic, wonderfully geeky declaration of love sung by Chuck (Jerry Orbach), the hero of the Broadway musical, Promises, Promises. Based on Billy Wilder's 1960, Oscar-winning classic, The Apartment, Promises, Promises is the sole musical written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach. It was a smash, running for over three years, winning two Tony awards, and spinning off several hit singles (which were re-recorded for the pop charts by Bacharach-David's primary muse, Dionne Warwick), including "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" and "Knowing When To Leave." Bacharach's music was orchestrated by a young man named Jonathan Tunick, who would go on to perform the same role on a string of groundbreaking Stephen Sondheim musicals in the 70s, and win the first Tony award for orchestrations (for Titanic, in 1997). Promises, Promises also launched the choreographic career of future Broadway legend Michael Bennett, whose work featured dancer Kelly (then Carole) Bishop, who would reunite with Orbach 20 years later on another musical, Dirty Dancing.

Despite the show's success, Bacharach never wrote for the stage again: a perfectionist and slight control freak, he became frustrated by the live, slightly improvisatory nature of the theater; Bacharach was used to the recording studio, where one could manipulate and freeze the finished product, and the potential for the songs to sound even slightly "different" (a tempo change, a singer getting slightly ahead of or behind the beat) was maddening. He eventually collapsed from pneumonia during Boston previews, and had to be hospitalized. "The impermanence of Broadway gets to you because everything shifts from night to night," Bacharach observed. "If you've got a great take on record, it's there, it's embedded forever."

"Everything shifts from night to night": To me, this is one of those turning points, where the movie freezes, and you think: what if things had turned out differently? What if Bacharach hadn't gotten pneumonia, if the technology had advanced to the point where he might have had more control over the translation of sounds from his head to the pit orchestra? Would he have written another show? Possibly. Would it have been a hit? Probably. And he would've owned Broadway in the 70s, the Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim's Richard Rodgers, with Kander and Ebb divvying up the rest. Bacharach's tunes for Promises are intensely melodic, well-matched by David's rueful-yet-witty, Brill-Building-meets-Lorenz-Hart lyrics ("So, at least, until tomorrow, I'll/never fall in love again") and gorgeously set in Tunick's modernist arrangements: this is the "rock-pop" musical Broadway searched in vain for in the 60s and 70s (despite Bacharach's constant refrain that he didn't write rock music), and so much more sophisticated and enjoyable than the travesties Andrew Lloyd Webber would soon unleash (and don't even get me started on Hair). It's kind of like a Broadway It's a Wonderful Life: if it wasn't for Bacharach's illness, we might have been spared Cats, and things would've been so much better.



Remakes: Jeff writes of the CD's propensity for getting "the consumer to own multiple versions of the same thing," a tendency towards "remakes" that the success of Promises no doubt hastened on Broadway; is there any show on that strip that isn't based on something else these days (Jason Robert Brown excepted)? Wicked, The Lion King, Legally Blonde, Rent, Grey Gardens...even Beauty and The Beast (another show with an Orbach connection). This isn't new-- Oklahoma was an adaptation, after all, and so was Show Boat, and those are generally the two shows credited with creating a more "sophisticated" musical play form that nearly everyone built on for 50 years. But those were shows adapted from novels or plays, more "acceptable" source material (ballet was, too) than something as jejune as the movies (if there was going to be borrowing going on, Broadway would be the courted-- On The Town, Rodgers and Hammerstein shows in the 50s, etc.-- rather than the courter). Promises was different: The Apartment was only eight years old at the time, very successful-- and rather dark. It's a romantic comedy, yes, and one with a relatively happy ending, but it's less Astaire-Rogers than, well, Billy Wilder: cynical, acidic, dialogue-driven, black-and-white (in all senses). How do you adapt that into a musical comedy? Or to borrow the language of the I-Pod, how do you "shuffle" it? What do you keep? Skip over? Speed through? How do you order the pieces?



In the comments section of an earlier post, Dave asked me about the relationship between image and text: "What would it mean if this image were actually in motion"? In my late-night, rambling way, I tried to offer some sort of response about caption and text acting in allusive tandem with one another, a kind of "choreography" across the blog. And I think that's what Promises is doing here: mapping out its movement across a public text (the film) in the same way that one writes on a web page, citing and linking ("Oh! I remember that scene!...But...wait...that's different") and engaging in a kind of dialogue with its predecessor without feeling beholden to it. The Apartment speaks, and speaks beautifully, but Promises has to sing and dance, and that, perhaps, is the difference between an article or a book and a blog post: to borrow Dave's phrase, Promises has to keep everything "in motion."

"A great take on record": Let's imagine Promises, then, like a web page: which hyperlink do you follow? Or, per I-Tunes, how do you structure your playlist? The producers/adaptors had to make these choices in restaging the film, and so do we, as we look back on it. As noted earlier, Promises is ground zero for a lot of important careers: follow "Michael Bennett," and you get to meet Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Donna McKechnie, and Tommy Tune, and encounter such classic shows as Company, Follies, Dreamgirls, and A Chorus Line. "Jonathan Tunick" might take you on a similar path, and so would "Kelly Bishop" (like weblinks, these things intertwine, but the latter figure would also take you to Broadway drama, and Gilmore Girls, which is, in its own way, a musical).



So, what arrangement do you need? How do you get your memories in motion, make them sing?


For me, it starts and ends with Jerry Orbach, the original inspiration for this post. Perhaps best-known now as Det. Lennie Brisco on 12 seasons of Law & Order and its various spin-offs, Orbach had a long and successful film and television career as a character actor, but his true glory was on Broadway, where, just before his death in 2004, he held the record for most musical performances by an actor. He first found fame originating the role of El Gallo in the off-Broadway landmark The Fantasticks, in 1960, and followed that up with well-received turns in Carnival! (1961) and in mid-sixties revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls (for which he received his first Tony nomination). Promises won him a Tony, and solidified his stardom, and he would go on to originate the role of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere's part) in Chicago (1975) and play the tyrannical stage director with a heart of gold in the Broadway version of 42nd St.(1980). Little on film suggests his musical brilliance, except perhaps his sad, sweet performance as the father in Dirty Dancing, and his magnificent turn as "Lumiere," the singing candlestick in Beauty and the Beast


Chuck, Orbach's role in Promises, is, to quote Broadway historian Ethan Mordden, "a schnook hero," who must find the courage to face off against his philandering boss (who uses his apartment for his illicit rendezous). The talent of Jerry Orbach is that he could've played either the schnook hero or the evil boss, and been brilliant in both roles. Like David Thomson said of Cary Grant, Orbach's genius was his ability to show us the light and dark sides of a character simultaneously, to suggest both the sleazy and hopeful aspects of a given role (no wonder he was such an effective Bob Fosse anti-hero: you can see his delight in the clip above, smoking his cigar while beautiful women strip him of his clothes, and his false piety).

In a way, that's what makes "She Likes Basketball" such a delight every time it comes up on my I-Pod (especially if it follows, say, Radiohead in the shuffle): it's pure, unvarnished joy. Gone is the hangdog of L&O, or the sleazy lawyer of Chicago, or the sad Dad of Dirty Dancing: in their place is this 33-year-old guy totally geeked about getting a date to a Knicks game with the girl it's taken him months to work up the courage to ask. I couldn't find a clip online, but there's a DVD calledBroadway's Lost Treasures III, which collects various Tony Awards performances, and the 1969 show contains Orbach performing this number. Track it down, and watch Orbach spin and leap to Bennett's perfectly pitched choreography (not so graceful that it seems out of character, but not so goofy that he looks like he's just randomly moving: the perfect bodily expression of the schnook hero), totally giving himself over to the emotion of the moment. Failing that, download the song from I-Tunes, just to hear Orbach bite and yodel some of the lines, his enthusiasm bouncing off the microphone as he describes how his "jump-SHOT-was-reaaalllly-GREEAAATT!"

"It's embedded forever": It's very easy to rent The Apartment (and if you haven't, you really should), but it's much harder to "see" Promises, Promises, since B'way shows were not filmed/taped for posterity then with the same frequency they are today. You can listen to the cast album, of course, and "imagine" what the show might look like, or look at still photographs from the production, and you can see recreations on DVDs like the Lost Treasures series, and if you're lucky, the show might be revived, but even then it's not the "same" show as the one in 1968 (who would play Chuck today?).

To put it another way: scarcity, or what Jeff calls "Pleasure transformed into outdated, not what I really wanted, no longer needed." Or as Bacharach and David put it, "Knowing when to leave may be the hardest thing you ever have to learn: Go." In a way, for folks born after 1970 (like me), Broadway shows like Promises, Promises or, especially, Follies function as the stage versions of Benjamin's "Arcades Project": the unfinished text, the lost promises (promises), the fetish that beckons precisely beause we can never really "have" it. This wanting-not having/having-not wanting is the play's subject, in fact (perhaps the subject of every musical, in one way or another), both onstage and off (do you think Bacharach felt like Chuck after his promotion-- having the success, but wondering if it was worth getting sick over?), and the show's resolution foreshadows the famous ending of Annie Hall, when Alvy tells the old joke about the man and the chicken:

After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I... I realized what a terrific person she was, and... and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I... I, I thought of that old joke, y'know, the, this... this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And, uh, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs." Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y'know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and... but, uh, I guess we keep goin' through it because, uh, most of us... need the eggs. .

Which raises the question, I guess: when I write about Promises, Promises, what exactly am I writing about (no, I'm not talking about my ideas, such as they are, but the thing itself): since I was too young to see the show in '68, is it really "Promises, Promises," or just this patchwork, post-hoc construct I've pieced together from listening to the album, reading liner notes and histories, looking at photos, etc? In his memoir, Ghost Light Frank Rich writes of being a kid and recreating scenes from that Orbach show, Carnival! in "shoebox theater" form, complete with miniature curtain drops, sets, and lighting provided by desk lamps, each scene, he admits, "a magic trick I was eager to re-create." Is this blog post my "magic trick"? Am I the brother who knows it's not "really" the show, but still needs the eggs? Or is it more important to, as the song suggests, figure out our historical threads, and just "follow, follow, follow"?

3 comments:

jeff said...

That's a really nice movement of ideas from the shuffle - the one shuffle motivating all these other shuffles.

dave said...

I agree, jeff, with your sense of shuffles motivating other shuffles. Also, cinephile, your interesting inquiries into what your own experience of Promises might be (given the inability to see it performed as it once was, even in a recording) made me think of films that are inaccessible, whether because the negatives were destroyed, or the film was only partially shot, or perhaps the film was never even made. I was actually thinking of a particularly famous example of this, Eisenstein's !Que Viva Mexico!, and a quick web search turned up www.quevivamexico.com, where an apparent restoration is in the works!

Cinephile said...

Thanks for the kind words-- it was fun to just start writing about this song that fascinated me, and then to realize and trace out all the different connections. Dave, that Eisenstein film sounds really great!