Friday, May 31, 2019

Maria and Tony, Fosse/Verdon, Artifice and Pleasure

Randy's Mother's Day gift to me was family matinee tickets to the Lyric Opera's West Side Story, a full production with 40 piece orchestra and exquisitely sung leads. Thank you, dear Randy, for the wonder, the beauty and the tears, so many tears! and for the sight of Mia and Nora's engrossed faces when I dragged my attention away for a second from the stage to sneak a peek at their reactions.

I've loved the movie forever, (who doesn't?) but seeing it on stage this time I appreciate even more the mirroring of the musical's source material: "Tonight" for its celestial imagery, "The world is full of light/With suns and moons all over the place;" a glorious "One Hand, One Heart" bringing back "Oh then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do/They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair" and the minor-keyed omen song "Something's Coming," torquing the dread of "My mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars" into pure longing and excitement.

(How we revel with this innocent Tony! even knowing precisely the tragedy on its way. That is what's wondrous about these beloved tragedies, isn't it, that we can be double minded, knowing what we know and still entertaining hope with these gorgeous young adult characters. It's the pleasure of illusion, the joyous buoyancy of disbelief suspended, the charm of a cunning set with visible edges, artifice embraced.)

Carol Lawrence rehearsing the Cha Cha with Jerome Robbins

The musical, this most American of art forms, is a hybrid of the arts and of course, this most perfect of American musicals was created by an epic collaboration, a dream team of playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein. This time around for me, it's all about Bernstein and that score, my god, that score. Themes, repetitions, variations, contrapuntal lines combined, the paradox of  "my only love sprung from my only hate!" and "O brawling love, O loving hate/O anything of nothing first created!" created in musical composition. Listen to the way the crazy carousel theme of the failed circle dance at the gym returns to interrupt quietly, then insistently, the fantasy world of Tony and Maria's first tender dance. That's the world crashing in on them and despite the sweet longing of "Somewhere," there is nothing they can do to stop it. Listen to those final notes of the show, the three repetitions of the strings calling "Somewhere! Somewhere! Somewhere!" while the kettle drum pounds out a death knell. 

I needed the sweetness of the Lyric's show to balance the large dose of bitter from my other May obsession: the series Fosse/Verdon on the FX network.

Fosse/Verdon is a slog of a show, a backstage expose of the unsurprising ugly truth that the charming and adorable Broadway sensation Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) was largely miserable in the intimate working relationship with husband and director/choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell).

It's the most familiar of show biz tropes, that sunny smiles for the crowd disguise private horrors. (See Judy Garland's life, see Judy as Mrs. Norman Maine in A Star is Born, see Judy's daughter Liza's life, see Liza at Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Et Cetera, Et Cetera, Et Cetera.)

But the original musical numbers re-enacted in Fosse/Verdon are so stunningly great that you stay for the ride. We see the two greats meeting for the first time in a power play of an audition working out the choreography of "Whatever Lola Wants" from Damn Yankees, a number that would become indelibly attached to Verdon.

"What's that?" asks Fosse when Verdon pauses a coquettish approach to rub her calf with the other foot.

"She's got an itch," Broadway's greatest dancer replies, understanding dawns on Fosse's face, and you sense great minds recognizing brilliance in each other.

Jump forward to 1972, the two are back in a rehearsal studio, sparring in whispers while Fosse rehearses a dance for the show Pippin. Even as the background of the argument, the dancers' simple, yet precise movements are spell-binding and it takes me a few clicks to see this is no ordinary soft shoe; this is the epic Manson Trio, an eerie bit of precise mechanical doll moves, the dancers' smiles mocking the violent bloodshed elsewhere on stage.

Ben Vereen in the Manson Trio
There's a glorious version of "Glory" full of gold and glitz (oh! Ahmad Simmons-currently-on-Broadway-in-Hadestown as Ben Vereen! ) in a fantasy sequence where Verdon is urging Fosse to kill himself (oy!), a bitter note that is then redeemed by Fosse's young daughter singing a disarmingly unadorned "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" at his imagined funeral.
Okay, and there were plenty of other pleasures too, from every word uttered by Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky, to the surprise (squeal!) cameo of Lin-Manuel Miranda in Roy Scheider's devilish goatee and tight disco shirt.

I am grateful to be spurred to rewatch and love all over again Cabaret and All That Jazz, but honestly, when I return to this series, I'll be fast-forwarding past the backstage sturm und drang straight to the escapist pleasures of the song and dance.