Posts Tagged: West Side Story

Here is why GLEE is the worst

Let’s ignore for a second the fact that the writing is AWFUL, that the plots never make sense, that the characters are hackneyed, that the integration of music into story is woeful, that the treacly overproduction of each and every song is an aural demoralization, and that most of the scenes are so poor that it makes me uncomfortable to watch them by myself.  No, all of that is Glee’s own business, and it’s my fault for watching it.

But when Glee decides to put on a high school production of West Side Story, it gets PERSONAL.

And since, after an artist has died it is the duty of his self-appointed representatives on earth to guard his reputation, I present a list of grievances so far this season re: WSS.

1) Mercedes and Rachel are going up against each other for the role of Maria. And why is that?  Is Mercedes really prepared to sing the high C at the end of Tonight?  Has anybody on this casting committee bothered to consider the RANGE and VOCAL TYPE needed to play any of these parts??

2) Rachel’s statement that she would sing the “classic Maria song ‘Somewhere'”. Though there is a brief — and I mean brief — a cappella reprise of “Somewhere” by Maria at the very end of the show, the theatrical version of West Side Story assigns this song is to an off-stage voice.  The actual actress playing Maria is onstage enacting the Ballet reenactment of the first act.  Somebody please do your homework.

3) Dear Idiots: the melody of “Cool” has two notes on both of the first “Boy”s. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Here’s what you did:

And this was after Mike Cheng proudly announced that he’s been “working on his singing”.  Sounds to me like he and everyone else at Glee needs to work a LOT HARDER.

4) Leonard Bernstein has not been mentioned once this season. Kurt name checked Stephen Sondheim in this past week’s episode.  It’s not like a have a problem with that per se – I’m all for mentioning the hallowed name of Sondheim whenever possible – but the line he delivered made it sound like Sondheim was the creator of West Side, and yes, he was one of the creators, but I just don’t want Lenny to be forgotten in the hubbub, since if they’re going to crap all over his songs, they might as well help popularize his name/image/work among the younger generation.  I don’t seem to recall them having mentioned him in connection with “Ohio” last season either.

So that’s why Glee is really the worst, and why it’s a crying shame that I’m going to have to keep watching it this entire season to keep them honest about their use of the West Side property.

Having said that, I will admit that Darren Criss is the perfect Tony.

Top 10 Composers for Non-Concert Settings

Our fourth in the series of top 10 lists, this list focuses on people who might be termed “the best collaborative composers”.  Composers who are distinguished by their contributions to film, theater, dance, TV, or some other non-musical medium.  In some cases, their works have a life on the concert stage, or in yet another medium.  In some cases, they also double as brilliant composers for the concert hall.  (In other cases, they double as not-so-brilliant composers for the concert hall.  Quite a smorgasbord we’ve got here.)

Each of these media requires something different.  Opera, pantomime, and ballet often require the music to tell the story as much as the action on stage.  Some music theater composers do this as well, but some just write great songs that propel their story along at a really entertaining clip.  Movies, TV, and “incidental music” for the theater are different – if the music distracts from what’s going on in the drama, it has ceased to serve it’s function.  But the really excellent composers for these media do more than just set a mood – they come up with ingenious ways of working the musical material into our minds and play subtle psychological games so that we interact with what’s going on in front of our eyes on a subconscious level.

1. Stephen Sondheim (1930 – )

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think Sondheim is our greatest living American composer.  The irony of my including him on this list, however, is that I always find that his music is ruined when I see it staged in the theater.  His music (not to mention his lyrics) does such an amazing job of telling the story that I can lean back, close my eyes, and see every move, facial expression, and visual image in the play.

But it’s not Sondheim’s fault that the people in the business of recreating his works can’t possibly match his genius and live up to what he’s written.  Here’s a glimpse of a nearly-original production of Sweeney Todd (the ’82 touring company). It’s directed by Hal Prince, so let’s just go ahead and call it “authentic”. Notice how Sondheim writes all of Mrs. Lovett’s slaps, stomps, and sighs into the music?  That’s good theater.


2. Bernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975)

Would Alfred Hitchcock’s films be what they were without Bernard Herrmann’s music?  No way.  His pre-Hermmann films were excellent, and had that certain Hitchcock touch, let there be no doubt: through Herrmann, we see Hitchcock at his best.  Herrmann’s music elucidates and amplifies everything in Hitchock’s visual language.

He scored Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane.  He scored Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  He wrote the iconic opening sequence for The Twilight Zone. What more do you people want??  Whatever it is, he’s got it.  A horror score using only strings?  Psycho.  A heavily ironic score for a romantic comedy adventure?  North by Northwest.  An intricate psychological dreamscape?  Try this:

3. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Name a single ballet in the common repertory written before Tchaikovsky came along.  The only ones I can think of are “Giselle” and… that’s it.  Even Ballanchine said that before Stravinsky, the only ballet scores of any merit were Tchaikovsky’s.  He is a brilliant musical storyteller.  Add to that the fact that his music is so very danceable, and you’ve got a hit, baby.

More than any of the previous lists, this list is bound to reflect my personal view as an American.  And what could be more  American than seeing The Nutcracker during the month of December.  No, seriously, I think we’re like the only country who really gets into this ballet at Christmas thing.

Swan Lake moves me to tears, and it’s no surprise that it’s featured prominently in films like Billy Elliot and the highly comedic and altogether craptastic Black Swan.

4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)

Now, my friend Marcello and I have gotten into a lot of debates about Puccini v. Verdi.  He thinks that Verdi is a better storyteller through music, whereas Puccini more or less writes soundtracks for the action on stage.  Point well taken, though not entirely conferred.

My biggest problem with opera is pacing.  A composer is invariably tempted to stop the action and tell us everything about a character’s inner depths.  That’s great, and it’s a really unique property of music that it can do just that, so why not go for it?  Because if the characters aren’t doing anything, why should we care about their inner lives?

For me, Puccini is that rare combination of an opera composer who can pace the action in a scene and simultaneously tell us everything we need to know about the characters in it.

5. John Williams (1932 – )

Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Indiana Jones, E.T., Home Alone, Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, and don’t forget a little something called THE OLYMPIC GAMES.

Yes, it does read like a Steven Spielberg filmography, but fine.  The two are ideally suited for each other.  They are both unabashed manipulators of our emotions, and they both do it incredibly well.

John Williams may be a red-handed thief when it comes to his material.  But he doesn’t waste what he’s stolen.  His music may be as cheezy as an overflowing fondue pot.  But I bet all of you could sing the main themes from each of the above listed movies, and that’s saying a LOT.

I mean, come on, right?

6. Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)

Wait, so you’re saying street gangs don’t do ballet?  Could have fooled me.


7. Alberto Iglesias (1955 – )

An analogy:


During their generation, Hitchcock and Herrmann were the most distinguished practitioners of their respective art forms.  It also happens that they were ideally suited collaborators – they shared an artistic soul.  One expressed that soul in a visual language, the other in an aural one.

I would say the exact same thing about Alberto Iglesias and Pedro Almodóvar.  Again, the movies Almodóvar made pre-Iglesias are very much his own, and excellent in and of themselves.  The ones he made with Iglesias as collaborator are just way better.

8. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

Stravinsky’s first three major works, all ballets, are staggering accomplishments in every category: harmony, form, orchestration, instrumentation – everything.  And I don’t care that we’ve lost a lot of the original choreography – I know that these are perfect works for the stage.  Much like what I said about Sondheim, Stravinsky’s music tells the story.

My primary example would be Petrushka, his 1911 ballet about puppets coming to life (a Russian sort of Pinnocchio, you might say).  Every character, every argument, every laugh is vividly portrayed in the music.  Different musics interact with each other, and pile on top of each other, just like freaks at a carnival show.

He did plenty of experimenting in weird little stage genres, like pantomime (Renard), narrated chamber music (Histoire du soldat), and ballet chanté (Les noces).  But what I find really striking is that he could be as moving in the overblown romanticism of The Firebird (1910) as he could be in the refined and formal classicism of Apollo (1928):

(and p.s. Herrmann:Hitchcock::Iglesias:Almodovar::Stravinsky:Balanchine, yes?)

9. Frank Loesser (1910 – 1969)

I think Guys & Dolls is the perfect musical.  Great tunes, great pacing, great dialogue – everything you’d want.  The amazing thing is that Frank Loesser is the first and only Broadway triple threat, having written the score, the lyrics, and the libretto for this gem of the musical stage.

Plus, how do you not include someone who looks like that?


10. Danny Elfman (1953 – )

Everyone just looves to talk about how Danny Elfman doesn’t write his own music.  Admittedly, there is so much rumor-mongering out there, it can be really hard to sort the facts from the fiction.  I think this article makes a really good case, and I’m willing to take it at face value.

OK, so the guy writes his own music.  And it’s really, really cool.  I can hardly think of a more inventive score than Beetlejuice – it’s a wild romp, just like the movie itself.  And who doesn’t tear up when that choir comes in at the end of Edward Scissorhands?

The pièce de résistance however, has to be Nightmare before Christmas – I loved it when I was a kid, and I was really surprised when I started conducting youth orchestras 10 years later that it was still so very popular.

(so, Danny Elfman:Tim Burton::… do we really have to go through this whole thing?)


So that last list didn’t seem to generate much talk… I guess it was just a little too tame for the Webern crowd.  But I’m anticipating that this list could get real territorial real quick.  Will the opera queenz, the balletomanes, and the Hans Zimmer fanatics get all up in each others’ grillz?  Will there by any video game music people out there?  Will anyone say Adam Guettel?  Will Gabe say Monteverdi?

And are there any Lost fans out there?  I never watched the show, but I almost thought about including Michael Giacchino just on Alex Ross’s recommendation.  And speaking of TV, how about Alf Clausen?

Just remember, we’re not trying to glorify any cults here; we’re just taking a chance to reason and discuss and think about music.  But the fun of this game is to face the artificial limits it provides and organize your thoughts accordingly.  So, either a) come up with and present your own list or b) suggest alternatives and remove someone from my list in so doing.

At the Movies


About four months ago, I saw Giant (both the movie and the musical) and it dawned upon me that I hadn’t seen James Dean’s other two movies, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause.  Over the past couple days, I have filled in this cinematic lacuna.

I can dispatch with Eden pretty quickly by referring to Dan Callahan’s review at Slant Magazine (except I’m sure that Mr. Callahan meant to refer to Leonard Rosenman’s painfully overt score as “pseudo-Schoenberg” rather than “pseudo-Stravinsky“).  He’s got it all right – Dean acts like an overwrought Brando impersonator, Kazan’s direction is flaccid, and the story is reduced to a rather trite fable.

Then we come to Rebel Without a Cause.  Here, I’m perfectly willing to go along with Roger Ebert’s analysis, but we’ve got to take a step back on this one, because watching this movie brought me to a horrible, gut-wrenching realization: West Side Story is, in many respects, a Knock Off of this movie.

That’s sacrilege of the highest order, and something that pains me — PAINS me — to write, but there’s really no denying it.  OK, maybe “knock off” isn’t quite right, but WSS definitely owes a lot to Rebel.  Even, to a minor extent, the score. Sort of.

There, I said it… breathe deeply… BUT, the good thing is that whatever debts WSS owes to Rebel, it in every way improves upon its predecessor.  And obviously, Romeo and Juliet was the true model for West Side, but there are so many elements of Rebel that it’s impossible to ignore them.  I mean, Hello – Knife Fight? [See above.]

wss knife fight

As to what I said about the score, first off, Sondheim, thankfully, denies it.  And it may be wholly a coincidence given the subject matter and settings, but there’s no denying that this:

does sound in some ways like this:

Although upon further review, the latter possesses such a greater sophistication that the point is rendered almost moot.  Lenny’s score is a masterpiece and there are traces of everyone (“Hey, we’re having a party – why not invite the Black Panthers?”) so I guess it shouldn’t bother me too much that Rosenman has a small say in the dialogue.

Frankly I think very little prevents Rebel overall from being MST3K movie fodder… in fact, it largely resembles my absolute favorite episode thereof: “I Accuse My Parents“.

Speaking of movies, tonight is of course Inglourious Basterds night, and I’m definitely looking forward to it.  Quentin’s media saturation has reached monumental proportions even by his standards.  But it’s like, Quent, dawg, if you would just make movies a little more often, there wouldn’t be quite so much pressure on the success of the few that you do make.  I think, and I think most creative types would agree with me here, that it’s maybe the most important thing that an artist produce.  All the time.  Although there’s got to be some kind of limit to that, because even Stravinsky jumped the shark, and Lord Knows he was poppin’ ’em out all the time.

Speaking of which, I really ought to compose before taking in the cinema.

Oh, P.S. The trauma from my Rebel-WSS related psychoses was totally outweighed by the awesomeness of getting to see Mr. Howell in an apron!!


A Book of Orchestrators

(and orchestrations)


I just finished reading Steve Suskin’s The Sound of Broadway Music, not five days after Terry Teachout did the same.  What a book!  What a HUGE gap this fills in for anybody interested in how Broadway Melodies get transformed from a tune with words to a what you hear in the theater.

I’ve been conducting musicals since I was 16 years old, and this book for the first time demystified Broadway scores in a major way.  I can remember conducting Kiss Me, Kate when I was a senior in high school and wondering where in Creation the dance music came from – reading the music (specifically, the “Tarantella”), it just seemed impossible that it was written by Cole Porter.  It turns out that a lady named Genevieve Pitot basically improvised it over a period of several days working with choreographer Hanya Holm.  This is what’s known as “dance arranging”, and the dance arranger might improvise something that has nothing to do with the score and then go home and arrange themes from the show to correspond to the dance patterns.

From there, Ms. Pitot’s scores went to Russell Bennett (who was the credited orchestrator on the show) and Don Walker (who did about a third of the total orchestrations – uncredited, as was so often the case).  These two gentlemen, along with very minor contributions from Walter Paul and Hans Spialek, orchestrated the entire score a mere 10 days before the opening.

This book is so tremendously informative, I would recommend it to anybody interested in Broadway musicals.  Suskin did a HUGE amount of research to put this whole thing together, and he is kind enough to share the great stories that he dug up in the process.  For example, a story from Stephen Sondheim that I had never encountered anywhere else, about how a strong-willed director/choreographer can actually trump a composer on his own orchestrations:

Jerry [Robbins] took over the orchestra during the dress rehearsal for “Somewhere,” and proceeded to circle the instruments.  “Now I want those out of there…”  He thought that Lenny had made it too lush.  I remember, I was sitting next to Lenny in the back o f the house.  Jerry hadn’t objected at the two orchestra readings.  But hearing it in the theatre with his dancers onstage, Jerry went running down the aisle, changing the orchestration.  I went, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to write home about this.”  Then I looked over, and Lenny is gone.  Where is he?  Not in the house.  I went out in the lobby of the teatre.  He wasn’t there.  Then I had a hunch.  I went down the street, to the nearest bar.  There he was, in a double booth, with five shots of scotch lined up in front of him.  Nobody could face Jerry Robbins down, so he went to the bar.

And that’s the version that is played to this very day.


On an unrelated note, I found a new young composer that I’m just wild about: Timothy Andres.  He has a big premiere coming up by the LA Phil “Green Umbrella” series; clearly this kid is a major contender of the Muhlian variety.  Dude’s music and the presentation thereof is hot.  I do so hate it when anybody else has talent.



OK, well, admittedly, I did get to speak to Stephen Sondheim TWICE today.  The first time, I asked him a question about orchestrators.  Namely, why did he use Michael Starobin on “Sunday in the Park with George”, which I find to be such a dreadful orchestration.  (Side note: one thing I apparently did not learn from Sondheim today was that you can criticize the deceased to your heart’s content, but hold your tongue when it comes to the living.  Oops.)

Turns out, Starobin was the house orchestrator of the theater company that first mounted “Sunday”, and Steve told Jonathan Tunick who turned out to be working on another show.  The only Sondheim orchestration I like less than “Sunday” is “Assassins”, another Starobin work, but in truth, I do find it hard to separate what I don’t like about the music itself in those scores from what I specifically dislike about the orchestration.

Sondheim came to IU today and delivered two talks: one in the afternoon for students of the Theater Department (i.e. not Music) — into which I snuck, and one in the evening at the IU Auditorium.

I went to both, and, despite the fact that I have read every major book about the man and his work, I did learn a few things.  For example, did you know that he wanted to switch “Officer Krupke” and “Cool” in West Side Story for the original stage version of West Side Story?  And when they finally did it in the movie version, he ended up saying it didn’t work!

Also, I was so glad to hear him say that the central conceit behind the current revival of West Side (the Sharks singing and speaking in Spanish) backfired on Arthur Laurents.  Incidentally, it seems that the version playing in NYC now is significantly less bilingual than the Washington preview that I saw.  So, if it’s only used in one or two scenes, what’s the point??  As Mr. Sondheim said, the Sharks might look menacing at the beginning of the show, but as soon as they start dancing, you’re not afraid anymore!  Also, he pointed out that the Sharks end up looking so much better to the audience then the dimwitted Jets since we see that they have the sophistication of speaking two languages.

But I simply can’t agree with him that the film version of Sweeney is any good.  He says it’s the only film musical that works for him.  For me, it doesn’t work at all.  Helena Bonham Carter was a total mist-cast.  His theory that her low-energy portrayal of Mrs. Lovett somehow adds to the context of the movie just doesn’t hold water with me.

Now for my personal tragedy with regards to today’s fora.  I ran — RAN, I tell you! — all the way around the IU Auditorium to the stage entrance at the end of the second talk.  To my amazement, there were only like 2 other people waiting to greet Mr. Sondheim.  And after waiting another 20 minutes for him to exit the theater, some sycophant comes out of the door and proclaims that, “Mr. Sondheim will not be signing anything.”

AAHHHHHH!!!  I had brought my score of Into the Woods and a Sharpie for him to sign it with!  He couldn’t spare 5 seconds to write his name on a piece of paper?  Perhaps he was expecting a bigger crowd and didn’t want to be detained, but come on Steve!!  I did get to thank him though, and he did acknowledge it, so I guess that’s pretty good.

Still, it was a disappointment…

PS. Steve says you can sing his songs in any key — there is no large scale key structure when he writes a musical, unlike a Puccini opera or some such.