The hills are alive

It’s summertime, and popular wisdom holds that this is the season for livin’ easy: We want our tea sweet, our tomatoes fresh-picked, our radios pumping, and our air-conditioning — period.

Moreover, we want our entertainment gentle on the ear and mind. After all, the block in “summer blockbuster” isn’t the one sitting on your neck. Summer music and summer movies are like summer clothes — loose, colorful and a little silly.

And now add to the list of pleasures that immovable battleship of summer entertainment, the summer musical.

The American musical of the classical period, like the battleship, is a bigger-than-human-scale, rather Baroque construction, whose form and function have been eclipsed by faster and meaner — but more sophisticated and technologically advanced — creations. And yet these old boats continue to fascinate us. They are touchstones of nostalgia, representing a simpler, kinder, easier past. Whether we — or anybody — actually experienced this idealized (some might say “Pasteurized”) past is irrelevant. Nostalgia is the sweet dream of conservatism, and dreams are where the secret heart of truth lies.

Our area is host to a virtual armada of musicals this summer, as four of these old behemoths come steaming onto the stages of area theaters over the next two weeks, namely 42nd Street, Carousel, The Music Man and The Sound of Music. I asked the directors of these productions why they chose their particular play, and what they predicted audiences might gain from their shows. And though all four are seriously infected with the Musical Comedy Bug (HART’s Steve Lloyd insists, “People who love musicals can’t conceive that anyone doesn’t”), they harbor no illusions about the hard-cash box-office appeal of light fare and familiar music. Each offered some version of “A beloved story coupled with beautiful music done beautifully”; it’s worth noting that all four productions feature a live band and strong singing.

Act one

The first play to open this summer (June 21) is both the oldest and the newest. The North Carolina state theater — the Flat Rock Playhouse — presents 42nd Street, a 1933 movie about the making of a hit Broadway play made into a hit Broadway play in 1980. While the usual direction is play-to-movie, 42nd Street has that nostalgic appeal due to the age of its source. The plot is the old Broadway cliche of a chorus girl who gains stardom when she steps over her fallen rival and into the lead role on a moment’s notice. Famed choreographer Gower Champion directed the original production and helped ensure its success by dying on opening night. It ran for nearly nine years.

Flat Rock director Page Posey (who hopefully plans no such theatrical sacrifice) has keyed her production to the movie. Her actors are working on a 1930s “movie sound and look,” while the design suggests black-and-white film with sepia tones in the set and neutral costumes, bursting into color when the big show tunes come. “Audiences will recognize the music,” Posey says, “and this production features a lot of the old company favorites, as well as new talent from New York.” The show was chosen, she says, because it mixes well with FRP’s upcoming super-battleships Oklahoma! (opening August 2), and West Side Story (opening September 13). She hopes audiences will come away with a good feeling, and points out, “there’s not a lot to analyze, there’s a lot to enjoy.”

Songs You Will Know include: “We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”

Act two

Next to open (June 22) is Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre’s production of Carousel, an early (1945) classic based on a 1921 French play. Carousel was the second collaboration by Rodgers and Hammerstein, after 1943’s Oklahoma! (which marked the beginning of the classical period of musical theater). Infused with a very French sort of melancholy, Carousel is the story of a carny, Billy Bigalow, who falls in love with and marries a local girl, then dies while trying to support his new family in the only way he knows — robbery. Once dead, Billy encounters an angel who helps him correct the mistakes of his life so he doesn’t pass them on to his daughter.

SART director Robin Arthur first encountered Carousel through the 1956 movie, starring Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones. “I hated the movie,” Arthur confesses. “There was a brittle tone to it that I didn’t like.” But she fell in love with the story once she began working on it. “It’s a very un-saccharine show. It talks about the mysteries of love, how intellectually you can know someone is wrong for you, but your heart still says yes.” Among other issues, Carousel deals with spousal abuse and living — or dying — with wrong choices.

“I don’t feel I have to be so loyal to the film; people are far more familiar with Sound of Music and Music Man,” she explains. Arthur hopes audiences won’t let the movie put them off, as it almost did her, from experiencing the superior play: “I want them to leave saying, ‘I didn’t realize it was such an emotionally powerful show’.”

Songs You Will Know include “If I Loved You,” “Soliloquy (a.k.a. My Boy Bill),” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Act three

A week later (June 30), Asheville Community Theatre opens The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s 1957 paean to the good old days. For those citizens new to this country, The Music Man is the story of Harold Hill, a con man who travels 1912 Iowa selling non-existent band instruments and un-music lessons to the children of rubes. Inevitably, he is reformed by the Power of Love. The show ran on Broadway for more than 1,300 performances –beating out West Side Story — and landed Willson (then 54) and lead actor Robert Preston in the big time. Preston, as Professor Harold Hill, entered the bigger time in 1962, when he starred in the popular film version.

To director Jerry Crouch, veteran of some 30 musicals at ACT, this production of The Music Man is a true labor of love; he began work on it last October. “I don’t believe anything is sacred,” Crouch declares. He has cut text and song reprises, rearranged the song order, and, through staging, emphasized some things differently from either the original production or the movie. He added girls to the band, gave the troubled teens more to do in the plot, and focused more strongly on Marian the Librarian’s little brother, Winthrop. “The story is really seen through his eyes,” Crouch says. “I wanted to strengthen the relationship between Harold Hill and Winthrop. I see the show as being about family and the strong bonds with neighbors.”

Crouch also took a cue from the movie for the play’s finale — and then did it one better. The play originally ended with the children marching onstage in bedraggled uniform, playing a very poor version of “Minuet in G.” Marian the L tells the assembled townies, “He [Hill] has awakened this town, and you should be grateful!” The various folk mouth a parent’s blind pride in their individual kids (if not the band as a whole), Marian and Harold clinch, and the play is over. Bummer. But the movie borrowed the seminal “Seventy-Six Trombones” from the first act, added a little Hollywood magic, and — voila! — sparkling uniforms, perfect pitch and about 300 adult ringers from who-knows-where send us marching out of the movie palace feeling we really got our money’s worth. Crouch, as most directors wisely do, appropriates that ending. He then adds his own coup-de-grace, a five-part choral version of “Trombones.” Certainly no bummer here.

Other Songs You Will Know are “Till There was You,” “Goodnight My Someone” and “Trouble (Right Here in River City).”

Act four

Opening July 7 is Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre’s The Sound of Music — a great, goopy, wedding cake of a show — and probably the most popular musical of all time. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last collaboration, it ran for more than three years on Broadway with Mary Martin as Maria. It was followed in 1965 by the even more successful movie starring Julie Andrews. When you go to Austria you can take the Sound of Music tour, visiting the locations where scenes from the movie were shot. You can go there (and lots of people do) singing the show’s songs on the tour bus, and shedding the sort of happy tears that only come from those who’ve mixed their mundane reality with their heart’s secret fantasy.

The story, for those aliens recently arrived from a very distant planet, is the fictionalized biography of Maria Von Trapp, an apprentice nun who was governess for the seven children of a widowed Austrian naval captain. To make a long story short: Captain hires girl, captain is bemused by girl, captain gets girl, captain and girl get their brood out of town as those darned Nazis increasingly rain on their edelweiss. (What has always bothered me is the idea of landlocked Austria having a navy.)

“Audiences want Maria spinning on that mountain,” acknowledges HART director Steve Lloyd. “If they don’t get it, they feel cheated.” Like most plays transferred to film, the movie version changes some key plot points. However, the movie version is the one most known by audiences. The reason is obvious: Even a long-running play followed by a national tour will be seen by only a few tens of thousands of people, while a movie is seen by millions who can revisit it, own it, and — over the years — enshrine that one, frozen performance in their hearts.

Lloyd, who is also executive director of HART, sees the summer musical as part of an audience-building strategy. The genre brings people in who might be curious about live theater, but have never seen a play. The logic goes something like this: Once you hook them with familiar, light, fare, they might be tempted to try the more challenging stuff — where the real power of theater shines.

Behind the scenes

So why musicals? Director Lloyd (The Sound of Music) says, “Grandparents and parents want their kids to have the same experience that they had in the [early] ’60s” — the high-water mark of American optimism and self-congratulation, in other words: pre-Vietnam, pre-assassinations, pre-Nixonian politics. Crouch (The Music Man), for one, questions the ability of children today to achieve this naive optimism: “A 10-year-old in 2000 is not as innocent as one in 1957 [10 was the age of actor Eddie Hodges when he played Winthrop in the movie version of The Music Man].” And yet Crouch is fiercely pursuing that innocent vision in his production: “River City is not a time or place,” Crouch maintains, “it’s a state of mind.”

Arthur (Carousel) calls the musical “a truly American art form. In a lot of ways they are timeless, like Shakespeare.” She believes the great musicals from the classic period will take their place in the body of great world literature, while the current crop of spectacle-shows (Les Miz, Cats, Evita) will be largely forgotten.

Posey (42nd Street) believes Flat Rock Playhouse’s generally older audiences are “challenged enough by the evening news, by the drive to the store.” And it’s true that a major function of nostalgia is reassurance, to reaffirm values that may be under pressure.

And now, another view: Augosto Boal, one of today’s most dynamic proponents of theater-as-agent-of-change, criticizes this type of musical theater as soporific: It keeps us asleep. Even the Greek idea of theater-as-catharsis, to Boal, substitutes what is ultimately a false emotional response (Maria isn’t really in danger from Nazis; Oedipus doesn’t really poke out his eyes) for reality. Really, it depends on where you stand in the status quo. If you’re comfortable, the world doesn’t need changing; if you’re not, here’s a fantasy to stand in for action. Boal’s most important idea — not a new one — is that all theater is political. What a play addresses, what it doesn’t address, what it promotes, values, denigrates — all promote some political position.

But whatever the emotional and financial pluses for a theater, a musical isn’t a guaranteed cash cow. They are expensive to do: Obtaining the rights cost more; the score is a separate rental; they usually feature a large cast; there’s the additional cost of an orchestra, band, or tape; they require longer rehearsal periods; and the sets have a movie to live up to. The integrity of scripts — particularly musical books and scores — is a closely watched prerogative of whatever estate owns them. You can’t make changes with impunity, and you have to receive permission to make what changes you can. It’s not unusual, as Lloyd and the others have done, to seek permission to adjust the stage script to the movie.

It’s significant that each of these local productions refer more to the movie than the original Broadway show — as significant as it is universally done. The theater has been eclipsed in the American psyche by its spoiled child, the movie, as a source of cultural reference, cliche and dream stuff. Audiences know the film story — and they expect to see it on stage. Betray that expectation at your peril; mess with people’s dreams and they will pay you back by staying away in droves.

The end?

What all theater can provide — something that television, movies, and now, computers, never will — is immediacy. The experience you are having (as opposed to the story imbedded in that experience) is real. It’s happening now, courtesy of real people. It’s real communication, versus passive reception, and it goes both ways: The actors are very attuned to the information they are receiving from the audience. Where the movie experience is often described as “womb-like,” in the theater, you’re a part of a dynamic entity that not only is affected, but also affects what is going on in the room. You experience being a part of the crowd. In this age of the Individual, that can be a positive — even transformative –experience.

That said, go out and explore one of these old battleships, if you like — because the artistry that created them is a thing of the past. The talent, even love, put into them by the actors, directors, and production staff will reach across the footlights and touch you in a way that even your beloved movie can’t. You’ll find them comfortable, colorful, silly — just the thing to while away a summer’s eve and stave off thoughts of tomorrow.

42nd Street runs at Flat Rock Playhouse Wednesday, June 21 through Sunday, July 9. Call (828) 693-0731 for more info.

Carousel runs at Mars Hill’s Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre Thursday, June 22 through Sunday, July 2. Call (828) 689-1384 for more info.

Music Man runs at Asheville Community Theatre Friday, June 30 through Sunday, July 9. Call 253-4931 for more info.

The Sound of Music runs at Waynesville’s Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre Friday, July 7 through Sunday, July 23. Call (828) 456-6322 for more info.

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