Friday, March 9, 2007

Don't let it be forgot/that once Redgrave was not!

Now this is big news. I think that of all the musical theater works I know, Camelot is my favorite. My Fair Lady is the most popular of the Lerner and Loewe shows and it's pretty much perfect but I find Camelot to be even more affectingly effective. Now I'll have to admit that my exposure to the Great American musicals has been primarily through filmed versions, in which case My Fair Lady made out quite well, thanks especially to Rex Harrison. Sadly, the 1967 filmed version of Camelot is horrible, in spite of the presence of Richard Harris. (It's mainly a combination of a miscast Vanessa Redgrave, an awful Lancelot and some hallucinatory directing choices.)

However, back in the early 80's, during an odd time warp when my family first started subscribing to HBO but didn't yet have a VCR, HBO ran a filmed version of a fantastic Broadway production starring an older and wiser Richard Harris. Because there was no way for us to tape it, my siblings and I would watch it every chance we could get; we even made an audio tape of it to listen to in the car on long trips. Staged productions don't always translate well to the screen, but this one worked great as far as I was concerned.

A few years back I started a desperate search for a videotape and finally got a really bad quality dub from someone on eBay. In spite of the distorted sound and picture, it's better than watching frightening closeups of Vanessa Redgrave. I actually went to the trouble of transferring this tape onto DVD and, for the spots where the audio was unbearably detuned, I dubbed in parts of our old cassette tape version that we'd made with a cheap little Radio Shack recorder sitting in front of the TV. This turned out to be quite a job since the speeds didn't quite match, but it was satisfying in its way.

This morning when I was reading about a recent NY Philharmonic concert performance of My Fair Lady starring Kelsey Grammer (who I love as Frasier and Sideshow Bob, but who I fear would be too hammy for Higgins), I noticed that Mrs. Pearce was being played by Meg Bussert. Meg Bussert! She was Harris' Guenevere in the HBO version and I don't mind confessing that I was completely in love with her back when it aired. So, I did yet another search to see if this production had ever made it to market and see that it's coming out on May 1 ("Tra-la, It's May!"). I've already pre-ordered mine and can't wait.

Parenthetically, and in the category of subjects for another day, I don't understand why more "serious" composers of art music haven't tried their hand at musical theater. It's an odd bias that a musical setting of a dramatic story needs to be sung throughout to be an achievement at the highest level. I'm not saying that all the musical numbers would have to fall into the generally canned forms of Broadway, but sometimes talking would be much better than the stilted recitative that afflicts so many English-language operas. Copland's The Tender Land, for example, could be much better with natural dialogue instead of his awkward attempts to turn speech into music. (Benjamin Britten could pull it off, though. The musical conversations in Albert Herring are masterfully executed.)

I understand that we've had Gershwin, Weill, Bernstein and the like (among whom I wouldn't count Sondheim, but that's also a subject for yet another day), but it's funny how many "contemporary" composers seem determined to write in an idiom as old-fashioned as opera. Frederick Loewe was actually a concert pianist trained in the classical tradition before he headed for Broadway. It's tempting to say he took the easy way out, but I can't think of a lot of works by his more "serious" contemporaries that I admire more than Camelot. What if Schoenberg had decided that was his way forward instead of serialism?

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