Wednesday, September 14, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Laverne Cox has received a lot of attention not only because of her abilities as an actress, but because she’s also a civil rights activist. She is the first openly transgender person to receive a Primetime Emmy nomination, which she earned for playing the role of Sophia Burset in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black.
In the October 2016 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, Cox is shining the spotlight on women of color who have inspired her to become the person she is today, including opera singer Leontyne Price.
Cox’s Facebook page gave a preview of what’s to come in the upcoming issue, including a photo of herself styled after an iconic portrait of Price, along with the following caption:
“In the October 2016 issue of @cosmopolitan on stands now I got the honor of paying tribute to some of my personal idols. For everyone who knows me they that know #LeontynePrice is the biggest of all those idols. I worship her.
“Leontyne price was the world’s first black operatic prima donna assoluta. I always say that Marian Anderson opened the door for black opera singers with her groundbreaking career but Leontyne Price blew it off the hinges. In 1955 she was the first black singer to sing televised opera in a production of Tosca for NBC television. This was significant in many ways because Tosca wasn’t a role black sopranos often got to sing at the time. Also, her leading man was white which meant that it was not broadcast in many Southern states which existed under Jim Crow laws.
“When she made her triumphant Metropolitan Opera debut as Leonora in IL Trovatore in 1961 she reportedly received a 45 minute standing ovation, the longest in Met history.
She received 19 Grammy awards, 13 for song or operatic recitals. 5 for full operas, an Emmy award, a Congressional medal of freedom among many other accolades.
“I love her so much because her artistry, her sumptuous sound, incredible discipline and longevity had the power to break down racial barriers and transcend cultural limitations. She epitomizes black excellence and excellence that knows no boundaries. Goddess, Queen Price”
Some of the other iconic women to whom Cox pays tribute include Janet Jackson and Josephine Baker.
Friday, September 2, 2016 by Carl Grapentine
Earlier this summer, the United States senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act, declaring music and the arts as core subjects. To many, the benefits of arts education are obvious. But did you know that music can also help you as you study other core subjects? Here are 5 pieces of music to help you ease Bach into the swing of the school year.
- Hercules at the Crossroads by J.S. Bach
Believe it or not, J.S. Bach wrote music dramas or – as we call them today – operas. One such work was composed for the 11th birthday of Friedrich Christian of Saxony called Hercules at the Crossroads or The Choice of Hercules. Between what things must our hero choose? Lust and virtue. Bach isn’t the only person to set this story to music. But, his musical dramatization is a great way to brush up on your classical mythology and your philosophy of ethics and morals all at the same time.
- Patient Socrates by Telemann
Need a more comic accompaniment to your philosophy studies? Telemann has you covered. Though he was one of the most popular composers of his time, we seldom hear his music today in comparison with his then friend and colleague J.S. Bach. His opera Patient Socrates, which explores the life of one of the greatest teachers of all time, was the composer’s first full-length comic music drama.
- Phonetic Punctuation by Victor Borge
Victor Borge had a system of “phonetic punctuation.” He added sounds to punctuation marks, with different effects for periods, dashes, exclamation points, commas, question marks, and colons. In this video, he explains his system to Dean Martin, and the two of them perform some very interesting duets!
- The Elements by Tom Lehrer
Need help in chemistry? If you’re having trouble memorizing your period table of elements, Tom Lehrer has the perfect solution (pun intended!). He set the period table to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
- First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics by Flanders & Swann
The first law of thermodynamics: heat is work and work is heat. The second law of thermodynamics: heat cannot of itself pass from one body to a hotter body. And now, you’ll never forget either because Flanders & Swann have created a musical mnemonic device to remind you of both.
Thursday, August 18, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
“Art for young audiences doesn’t have to be dumbed down in any way,” playwright and librettist Kathryn Walat said as she prepares for the premiere of her new opera, Jason and the Argonauts: An Opera for Young People. The work is the fourth world-premiere commissioned and presented by Lyric Unlimited, Lyric Opera’s community engagement initiative.
Walat collaborates with composer Greg Spears. Previously, the two developed a new work with American Opera Projects and the Prototype Festival called Paul’s Case, which was based on the story by Willa Cather.
For Jason and the Argonauts, the team has turned to myths from classical antiquity. “We start in the forest, where young Jason is being raised by Chiron,” Walat explained. “He is 19 and ready to rush off and conquer the world when it is revealed to him that the throne was actually taken from him by his uncle, the evil King Peleus. Peleus tells Jason that he can have the throne if he brings him the Golden Fleece.”
“Jason gathers his friends,” Spears continued, “he builds a boat, and they set off on three adventures on their way to the land that the Golden Fleece is being kept. Once they get there, he meets Medea and there is a dragon guarding the fleece so they come up with a plan to get the fleece.”
The adventures of Jason and the Argonauts have inspired other operas throughout history. The most notable, perhaps, is Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone, which was the most popular opera of the 17th century.
“I worked as a stage hand on the North American premiere of Giasone in the late 90’s,” Spears said, “so it was the piece that really introduced me to Baroque music. While our Jason and the Argonauts has very little to do with Giasone, story-wise, there is a lot of Baroque sounding music. It’s scored for harpsichord, viola, violin, and cello.”
One of the more well-known versions of the Jason story in recent times may not be Giasone, but the 1963 fantasy film Jason and the Argonauts starring Todd Armstrong as the titular hero. Jason’s encounters with all kinds of fantastic characters and creatures offer opportunity for on-screen spectacle.
Jason’s adventures also make for a spectacularly action-packed story to excite young audiences. “I feel like kids like action,” Spears said, “so we really wanted to make an opera that was about action and tasks and those factors are central to Greek myths.”
But this Jason isn’t all about action and adventure, Walat said. “The different characters also allow Jason to explore different aspects of family relationships.” Spears added, “Family is important to kids in a totally different way; for certain kids, it can be their whole universe.”
“You have a lot to learn from a parental figure but sometimes you have to rebel against them and break away from them as well,” Walat said, “so we explore those themes with some characters. In other characters, maybe audiences can experience sibling rivalry or sibling camaraderie and the conflict and tension with that.”
What kinds of entertainment for young audiences have Walat and Spears enjoyed over the years? Walat said she’s always enjoyed Fantasia, and more recently, she’s liked Warhorse. She also said, “Juilie Taymor, before Lion King, had this great piece, Juan Darien that just blew me away.” As a youngster, Spears loved two classic scores: Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. “Secret of Nimh was probably my favorite movie as a kid,” he said.
Jason and the Argonauts has its world premiere performances at Vittum Theater in Chicago on Saturday, August 20 and Sunday, August 21. Tickets are free, though reservations are required. The production will tour throughout venues in Chicago as part of Lyric Unlimited’s long-running Opera in the Neighborhoods program. For more information, visit Lyric Opera of Chicago’s website.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
In this episode of PoetryNow, Urayoán Noel says, “It’s almost an inside joke. You can’t be a certain kind of Caribbean poet without having a coffee poem.” Noel’s poem ode to coffee/ oda al café considers the pleasures of coffee and how those pleasures may differ between the English and Spanish languages. The poem is also a tribute. He said, “This poem is dedicated to the merengue musician Juan Luis Guerra and specifically to his song “Ojalá que llueva café,” (“Let it rain coffee”). Read his poem or hear the author read his own work in the episode of PoetryNow below.
ode to Coffee/ oda al Café
More About the Author
Urayoán Noel was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and attended the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, Stanford University, and New York University. As a poet, Noel is the author of Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (2015), a Library Journal Top Fall Indie Poetry selection; Hi-Density Politics (2010), a National Book Critics Circle Small Press Highlights selection; Kool Logic/La Lógica Kool (2005), an El Nuevo Día Book of the Year; and several books of poetry in Spanish, most recently EnUncIAdOr (2014). Other works include the DVD Kool Logic Sessions (2005), a collaboration with composer Monxo López; the artist’s book/performance/website The Edgemere Letters (2011), a collaboration with artist Martha Clippinger; and the critical study In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (2014), winner of the LASA Latina/o Studies Section Book Award and recipient of an honorable mention in the MLA Prize in Latina/o and Chicana/o Literary and Cultural Studies. Noel’s ongoing and forthcoming projects include the improvisational poetry vlog WOKITOKITEKI and a bilingual edition of the poems of Pablo de Rokha.
Noel has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Bronx Council on the Arts, and CantoMundo. He has served as a contributing editor of Mandorla and NACLA Report on the Americas. Formerly an assistant professor of English at SUNY Albany, Noel currently lives in the Bronx and is an assistant professor in the departments of English and Spanish and Portuguese at NYU.
Monday, August 1, 2016 by Daniel Goldberg
Brazilian musical titan Heitor Villa-Lobos created over 1,000 works in his lifetime and many consider him to be the greatest composer from Brazil. Along with his substantial work, Villa-Lobos also had a big personality that overshadowed many great composers from his country. But there are other Brazilian composers that deserve their moment in the sun, including the three below.
- Edino Krieger
Born in 1928, Brazilian, Edino Krieger received a well-rounded education as a young man. Studying with Edith Reis and Hans-Joachim Koellreutter in Brazil, Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, and Peter Mennin at Julliard. He became a major force in Brazilian contemporary music holding many leadership roles in music institutes and cultural programs in South America. Outside his native Brazil, Edino Krieger is mostly known for his substantial work for the piano. But he was also a very imaginative orchestrator, as you can hear in his 1955 piece Abertura Brasileira (Brazillian Overture).
- Camargo Guarnieri
Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993) was born in São Paulo and his birth name is actually Mozart Camargo Guarnieri. He studied piano and composition at the São Paulo Conservatório and subsequently worked with Charles Koechlin in Paris. He received important prizes in the United States in the 1940s, which gave him the opportunity to conduct them in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago.
A distinguished figure in Brazilian music, he served as conductor of the São Paulo Orchestra, was a member of the Academia Brasileira de Música, and was director of the São Paulo Conservatório, where he taught composition and conducting. In his Sinfonia No. 5, you can hear him use a variety of textures within the orchestra.
- Antônio Carlos Gomes
Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836 –1896) was one of the first New World composers whose work was accepted in Europe. His opera Il Guarany was successful in its premiere at La Scala. Verdi said his work was an expression of “true musical genius”. Liszt said that “it displays dense technical maturity, full of harmonic and orchestral maturity.” Later, La Scala produced two additional operas by Gomes, Fosca and Maria Tudor. Listening to the overture to Il Guarany, it’s easy to understand why he such a success in Italy.
Learn more about the music of Brazil on Fiesta, and tell us your favorite Brazilian composers in the comments!
Friday, July 29, 2016 by WFMT
Monday, September 26, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
To hear the best new music, Californians can go to the Cabrillo and Ojai festivals. New Yorkers can go to Bang on a Can, MATA, or Next Wave. Now folks living on the third coast can get their contemporary music fix in festival form too, thanks to composer Augusta Read Thomas.
Thomas has organized the Ear Taxi Festival, Chicago’s first major festival dedicated to contemporary classical music, which will feature more than 300 musicians, 88 composers, and 54 world premieres during 32 events from October 5-10, 2016.
“Three years ago, I was walking through Millennium Park downtown and I was reflecting on what a vibrant scene for contemporary classical music we have here in Chicago,” Thomas said. In her opinion, the Windy City has the “best scene” for contemporary music because the city has an “interactive vibe, people like each other, people go to each other’s concerts, people collaborate.”
Unlike other contemporary music festivals, Ear Taxi will present music only by local composers. “Everybody lives in Chicago, every player, every composer – expect for a few who have had long life chapters Chicago,” Thomas said.
Those who attend the festival to will have the opportunity to meet the composers whose work they experience, Thomas added, and to say to them, “I loved your piece, or I didn’t love your piece, or can we have coffee?”
Thomas hopes the festival will do more than just present lots of new music, but will also affect “deeper culture building where people can engage with their neighbors.” She’s also literally investing in the culture of Chicago. All of the proceeds go to benefits the artists presented during six-day extravaganza.
Most of the events in the festival take place at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance or the Chicago Cultural Center, “The concept was to have things all in one area so you can come for one group and you can stay for the next group,” Thomas explained.”
Because there are so many different composers and musicians presented during Ear Taxi, the offerings are, not surprisingly, very diverse. “There are some pieces that are dreamy, others are ritualistic, some are abstract, some are more pointillist, others are pop or jazz influenced.”
Most events in the Festival present a smorgasbord of music all in one sitting. “Everything is very fast-paced,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of moving parts – a lot of groups and a lot of music.”
Over half the festival events are free; the others are affordably priced at $20 and $10 for students. Thomas said by making new music financially accessible, “You don’t have to worry, ‘I’m gonna be stuck for 45 minutes listening to a piece that I don’t know if I’m going to like, and it’s going to cost me a lot of money to hear it.”
If you are limited on time and want suggestions on which of the many Ear Taxi performances to attend, Thomas has a few suggestions:
Friday, October 7, don’t miss performances by the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente at the Harris Theater. “You can hear 6 world premieres, meet all 6 composers, and the level of playing is icredible,” Thomas said. “These people can literally play anything!”
Saturday, October 8, in a performance also at the Harris, you can hear almost all the Ear Taxi festival musicians in a single, massive piece by Drew Baker commissioned for the event as “the big blow out, Thomas said. “We’re expecting about 100 people playing and they’ll be sprinkled through the hall.” In addition to Baker’s piece, Third Coast Percussion, Spektral Quartet, Chicago Harp Quartet, and Arcomusical present five works, including two world premieres by Reaction Yield and Carolyn O’Brien, and a Chicago premier by Thomas herself.
Sunday, October 9, hear the Chicago Composers Orchestra perform in Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. Though the hall, adorned with the largest Tiffany dome in the world, is often filled with music, rarely can you hear a full orchestra in the space. What’s more, “the whole building will be animated with music throughout the weekend,” Thomas said, since the Claudia Cassidy Theater will also host performances. Many events in the theater “involve live and pre-programmed electronics. It’ll be a very interesting sound world in that space on the weekend,” Thomas said.
Though she has enlisted the help of others to mount this massive festival, much of the work has been spearheaded by Thomas. “I’ve been going non-stop for three years, I feel like the Energizer bunny.”
What has fueled her drive to mount such a massive festival?
“It’s important for me as a citizen of the city and as a composer to give back. It’s important for the ecosystem,” she said. When it comes to new music, “some pieces get played and they stick. Some pieces get played and don’t get played again. Some don’t get played and then 10 years later they get played a lot.” But nothing can be performed again if it hasn’t been performed once. “I don’t know of any other festival that has over 50 world premieres,” Thomas said.
Saturday, September 24, 2016 by Louise Frank
Today is the 70th birthday of Marc Neikrug, the highly-respected American composer, pianist, and arts administrator whose accomplishments have been heard on WFMT and around the world for almost four decades. Marc lives a prolifically creative life, albeit on the quieter side of fame, and we’d like to help you know him a little better as we wish him many, many happy returns of the day.
Major American and international orchestras and presenters, such as the New York Philharmonic and the Deutsche Oper Berlin, have commissioned or performed Marc’s chamber music, symphonies, music-based theater pieces, and operas. The lengthy roster of notable musicians who have championed his work includes Zubin Mehta, Alan Gilbert, Leonard Slatkin, Oliver Knussen, Jennifer Koh, James Galway, Kirill Gerstein, Susan Graham, Pinchas Zukerman, Maximilian Schell, and the Emerson, Vermeer, Tokyo and Orion Quartets.
This week, WFMT has aired a number of recordings featuring Marc as composer or as pianist. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra graciously allowed us to rebroadcast the Clarinet Concerto Marc wrote in 2010 for the MSO’s principal clarinetist, Todd Levy. We’ve featured some of the remarkable duo recordings Marc made with his long-time recital partner violinist Pinchas Zukerman, and we’ve shared some of his performances with musicians from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival where he has served as artistic director since 1998. Finally, on Sunday, September 25th at 11:00 PM, WFMT brings you an encore presentation of Marc’s beautiful Healing Ceremony, the result of his dedication to the Navajo culture of New Mexico and his belief in the healing power of music.
Kerry Frumkin and Louise Frank have gotten to know Marc through their work on WFMT’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival radio series, and it was in Santa Fe this summer that Kerry spoke with Marc about his multi-faceted, musical life. When asked what motivated him towards a life in music, Marc responded with wry seriousness, “Genetically, I had no choice.”
As for important influences, Marc emerged into a virtuosic, unusually curious, and musically omnivorous family. And then there was Stefan Askenase, the piano teacher with a connection to Mozart.
Beginning with his first season as artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Marc has presented commissions and contemporary music on a regular basis. Marc noted to Kerry how the Festival’s devoted audiences have expressed their appreciation: “And now they say, ‘I wonder what the new piece will be.’ People here are grateful their horizons have been expanded.”
Marc confided that his 35-year collaborative partnership with violinist Pinchas Zukerman shines among the highlights of his long career and many accomplishments. “He is the most amazingly intuitive, impeccable musician I have ever known.”
Through Roses, Marc Neikrug’s brilliant account of a Holocaust survivor haunted by guilt and memories, was commissioned by London’s South Bank Festival with the National Theater. Since its premiere in 1980, it has had hundreds of performances in 15 countries and has been translated into 11 languages. A film version of Through Roses was directed by Jürgen Flimm and stars Maximilian Schell.
A commission from the Deutsche Oper Berlin not only enabled Marc to compose his his anti-nuclear opera, Los Alamos, it led to his first visit to New Mexico and from there, to unanticipated, positive and enduring changes in his personal life – and a move from 98th Street and West End Avenue in New York, to Santa Clara Pueblo.
“Audiences are never averse to expanding their knowledge. Presenters are because they’re afraid they’ll lose the audience. In fact, I always believed that was exactly the opposite of the truth.”
– Marc Neikrug on the importance of programming full pallet of musical offerings, including contemporary music, at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
Friday, September 23, 2016 by Michael San Gabino
Chicago native and classical guitarist Molly Manarchy was just a senior in high school when she appeared as the first soloist on WFMT’s Introductions in 2008. Now, Molly composes her own music and experiments with electronic music. We caught up with her to discuss her musical training and current work.
How did you get started in music?
I started tinkering around on the piano since before I can remember. I think music was just such a part of me, and I loved it before I even knew what I was doing. From there, I just went in all sorts of directions. I was able to start with piano lessons, and at one point when I was really young, I was in a little girl rock group. I really wanted to play the electric guitar and rock ‘n’ roll. My parents, when I asked them about it, wanted me to begin with classical guitar, so I started taking lessons. I just really fell in love with classical guitar and that ended up being my main focus all through high school. Now, I’m composing and writing my own music, so I’m in a whole other realm.
How has your classical training influenced what you do now?
Nothing can really honor him properly, but my piano teacher was just this wonderful soul who nurtured me. He taught me how to love music and how to play music from your heart. I was playing music from other composers, yet I felt like those pieces were mine in some way. That really set my love for music. Now that I’m composing my own music, I get to pour love, interpretation, and feeling into it. My teacher prepared me for these two worlds, one as a performer and one as a composer. More technically, I draw from my ear training, theory, and the more scholarly aspects of musical training all of the time.
How would you describe the music you are working on now?
Classical music is such a part of me, and all of the music I’ve played in the past has influenced where I am today. There are times when my music is really melodic, and I just like to focus on that with a slower pace, but there are also times when the energy rises. It’s somewhere between pop and dance with an elevated and electronic beat. It’s all very digital. I spent hours on YouTube trying to learn how to download and record with synthetic instruments. It’s definitely a fun world to go into.
What is your advice for young musicians?
Whatever sound, instrument or platform that’s gravitating toward you, go for it. Just explore the heck out of it and feed your love of music with it because you never know how much joy it can bring you. Also, try writing music. I never did that growing up because I was too scared to, and the moment I got over my fear, it brought me a joy I can’t even express. If composing music is something you’re interested in, start training your ear. Then, you can just go to your keyboard, your instrument, your voice and start playing stuff exactly how you want it. In this day and age, the world is your oyster, and there are just so many amazing possibilities with new technology.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Horses are pretty talented animals. Not only can they be trained to dance in elaborately choreographed routines set to classical music, they can also play music themselves, it turns out. One horse, named Sapphire, displayed her keyboard skills in a video posted to YouTube channel DEEandSAPPHIRE.
Sometimes, Sapphire plays in costume.
Sapphire also likes to accompany dancers, as another video on the channel shows.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 by Lisa Flynn
Think opera and folk music don’t mix? Think again. This weekend, Chicago will host what’s being billed as a folk opera and the first Scottish opera – The Gentle Shepherd – with a libretto by the 18th-century poet Allan Ramsay. Ramsay’s words, in the rich language of his homeland, tell the story of two shepherd couples in the Lowlands outside Edinburgh. The music in the opera is based on traditional Scottish tunes fused with an Italian Baroque style.
Brandi Berry is artistic director of the Bach and Beethoven Ensemble (BBE), which presents the first North American performances of The Gentle Shepherd in more than 200 years. Berry’s own musical background crosses classical and folk traditions, and while doing some online sleuthing for Scottish folk tunes, she came across facsimiles of this forgotten opera. “It just struck me as such a unique piece of art,” she said. “It really can’t be totally defined in any sort of genre. It says it’s an opera or a pastoral comedy, but I like to think of it even more as a musical play.”
Scholars believe Ramsay collaborated with a composer to write the music. Berry says the most likely culprit is Lorenzo Bocchi, an Italian cellist and composer who lived in Scotland. She explains that in the early 1700s, “the British Isles were a hotbed of collaboration between the Italians and the native musicians.” In the opera, Berry says you can observe the Italian and Scottish influences in The Gentle Shepherd. Hear an excerpt below.
With Berry at the helm, a 16-member ensemble of singers, instrumentalists and actors will bring the score to life, which sometimes means working with minimal information. Often the musicians are simply instructed to play a particular folk song, with no indication for instrumentation. Berry says BBE will use a variety of instrumental combinations, giving the musicians free reign. “We have so much opportunity to improvise, also to make arrangements of the songs. If there’s something in the script that allows us to extend a musical moment, then we can do that as well, because that’s such an inherent part of the Scottish fiddle style.”
BBE’s Executive Director, Thomas Aláan, will sing the title role of Patie, the Gentle Shepherd. This is his first experience performing and improvising in a folk style. He says, “I’m purely classically trained, and this music has much more freedom beyond what you could do in a Handel or Vivaldi work. There’s a lot more leeway to do things with time, with maybe half speech, half singing, and inflection. It’s been a lot of fun!”
Another challenge for the singers is learning to speak Scots. Ramsay was a pioneer in using the language of his people in poetry and on stage. Berry and Aláan had to consult experts in Scotland because many of the words and pronunciations of Ramsay’s time have since become obsolete. Berry says she learned that “even being on the different side of a mountain can change a word or dialect, which is not entirely different from the Appalachian culture here in the United States. It used to be that you could tell a fiddler where they came from by the way they played.”
The Bach and Beethoven Ensemble presents two performances of The Gentle Shepherd, a unique celebration of Scottish culture in words and music. Saturday, September 24, at 8 p.m. at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL, and Sunday, September 25, at 7 p.m. at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, IL. For more information, visit the BBE’s website.
Monday, September 19, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Goodman Theatre opens its 2016/17 season with Wonderful Town, a lesser-performed musical in the Leonard Bernstein canon. With lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the show tells the story of two Ohio sisters’ dreams of becoming an actress and journalist, respectively, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. David Polk, WFMT Program Director, spoke with the show’s Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman, music director Doug Peck, and cast members Lauren Molina, Bri Sudia, and Karl Hamilton about the new production. With musical excerpts, the directors and actors discuss and reveal the many layers of this energetic and jazzy musical. Listen to their conversation or read an edited transcript below, and be sure to catch Mary Zimmerman’s appearance on Chicago Tonight.
Polk: The new season of the Goodman Theatre opens with one of Leonard Bernstein’s lesser performed musicals the jazzy and energetic Wonderful Town in a new lavish and colorful production by director Mary Zimmerman. It tells the story of two sisters moving to New York City from Ohio to pursue their dreams.
Zimmerman is a professor of performance studies at Northwestern, won a “Genius” Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, and in 1998 and in 2002 won the Tony Award for Best Director of a play. She’s a member of Lookingglass Theatre Company and the Manilow Resident Director at Goodman Theatre.
Zimmerman and Music Director Doug Peck, along with actress Lauren Molina, who plays the cheerful sister Eileen in Wonderful Town, were all last in this very studio in 2010 to speak with our late Critic At-Large Andrew Patner about their revival of “Candide” which was considered by Patner to be the finest production of that musical he’d ever seen. We’re also joined in the studio by Bri Sudia, who plays the other sister Ruth, and by Carl Hamilton, who plays Bob Baker, an editor at a magazine where Ruth applies for a job.
Thank you all for joining us and joining us again here at WFMT. I just loved Wonderful Town. It was so much fun to see and congratulations.
Towards the beginning of the musical, there’s a song called “Ohio,” and Lauren and Bri, can you set this up for us before you perform it with Doug?
Molina: Sure. So Eileen and Ruth have just arrived in New York City fresh off the train-don’t know anybody-and are looking for a place and a sort of conniving landlord you can say sort of tricks them into taking this hole in the floor kind of place. A very shabby apartment where a lot of shenanigans go on, the most ridiculous circumstances you could possibly imagine: for example, some loud bum singing on the street, somebody who’s trying to solicit sex…to name a couple. Their apartment is next to a place where they’re blasting dynamite to make a new subway. It’s not ideal and they’re pretty upset. So this song is is the first song they sing together about wanting to go back to Ohio.
Polk: Mary it’s funny that you mention that Sunday night was a…what’d you call it, a riotous night?
Zimmerman: Yeah it was a wild night. I think I heard.
Polk: I thought it was wild for certain reasons not necessarily having to do with the production. I wonder if we had the same reasons.
Zimmerman: I went home, even though it was first preview weekend, since I can’t rehearse them in between like I couldn’t rehearse them till Tuesday night you know watch it twice with the same notes. So I retired homeward, but then I read the rehearsal report, and I know that Jordan, who plays the Wreck, substituted half of the lyrics with the words la la la for instance. And then there was just some loud audience reaction to certain things, too. That actually, if I may, has been one of the more gratifying things just coming off our first weekend of previews is I knew everyone would be entertained by the song and the dance and the song and the dance, and we have a very charming physical production and set. I was very confident in that.
But I kind of wondered if people would pay attention to the story or invest in the two girls. I really did. And they’re actually like oohing an ahhing at certain plot points which I’m really, really gratified at. Our style of performance is very presentational. I didn’t know if they would fall into the heart of it as much as we feel it and want them to. And that’s been really gratifying to hear them go like, “Ohhh” when something ominous is about to happen or just adding up plots or commenting. When mean Mrs. Wade does something, a man just shouted, “Oh my God!” Like in the full clear.
Polk: That’s exactly what I was going to say. It wasn’t one person either. It was multiple audience members. It was as if they thought we were watching the TV.
Zimmerman: They were so involved. It’s in a moment when Ruth seems to want to perhaps solicit the good opinion of Bob Baker, and they’ve had a fight. He says, “Can I read one of your stories?” and someone in the audience just said “No!” like we shouldn’t care what you think. At least that’s how I understand that. I’m home at 11:00 at night reading the typed rehearsal report and not understanding what any of it means!
Polk: It was a riot. I mean it I think it added to it.
Zimmerman: I think it should be open to the audience that way. I told Bri after the first time she did “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” that “The women in the audience are really liking it. Point and say like, ‘You know what I’m talking about’ to them.” Bring them into it and allow them to participate.
Polk: And it’s interesting because I saw you once being asked in another interview it was a few years ago about the future of theatre. People are spending so much time watching some very good television shows, etc. And I was wondering if this talking back to the actors as if we’re watching a TV, is this a trend?
Zimmerman: I can’t say I have noticed it but like I say, there’s something very open handed about the production very full frontal very “Hello we’re here to entertain you.” And also the characters are so warmly familiar, and I think we can all relate to how approachable and just very sort of ordinary people with their hopes and their dreams. There’s just something about it I think might be inviting that a little bit. I haven’t experienced it like this on any show except from children, perhaps.
Polk: We’re hit right as soon as the curtain opens at the very beginning with this immensely complex and exciting scene of a New York City street. This complex choreography, people running and walking all across the stage in this colorful set in the background that has a very graphic design. What was your goal with this opening scene of Wonderful Town?
Zimmerman: I wanted to create the sense of the chaos of the village. The very first time I went to New York myself I was already like 26, and when I arrived it was actually Gay Pride Day, it was the day of the parade. And we were in the village on West 4th Street at that moment that it bends so far north that it intersects with 12th.
Polk: And Greenwich Village is where this show takes place.
Zimmerman: Yes! And it’s so pickup sticks down there, and I just wanted the kind of “too much-muchnes” of New York where you can look at the dullest view of New York out your window and you still will almost never in I think 20 years apprehend the amount of detail you’re seeing. It’s just infinite. Every building has little rosettes and columns and trim and vestigial remnants of the building it was before and just every building is filled with so much detail and then there’s so much detail on the streets, so much chaos but a kind of controlled chaos, a cooperative chaos.
Alex Sanchez, who is our really brilliant, great choreographer, I said that to him. I want to see people on the move and that energy and vitality of somewhere to go. There’s somewhere to go all the time in New York. I’m getting somewhere. I’m going somewhere – both sort of physically and literally, but also in dreams and imagination and in accomplishment and in life and so forth. So that’s what I wanted to do.
Polk: In some older reviews of Wonderful Town, not right when it opened but maybe productions from 20 years ago or from regional theater, one of the critiques I was observing was that they thought it was portraying too innocent a portrait of New York City. I saw that you added someone who almost gets robbed and there’s a cockroach. [Laughs] Are these elements that you added to this [production]?
Zimmerman: Of course, a little bit. That opening is through the eyes of the tourists. So to them, it all appears very eccentric and crazy and then we get to know those characters. They’re being led on a tour. And the kind of joke of the song is that the tourists are kind of in an increasingly frenzied and sort of repressive way are saying such interesting people live on Christopher Street when they’re seeing sort of wilder and wilder things.
I’ll tell you when I first saw it costumed and lit and so colorful I thought, “Oh, it is so clean and so friendly,” it is a kind of musical comedy version of Greenwich Village and Christopher Street in particular actually. But that’s just its mode. It’s a “wonderful town.”
And then actually right after that the sort of glamour and glory and chaos of that opening number with all sorts of types you know of artists and painters and rising poets, we encounter the apartment that they’re going to live in. I worried about this, how different the apartment looks than the rest of the set. But I wanted it both ways.
I wanted the apartment to be kind of hyper real and an absolute hell hole, horrible dirty and grungy, whereas the rest of the set deliberately has this, like you say, kind of graphic, clean lines and nothing’s distressed. But it’s the enchanted wonderful version of New York, the wonderful town.
And then there’s like the crappy apartment where you actually are staying, which I think is a common experience. You can experience all the glories of the streets of New York and then you go back to your really dark not great little tiny place you live.
Polk: That’s the first thing that Chicagoans like to point out to people who want to move to New York – you’re going to live in this shoe box. [Laughs]
Zimmerman: And that’s why there is such street life in New York though because people don’t really want to stay in their tiny apartments and cook. You know what I mean? So they go out and that’s where life is on the street.
Polk: Did you have to look at New York City differently? I know in other productions you traveled to Egypt or–
Zimmerman: I have. I didn’t get to get a free trip to New York with this production because I actually do have a little apartment there and I have worked there a bit. And I’ve never received mail there, like I have an address but I’ve never lived there except a few weeks of time here and there.
Polk: While walking through the streets around your apartment, did you have to put on a different lens in preparation?
Zimmerman: Our set is very inspired by a particular graphic image we found. And in fact the artist of that image is in on it. We contacted him and said, “Look, we’re so inspired by it.” And so he’s credited in the program and he’s coming to the show. But I began to notice that there really are lavender buildings in New York and there really are peach color painted buildings in New York. There’s a purple building on my intersection in New York. There is just bright purple on Columbus and 73rd. It does have that color scheme if you look at it a certain way, it does.
Polk: In a lot of the marketing materials and in the press release, you have this wonderful quote talking about how this production is bringing us back to that time in our life.
Zimmerman: What I’ve been saying is that the production deals with that moment in life when you’re first sprung on the world and your independence. If you went to school, it’s a few years out of school or a few years out of high school, where you’re really, really wondering if your dreams of manifesting a creative life for yourself are going to happen or not or just whatever job you want, whatever life you want. You’re really on this brink of turning a corner and you can’t see around the corner. And it’s a very particularly youthful exuberance and sort of terrifying moment in life but a very free, very independent and wild moment in life.
And I remember that when I finally did get a little apartment New York, because I was working there a fair amount, there was a day my mattress was delivered and it was like 102 degrees. I was wrestling the plastic wrap off the mattress, and I suddenly kind of started laughing in this giddy, joyful way thinking that within like a square mile of where I was there was probably a hundred or more people experiencing that exact moment of like getting the mattress on the floor. And now I’m in the apartment and now it starts.
I was in my 40s but it returned me to a very young feeling – the feeling of inexperience, which is terrifying but also restores us to our youth. I find that in foreign travel, that’s why I like to go to difficult and very different places because it makes me feel young again because I don’t know if I can make it. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know what’s around the corner and I can’t speak the language and I’ve got to figure it out. And that makes me feel young because it’s inexperienced.
Polk: I want to bring Doug Peck who’s the Music Director into this now. One funny thing that happened as I was going to the show with a friend who is really into musicals, goes to all sorts of musicals, and he jokingly told me, you know that he had to sort of do a double take when I invited him that we weren’t seeing On the Town.
Zimmerman: Yes. Oh that’s a big concern of ours. [Laughs]
Polk: Why isn’t this musical better known?
Doug Peck: And it’s one of the first musicals to win the Tony Award. I actually spoke with one of the producers of Encores! in New York that did a famous production of Wonderful Town that transferred to Broadway. And he gave me the historical perspective that it kind of has gone in like three different waves throughout Broadway history, and at some moments, Wonderful Town is the one that’s done, and in some moments On the Town is the one that’s done. And there have been these sort of periods of people being confused about which one is which.
Bernstein did On the Town at the very beginning of his career. By Wonderful Town, he promised Serge Koussevitzky that he would stop working in the theater and stop sullying his classical reputation and only work at the New York Philharmonic and write operas and fulfill his great promise as the great American classical genius. But Comden and Green came to his apartment and said, “We’re opening a show on Broadway in four weeks with Rosalind Russell. Would you like to write the score?” And Bernstein was fast like Mozart was fast and said, “I would love to” and accepted the challenge and pretty much a month from that conversation they were opening on Broadway. So I think he couldn’t resist that. And you feel in the music, I think even more than any of his other scores, the virtuosity of him writing really quickly in him writing defenselessly and joyfully just sort of from first impulse in a way that’s really exciting and you can kind of feel it even all these years later.
Polk: It’s amazing how quickly it came together.
Peck: It’s really fabulous. And in a way that it’s enduring. And one of the reasons that it’s not done all that often is our good friends and colleagues at the Bernstein estate take such good care of it. We have 18 musicians in the pit at the Goodman, which is the largest complement of musicians we’ve ever had at the Goodman, which is so exciting. The Bernstein estate will simply not allow a first class production with fewer instruments.
Mary and I have commented – There’s certain staff members at the Goodman who we’ve never seen show up at a sitzprobe in the theatre or a technical rehearsal and they just can’t resist. It’s like flies to honey coming downstairs to hear that orchestra. You feel it the minute it starts. I’ve done a lot of reductions in my career, of things which I’m really proud of, but nothing, let’s be honest, beats that many instruments.
Polk: Especially the brass section of the orchestra, those wailing trumpets playing these wildly difficult passages and high notes.
Peck: We have all of the first call musicians in Chicago playing right now, and they say, “I don’t know when the last time I played with three trombones or three trumpets.” It’s always less than that. And they play better when you have more support, everyone is singing better when you have more support. And I’m proud to say we’re leaning way less on the sound system than you have to when you have a small orchestra. 18 people can fill our intimate 850-seat theater at the Goodman pretty well so the mics are sort barely on,in a way that I’ve always dreamed of. It’s a course show written before there were body mics, so the orchestration is really cognizant and aware of when you need to blast when there’s no singing and then really coming down especially when Ruth is singing. You’ll notice this in hearing the music Bri Sudia sings is that it was written for Rosalind Russell, so it’s really low. It matches her distinct tessitura that was unmistakenly hers. Bea Arthur played the role for that reason and sort of everyone who takes on this role has to discover why the hell she talks and sings so low which I think Bri has done so beautifully and so naturally and so brilliantly.
Polk: You mentioned the Bernstein estate, and when following your Facebook page, one thing I found interesting was that you were thanking the Bernstein estate, among other people. And you don’t see that very often because we don’t have to deal with estates of composers long gone. And often the experience of artists or media is that we request permission from the estate, and they say yes or no and then you pay them a fee and you’ve got to do it according to certain rules. But it’s sort of implied there that they had more to do with it than that in this production.
Peck: They sure did. I mean the reason for the production is that they suggested to us after Candide (they liked what Mary and I did thankfully and our wonderful cast and the orchestra), “We have to do more Bernstein together.” So this is a piece that Bob Falls at the Goodman has long loved. But it was one of the other Bernstein titles they pitched to us. And you know, let’s be honest, if we couldn’t afford 18 musicians we wouldn’t be doing the show at the level that they want us to be working at. But we’re so glad. Mary and I could have fought that fight but they sort of fought it for us, which was really exciting. They have an expertise of the entire canon of his work. And to sit with Garth Sunderland their music editor in rehearsal with the scores (it’s a new edition of the full orchestra score of Wonderful Town we were working from) and to try to puzzle over.
Polk: So the music editor came to Chicago?
Peck: He came, and I actually invited him a week earlier to come to the sitzprobe and the first two rehearsals with orchestra and the first two previews. So he could sort of hear the progress we were making. That’s actually where his expertise could be useful. He has a really global understanding of Bernstein’s dynamics and why he writes certain dynamics and the degree to which he wants dynamics to really be perceived by the audience. He was pushing us and our musicians to go even further with those.
Polk: Can you give us an example of some way that you had to work somebody from the estate on a change you wanted to make.
Peck: Well there is one actually. You know we have 18 musicians – every part that was in the original production is being played. There’s no instruments “missing.” But on Broadway originally they had a full string section and two more reeds playing a different doubling than we’re using. So there are a couple of sections of the score that are just balanced differently by not having a full string section.
At the end of the “Wrong Note Rag,” which is a brilliant piece (it’s called a quodlibet where there’s two sections that play together), there’s the first theme [sings] and second theme [sings]. And in a cacophonous, beautiful way they come together. The brass section was playing the first theme, and the balance was not good no matter what we did, because of the missing extra string section. And I said to Garth, “What if we add the piano?” (which was not playing in those sections to the string melody), and he said, “Alright let’s do it.” And that change is now officially in the Wonderful Town orchestra score. It was a fun little moment of collaboration with Garth who represents the estate but also the practicality of what’s happening in the room.
Polk: That’s so interesting. I mean a) that they’re so involved in a detail like that and b) that now that’s become part of the official score.
Peck: I’m really proud of that. That was a fun moment for us to figure that out together.
Polk: Very, very interesting. Mary, you said that when you choose a new production you like to have a problem to work on.
Zimmerman: For me, the challenge is that it’s a script of a particular era and style and there’s a million one liners and a million wise cracks and finding the tone to both get the laugh but have it be an actual conversation and actually be coming from a character. Honestly, that was what exhausted me. I felt that was kind of my work was figuring out the timing, conducting if you will, this section which is a kind of sextette, this big courtyard scene, where if we’re really cooking with gas, we can get a laugh on almost every line and stuff that we’ve put in there that’s visual and physical, too. And it’s a timing and a rhythm issue and it’s all craft and technique of the performers. It’s so crafty and technical. Like I say, the song and dance, it’s irresistible, and I think we do it great but you could also kind of not do it so great and still people would be swept up by the great tunes.
But to accomplish the book as well and to get the audience very sympathetic and involved with the little story of these two girls, that I knew right from the beginning I knew that script was a challenge that way. It’s not that on the surface there’s anything that’s illogical-well, there are some weird timings-but nothing the audience notices. It’s not that it has some technical difficult vocabulary or anything like that. It’s just that snappy manner of it belongs to a certain period and to do that but also be natural with it. And at the same time have the technical skill to elevate it, that to me was our work in rehearsal.
Polk: Well my friend and I, and I heard other audience members mention this as well, we were struck by how modern it felt. Despite it being set in the 50s and written in the 50s.
Zimmerman: There’s something very modern about it and that’s that these two young women, for venturing out on their own and daring to be independent, are not punished and made to suffer and sent home or have to have some horrible sacrifice and tragedy happen to them. No, they succeed. And to me, one of the great moments of it is and-spoiler alert-it does all turn out well romantically for Ruth [laughs]. The penultimate moment of the show is she gets her press pass and she starts to cry and she says, “Eileen, Eileen, I have a job. I can go to work.” And she starts to cry. The script says she starts to cry out of happiness. The fact that this is written in 1952 and originally based on stories written in the ’30s that their great happiness, their great self-actualization and manifestation does not have to do with winning the man but winning the job and the job being a creative one. The job being one in which she gets to express herself. I feel very much that that the original author of those stories is looking back on her youth and that it’s one of those works of art which contains the story of its own origin, which is “This is how I came to figure out that I should write about, what I know, and what I know as my sister Eileen.”
Polk: One of the songs that feels, I think, the most modern is called “A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man”.
Polk: It just so happens that Bri Sudia, who plays Ruth who, I don’t know if I’d say the more serious sister…
Zimmerman: Well, she is also the wise-cracking one. She sees life in a more serious way I think.
Molina: Perhaps she’s more cynical.
Zimmerman: Yeah yeah. She’s had a bit of a different experience than Eileen.
Sudia: She gets to unbuttoned now. It’s a nice journey to take every day you know. I think my favorite thing is that this period of life that Mary talks about I’m in and when I play that moment every night of getting the press pass, I’d cry. Ruth is crying, but I’m crying because I am doing the thing I want to be doing at the highest level I’ve ever done it. So when I say “I have a job, I can go to work”; I’m at my dream job, doing the work that I’ve dreamed of doing, and that I didn’t know would be something that I could do. I always feared and may always fear that this will not be something that I can continue to do. That is my true favorite moment of the show.
Polk: Well I loved your performance of this song! Before we hear it could you set it up for us?
Sudia: Sure! Ruth has never had a successful relationship up until this point in her life and I think the main point of conflict in the attempted relationships of the past has been the fact that every man that she’s ever encountered has wished for a more traditional minded girl who, perhaps, doesn’t dream of being a career woman. I think she has found herself on many bad dates where she has been smarter than her male counterpart. This song comes out of a real desire for an intellectual equal and a wish for women everywhere to never settle and to really go for it.
Polk: This is just such a funny song, the audience which it was in stitches when we when we heard that in the theater. Thank you very much! Doug, you have said that your role as music director is to be Leonard Bernstein voice in the room and going back to Facebook, it seems like you are watching the young people’s concerts, am I correct?
Peck: I am. I love them so much.
Polk: Well what did you want to know from Bernstein and watching these for your work. I’m sure you’ve already seen them probably for “Candide” and other things you’ve done.
Peck: I grew up watching them with my grandmother and they just translate a real joy, and if I may, a real sexiness to classical music. He loved sharp dynamic contrasts and surprises and Wonderful Town is full of them – be they silences, pauses, meter changes, or really severe moments of the loudest thing you’ve ever heard followed by the quietest thing you’ve ever heard. I felt permission to really indulge and follow those dynamic markings because I’d seen him conduct them in that way.
Polk: Was there also a piece of advice or statement that he’s made that you have in the back of your mind while you’re doing this.
Peck: Well there’s two and they not only help with Wonderful Town, but living my life as well. The fact that he worked in classical music, jazz, and theater equally and took them all so seriously means a lot to me because I try to be a polymath musician myself. Then this quote, especially on Facebook on Twitter, has gone around so much. You know in the 60s of Vietnam he was very outspoken. He actually wrote a piece called so pretty for Streisand to sing at the Vietnam War Memorial. He was all about speaking truth to power and said you know our response to violence should be to make music more beautifully I try to live my life following his dictum as much as I can.
Polk: Now Doug you’ve just mentioned your students and Mary we mentioned you’re a professor at Northwestern. What’s some advice that you give to your students regularly or is there something that you’re known for.
Zimmerman: The big advice is two words when people ask me like I’m a career in the theaters I say: produce yourself. Don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity or to invite you to do something you just have to make it happen on your own. I think there’s two routes you can intern and make your way up sort of through an institution or the other route which was more what I did which is just like doing every single thing myself and having an idea and being driven by it and you know performing in some basement at 11:00 at night for two weekends or whatever. But that’s how you get good. You know what I mean you have to practice this in order to get good. And you always have very rich experiences that way even though they might be fiascoes attended by 13 people or whatever – that is the only way to get any good. You have to you have to do it, force your friends to do it, so that it that’s always what I tell them.
Polk: And how about you Doug?
Peck: Mine is actuallyjust actually just listen to music. Know there’s so many people in who are musicians and theater artists who in their free time do lots of other things but don’t actively listen to music. One of the areas I teach in is to help people find audition repertoire and I constantly figure out that people aren’t listening to music and I think the more you listen to it and take it into your life the more excited you are the more you feel fluent in it the more you feel conversant in and then excited to perform it for other people and lots of styles of music I feel you know equally informed by Aretha Franklin and Leonard Bernstein and Nina Simone and Lauryn Hill and whatever I’m listening to and seeing always doubles back and informs the music I’m making at that time.
Zimmerman: You know I tell acting students to listen to the radio but I actually say not FM radio because we tend to modulate our voices trim the high and the low.
And you need to listen to all out roaring political talk radio to hear the full expressiveness of the human voice making amazing dynamics – even just the “amazing dynamics” how I said that? Most people would see the phrase the “amazing dynamics” on the page you just say the “amazing dynamics.” Do you see what I’m saying? We’re very playful, very playful, we’re very very musical and switch meter, and rhythm, and pitch, and volume.
I think if texts were written and how they how we speak they would be in 14 different fonts, all different sizes, all different colors, and spaced all over the page and not regular ways. But print is meant to be looked very, very regular, so you see straight through it and into the mental image that it’s providing. It’s meant to be monotonous and dull on the surface. But the true actor knows how to take that on the page and restore it to the the multi-dimensionality with which we actually speak.
Polk: So you want them to listen to angry AM talk radio?
Zimmerman: I want them to listen to really spontaneous un-self-conscious speech and when people go off their heads that’s how they’re speaking.
Polk: Yeah and that’s so hard to do, as we try to train people even here.
Zimmerman: Yes of course, your show excepted of course.
Polk: I mean like the way of talking the radio sometimes is different than the all out free-wheeling, spontaneous and usually political or popular culture sort of chat shows which people are un-self-conscious and just going off, and have the playfulness that we have in our daily lives, our expressiveness – so much of which is trimmed away by the mediocre actor he trims the high and the low end. He develops a regular meter, or even a regular phrasing that actually is exhausting the ear and making the text disappear. It’s we can’t apprehended in the audience if it’s as regular as print looks.
Zimmerman: We have to wrest it from the print world and back into the aural realm.
Polk: How do you filter for that in your audition process.
Zimmerman:You know it’s very apparent in a couple sentences. And you know I auditioned singers with Philip Glass and he would want to stop him and he insists they do Handel and the exact quote was, “Because there’s nowhere to hide in it.” And I feel in Shakespeare, there’s nowhere to hide. You either understand the relationships among print word and idea and feeling or you don’t and know the trick of restoring it to a living, wet organism that it is rather than this dry – here’s what the next word I say and the next word.
I actually think superlative singing, I’ve heard this, the really superlative musical theater artist sings finds the next note and doesn’t just go to it because it’s the next note on the page but actually finds it the way a really superlative actor finds the idea and finds the word as though they didn’t have it memorized as though they don’t know what the next thing is, or are even surprised by what’s coming out of them out of their mouth. It’s apparent really really fast, actually. It’s really fast.
Polk: Our actors in the room have been nodding their heads in a vast agreement with what you just said.
Molina: Good job Mary.
Zimmerman: I mean I couldn’t do it in a million years seriously. It’s such a magic trick being on stage to be doing rehearse repeated patterns and repeated behavior. And it’s such a circus up there. The lights are blinding. You’re pretending you can kind of see the audience but you can’t. You almost can’t see each other. And there’s so much to contend with, and to be natural under those circumstances, to give the appearance of spontaneity. I mean it’s a magic trick. It’s a it’s a real craft it’s a craft.
Polk: And when you’re creating a new adaptation from something that doesn’t have a book you’re well-known for you know working all night and working on it as the rehearsal process is going along. So what are you doing with all your time?
Zimmerman: It is a revelation. Honestly it makes me think really profoundly about that process that I’ve been engaged with since I started making things in my 20s which is that I am writing one day ahead of the performers. I write every night often in the wee hours of the night and then bring it in you know a few pages every single day that when I’m not in that process it seems like absolute madness.
I would go home from this just so exhausted and yet it was wonderful to be guilt-free, just like clicking around on the Internet with like a Kardashian marathon in the background and not have a care in the world because my scene the next day is two and a half pages long and I’ve got superlative actors and we’re just going to have fun finding it I don’t have to figure it out and ride it and who am I casting in this little role of second sea monster. It just makes me feel I can really enjoy my few hours off much better.
But I also I literally like shuddered in horror. You know how the last month in Chicago the traffic with all the fests just the pestilence of fests. It would take me an hour and twenty minutes to get from the Goodman to Evanston, at which point you walk the dog, you fix the dog dinner, you fix yourself dinner, and then it’s like 9:30. The thought that I would then be like sit down and write, which is typically what I’m doing what I did with most recently with “Treasure Island” not even that many months ago was just like, “What the hell?”
People have asked me forever, “How do you do it?” And I’m like, “oh it’s not that bad, I do it.” And then when I’m away from it I’m like, “what what am I thinking?” Like how can I even? And as I get older, frankly my confidence levels are really high, so I don’t have anxiety, but I have a kind of physical exhaustion that’s really hard to even describe. I mean I’m not in a coal mine or anything but my head’s kind of in a coal mine. And I’m teaching classes. Our opening night is the first day of school this year. But lo and behold I teach Mondays and we start on a Tuesday. So that was just like the break of all time for me.
Polk: Yeah. And opening night I should mention is tomorrow when this airs when this airs. OK. So you can check it out at Goodman. Starting tomorrow officially.
Peck: David I’m going to add that I’m so glad that you hit on why I think are two of the main reasons why the work that Mary and I do at the Goodman is so special. You know obviously in the musical theater we all talk about who the composer is and sometimes we talk about who the lyricist is or are we almost like never talk about the book of a musical. And it’s gotten really famous short shrift in the history of musical theater and Mary, because she comes from the literature world and the theater world, takes that so seriously and sort of trusts the choreographer and the music director in a very appreciated way to take care of those realms of the story in that mode of presentation. And she sticks up for the story and directs it like you would any other play, which as someone who works a lot of different other directors of musicals, that’s not always the case. Very often we do these musicals in two weeks or fewer. And the Goodman, with Mary, we always go for four and five weeks we can actually really explore the story and different ways to approach the story which usually you work with your first impulse and that’s it.
Zimmerman: And you know that’s how it should be because the American musical comedy with a big fat book with book scenes is truly an American invention. We invented that art form – seriously! Now there’s so that are sung through and sort of light opera sort of musicals with very serious subjects. But this is what truly is what opera sometimes claims to be – this perfect marriage of theater, dance, and music, but really emphasizes the music so much more. The American musical theater really does emphasize those three things and the performers need to be funny, good, swift, adept actors as well as song and dance men.
Polk: It’s magical how much talent you need to have yet to do this work. You mentioned a a few years ago talking about “Candide,” you mentioned the book. Talk about a musical which had a book plaguing it, right?
Peck: Famously! And Mary wrote a brand new one that worked so beautifully.
Zimmerman: Right. But just by going back to Voltaire – because that’s my practice.
Polk: You know before we run out of time is you as you sort of gave the spoiler before Mary: Ruth finds her love towards the end of this musical and that love is Bob Baker who is one of the editors of a magazine that she applies to.
Zimmerman: With the wonderful made up name the Madhatter.
Polk: It’s a great name.
Zimmerman: It’s a sort of very central long scene.
Molina: So delightful It has all of the perfectly awkward moments that are just delicious and you can relish in, and it’s filled with one-liners. It’s just such a treat. I can say I can only speak for myself but it is a joy to share the stage with such wonderful actors and bring it to life.
Peck: That scene is one where these strangers are coming together with several people having the same crush on Eileen. And and it makes sense that Bernstein would borrow from that to create “Glitter and Be Gay” just a couple of years later.
Peck: I think what he’s really proud of in that scene is he captures the idea of what awkward silence sounds like. And I’ll just play this for bars. This is there’s many awkward pauses like there are awkward dinner conversations where no one knows what to say next. And he has the full orchestra play.
Polk: That’s so interesting that you bring that up because you can feel that in the music but I didn’t think about it that way.
Zimmerman: It’s the heaviness of the awkward moments, the loudness of the awkward silence.
Polk: That’s true. Bernstein figured out how to score awkwardness.
Peck: I’ve often thought of that passage in moments of my life and I get to see on stage.
Zimmerman: How it kind of lumbers along and returns to the same place.
Peck: There’s a missing beat on the third measure every time. When you hear it played by three trombones you’re like, that sounds like a terrible night.
Hamilton: And I’m going to the DMV there’s my soundtrack.
Polk: And that’s the voice of Carl Hamilton. Carl you have prepared for us a song called “A Quiet Girl.” Can you set this up for us?
Hamilton: Sure. After the awkward conversation, Bob brings back the works that Ruth has brought to the Madhatter her to talk to her about it and he gives her some critique that she is not really ready to hear which is “write what you know,” and she gets very upset with him. And he also feels that she’s putting herself in her writing and that she’s not quite fulfilling herself. She’s frustrated and she takes it very personally and they have an argument and this is just after she’s left saying or you’re an editor or a psychoanalyst.
Polk: Well we could go on and on about Bernstein about this particular musical is a wonderful production. I want to thank all of you for joining us here in the studio tonight. But Mary before we leave you I do have to ask you about the opera that you’re directing at the Met coming up in February, “Rusalka.”
Zimmerman: I’ll tell you this. I saw in most productions of “Rusalka” that there’s to me a notable dramaturgical fact which is challenging which is that it entirely takes place at night.
So typically the audiences and looking at a kind of dark blue light for over three hours which I do not think has an effect that creates life in the audience so or alertness. So we’ve sort of found a way to slightly open that up and still make great sense of the story. But that was a kind of goal of mine, to give the eye a place to move a little bit more. Normally, Act I is in the meadow by the lake, Act II is outside the palace, then back exactly to by the lake.
We have a bit more of progression in the first act when they go into the witch’s hut, we play that is an “in one scene,” meaning we drop a curtain and come forward. Then we can make a change for when she meets the prince. So in the first act – and I’m talking very much as the theater director here, not as a music person at all. So I can I can preview that fact to you.
And I think our second act set is stunning. I actually do I think it’s unbelievable. One of the most beautiful I’ve ever done and I have high, high confidence in our third act set as well. But basically, you know, they’re in sort of traditional clothes. It’s not set in a shopping mall in Wilmette, or in a petrochemical plant. It’s set in a meadow or a forest by a lake. And their clothes are sort of fairy tale-ish. But we did try to find a way to move through time a little bit differently.
Polk: Fortunately it will be broadcast HD in the movie theaters and also on the radio.
Zimmerman: I love those HD broadcasts. I love them so much and I get to have a slight hand in them. They’re very exciting days when we’re doing them. They’re such exciting days. I can’t tell you out on the truck, behind the Met with 12 cameras and it’s so exciting. It’s really fun.
Polk: Well we’ll look forward to that and also look forward to a Wonderful Town at the Goodman Theater. Thank you for joining us here this evening.
Collaborative arts programming is made possible by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Artistic Collaboration Fund.
Monday, September 19, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Director Mary Zimmerman has been a part of a wide range of theatrical productions over the years, from re-staging classic works to unveiling world premieres. In 2002, she won a Tony Award for Best Direction for Metamorphoses, an adaption of Ovid. The same year, she premiered a new opera with composer Philip Glass, Galileo Galilei, which she not only staged directed but co-created as librettist.
Since, she’s created several new productions for the Metropolitan Opera that have stared Natalie Dessay, Renée Fleming, and Juan Diego Flórez. In 2013, she premiered a new, staged adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book.
Recently, she visited the WFMT studios to discuss her production of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Goodman Theatre with Program Director David Polk. She also visited WFMT’s sister station, WTTW, to speak with Phil Ponce on Chicago Tonight.
With such diverse experience as a stage director, we were curious to know some of her favorite operas. In all of the works Zimmerman selected, there’s one common theme. “I like operas that give me a staging challenge, or where there’s a world I want to see made manifest,” she said. “So the music is a big part of it, but as a director, and particularly as a theater director, I love operas that give me leeway or opportunity to create a world.”
“Most of these operas for me that I’m drawn to don’t take place in, say, a specific hurch in Italy at a specific time, that you feel or I feel we should cleave to,” she continued. “They more take place in imaginative worlds, and as a theater director, that’s what I really embrace and like about them.”
So, what are her five favorites? Watch the video below to find out! And don’t forget to tell us some of your favorite operas in the comments below.
Collaborative arts programming is made possible by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Artistic Collaboration Fund.
Friday, September 16, 2016 by Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — A chorus of “Happy Birthday” is in order. The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center is 50.
It opened on Sept. 16, 1966, with a performance of Samuel Barber’s “Anthony and Cleopatra,” starring Justino Diaz and Leontyne Price.
An exhibition highlighting the 1966 inaugural season at Lincoln Center will open in the Founder’s Hall of the opera house on Sept. 26.
An anniversary gala is scheduled for May 7, 2017.
The anniversary will be celebrated throughout the 2016-2017 season. The opening night performance on Sept. 26 will feature the premiere of a new production of “Tristan und Isolde” (trih-STAN’ und ih-SOHLD’).
The Met was founded in 1883 on West 39th Street in Manhattan. It has engaged such great artists as Enrico Caruso and Arturo Toscanini (tahs-kuh-NEE’-nee).
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
To play in tune together, musicians have to tune their instruments together using a fixed pitch as a standard. For most ensembles today, that standard is A 440, meaning the note A above middle C is tuned to a frequency of 440 Hz. But how did that pitch become fixed at 440 Hz?
The answer lies in the Deagan Building, a hundred-year-old factory in Chicago that is now home to Century Mallet Instrument Service. The building has produced some of the world’s finest percussion instruments by J.C. Deagan, Inc., founded by J.C. Deagan himself.
Deagan not only set standards for building instruments, he also helped establish standards for tuning them. Watch the video below to find out why Deagan advocated for using A 440 as a standard pitch.
So curiously, though many people think of primarily unpitched instruments when it comes to the percussion family, pitched percussion instruments helped establish A 440 as a standard to tune all instruments. After decades of Deagan lobbying, the American Standards Association established 440 as standard pitch in 1936.
One time, the Deagan Building was completely devoted to manufacturing instruments. One hundred years after the building was erected, you’ll still find some of the best percussion instruments in the world inside at Century Mallet Instrument Service.
The company was founded in 1980 by Gilberto Serna, who trained and worked with Deagan for over 15 years. Today, the company is owned by Andres Bautista, and services instruments from some of the world’s leading musical institutions including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, and Royal Opera Stockholm.
Summer is an especially busy time at Century Mallet, since most orchestras and conservatories aren’t as active as they are during the regular concert season. Century Mallet does everything from small instrument repairs to full restorations, which can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks to several months.
In the tradition of J.C. Deagan, Inc., Century Mallet repairs and restores primarily pitched percussion instruments like marimbas, xylophones, and vibraphones. Of course, the percussion family includes many more instruments than that, which is one reason all-percussion ensembles might be so popular today.
“Almost anything can be a percussion instrument,” Bautista explained. “There’s been a resurgence of interest in percussion music today that started in the middle of the 20th century, in part, because of John Cage. Cage himself was a big percussionist and did a lot of percussion ensemble stuff. There was definitely music for percussion ensemble before Cage, but he helped develop a lot of interest in percussion music that’s continued into what we see today. There’s something kind of primal that takes place with percussion music.”
There’s something so primal about percussion instruments, that they’ve impacted how we tune all instruments.
To learn more about Century Mallets, visit its website, or visit the Deagan Building when it is open to the public during the Ravenswood Art Walk.
Collaborative arts programming is made possible by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Artistic Collaboration Fund.