Thursday, January 23, 2014
What's It All About?
What could have possibly stir up the long dormant ranting of the Grande Enchilada? Governor Christie's Bridgegate? That spawn of Satan, Assad, massacring his own people in Syria? Vladimir Putin (every day)?
All of the above, of course, but what got my goat yesterday was something infuriating enough, but far less tragic.
First, some background. I have seen a couple of those Broadway musicals (yes, this is today's incendiary topic) that are supposed to be about young, hip people being bohemians, all rebellious rock & roll. Apparently, nobody involved ever notices that the words "young and hip" and the words "Broadway musical" are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. If you are truly hip, then you are nowhere near a Broadway musical. And to judge from the audiences, the same goes for "young".
With the exception of Hair in its day, which has some pretty nice music and some disturbing war stuff going on, I hold this to be truth to be self-evident.
The first one of these youth-centered musicals I saw was Rent, which is supposed to be La Boheme transposed to the now defunct starving artists of the East Village (currently to be found gentrifying the far edges of Bushwick, or getting free housing in Detroit). Every single thing about that show was neither hip nor authentic, nor really bohemian, and the music was a saccharine travesty of rock. Then I saw Spring Awakening, of which I remember nothing but a bunch of intolerable young people, choreographed to act rebellious, climbing on walls.
I must alert you, I hate young people. In particular in America, they are fed on a steady pablum of personal reinforcement and cheerful, if delusional empowerment that leads them to believe they can actually do anything they set their minds to. This is not always bad (think Lena Dunham, or Mark Zuckerberg, or your precocious genius du jour), but it seems to breed an overconfidence in their own talent that we are supposed to forgive in lieu of its youthful exuberance.
Which brings me to the case in point.
Kyle Riabko, an enterprising young talent, decided to bestow the genius of Burt Bacharach on the people of his generation. This, on paper, is an awesome idea. God knows his generation needs to learn a thing or two about crafting spectacularly melodic, original, unforgettable songs. His show, called What's It All About. Bacharach: Reimagined, is where the concept went south.
I grew up with Burt Bacharach (he was huge in Mexico). Just reading the titles of the songs in the playbill brought their melodies instantly to my mind. "I Say A Little Prayer", "Do You Know The Way To San Jose", "Walk On By", "I'll Never Fall In Love Again", "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head"... etc. I was intrigued by several glowing reviews that claimed that the sparse arrangements (no Dionne Warwick, no amazing brass section) brought a fresh light to Bacharach's iconic music. Sure enough, the show sheds a new light on the songs, but not always for the right reasons.
If an opera singer sang "Do You Know The Way To San Jose", and eluded most of the quickfire notes that cascade in the second phrase (na na na na nana, nana nana nana nana), they would be torn apart by the audience. If they had to cheat and lower their pitch one register as they sang "Walk on By", I shudder to think. As I listened to the young, not particularly spellbinding performers, I did get an epiphany about Bacharach's music. The songs bloom with notes, resembling baroque arias or complex jazz melodies. But that is because of what's missing in Riabko's arrangements: they avoid many of the notes that make the songs a challenge to sing and a beauty to listen to. Some of the arrangements sound like U2, or Coldplay, some like those ubiquitous TV commercials that think they can sell you anything with a ukulele and a xylophone. Some of them were perfectly nice. The most fortunate was a quiet group rendition of "(They Long To Be) Close To You", a song so richly gorgeous that it's pretty impossible to screw up. But with any of the more challenging melodies, my sense is that the arrangements took the easy way out, leaving the audience to mentally hum the missing music. Which is not totally criminal, if done the right way. Burt Bacharach's best songs (he wrote some treacle here and there) are so intricate, the melodies so unpredictable, that even in the hands of unseasoned, if well meaning artists, they still soar.
Alas, as I watched the very young performers mug for the audience like an overgrown troupe of Mousketeers, I was reminded of the essential Noel Coward theatrical dictum: "Don't just do something, stand there". Unless you are at the opera, or a traditional Broadway musical with a dramatic libretto, you don't need to act the songs. Sing the glorious music with those crazy cool lyrics by Hal David and call it a day. The music does 75% of the work. But the cast was mimicking reading love notes, then tearing them apart, smiling maniacally, dancing halfheartedly at some stupid choreography intended to evoke youth, or in the case of the promising singer who tried her hand at a bluesy adaptation of "Don't Make Me Over", actually forcing herself to cry while looking at the floor the entire song. Honey, the tears are already in the music and the lyrics. The direction and the conception are both sophomoric and hokey.
Then, as the Magnificent Arepa cannily pointed out, how can this be a show for Riabko's "generation" if the median age of the audience is 65? Or, in my case, if it feels like watching Up With People? Arepa was reminded of the Catholic spiritual retreats of her youth, which tried, with guitars and bonfires, to seem cool and hip.
If you want to be cool and hip, you either have to be Patti Smith, or you have to play in cool and hip places, like the Mercury Lounge or the Bowery Ballroom or any cavernous hall in the boonies of Greenpoint or Gowanus. You are not hip and cool if you put on something that works too hard to be likable; that wants to behave like a Broadway show.
Which is a pity, because Burt Bacharach is the coolest and the hippest, as Elvis Costello, who was in attendance, can attest to, since he has collaborated with Bacharach. Also in attendance, and sitting right next to Costello was Mike Myers, Austin Powers to you, which was bizarre and thrilling, and ultimately mortifying. I doubt that they went for the painfully fake, utterly unhip, youthful exuberance shtick.
This show could have promise if it were stripped entirely of its annoying theatrical pretense, and packaged as an intimate recital of a bunch of amazing songs.