Musicals to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, directed by Sam Gold. Young Vic)

I confess I know little more about Alison Bechdel than the Bechdel-Wallace Test and its origin in Dykes to Watch Out For. This is a failing, as I have read Maus and have copies of some Joe Saccho and Harvey Pekar, which is almost like having read them.
Continue reading →

Why This is El Ay, Nor Are We Out of It

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are both in suspended animation on board a spaceship on a century long voyage, dreaming of wish fulfilment. I apologise for the spoiler, but I haven’t seen a film this obvious since is-it-meant-be-a-surprise-he’s-dead-what-with-having-been-shot-in-the-chest.

The clue is a traffic jam on an LA freeway, when everyone gets out of their cars and starts a song and dance routine, and no one seems bothered, no one seems angry, no one gets shot and no cops turn up to beat anyone up. This is all the more remarkable given that the drivers are so ethnically diverse and it will be over an hour if not ninety minutes until another person of colour gets to speak.

Mia and Sebastian’s dreams intersect at this point, with one giving the other the finger, although if this is going to be a romantic comedy this is a sign of impending union. She is a wannabe actor, working shifts at a Warner Bros lot coffee shop in hopes of being noticed, going to a hundred pointless auditions in search of a big break. She tries for agency and to set up a one woman show to get herself noticed, and indeed she is picked up for a film that will be based around her.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

Occasionally she breaks into song and she does not seem to find this strange, nor is she that bothered when she finds herself floating around a planetarium — I assume that the gravity has failed on the spaceship. On several occasions she walks across LA in the middle of the night, alone, with not a single sign of a mugger. LA is surely the city where nobody walks. It is the hyperreal.

Meanwhile, Sebastian dreams about being a jazz pianist, wanting to save jazz by creating a club where he can play. In the meantime he refuses to play the set list in restaurants and plays keyboards in covers bands. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when he breaks into song, but there is something delusional about a white person saving jazz, although we can repeatedly point to white singers (Elvis? Slim Shady?) who have become the popular avatars of music of black origin. In perhaps the most offensive scene he becomes the white counterpart to the magical negro who teaches an African American couple to dance.

Sebastian tells us about jazz as a conversation between musicians, a competition of ideas, but when we see him play it is pretty well always alone (aside from the awful bands) on the keyboard. It is playing as self expression.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

In one version of the dream, there is no romcom reconciliation — indeed one of them seems to have started a family within days of their parting. Of course. Their dreams are so self-centred that they cannot find a unified space. In another version of the dream, there is the happily ever after. I give it six months.

Of course, in the process of the film, Hollywood is able to satirise itself, although as is so often the case, it is toothless, because we are seduced by the studio and the inevitable Academy Awards.

And no one seems to wonder why Keith (John Legend) is the only person of colour with substantial dialogue (there’s a casting agent in one scene, too). The dreams both involve an ethnic apocalypse.

During the closing credits, an elderly woman tapped me on the shoulder and said “You must be a jazz fan.”

I think this was an observation rather than an order. And, alas, I don’t think I am beyond the blindingly obvious Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bix Beiderbecke. So I might be wrong when I suspect there was actually very little jazz in this film.

And then I woke up and it was all a dream…

Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Hovick

Gypsy (dir. Jonathan Kent, Savoy Theatre, April 2015, transfer from Chichester)

There was a moment toward the end of Gypsy (1959) when I got a flash of Death of a Salesman. It’s a very different piece, of course, what with being a musical and all, but both are about the delusional side of the American Dream.

Anyone can make it.

Most don’t, of course.

I didn’t know anything about Gypsy Rose Lee, beyond some kind of rhyming slang, so I wasn’t aware that she was a leading stripper with a style that berated the audience. I thus didn’t know about her politics, her support for Spanish loyalists, attendance at communist meetings or investigation by HUAC, or her novels and movies. I don’t recall knowing about June Havoc , her sister, who made it in Hollywood, just about.

The Willy Loman here is Rose, abandoned by her own mother, now wanting to get her daughter Baby June on the stage, with her plain and disregarded daughter Louise along for the ride and her sewing skills. Rose leaves Seattle to make their way in vaudeville, with the dream being bookings on the Orpheum circuit. Vaudeville is dying, of course — movies are the mass entertainments along with radio and there’s a depression (and eventually a war) to negotiate. The act, of course, isn’t very good, but through pure force of will Rose gets on, just about, and picks up Herbie as agent and potential, strung along, fourth husband. When June jumps ship, Rose promotes her older daughter. Sooner or later they end up in burlesque.

I’m not actually a fan of musicals — although this is the second I’ve seen in a year after Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and I don’t think I recognised more than one or two of the songs. The lyrics are Stephen Sondheim’s, post West Side Story, and before he got to write the music too. Arthur Laurents wrote the book and Jule Styne the music; I know the first name but not the second (I haven’t seen Funny Girl). There was a huge amount of energy from the cast, with an odd mix of good materials which are diegetic and bad which are songs within the diegesis. From the first, however, Imelda Staunton grabs the production by the scruff of the neck, although it’s able to survive the sequences where she is given a chance to catch her breath. She’s never exactly likeable — you root for her only because you want her daughters to succeed. And as the musical progresses you get the sense of what a monster she is — like Willy Loman she believes her stories. One more gig will make it alright; one more success and she will marry.

She’s living vicariously, of course, and you get the sense that Lee’s success almost comes as a punishment of and rebuke to her mother. The earlier songs were full of spectacle — flags, a pantomime cow, canes to throw  and twirl — but this builds further when the dream is revealed. Lara Pulver as Louise has a tricky transition from ugly duckling to swan and I think she succeeds.

Peter Davidson, meanwhile, has rather less to do as Herbie — a few musical numbers, but we know he can sing because we’ve seen Button Moon. Rather than hard-bitten agent he has to be mooncalf and mouse and slides off stage. This is a bit of an issue, of course, as so many characters are left behind by the performers’ travel. There’s grandfather — there’s that stage manager — and farewell. Where are they now?

But we’re carried away by the tremendous energy of Staunton – so different from her role in Pride (2014) and surprising me when we get to the point when we realise she isn’t the gypsy of the title.