Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Words wouldn't come in an easy way

I'm reporting from a rather unspringly Ann Arbor, following a dissapointing withdrawal from a conference, due to American Airlines. So instead I spent the weekend grading and getting sick. But that's not the point I want to make (though sympathy is in short supply in grad school). I want to talk about my Sunday, the day that redeemed an otherwise crappy weekend.

Carousel. There aren't too many musicals greater than this one. Not only does it grapple with issues like economic status and domestic abuse, but the music is fantastically bittersweet, moreso than any other musical from the time. When people try to award West Side Story as the musical that changed the face of Broadway and made it an art, I always wonder if they had seen Carousel and why that didn't register.
-The overture. A whole tableau plays out before the audience, set to waltzes that are too pungent to really be realistically carousel tunes. The opening bars are disjunctly out of tune; right from the start, you know something's not right. And while the sweeping, swirling music enraptures you, it has a way of pulling back just before it carries you too far.
-"If I Loved You," one of the finest love songs of all time. The lyrics are so tentative, but the music says it all. This is love, and it's hard. But just as it reaches its peak, it pulls back, and suddenly the love becomes conditional, fictional, and all the sweetness evaporates. Even worse is the way the song reprises in the second act, as if their shyness was to blame for all the tragedy to come.
-Soliloquy. A long musing in which Billy starts fantasizing about his son (and later daughter) he's going to have. It shouldn't really work as a set—it's stream of consciousness, there's no action, and as an end to the first act it defies pretty much all the rules. But it's so powerful thanks to the music that matches every turn. And it's this moment that ends the first act so well; a first act that glides on fantasy and planning, the second deals with reality in brutal terms.
-I love dance, and all the choreographed choruses made me grin. But the ballet in the second act is so stirring for the way it melds humor and fear into the daughter's life. I can't stand it when they cut the ballet out of this and Oklahoma! because you lose the inner workings of the characters.
-The ending. Sure "You'll Never Walk Alone" is a crowd pleaser. But the ending's not about the song, it's about the actions behind it. Here Billy finally makes good, and how does he do it? Simply by speaking some positive words about believing to his daughter and saying "I love you" to his wife. It's not actions here, it's words, and it;s the simplest words that have been so lacking. Fantasy is restored, but now as a goal, rather than as an illusion.

And following that, I went to see Sunrise with live accompaniment. It's a grand film, and I'm astonished at a) how beautiful and inventive it is, and how it hasn't dated a bit, and b) how much Murnau packs in there. The first third is gothically frightening. The second is a sparkling romantic comedy. The final third is epic tragedy. But Murnau is a master at pacing, allowing things to build in their own way. The impending crime of the first third builds so tensely, and the love story rediscovered in the middle is so human, tentative, and vulnerable. And then the events come swiftly and suddenly toward the end with such a fury, it's dizzying. Boundlessly entertaining, in every way imaginable.


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