For my next entry on the art of the villain song, let me show you how a villain can lose on all fronts and still make his exit seem like a victory. This song, which essentially functions as the show’s eleven-o’clock number, serves as the parting words by Steven Kodaly, a heartless cad who uses and manipulates his on-again, off-again girlfriend Ilona and has an affair with his boss’ wife that drives his boss to a suicide attempt, yet is so charming you can’t really bring yourself to dislike him. Just before this song, he has been exposed, fired and dumped by Ilona, yet he makes his exit with perfect poise. This song, an epic combination of withering sarcasm, condescension and veiled threat, conveys all the contempt of flipping the bird with all of the grace and poise of an ironic bow. It serves to make Kodaly’s exit from the show one of the grandest in Broadway history, and certainly stands as one of the theater’s all-time great villain songs.
Last time on the art of the Villain Song, we learned how beautiful and ennobling music and seemingly innocent lyrics can highlight the essential goodness of an apparent villain; this time we’ll see how those same techniques can be used for straight-up irony, as a horrifying contrast to the actual situation. Sondheim has always been the King of this technique; he’s used it throughout his career, especially in Sweeney Todd, where every time the music reaches its greatest heights of beauty, you know someone is plotting murder, or about to attempt murder, or just straight-up committing murder. The music in this particular musical, a twistedly comic vaudeville about real-life Presidential assassins, is disturbingly light and tuneful almost throughout, but this song is a special case. It’s a gorgeous Pop-Folk ballad, in the vein of acts like the Carpenters, except that because Sondheim is Sondheim, it’s far more beautiful and melodic than even the best songs ever released by those artists. It’s the most beautiful song in the entire show, actually…so naturally, it’s given to John Hinckley, the deranged stalker who tried to kill Ronald Reagan, as he sings of his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, and then to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Charles Manson disciple who tried to shoot Gerald Ford, as a profane hymn to her murderous leader. If that sounds incredibly disturbing, that’s the idea…it’s that kind of musical. Even limiting myself to Sondheim’s oeuvre, I could have chosen any number of songs from Sweeney Todd, or such other items as “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures, as an example of this particular form, but I selected this one because its real-life connections give it a particular resonance. There’s a creeping horror to hearing Hinckley and Fromme sing a beautiful love song that you just don’t get from a purely fictional killer like Sweeney Todd, no matter how well the song in question is written.
So here we come to the second part of my extended series on villain songs. This song is a similar but subtly different phenomenon from the see-it-all-through-the-villain’s-eyes sort of song we discussed last time. This is one of those songs that only qualifies as a ‘Villain Song’ in context, and sounds for all the world like it was written for a heroic character. This can be used for disturbing irony, as is seen in much of Sondheim, or it can be used to drive home that the character isn’t really a bad person, as it is here. The imagery of this song is drawn almost entirely from the work of English poet John Milton, which suggests an interesting potential irony. For those who don’t know, the story of the fall of Lucifer as most Christians understand it is scarcely suggested by the actual Bible, and nearly all of our ideas about it were codified by Milton in his poem Paradise Lost. And given that Les Miserables‘ Inspector Javert is, like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, a man whose sin is taking the great lie of his job home with him (in this case, that the law is infallible and all the people he hurts in its name truly deserve it), it makes sense that he would be quoting religious ideas drawn from a popular poet rather than the actual religious texts he thinks he’s referencing. Javert is a vividly tragic character, and while the musical does flatten out some of the nuances he had in the novel (which is inevitable given the novel’s sheer length and complexity), it only highlights the central tragic paradox his character is built on. This is a man who has absolute faith in something that is ultimately not true, and it’s hardly surprising that once he’s forced to realize that fact, he cannot bring himself to go on living.
I’m preparing to do an ongoing series on the art of the Villain Song, of which this is going to be the first. Please note that I am not going to be adhering to any narrow definition of ‘Villain Songs’ popular on certain websites; my intent is to explore the whole spectrum of songs from musicals associated with villainy. Here, we’re going to explore a particular subtrope of the villain song that’s meant to make you suddenly feel actual sympathy and understanding for a character you’ve viewed as an unambiguous villain up to that point. The most famous example of that phenomenon is “Stars” from Les Miserables, and I’ll certainly get to that one at some point in this series, this one is still worth spotlighting, not only because it came long before “Stars”, but also because of the sheer, almost absurd degree to which it makes us feel sorry for a character who would seem to have no sympathetic qualities whatsoever. The character in question is a brutal, drunken, racist man who had previously sung the reactionary rant “Let Things Be Like They Always Were”, and at this point in the plot he has just murdered his wife because he caught her with another man. As his grown daughter confronts him while the police are taking him away, all he has to say for himself is “It might not’a looked like it you, but I loved her too”. And over the course of this musical scene full of halting, inarticulate words and quietly passionate music, our hearts actually bleed for this horribly unpleasant guy, to the point where we actually understand how losing his wife’s love to someone else could drive him to such a desperate act. This might be the first time this technique was used at all in a Broadway musical, and it perfectly illustrates the art of humanizing even a character who gives us no real rational reason for sympathy, simply by letting them see how the situation looks from his perspective.
In commemoration of the late musical legend Prince Rogers Nelson, I thought I would shine some light on one of his lesser-known masterpieces. Now, Prince’s Nineties output has a reputation for being far more uneven that the work of his peak period in the Eighties, but The Gold Experience was definitely one of his better Nineties albums, even if the only track off it anyone seems to remember today is the hit love ballad “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”. And ravishing as that song is, I’d argue that this is the true high point of that album. It features one of his most gorgeous melodies, and shows off his incomparable guitar chops as well as anything in his discography. It also features a surprisingly profound lyric that speaks of artistic integrity and faith and reinstructs the Who’s famous dictum with the rebuttal “What’s the use of being young if you ain’t gonna get old?”, a statement that has become all the more bittersweet with his own passing. It is every bit the equal of his legendary ballad “Purple Rain”, which it strongly resembles, and it’s a true injustice that this song is so much more obscure than its famous predecessor. For many people, this album represents the final burst of greatness Prince would ever achieve, and while I actually think some of his late-career efforts (such as Musicology) are quite underrated, there’s no denying that this epic album closer would have made for a very satisfying climax.
David Bowie’s second and less famous full-scale Rock Opera, Diamond Dogs, was originally supposed to be a direct adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, and while his inability to get the actual rights to the novel ultimately forced him to make some story changes at the last minute, it’s still quite clear where the album’s inspiration lies, and not just because of song titles like “1984”, “Big Brother” and “We Are the Dead”. This song, which became the big hit off the album, was pretty clearly meant to be Julia’s character song, and it still perfectly sums up her character…a born rebel, defiant of gender roles and unashamedly sexual…and her complex relationship with Winston. If you accept Diamond Dogs as a 1984 adaptation, however loose that adaptation wound up being in the final draft, then it is the only successful musical adaptation that material has ever seen, or will ever probably see, despite the fact that there have been several other attempts (both Jonathan Larson and Adam Guettel worked for years on never-finished stage musicals based on the novel). And that David Bowie could pull off the almost inconceivable task of successfully musicalizing one of the most fundamentally unmusical works in all of literature is one of the greatest of all testaments to his genius, proving that he was, among other things, a genius of musical story-telling on the level of the greatest composers of what we more generally think of as ‘musicals’.
In the wake of the world’s tragic loss of music God David Bowie, I thought I’d share my impressions of a particular favorite of mine among his songs. The Man Who Sold the World is generally regarded as the first truly great album Bowie would release, but while most of the album is as close to Heavy Metal as Bowie would ever come, this song evokes more of a gentle Folk sound reminiscent of the material on Bowie’s previous album, Space Oddity. Even so, I’m not the only critic who regards this as the album’s high point. The quietly haunting, rusty-squeezebox melody and bedraggled-sounding chorus responding to Bowie’s lines with a mournful “Oh, by jingo” give the song the feel of a sorrowful folk song from some bygone century or bittersweet fantasy world, and the world-weary, philosophy-of-sorrow lyrics are some of the wisest and most beautiful Bowie would ever write (“Live till your rebirth and do what you will/Forget all I’ve said, please bear me no ill”). The song also shows off Bowie’s uniquely beautiful voice as clearly and perfectly as anything he ever recorded, reminding us what a truly exquisite instrument the man had in his younger days. This song is an expression of quiet, deep, unutterable sadness, but there’s something oddly comforting about it even so, so it seems like as good a listening choice as any to commemorate the passing of one of music’s greatest legends.
This song was, at the time of its release, a new phenomenon…a ‘virtual duet’ made from the combined voices of legendary singer Natalie Cole and her equally legendary father, who had been dead almost thirty years at the time. It was an incredibly touching tribute to her father’s memory, and it’s worth noting that it has so supplanted Nat’s original recording of the song that you are far more likely to hear this version than Nat’s solo one in almost any context today. The ‘virtual duet’ technique has gotten a bad reputation, but that’s because of blatant misuse, not because it was a bad idea. The problem is that you need a personal connection to the deceased singer you’re duetting with, or you just come across as crass and disrespectful. When you’re singing the virtual duet with your late father, it’s incredibly sweet and heartrending. But when you’re, say, Celine Dion singing a virtual duet with Frank Sinatra, it seems like you’re just co-opting the talent of a legend for your own purposes. It also helps to have a singer with enough emotional range to make a connection with a pre-recorded voice; witness Sinatra’s Duets album (which was recorded during his lifetime, but used the same process of singers duetting with his pre-recorded vocals, rather than actually singing together in person), where the effectiveness of the perceived connection varied severely with the performer in question. Natalie, however, pulls it off to perfection—I don’t know how much of it was because of her artistry and how much was a genuine reaction to what must have been a very emotional experience for her, but she manages to create perfect chemistry with her father’s voice. This is one of the most moving moments in all of recorded music, all the more so now that Natalie has joined her father, and at a time when most of the public was paying more attention to the Grunge and Rap revolutions, it really is a shame that this was relegated to a small niche audience, since it really is one of the defining musical moments of the Nineties.