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.
Archives for May 2016
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.
This is at least arguably a good movie, and is without question enjoyable to watch, which its gloriously gaudy visuals and fast-based, campy mix of farce and operatic melodrama, but there’s a reason virtually no-one today considers it the masterpiece it was hailed as on its initial arrival. The basic problem with it, which has been pointed out before, is its emphasis on style over substance and its complete lack of substance as a result. That said, I also have two other major objections to it.
One is how it appropriates the plot of one of my favorite operas, La Traviata, and then proceeds to make really poor use of it. The original opera had one of the most touching stories in history, and Moulin Rouge manages to obliterate almost everything that worked about it. The opera’s plot set-up made sense in context; the movie kept the plot, but not the set-up. The opera had one of the most beautifully realistic and understated portrayals of relationships in the history of the form; every character in the movie is an over-the-top cartoon. The opera made its heroine’s sacrifice heartrending; in the movie, Satine’s ‘sacrifice’ is so senseless and contrived that it’s impossible to take seriously. In the opera, leading man Alfredo is, like most Italian opera heroes, a genuinely sweet man who thinks with his heart, and who shows genuine remorse for his one impulsive act of cruelty. In the movie, Christian doesn’t even apologize for publicly humiliating Satine—she just takes him back, as if what he did was totally justified. All these changes really bother me because, while La Traviata will assuredly outlast Moulin Rouge, at this particular moment the mediocre hit movie is more widely known to the general populace that the glorious masterpiece opera, so for a lot of people this is their only exposure to the story.
The other issue I have with the film is the way they put together their jukebox score. There’s a reason most jukebox scores consist of songs by the same songwriter(s) (Singin’ In the Rain, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, The Boy From Oz), the same band (Beatlemania, Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys), or at the very least the same era (Rock of Ages, Bullets Over Broadway, Walking On Sunshine). The importance of having a unified sound to your score is not simply waived because you’re doing a jukebox musical—your songs still need to fit together properly. Moulin Rouge, on the other hand, draws its material from a plethora of totally unconnected sources, and while some of the numbers are enjoyable in themselves (particularly David Bowie’s opening rendition of “Nature Boy”, the love duet for the leads, featuring a gigantic medley of fragments from various songs containing the world ‘love’, the star-studded single version of “Lady Marmalade” recorded for the soundtrack, and the tango version of the Police’s “Roxanne”), the overall score suffers from a serious lack of focus. Frankly, using “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” not only in the same score, but in the same scene, wouldn’t pass muster on a compilation CD, much less a musical.
This film was hailed like the Second Coming when it came out, simply because what it was doing was so new and innovative, but it has since sunk into a much more deserved status as a campy guilty pleasure, especially after the Chicago film took its stylistic innovations and used them for something with actual story substance.
This was a third-rate regional musical that barely managed to rope in a single big name (movie star Val Kilmer) to play its leading role, mostly on the strength of its subject matter. It would have vanished entirely if it had not left behind a DVD recording, which has led to it becoming a minor home-video curiosity among musical-theater buffs, largely once again on the strength of its subject.
One of the obvious problems with this production is that it is so monumentally heavy and self-important; it doesn’t have the faintest glimmer of humor or self-awareness. In fact, it takes itself so seriously that it often comes across as laughably pompous and unintentionally comic.
The score is also a problem. It does have its moments; some of the pop-style ballads that make up most of the score are pretty or even moving (such as “If I Can Let You Go” or “A Love That Never Was”), and the gospel-influenced choruses are occasionally stirring. There are even a couple of genuinely excellent numbers, such as the anguished “Is Anybody Listening?” for Joshua or the witheringly furious “Can You Do That For Me?” for Queen Nefertari. But the score as a whole is actually rather dull…it lacks emotional variety, the very Pop-heavy sound feels out of place in the setting, and the production numbers are all incredibly embarrassing. “He’s the One” tries to create a Middle-Eastern sound and winds up with something more like bad imitation Bollywood, “We Are Free” is just irritating in its vacuous naivete, and “Golden Calf” just looks bizarre, with some of the most ridiculous choreography seen in a musical film since At Long Last Love. This, combined with some ill-advised and at times hysterically inappropriate post-production effects added to the video version, makes the show’s visual style come off as almost surreal.
In addition, while you would think the plot of the Exodus story would pretty much tell itself at this point, the first act is actually quite poorly plotted, with the series of events that lead up to Moses discovering his identity not making much sense. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the real conflict is wrapped up within the first two scenes of Act Two, and the remaining half-hour or so is tooth-grindingly boring.
As stated, Val Kilmer plays the lead, and, although he did a fine job of voicing the same character in The Prince of Egypt, he comes across as almost absurdly wooden here—at his most emotional, he mostly looks like he’s going to be sick. The other two seminames in the cast, future American Idol alumnus Adam Lambert and musical-theater veteran Lauren Kennedy, actually both do very good work…it helps that they both get generally better material than the other performers. Everyone else is played by nobodies, all of whom are capable but undistinguished.
The show also tries very hard to turn this fairly barbaric tribal myth into an inspirational anti-slavery tract, making Moses into a Martin Luther King-esque progressive visionary and closing the show the saccharinely inspirational anthem “Say a Prayer”, which resembles the Jim Steinman song of the same name but without any of the edge. One moment in particular, where a boy soprano reassembles the tablets and sings a sanitized version of the titular Ten Commandments, is so cloying and unbearably wholesome that even the Song of Norway movie would get to make fun of it. But that was a problem that also plagued the far superior musical adaptation of this story The Prince of Egypt, so I won’t hold their attempt to soften the edges of the story against them too much.
That said, The Prince of Egypt had a sense of humor and self-awareness and vastly more interesting songs, and it managed to get an actual performance out of Val Kilmer, so it pretty much outdoes this version on every possible front. This might have some value if you intend to mock it Mystery Science Theater-style, since its combination of pompous tone and abundant flaws do make it quite easy to laugh at, but I can’t really call it a success at what it was actually attempting to do.
I’ll say this for this show: it succeeded. Most of the time, shows this dramatically unsatisfying wind up being flops no matter what their other merits (as witness the fact that Mack and Mabel, despite its phenomenal score, has never had a successful production). I suppose in this case the show’s compensations just collectively overpowered its flaws, or perhaps the seamless integration of every element of the production except the book had something to do with it.
Certainly the score was a huge mark in the show’s favor, with Cy Coleman providing a more legitimate kind of Jazz sound than Broadway usually ever sees, and Dorothy Fields providing some of her sharpest and snazziest lyrics, belying the fact that she was sixty years old at the time. The explosively sexy “Big Spender” and the wildly exuberant “If My Friends Could See Me Now” became rock-solid standards, but about two-thirds of the score is mindblowing, and even the weaker numbers (“Charity’s Soliloquy”, “I’m the Bravest Individual”, “I Love To Cry At Weddings”, the pretty but oddly underpowered title-song) are perfectly pleasant musical-comedy trifles. The snazzy, character-establishing opening, “You Shoud See Yourself”; the thrilling quasi-Rock instrumental “Rich Man’s Frug”; the impossibly lush, over-the-top ballad “Too Many Tomorrows”; the Mariachi fire-spitter “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”; the epic Jazz fugue “Rhythm of Life”; the mocking, then suddenly tender ballad “Baby Dream Your Dream”; the heartwrenching character soliloquy “Where Am I Going?”; and the explosion of sheer exultant joy at the eleven-o’clock number “I’m a Brass Band” represent arguably the finest and fullest realization of the classic Broadway sound’s Jazz influences.
Fosse directed the piece as an utterly seamless, almost cinematic whole, and his choreography for it is some of his most iconic, probably ranking right behind Chicago in that regard. The classy yet almost shockingly risqué “Big Spender” scene, in particular, is etched on the collective memories of multiple generations of people who have never even seen this show. The original production also had the benefit of Gwen Verdon’s legendary star performance in the lead.
But for all these good qualities, no-one has ever been able to make the show satisfying as drama. The original libretto was by famed playwright Neil Simon, and it was oddly detached and uninvolving for such a sentimental story, consisting of little more than an endless string of brittle Neil Simon quips. Worse, the original ending was so stupid and ridiculous that virtually all later productions have felt the need to rewrite it, and while none of them has really worked, it would be pretty hard not to improve upon the original. The movie version manages to fix these problems, thanks to Peter Stone’s far more moving script and Shirley MacLaine’s heartrendingly vulnerable performance, but runs into a new issue: if you actually make the audience care about the action, this is a monumentally depressing, even defeatist story about an idealistic girl who is continually exploited and never seems to learn. This might have worked for the Fellini film on which the musical is loosely based, but it doesn’t fit in well with the musical’s mostly upbeat score and snappy, sophisticated feel.
Every revival has tried to fix these problems, but it hasn’t worked yet and probably never will. The 2004 Christina Applegate revival probably came as close to giving this piece a satisfying ending as anyone ever has, but with its weak cast and with Bob Fosse’s choreography removed to accommodate Applegate’s limited dancing skills, there didn’t seem to be much of a point left. But despite the fact that every audience comes away from this show empty and unsatisfied, it continues to be produced regularly, the film version is still regarded as a minor classic in many circles, and it seems likely to continue to frustrate everyone who comes into contact with it for a long time to come.
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.