Tag Archives: the business of art

Sometimes It Works

Show business is a collaborative effort always. And any part being out of balance or off kilter can — and will — affect the end product, even to the point of ruining what in other circumstances may have turned out brilliantly. That’s a great part of the fun and excitement of mounting a production: the risk. And also what often makes it (apart from the loss of large sums of money) such a heartbreaker. The 19th century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote “Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’ ” Anyone who’s ever trod the boards or otherwise been associated with the production of a show knows exactly those feelings.

Perhaps the risks are highest in musical theatre, where nowadays the costs are so astronomical, but also because of the need to add the extra elements of song and dance to an already dicey task of creating something that in roughly two hours is going to entertain and perhaps shed light on some aspect of the human condition. Good luck to ya!

For every time it succeeds, heaven only knows how many times it doesn’t, often with all the grace and charm of a belly flop.

But sometimes . . . sometimes … something happens and it works. It would be too easy to just chalk it all up to stardust. Have you ever really analyzed why it works in those glorious cases when it does?

I recently read some insightful words by author James Leve, who is a musicologist and professor at Northern Arizona University, about the collaboration between the late lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander, one of the most successful and prolific teams in the history of musical theatre. Kander and Ebb’s work includes Cabaret (probably their greatest commercial success); Chicago; and New York, New York.

Leve provides an excellent analysis of what makes a Kander and Ebb song — and their collaboration — work:

“Kander and Ebb’s portfolio of songs includes recurring harmonic progressions and exhibits preferences for certain stanzaic structures, but what best defines their voice is the contradictory nature of their collaboration: the composer and lyricist have strikingly different artistic temperaments, the former demonstrably sentimental and lyrical, the latter campy and cynical. Their collaboration is a perfect balancing act. . . . The palpable tension between the opposing qualities that each embodies produces the dramatic energy underlying their scores. In “Maybe This Time” [from the film version of Cabaret], for instance, the melody striving to go higher and higher and the forward momentum of the harmonic progression force the singer to deny the possibility of failure even though the lyric and physical exertion required to sing the song create a sense of desperation.”

Nicely said.

I’ll add to Leve’s astute observations by including three video clips of Kander and Ebb songs from Flora, the Red Menace (Broadway, 1965); the film version of their Broadway musical Cabaret (1972); and the 1977 film New York, New York (all starring singer/actress Liza Minnelli). These beautifully exemplify what Leve is saying and further show the perfect marriage of a singer/artist/interpreter with composer and lyricist. Minnelli has the chops to perform the physically and technically demanding material while embodying the optimism, vulnerability, urgency, and pathos that are the hallmarks of Kander and Ebb’s works. What a great team the three of them made! Minnelli’s greatest artistic achievements have arguably always been in association with them.

In the case of Cabaret, the addition of director and choreographer Bob Fosse’s cynicism, sense of rhythm and movement, visual eye, and ability to synthesize all the clashing high energies of Kander, Ebb, and Minnelli with a knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of film made for artistic achievement of the highest order. That sense of “desperation” Leve references is always there: sometimes in your face, sometimes lurking just beneath the surface and in counterpoint to what the melody, itself, or the situation is saying. In Cabaret, Kander, Ebb, Minnelli, and Fosse, all come across as being at the top of their abilities. Without any of them, I think that film would never have worked at all. High command of craft makes the components; the tensions and the mergers make the art.

Have a look and a listen and see what I mean. Sometimes it works.

Maybe This Time

But the World Goes Round

Sing Happy (excerpt)

Masters

I am writing this entry while in Augusta, Georgia to attend the 2015 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. I’m very fortunate to be able to attend this event every year.

Although I know very little about golf, each year I thoroughly enjoy not just the exquisite beauty of Augusta National in full bloom, but I also marvel at how impeccably managed every aspect of this tour-nament is, which lends an air of relaxed formality that makes for a fun and friendly time.

Oh, and then there’s also the golf.   Did I mention that?  It’s a thrill to see the top players in the world playing one of the best courses in the world and, very often, playing their best game.   It’s not just the top pros either. Every year the top amateurs from around the globe are also invited to participate alongside with the best professionals.

I am sincere when I say that this annual event is something of the best the American South and, indeed, this country have to offer.  It’s all done with great grace and style.

“What on earth are you, Bill Watkins, Mr. Artsy, talking about?”, you might be asking.

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L’art Pour L’art

The photograph above, “Balance”, © 2015 by William B. Watkins, can be viewed in a larger format in the Chiaroscuro section of the Image Gallery. On that page, just double-click on the image to view it in a large, slideshow mode.

L’art pour l’art is a French phrase that translates to English as “Art for art[‘s sake]” and may be more familiar, particularly to movie aficionados, in its Latin rendering Ars gratia artis (more on that later).

However it’s presented, this is a mighty motto, noble in scope, affirming that art stands on its own, with its own intrinsic value. That is to say, “art” isn’t just a vehicle for sentimentality, religion, commerce, morals, or politics.

I doubt that this would have ever developed as anyone’s motto, though, had there not been a widespread conflict about the purpose of art to begin. Otherwise, why defend art’s higher end?

When I speak to college students, I often quote from a play that I first encountered as a young college student myself. The words were spoken by a powerful character in a generally cheerless play called Kennedy’s Children, written by Robert Patrick in the 1970s. At the top of Act II, the character Sparger, an actor, comes forward and finally begins to speak his truth, which begins (as he contemplates the room around him), “I used to know a place that was better . . . .”  He continues to describe the wonderland he had stepped into years earlier, “a hole-in-the-wall West Village coffeehouse . . . . [where] We did plays. We — I was one of “us” . . . .

For the character, it was a life-changing experience the night as a young man he first encountered that place and it was holy ground that he spoke of:

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