Tag: music

Review: 42nd Street

This review contains spoilers.

It turns out that 42nd Street is an older musical than I thought it was: it was first performed on Broadway in 1980 and seems to have been revived reasonably regularly since then. It’s currently on at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, and Time Out was offering £15 tickets, and, well, the rest is history, as they say.

It’s a weird musical, this one. The plot is perfunctory: it’s 1933 and Julian Marsh, notorious Broadway director, is doin’ a show! And every girl in New York wants to dance in it – including Peggy Sawyer, who’s never done any theatre work before but who, conveniently, can sing and dance like anything. And including Dorothy Brock, a faded star and terrible dancer whose awful Texan sugar daddy is bankrolling the show.

But no-one cares about the plot, which is just an excuse for musical number after musical number. There are lots of threads left messily loose, in a way that feels careless rather than purposeful: Dorothy’s secret lover Pat, Peggy’s dalliance with actor Billy, whether Peggy was in fact out of line when Dorothy’s ankle got broken. And that…wouldn’t be a huge problem (though I think I’d still be slightly dissatisfied with it), if not for the fact that the show is so consistently, outrageously problematic.

Or, rather, its characters are problematic. The show-within-a-show, Julian Marsh’s magnum opus, Pretty Lady, is problematic. Pretty Lady doesn’t seem particularly to have a plot, but it definitely puts a lot of stock in women-as-decoration: it’s got those ridiculous ostrich-feather swimming costumes that are a cultural shorthand for a certain type of Broadway extravaganza, and one of its biggest numbers, “Dames”, has a chorus that straight-up goes “Keep young and beautiful/if you want to be loved”, together with a dance routine involving women preening in hand-held vanity mirrors.

Clearly there’s an element of parody here. This is ’30s Broadway TO THE MAX! It’s ’30s Broadway as it never really was; ’30s Broadway as it lives in our cultural memory. Pretty Lady doesn’t have a plot because it doesn’t need to; we (where “we” is a largely white, largely middle- and upper-class Western audience) can fill in the blanks from our own assumptions about what ’30s Broadway musicals are like, even if we’ve never seen one. And ’30s Broadway musicals are full of self-obsessed pretty women, of course.

But, if it’s parody, then it’s not parody that’s doing anything useful; it’s not parody that’s actually interrogating the ’30s Broadway musical, or our idea of it. It’s parody in the service of nostalgia, which seems to me a rather dangerous combination. There’s an interesting moment at the end of Act 1 when Pretty Lady becomes the same as 42nd Street; the frame narrative and the story-within-a-story merge. The Pretty Lady safety curtain comes down, Julian Marsh announces in character that we can get refunds at the box office, the house lights come on for the interval. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a piece of recursive self-obsession: we discover that 42nd Street is, in fact, about Pretty Lady; and Pretty Lady is about a certain kind of ’30s-style musical; and 42nd Street is a ’30s-style musical. All it cares about is itself.

This all comes to a nasty head at the end of Act 2, the end of the show. Julian Marsh has convinced Peggy to take over the leading role in Pretty Lady after the ankle-breaking incident. She’s had to learn the whole part in two intensive days, and she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Julian is unsympathetic. Actually, he’s a complete and utter bastard.

And, in between his hectoring and bullying, he kisses her.

The show gives us very little indication as to how we’re supposed to read this: she still has unresolved romantic tension with Billy, and the show ends very quickly afterwards. It’s a convention of musicals that kissing equals love, but Julian’s treatment of Peggy reads more Harvey Weinstein than Captain von Trapp, and I’m not at all sure that the show’s aware of this. There’s a shadow of a suggestion that, in fact, Julian loves the idea of Peggy as his leading lady; he loves her because she brings his show alive. So he too is self-obsessed. He becomes the symbol of an entertainment industry that’s turned in on itself, chewing up everything outside it (love; talent; friendship) to feed its own monstrous self-absorption.

42nd Street actually reminds me of the 2016 musical film La La Land. Both musicals are only interested in themselves, and both of them use the falsifying, reactionary light of nostalgia to register that self-interest. But La La Land at least made the world feel a little more glamorous and a little more romantic and a little more sad than it did before. 42nd Street was a lovely evening for £15: the dancing’s fun and some of the actors can actually sing properly. In particular, Steph Parry as Dorothy has a gorgeous jazz voice (and it seems she joined the cast as an understudy, which is incredibly impressive). But…it left a bad taste in my mouth.

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50-Word Review: Space Opera

Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

A new Valente novel, and the second Hitchhiker riff I’ve read this year: humanity’s singing for its life in the galactic version of Eurovision. A meditation on what counts as sentience and the transcendent power of pop music. Fun and fabulous, but a little…slight for Valente.

2017 Roundup

Happy New Year, dear reader!

Let’s hope 2018’s a bit kinder to us all than 2017 was, shall we?

My Favourite Things of 2017

Book: Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Re-reading my review reminds me how clever I found this novel on my first reading of it, but really it’s here because it’s such a comforting read. I love its gentle narrative arc, the way it takes its heroine on her first tentative, hopeful steps towards a future that’s, once again and exactly, full of potential.

TV: Class: Detained. I am sad that Class has been cancelled: it’s pretty much the only TV show aside from Doctor Who I’ve been watching this year, and pretty much all of its storytelling has been pitch-perfect. Detained probably stands out for me because it really makes its SFnal concept work to support its character development, and its young actors do a fantastic job in making it feel believable and claustrophobic.

Film: MoanaI was apparently terrible at seeing films in 2017, so I don’t have very much to choose from. Moana‘s the best of a bunch I have mixed feelings about: it does have a female POC protagonist with no discernible love interest, and I’m still listening to the songs ten months on.

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2017Next year I’m going to drop the Misc. category, on the basis that the answer will henceforth always be “Nine Worlds”. Because obviously.

2017 Reading Stats

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 85 books in 2017, absolutely smashing my target of 73.
  • The longest book I read was One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski, which, at 839 pages, was, honestly, kind of tedious. (If that wasn’t enough, it’s also the first volume of 27. Angels and ministers of grace defend us.) The shortest was Martin Rowson’s brilliant graphic novel rendering of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, at just 80 pages. Overall I read 30,893 pages – considerably up from last year’s 26,492.
  • The oldest book I read in 2017 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a re-read, first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2017 was 44 – up from last year’s 16, probably at least partly because of all the old-school SF I’ve been reading.
  • Genre: As usual the biggest single genre I read in was fantasy – I read 39 fantasy novels (45%), 18 SF novels (21%) and eight lit-fic novels (9%), as well as five each from non-fiction and historical novels, three “classic” novels (which I’ve categorised as such to distinguish them from commercial lit-fic), two “humour” novels and a detective story (The Waste Land, which I suspect actually belongs in “humour”). My reading, in other words, has seen pretty much the same genre split it did last year.
  • I read 10 YA novels (12%) – that’s lower than last year, when YA made up about a quarter of my reading.
  • Just 11% of the books I read this year were re-reads! That’s almost half last year’s 21% – I’m pleased with this.
  • 46% of the books I read in 2017 were by women. That’s disappointing; I thought I’d done better than that.
  • And 18% of the books I read in 2017 were by POCs. I don’t have a target for this one – it’s difficult to know what the baseline should be, and I didn’t count last year – but I’m reasonably pleased with this.

Music Review: Hamilton

This review contains spoilers (for history).

I don’t write about music on this here blog. I’m not good at it, I don’t know enough to say anything useful about it, and I don’t usually end up having long and involved conversations in my brain about it. (That’s not the same as saying I don’t like music: tuneless singing is something I do pretty much every day of my life.)

I’m making an exception for Hamilton – or, rather, the cast recording of the soundtrack of Hamilton, which, given the fair-to-middling difficulty of getting tickets to see the live show (West End tickets are sold out till June), is how most people, including me, first encounter it. Probably I should have waited to write this until I actually did get to see it, but I have no idea when that will be, and I have many and many a thing to say about Hamilton.

Some context may be useful at this point. Hamilton tells the story – or a story – of Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary of the United States, from his inauspicious beginnings as the illegitimate child of a Scottish nobleman growing up in the Caribbean, through his role in the American Revolution, to his years of political influence. And it does so through the medium of hip-hop and rap.

That’s one of the interesting things about it. Combining the swagger of rap with the emotional theatricality of Broadway show tunes is one of those things that seems so obvious you wonder why nobody else has done it before. (They might have done it before. I am not an expert.) Throughout the album there’s also this fascinating juxtaposition of old and new: a string melody laid against a heavy bass beat, as in “Yorktown”, or shoot-from-the-lip rap layered with an olde-worlde round (“Farmer Refuted”, not a fan favourite but one that always makes me intensely happy), or, thematically, a cabinet meeting in the style of a rap battle. (Abigail Nussbaum detects Aaron Sorkin’s influence here, which feels weirdly right.)

It’s precisely that old-and-new tension that’s at the core of what Hamilton‘s doing. The other thing you might have heard about the musical is its race-bent casting: pretty much all the main roles (apart from the brilliantly loopy King George III) are played by actors of colour. This, and the choice to tell the story of the Founding Fathers in a musical genre associated with black people, is an explicit gesture of reclamation – a rewriting of history to include those who tend to be written out of it. Hamilton‘s intensely aware that it’s doing this, too: all of its characters at least half-know that they’re fictional, that they are performing their own version of history. “Alexander Hamilton/America sings for you,” goes a line in the show’s opening number; this actually feels like Hamilton referencing itself, as it seems (from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge; my knowledge of US history is limited to a half-remembered GCSE module on the McCarthy era and six-and-a-half series of The West Wing) that the historical Hamilton hasn’t previously attracted much attention. So here is a show that considers itself very much its own thing – one that’s constantly reminding us that history’s really a matter of interpretation. Remember: this is a Broadway musical. A hit Broadway musical. It’s fun and witty and sophisticated and a great joy to listen to and think about.

So, to Hamilton‘s blind spots. Firstly, it believes absolutely and incontestably in the idea of America as the land of the free, “A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints”; it believes uncomplicatedly that the American Revolution was about people rising up against tyranny (rather than, more prosaically, taxes). Secondly – and this is a common problem for musicals – its need for a tight narrative trajectory, and its consequent slightly myopic focus on Alexander Hamilton, gives some of the complex issues it wants to talk about short shrift.

Despite its avowed progressive politics, and its awareness of how history is whitewashed, Hamilton features no queer representation, or any historically non-white person. Perhaps most problematically, and as a number of commentators have pointed out, its unshakable belief in the myth of America completely erases the Native American populations who were persecuted after the Revolution – by George Washington among others, whom Hamilton sees as unambiguously heroic. (The show also conveniently forgets that Washington was a slaveowner, which slightly undermines Hamilton’s blistering excoriations of Thomas Jefferson for being a slaver while he defends Washington.) “Will the blood we shed begin an endless/Cycle of vengeance and death?” asks Hamilton of the Revolution, apparently blissfully unaware that the cycle’s already begun.

There are a couple of female characters with actual agency, which is nice: Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife, and her sister Angelica both have complicated and evolving relationships with Hamilton himself. But then, in the show’s final number, Eliza sings this:

I stop wasting time on tears.

I live another fifty years.

It’s not enough.

This annoys me every time. Because, let’s be clear, Eliza is more than entitled to her tears. Her husband left her behind repeatedly, refused to go on holiday with her, cheated on her, got her son killed, and, finally, got himself killed. Somewhere in the middle of that she has a brilliant song where she burns Hamilton’s love letters to her: “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” which Hamilton’s constructing to serve as his legacy; and in doing so she’s asserting her personhood, her separateness from him. But, in this last song, she explicitly undoes that: “I put myself back in the narrative”. And she does so to shore up Hamilton’s legacy: “I ask myself what would you do if you had more time?” Essentially, Hamilton denies her right to her own emotional life, and instead gets her to serve her husband’s history.

I don’t really have a good conclusion to all of this – except to note that, real as Hamilton‘s problems are, there aren’t many musicals clever and engaged enough even to raise the questions it provokes. And, after all, it does at least recognise that it is itself only an interpretation of history – only one story among many possible stories – which is far more than, say, Hairspray does. And perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask one single musical to stand against all the horrors of present-day America.

Perhaps it’s enough just to point out its blind spots.

Theatre Review: La Traviata

Spoiler alert, although everyone knows there is no point going to the opera if you haven’t looked up the plot first.

Back in June a friend and I went to see La Traviata in Trafalgar Square.

Sadly it was not quite an open-air performance; it was, instead, a BP Big Screen event, streamed live from the Royal Opera House for the people of London to watch for free among the lion statues. And it was a lovely evening: we had an M&S picnic and the weather was miraculously gorgeous and the top of Nelson’s Column flared red in the sunset.

However. I am not here to rate the middle-class-ness of my evening at the opera. I’d quite like to talk about the opera itself (if it’s all the same to you).

Here is a quick plot summary of La Traviata. Obviously, here be spoilers.

Our Heroine is Violetta, a courtesan who spends her life drinking, attending extravagant parties and enjoying the patronage of rich men. She’s actually pretty awesome: she has an entire aria that’s basically like, “I just want to par-TAY!” And then – she falls in love with a country gentleman called Alfredo, because obviously no woman’s life is complete without romantic love.

End of Act One.

Act Two sees Violetta and Alfredo living together in a big house in the country; Violetta has spent almost all her money supporting their lifestyle. (She won’t ask Alfredo for money. Did I mention that this nineteenth-century woman is awesome?) Alfredo being away on a contrived trip somewhere, his father arrives to ask Violetta to leave him because…he has a sister? The plot seems a bit hazy on this point, and to be honest the motivation isn’t terribly important: what’s important is that Violetta agrees (eventually) to leave him, without telling him why.

Act Three, and Violetta is dying picturesquely of consumption, alone and full of regret. But all is not lost yet! After lots of sad singing, here comes Alfredo, aware now of Violetta’s sacrifice. He arrives just in time for her to die in his arms. Curtain.

Watching this performance being beamed to thousands of people not just in London but all over the country, I found myself wondering: why? Why has this opera survived, and why are we still performing it as one of the greats?

An obvious answer is Verdi’s score, which is rich and complex and has some quite famous passages. I don’t know enough about the history of music, though, to talk about what his score is actually doing, in and of itself; I’m interested, instead, in the semantic meanings the opera ties the music to. La Traviata is pretending to be a story about (heterosexual, romantic) love – the emotion that Western society is perhaps most attached to. Which makes sense: music is above all things an art that conveys and sustains emotion. Except that – and this is the danger of opera and its modern-day descendant, the West End musical – the strong emotion evoked by La Traviata’s rich score conceals the fact that this is not a love story at all, but a hutch to trammel women in.

(It’s surprising – and also not surprising at all – how many romances do this.)

Violetta, the titular fallen woman, is in Act One a threat to the patriarchal order because she’s not married, she’s not particularly interested in marriage, and, though she’s paid by her clients, she refuses to be owned by any single one of them. Her falling in love presents an impossibility: she has so thoroughly rejected the social order that she cannot now join it; and yet, she no longer wants to live outside it. (The opera specifically presents her partying lifestyle as emotionally bankrupt, a waste of a life – that is, the only fulfilling life, for a woman, is to be found in a relationship with a man.) Alfredo’s father makes this abundantly clear to her: she is threatening the social order, Alfredo’s family. Her choice to leave him is thus – perhaps counter-intuitively – a choice to preserve the social order. And, finally, she dies, because the patriarchal social order she’s just saved has, nevertheless, no place for her. She is the fallen woman. Her sacrifice for Alfredo – of her happiness, her love and her good character – is metonymic of her sacrifice for a world that won’t permit her existence – of her spirit and her life.

Why do we keep telling these stories? Is there really anyone over, say, 18 who can relate to a “romantic” relationship that’s so clearly self-destructive and dysfunctional, that so completely denies Alfredo’s ability to make his own decisions? Do we really think that a relationship that’s so full of lies that it literally destroys one of the lovers’ lives is ideal?

I don’t think most of us do, actually. But this is why I don’t have much patience with classical opera (having seen a grand total of two on stage): it curdles and distils unhealthy emotional tropes and presents them as a consummation devoutly to be wished; it hides its reactionary messages beneath the flourishes of brilliant music.

Jesus Christ Superstar in Trafalgar Square, now. That, I’d pay to see.

Film Review: La La Land

This review contains spoilers.

In a rare bit of serendipity for The English Student, La La Land very pointedly did not win the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday. Although I liked the film, I’m quite glad it didn’t.

Our Heroes are Seb, a jazz musician recently fired from his job as a live pianist in a restaurant for refusing to stick to the setlist, and Mia, an aspiring actor caught in a soul-destroying grind of ever more humiliating auditions while working in a coffee shop.

Both are cliches. So it’s appropriate that, in the most ubiquitous Hollywood cliché of all, they fall in love.

To the film’s credit, it is fully aware of its cliched-ness; in fact, its awareness is chiefly where its very great charm comes from. It’s a deliberate, knowing throwback to Old Hollywood: all nostalgic musical refrains (“City of Stars” gives a good feel for the atmosphere of the film), soft-focus views of Los Angeles, pastel colours, vaguely vintage-y costumes just modern enough to be plausible, all wrapped up in that very special brand of surrealism you only get in old-fashioned musicals, where the world literally stops for the characters.

The one thing that (maybe) elevates the film from merely “charming” to “interesting” is its double ending. Following a long series of difficulties as Seb and Mia pursue their separate artistic paths, the film presents its first ending: a romanticised montage of Seb and Mia’s relationship, set to Seb’s nostalgic piano theme, ending in marriage and children, perfect Hollywood happiness. (Because, do  you see? That’s what success means: not achieving your artistic goals, but getting the girl!) The second ending, though, the one we implicitly understand as the “real” one, sees Mia framed as, basically, a total bitch (her clothes, her posture, the way she clearly hasn’t told her husband about her previous relationship with Seb, all mark her out as a sell-out, a falsehood) for a) marrying someone who is Not Seb, b) being far more successful than Seb, and c) not being Pure of Art, taking whatever jobs come her way.

Anyway. That double ending’s an admission of the artificiality of the film’s own genre, the fictionality of the artistic tradition it’s participating in – a kind of ironising postmodern gaze. Except that it’s also charmingly earnest about that art, claiming the artistic value of its nostalgic aesthetic as more perfect, both more fragile and more enduring, than life.

The film’s not quite committed enough to this double gaze to see it right through: it can’t let Seb and Mia be friends, or even just happy for each other, instead plumping for Hollywood tragedy and manpain in its “realistic” second ending, clinging to art’s false binaries as if the value of love is negated by its ending. (Seb will Never Get Over Mia! Never!)

That’s one of the reasons La La Land didn’t deserve Best Picture. (Or, to be honest, any Oscar; Emma Stone’s performance as Mia is fine but not, I’d say, Best Actress material.) There are others: its appropriation of black culture, the misogynist overtones I’ve hinted at above, its reactionary nostalgia. For me, the key reason is that, for all its undeniable romance, it’s simply not doing anything new or interesting. It has nothing to say that is not about itself.

La La Land is beautifully shot and lovingly directed. It’s a real pleasure to watch, and it makes the world seem a little brighter for a couple of hours (which is no small feat in itself). But it adds nothing to the sum of human cultural achievement – and, to my mind, the Oscars should reward nothing less.

Music Review: Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret

Coincidentally, Paul Shapera’s latest offering to the world of music, Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret, came out around the time that The Bifrost Incident was made available to Kickstarters, which was a nice seasonal double whammy.

So here we are.

What will the person who brought us A Slender Man Musical have for us next?

Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret is set (surprise!) in the Wild West, or at least an analogue of it. The titular cabaret is essentially a low-tech version of a pulp TV show: “Our town’s like an address to an orgy/of tired tropes and pulp stories”. It begins as one of what we assume is a regular parade of pulp stories, as the villain Han-Mi hatches a dastardly plan to unleash a flock of flying zombie babies on the town; but the story quickly breaks down as the various characters (including the titular Miss Helen, who has lost her family to a mysterious carnival; sheriff Hank, who has A Past involving a werewolf lady who died; the aforesaid Han-Mi, who’s in love with Hank; and Henry the Alchemist, who – you know what, let’s talk about Henry the Alchemist a bit later) slowly realise that they are not, as they thought, actors in this cabaret, but rather characters within it, unable to remember anything outside the performance.

Obviously, this picks up on the mythos developed in the New Albion trilogy, and certainly Miss Helen feels more of a descendant of those operas than it is of A Slender Man Musical, and not just because it’s set in the same world.

Do I like it, though?

Musically, I think, Shapera’s really excellent at writing tunes: big, rousing, catchy numbers that do exactly what they need to do, which is capturing a mood, an intense emotion, that makes our grey and stressful lives appear just a little more colourful for a while. He’s not quite so good at plotting, I think, which is where Slender Man and The New Albion Guide to Analogue Consciousness really fall down: they’re difficult to follow unless you’ve listened to them approximately a million times. Miss Helen manages to avoid the plotting pitfall largely due to its cabaret format, as each character delivers their own backstory, each with its own particular mood: it’s a format that works actually particularly well for Shapera, especially given his very Gothic imagination.

The centre of Miss Helen is really Han-Mi, who’s sung by Psyche Chimera of Psyche Corporation: an excellent choice, she brings an amazing, menacing croon to her numbers which soprano Lauren Osborn hasn’t been able to reach in previous work, plus she’s got fantastic attitude. Han-Mi’s probably the most self-aware character here: it’s she who begins sowing the seeds of doubt about the nature of her compatriots’ involvement in the cabaret, as she struggles against the racist implications of the scripts she’s given (dark Eastern magic, hordes of threatening Chinese people, etc., etc.). The album as a whole is very much rooted in the struggle against such tropes, as in the case of the aforesaid Henry the Alchemist, a gay man who turns into a sex monster (effectively) when he’s aroused. (Incidentally, this is the one thing I really don’t like about Miss Helen, and it’s a problem I had with Slender Man too: not the presence of sex, but the way it’s presented, over-literally and seemingly in an effort to shock; it ruins the mood of the music and makes it feel faintly ridiculous.) Han-Mi points out the offensiveness of this plot point, which essentially equates male homosexuality with beasthood; but her deconstruction of the narrative she and Henry live proves futile – she can’t contact the writers to change it, and if she refuses to live it she might vanish, be erased entirely.

The mood of Miss Helen, then, might be said to be a kind of helplessness, a helplessness that feels very topical for 2016: the helplessness of the liberal left, watching all the old hateful tropes come back out of the box, seemingly unable to change them. The writer is a moron, and we can’t contact him.

It’ll be interesting to see what Shapera does with Act 2.