Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Be A Singer, Be A Lover

Welcome to the next phase of the conversation between Tim Brayton of Antagony and Ecstasy and myself about the various phases of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. Last week I posted parts one and two of our conversation about Fellini's original film. Now he has posted our conversation about Nine, the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit musical based on the film. The film version of that musical is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, and will open in Chicago on Friday. Our review of that should be up some time next week.

Anyhow, I think it's a really interesting conversation, and we've both learned a lot from it and had plenty of fun so far. You should check it out and contribute to the conversation at his post, but for those who don't feel like leaving this site, the text is below. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in the comment section!

Perhaps you recall last week, when Zev Valancy of On Chicago Theatre and I discussed Federico Fellini's neo-surrealist film masterpiece , and perhaps you do not, in which case, Shame! but no harm, no foul, because you can still catch up with our two-part conversation here and here.

Anyway, the next phase of our discussion is up and running: in which we took a peek at the Maury Yeston musical Nine, adapted from Fellini's movie with quite a few thematic and narrative changes along the way. Zev had the courtesy to divide his half of the project into bite-size chunks; I am going to do no such thing, for if there's one thing I can assume that Antagony & Ecstasy regulars are good at by now, it's reading multi-thousand word posts without a break. But I will hide the whole thing below the fold, as we used to say back in the newspaper biz.

Hi Zev,

Well, I certainly understand now where you were coming from when we were talking about  - the musical Nine is a very different thing entirely, considering that it has the same concept and most of the same character names. Just for all the reader's benefits: Guido Anselmi has been renamed Guido Contini, but he is still a major filmmaker with creative block, haunted by the ghosts of all the women in his life.

Now, I have to admit that I wasn't able to find an actual copy of the book of the musical, but I think between the cast recording and various online sources, I think I was able to figure out most of the specifics of the plot and dialogue, but I hope that if I say anything that's just flat-out wrong, you'll be so good as to set me straight. To begin with the most obvious narrative departures from the Fellini movie, it seems to me that Guido in this piece is still thrashing about looking for an idea; in the movie he's already spent a huge sum of money on a giant, half-constructed set, although he doesn't really know what the plot is yet. Also, the way I've always read the film is that Guido already knows at the start that he's trying to make an autobiographical movie, whereas in the musical he doesn't make that decision until the beginning of the second act - although he has been thinking about his history with women for most of the musical before that point.

I think the big difference that this makes is that  is much more "about" creative block, while Nine is "about" Guido's history of regrets in regard to all the women of his life. And I think it rather has to be that way:  derives so much of its meaning from the fact that Federico Fellini is making a movie about Guido Anselmi failing to make a movie about himself, and that kind of meta-narrative layering just isn't possible in a theatrical production about making a movie (that is, Ninecannot be the project Guido is trying to make in the way that  is). You warned me before we started this project that they're not the same story, but I don't think I really appreciated the degree to which that is the case until I was finished with Nine: and certainly my inclination isn't terribly much to judge it by how much it is or isn't the movie. Though I still think the comparison is instructive.

At any rate, I think the most substantive difference between the two versions, and the thing that makes Nine the most interesting on its own, completely independently of the movie's existence or non-existence, is the musical's treatment of women. Am I right in thinking that the only men that ever appear onstage are Guido, and the nine-year-old version of himself? Which is a fascinating gimmick, if gimmick is the word.

The women of Nine are so much more present than the women in ; especially poor, stepped-on Luisa. I really have the sense that I understand them as characters in a way that I absolutely do not with the Fellini, even the prostitute Seraghina, who in the movie is presented more as animal than as human woman. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it a feminist text - they are still all defined mostly in terms of how they function in relationship to Guido - but certainly, they are all rich and interesting and represent different forms of vitality and being in the world, and that makes Guido seem that much more washed-out as both a man and an artist. I understand what he wants, but I never get the sense that even he knows who he is, and as I understand it, Nine is mostly about how he decides to confront this gaping personality deficit as a result of confronting both physically and mentally all the woman-shaped demons of his past.

But that's a lot of rambling, and I have to admit that the musical was so far from what I was anticipating that I'm going to shut up, regroup my thoughts, and let you take a smack at it. So tell me: what makes Ninetick?

Hey Tim,

I think you're exactly right that my response to 8 1/2 was colored by my experience of Nine. While it can be argued that the story of a man facing the demons of his life (many of them in the form of his relationships with women), and possibly learning to grow up is a major element in the Fellini, the musical definitely foregrounds that story. I think this makes sense for a piece of theatre, particularly a mainstream Broadway musical. A man fighting his demons and learning to grow up (which is pretty explicitly the story of the musical) is much clearer and stronger as a dramatic spine and emotional throughline than a man struggling with creative block, particularly as the film's ending is so oblique and surreal. This isn't a value judgment--Fellini would have made a very different film if the emotional throughline were clear and resolved at the end--but it's necessary for a mainstream musical. While the musical's plot is, by the standards of the form, non-linear, the emotional story has to be accessible or the whole play collapses.

To briefly address a few of the major formal changes. Aside from Guido as an adult, Guido as a nine year old, and a few of Guido's young friends (who are cut from many revivals--the only place you hear them on the original cast album is during "Be Italian," Saraghina's song) everyone on the stage is a woman. The reasons for this seem to be both thematic and formal. First off, it very clearly focuses the audience on the idea of Guido as a man defined by relationships with the women in his life. It's pretty impossible to miss, really. The other main reason, I'd imagine, is that it's striking and pretty damn cool. More on that later.

(Interestingly, this wasn't Maury Yeston's idea from the start--early drafts refer to a subplot of a star-crossed romance between an Italian girl working at the spa and a German boy visiting. That plot disappeared entirely, with the only remnant being the song "The Germans at the Spa," which is cut from most contemporary productions as it sets up a plot point that goes nowhere.)

As for the title change: 8 1/2 refers to the film's place in Fellini's canon.Nine refers to the mental age at which Guido is stuck. ("My body's clearing forty as my mind is nearing ten," as he tells us in his first song.)

Guido's film is a completely different beast. In the musical he has no idea what movie he is making for the entire first act. This leads to two of the most fun numbers in the act. The first is a little bit of music that makes me incredibly happy, called "Movie Themes," as Guido wildly casts around for a film idea, while the chorus sings music from the films he's imagining (culminating in a surprisingly good fake African chant when he imagines making a documentary). The second, longer piece is "Folies Bergere," in which his French producer orders him to make the musical that he promised her, reminiscing about the Folies she attended as a child, while the critic she's hired to help him work on his script savages all of his previous films ("a mixture of Catholicism, pasta, and pornography"). Only a side comment from Claudia comparing him to Casanova spurs him to make that the subject of his film--with himself as star and his biography as plot, of course. The "Grand Canal" sequence, showing the movie being filmed, is a major section of the second act.

As for the name change from Anselmi to Contini: first off, it sounds better sung (the phrase "Guido Contini, Luisa Contini" is set to a really haunting piece of music), and second, it rhymes with Fellini. (Get it?)

As for what makes it tick: I think we've pretty well discussed the emotional throughline, which is pretty constant even as the plot follows its somewhat winding path. But what keeps it bring produced? I think a lot of it comes down to how gorgeous the music is, the sheer thrill of a large ensemble of women singing their hearts out, and the possibility for beautiful stage pictures. The original production was set in a white tiled spa with each woman getting her own pedestal, and all of the costumes in black until the "Grand Canal" sequence. It was, apparently, orgasmically gorgeous. The Broadway revival had Carla flying on in a giant bedsheet, dozens of chic 60s costumes, and lots of water.

In some ways, Nine is my equivalent of the movies you see where the storytelling is just decent but the cinematography is so pretty--I'm willing to forgive the book problems because of the quality of the music and the chance it gives performers to do fantastic work. I got the chance to see it in May of 2008, in Porchlight Theatre's production at Theatre Building Chicago. Seeing the production made clear the flaws in the script and lyrics, and it wasn't a spectacle on the level of a Broadway production, but it was such a visceral thrill hearing all those women raising their voices, separately and together.

So you've said a lot about how the musical compares to the movie, but not a lot about your reaction. So, um, did you like it?

Pfeh, details, details. If we start in with "like" and "dislike", we'll be here all night.

Actually, I did in fact like it quite a bit, which I really didn't expect to - the snatches of the show that I'd heard weren't really enough to build my confidence (a few bars of "Guido's Song", the part of "Be Italian" that was in the movie trailer, "My Husband Makes Movies"). Listening to it all in one piece, though, made it clear that it's not really about the tunefulness of any particular moment, but the flow of how the whole thing works together as a unit, with motifs drifting in and out all throughout the thing. I guess I mean to say, I think it works better if you don't try to think of it as a collection of songs, but of segments of music colliding with one another, which is true of a lot of my favorite musicals.

It also definitely helps me, at least, that when I'm thinking about it as a musical whole, I'm less focused on the lyrics. Which you've noted as having flaws, but I get the sense that I might be a bit more down on them on the whole than you are. Certainly, I don't think the whole thing top to bottom has problems - only about 5%, but it's a tremendously distracting 5%. I particularly found the couplet "Be Italian / You rapscallion" to be either so stupid it's brilliant or so stupid that it's incredibly stupid, but I haven't decided which yet.

But why focus on that, because there is some outstandingly lovely music throughout: "The Bells of St. Sebastian", the first-act finale in which Guido recalls his oppressive Catholic childhood, plays right to my tastes, and I agree with you completely on "Movie Themes", the "Guido Contini, Luisa Contini" refrain (it totally escaped me that "Contini" and "Fellini" scan the same, and rhyme); and I thought that "A Call from the Vatican", Carla's phone sex number, was awesomely slinky and I can only imagine how much better it must play onstage. Generally speaking, I much preferred the music in the first act to the second act; maybe it's because the "Grand Canal" medley felt a little too big and dizzy for me, maybe it's just because I think the plot is more interesting before Guido decides to make an autobiographical "Casanova". Although "I Can't Make This Movie" was outstanding, and if I understand correctly that it is the first moment where Guido is alone onstage, it must be quite the coup de théâtre. Obviously, Maury Yeston is no Nino Rota (who is?), but I rather liked the whole thing, and if I'm not quite a Nine partisan, certainly I can see myself trying to snag a ticket the next time a production shows up in town.

(Weirdly, I am totally unmoved by "Be Italian", which seems to be the consensus pick for the big fun showstopper. I think it's because the song stands out so badly - it's the one number that feels like a sop to people who want to walk out of a show with one easily hummable song to guide them).

Not to change rails too dramatically, but I did have one really big issue - I hesitate to call it a "problem" - with the show: it seems really anxious to insist on Guido's Italianness in a way that doesn't feel at all organic or necessary. "Be Italian" is obvious, with its message of "Italian men are natural lovers, and you should follow your native urges to become a great horndog", but there are little bits scattered all over the show; there's a line "I am a mature Italian film director!" that made me wince with its overburdened exposition. Am I reading far too much into it? Or is this as much of an exotic "othering" of Italian masculinity as it strikes me as being?

Well, I am glad you (more or less) like it--after all the nasty comments directed towards the score in the reviews of the film I've read, I appreciate knowing that someone who isn't a musical theatre geek can still get a lot out of the show. Of course Maury Yeston isn't Nino Rota, but Rota also didn't have the burden of telling the story through song--he supported Fellini. It's apples to oranges, but I think both scores fill their functions pretty well.

I think you're absolutely right that the show functions as a score, more than a collection of songs. While Yeston's use of motifs isn't as complex as Stephen Sondheim's (or as robotic and irritating as Andrew Lloyd Webber's), there are several themes woven throughout. (The most prominent are probably the "Guido Contini, Luisa Contini" and "Be Italian" chunks.) I think this is set up quite well from the start: the "Overture Delle Donne," features Guido conducting the women of the cast as they singing many of the show's musical themes to "la la la"s. He tries to control them and convince Luisa that he still cares about their marriage simultaneously. As in the best musical theatre, a piece of music theatricalizes an idea in a way that's startling and fascinating to watch--not to mention that, when done well, it's absolute heaven to hear. (By the way, here's a bootleg of the original production's overture. Carla's the one in the bodysuit arching her back at the end. Slinky indeed.)

I'd say that your formulation of 5% of the lyrics being clinkers is about right. I'd add that another good 20% are just disappointingly prosaic, and it's amazing how the great and eh lyrics can coexist right next to each other--that "Be On Your Own" can include a line as cliche-sounding as "No need to carry out this masquerade/When all that we're about's begun to fade" shortly before one as simple and devastating as "And you'll take with you all you own, from A to Z,/And all of me."

And "Be Italian/You rapscallion" is a stupid lyric, full stop. "Rapscallion" is a word with very specific connotations: for me it belongs to England from about the Elizabethans to the Edwardians. It sounds ridiculous coming from an Italian prostitute in what I'm guessing is the 1930s.

I'm completely in agreement with you on "The Bells of St. Sebastian's": no matter how many times I hear it, I get chills up my spine when it gets to the "Kyrie Eleison"s. Though it's apparently not your favorite, I think "My Husband Makes Movies" is the song I like nearly as much--a beautiful melody, and as emotionally resonant an exploration of the difficulty of loving an artist as any I've encountered. "Unusual Way" is probably the most covered song in the score--it needs the context of the plot less than most, and the melody is hard to forget. I have a real affection for the "Grand Canal" sequence because it is completely insane (even more so onstage, when the women suddenly show up in these gigantic gowns), but I don't know how well it really works. The only songs I could take or leave are the title song, which is so high up in soprano-land that, at least on the original cast album, it's a little hard to listen to, and "Getting Tall," in which 9-year-old Guido tells his adult self exactly the lesson he's supposed to learn. It's just too on the nose--plus, listening to boy sopranos is not my favorite thing.

As to your comment on the Italian elements being emphasized oddly--it is strange, though I never really noticed it before. My personal guess is that it's because so little of the show actually feels Italian at all. The audience needs an occasional reminder that they aren't watching Americans.

If I may be permitted one extra bit of nerdy joy--one thing I love in this show are the orchestrations. Orchestration is an element that people outside of musical theatre nerds rarely notice, but the way that Jonathan Tunick (one of the masters of the field) uses the orchestra is just stunning: the flutes in the waltz and the harpsichord (I think) under "My Husband Makes Movies" are two of the best examples, but the orchestral writing is gorgeous throughout.

And amid all the talk of the show's women, I want to say a word for Raul Julia. He's not the most gifted singer (some of the high notes are pretty painful), but even on the recording he's utterly magnetic. He's the prime example that being a great musical theatre performer does not necessarily require being a great singer. Better singers can be found, but I'm not sure anyone will do the part better. It's a shame that only a few of his film roles showed off what was apparently a prodigious talent onstage, and a greater shame that he died so young.

Any more thoughts on the show, especially now that it's had more time to sink in? Any final insights on how it works in and of itself versus how it works in dialogue with the film?

Ah, yes, "Getting Tall", a song so memorable that it had completely slipped my mind a scant handful of hours after listening to the score. Well, they can't all be hits. Or indeed, even halfway decent.

The more I sit and think, the more that I really take away from Nine is how very little reference it actually needs back to 8½, which at least theoretically invalidates this whole little project of ours, except I know that Rob Marshall brings quite a bit of the Fellini back into the musical - and isn't that going to be a peculiar sight to see? But all in all, it pleases me how little I wanted Nine to be 8½, which is not at all what I expected I fully anticipated a whole long thing where I was going to be disgusted by the liberties taken, and want Yeston's head on a pike - but by the end of "Guido's Song", I was pretty well ready to take the musical as its own entity, that uses the movie as nothing more than a springboard but little more.

And a pretty good musical, at that. I don't think I really have any further thoughts, but this was the first time in ages that I listened to a new (to me) show and liked it pretty much all the way through; compared to most of the dreck out there nowadays, it's a sterling masterpiece. So if nothing else, I'm grateful for that.

Not to mention, now I get to be paranoid to find out how Marshall is going to fuck it all up.

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