Thursday, September 28, 2023

Shakespeare meets Marlowe

I read about the production at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre of a play about Shakespeare and Marlowe collaborating on the Henry VI trilogy, and bought a ticket for an upcoming streaming performance, before I learned that OSF has put the same play on its schedule for next year, so I'll probably see it again. It's called Born With Teeth by Liz Duffy Adams.

It'll be worth it, if it's well enough acted. I've seen it now; it's a virtuoso script for just the two actors as the playwrights taunt and test one another and yes, get some writing done. It starts with Marlowe in command, smirking and belittling the tyro Will. At one early point Shakespeare complains about Marlowe arguing with him and Marlowe says, "You think I'm arguing? I'm not even sharpening my teeth on you yet," and Shakespeare replies, "I think you were born with teeth."

Pause. Then they simultaneously point at each other and exclaim "I'm using that!" (It's in part 3, describing Richard of Gloucester.)

Marlowe shocks and disconcerts Shakespeare with tales of his other life as a spy working for the Queen's chief minister Lord Burghley. In this police state, as it's openly called in an expository aside to the audience, the currency is accusations against others, whether true or false, and Marlowe makes no bones about, if he's ever caught in a situation where he'd have to accuse Shakespeare to save himself, then it's him or me.

The play has three scenes, each about a year apart, as they work on the three parts of Henry VI, and Shakespeare grows in confidence, especially in his explanations that, while Marlowe displays himself in all his work, Shakespeare wants to hide himself behind his work and speak only through his characters. The play hits its real stride halfway through, when the two have a long discussion of religious belief, more even-handed than their earlier exchanges, and then act out a long passage from Part 2 (Suffolk's and Margaret's farewell). As always in plays about Shakespeare, the long quotes are the highlight. If you're wondering how Marlowe's death in 1593, the same year as the third part of this play, will be alluded to, patience, it'll get there.

Due credit to the actors, Dean Linnard, big and blustery as Marlowe, and Brady Morales-Woolery, smaller, darker, and less bold, but capable of equal firmness, as Shakespeare. I hope OSF finds people as good as these.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

guying Sondheim

As long as we're talking about Sondheim, here's something I picked up: a parody medley on the premise, what if his lyrics were all Jewish? Not that the sound quality is very good, but some of them can be picked up.

The original songs are (thanks to B. for identifying some of these):
1. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd
2. The Little Things You Do Together (Company)
3. Beautiful Girls (Follies)
4. Finishing the Hat (Sunday in the Park with George)
5. The Miller's Son (A Little Night Music)
6. A Little Priest (Sweeney Todd)
7. Marry Me a Little (Company)
8. Joanna (Sweeney Todd)
9. I Remember (Evening Primrose)
10. You Could Drive a Person Crazy (Company)
11. Into the Woods

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

lyrics in aspic

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat (Knopf, 2010); Look, I Made a Hat (Knopf, 2011)

It's only in recent years that I felt I've come to know Sondheim's work as a whole well enough to read these collections of his lyrics. In one sense I still don't: I was dismayed to find that many songs that I knew, or thought I knew, I could summon up no memory of the tune by seeing the lyrics on the page. On the other hand, these books, especially the first one, are full of fascinating and witty commentary on the art of lyric writing.

Sondheim distinguishes lyrics from poetry. Poetry, written to be perused on the page at the reader's own speed (but what about live poetry readings?), is free to be dense and complex, but lyrics have to be understood while sung, so they have to be simpler, but as they're written to be accompanied by music, the music can carry much of the emotional charge, so the lyrics can get away with being simpler, which is how Oscar Hammerstein (Sondheim's mentor, whom he nevertheless isn't very much like) could do it.

Still, complexity is part of Sondheim's appeal (what about "Getting Married Today," which is rattled off at top speed?), and I enjoy inner and trick rhymes like "It's alarming how charming I feel," which Sondheim castigates his young self for putting in the mouth of Maria in West Side Story, who isn't otherwise so verbally precocious. I like it, though.

Elaborateness is one thing, but Sondheim has an essay fiercely defending exact rhyme, which he feels is essential for the ultimate purpose of lyrics: clarity. He castigates a contemporary lyricist who avoids exact rhyme because it interferes with his idea of feelings. Sondheim doesn't name this person, and otherwise avoids critiquing the living. The first book is full of little essays evaluating past lyricists, though, because being dead their feelings can't be hurt; and Sondheim lets loose on a lot of them whom he considers imperfect, which is most of them. His funniest remark on those lines is on Lorenz Hart, whom he finds sloppy and careless. Like "Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable." "Unless the object of the singer's affection is a vampire," Sondheim says, "surely what Hart means is 'unphotogenic,'" but there aren't many good rhymes for that.

(In that connection, this is the only book I've read in which the author can write 'Gershwin' and the reader knows it means Ira, not George.)

But Sondheim could write about George, because he's musically trained - he was a student of Milton Babbitt, which may sound surprising, but Babbitt was fond of popular song - and usually writes his own music, in a very distinctive style. (He chafed at being hired to write lyrics only for West Side Story and Gypsy, but Hammerstein persuaded him to do it, because they'd be great learning opportunities). But he avoids discussing the music, because while lyrics are just words and the technical side can be explained to any English-speaking reader, analytical writing about music can only be understood by the technically trained. Hey, I've had some technical training, I bet I could understand it; I wish he'd gone into it. If only he'd seen Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, which is so full of technical analysis that even I skimmed over parts, but which has been read with appreciation by many with even less technical background than I.

Sondheim explains why he doesn't write the "book" (plot and spoken dialogue) of his musicals. He says that as a lyricist he's a miniaturist: writing the book requires a larger-scale feeling for development and pacing that he doesn't think he has. He's in awe of those who can do it well. He doesn't see himself as creating the characters he writes lyrics for; he's enriching and filling out the characters the book-writer creates, and he tries to do it in a manner befitting that particular writer's style. I knew that, and that's why when I cited Into the Woods in my Mythcon GoH speech as an example of mashing up fairy tales, I credited it to Sondheim and James Lapine. It was their idea, not just his. When Sondheim tells the story of its creation, he writes "James came up with the notion" and "we remembered something he'd concocted," not "I."

Buried in the back of the first volume, Sondheim explains why he titled it Finishing the Hat. That song from Sunday in the Park with George is "the only song I've written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience"; everything else, he's writing for the characters, not about himself. And when he gets to Sunday in the second volume, he tells what that personal internal experience is: it's the rare occasions on which he's gotten so wrapped up in his work that hours pass without his having noticed them, what he calls "trancing out." He wishes that could happen more often because it's amazing when it does. And I thought, hey, he's discovered monotropism. It happens to me all the time, mostly when I'm doing library research. Sondheim thinks it happens to everybody at least occasionally; I'm not so sure about that.

The book starts with what he considers his first mature work, Saturday Night, and goes on to his better-known stage shows from there. Only at the end of the second volume are there sections of apprentice work (which he cheerfully rips apart critically), unproduced and incomplete shows, TV musicals, incidental contributions to other people's shows, movie songs, and an amazing number of personal birthday songs for friends.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

food according to cats

It was approaching 5 p.m., a time of day when the cats are normally fed.

B. was already out, having gone to Saturday vigil mass, and would be back around 6:30.

I was about to head out to a concert.

Whether the cats would be fed or have to wait until B's return would be, we decided, a matter of circumstances.

But Maia came into the bedroom as I was getting ready to leave and gave out such importuning meows that I could not be so heartless as not to feed her. Cats know how to manipulate their humans. They rather resembled the meows that the late Pandora would use to try to persuade us not to take her to the vet, only in that case they didn't work.

But I didn't give the cats the treats that customarily follow the evening meal, and didn't they let B. know about that when she got home.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

autumnal equinox

It's that day which counts as the legal end of summer.

I know it's been much worse in other places, and ghu forbid I should be taken as denying global warming, but around here, this summer was not as hot as the last three summers.

For a couple of years now, I've been tracking local weather forecasts in a spreadsheet, mostly to keep tabs on impending heat waves. So I have documentation. This is daily forecasts, not weather reports (which I've been tracking much less long), but it gives an idea. If I define a heat wave as "above 90 F" which is about when I start feeling really uncomfortable, there were 21 days this year which passed that, and only one above 100 F, and they were all in July and August.

Last year there were 30, and they ran from early June to late September, with 4 above 100 F, and one brutal shot with 9 above-90s in a row.

The year before that, there were not so many above 100, but 40 above 90, and they ran from late May to early October.

The year before that I don't have figures for, but that was the year I went out one evening and got myself an air-conditioned hotel room for the night. On September 7. It was over 100 F. September 7 this year was 84 F, it hadn't been over 90 for over a week, and that only for one day.

I haven't felt it necessary to do that again since. Especially with B. having developed the practice of turning fans on in the upstairs rooms in the late afternoon when the temperature starts to go down, and not waiting for evening. It makes the nights fairly tolerable.

Meanwhile there have been large forest fires in the more isolated parts of the northwest corner of the state, generating smoke which has interfered with the outdoor shows at OSF, and is now drifting down here. But the first big storm of the season is arriving, and while it shouldn't hit us very much, it should drench the fire zone.

Friday, September 22, 2023

gone with the fish

I should take a time to pen an obituary for The Fish Market, a small restaurant chain whose last local outlet closed last week, cast out by the wave of expanding housing development.

The Fish Market had faded a bit in recent years, but it never lost its quality as some fading restaurants do, and in its heyday, 30-40 years ago, it was a very popular place, one of the few full-service restaurants around here which specialized in fish and had a wide variety. It had four or five outlets in the area in those days.

It was a favorite place of my mother's, and when I was working at Stanford, she'd pick me up for lunch once a week and we'd drive over to a nearby Fish Market. I'd usually have a lunch special they had in those days, two small fillets of cod (I think) and snapper, which I got with rice and green beans, and a cup of chowder. Otherwise the trout, which was butterflied and whose skin was an iffy proposition to eat.

I was in that same outlet of the Fish Market several years later, with my mother and brother, when Obama's image appeared on the little tv set over the lobby area and announced that Osama had been got.

Since my mother died, I hadn't been back all that often, but I went there with my brother, who liked it too, on his most recent visit, and a good thing too, as it was soon after that the closing was announced for a couple months hence. Of course I let him know right away.

I couldn't get there for some time, because this was when my car was in the shop for extensive repairs, but afterwards I did get back a couple times for my current favorite dish, extraordinarily lightly coated pan-fried petrale sole.

Well, there are still two Fish Markets in San Diego - one downtown on the waterfront and one north of town in Solana Beach - and if I ever get back to San Diego, it'll have to be on my list.

My mind keeps nagging me that there's somebody I need to tell about the closing. When I think it through, I realize that that somebody is my mother.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

not done

Our new patio fences are up, but there's still a lot of rubbish around and they're starting on our neighbors' fences, so the staging area occupying my parking space is liable to be there for a while. And one more thing ...

Yesterday morning, the chief workman came to our door and asked us to move B's car, which we'd put back in the driveway after they were done putting up the fence. He said they'd be painting the fence. We moved the car. The fence wasn't painted yesterday, or today either.

This is going to take a long time.

Monday, September 18, 2023


No. 8 in this post (there don't appear to be any internal anchors to link to) discusses others whom people commenting are reminded of by Elon Musk: their personalities, particular talents, methods of operating.

Walt Disney. Napoleon. Stalin.


Sunday, September 17, 2023

concert review: Nova Vista Symphony

The last symphony I'd heard in concert was at the beginning of June. It was Schubert's Great C Major.

Last night the summer hiatus finally ended, and I heard Schumann's Rhenish.

The Nova Vista is a community orchestra that conveniently played in the Mountain View CPA, and gave a pretty adequate performance, very plain interpretatively but competently played, thick and bold in sound despite a somewhat undersized ensemble, only losing the thread a little in the slow movement (the first one, nitpickers). I'm not surprised at the quality, as their music director, Anthony Quartuccio, who shows up locally a lot, is a pretty good conductor. Not a criticism: this isn't the major leagues, that's all.

Also got through two other works from the same milieu, Brahms's Academic Festival Overture and Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, and gave an impressively supple performance of the encore, Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 5. And if you think all this echt-German repertoire had a lot to do with why I chose to attend, you wouldn't be mistaken.

Solo violin in the Bruch was the winner of their young soloist competition, Riona Zhu, who's 14. As tall as an adult but otherwise obviously young, she put a lot of power and not a minuscule amount of expressiveness into her playing, only getting a bit awkward in some of the more complex fingerings in the finale. Quite impressive, in truth, and I'm sorry there wasn't a bigger audience to give her a bigger round of applause afterwards. The only thing she really has not learned to do is to take a bow with flair.

Friday, September 15, 2023