As usual, a long silence on here doesn’t mean nothing to write about (a short silence might well though), it means no time to write. Besides ongoing band practices, personal study and publishing work, the particular point at issue here has been a pit band run, followed by another pit band run, followed by a choral society concert, followed by a string orchestra project – which meant that I had a band call on the 8th of April, then a day off, then 17 days straight of at least one rehearsal or performance per day, finishing on Thursday 27th (two days ago). It’s taken me this long to get to starting to blog about it …
First up was My Fair Lady, in Reading. I was playing violin B – don’t ask me why pit violin parts are lettered rather than numbered (especially when the reed parts are generally numbered) but it’s common; as is multiple violin parts but no viola (generally – more to come on that).
This seems to be a season of older musicals being put on. I’ve already done Oliver! this year, went from My Fair Lady to Calamity Jane, and have spoken to several colleagues who have noticed the same thing: pre-rock musicals with jazz or even older musical stylings, piano parts instead of patched keys and double bass instead of doubling or bass guitar throughout. My Fair Lady is also English, which given its date and setting means an even more distinctive musical palette compared to the modern West End / Broadway sound. No saxes here – three reed parts supplying flute, multiple clarinets and bass clarinet; certainly more of a concert orchestra scoring than a big band plus one, even in the reduced orchestration we were using. Not quite as much Cockney oompah material as Oliver (much to my relief), and what there is arguably better done, certainly more sophisticated. More of a somewhat Sullivan-esque tendency to musical pastiche as well – a Spanish jota, gavotte, Viennese waltz and Victorian chorale feature, as do glances at G&S patter delivery.
However, there is another side to these older musicals which became increasingly glaring to me as these two weeks progressed. They’re really politically incorrect.
I don’t just mean slightly. As was pointed out to me discussing this with some pit colleagues, one of the most gorgeous songs in Oliver – ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ – is about domestic abuse and an almost Stockholm syndrome-like relationship of the abused to the abuser. My Fair Lady contains some appallingly sexist statements from the leading man, who, while somewhat held up to mockery, certainly does not significantly revoke his opinions or suffer poetic punishment. As to Calamity Jane, it has all the problems one would expect from a 60s cultural artefact set in the Wild West – sexist, monumentally gender-normative, transphobic and racist to the point of genocidal as far as the indigenous population of the Americas is concerned.
None of this seems to bother the light operatic societies and so on who choose to revive these shows. Apparently nostalgia (the decision-makers are usually at least into middle age) and / or the it being just a bit of fun stops enough cast and audience cringing. Admittedly, better that than the instances I’ve heard of (in England of course) of the black characters in Hairspray (whose race is integral to the plot and therefore cannot be altered by the director) being played in blackface for lack of suitable cast, but still …
Decisions on amateur productions are, of course, made a long time in advance (Epsom Light Opera Company had been rehearsing Calamity Jane since November). I wonder if #metoo and the Weinstein earthquake in general will lead to repertoire choices (say) a year hence which examine plot and text more critically? Or am I comparing two spheres which are simply too far apart to influence each other?