Why's Stephen Sondheim Kicking Around Julie Taymor?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    Listen, beyond the fifth cataract the Nile heads directly towards Khartoum.

    ?Radames, in the Elton John-Tim Rice Aida

    One of the strangest conversations I ever had was one in which Gerald Schoenfeld, the chair of the Shubert Organization, tried to convince me that Andrew Lloyd Webber was the saving hope of the American theater. It wasn't a conversation I would have sought out. Schoenfeld had asked my opinion of Cats, and I hadn't said anything. Then he'd asked if I'd seen Cats and I'd said I'd seen half of it. I liked Schoenfeld and had no wish to insult his taste or judgment. I thought he was a sweet old duffer. Andrew Lloyd Webber embarrassed me?that was as far as I was prepared to go.

    Schoenfeld: He embarrasses you?

    Me: He makes me giggle.

    Schoenfeld: He makes you giggle?

    It was a doomed conversation. One question Schoenfeld asked me I've always remembered, though, I think because he spoke with such (justifiable, as it seems to me now) indignation: "Tell me," he said, cocking his chair back on two legs like an angry teenager, "do you seriously think that anyone ever sets out to do bad work?" I said no and left it at that.

    I've been thinking back to that conversation a lot lately, partly because Cats is closing (whether it closes in June or September, it is closing), and partly because of Adam Pascal's performance in the Elton John-Tim Rice Aida, which embarrassed me in exactly the same way that Lloyd Webber's musical always has and for the same reason. It has the same impotence, the same quality of strained ardor groping hotly after a passion it can find no cue for. A bland, vacuous young man who was first seen in Rent, Pascal (who plays the Radames figure in the new Disney show) seems to get his ideas about performance largely from music videos. There's a disembodied, dissociative quality to his singing?as though it were understood that visuals come first and you can dub the sound in later.

    Another thing that reminded me of my conversation with Schoenfeld was a series of remarks about the state of musical theater made by Stephen Sondheim in The New York Times Magazine a couple of months back. (The context was a cover story by former Times drama critic Frank Rich.) Sondheim was evidently speaking from the slough of despond (his latest show had closed out of town) and talking about the kind of production that has dominated Broadway for the past decade and a half?since Cats, in fact?that has no reason to exist other than the fact that it will be a gold mine, in which nothing happens of any verbal or musical or human interest, but which a great many people nevertheless get very excited about because they have spent a lot of money and sense from the size and number of objects moving about the stage that someone else has spent a lot of money, too. "You have two kinds of shows on Broadway," he was quoted as saying, "revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again, all spectacles. You get your tickets for 'The Lion King' a year in advance, and essentially a family comes as if to a picnic, and they pass on to their children the idea that that's what the theater is?a spectacular musical you see once a year, a stage version of a movie. It has nothing to do with theater at all. It has to do with seeing what is familiar. We live in a recycled culture."

    Sondheim's observations upset me as much as anything I've read in the Times lately. It was partly that I agreed with a lot of what he was saying. I am more comfortable around people who have contempt for Cats than around people who don't. There is a side of me that probably thinks the only thing more dreadful than great hordes of people wanting to see Cats is great hordes of people wanting to see it again, or so eager to see it that they're willing to buy tickets a year in advance. But there is another side of me that is equally appalled by the pseudo-intellectual musical, extravaganzas like Miss Saigon, Kiss of the Spider Woman or Parade (about the Leo Frank case), in which the presence of a "serious" or "controversial" subject is supposed to offset the awful vulgarity of going to a show. I'm not sure Sondheim would go with me there. In the Times he sounded offended that people might approach something as serious and important as theater with insufficient awe. That's a perspective I associate with the twin Broadway notions that (a) for something to have artistic merit it has to be grim and (b) anything not fun is also therefore art.

    The most troubling aspect of Sondheim's little tirade was the swipe he took at Julie Taymor. You get your tickets to The Lion King a year in advance, he sniffed, clearly relegating Taymor's work to the level of empty extravaganza. But the whole point of Taymor's version of The Lion King was that it was not (like Beauty and the Beast) simply the stage version of an animated film. Taymor had got Disney to free her from the task of providing merely a tie-in with the movie, thereby changing the corporate habits of a lifetime.

    The Sondheim interview appeared in March, just as Disney was getting ready to open Aida?its first Broadway show since The Lion King?and a few weeks before The Green Bird, Taymor's first Broadway show since her collaboration with Disney, went into previews. It's interesting having the two shows to compare.

    Aida really is that kind of show that Sondheim is talking about, that exploits and "recycles" culture and revels in extravaganza. It's camp spectacle, in line with the Barneys window display they had up on Madison Ave. when the show opened, the "tribute to Elton John," full of silly fantastical costumes?baubles and tassels and funny hats. ("We all lead such elaborate lives," runs the opening lyric, which morphs into, "We all lead such extravagant lives" after the middle eight.) Mainstream reviewers purported to be unable to identify the show's target audience. But it's perfectly clear who they are: adolescent and preadolescent girls, and theater queens. The new Aida is about clothes and melodrama and renunciation and unthreatening male sexuality?unthreatening to a teenage girl, I mean?and the nonexistence of middle-aged men; it's about the long, covert running gag that the Egyptian princess Amneris (transformed here into a Jewish princess) can't figure out why Radames doesn't want to sleep with her.

    That's the harmless stuff. The not-so-harmless stuff is the racial content, which may derive from confusion over the word "slave" and the antique custom of taking one's conquered enemies captive. The show's book-writers, Linda Woolverton, David Henry Hwang and director Robert Falls, seem to confound this aspect of ancient military warfare with the American institution of slavery. In Disney's Aida Radames isn't so much a gifted general as a gifted slave-trader, and he and Aida meet when he captures her "beyond the fifth cataract of the Nile." Since the pattern of seduction is boy-meets-girl, boy-enslaves-girl, boy-gets-girl, we are left to ponder the nature of their attraction for each other.

    Aida really is about "recycling" culture in a meretricious way. Trading on the seriousness and "importance" of grand opera, it tries to make Verdi's opera relevant by turning it into a morality tale about racial harmony.

    That's not what Taymor does?as Sondheim would be the first to recognize if he went to see either The Lion King or The Green Bird. She does the opposite, taking unfamiliar material?what's old or exotic or forgotten?and making it ours by making it new by showing us that it was really ours all along. In the case of The Lion King, "taymorizing" the material meant Africanizing it?casting black actors in the leading roles, adding huge swatches of music by Lebo M. (the South African singer-songwriter who had helped arrange the African-sounding choral numbers for the animation), and restructuring the show in such a way that it was his music on which key emotional and dramatic moments turned. The result was the first Broadway show in living memory that could play to a mixed-race audience.

    The trouble with Sondheim's complaint about "recycled" culture is that all culture is recycled. That's part of the point of The Green Bird, Taymor's gloss on the commedia dell'arte tradition. Her play isn't really commedia dell'arte (any more than the 18th-century play it is based on) except to the extent that it's about popular culture, and commedia dell'arte is where popular culture begins. The Punch and Judy figures played by Ned Eisenberg and Didi Conn (the sausage sellers who adopt and rear the royal twins in Carlo Gozzi's play and follow them when they go off to discover their true identity, out of a combination of love and greed) aren't just commedia dell'arte figures called Truffaldino and Smeraldina. They're also Ralph and Alice, Fred and Wilma, Tony and Carmela, because of the performances Taymor has elicited from the actors.

    It's upsetting that Sondheim seems to have felt compelled to impugn Taymor's work though clearly unfamiliar with it. He should be championing her. Sondheim and Taymor are kindred spirits, erudite and verbal to a degree that makes them outsiders in the context of Broadway. Taymor's is a kind of lyric agility, different from Sondheim's, that has nothing to do with putting words together cleverly, but rather whereby the visual is made to rhyme with the verbal as sometimes happens in dreams or in Shakespearean systems of imagery. Ideas are linked by a logic that only language could create.

    There's another reason Sondheim should be championing Taymor. Cats is closing, after all. So is Miss Saigon. The era of the mega-musical would appear to be over. Which leaves the question: What will it be replaced with? I'd like to think it would have a lot to do with Taymor. I worry, though. Broadway has a low tolerance for outsiders. And she's multitalented; she does more than one thing exceptionally well, and that's something that makes the New York theater community nervous. It shouldn't, as Sondheim of all people knows.