Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pure Content

I remember one Thanksgiving dinner many years ago, when I came home from college and went to my grandmother's apartment in Manhattan, where my family's annual holiday gathering took place. I had come home the previous weekend and went to see the musical "Sweeney Todd" during its opening run on Broadway. By the time Thanksgiving came around five days later, I was still under the show's spell and talked about it when aunts and uncles who hadn't seen me for a year asked me the ineveitable question, "What's new?"

I'll never foget my Uncle Alfred's response to my gushing enthusiasm. Alfred was a successful real estate lawyer and tended to be bored with shows like "Sweeney Todd." He prefered theater like "Starlight Express" (which was performed on roller skates), or "Miss Saigon" (which had a helicopter land on stage). In a word, Alfred liked spectacle. So it was no wonder that he said to me disdainfully, "Micah, you like to be educated when you go to the theater; I just want to be entertained."

His comment has stuck with me all these years. In retrospect, I think what I want is authenticity in art. I don't want to be distracted by, well... distractions. I am unabashedly a purist when it comes to content, although I think some of my friends would say that I'm a "snob" when it comes to content. I'm sure both are true, depending upon one's perspective.

Why is it that in the theater there are certain shows you just can't kill? I'm thinking of most Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and shows like "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum." Over the years, I've seen dozens of productions of these works, ranging from professional to community, and from Broadway revival to local high school. And even when the acting, singing, costumes and sets are clearly lacking, the shows are great fun anyway. Their story lines, plots, dilogues, music and lyrics are just so clever, that even a poor delivery of them doesn't dilute their quality or value.

Could the same be said for a lousy production of "Les Miserables"? Or bad productions of "Aida" or "La Boheme" for that matter? I don't think so. Some shows depend upon spectacle for their popularity and appreciation... amazing costumes and sets, and lighting effects worthy of a major July 4th celebration. And don't forget a "cast of thousands." Grand operas depend upon quality voices for their productions, since many of their stories are out-dated and silly (hence the popular belief that it's a good thing we hear most operas in a foreign language that we don't understand...)

It's interesting to me that most people like the tune "Summertime," even if they've never heard or seen "Porgy & Bess," "Bewitched," even if they've never seen a production of "Pal Joey" and "We're In The Money," even if they've never watched the film "The Gold Diggers of 1933." Ask someone, though, why they like "The Music Of The Night," and nine times out of ten they'll first start by saying how amazing the production was that they saw of "Phantom of the Opera." They'll talk about the costumes and the sets. It seems to me that they like the music predominantly because it reminds them of the awe they felt while watching the spectacle... of the "experience" they had in the theater. I'm not saying that their experience isn't valid, by the way. There's definitely a place for spectacle.

I am increasingly gaining respect, therefore, for lone singer-songwriters. Men and women who sit on a stool on a stage with their guitar or at a piano, and simply sing their hearts out to a coffee house crowd. They are putting their music and lyrics in front of us, just about as purely as it can get. There's no spectacle to distract listeners. No fancy lighting or sound processing or costume changes to wow us. What you hear is what you get, and that's what you have to base your "like" or "dislike" of the music upon.

I wonder with the increase of spectacle in the theater, film and concerts, what all this says about us as a society. Can we not appreciate pure content anymore? What is it about us these days that requires added stimuli? Can we no longer tell good from bad simply from the content itself? Or have we decided that content just isn't enough anymore?

Perhaps what's happening here is similar to what often happens when one develops a taste for spicy food. We are so used to adding hot spices to our food that we no longer enjoy a fine steak or fish without pouring spices and hot sauces all over it. It gets to the point where we have to add tabasco sauce to our scrambled eggs to be able to enjoy them.

If this is what's going on in the arts, then that's really sad to me.

It is said that the Chinese dish Kung Pao Chicken was created to mask the fact that the chicken being used for it had gone bad. The story goes that the Emporer awoke in the middle of the night and was hungry. He ordered his chef to prepare something to eat. Unfortunately, the only meat the cook had on hand was some chicken thighs that had gone bad. Yet the Emporer was hungry, so the chef had to do something. So he "wok-ed" the chicken through and through, and added some peanuts, celery, carrots and lots of crushed peppers to make the dish really hot, thereby masking the spoiled taste of the meat. So the distinctive flavor of this dish was created as a distraction to the real substence (or content) of the food.
Nowadays, I can't help thinking about Kung Pao Chicken when I see a lot of theater, film and music videos. 

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