Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Top Ten Desert Island Albums - Number 10

Now, there are probably some questions you have, like “where do they get the electricity to play music on a desert island?” Think of it like “Gilligan’s Island” - the Professor can MacGyver anything in the world except a functioning raft. So maybe somehow Caleb and I tamed an Orangutan who spends time on a treadmill each day powering a generator that powers up our old turntable.

I had to think for awhile on my list; some of my favorite albums are simply too short. I need some bang for my buck, if I have to deal with only ten albums forever. That immediately takes out “Past the Point of Rescue” by Hal Ketchum. Always in my top 5 lists, it only lasts a half hour. Not good enough.

So Number 10:

The Phantom of the Opera; Original London Cast Recording by Andrew Lloyd Webber

This was the soundtrack to my teenage years. To say I was obsessed with this musical is no overstatement. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve listened to it, but it is well in the hundreds, possibly up to a thousand by now. Why?

1) Story: I loved the tale of the misguided genius that, upon realizing he could never fit into the world, created a world that fit him instead. There was a great deal of nuance to the story, as well. The psychology behind a person denied physical contact, the girl missing a father seeking a powerful male figure, the ways we are all shaped by love, passion, fear, hope, and music. All these rang true for me, albeit delivered in a melodramatic setting. The love story was doomed from the beginning, but it felt so true to me at the time. Considering how doomed most of my relationships were, there’s probably something to that.

2) Setting: I tend to be fond of historical settings for stories, and where better than late 19th century Paris? Grand, dramatic, sophisticated and elegant, it seems like an ideal time, as long as you don’t think of medicine, climate control, and personal hygiene. Add in that it takes place in a Opera House, and in caves and tunnels underneath. Being a person that has always loved theaters of all varieties (especially after closing), that has always felt at home in dark places, and that has a personal love of secret tunnels, passageways, and so on… Perfect setting for me to set my imagination free.

3) Vocal Performance: I have never been a huge fan of Michael Crawford’s singing in any other work. Yet the role of the Phantom feels like it was written just for him. His great lung capacity for long notes, the almost creepy timbre of his mid range, the amazing ring of his high voice (like the climactic Ab in “Music of the Night”), his sinister laugh; all these things sound incredible in this work. And the role of Christine WAS written specifically to show off Sarah Brightman’s voice, and it does it in magnificent fashion. I have never heard any other soprano nail the huge vocal range of this role with the authority she did, from the timidity of “Think of Me” to the vulnerability of “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” to the triumphant climax of the title track “Phantom of the Opera.” All of it is simply impressive in her voice. One of my favorite musicals of all time is “Les Miserables,” but there’s not a single recording where I enjoy all the vocal performances. Whether it’s Colm Wilkinson butchering “Bring Him Home” or Nick Jonas struggling and failing to sing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” each recording is seriously flawed. Not so with Phantom.

4) Characters:

I mentioned them somewhat under “story,” but like most of my favorite works, the story is character driven. You have

A ) the Phantom, who is not by any means healthy (physically, emotionally, mentally), but you can truly understand why he got to the place where he is. He is not exactly a hero, but he’s not exactly a villain, either. He’s the smartest person in the play, the most passionate, the most gifted, and the most willing to sacrifice for love. But he’s also manipulative, unable to empathize with others, and oh yes, a murderer. Then you have

B ) Christine, who can come across as immature, flighty and fickle, and more than a bit cruel. Until you realize that she’s a 16 year old girl who has lost the father who raised her, and never knew her mother. She is loved by two men, but neither wants her for who she is; the Phantom loves her for her voice, and Raoul loves her for her beauty and a shared childhood. She’s simply looking for someone to replace the father that she lost, someone who will take care of her, and both men manipulate her with that.

C ) Raoul. The spoiled rich aristocrat. He means well, but thinks far more highly of himself than he has any reason to. I’m sure none of us have ever met anyone like that.

D) The supporting cast - from the sinister Madame Giry, to the buffoonish tenor Piangi, and the comically overwrought diva Carlotta… All have roles to fill that, while a bit two-dimensional, are perfect in their place.

5) Songs:

Phantom of the Opera : I don’t actually like the title track to this work, and it took me a long time to figure out why; it is the orchestration. It is the first song that Lloyd Webber wrote for this musical, and it was when he was thinking it would be a “Rock Opera.” He later changed his mind and went with a very classical approach to the orchestration (and yes, I know he didn’t do it himself). But in the midst of this quasi-classical work, suddenly you have one song with electronic drums, bass guitar playing a dance groove, and keyboard synth sounds. None of those happen before or after this track. This is one reason this is not my number 1 CD on this list. I consider it a serious flaw. Still, with that said, some incredible tracks include

Music of the Night : By far the most well known song from this work. What can I say that hasn’t been said?

Notes/Prima Donna : I like this simply because I like polyphony (more than one melody being performed simultaneously). This incorporates six voices, each singing about their own concerns. If you know each part, it tells a complete story - if you can’t distinguish them, it’s still pretty music.

Masquerade : The very height of theatrical extravaganza. A visual treat as well as aural. Even better live.

Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again : With Christine singing a song to her dead father, this has always stood out for me as one of the most emotionally challenging songs in the work. I’ve seen it performed many times, and finding the right balance of despair, determination, sadness, acceptance, all while singing a not easy vocal work… Very difficult to do.

The Point of No Return : As it is part of an opera within a musical, this is quite an interesting piece. A very different look at seduction. I don’t find the Phantom’s take on how seduction works to be all that convincing, but then, what would he really know about it? But I do find it musically quite compelling.

6 ) Construction

Of more interest to me than the songs is the construction of the piece. In opera, you have the songs, which are called “arias,” and then you have all the stuff that happens between arias, where they’re moving the plot along, which is called “recitative.” All of it is sung, but the recitative is generally boring, forgettable, and mainly exists to get you from one aria to another. In musicals, they simply speak between songs, then somewhere along the way, they suddenly start singing out of nowhere, and sometimes a big dance production spontaneously happens. I find the transition from speaking to singing to be quite jarring, and as a result, I’ve never been able to get into most musical theater. Somewhere along the way, some composers found a blend of the two, and “Phantom” is one of the best examples of this. There is very, very little talking in this work, but the music between songs, the “recitative,” if you will, is sung using themes from songs found elsewhere in the musical. For example, “Angel of Music” is explored as almost a leit-motif, with the Phantom, Christine, and Raoul all using it at various times when the Phantom is appealing to Christine, as is the abrasively whole-tone “Don Juan” theme. Some of the most tender moments are with the Phantom singing echoes of other character’s songs, knowing that he is an outsider and not invited to be with the other characters.

Some purists HATE this, as they feel it’s an endless rehash of a very small trove of musical ideas. I personally love it, though. It helps audience members who are not musically trained to really take hold of the musical themes and remember them after just one listen. It allows for the exploration and development of musical ideas that you simply can’t do in one three or four minute song. And finally, it eliminates the “I’m talking, now I’m talking excitedly, now I suddenly burst into SOOOOONNNNGGG” aspect of musicals that I was never comfortable with.

7) Conclusion One of the most powerful aspects of music for me is its ability to transport me to another place, another time, another state of mind. A good story can do this as well, which is why I love reading. “Phantom” combines a great story with great music. During the time I’m listening to it, I’m not here - I’m in Paris, at the Opera House, living the story with the Phantom, Christine, Raoul, and all the others. I generally listen to it when I’m by myself, so I can sing all the (male) roles at full volume. I have done this since discovering it at 16 (though I couldn’t hit the high notes then). I will probably still be doing this at 61.

And if I’m on a desert island, where better to be transported to, if just for a couple of hours?

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