Maybe Theyre Doing It Wrong
It just dont move me the way that it should.
--from Randy Newmans song
Maybe Im Doing It Wrong
Randy Newman is Americas one-man Bertolt Brecht--Kurt Weill show. Among recording artists, hes our wryest social commentator of the past 30 years, and a consummate musician as well. Despite his feel-good movie scores (Ragtime, Toy Story and Pleasantville), and despite coming from a renowned family of Hollywood film scorers, Newman remains a theater persons composer for one very simple reason: His songs speak through characters.
This may not sound like much until one realizes that, since the youthful heydays of Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, whose ballads were often similarly expressed through a characters point of view, pop music has swiveled in the direction of what Greil Marcus once called a confessional, putative honesty between singer and listener -- from Tori Amos to the Violent Femmes to Ice T, people who give you unflinching ruminations on their fathers or life on urban streets.
Newman, on the other hand, is a kind of playwright, a composer of soliloquies rather than lyrics, spoken by some of the tawdriest, greediest and most forlorn specimens found between here and Louisiana. Newman gives these people their day, gives them their say. This is the playwrights craft and explains why Newman doesnt condemn his characters with pious admonitions -- he doesnt need to. Theyre already masters of their own doom, utterly self-aware yet willfully blind, like an amalgam of people created by Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. Example: A Wedding in Cherokee County -- a love song:
Today we will be married
And all the freaks that she knows will be there
And all the people from the village will be there
To congratulate us.
I will carry her across the threshold
I will make dim the light
I will attempt to spend my love within her
But though I try with all my might
She will laugh at my Mighty Sword.
Why must everybody laugh at my Mighty Sword?
A playwrights point of view comes from the arrangement of scenes and the way the various characters form the plays architecture. Newmans point of view comes from the tone of his music, and the way it rolls over and through his soliloquies. When hes joking, you can hear it in the musics bounce, or the syncopation, or the irony in the flat, nasal drone of his voice, or its belligerence or whimsy. Columbus sailed for India, he sings in the mockingly upbeat Great Nations of Europe, Found Salvador insteadHe shook hands with some Indians and soon they all were deadThey got TB and typhoid and athletes footDiphtheria and the flu. The punch line is a throaty yell: Scuse me, great nations of Europe comin through!
But Newmans genius most often surfaces in works that focus on narrators from the antebellum South, and their disturbing confessions. Their words are accompanied by tender, lush orchestrations that build upon ragtime, blues or gospel chord progressions. His true brilliance lies in how he leaves his victims of wounded pride, his bigots and lechers, squirming inside the audiences arteries. They hang around for a moment or two after their song is finished, forcing us to recognize them there, and injecting into our blood simultaneous doses of horror and beauty, revelation and wit.
Very little of which is on display at South Coast Repertory, in its loving, expensive and largely ineffectual anthology of some 40 Newman songs, The Education of Randy Newman. Conceived by musical arranger Michael Roth (who worked on two prior Newman musicals at La Jolla Playhouse, Faust  and Maybe Im Doing It Wrong ), dramaturge Jerry Patch and Newman himself, the work is loosely tied to historian Henry Adams tartly observed 1907 autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. It attempts through Newmans songs to chronicle a fictitious composers life and draw a portrait of America itself. Act 1 is set mostly in Louisiana, where Newman spent some time growing up, while Act 2 is stationed in Los Angeles. A game ensemble (Jordan Bennet, Gregg Henry, Sherry Hursey, John Lathan, Allison Smith, Scott Waara and Jennifer Leigh Warren) certainly have the power and timbre to interpret the songs, while Roths musical arrangements and plucky house band provide keenly sensitive renditions.
Although these songs unfold in the listeners mind, a theater is obliged to offer stage pictures as well. This is a Pandoras box when the ditties are as delicate and carefully crafted as Newmans, for so many of the pictures are in the words themselves. Add to that projected slides on screens that float, like uninvited party guests, in and out of Ralph Funicellos set, and you have a fair amount of clash and clutter.
Visually, director Myron Johnson is something of a clod in this outing. Apparently, its not enough for us to hear the words Sixth Street in I Love L.A. -- Johnson has to simultaneously flash a photo of the street sign. Ditto Imperial Highway, and every other referenced landmark. Before the funereal songs Old Man and Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father, the troupe gathers, garbed in black, moodily setting bouquets on the ground. So, instead of the songs images flowering open, theyve been rammed down our throats before the first verse.
But the worst offenses come in Act 1s ode to the South. Louisiana, theyre trying to wash us away, is how Newmans character laconically describes a deluge and flood in Louisiana, 1927. Even though nobody seeded the clouds on orders from Washington, the composers music massages the narrators twisted logic and pathological insecurity right into the listeners heart. At SCR, however, the metaphorical flood is treated as a school lesson, with the narrator-teacher (Warren) twanging her suspenders and chirping to her brightly costumed wards as though pouring jelly beans all over the songs plaintive lament. When Smith portrays a kid hypnotized by the grandeur of a police parade, in Jolly Coppers on Parade (yes, were given a photo of the uniformed motorcyclists), the child gets patted on the head by Mom, and youd think the song had been sponsored by some police union -- hardly the original intent. Ditto Follow the Flag, with its patriotic, sequenced visuals of Old Glory. There are endless examples of these kinds of perky intrusions, and the way they subvert Newmans original textures of menace and irony.
When he isnt singing (which he does beautifully), the bespectacled Waara, portraying a composer very much like Randy Newman, looks around with a perpetually crinkled brow and an expression of bewilderment, perhaps to help transmit some imagined, sardonic point of view. Alas, almost everything on the stage is working against that aim. Some have argued that Waaras character needs to learn something on his journey, but I doubt that he needs to do anything of the sort. This is, after all, a cabaret (even with its $750,000 budget), not Show Boat.
Newmans work has frequently been misunderstood for the same reason that many plays are misunderstood: because audiences are unable to distinguish between a character and its author, between an argument and the unspoken, underlying reasons that a character would raise that argument. Short People, a seemingly obvious parody of racial prejudice (Short people got no reason to liveThey got grubby little fingers and dirty little mindsTheyre going to get you every time), resulted in midgets picketing Newmans concerts. After Rednecks was released (with its defensive Dixie narrator referring to black ghettos in many Yankee cities and sarcastically explaining, Now, your Northern niggers a NegroYou see hes got his dignityDown here were too ignorant to realizeThat the North has set the nigger free), Newman received death threats.
And, of course, there is I Love L.A., which contains what has to be among the most deliberately innocuous lyrics penned in a quarter-century, as some oaf croons the praises of our fair town (Sixth Street! We love itOlympic Boulevard! We love it!, etc.). Smitten with this inane chorus and the songs vapid jubilance, one councilman petitioned to make I Love L.A. the citys official anthem -- which may be even more alarming than the death threats.
Though perhaps doomed to be misinterpreted by audiences, Newmans songs still deserve to be staged in a style that doesnt trivialize them. They await a director with the visual acuity to cradle rather than strangle them -- someone with the discipline to refrain from extraneous visual commentary upon music and words that already say everything that needs to be said.
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