The Ironed-Out Curtain; or, From Russia With Love Songs

“I’m in love with a fairy tale / Even though it hurts.” It was with these lyrics, a fiddle, and a disarming smile that Norwegian delegate Alexander Rybak came to be voted winner of the 54th Eurovision Song Contest—an annual spectacle-cum-diplomatic mission reputed to be the world’s most-watched non-sporting event on television. However intended, the lines aptly capture the attitude of many Europeans toward the contest, just as the entries in the ever expanding competition are a reflection of all that is exasperating, perverse, and wonderful about European Unity—a leveling of cultures for the sake of political stability, national security, and economic opportunity.

This year, forty-two countries qualified for the semi-finales, among them Albania, Andorra, and Azerbaijan, while former, traditional contestants Austria and Italy have opted out of participating in the competition. The friction between East and West has become more pronounced in recent years, leaving a frustrated West to contribute awkwardly self-conscious throwaway songs that further diminished the chance of a winning song from, say, Ireland (a seven-time winner), the United Kingdom, or Germany. It was as if the West chose to cloak itself in a mantle of irony to set itself garishly and haughtily apart from the closely-knit, sheer impenetrable post-Iron curtain it perceived to be obstructing Eurovision.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about a shift in the voting, with viewers of Eastern European nations favoring the songs representing neighboring countries, since voting for the representative of one’s own country is not permitted. For the West, the contest has become both an embarrassment and a liability (the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Spain being the chief sponsors of the event and guaranteed a place in the finale). The chance of winning the contest based on merit or popularity became tantamount to wishing for a happily-ever-after. Until last night.

This year’s live event was hosted by Russia, the previous winning nation. Although Russia’s 2008 victory was not necessarily undeserved, the bloc voting had become so flagrant as to call any success of an Eastern European act into question. The thought that the triumph of the East was by now all but certain became so irksome to organizers and broadcasters in the United Kingdom that long-time commentator Terry Wogan withdrew from the contest and musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber stepped in to prevent Britain from suffering another abject yet just defeat.

To increase the chances, voting procedures were changed once again, this time combining popular vote (via phone and instant messaging) with the vote of a presumably less partial jury of musical experts. In a reversal of the dreaded trend, the British entry finished fifth, and that despite Lloyd Webber’s low-voltage power ballad and a somewhat flawed performance by the heretofore unknown Jade Ewen. Still, the United Kingdom may have regained the respect of the jurors by deciding to put an end to defeatist silliness and to reconsider the meaning of “Song” in “Eurovision Song Contest.”

Inspired perhaps by the participation of Baron Lloyd-Webber, the overall quality of the songs and the performers was superior to the dross and folly to which the pop-cultural event had been reduced in the 21st century. Sure, Alexander Rybak was born in the former Soviet Union—but there is no doubt that Norway won because of the exuberance, charm, and catchiness of its entry, just as neighboring Finland rightly came in last. “I don’t care if I lose my mind / I’m already cursed,” the lyrics continue. Thanks to last night’s event, those words no longer reflect the attitude of Western contestants.

Stepchildren Rejoice; or, Fetching a Grand Ball

Last night, I felt like an old queen. Granted, that is not an uncommon feeling for me; but the Queen in this case was none other than Victoria, who, in the last years of her reign, enjoyed partaking of live opera without actually having to leave for the theater at which it was presented. Her royal box was a contraption called the Electrophone, a special telephone service that connected subscribers with the theaters from which the sounds of music and drama could be appreciated while being seated in whichever armchair one designated as a listening post. Today, we may be accustomed to live—or, wardrobe malfunctions notwithstanding, very nearly live—broadcasts of sounds as well as images; but last night’s event felt as new and exciting to me as it must have been picking up the electrophone or dialing in to those experimental theater relays during the 1890s and 1920s, respectively.

The caption for the above photograph, taken from the 3rd volume of Radio Broadcast (May to October 1923) reads: “Christian Strohm traveled from Oldes Leben [wherever that might be] to Weimar, Germany, sixty-four years ago to hear the first presentation of an opera composed by Wagner. This year, he heard on a crystal set the same music, broadcasted from WIP, Philadelphia.” What, I wonder, was more thrilling to Herr Strohm or to Queen Victoria: the memory of past pleasures or the reality of present technology?

There we were, gathered at a movie house well over three thousand miles away from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, taking in a live presentation of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (based on the fairy tale Cinderella or Aschenputtel, its meaner, dirtier, German ancestor, which renowned child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim rightly preferred over the dainty French and glossy American versions). Our local arts center cinema is the first independent movie theater in Wales to subscribe to those high definition broadcasts from the Met (or elsewhere); and, with the exception of the fact that the cameras fail to capture scenes set in near darkness, the transmission was received without a glitch.

True, I wasn’t seated in my favorite chair. I was in an auditorium, with a few dozen others who had come into town for the occasion, presumably undernourished stepchildren of the great cultural centers of the world. This far-fetched ball was a theatrical experience for which one dresses up (and I, for one, enjoys to do so), at which one meets and mingles at intermission.

The last time I saw a theatrical adaptation of Cinderella I was being squirted by a water gun. This time, I was sipping a glass of wine (included in the price of admission). I was very pleased to learn that, based upon the reception, the local cinema is going to book the entire season of opera broadcasts, beginning in October 2009 with Tosca, followed by Aida and Turandot. Tear your eyes out Clorinda and Tisbe. Every Cinderella has her day—and every dreaded midnight is over in a flash . . .

Related writings
My Evening with Queen Victoria
“Now on the Air: ‘Down the Wires’” (on the Electrophone)
“‘Oh no he isn’t’ (‘Oh yes he is’): Mickey Rooney in Bristol” (in Cinderella)

Many Returns, Mostly Happy: Toscanini at NBC

“I want you to go to Milan and get him. The American radio listener deserves the very best in music. All we can lose is a few weeks of your time and the expenses of the trip. No more cables. Get on a boat.” That is what, back in the fall of 1936, RCA president and NBC chairman David Sarnoff told New York Post music critic Samuel Chotzinoff, whom Sarnoff made musical director at NBC. The man “Chotzy” was to go get was none other than the legendary Arturo Toscanini, born on this day, 25 March, in 1867. Earlier that year, Toscanini had announced his retirement from the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and, on 1 March 1936, he had conducted what he meant to be his final radio concert as guest conductor of the General Motors Symphony. Nearly seventy, Toscanini could hardly be expected to jump at the opportunity of raising his baton in a series of weekly broadcasts; but that is just what General Sarnoff had in mind.

Chotzinoff, who was a friend of the temperamental Maestro and later recalled his career in the somewhat less than faithful Intimate Portrait, sailed for Europe, to make Toscanini an offer he could not refuse. He was promised an orchestra “hand-picked from the finest virtuosi available,” along with the enticing sum of $40,000 and the offer to have his income tax paid by the network. According to Thomas DeLong, it took a shrewd businesswoman, Toscanini’s wife (pictured above), to convinced Arturo that it was worth his while to return. The best part of the deal, though, was getting away from Mussolini, whom Toscanini openly despised.

The first of the Saturday evening concerts, broadcast live from studio 8-H at Radio City, New York, was heard on Christmas in 1937. As Francis Chase wrote in the October 1938 issue of Radio Stars, a studio audience of

over 1,400 persons sat breathless as the white-haired, flashing-eyed, dynamic little figure of Toscanini mounted the podium before one of the greatest symphony orchestras ever assembled; certainly the greatest ever presented wholly for the radio audience. The finest instrumentalists from many great American orchestras sat beneath the master’s baton, while in the brilliant audience, listeners hardly breathed. There was not the faintest rustle of a program (so that no slightest sound should mar the transmission, programs had been printed on silk).

Less attention was paid to the studio acoustics, which, as B. H. Haggin argues, were “unresonantly dry, flat, hard and made airlessly tight by the audience which filled the studio.” That did not stop the perfectionist from demanding the best from his orchestra, and, judging from the rehearsal recordings shared on NBC’s Biography in Sound tribute, aired on the day after Toscanini died, the Maestro was fierce in his criticism. “Do you believe that I am crazy?” he asked the performers, not waiting for a reply. “No,” he insisted, “sensitive.”

Year after year, the aging and only very gradually mellowed Toscanini vowed to retire—but for seventeen seasons he returned to the studio until, on 4 April 1954, he stepped from the podium for the last time; having faltered and dropped his baton during a performance temporarily taken off the air and replaced with recorded music, Toscanini walked off for the last time, before the orchestra had played the final chord. He was eighty-seven years old.

The stick with which he conducted the NBC orchestra (if himself not always too well), must have been a kind of crutch to Toscanini. It not only kept him going, but had America begging him to return. It enabled him to hold together a body of artists, at an age when most men can barely keep theirs from falling apart.

Related recordings
“The Man Behind the Legend: A Tribute to Arturo Toscanini,” Biography in Sound (22 January 1957)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, NBC Symphony Orchestra, (probably 11 November) 1939

That’s a Sound All Right, but It Ain’t Music

As much as I enjoy Hollywood musicals, I’ve never sat through The Sound of Music. In fact, before I moved to the US, I had never even heard of the film, let alone anything of the true story behind it. Being born and raised in Germany does have its advantages, you might say; but I am not inclined to be flippant about censorship. Fact is, depictions of Nazism in popular culture were carefully filtered in (West) Germany, even decades after the end of the Third Reich. The reminders of past atrocities and the shared culpability for them were apparently deemed too humiliating or distressing to audiences out to enjoy a bit of cinematic escapism. Perhaps, the decision not to exhibit certain films or to edit and dub them so as to render them inoffensive was based on the notion that the horrors hinted at or exploited for their melodramatic value were too severe to serve as mere diversions. In any case, I was not exposed to the Von Trapps. And when I had my first glimpse of them, I did not feel particularly sorry to have missed out on the acquaintance.

I was as much turned off by the 1960s look of what was meant to have been the late 1930s as I was by those cloying sounds and images. This picture needed to be altogether darker, the music more haunting, more angry and sorrowful than “My Favorite Things.” For years, I avoided what to many remains a sing-a-long occasion. A few weeks ago, the stubborn Teuton in me surrendered at last and got a discount ticket to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic at the London Palladium, a production launched and shrewdly promoted back in 2006 by an American Idol-style singing contest in which the British public, along with Sir Andrew, went in search of the perfect Maria.

I can’t say that the West End changed my mind about The Sound of Music. Sure, there are bright and eminently hummable numbers in it, but what is left of the story has less weight than the average supermodel. What is at stake for Maria is not life or liberty, but a chance to trill a few more tunes. No moral dilemma, no sense of danger, no signs of turmoil as Maria grapples with the difficulties of choosing between the convent and the conventional. I don’t expect a treatise on the relationship between fascism and the church; but I sure am tired of those insipid scenes of Sister Activity to which nuns are reduced in popular culture.

In the production’s single instance of dramatically effective set design, the auditorium is transformed into a fascist venue, as brown shirted guards appear in the isles and swastika banners are imposed onto the walls of the Palladium; but the machinery, the show tune factory that is The Sound of Music, does not permit any forebodings to build, any doubt or dread to work on the spectator’s mind. The pageant must go on, dispassionate and smooth as clockwork.

Not everything was quite so well oiled that evening. I knew that what had been mounted here would not amount to anything resembling absorbing melodrama the moment I saw Maria atop a circular platform that was slowly and laboriously tilted in an obvious but feeble imitation of Ted McCord’s Oscar-nominated cinematography. The hills were alive all right; you could hear them aching so loudly that Maria—not the one chosen on the reality program but a paler substitute (the chirpily unengaging Summer Strallen)—couldn’t climb any high note piercing enough to deaden them, spread out as she was on that giant pizza like a slice of parma ham, extra lean.

Less dulcet than the tones produced by those tectonic shifts was whatever emanated from the gaping jaws of the Captain, impersonated that night by Simon MacCorkindale, whose credentials as an actor include, need I say more, featured roles in Falcon Crest and Jaws III. “If you know the notes to sing,” Maria instructs the children in “Do-Re-Mi.” Well, you still can’t “sing most anything” if restricted by the vocal chords of a MacCorkindale, whose rendition of “Edelweiss” should have resulted in his immediate seizure by Nazi officials. The Sound of Music was the croaking Mac’s first—and, let the nuns of the world pray, his last—venture into musical theater.

Decidedly more rewarding both tunefully and dramatically is the current West End production of Carousel at the Savoy, which I saw the following day. Starring Jeremiah James as the troubled Billy Bigelow and an earthy, buxom Lesley Garrett as Nettie, it proved a nutritious alternative to pizza with the Von Trapps.

"Bleiben Sie wohl und halten Sie sich munter": A Visit at Kaltenmeyer’s

K A M M A N. I am sure a lot of readers of Radio Guide magazine would have found “Bruce ___, ‘Professor Kaltenmeyer’ as easy a crossword puzzle clue as “Jane ___, comedienne” or “___ Wallington, announcer.” From 1932 onwards, Bruce Kamman played the good-natured and much put upon teacher of the gang at Kaltenmeyer’s Kindergarten, a weekly comedy program that originiated from WMAQ, Chicago. Kaltenmeyer’s is one of those popular programs that have all but disappeared into thin air, the exception being the 12 December 1936 broadcast (which you may access on Jerry Haendiges’s invaluable “Same Time, Same Station” site). Reminiscent of and anticipating German schoolboy comedies like Heinrich Spoerl’s Feuerzangenbowle or Erich Kästner’s Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer (both 1933), Kaltenmeyer is a winsome trifle of a show. Each week, the Kindergarten opened with the catchy signature “Just for Fun”:

Kaltenmeyer’s starting,
Let’s all go to school.
In this kindergarten,
Where nonsense is the rule.

Indeed, much of it is nonsense, some of it song. Fibber McGee and Molly team Jim and Marian Jordan were featured on the program; until the fall of 1936, they were among the Professor’s international crowd of poopils. The 12 December 1936 broadcast (an excerpt of which was later rebroadcast on Recollections at Thirty) includes the somewhat incongruously wistful “Sweetheart, Let’s Grow Old Together” and offers at least one memorable pun involving the definition of the word “indisputable,” which one Kaltenmeyer’s rambunctious kids (adults all) manages to put into the following sentence: “Indisputable weather we’re having.”

It is Bruce Kamman’s voice, though, that adds “indisputable” charm to the nonsense. It is the kind of Sig Ruman-Frank Reichert voice—warm, avuncular, and too Jean Hersholt to be altogether ridiculously, let alone threateningly Teutonic. According to Francis M. Nevins’s The Sound of Detection, the Cincinnati-born Kamman, who entered radio as early as 1920, would continue his broadcasting career off mike, namely by producing and directing episodes of the Ellery Queen mystery-cum-celebrity quiz program.

Kamman’s days as Kaltenmeyer came to an end once the Germans began to wage war in Europe. In 1940, well before the United States entered the Second World War, Kaltenmeyer stopped saying “Auf Wiedersehen.” The character was removed from the Kindergarten, and what was left of the show folded soon thereafter.

I guess, when you make a career of sounding like Sig Ruman, you were expected to start shouting “Sieg Heil!” or hiss sinisterly and subsequently expire, rather than be permitted to send kindly greetings like “Bleiben Sie wohl und halten Sie sich munter” (“stay well and cheerful”) to the American people, whatever their heritage or dialect. Clearly “good old days” recalled in the theme song were over.

Now, let’s all go to back to the school that was radio and solve the puzzle . . .

"But some people ain’t me!": Arthur Laurents and "The Face" Behind Gypsy

Gypsy again? I guess that is what many theatergoers thought when, only five years after the previous revival, the show opened on Broadway for the fifth time since its debut back in 1959. I have seen three of those revivals and, not inclined to wield my thumb, shan’t ponder publicly whether or not this might be the definitive production. It better not be, since I hardly mind seeing the play interpreted a few other ways, if only to get a chance to catch the old routines with “new orchestrations.” Still, be it stagecraft, performance, or my own very gradual process of maturity, I have not seen the dramatic finale of Gypsy staged any more movingly than in the current production. To be sure, I am opening to Arthur Laurents’s book differently now that I have completed my doctoral study on American radio drama since seeing the 2003 revival starring Bernadette Peters. I am reading between—not into—Laurents’s celebrated lines to find the former radio playwright’s “Face.”

“May we entertain you?” Laurents’s career in radio began in 1939, when the Columbia Workshop produced his first original play, “Now Playing Tomorrow” (30 January 1939), a fantasy concerning the doubtful advantages of gazing into the future. With such a high-profile debut to his credit, the young writer had little difficulties selling scripts to various network programs, including Hollywood Playhouse (1937-40), The Adventures of the Thin Man (1941-50), and This Is Your FBI (1945-53). “Commercial pulp, all of it,” he commented sixty years later; yet unlike fellow playwright Arthur Miller (one of whose wartime radio dramas I discuss here), Laurents was not dismissive of, let alone bitter about, his radio days. He had actively pursued such a career, attending an evening class in radio writing at NYU. Laurents did not feel that he was “faced with the art vs. commerce dilemma”; besides, he was “too flattered” being “wanted, too thrilled at being paid for being happy.”

“Extra! Extra! Hey, look at the headline! / Historical news is being made!” Contributing to the war effort by writing plays for a number of dramatic propaganda series kept the draftee from facing combat overseas and secured him an income of up to $350 per script. The Army arranged for him to work on programs like Armed Service Force Presents (1943-1944), Assignment Home (1944-46), and the Peabody Award-winning documentary drama The Man Behind the Gun (1942-44). Toward the end of the war, Laurents had found his voice as a radio playwright—a voice strong and convincing enough not to be muffled by spineless industry executives. Drawing on personal experiences, he managed to explore themes similar to those he tackled on Broadway, where he made his entrance with Home of the Brave (1945), a play dealing with anti-Semitism in the Army. While Washington looked closely at his scripts after he had been accused of communist affiliations, Laurents not only managed to get a controversial play about black soldiers on the air, it (“The Knife”) even earned him a citation.

Like Gypsy and West Side Story, Laurents’s radio plays are personal records; their author arrived at a code that made it possible for him to share his own story, the story of an outsider. There is a bit of Louise in many of them. “The Face,” a Writers’ War Board “best script of the month” for April 1945, is no exception. “Do you love a man for his face?” the play asks of us, exploring the experience of a disfigured soldier dreading his reintegration into post-war society, a society, he knows to place great importance on appearances.

“Small world, isn’t it?” Like many of Laurents’s early works for stage and screen, from Home of the Brave to his screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), “The Face,” as I put it in Etherized Victorians, is a play of masked figures and figurative unmasking. Dreading the prejudices of post-war America, the disfigured Harold Ingalls and his fellow patients must learn to be strangers “joining forces”:

GOLDSTEIN. When you get plastered . . . who do you go with?
INGALLS. There used to be a fellow—but he was discharged last week.
GOLDSTEIN. Was he—like us?
INGALLS. Yeah. So now I go alone.
GOLDSTEIN. If—if I can get a pass . . . can—I go with you?
INGALLS. Sure! You know it makes it good, when there are two of you.

“Together, wherever we go!” Rather than confronting his biological family, the mother and brother he’ll never quite “get away from,” Ingalls is eager to escape with his double, his secret sharer:

INGALLS. You’re more of a brother than he is.
GOLDSTEIN. Now that’s a real compliment.
INGALLS. Oh you know what I mean.
INGALLS. Well, I’ll get my mother over with quick and then we’ll beat it into town and really tie one on. You and me.
INGALLS. That’s the best way.
(Biz: Fade in MOTHER’s footsteps approaching slowly.)
INGALLS. You and me. That’s the— (He cuts as he hears the footsteps. They are still off but coming closer, closer.)

Those footsteps are the sound of reality encroaching on oblivion and denial, of a past that Ingalls has to reconcile with his present. To move on, Ingalls needs the strength to let go of both by forging new relationships from or in spite of his state of effacement. “If Mama Was Married,” what might have happened to stripper-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister, June Havoc, who teamed up with a big name in radio? One stuck in infantilizing routines, the other in the rear of a cow costume, each fashioned a career out of a pipe dream of vicarious living.

When he is discharged, the Army psychiatrist reminds Ingalls that “every single day, people get slapped because of ignorance. They get slapped for religion, for color, for how they talk or what they look like.” She encourages him to “stand up to them and tell them they’re wrong!” The play ends with the wish that “this will be the beginning, the beginning of a world where the only thing that does matter is each man himself for what he is himself.”

“But I / At least gotta try [. . .].” While it may never be “Rose’s Turn,” the resilient Arthur Laurents—whose next project will be a revival of West Side Story—has long had a “wonderful dream” worth living, a vision of that “place for us, somewhere,” the voicing and realization of which is well worth the agony of uncovering the not always handsome face behind our masks . . .

"I’ve been around, it’s been well advertised": Among the Radio Stars of Today

Wanting to put a face to a name—that is a widely exploited weakness common to radio listeners. Studio broadcasts, picture magazines, and touring shows supplied what those tuning in were led to think of as being in need of supplementation. There is thrill and satisfaction in getting the picture, in finding out whether it matches the one a voice imaged forth. Another one of my recent additions to my library of books on so-called old-time radio is such a supplement to our mental portrait galleries, a catalogue of all those radio personalities with whom Americans were so intimately acquainted in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Robert Eichberg’s Radio Stars of Today (1937), on which I first laid my greedy hands while researching my dissertation at Hunter College in New York City, is rich in photographs of those luminaries now dim who used to brighten the days of millions during the years of the Depression and the Second World War: The Easy Aces, Fred Allen, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Jack Benny, Major Bowes, Bob Burns, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Jessica Dragonette, Nelson Eddy, Helen Hayes, Guy Lombardo, Lily Pons, Dick Powell, Kate Smith, Rudy Vallee, and Irene Wicker are among the household names Eichberg dropped and placed into captions.

Passing the likenesses of Walter Damrosch, Lowell Thomas, and Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley, my wandering eye was arrested by the sight of Virginia Verrill (pictured, left, next to her mother, erstwhile Vaudeville actress Aimee McLean). The name did not sound any chimes. “Vee,” as Eichberg informs us, “made her debut at the age of three, singing with [orchestra leader] Paul Whiteman,” who was a “friend of her mother’s.” By the age of thirteen, she was heard on local broadcasts and, a year later, was “doubling for Barbara Stanwyck.”

What readers back then could not have known, even an altered hairline did little to secure her leading lady status in Hollywood. Her film career, begun at the age of sixteen, did not take off; producers noted that Verrill “screened too much like Myrna Loy.” They noted, too, that she could “double” for those in need of a dubbing. It is hardly a path conducive to fame.

Loy’s looks and Hollywood’s trompe l’oreille may have stood in her way to stardom on the screen; but the largely invisible Verrill nonetheless made a name for herself on radio, to which her inclusion in Radio Stars attests. Verrill was heard on 1930s programs like Socony Sketchbook, Wonder Show and Log Cabin Jamboree. Just today, two of her Socony performances were brought to our ears courtesy of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and their latest contribution to the Internet Archive.

Airing on 14 June 1935, the very first Socony Sketchbook broadcast features teenaged Verrill’s rendition of “Reckless.” Songwriter-composer Johnny Green did not hesitate to give Verrill the credit due to her:

Hollywood made that tune famous through the picture of the same name starring William Powell and Jean Harlow. Virginia Verrill did her part to make it famous, too, for it was her singing voice you really heard in the film.

“Gee, Johnny, you shouldn’t have mentioned that,” Verrill adds coyly before performing her number. Yet, as those in radio knew, it pays to be “well advertised” (to quote a line from the song). Nor does it dull the Milky Way when one star washes the hand of another. A week later, on the 21 June 1935 broadcast, Verrill got the chance to return the favor by reminding listeners that her latest song—”How Can I Hold You Close Enough?”—was “written by the pianist-composer Johnny Green.” I might as well give them both a hand before I return to flicking the pages of Radio Stars, especially since Green passed away on this day, 15 May, in 1989.

The "universal language of mankind"; or, Do You Verstehen Surtitles?

According to Longfellow, our “universal language” is music. This might account for the international crowd at Budapest’s splendid opera and operetta houses; or perhaps it is ticket prices, which the locals are less likely to tolerate than the visitors in town for a good time. It is like that the world over, I suspect. New Yorkers are hardly the main audience for Broadway shows. What is on offer in any cultural center is largely owing to centrifugal forces. Is it the music that is universally understood? Or is it just that money talks without an accent?

Longfellow—who made above remark while on the subject of “Ancient Spanish Ballads”—is often quoted out of context. The “universal” is not meant to imply the absence or insignificance of regional or national idioms. We might all share a love of song without necessarily trilling the same tune:

The muleteer of Spain carols with the early lark, amid the stormy mountains of his native land. The vintager of Sicily has his evening hymn; the fisherman of Naples his boat-song; the gondolier of Venice his midnight serenade. The goatherd of Switzerland and they Tyrol, the Carpathian boor, the Scotch Highlander, the English ploughboy, singing as he drives his team afield—peasant, serf, slave, all, all have their ballads and traditional songs.

It is not local color you are likely to discover when stepping inside the larger venues, painted as they are in the color of money. What, I asked myself as I walked past a Finn in the foyer, is the intended audience for productions mounted by the National Hungarian Opera, where last year we took in the bewildering spectacle of Gone With the Wind, staged as a ballet to the music of Czech composer Dvořák, a pop-cultural miscalculation meant to foster good relations between Hungary and the United States. On offer this time around was Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa, in Czech, with Magyar surtitles. Is it any wonder I am getting Prague and Pest confused as I try to recall our adventures in theatregoing?

In such moments of cultural confusion the Pontevedrian embassy can generally be relied upon as a refuge for the historically challenged. Yes, the Pontevedrian embassy is always open for business. Said Graustarkian edifice was set up for our convenience at the Budapesti Operettszínház, where the ever popular Lustige Witwe (heard here in a 23 January 1950 broadcast of Railroad Hour starring Gordon MacRae) once more saved her make-believe nation (or was it Montenegro?) from bankruptcy and waltzed off with the less-than-patriotic Danilo (portrayed with brio by Dániel Gábor) into the bargain—all in Hungarian with German supertitles, which, much to my irritation, I caught myself editing.

Finally, we went to the ballet, where “universal” meant lissome girl dancing with scrawny boy . . . to canned music. “Can real friendship exist between a man and a woman, and if so, why not? Happiness and pain follows each other again and again until death comes,” choreographer Antal Fodor comments in his note on “A nö hétszer” (“Women Times Seven”). Sometimes, you just have to provide your own translation . . .

The Starburst Galaxy

“Your name doesn’t mean anything to me, but I’m happy for you that you’re somebody around here.” That is not what I said to popular British television actress Michelle Collins when I met her backstage at the Shaftesbury Theatre in the winter of 2006 (as I mentioned here, in passing). I had been living in Britain for over two years already and still felt like a party crashing amnesiac among a group of strangers absorbed in a game of Trivial Pursuit, the edition of which appeared to be Mesopotamian. Relocating to another country, however culturally related it may be to the universe you left behind (in my case, the microcosmopolitan hub known as Manhattan), is not unlike the sensation of tuning in to a serial that, unbeknownst to you, has been running for several successful seasons on a cable network to which you have just gotten access. You try your darndest to get into it; yet looking on only leaves you with the impression that the rock you dwelled under is not even the third one from the sun, but orbiting another solar system altogether. So you lay down the telescope at last and, unless you meet them in person, give up on identifying the luminaries begot in a galaxy light-years beyond your sphere.

Tonight, the glamorous Ms. Collins returns to UK television to head the cast of Rock Rivals, a new pulp drama set in the world of reality showbusiness, its creative forces, its performers, and its followers. The eight-part series airs on ITV, home of reality programs like The X Factor, the British revamp of American Idol. As with the shows it feeds on, Rock Rivals lets viewers decide who wins the fictional singing contest by choosing one of two possible endings.

Satire or satellite, it is another commentary on the kind of starburst galaxy the entertainment industries insists we inhabit. Starburst galaxies are the kind of systems with a particularly high star-formation rate. Who can keep up with all those newly created celebrities. Sometimes, stars have to fall or catastrophically explode before I take note.

There’s one born every minute—along with the adoring crowd on whom such upgraded gaseousness exerts its gravitational pull. As paradoxical as it might sound, that is probably why I leap at the chance of catching a star in the process of being formed. Presently, the only satellite-dished up treat I take in is American Idol, to which I keep coming back for another helping until David Archuleta is being unaccountably voted off by folks who wouldn’t recognize a rising sun if it hit them in the solar plexus.

Watching reality television has its comforts. It gives you the impression—or should that be “creates the illusion”?—that you are no mere stargazer, but a starmaker with powers equal to the vast industry whose well-oiled if by now antiquated machinery is working against time, odds, and YouTube to produce the kind of temporary radiance that passes for stellar. The aging medium turns them out fast for a reason: with all those puffed up somebodies insisting on making stars or asses of themselves, the gas in this galaxy is just about used up.

A String of Pearls? Sweeney Todd on Stage, Screen, and Radio

As much as I have enjoyed our Gracie Fields trip—which continued last night with Look Up and Laugh (1935), featuring Vivien Leigh in her film debut—an excursion into the make-believe of contemporary cinema seemed long overdue. And if “contemporary” means Victorian melodrama set to music by Stephen Sondheim, such a break is hardly a violent disruption. Still, I was reluctant to return to Fleet Street. I’m familiar with the Demon Barber’s establishment; and unlike those to whom Burton’s slasher with songs serves as an introduction to this well worn piece of penny dreadfulness—Sweeney Toddlers, I call them—I cannot help but be reminded of past encounters with the not-so-gay blade. Would the razor, as swung by Burton, be sharp, dull, or just too ornate to be effective?

According to my diaries, whose racier passages I skipped to extract the data I required from it, I got my first look at Sweeney in September 1989, when Sondheim’s 1979 musical was revived by the York Theater Company and moved to the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway, with Bob Gunton as Sweeney and Beth Fowler in the role of Mrs. Lovett (see Playbill above). Referred to as “Sweeney Todd, Up Close and Personal” by its director, it was a scaled down production that depended far more on the talents of its performers than on an elaborate set design. What besides rage, a razor, and that ingenious chair does Sweeney really need to get the job done?

A little more than three years later, Mrs. Lovett was Judy Kaye and Fleet Street was a set at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey. As I remarked in an undergraduate essay, venturing out to New Jersey “meant not only the reluctant departure from the cultural center, but also from personal stereotypes about Manhattan’s periphery.” Ms. Kaye, whom I would meet on a few occasions thereafter, truly brought the amoral pie maker back to life for anyone who might have thought she had died after the spirit of Angela Lansbury departed from a body so easily collapsed into a single dimension.

A decade later, the melodrama The String of Pearls by George Dibdin Pitt had made it onto my reading list as I sauntered toward my doctorate. The barber’s chair and the revolving trap were already in place when the play premiered in 1847; but in this version, borrowed from French sources, the motive Todd’s scheme to “polish off” his customers was a hankering after the titular pearls rather than suffering and revenge:

When a boy, the thirst of avarice was fist awakened by the fair gift of a farthing; that farthing soon became a pound; the pound a hundred—so to a thousand, till I said to myself, I will possess a hundred thousand. This string of pearls will complete the sum.

Since my studies were chiefly concerned with US radio drama, it had also come to my ears that, back in 1896, Sherlock Holmes had attended, “with obvious delight,” a revival of the shocker. In one of Doctor Watson’s accounts of his life with the famed detective (broadcast on 28 January 1946), Holmes is invited backstage, where the actor in the title role shares his horrible suspicion:

I know it sounds fantastic, but it’s true. I’ve often heard of actors beginning to live their parts off the stage that they play on it. Well, it’s happening to me. I am turning into another Sweeney Todd, the character I am portraying on the stage.

A reference to this oft sliced chestnut, heard here in a CBC production from 1947, can also be found in John Dickson Carr’s this episode of Cabin B-13 (5 July 1948), in which an American visitor to London learns that he resembles a killer who lives above a barber shop in Fleet Street, has got a razor and “is ready to use it.”

While not quite as dreadful as I had anticipated, Burton’s Sweeney is joyless and drab, rendered in computer generated imagery that, by now, has become more tiresome than the traditional hokum on display in this black-and-white version from 1936 starring Tod Slaughter. Being forced to fly rather than slowly make our way through the labyrinthine passages of the dingy, darksome metropolis, one gets no sense of entrapment or secrecy. Our minds do not get the workout that make our bones ache in the keen awareness of having travelled on foot rather than some multi-purpose not-so-magic carpet from the CGI warehouse. Whatever happened to a sound brick wall like the one we want to bang our head against after having been taken for a ride that?

Removed from its narrative frame (“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”), the epic theater convention of encouraging detachment to achieve a demonstration of social problems, what remains of Sondheim’s Sweeney is old-fashioned melodrama for the pathos of which Burton used to have a flair. And yet, more so even than Charlie (discussed here), Sweeney is largely devoid of wit and vision. With the exception of the Pirelli-Barker shaving contest, in which Sacha Baron Cohen steals the show as the Todd’s spurious rival, most of the numbers are listlessly assembled. It would have been intriguing to see this melodrama turned into a pop-up book in which cardboard characters struggle to emerge as three-dimensional individuals; but the characters, as presented by Burton, would not stand a chance to distinguish themselves. They are utterly forgettable—a rare feat, given such material.

Burton might do well to look beyond his ensemble once in a while. Depp, who is being given a virtual Botox treatment that renders his phizog expressionless, and Bonham-Carter, who is buxom yet bloodless, are not suited for every costume he throws at them. Their voices are thin, their singing flat and, what is worse, the enunciation frustratingly poor. Bonham-Carter, if you’ll permit the pun, has probably the worst pipes in London. The orchestra is meant to give the musically challenged actors a boost; but here it ends up given them the boot instead. Casting, after all, is not as easy as “popping pussies into pies.”

In short, this latest Sweeney is as tired as a Victorian scullery maid who has lost the ability to dream up ways of disposing of her employers. With all those pearls of ruby blood spilled onto screen, some ought to have been set aside for an emergency transfusion.