What’s Behind The Facade?

Yesterday my sister and I went to see a community theater’s production of the musical Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a show that our cousin introduced us to years ago through the soundtrack and we were excited to it on stage. I’m not sure I’d call this a favorite play, but the music is fantastic and the story line prompts some intriguing questions about the nature of human kind and how our personalities work.

Jekyll and Hyde is a classic tale of good and evil. The play is quite different from Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the original version, Jekyll develops a serum to separate his darker side because he’d already started indulging his vices and wanted to keep doing so without fear of discovery. The play offers a more compelling protagonist; a Jekyll searching for a cure to evil on a grand scale. If you’re curious, you can watch a really good high school production of the play on YouTube by clicking here.

This isn’t the sort of play that I recommend frequently. It’s dark. It’s complicated. It’s more sexual than the scandalized ladies sitting behind me expected. It doesn’t end happy (don’t look at me like that — you don’t get spoiler warnings when the book’s 132 years old). But it’s also a deeply compelling story that dives head-first into tough questions about the nature of man. Read more

History Has Its Eyes On Us

I’m sitting here thinking, “What does one write on Independence Day when one is rather disappointed in the direction one’s country is headed?” Thousands of babies are being slaughtered, we just had the largest mass shooting in US history, there’s a systematized rejection of gender and acceptance of child abuse … the list goes on and on, and our presidential candidates aren’t making things look any better. I wonder if this is something like how Hamilton felt facing the election of 1800.

from sparkitors.tumblr.com

Except I’m not sure which of our current candidates is Burr in this analogy and which is Jefferson. I’m probably just going to not vote at all (side note: for some reason I’ve always felt uncomfortable with/guilty for voting, even though my church doesn’t teach against it. Weird, huh?).

Anyway, this isn’t going to be a depressing post! We’re celebrating Independence Day, and I’m quite certain the best way to do that this year is listening to the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. It’s on Amazon Prime, Spotify, YouTube — you have no excuse not to listen. Nor any excuse not to think about what you’re listening to.

Hamilton didn’t win 11 out of the record-breaking 16 Tony nominations just because it’s a run-away hit with a unique musical approach. The catchiest music couldn’t have sustained this level of success without a story that resonates deeply with fans. One of the many fantastic things about Hamilton is that it presents the founding father’s as real people. They’re not glorified by rose-eyed historical glasses or torn to shreds by an opposing historical perspective trying to vilify them. They’re just real men with a vision for the future and the necessary skills and commitment to found a country that is now celebrating its  240th birthday. Not too shabby a legacy. So what does that mean for us, real people today who have the chance to influence the course of history?

History Has Its Eye On Us | marissabaker.wordpress.com

A More Accurate Picture of America’s Ethnic Landscape

The only reason I would ever advocate casting with race in mind is for the purpose of historical or cultural accuracy. Now I’m re-thinking even that. A racially diverse cast works perfectly for Hamilton — America of today telling the story of America’s founding. And even though the individual characters’ casting doesn’t match the race of their historical counterparts, a racially diverse group working together to found our country is more accurate than most people think. Peter Salem (hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill), Prince Whipple (who fought alongside Washington), James Armistead (the double-spy who may have “won the revolutionary war”), Wentworth Cheswell (who rode to say “the British are coming” at the same time as Paul Revere) — they were all black, along with many other key figures in America’s founding.

Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler)

Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Angelica Schuyler, says that the most beautiful thing about Hamilton is that “it’s told by such a diverse cast with a such diverse styles of music. … We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own” (quote from Times article “Why History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton’s Diversity“).

One of the lines in Hamilton is “history has its eyes on me/you.” The founders knew what they were doing was going to make a mark on history, but this phrase can also be true of us today. Every generation has the potential to make its mark on history. Will future Americans look back on us and see a group of people who wouldn’t stand for white-washing of their history any more? or will they see us as complicit in maintaining the accepted historic narrative that all blacks were slaves and all whites were oppressors, even if that means marginalizing blacks who held influential positions at key points in American history?

Redefining The Moral Climate of Our Nation

One of the things Alexander Hamilton is known for is being involved in our country’s first political sex scandal. Perhaps this is one reason he was so often overlooked — he didn’t fit the squeaky-clean mold of a founding father that was popular in history books until very recently (now we seem to be going the other direction, trying to dig up as much dirt as possible on everyone. No one’s ever accused the human race of being balanced, have they?).

History Has Its Eye On Us | marissabaker.wordpress.com

In a post-Clinton age it seems strange to us that when Hamilton’s affair came out the immediate reaction was “Well, he’s never gon’ be President now” (though I’m sure in more historically accurate language). The idea of someone who cheated on his wife and openly confessed it becoming president was unimaginable. Hamilton himself down-played the seriousness of the affair, concentrating on proving he was a virtuous man innocent of the financial crimes he was accused of. Or, as he says in the play, “I have not committed treason, and sullied my good name.” He even wrote that he believed his wife “will approve, that even at so great an expence, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name, which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public too will I trust excuse the confession” (read the full text of Hamilton’s Reynold’s Pamphlet here).

Committed treason he did not, but sully his good name Hamilton certainly did. “Hamilton’s reputation was in tatters,” an article from the Smithsonian says, “Talk of further political office effectively ceased.” Now, 219 years later, can you even imagine living in nation that expects moral behavior from its politicians? Or where the politicians themselves take responsibility for their own behavior? Hamilton was so worried about the possibility of a stain on his reputation that he confessed to an affair. And even though he did down-play its severity in light of the other charges, he still said of the affair, “I bow to the just censure which it merits. I have paid pretty severely for the folly and can never recollect it without disgust and self condemnation.”

It is one of my favorite things about the play Hamilton that Hamilton takes responsibility for the affair, acknowledging that he should have said “no to this.” It doesn’t absolve Maria Reynolds of her role in seducing a married man, but there’s “No Slut Shaming in Hamilton” either (<- that blog post is what prompted me to listen to Hamilton for the first time). Today, we don’t expect people in the public eye to even take responsibility, much less to hold themselves to a certain standard of morality. We’re scandal-hungry and ready to offer judgement on celebrity short-comings, but we don’t expect anything better. Perhaps this trend will continue until there’s no longer any such thing as a socially accepted moral standard, but I hope not. And when history turns its eyes back on us, will they see a generation sliding farther into cultural decay, or one that took a stand and said, “We expect better things of our role-models and leaders”?

There are plenty of other moral, social, and political issues we could discuss. If history’s eyes really are on America today, what would you like to see change for the better in our generation? financial disparity between rich and poor? the foster care system? environmental issues? whether or not to forfeit our second amendment rights? Please share your thoughts in the comments (bonus points for using Hamilton quotes)!

The Phantom of the Opera

I choose The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux as the first book to read off my Classics Club book list for one simple reason. I had a dream about it.

The edition I read

Now, understand I’ve never read this book before. It’s not even one I checked out of the library, flipped through, and lost interest in. So when I dreamed about seeing the written pages of this book morph into film-like scenes that were not in the 2004 film or the play I saw this year, I decided I needed to read this book. It’s not unusual for me to dream vividly, but it was a bit odd to construct such an elaborate version of  something I hadn’t thought about recently.

So I ordered it into the library and read it (in translation, unfortunately, since my French isn’t very good). And I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the book. It must have been almost 10 years ago that I first became seriously interested in the musical The Phantom of the Opera, and at the time I decided against reading the book because so many reviewers I read said they were disappointed. They said if you like the play, don’t bother reading the book because Andrew Lloyd Webber somehow managed to pull brilliance out of a terrible novel.

Overall Impressions

It is not a terrible novel, though I understand why some readers didn’t like it. Many who love the musical expect a more romantic Phantom character, while Leroux’s Erik (a.k.a. The Phantom) is firmly rooted in a Gothic tradition of villainy. He sleeps in a coffin. His lair includes a torture chamber. He has no nose in his deathly-pale face.

But we’ll get to comparing it with the play later. For now, back to the book. It is written as if by a narrator who began studying the events surrounding the tragedy of the Paris Opera House about 30 years after its haunting by the “ghost.” This haunting coincided with the famous disappearance of Christine Daaé and the Vicomte de Chagny. Our narrator connects these two events, interviews the only witness who is both surviving and locatable, and happens into possession of some very intriguing documents attesting to the ghost’s antics. In short, he is uniquely positioned to be the only person qualified to uncover the truth regarding the opera ghost.

Parts of the story are told as we would think of a “normal” 3rd-person narration, others are the narrator’s conjectures about what might have taken place, still others are written as if borrowed from the memoirs of a few key characters. This rather disconnected narrative style works surprisingly well, and there were only a few places where I thought it jarring to be reminded that the narrator is supposedly piecing this story together from multiple sources of evidence.

Comparing Phantoms

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Probably the main change from the book to the play is how Erik is portrayed. This blog post about The Many Faces of Erik collects pictures of the Phantom’s portrayal in film and on stage, both before and after Webber’s musical. I could have nightmares about that face from the 1925 version, but it’s probably the closest to Erik in the book.

Erik is described as having “a death’s head,” and his hands are skeletal and cold. Even the most ghoulish Phantom make-up in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals can be hidden under a half-mask. In the book, the entire man is deformed in some vague way that can’t really be hidden. The people who glimpse him even in disguise get the impression of a ghost or skeleton.

And his character is more twisted in the book as well. In the play, we know the Phantom as a genius who has gone mad and kills to protect his secrets. In the book, we are given more of Erik’s back-story and made to see him not as an unstable, unloved man who is carried away by his passion, but as a violent man without a conscience who has a history of inventing new ways to kill and torment people for pleasure. He captures our imagination, our horror, our pity, but not our love.

Angel of Music

Christine and Raoul’s back-story was very similar in the book and play, with the book simply being more fleshed-out. I liked Raoul less in the book, though. He seems a rather pale, helpless character who follows Christine around vacillating between hating of her for loving someone else and being willing to do anything to protect her from Erik. If he was translated perfectly from the book to the musical and the changes for the Phantom left in place, I doubt there’s be any part of me hoping for Raoul to win Christine.

Poor Christine, in the book and play, was doomed by her father’s promise to send her the Angel of Music. This is built-up even better in the book, with her father telling stories about how the greatest musicians heard the Angel of Music, who moved them from talented to unforgettably brilliant. Christine’s father was a great violinist, but never heard the Angel. His daughter, however, was waiting for him to send one from heaven, and when Erik first sings to her she asks if he is her Angel. He grasps the title eagerly, and she’s lost to his music.

His voice first appears in the book simply as a speaking voice — the man Raoul hears but cannot find in Christine’s dressing room and the invisible speaker in Box 5. Madam Giry calls it “such a lovely man’s voice … so soft and kind.” When Erik finally sings, the word “captivating” hardly seems to do the listeners’ reactions justice:

The voice without a body went on singing; and certainly Raoul had never in his life heard anything more absolutely and heroically sweet, more gloriously insidious, more delicate, more powerful, in short, more irresistibly triumphant. He listened to it in a fever and he now began to understand how Christine Daaé was able to appear one evening, before the stupefied audience, with accents of a beauty hitherto unknown, of a superhuman exaltation, while doubtless still under the influence of the mysterious and invisible master.

Sierra Boggess as Christine and Ramin Karimloo as The Phantom in “Phantom Of The Opera At Royal Albert Hall.”

The voice was singing the Wedding-night Song from Romeo and Juliet. Raoul saw Christine stretch out her arms to the voice as she had done, in Perros churchyard, to the invisible violin playing The Resurrection of Lazarus. And nothing could describe the passion with which the voice sang: “Fate links thee to me for ever and a day!”

The strains went through Raoul’s heart. Struggling against the charm that seemed to deprive him of all his will and all his energy and of almost all his lucidity at the moment when he needed them most, he succeeded in drawing back the curtain that hid him and he walked to where Christine stood. (from Chapter IX)

Michael Crawford (original Broadway cast), Ramin Karimloo (25th anniversary cast), and Cooper Grodin (touring cast I saw in Columbus) have voices like this. That spectacular voice, which mesmerizes Christine and the audience, is the secret of Erik’s allure. Without it, he would just be a hideous man with an even more hideous soul hiding under an opera house. But add this voice, and he becomes something unforgettable — the dark menace who should be repulsive but is somehow irresistible.

Click here to get a copy of The Phantom of the Opera. Please note that this is an affiliate link. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.

Music In My Mind

Phantom of the Opera marissabaker.wordpress.comWhen my cousin went to see The Phantom of the Opera, she was disappointed because the Phantom had a lack-luster voice. That was not the case last night at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Cooper Grodin turned in an amazing performance, which was well-supported by a talented cast including Grace Morgan as Christine and Ben Jacoby as Raoul.

This was my second time seeing a touring Broadway production in Columbus (the first was Wicked, last July). My sister and I are in serious danger of becoming theater addicts. We love the atmosphere (especially in a theater as lovely and historic as this one in Columbus), the excuse to dress elegantly, the quality of the music, and the set changes. Before going to Wicked, I had no idea set design was so elaborate.

One thing I love about Phantom is that since it is a play about stage actors, the audience switches from being viewers at the play The Phantom of the Opera to being part of the play as an audience for the plays enacted in the Opera Populaire. We became part of the Phantom’s opera house. Sometimes, he seemed to be singing just over my shoulder because of speakers at the back of the theater (which were only used for his character). Then, near the end when Raoul orders the doors bared against the Phantom’s escape, we heard doors shutting behind us.

Christine’s has long been one of my favorite roles to sing, and the English major in me also likes to analyze her character. From reading stage directions (included in the booklet that came with my copy of the CD), it often seems like she’s in a trance — as if the Phantom is a student of Franz Mesmer and has been practicing a form of hypnotism on Christine. She’s not mad — at least insofar that she’s not imagining the Phantom — and she’s not stupid. She, like the entire play and audience, is under the Phantom’s spell.