So let’s talk about this Beatles tribute. I was just a little too young to really appreciate Beatlemania – I was just seven when I saw them on the Ed Sullivan show – and even though I was lucky enough to see them at the Hollywood Bowl (my father somehow came into enough tickets that my sister could take all her girlfriends and still have a ticket left over for me – and remind me to tell you that story sometime) – but I did – and do – love them, but since I was so young, I don’t know how much I could appreciate them. Now that I think about it, I was really part of that last generation to whom the Beatles would be new. To every subsequent generation, their music has been an existing part of the cultural landscape. (It’s like Stephen Sondheim; I was around to see his influence and art develop and influence – and my own feelings about them change. I used to hate both “Company” and “A Little Night Music,” and while I run hot and cold on the former, I love the latter. But to all my friends and colleagues who were born in the 70s and later, his shows have always been there, and mostly only as revivals.)
That’s not what I want to talk about, though. No, I’m struck by the way that all these singers and musicians, who also obviously love and were influenced by the Lads (can’t call them “the Boys;” that’s Laurel and Hardy*) but whose versions of their songs were, in some cases, sadly lacking (I’m lookin’ at you, Katy Perry).
Now, we all grew up with these songs, one way or another, and, as I said, they’ve become part of the fabric of pop culture. Because of that, we all think we know them, and know them well. But we don’t, any more than we “know” the theme to “Green Acres.” I’ve been watching that show in reruns lately, so frequently that I’ve been concentrating on small things, like the orchestration to the theme not being at all what I thought it was. So, when singers perform the material, especially in a forum like this where a lot of effort is going into trying to “duplicate” the originals, in spirit if not in orchestration, the flaws are going to show.
This is one of the reasons that, when I’m directing a musical, I want people to sing “classic” songs (that is, pre-1970 or so). In my mind, it’s easier to perform a song that will allow you to show off a lot of verbal pyrotechnics and flair than it is to sing a good song simply and tell a story with it. When I watch David Letterman’s show, I almost invariably turn the show off when the bands come on because they’re generally too loud (even considering my age) and trying to distract the audience with a lot of jumping around and theatrics. There’s both a time and a place for that, but when I watch really good musicians – of any genre – there’s not a lot of extraneous stuff that they do; they concentrate on playing and conveying the music. One of my favorite quotes in this regard is from “The Maltese Falcon:” “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” In other words, if you’ve got the goods, you don’t need to resort to razzle-dazzle. (This also applies to actors, for the most part; simpler is better [says the guy who never met a moment he didn’t want to over-embellish; of course, I never said I was a good actor; I’m a performer …].)
So when you’ve got these musicians, who are so used to being able to make corrections in the studio via editing, Auto-Tune, or even multiple takes, are faced with performing songs that they love but may not know as well as they think they do, you can get some performances that, while sincere and good, just miss.
Taking this to a parallel in a field I’m more familiar with, let’s turn to the theatre.
There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the last 20 years or so, where a director or an actor or even a producer will come up with a spin on an old warhorse that becomes a huge hit on Broadway or in the West End (“An Inspector Calls” and “Boeing, Boeing” come immediately to mind) and suddenly, everyone wants to do that same show that they’ve ignored for 20, 30, or even 50 years. The script is the same as it ever was, but someone figured out a way (whether obvious or not) to revive what most people thought was a corpse. But the kicker is, while everyone wants to do the show now, they only want to do it in the same way as the person who breathed new life into the thing. While there’s a lot to be said for that approach – I mean, why tinker with something that found success? – I’m always suspicious of it; the revival that everyone loved was conceived with a unique set of designers and performers, and any attempt to do the show without them will be, of necessity, different from the production that caused people to want to do the show in the first place (or the second place, I suppose …). If the show was that good to begin with, I want to ask, why did you ignore it for so long? Are we doomed to play follow the leader, never innovating, and always trying to virtually sing the same tune in the same way as the person who the success? (This does not, of course, include productions of those shows supervised by their creators; granted, they’re hampered by not having the original performers, but a director clever enough to find new wine in an old bottle can figure out a way to make his or her concept work with different performers.)
Now, mind you, I’m not calling for a ban on revivals. Far from it. A lot of my favorite scripts are older, especially between the World Wars, but if I were ever to do them, it wouldn’t be because someone else had produced them in New York or London and had a success. (That success might make producers more likely to take notice of them, but that wouldn’t be my reason for doing them. In fact, I’d probably avoid doing a Xerox of the inspiring production.[There are, of course, exceptions; when I directed “The Fantasticks,” even though I’d hoped to put an original spin on it, once I started working on it, I realized why the original concept was the model to follow]) I’m not saying I might not borrow stuff (I wanted to swipe some elements from Matthew Warchus’s production of “Boeing, Boeing” for my own production of “Run For Yor Wife,” but couldn’t make it work; I wouldn’t use his ideas were I to direct “Boeing, Boeing,” though), but if I were to direct a revival of one of these types of shows, I’d hope my artistic chops were strong enough to come up with my own spin on the script, rather than duplicating someone else’s brainstorms. I’d hope that any script chosen for production would have strong enough artistic merit behind it that the text could stand for itself, rather than being solely dependent on a “concept.”
I’m not faulting the singers in tonight’s show; they were all obviously influenced by their love of the Beatles. It’s just that sometimes it’s not as easy to replicate the reasons that things and art we love were a success.
(*I’m reminded of a quote from Tom Jones of the musical team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt about writing teams always being called “'boys,' unless you’re Comden and Green, then it’s ‘kids.’”)