“Intermission Talk” from Me and Juliet

Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musicals, Me and Juliet was probably the greatest disappointment. It did throw off one enduring standard, “No Other Love”, but despite an ambitious concept (a sort of proto-A Chorus Line treatise on theater), it never really fulfilled its potential. The plot was little more than an Oklahoma retread set in a Broadway theater, and the score was mostly composed of tuneful-but-generic ballads and up-tunes. However, it did feature two brilliantly inspired numbers that show what the show might have been if it had followed through with its premise…the introspective “The Big Black Giant” and this one. This number, appropriately positioned as the second-act opening, starts out with a collection of random bits of slice-of-life dialogue one might hear in an actual theater lounge, and then segues into a debate between genuine theater lovers and naysayers who insist the theater is dead. It’s a lot of fun to point out this number to modern theater snobs, because it demonstrates that even in the Fifties (which today’s theater snobs tend to view as the peak of their imaginary ‘golden age’), enough people were espousing the same absurd argument they’re peddling today that Rodgers and Hammerstein, of all people, felt the need to write a song about it. The arguments they offer even sound eerily reminiscent of those made by later theater snobs, showing, I suppose, that little has really changed about that class of people (granted, the ‘shows are too serious’ argument was more common in the Eighties and Nineties than it is today, but the point still holds). Admittedly, this song doesn’t feature a top-drawer Rodgers melody, but the unique brilliance of Hammerstein’s lyric more than makes up for it. If everything in Me and Juliet achieved this level of inspiration, the show would be considered a top-level R&H masterpiece today.

Verdict: Good, and a lot of theater critics and commentators today could really stand to take its message to heart.

“Murder, Murder” from Jekyll and Hyde

The people who think Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde musical is a piece of sensationalist trash like to cite this song as though it proved their argument, and even those who view it as a guilty pleasure tend to see this as something of a low point in the score. But the devoted fanbase who unreservedly revere the show tend to relish it as a ghoulish delight, and the truth is that they have a point: for what it’s intended to be, this song is pretty successful. Unlike the other song from this score that everyone complains about, “Facade”, which is actually quite dark and glowering, this song was clearly designed from the beginning to be intentionally cheesy. After all, Jekyll and Hyde‘s camp element is at least partially intentional, and this is simply the most overt example of that. The result is an utterly unique novelty number, simultaneously spine-chilling and enjoyably silly, a kind of much campier equivalent to “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”. And the goofy lyrics which everyone complains about (like ‘To kill outside St. Paul’s/requires a lot of balls’) are clearly a deliberate component of that effect. They may be invoking the enjoyably bad on purpose in this number, but that’s a time-honored art in musical theater, and if it works (and it does), then this song is ‘good’ on the same evidence as, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Baby June’s numbers in Gypsy.

Verdict: Good.

“There’s Nothing Like a Show on Broadway” from The Producers

The credits of the disappointing film version of The Producers were pretty much the only part of the movie that was funny, thanks to the hilarious parody of Oscar Bait ballads “The Hop-Clop Goes On”. Unfortunately, to get to that gem, you had to wait through this tedious and misguided attempt at an ending theme. Not only are most of the jokes fairly obvious (Neil Patrick Harris would do the same ideas much better in his Tony hosting gigs a few years later), but the song’s subject matter and title come off as massively ironic following the movie the audience just sat through. If there was ever a musical movie that was merely a faint echo of its great Broadway source material, it’s this one, so ending the film with a song like this was an almost hilariously stupid move. Ironically, while it consists of the film-makers perfectly summing up their own mistakes, it actually bespeaks a monumental lack of self-awareness. Granted, the tune itself is catchy enough, but even it sounds like a secondhand imitation of the stage score’s distinctive sound. This is one of the all-time monuments of unintentional irony in film-making, and it makes the film even more of an embarrassment than it already is.

Verdict: Not just bad, but depressingly bad.

“Verachtet mir die Meister nicht” from Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

This was the climactic monologue from Wagner’s very long comic opera, and like most of the material in that opera it has, by common agreement, absolutely wonderful music. The reason it’s being covered in this section is that it has a reputation for being a xenophobic and paranoid rant about the decline and fall of Germany due to foreign influences. In short, it’s what gets this opera in particular mentally associated with Naziism for a lot of people, and I imagine part of the reason Opera For Dummies had to have the track list of its bonus CD changed in later editions was the unwise inclusion of this particular song. And frankly, I think all this is rather unfair. Now, Wagner was indeed known all too well for that kind of rant, but most of them actually occurred in those self-published propaganda pamphlets he used to circulate, not in his operas. I’m not arguing that Wagner had any shortage of thoroughly reprehensible opinions, but they’re not really on display here (or anywhere else in his actual operas, at least in any easily discernible form). The lyric to this monologue is pretty much boilerplate patriotism (respect your traditions and maintain your nation’s independence), but the only reason people are offended by it is because it’s German. And while there’s certainly a good reason that German nationalism has an especially bad reputation, the fact remains that no-one would be particularly bothered by this sentiment if it was coming from any other country…every country is proud of its cultural traditions, and no country wants to be ruled by a foreign power, including our own. Admittedly, this opera did get co-opted by the Nazis to an even greater degree than Wagner’s other work, but they were completely misinterpreting its message in the process, and there’s still nothing particularly offensive about the actual libretto in and of itself.

Verdict: Wagner said an unbelievable number of offensive things during his life, but this monologue really isn’t one of them.

“King Herod’s Song (Try It and See)” from Jesus Christ Superstar

It’s not just the detractors of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar that point this song out as the show’s low point. Even the show’s most devoted fans tend to decry it as a totally out-of-place Vaudevillian novelty in the midst of the show’s descent into tragedy. Many make much of the fact that its melody was originally written for one of Webber and Tim Rice’s unproduced early efforts (it’s original title was “Those Saladin Days”), and some have suggested that Webber simply wasn’t willing to give up the tune, to the point of shoehorning it into a show where it patently didn’t belong. But what all these critics fail to notice is that the song actually works really well on the original concept album. Its mindless frivolity makes a perfect compliment to the callous and uncaring downward spiral that Jesus is being subjected to at the this point, and it actually makes the show’s inexorable descent into tragedy much stronger and more disturbing than it would have been if they had stuck to an ‘appropriate’ tone throughout. That said, it is true that no-one has ever found a way to make this number work on an actual stage, and Josh Mostel’s performance of it in the film version is one of the all-time bad musical numbers from an otherwise good musical. So while I get why it was included in the first place and even consider that inclusion perfectly justified, I will admit that it has wound up being more of a handicap to the show than anything else.

Verdict: Good on the concept album, but varying degrees of bad in pretty much every stage production the show has ever received.

“A Real Nice Clambake” from Carousel

This is the only one of the major numbers in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece Carousel that has a large number of detractors even among the show’s fans. And while I can understand that the intensely old-fashioned, folky vibe of the song and the heavy Folk dialect the lyrics are written in (‘the vittles we et were good, you bet’) might be a bit too hokey for some people’s tolerance levels, you have to consider the song’s context in the show. The eye for detail in the description of this simple get-together does a lot to establish the cultural color that was a key component of all of R&H’s shows. And if you think about it, once you get past the comically old-fashioned idioms the characters express themselves in and listen to what they’re actually saying, there’s really something kind of beautiful about the folklike warmth and sense of community this song conveys. It’s also extremely telling and even quietly heartbreaking, when you think about it, that hero Billy Bigelow is not a part of this community celebration…note that virtually every other character, even his introverted and semi-ostracized wife Julie, joins in this number. Capturing the feel of a tight-knit community is key to the show’s main theme…after all, you can’t have outcasts without something they feel they’re outcast from. So if you look at this song as part of the show rather than a standalone hit tune, it actually has a great deal of merit…and let’s remember that Rodgers and Hammerstein, for all the hits they created, were always much more focused on the show as a whole than the prospect of individual hit songs, so that seems to be the correct way to look at nearly all of their work.

Verdict: Good.

“Mr. Goldstone, I Love You” from Gypsy

This is the one song from Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy score that anyone who likes musicals to begin with ever complains about. The problem with the song is that while having Rose burst into song on that first line always gets a big laugh in context, there’s really nowhere for the song to go after that in terms of actual story or character content. For this reason, the entire rest of the lyric is just Rose’s nervous dithering and a lot of random wordplay for its own sake. The final section, with the catalogue of ‘stones’ (“There are good stones, and bad stones, and curbstones and gladstones”) is actually fairly clever, especially in the Angela Lanbury version (where Lansbury recites them as if the character was making them up on the spot), but the first half of the song, which is basically just Rose being a nervous wreck, really is pretty irritating. This song doesn’t compare to the gratuitous wordplay passages in later Sondheim shows, but its real failing is that it’s the only song in Gypsy that doesn’t serve any real purpose and could be cut without anybody noticing, which is a severe let-down in a score that is otherwise so flawlessly integrated and economical. The sometimes annoying lyrics are actually much less of a mark against this song than its status as the only real flaw in one of the most perfect musicals of all time.

Verdict: Bad, essentially, though more for its context in the musical than the song itself.

Editorial: The 60th Annual Grammy Fiasco

I don’t think I have to tell any of you that the 60th Grammy Awards were a complete and utter fiasco. I’m not speaking so much of the broadcast itself, which while plagued with problems had a couple of genuinely worthwhile moments, particularly Kesha’s devastating performance of “Praying” and Patti LuPone’s stunning tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’m speaking more of the actual decisions made by the Recording Academy, which were so spectacularly wrong-headed that they will haunt that institution for years to come. There have been individual bone-headed calls and snubs at the Grammys before…as recently as last year, in fact…but this ceremony managed to do literally everything wrong, in a display of idiocy that will live in infamy as an illustration of just how low an awards show can sink.

The primary impetus behind this problem, at least as far as the central categories (i.e. Record, Album and Song of the Year) were concerned, was a poorly-executed attempt to pander to the political correctness claque (because, of course, doing so had worked out so well for the Oscars in the preceding two years). The Grammys had faced accusations of being “racist” because of their bias against Rap and Hip-Hop (which was actually rooted in snobbery rather than racism) for years at this point, but those accusations had become particularly strong after their decision, one year earlier, to award Adele’s 25 the Album of the Year prize over Beyonce’s Lemonade, something that even Adele in her own acceptance speech felt the need to apologize for. In an attempt to prove this assertion wrong, they favored their nominees of color over their white nominees this year, in some cases to the point of outright blindness: other than Lorde’s Melodrama, all of the Album of the Year nominees were black and/or Filipino artists nominated for Rap or R&B albums.

What sabotaged the chances of this working, other than it being an incredibly stupid idea in the first place, was the Grammy committee’s failure to take notice of two things. The first was a change in the winds of the political correctness movement, in which racial issues were temporarily out of focus and Women’s Rights issues were much more on the forefront of people’s minds. The second was the fairly obvious fact that the people of color they were favoring were all male, and the white artists they were shafting were nearly all female. So their attempts to deflect accusations of racism only led to accusations of sexism instead, with someone even making a “#Grammyssomale” hashtag in the same vein as the “#Oscarssowhite” one that started this snowball rolling in the first place.

They compounded this error by awarding the three top prizes to the weakest of the nominated albums, Bruno Mars’ 24k Magic. Kendrick Lamar’s Damn and Jay-Z’s 4:44 probably would have been nominated even without this nonsense, and choosing either of them would have made the shafting of the female nominees seem like much less of an insult. But 24k Magic, while it makes for a reasonably fun listen, was still essentially the same song nine times in a row, and it’s a song we had already heard with Mars’ single “Uptown Funk”. Moreover, “Uptown Funk” had become an instant classic due to its being such a perfectly constructed song, and without that flawless symmetry, the songs on 24k Magic come off as much less imposing. I could maybe see 24k Magic getting a Grammy nomination within the R&B category, but it’s not even a potential Album of the Year, let alone a credible winner in a year like this one.

And the irony was that all the time, the real Album of the Year, Kesha’s Rainbow, didn’t even get a nomination. Almost universally agreed by fans and critics to be the best mainstream album released in 2017, it should have been a no-brainer for the top prize, but that didn’t seem to occur to anyone on the Grammy committee. And since that album is inextricably associated in people’s minds with the “#MeToo” hashtag movement, this oversight only compounded the perceived sexism involved.

Of course, the attempt to appear non-racist can only go so far as an excuse for the bad decisions made this year: much of it can only be chalked up to the Grammy committees having their heads stuck halfway up their large intestines. For example, nominating Julia Michael’s heavy-handed “Issues” for Song of the Year while excluding Kesha’s epic lead single “Praying” was stupid in ways that had nothing to do with the racial aspect. And while Logic’s deeply moving song about suicide, “1-800-273-8255”, got a well-deserved nomination for Song of the Year, its presence only made things seem more insulting when it wound up losing to Bruno Mars’ generic dance jam “That’s What I Like”.

The Best Pop Performance/Album category was just as much of a fiasco as the top prizes, especially since many of the female nominees excluded from those races were actually nominated here, and still managed to lose undeservedly. Instead of giving Best Pop Performance to “Praying”, or Lady Gaga’s moving Country-flavored ballad “Million Reasons”, or Kelly Clarkson’s Aretha-esque “Love So Soft”, or Pink’s powerful political song “What About Us?”, they wound up giving it to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”. Now, “Shape of You” was the biggest hit of the year on the now all-but-irrelevant Billboard charts, so perhaps they felt they had to give it something. Still, while not incompetent, it is extremely unambitious, little more than a generic Club song, and it was up against several songs with far more serious and profound subject matter (that were also, perhaps more importantly, vastly better songs). Sheeran also won for his album, entitled Divide, over such better contenders as Rainbow, Lady Gaga’s excellent Joanne, and Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life. Now, Divide has some lovely moments, and is certainly a more interesting album than 24k Magic, but entirely too much of it falls into the “just-okay” category. I suppose the Grammys could have done worse in this case (Imagine Dragons’ dreadful third album Evolvewas also nominated, after all), but it was still demonstrably the wrong decision.

The saddest part is that even the winners were hurt by these decisions, because these “victories” emphasize and enshrine some of their weakest albums and songs over the better work they’ve done in the past. This has almost been forgotten now that everyone thinks of him as ‘that “Uptown Funk” guy’, but Bruno Mars used to specialize in big, nigh-operatic emotions on his first two albums—one of my perennial complaints about 24k Magic has always been that there is not a single song on it that could conceivably make you cry. As for Ed Sheeran, he too has written much better and deeper songs…indeed, he had another hit from the same album that was vastly more interesting and moving, and that really should have been nominated instead…it was called “Castle on the Hill”. It still wouldn’t have really deserved to beat “Praying”, but had it won, the outcome would have seemed far less insulting.

Even the awards in the other major categories were riddled with wrongheaded decisions. Alessia Cara winning Best New Artist seemed like a positive outcome all round at first, as she was probably the most talented and distinctive of this year’s nominees. But then I applied some thought to the subject, and realized that since Cara had released her first album all the way back in 2015, she really shouldn’t have been eligible at all, at least not in this year’s race.

Granted, sometimes the Grammys do wait a few years until an artist actually makes a significant mainstream impact to nominate them for Best New Artist, even if they actually debuted much earlier. This was the approach taken with such acts as Florence and the Machine and Esperanza Spalding, and I certainly understand the logic behind it, but given that Cara’s first single was a Top Ten hit in 2015, I don’t think that logic really applies in her case.

I suppose we can comfort ourselves with the fact that neither Julia Michaels nor Lil Uzi Vert (a third-rank Trap-Rapper with perhaps the most ridiculous vocal sound in all of Hip-Hop) got the prize, which would have been an exponentially bigger insult. Still, in accordance with the Grammys’ actual rules, the prize probably should have gone to either Khalid or SZA, two up-and-coming R&B luminaries who probably needed the publicity far more at this point anyway.

Meanwhile, Calvin Harris’ Funk Wav Bounces, Vol. 1 didn’t even get a nomination for best Dance/Electronic album. For some context in why this is such an outrage, you should know that in the early years of the 2010s, Calvin Harris completely reinvented the sound of popular dance music, creating a stylistic template so popular and enduring that it is still the primary basis for the sound of current EDM superstars like the Chainsmokers (the album with which he unveiled this sound, 18 Months, didn’t win a Grammy either, but it at least got nominated). Harris could have easily rested on his laurels, but instead he decided to create a completely new style of dance music again, trading his thundering dance ballads for a sort of glowing Pop-Funk that sounded like nothing ever heard before. I’d argue that kind of achievement deserves to be recognized, but as Ed Sheeran put in on Divide, what do I know?

And what actually won Best Dance/Electronic Album, you may ask? Why, an eight-disc box set of live recordings by Kraftwerk that, besides the gimmick of being in surround sound, are virtually indistinguishable from the studio recordings they’re duplicating. So an album that created a completely new sound from scratch (something the artist in question was doing for the second time, mind you) lost to an epic exercise in recycling existing material wholecloth…not only lost, but wasn’t even offered a chance to compete, as though it should have been obvious to everyone that it was unworthy of winning.

As far as the various Rock categories go, I will give the Grammys credit for having sense enough to give the title track of Leonard Cohen’s last testament You Want It Darker Best Rock Performance, but it really should have swept all the categories. In fact, it almost seems a little condescending to give the song an award for performance but not for its actual songwriting. The acts that actually wound up winning the other categories, the Foo Fighters and The War on Drugs, are both great bands and I say nothing against them, but Cohen’s You Want It Darker was the best Rock album of the 2016-2017 Grammy season as surely as Rainbow was its best Pop album (frankly, it could have done with an Album of the Year nomination, too), and the Grammys, given their well-known love for great artists of the past, should at least have been able to get that right.

In the R&B category, The Weeknd’s Starboy album won the prize for Best Urban Contemporary Album, which might not seem untoward to those only familiar with its radio singles, but will have anyone who has actually heard the entire album cringing in sympathy. Starboy featured four fine songs that have become enduring radio staples (the title track, “False Alarm”, “Party Monster” and “I Feel It Coming”), but the rest of the album is absolutely skin-crawling, resembling a Chris Brown album with better singing. Khalid and SZA were also up for this prize, but it really should have gone to Childish Gambino’s complex magnum opus Awaken, My Love, which they apparently thought was good enough for an Album of the Year nomination, but not good enough to win over The Weeknd’s worst album. And predictably, 24k Magic won against in the Best R&B Album category against far more legit R&B acts like P.J. Morton, Ledisi and Musiq Soulchild.

As far as Country goes, there were two albums in this era that were generally agreed to be neck-and-neck for the title of best. One won top prize at the CMAs last year, and the other won the same prize at the AMCs. The first was Chris Stapleton’s From a Room, Volume One, which did wind up winning the Grammy for Best Country Album. But the other, Miranda Lambert’s epic double album The Weight of These Wings, wasn’t even nominated, which is not only a serious oversight but didn’t exactly help dispel the accusations of sexism, either.

As for the ceremony itself, there were, as I said, a couple of sublime moments that made it worth watching, but the Committee made plenty of bad decisions there, too. For one thing, they made the perennial award show mistake of hiring James Corden to host. I don’t really understand Corden’s ubiquity as a host, to be honest. When Neil Patrick Harris was trotted out to host every awards show on the planet, it made a certain kind of sense…he’s a wonderful performer who actually did a better job with his hosting gigs than almost anyone else they could hire. Corden, on the other hand, is at best a passable comedic talent, and now that he’s been so massively overexposed through replacing Harris as the only awards show host in the world, most of the general public just seems to find him annoying. To make things worse, they had legendary comedian Dave Chappelle on hand, but just kept him hanging around at the edges of the performance. Why not have him serve as the host? Among other things, it would have helped dispel the aforementioned accusations of racism much more effectively than anything they actually tried.

They also devoted a ridiculous amount of time to a couple of pointless comedic sketches. One was devoted to Corden, Sting and Jamaican Reggae musician Shaggy messing around on the subway, and went on for almost twenty minutes. The other was designed as a middle finger to our current President…they actually presented the extremely minor award for Best Spoken Word Album on the actual Broadcast just so they could have various celebrities read from an insulting exposé about the Trump Presidency, climaxing with a cameo from Hillary Clinton. Now, I’m not suggesting our current leader doesn’t deserve the occasional middle finger, but I think Stephen Colbert has that job covered. The Grammys had more important things they should have been doing with their time, as we shall see.

Because of all the time wasted on this subpar sketch comedy, Lorde was not allowed to perform anything from her album, thus shafting the only female nominee they had even seen fit to nominate. The Tom Petty tribute was also cut short, as well as badly performed (I think very highly of Chris Stapleton, but Tom Petty covers are not really his forte), and there was no proper Chuck Berry tribute at all. Disrespecting the dead (especially the recently dead who were also legends of the genre) is one of the worst things an event like this can do, and they only succeeded in getting themselves into even deeper hot water.

I was more forgiving of the time made for Broadway performers (really, who can complain about getting to hear Patti LuPone sing?), but I will say that they made very poor use of Ben Platt. Platt is a wonderful musical actor, but the generic rendition of “Somewhere” that he was given here gives him virtually no opportunity to demonstrate why, probably leading many home viewers to wonder what all the fuss was about. And speaking of Broadway, while I can’t really complain about Dear Evan Hansen winning Best Musical Theater Album, I can think of plenty of shows that should have been nominated and weren’t, especially as they only gave out three nominations this year (odd, given the superlative amount of great Musical Theater during that season, as well as the emphasis they wound up putting on Broadway in the actual ceremony).

Overall, this Grammy ceremony was a failure in almost every conceivable way, and I can’t imagine I’m the only person who spent much of the broadcast openly booing at the screen. I’d like to think that this will serve as a lesson to future awards show that trying to satisfy the political correctness crowd will invariably backfire, but given the example set by the Oscars, I’m aware that next year the committee may just be digging itself deeper by trying to pander to the new accusations of sexism. In any case, if anyone still questions why I think art should remain a strict meritocracy and oppose political correctness encroaching on the arts, I present to you Exhibit A: The 60th Annual Grammy Awards.