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Broadway Embarrassment: Pride and Musical Taste
I remember very clearly the music from my childhood. In many ways, the music of my childhood separated me from other children just as surely as my lack of stature and habitual silence did. I was the stereotypical "smart kid", scrawny, four-eyed, staring a lot, talking very little. It seemed that I had an early awareness, perhaps due to the sense of being imperiled by the world of much larger people and things around me, of the fragility of my being and the hostility, at best the indifference, of the larger world. I was not a very secure child, but I was for the most part a happy one. I had my family, my books, my music, and the woods behind our apartment building to play in, pulling crayfish out of the creek and jumping the same creek in my sled in winter.
Last night, I couldn't sleep, so I read for a while and then got into a conversation over Google Chat with a friend doing his doctorate in Canada. We got to typing about music, what is good and what is bad, simultaneously sending each other youtube links to share tunes one of us had missed but the other adored. I think I convinced him to listen to more Dylan. We both enjoyed some Waits, including the seasonal favorite, Christmas Letter from a Hooker in Minneapolis (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12qBoy2rhVw ). I found myself drifting away from the music I discovered as a teen and adult back further to the music I inherited from my parents, that music that formed the soundtrack of my childhood home.
The music I loved as a kid tells you a lot about my parents. I didn't know "The Wheels on the Bus", but I knew all the words and could belt out with the best "Joe Hill" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f2J4ceCikI ) and "Union Maid" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yuK4m3UzRk ). I knew "Rocking Chair Money" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZeDVUuRhrw ), Buffy Ste. Marie's version of "Sweet America" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w90rNBBtbfE ), the Byrds "Chestnut Mare" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXTnYCg8v8o ), and everything by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. I loved to sing along to "Guabi Guabi" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXnn9ihSqes ). I was steeped in folk music and sixties rock
But my favorite songs, except for the song I thought perfect at the time, Guthrie's "Gypsy Davy" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9GkJnAcF4o ), were Broadway showtunes. Not the showtunes from productions like "Oklahoma" or "Seven Wives for Seven Brothers", but the blasphemous Jesus Christ Superstar, in which Judas is the hero, at least the protagonist, of the piece, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, and Evita. I can, and do, still sing these songs today, to myself where no one else can hear me. The height of love, for me, is still contained in "To Each His Dulcinea" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBblwM3X3ds&feature=related ) and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1xrCXNmPSw ). Easter still makes me think of "King Herod's Song" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ijXIJRMhKE )and "Jesus Christ Superstar"(Note: the video is awful, but this is the voice I remember, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFw7K5-MV8I&feature=related ):
Was Buddha where it's at,
Is he where you are?
Could Mohammad move a mountain
or was that just p.r.?
Even though I know better, I still view Peronism through "Evita", and through her other demagogue movements to embrace the people. Watching my son grow away from my wife and I, I set the passage of time to "Sunrise Sunset" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DujvTfXoFA&feature=related ). I can still make myself laugh by listening to Hair's "Donna" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoEDQr7tKKk ), or thinking of that great line: "I wouldn't kick Mick Jagger out of my bed, but, no, I'm not a homosexual".
When I was older, I still enjoyed the occasional musical, but none with the same fervor I had for the shows I knew through my parents. I saw Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar twice, Godspell also twice, Man of La Mancha, and Chess, but missed Les Miserables to my eternal regret because it was too expensive. I even saw Hair, and that was a disappointment. Listening to the music, I had invented a pretty cohesive story for myself, and then I had seen the movie which had a plot and all that. (One of my mother's more embarrassing moments was due to the movie Hair. We went to see it as a family. I did not know what "sodomy" meant, and for some reason the word stuck in my head and I just had to know what it was. I retained that one word through the entire film, and once we were out on the sidewalk again, turned to mom and asked her about it. The discomfort on her face as she attempted to come up with a definition suited to my age was, in hindsight, hilarious. She tried to ignore the question, she tried to distract me with other observations, but nothing worked. I insisted on an answer. I forget what she came up with, but it was enough to trigger my ich response.) The stage musical is more…random and disjointed. And the famous nude scene is just ridiculous when the naked performers are standing stiff, like they are at attention in a work camp, desperately wanting to not be naked.
I was as a teenager and as a young adult a little embarrassed by my love of Broadway. It did not go with my post-scrawny image. I wasn't an aesthete, an actor, or a singer. I had no excuse for my deviance from the group norm of heavy metal and hard rock. That was my crowd, and my music. It was just that I had other music too, which did not belong to the group: my folk, my early rock, my Broadway tunes. And classical, especially the Russian composers, Chopin, and Beethoven. I didn't go out of my way to hide my deviations, but I didn't announce them either. They became private vice, shared with my mom and my sister, but not something I paraded on the street corner. Pride is a very funny thing, especially when you are young and so many objectively unimportant things are of overwhelming significance.
I don't like these songs of my childhood to change. When they made the film Evita, with Madonna and Antonio Banderas I was disgusted. Madonna's voice is too weak for the part. And Antonio Banderas is not Mandy Patinkin; therefore, he is not Che. In a show, it is not the purity of the voice that matters, but the powers of expression of the voice, its ability to portray emotional range--cynicism, desire, idealism, betrayal, love, regret, rage. A voice that is too pure is just as bad for a showtune as a voice that is too weak. It can take the heart, the life, right out of the song. For me, Zero Mostel and Topol are the only true Tevyes; the 'real' Jesus Christ Superstar has Murray Head as Judas and came out in 1970; the movie soundtrack is the music of Hair. It is not the first recording that is authentic to me personally, but the one I remember, the one that became dear to me all those years ago.
I am not ashamed of my addiction to old Broadway shows anymore. I am too old to limit myself to the acceptable entertainments my friends are willing to allow me, those that have the imprimatur of the group, and as I have grown older I have fewer friends as a group, and more friendships with individuals, all very different people with very different lives. If we did not allow each other our deviances from the norm, what a boring, insipid group we would be, and we know that now, while we were more group-conscious when we were young and more afraid of exclusion.
My son does not appear to like showtunes. He wanders around the house singing "Iron Man" (I detest that song), "Voodoo", and the theme song from Psych. He doesn't really like little kid songs either. He wants to listen to the music mommy and daddy listen to, and seems to like good percussion and a strong base line. What will be his private vice when he is a teen, confined by his pride, I wonder.