Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I Heard the People Sing

This weekend I headed back up the corridor (as VIA Rail calls it) to Ottawa for the NAC Orchestra's tribute concert to composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil.  Known to pretty much everyone as "those guys who wrote Les Miserables".  While that has been their greatest success so far, they've done a lot more as well.  In preparation for attending the Canadian debut, (the concert has already played in at least Indianapolis, Baltimore, Dallas, and Pittsburg) I went searching for cast recordings.  Miss Saigon (1989) I listened to in its entirety (all 1 hr 47 minutes of it) while stuck in traffic last week and Martin Guerre (1996) the following day.  The Pirate Queen (2006) I couldn't find on CD so borrowed a childrens book that gave me the story line since it's based on the real Irish chieftain Grace O'Malley.  So I felt somewhat prepared.  Nothing beats a performance LIVE though!

All the vocalists were making their debuts with the NAC orchestra and what a line up of stars familiar with the material.  Starting with the most experienced, Terrence Mann was the original Broadway Javert in Les Mis, Lea Salonga created the role of Kim in Miss Saigon, Eric Kunze was Marius on Broadway (opposite Lea Salonga's Eponine) and Chris in Miss Saigon, Kathy Voytko was the standby Grace for The Pirate Queen, and Marie Zamora played Cosette in the original French production of Les Mis (and is married to the lyricist :) )

As always, the concert opened with an overture, no snappy title, just "Overture".  It was short with one line quotes of songs that would be expanded on later.  One that stood out was "Bring Him Home" which had a very high oboe part that Chip Hamann sent soaring.

The overture ran right into the Miss Saigon segment beginning with the chorus singing "Bui Doi".  An excellent choice to start.  It created the emotion and sense of longing covered in the plot and placed the musical firmly in the time around the Vietnam War.  Even not knowing anything about the story, it provided the background needed through lyrics like:

"Like all survivors I once thought, when I’m home I won’t give a damn 
But now I know I’m caught, I’ll never leave Vietnam.
War isn’t over when it ends, some pictures never leave your mind.
They are the faces of the children the ones we left behind.
They’re called Bui-doi.
The dust of life, conceived in hell and born in strife.
They are the living reminders of all the good we failed to do.
That’s why we know deep in our hearts, that they are all our children too"

Terrence Mann
Of course this is also accompanied by a lovely melody sung by Terrence (check out Indy's version).  Wow, his voice!  I don't know what I was expecting when he walked out (not looking all that much like his program head shot), but if all he did was sing, it would have been worth it.  However he also provided much of the entertainment value of the evening.  

Jack compared Alain and Claude-Michel to Rodgers and Hammerstein then had the audience practice pronouncing their names.  We must have sounded pretty good as Terrence declared that we had "good French".  Jack's reply, "well we are in Ottawa not Thunder Bay, they're good at this stuff".  He then proceeded to describe that in addition to Miss Saigon being a modern version of Madame Butterfly (the only opera I'm interested in seeing and the Canadian Opera Company doesn't have it planned next season :( ) inspiration came from the craziness of beauty pageants and indeed that's where the title came from and what "The Heat is On In Saigon" is a precursor too.
Lea Salonga

Another inspirational source was a photograph of a mother trying to pass her child to an American soldier.  I'm pretty sure I've seen this photo and yet now can't find it.  Lea's performance of "I'd Give My Life For You" where Kim sings about her son was so heartfelt.  She then lightened the mood with a story about when the show was in rehearsals.  She was cast at 17 after a world wide search for a girl who could look 15 yet had the vocal chops to hit a high E flat.  Knowing nothing of love, the director one day got so fed up with her ineptitude in a love scene that he told her to get out of the bed, and proceeded to get in with the guy playing Chris and demonstrated how to make love to a man, as Lea said 
"a w k w a r d".    Then added that since then she's learned a lot on her own and having fallen in and out of love, the romantic songs have developed more meaning.  Her duet with Eric of "The Last Night of the World" couldn't have been better.  It was neat to see second clarinetist Sean Rice pull out a saxophone for the few sax solo lines.

Kathy Voytka
Eric then introduced a song that will be added to the 2013 revival of Miss Saigon called "Maybe".  It's for the character of Ellen, Chris's wife once he returns to the US.  I get the feeling in the original development there were several songs tried and cut for this position in the plot where Ellen has just met Kim, so this is another chance to find the perfect one.  Personally I like the melody of "Now That I've Seen Her" from the original London cast recording, but I wouldn't say any more than "Maybe".  It was Kathy's first solo of the night and I continued to be impressed with the vocalists.   

She introduced Terrence again to sing "The American Dream", a song by the Engineer who would do whatever was needed for him to get ahead.  Right away this was going to be fun as Terrence put on a pair of sunglasses saying "check it out", and proceeded to pat the violas on the head, and twirl another's hair, before getting stared down by Jack and turned his affections back to the audience.  My favourite line of this song is "bald people think they'll grow hair, the American Dream".  It makes me smile every time.
Terrence as "the Engineer" with the ISO (Photo: Thomas J Russo)

On a personal note I'm very glad Miss Saigon was created.  Not that I've ever seen it or consider it my favourite musical, but because it resulted in the building of the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.  A theatre big enough to hold a helicopter on stage was needed and so back in 1991 construction started.  The theatre opening with Miss Saigon in 1993.

Marie Zamora
(Photo: Maggi Wunschi)
Terrence joined together with Jack to describe how Alain or Claude-Michel (I'm afraid I can't remember which, probably both actually) liked musicals, and saw a bunch in London/New York because France had no musical theatre scene to speak of.  So they combined forces and decided "why not France, why not now", and started their first "small, in the box" venture with the topic of the "very simple" French Revolution.  "Small" being in jest of course as this work featured an orchestra of 52 with an additional 40 performers.  The musical was The Revolution Francaise, and as Jack slightly butchered the pronunciation of "Francaise" and went to repeat it, they both chimed in "I'm/You're from Thunder Bay".  Rehearsed or improvised (which I think it was) it got the appropriate audience laugh :) The song introduced the audience to Marie, who sang "Au Petit Matin" as Marie Antoinette the morning she learns she'll be going to the guillotine.  My French is no where near good enough to understand any of what she sang, but it didn't matter, her clear soprano got the point across.  

Eric Kunze
Marie's French introduction to Eric for the title song in Martin Guerre I was actually able to follow.    I wasn't a fan of the recording, granted this was one of the better songs, and it got even better with Eric singing it.  I wasn't sold on his voice after the earlier duet, but really enjoyed the emotion and power he brought to this song.  The following duet with Marie "Live With Somebody You Love" sealed the deal.  The final song in the Martin Guerre section was "Land of Our Fathers".  The 1999 cast recording doesn't include this piece (unfortunately that's the only copy the library has. Actually I figured I was lucky to even find that one).  It was part of the London production from 1996 and according to wiki the show was reworked before coming to the US with 40% of the material being new.  Yet still never made it to Broadway.

Up next was a testament to the fact that what gets written doesn't always make the show.  Jack said that putting together a musical is like CSI, in the end you have a whole pile of dead bodies, or in the case of Alain and Claude-Michel, songs.  "I Saw Him Once" was originally a song for Cosette, however Les Mis was running about 3 hours and 40 minutes so something had to go.  Marie's lovely soprano fit it just right.  Lost from Miss Saigon was "Too Much For One Heart" because the director said "there is no good theatrical reason for Kim to sing ANOTHER ballad".  So it became the duet "Please", and Lea said they still regret the change.

The first half ended with a song that has been recorded a huge number of times (something like over 200)  and has over 5000 various versions on youtube.  Kathy and Lea sang yet another variation, inspired by Glee, of "I Dreamed a Dream".  Really I don't think the "popular" twists do the song justice.  It doesn't need any vocal ornaments, but can completely hold its own being sung straight.  But maybe I'm just a purist.

The second half opening Entr'acte was decisive Irish fiddle music.  I wonder if concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki got some tips from Natalie MacMaster when she was there earlier in the season for the crazy solo he had very much in Celtic style.  Turns out The Pirate Queen came about because Riverdance producers approached Alain and Claude-Michel with the idea to dramatize the story of Grace O'Malley.  Kathy described Grace as a sailer and chieftain, who met the Queen and saved Ireland.  All in a days work.  She then sang "Woman" which is a great "I am woman" empowerment song.  Without missing a beat she switched to the other end of the emotional scale evoking vulnerability at she and Eric sang "If I Said I Loved You".  The "Finale" included the chorus and had the lead characters get married!  What's this a happy ending?  Well I don't know the whole plot, so maybe someone else dies and it's a mixed happy ending like Les Mis, but a happier conclusion than Miss Saigon.

Marie Zamora
The opening of the Les Mis overture began, and 30 seconds in abruptly stopped with Jack saying "But before all that...".  Talk about getting the audience on the edge of their seats with anticipation then pulling the plug!  It was while watching  a revival production of Oliver in London that Alain realized an epic novel could successfully be adapted to a musical.  Going home he started to re-read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and ideas jumped off the page.  That's how it all started, and the first song they wrote was "On My Own" or more accurately "Mon Histoire".  Marie started in French with Lea joining in with the English...quite a combination that worked very well.

No need for plot summaries here, Lea, Kathy and Marie adopted the characters of factory workers upset at Fantine, a unknowing audience member being cast in the part as they directed their anger to her, in "At the End of the Day". (See following link from ISO performance.  Same cast except for Stephanie J. Block replacing Kathy and Peter Lockyer in place of Eric)

Terrence continued to be the comic relief of the evening, this time accompanied by Kathy as they embodied the inn-keeping Thenardiers.  After kicking Eric out for not having any money, Kathy turned her charms on Jack while Terrence did a little pick pocketing.  Yosuke was enticed by her as well and joined in the dancing unlike Zach de Pue who played it straight (just watch until after "At the End of the Day", it's hilarious!)

Marie, Eric, and Lea reprised roles they've played (Cosette, Marius, and Eponine respectively) for a beautiful version of "In My Life".  The backdrop grew darker and white lights appeared when Terrence returned for "Stars".  What a treat to hear it from the Broadway original Javert!  There was a bit of echo added to the mic, which added a different dynamic, but I don't think the singers needed it.  The song was created to provide background on why Javert is so obsessed with finding Valjean.  I can't imagine Les Mis without it, it's my favourite song.

Perhaps the most iconic piece, which probably has more renditions than "I Dreamed a Dream" is "Bring Him Home".  The version I'm most familiar with is Colm Wilkinson's who originated the role in London and on Broadway, but I think I preferred Eric's rendition.  The start of the challenging high note had an ever so slight wobble, but was quickly corrected and ended beautifully.

The entire cast reassembled for "One Day More".  A powerhouse arrangement, similar to the one at the end of Broadway's Leading Men actually, that had the people on their feet almost instantly.  After applause for the vocalists and the orchestra, none other than Alain Boublil himself took the stage for a bow.  It was a nice touch he was there for the Canadian premiere.
Final bows with Alain
(unfortunately Lea out of frame on far right)
But really they couldn't leave without singing the concert title song, and as the orchestra started again, and the audience took their seats the finale of "Do You Hear the People Sing" began.  The lyrics are invitational and it was all I could do not to join in, it just felt like the audience should have replied with "yes we'll join in your crusade, we will be strong and stand with you...".  In any case I left the theatre singing and I'm still catching myself humming it and other songs from the show.  It was a wonderful concert.  If anyone at the TSO is reading this, add it to the list of those I highly recommend bringing to Toronto!

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