The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Hairspray

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lost in the Stars

May 6, 1974  American Film Theater   97 minutes

Even as American theater's cultural influence was in decline as a popular art, a TV & documentary producer named Ely Landau made the audacious move of founding a new production company to make movies of revered and important plays that had been neglected by Hlwd and cinema in general. Instead of commercial release, these films played abbreviated runs in major cities for audiences of subscribers. Eight titles were offered the first "season" and six the second and last--coming along once a month. Among intriguing and well-deserved selections such as O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, Albee's A Delicate Balance Pinter's Homecoming, and Ionesco's Rhinoceros, was one musical play: Maxwell Anderson & Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars.
The show was a succes d'estime on Bway in late 1949, but not one that was picked up for tents or tours. Based on a then contemporary South African novel by Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country; its theme of race relations had as much relevance for Americans, tho this South African variation had its own unique exoticism. Most significantly it was the final Bway show for the eclectic Weill--whose premature death at age 50 deprived us of untold works during Bway's blossoming Golden Years. Especially in light of his output thru the '40s, both prolific and fascinating:  starting with Lady in the Dark in '41, which was as weird as it was engaging, followed by  One Touch of Venus in '43, Weill revealed a light Bway populist touch, that somehow maintained his Teutonic flavor and classical sophistication. Both were hits and both were made in Hlwd, in virtually unrecognizable form (as was an earlier tuner, Knickerbocker Holiday from '36, that was also written with Maxwell Anderson.) Weill was little respected in Hlwd. An ill-timed operetta, The Firebrand of Florence, followed on Bway as WWII was ending in '45, and was so quickly forgotten it took many decades to be exhumed--if only for academic purposes (tho Weill's score is lovely). An ambitious American opera, Street Scene in '47 was Weill's bid to push past  Gershwin's pathway--and found its way into the opera canon. Love Life in '48, in collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner was as much a early concept musical as R&H's Allegro. The same could be said of Lost in the Stars, which followed a year later. These were all dense, thoughtfully constructed musicals as boundary-stretching and intellectually challenging as Sondheim's. Yet each, with its own flaws, has just survived on academic fumes, not timeless artistry (as in Weill's Threepenny Opera). Had he continued composing thru the R&H era, there's little doubt Weill would be as much a giant of the American musical. Who knows what he might have made of Huckleberry Finn--which he'd begun just prior to his death.

I never paid much creed to Lost in the Stars in my Bway education; one of those shows preserved with compromised recordings from the '40s, which my '60s-trained listening ear had little patience for in my younger years. And despite its beyond-glamorous title it somehow emited the aura of tragedy & gloom that didn't draw my interest--I got enuf of that from my parents--and the very reason I turned to Musical Comedy as my savior. But then no one has explained the show as well as Ethan Mordden. in his '40s volume, Beautiful Mornin'. Maxwell Anderson viewed it as a play with songs and wrote it as such, incoporating a mixed-race chorus narrating the story while remaining outside it. (The sort of thing that was still "new" 20 years later when Harold Prince did it in Zorba.) But Anderson's verbose adaptation of Alan Paton's narrative is more literary than dramatic, and it is Weill's score (much briefer than his recent standard) that breathes any life into the show. Yet there's not enuf music to justify the piece as the opera it should've been. Rouben Mamoulian directed it on Bway--a distinctive thru-line for the man who first staged game-changers like Porgy & Bess, Oklahoma! and Carousel. But Lost in the Stars has never taken hold in the repertory. An attempt to remedy this was a '72 revival, initiated at Kennedy Center that was brought to Bway for a painfully brief run. This may have well sparked Ely Landau and the board of American Film Theater to select it as one of their inaugural movies. And to emphasize that these were real movies, not filmed stage plays, established if unexpected film directors were chosen: John Frankenheimer, Guy Green, Tony Richardson. Daniel Mann was a twenty year veteran of of TV dramas and mid-range studio films, some adapted from Bway plays. (He's mentioned in Comden & Green's "Drop That Name" lyric from Bells Are Ringing: "Daniel Mann/and Lynn Fontanne/Elia Kazan/the former Grace Kelly...") His being named director of Lost in the Stars was neither unexpected nor inspired. He's not particularly clever in designing the musical sequences, nor does he embarrass himself. But some dramatic scenes are surprisingly flat, given that this was Mann's specialty.

On Bway, the original Porgy, Todd Duncan was thought too lightweight in the role of Stephen Kumalo which was conceived for Paul Robeson, who declined. Brock Peters was more successful in the revival (receiving a Tony nomination a year after the fact) and thus offered the movie. The casting in general is quite good. 
Playing Kumalo's errant son, Absalom, is Clifton Davis, proving himself every bit as charismatic as he was on Bway in Two Gentlemen of Verona. And Melba Moore, the too-brief Bway sensation (Hair, Purlie) gives a gut-wrenching performance as Irina, Absalom's pregnant and abandoned woman, with a hair-raising "Trouble Man." I have mixed feelings about Brock Peters, tho I suspect these are clouded by my distaste for his character. Straight-laced ministers make unappealing protagonists (as Tenderloin and Sadie Thompson also proved). And as seen here, Kumalo is rather dimly naive and a blundering ass at times (calling Irina a whore; begging for leniency for his son, from the father of the murdered man). Peters was a powerful. charismatic heavy in the films of Carmen Jones and Porgy & Bess., but I find him less effective here.
The movie is quite strange and off-puting but upon my third viewing I began to get into it. It does have its unique South African milieu (tho it states "filmed on location," we don't quite know where). The musical's opening is a descriptive passage from the novel made into choral narration; but played over the images it describes--aside from overstating the obvious--is rather banal. Whatsmore, the helicopter shots have none of the intended impact (i.e. Sound of Music). The song begins, "There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills/These hills are grass-covered and rolling and they are lovely beyond any singing of it"--and yet they are singing of it; the song devolving into a depressing litany decrying a neighboring barren region. You're ready to slash your wrists and we haven't even met the characters yet. And it must also be said that the clash of musical sensibilities--a Germanic flavored Africanism--is more readily accepted on the opera stage than in the realism of cinema. The show's choral numbers are heard over story montages; effective in Kumalo's search for his son in "Thousands of Miles" (shot thru the streets of Johannesburg) but ridiculous in "Fear," which has blacks & whites alike, running (to or from what we do not see) in panic--looking more like a '50s sci-fi horror flick. "Cry the Beloved Country" which sounds like a gallows march and amounts to a second title tune is bizarrely juxtaposed on a crowded courtroom as it thoroughly empties, and lingers for half a minute longer. And then it shifts to prison; a chorus of convicts continue the song a capella for a truly arresting--albeit too brief--moment. The most radical change to the score, happily takes away a child's song, "Big Mole" and reimagines it for a sultry barroom flirtation dance. Staged and performed by Paula Kelly, the piece (which has the composition and lighting of a Mamoulian film) is the movie's highlight. 
Kelly, who was rendered invisible next to Shirley MacLaine & Chita Rivera in Sweet Charity, proves herself worthy of attention; not just for her moves but for the distinctively African feel of her choreography--nothing else is as musically indigenous in the movie. Otherwise each character's arias are unadorned, shot like stage performances: Brock's "Little Gray House" and "Lost in the Stars"--filmed in a JoBurg chapel; Melba's sweet "Stay Well" and shattering "Trouble Man;" Clifton's positively operatic, "O, Tixo, Tixo, Help Me." Perhaps the best realized song cinematically is "The Train to Johannesburg," which is sung "live" by the Zulus as opposed to an unseen chorus on the soundtrack; and filmed with some camera movement. The native dress (i.e. costumes) of the Zulus are striking and defining.
Alfred Hayes' screenplay pares down a lot of Anderson's verbosity (the film runs a brisk 97 minutes) but adds little eloquence to Cry, the Beloved Country. Once Absolom is convicted, the film runs straight downhill. Kumalo loses his faith in God, shoos away his parishioners and climbs a mountain to grieve the moment of his son's execution in the far off City. The story makes much of blaming Gold and the rise of The City for all the evil in the world. And at the very bell toll signifying the hour of Absalom's hanging, as Kumalo grabs hold his own neck in utter anguish, the movie ends. Just like that. No solace here. Wasn't there some possible redemption?--some crumb of hope ahead, with the addition of Kumalo's nephew, Alex, and Absalom's wife, soon to be mother--all to be safely reared in the country? Not a chance. It's grim beyond relief. They did first call it a musical tragedy after all. As an Addams I should love it--but then I'm the blonde sheep of the family.
Tho I frequently went to films and theater in 1974, the subscription policy of American Film Theater kept me from attending their films. Lost in the Stars played the Zeigfeld Theater for two nights, beginiing May 6. This house would serve a more exciting event later that same month with the unveiling of MGM's breathtaking compilation of treasures, That's Entertainment--most of which were still new to me then. In short order the Museum of Modern Art curated a lengthy retrospective of MGM films, including many musicals I'd never been privileged to see (The Bandwagon, Show Boat, The Pirate). It seems so quaint to remember a time when one had to rely on the randomness of repertory film houses to catch an old movie one had only read about. MOMA was as nice a place to attend such "private screenings," as anyone could want. It was a real Manhattan crowd; and one always got to run up and gaze at Picasso's Guernica and other iconic works by Matisse or Magritte when one was a member; which even I could afford to become. While I continued on as a Brentano's salesclerk, Bill--who was not retained after Xmas help--had stumbled into a temp job on Wall St. that would turn into a 25 year career--with an income that would always surpass mine. By summer we yearned for independence from our separate but mutually cramped quarters under the thumbs of Russian dowagers in Spanish Harlem. Stories of apartment hunting in NY were legion, so we geared ourselves for months of searching. And as we both were Real Estate fetishists since high school, we looked forward to the dozens of tours ahead.  In that regard it was unfortunate, for we only saw one apartment, the first: 327 West 83rd St--just off Riverside.; a lovely tree-lined block lined with brownstones and mid-size one-bedrooms, sandwiched between fabled Pre-War apartment houses of 12 or 15 stories. It was immediately clear this suited us perfectly; two rooms separated by a tiny kitchenette, hall, closet & bath for $375 a month--rent that seems absurdly low now, but even half of which I sometimes struggled to meet in 1975. I don't know how I managed to get the bedroom, with its 5th floor Rear Window panorama, but it was a dream come true and a happy relief from the depressingly drab confines of 141st St. Are there many moments as exciting in a young man's life? As of September 1st I was living on my own without my parents, without Baba. Just Bill & I, roomates like Ruth & Eileen looking to make good in the Big City. We were Upper West Siders now. And I was happily--if you'll excuse the expression--lost in the stars.

Next Up: The Little Prince

Report Card:   Lost in the Stars
Overall Film:  C+
Bway Fidelity:  B+
Songs from Bway: 12
Songs Cut from Bway:  2 
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers:  "Big Mole" "Stay Well"
     "Cry the Beloved..." (a capella coda)
Casting:  Talented, well chosen
Standout Cast: Clifton Davis, Melba Moore
Cast from Bway:  Brock Peters ('72 revival)
Direction:  Uneven, often flat
Choreography:  Minimal but exceptional
Scenic Design:  Shantytown
Costumes: Muted but unique Zulu designs
Standout Set: None really
Titles: Helicopter landscape shots
          over song, "The Hills of Ixopo"
Oscar noms:  None

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