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A CurtainUp Feature
Adding Music to The Great Gatsby and The Dead

by Estelle Gilson

Editor's Note: Even though I did not share Estelle Gilson's view of The Dead, I was fascinated with her link between this new genre of musical and the recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby for the opera stage. Production notes for Gatsby are at the end of this feature. The production notes for The Dead, can be found at the end of my review . You might also want to re-read our review of Marie Christine, a musical which many felt would have worked better as an opera -- though not everyone was in agreement about the music's operatic strengths.

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music
--Aldous Huxley
I grew up in a time when the following Yiddish synopsis of theater-going was perfectly apt. "When he wants to, she doesn't. When she wants to, he doesn't. When they both want to, the curtain comes down." But those were innocent days when audiences broke into nervous laughter at the word "damn."

One would expect evenings at the theater to be more dramatic in these immodest times, but language, sex and nudity can provide only momentary titillation. Satisfaction is dull stuff and no sensible playwright lingers at the moment "they both want to." Memorable theater (whether comedy or drama) is about trouble; about misunderstandings and misfortunes; about how and why people who want something (or merely think they do) struggle toward that goal.

With billions of people having passed through the billions of places in the world at billions of moments of time, there is no doubt an infinite number of unhappy stories to tell. But only certain ones seem stir composers' passions. In 1999, 2500 years after Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia, American audiences saw Marvin David Levy's opera, Mourning Becomes Electra, a reworking of its central theme (based on Eugene O'Neill's play). The German composer, Richard Strauss, the Russian Sergei Taneyev, Australian Liza Lim, Swedish Johann Christian Friedrich Haeffner, and French Darius Milhaud, are just a few of the others who composed operas based on The Oresteia.

The number of Shakespeare's plays made into operas and musicals - many more than once and in a variety of languages - is astonishing. Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream, Taming of the Shrew, Othello, Romeo and Juliet do not come near completing the list. La Traviata, Billy Budd, Hello Dolly, Showboat, Peter Pan and countless other musical works were based on popular fiction.

It is not surprising therefore that composers Shaun Davey and John Harbison respectively, would write music for dramatizations of James Joyce'sThe Dead, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, considered two of the greatest short works in the English language. Was it particularly risky to choose such well known works? Probably not any more than to compose music for any other reason. It is the music that must carry the new work. If these pieces of musical theater are to survive, they must (after the first inevitable complaints by purists about how the original stories have been ruined) be able to captivate and entertain future audiences who don't know or care a fig for the originals.

The Great Gatsby and The Dead share other qualities beside their renown. They are tales of past love haunting present lives, and in the end, both protagonists are defeated, though in different ways, by death. The two stories are rare in their awareness of music in our lives. Both have party scenes filled with singing, dancing and "casual dialogue which present a surface of gaiety, beneath which there is an undercurrent of secret desires, and unattainable dreams.

Even their dramatizations are similar. Both employ much of their novelists' dialogue. However, their story telling is reversed. While readers of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby are addressed by a narrator, Nick Carraway, readers of The Dead learn about its protagonist's Gabriel Conroy, thoughts and feelings from James Joyce, himself. In these theatrical versions, John Harbison, who wrote his own libretto for The Great Gatsby, has made Carraway a character within the story, while Richard Nelson, who wrote the book for James Joyce's The Dead, has made Gabriel the narrator of his own epiphanous story. The composers of both works integrated the kind of contemporary music their characters would be singing and dancing to into their scores, and both productions feature on-stage musicians.

Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s. It was the era of prohibition, the lost generation and Jazz. Nick Carraway arrives from the Midwest to work in New York, and visits his cousin Daisy and her socialite husband Tom Buchanan, who live in splendor at their Long Island summer home. Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson the wife of the George Wilson, the local auto mechanic. Daisy learns that the mysterious newcomer directly across the bay, who seems to have unlimited amounts of money and liquor, and has been throwing dark to dawn parties to which no invitation is needed, is Jay Gatsby. The working class Gatsby and the wealthy Daisy had known each other when Gatsby was a young Army officer. The vision of unattainable Daisy (like Beatrice to Dante) had kept Gatsby alive in the World War I trenches. From his garden Gatsby can see the green light of Daisy's boathouse. It becomes the beacon of his hope. He has come to win her back.

There are the major ingredients for an opera here. Love, hate, jealousy, greed, lies, deceit and murder - to say nothing about wild parties at Gatsby's estate. The characters are wealthy, spoiled and self centered. Only Nick maintains a sense of decency and tells the pink-suited Gatsby that he (Gatsby) is worth more than all the rest.

Harbison has written music which conveys all the drama, passion and more. The music is for the most part lyrical, interspersed with "hot" jazzy pieces performed by a pop singer, sometimes using a megaphone, and chorus. (The lyrics for these songs are by Murray Horwitz. On their own, they would make a splendid recording.) The mad abandon of the choreography including the Charleston, is a delight. Harbison was fortunate in every aspect of this production, There is perfect unity in the sets, lighting, the remarkable costumes. The principal performers have clearly thought out their roles and are committed to the score. Jerry Hadley, the tenor who plays Gatsby, observed that upon first reading his part, he found nothing in the music that didn't match his own conception of the character.

The Great Gatsby succeeds as an opera not only because its music defines its characters. Harbison has taken Fitzgerald's cold, unpleasant people and made their longings known to us. His music shows us the touching side of Gatsby's madness, the pathos of Daisy's loneliness, the sadness of Carraway's ironic voice. It also paints oppressive heat, describes New York and bubbles briskly as the good champagne Gatsby serves his guests. Most of all it goes beyond setting the appropriate music to Fitzgerald's words, to expressing what even those perfectly chosen words leave unexpressed.

The Christmas party of the Morkan sisters in Dublin, is the setting of James Joyce's The Dead, published in 1918. The party is a warm hearted annual affair given by the elderly music teachers and singers, beloved as God's gift to Dublin's musical scene. Gabriel Conroy, their nephew, and his wife Gretta, along with students and friends including the worried mother of the perennially drunk Freddie, attend regularly. The first scene of this one act show is filled with singing and dancing, and concern about whether Freddie will arrive and how drunk he will be if he does. Much of the poetry for the songs has been adapted from the works of Irish poets, including Joyce, himself. Many of the songs are related to works Joyce refers to in his story. On the surface this is a happy crowd, fairly comfortable with each other. The sense of satisfaction they radiate therefore threatens dullness, a threat, the composer and lyricist did not heed. In the tightly controlled and brilliant hands of James Joyce, the very first moments of Gabriel's appearance on the scene - his encounter with the maid, Lily as a waltz is going on in the background, is laden with sexual and social overtones. Their dialogue on stage is mundane and weighs little in the picture we begin to form of Gabriel or the young maidservant.

The attractive setting of the first scene in the Morkan home, and the songs introduced as part of the evening's entertainment as the various guests sing for each other are pleasant. There's a nice sense of what it meant to be mildly intellectual and middle class in Dublin. But neither the music nor the lyrics add much to our understanding of any particular character or relationship. Only Gretta's song, "Golden Hair", through which Gabriel learns of her past love story far before he learns of it in the novel, creates any sense of tension, but even that is not maintained.

In the original story this climactic moment is withheld until the last scene when Gretta and Gabriel return to the hotel room they have rented in town. Their children are being cared for at home and Gabriel, who moments earlier had been half mad with love and lust for his beautiful wife with the red glints in her hair, learns that a song she heard at the party has reminded her of a boy who died for love of her. While Gretta recalls poor Michael Furey and cries herself to sleep, Gabriel, left alone, compares his own love to that of the passionate young boy, and looking out the window, contemplates the snow falling over all of Ireland - even on Michael Furey's grave.

The theatrical version deprives the audience of knowing anything about the mounting sexual tension within Gabriel and the direct effect upon it of Gretta's revelation. But it isn't the change in the story-telling which causes this "musical" to fail. After all, many successful musical works have ridiculous stories that would have you believe that important action has taken place while you were in the restroom. Prosper Merimée's novel, Carmen, was completely changed by its librettists (Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy) who even added characters they thought would appeal to French audiences. One hundred and twenty-five years since its first performance there is still no agreement on how to deal with the opera's dialogue. None of that makes any difference. The Spanish flavor and the passion that Bizet caught in his unique music has made Carmen the most popular opera in the world.

It is the music that fails James Joyce's The Dead.

This is a deep, sad story about a marriage within a group of good people who love each other and love music. Most of them are struggling with what to others would seem inconsequential issues, but which go to the core of each of their beings. Nevertheless, the music we hear them sing and play is music any of us could sing and play. It doesn't reflect their uniqueness, doesn't tell us about their souls and rarely touches our own emotions. The last song in which Gabriel, awake in the middle of the night sums up his feelings should have been the most moving in the score. Instead it was the most difficult for me to sit through. I could hardly wait for the repetitions - in which astonishingly, the entire cast joined - to end.

James Joyce's The Dead is a musical creation that seems not to know its own intentions. It carries Joyce's name in the title, as though it is afraid to stand alone. Its star, Christopher Walken's singing voice is as illusory as the emperor's new clothes. The cast's Irish accents wavered and varied. Its music at best was pleasant, at worst grating, and seemed to have more to do with appealing to as varied an audience as possible, than with reflecting the emotions of its characters. The inexpressible in James Joyce's story, The Dead has still not been expressed.

Libretto: John Harbison, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
With popular song lyrics by Murray Horwitz
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Choreographer: Robert LaFosse
Fight Director: B.H. Barry
World Premiere Cast
Daisy Buchanan: Dawn Upshaw
Jordan Baker: Susan Graham
Myrtle Wilson: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
Jay Gatsby: Jerry Hadley
Tom Buchanan: Mark Baker
Nick Carraway: Dwayne Croft
George Wilson: Richard Paul Fink
Conducted by: James Levine
The Great Gatsby was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera Company to celebrate James Levine's 25th anniversary with the Company. It was first performed on December 20, 1999
For production notes and another review of The Dead, go here

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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