I was struck by a delightful little coincidence this morning. In my last blog entry I started off with the memory of having gone to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Radio City Music Hall in New York at the age of fourteen. And ended after a string of youthful memories with the fact that I shared a birthplace with the radical abolitionist, John Brown, who raided Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in 1859, for which act he was soon captured and hanged. The coincidence is the fact that in 1929 the Pulitzer Prize went to the writer Stephen Vincent Benét for his poem John Brown’s Body, the very same writer whose story, “The Sobbin’ Women” about the myth of the Roman rape of the Sabine women, became the basis for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
I dug up this bit of trivia because I was struck with the charge by at least one modern-day feminist (supported by many of her commenters) to the fact that this Broadway musical purports to be about song and dance and love and marriage but is in fact about rape and the Stockholm syndrome. One of the commenters even writes: "I’ve never seen “Seven Brides…” and don’t plan to!"
The six younger brothers, if you remember the plot, go into town, grab up the single girls, and steal off back to their mountain cabin with prospective brides. A politically correct sensibility comes into play here. Millie, the wife of the oldest brother Adam, had been duped into marrying her backwoodsman husband before learning he was looking for someone to cook and clean for him and his six brothers. She comes around to accepting her lot for herself, but when the boys follow their brother's example and show up with six “brides,” Millie insists the girls be well cared for until they can be returned to their families in the springtime, when the road, which has been cut off by an avalanche, can be cleared. Stockholm syndrome – because the girls have time over the isolation in the winter months to fall in love with their captors.
The past, they say, is a distant land, with different values, attitudes and belief systems, and nothing illustrates this better than the contrast between the view in 1954 of a “jolly good romp” and the view in 2018 of a “crime scene” to describe the very same phenomenon.
Everybody familiar with theater is familiar with the need for a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Plays, even the good ones, are easily subjected to exaggeration, to coincidence, to unlikely plot twists and too readily resolved dilemmas. Corners have to be cut to accommodate the need to squeeze what would take months or years in real time into a two or three hour period to be represented on stage. In opera, characters fall in love instantly, love turns to hatred and back in seconds, and people are suddenly willing to die for somebody they only met fifteen minutes ago. Emotions are not so much real as expressed by proxy. They become real when sung about, rather than experienced through interaction.
I have mentioned many times before what I call the moment my life went from black-and-white into technicolor, when I was twenty and for the first time I got to experience on a daily basis what life can be in a world-class city. I saw my first opera in Munich, Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. A perfect combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. Sublime because there was something magical about sitting in a theatre with a whole bunch of strangers and being transported by an orchestra of talented people playing for singers and dancers, also capable of lifting you out of your ordinary circumstances to a place where imagination runs free. Once you get used to the idea of princesses coming out of oranges and dying of thirst, the rest is a piece of cake. [Here, by the way, is a video of San Francisco’s Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the march from The Love for Three Oranges.]
I love all kinds of musical performance, piano, violin, cello concerts, chamber music, symphony orchestra performances, operettas and operas. And the American answer to the operetta, the Broadway musical. I remember my reaction the first time I heard somebody tell me he hated opera. “The voices sound too unnatural, too strained,” he told me. “Not strained,” I answered back. “Trained!” Cultivated. Disciplined. How could he possibly not see the work that goes into training an operatic voice? OK, so I'm not so crazy about hard rock and I find a lot of rap too aggressive.
Every musical genre has its followers as well as those who remain unmoved. Some people don’t like jazz, others turn their noses up at baroque. Even more do so at countertenor voices. And many people find the American musical too hokey for words. I love blue grass, country, gospel, blues. Love Dolly Parton and honky tonk. Love Japanese enka. Love folk guitar. The Mighty Wurlitzer. And the music of the oud and the zither and the sitar. Hell, I even love bagpipes. So I really have trouble understanding how it is that people take exception to American musicals. But obviously, the thought of people suddenly bursting into song when you least expect it is too big a stretch for some people.
OK, so it's absurd for Freddy Eynsford-Hill to ring Liza Doolittle's doorbell in My Fair Lady and then launch into a first tenor paean to the street on which she lives. For me that absurdity is just part of the nature of theater. If you want real life, you can wash, dry and fold your laundry, follow the latest shenanigans of a crooked politician, watch cars go by on a freeway. Me, I’ll take every moment I can snatch away from real life to watch people do things that I myself can’t do, particularly things that require talent way beyond the ordinary. Dmitri Hvorostovsky when he sings, Gene Kelly when he dances. Yo Yo Ma and his cello. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek-to-cheek. The way over-the-top choreography of the finale of Chorus Line, and the many hyper-athletic performances like the barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Seven Brides is not usually listed among the top musicals. It doesn’t pop into your head as readily as Oklahoma, or South Pacific, or The King and I. West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s a long long list. Cabaret. Rent. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Guys and Dolls. Showboat. Man of La Mancha. Camelot. And they extend right up to today with such winners as Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera. And most recently The Book of Mormon and Hamilton.
But it still holds its own for a musical from sixty-four years back in time. It was the highpoint in the careers of several of the principals, but others had talent that obviously couldn’t be contained. Marc Platt, who played Brother Daniel, went on to dance for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and to become director of the ballet company at Radio City Music Hall, among his many other accomplishments. Jacques d’Amboise, who played Brother Ephraim, was principal dancer for the New York City Ballet with dances created for him by George Balanchine and is the winner of several prestigious awards, the Kennedy Center Honors Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, National Medal of the Arts, among them. Russ Tamblyn went on to an unforgettable performance as gang leader of the Jets in West Side Story. And Howard Keel and Jane Powell are in their own way legendary.
The musical nearly died out in the late fifties, and Seven Brides is associated in many people’s minds with its decline. I’ve been trying to figure out why and am not completely satisfied with the standard explanations, the rise of television, the vertical nature of the film industry, etc. But I don’t really care. I loved The Book of Mormon and will get to Hamilton one day when I win the lottery. And their success suggests the day of the musical is not done.
And thanks to all those people out there transferring film to digital and getting things out on YouTube, and others fixing up old stuff, as well as the staying power of theater, including movie theaters showing classics, the rumors of the death of the musical are clearly premature. As for that other issue, the problem of reading and watching material from that foreign land that is the past, with its racism, sexism, homophobia and hokey humor, I think we should recognize that one can still appreciate a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace without worrying about the medieval religious self-loathing behind such expressions as “a wretch like me.”
And just as we shouldn’t cry “Nazi” every time a right winger calls for something that exposes a fascist mentality, and trivialize the horror of Auschwitz by overusing the word holocaust, we shouldn’t trivialize the real victims of Stockholm Syndrome by self-righteously dismissing a tale of the Old West in which some backwoods yokel talks about “goin’ into town an’ gettin’ me a good woman!”
You can hate Japan for their defense of hunting whales, hate the U.S. for their support of Donald Trump. And you can hate the past for their misogyny and racism. And still marvel at Japan’s exquisite knowledge of beauty, the U.S.’s capacity for embracing diversity, and the past’s rich storehouse of people who could sing and dance.