Thursday, October 07, 2010

Don't Stop The Greasepaint.

Jim Brochu (Sir) & Josh Grisetti (Cocky) laugh between poses after the
 York Theatre's "Musical In Mufti" performance of
"Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd."
"It's a relationship show," said Sacha Newley, son of Anthony Newley and Joan Collins. It was also his first time to even see his father's show, "The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd."

And it is. And as you can tell from the photograph, Jim Brochu and Josh Grisetti love each other -- and it shows.

Jim Brochu & Sacha Newley, son of Anthony Newley and Joan Collins.
It  was his first time to see "Greasepaint."

Which is why everyone who saw this show, over the weekend, loved the experience, whether they liked "the show itself" or not. I say that because the show has a famously "difficult" book.

At the audience talkback after the afternoon performance of "Roar of the Greasepaint," I asked Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director, the question, "Why does Cocky come back for Sir at the end, when Sir has done such horrible things to him?"

"Greasepaint" director Marcia Milgrom Dodge
 with Jim Brochu, Sacha Newley & Josh Grisetti.

Jim had said, earlier, to me, "In the play, I make him starve, I rape the girl he falls in love with and I accuse him of murder. What's to come back for? More abuse?"

"I'm going to answer the Jewish way and ask you what you thought," she responded, laughing, to the audience.

Wrapped up on the politics of the piece, I gave some intellectual theory about how the oppressors in society need their oppressees, and that oppressees need their oppressors, maybe out of some sick co-dependency or something.

"The obvious answer," I stated rather declaratively, "is that none of it is real. It's two hobos acting out a surrealist play to show the inequities in society. There was never any chicken for Sir to withhold and the "rape" was about as real as a Snidely Whiplash train gag. Sir is not really Sir. He's a hobo pretending to be Sir. These are two friends who need each other because, alone, they can't put on a show."

A musical "Waiting For Godot" is how some people describe "Roar of the Greasepaint." (And, in fact, it belongs, scholars tell me, to the Absurdist Movement in American theater).

The next night, I was sitting near Sacha, at a benefit for the Dana & Christopher Reeve Foundation, where Jim and Josh performed "Where Would You Be" (from "Greasepaint"). Here it is, taped by someone from the audience:

I asked Sacha if the show, written in 1965, was the first, or one of the first, examples of the melding of theater with confessional singer/songwriter. After all, the book seems almost like a revue. Each song is sung whole with little interruption, usually as a solo, and the dialogue seems to string them together, rather than integrate them into action.

Outside, the pop world was quickly changing. Broadway shows no longer fed the Top 10. Instead, the charts were dominated by the British Invasion, the personal songwriter, which was the antithesis (supposedly) of the old Tin Pan Alley songwriter, whose main motivation for writing a song, as Sammy Cahn once put it, comes from "the phone call."

("What comes first? The music or the lyrics?" He was asked once. "The phone call." He answered.
SIDEBAR: Back a couple of weeks ago, when they were renaming the Philip Loeb Room at Actors Equity, I found a bookcase with some bound volumes of the Actors Equity newsletter. Inside, in an issue from, like, 1923 or something, there was an notice about how ASCAP was formally protesting the use of the vulgar term "Tin Pan Alley" to describe their very professional work and environs. Now, of course, the term is deified.)
Sacha looked intrigued. "My father had a horrible childhood of desperate poverty. When he wrote, he wrote from his personal experience. That's really him inside those songs."

My friend, singer/songwriter Robert Leh, sent me this link -- a very rare performance -- to Newley singing "Who Can I Turn To?". This was taped during the run of "Greasepaint" so he's in full costume -- and probably we're seeing how he performed it on stage.

Notice, despite the theatrical trappings, how the song seems to come from such incredible depths of feeling. His entire life seems to inform every note and every word, even as his exposed hands, looking as big as his head, reach, clutch, and embrace in moves that are pure Vaudeville. Watch him thrust his hand into the air (to God, who has abandoned him?). It's bone-chillingly theatrical, and yet completely honest.

Maybe "Greasepaint" is even more than that. Not just a melding, in and of itself. But perhaps it's also a metaphor for the relationship, itself, of theatre and modern singer/songwriter pop music, which prides itself on being more "real" than "Broadway." Please. You can't get more real than Anthony Newley. Rock and roll (and hip hop) needs Vaudeville just as much as it needs the gritty streets from which it comes.

At the talkback, a woman remarked that Josh Grisetti sounded very much like Anthony Newley when he sang, and wondered if he had done an intentional imitation, or studied his performances to learn how.  (He didn't and hadn't.)

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge looked startled because it had occurred to anyone on the production team that Josh was "imitating" Newley.

"It's just the cockney accent," she responded. (Josh is on vocal rest and didn't participate in the discussion.).

Later, I was having a conversation with Quentin Earl Darrington, who, in the show, sings one song, the (now) jazz standard, "Feeling Good." "I didn't know the song. I got it on Monday and just started listening to everything. From Nina Simone to Michael Buble, and kept thinking, 'I don't know what they're singing about.' I mean it's a beautiful song, but I wasn't even sure they knew what they were singing about. I couldn't feel anything...

"...until I heard Anthony Newley sing it. And it all fell into place. I just got it."

I got a chill and was reminded of our "Salute to the American Songwriter" concerts at NAS, that the writer, no matter how flawed a voice he or she might have, brings something to a song that, perhaps, no one else can, though I'm not suggesting great singers cannot interpret and make songs their very own.

But, check this link. It goes to several versions of "Who Can I Turn To?" Tony Bennett. Vicki Carr. Two of the greatest singers in the world. But, do either of their performances even remotely approach what Anthony Newley does in that hobo costume and pin spotlight?

On the other hand -- and I have to say it -- Josh Grisetti got there. He really did. I had rivers of tears streaming down my cheeks when, at the end of the play, he comes back for Sir and sings "Sweet Beginnings."

Grisetti, gazing up into the now-helpless and lonely eyes of Sir, as  portrayed by Jim Brochu, raised the hair on the back of my head, and took what looked like sentimental straw, on paper, and spun it into meaningful, emotionally profound gold.

Lots of talk on the theater discussion boards have harshly criticized the book of "Roar of the Greasepaint," saying that they ought to just jettison the books of both this and his earlier his, "Stop the World, I Want To Get Off" (also an experimental, essentially plotless) show, creating a "Stop the Greasepaint" revue. Maybe someone, somewhere, has already done it.

But, I have to tell you. I saw two performances. The first one last Friday night. The last one on Sunday night.

If you had asked me, on Saturday, what I thought of the show, I'd have agreed with the above. Book, dumb! Book, silly! Book, awful! Songs, fantastic! Songs, mesmerizing!

And, yet, today, I'm sitting here wanting to see the whole thing again, from the obviously placed songs that seem suspiciously tenuous in their relation to the plot, to every groan inducing joke.( "I got an eyeful. An eyeful towering above me.")

Jim Brochu & Sacha Newley at the York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti production of
"Roar of the Greasepaint."

Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Jim Brochu, Sacha Newley, Josh Grisetti, TCM host Robert Osborne.
How sad and desperate our lives would be if were to "stop the greasepaint" and rid ourselves of the stories and the theatricality and puts it all into perspective, making us laugh and cry.

It's the relationship that makes "Greasepaint" work. It's "relationship" that makes the world work, especially when it comes with a hat and cane.


We would never have had this experience without Jim Morgan and the York Theatre's "Musicals in Mufti" series. I am providing a link to their website. If you are a reader and you are in a position to make donations to worthy causes, send them a couple of bucks to support this series and tell them I sent you.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Fantastic casebook on the mufti experience! I didn't know of the controversy of the value of the libretto. I played Cocky in college, and just enjoyed the yin and yang elements of the characterizations -the cerebral versus the grounded, the have versus the have-nots. Just enjoyed the allegory to what the world was experiencing in the 60s -prejudice, war, disparity among the social classes... thanks for the discussion -wish desperately to have seen it. And Sasha...fantastic!

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