La Boheme; Movin' Out

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Movin’ Out
Directed by Twyla Tharp

For Pete’s sake, why all the fuss about the Baz Luhrmann La Boheme! You’d think that no one had ever thought of updating classical opera before, or casting "realistically" trim and youthful romantic leads. The production, currently at the Broadway Theater, which brings the action forward to the 1950s, opened earlier this month to reviews that ranged from the rhapsodic to the studiously excited. Only Michael Feingold in the Village Voice had the taste and good sense to recognize it for what it is, "a well-meaning and conventional little event."

Actually, it’s a reconstituted version of a well-meaning and conventional little event, a staging by Luhrmann and his wife, the designer Catherine Martin, from more than a decade ago. Created in 1990 for Opera Australia, it has been filmed and is broadcast from time to time on public television. I’ve happened on it myself two or three times. The first time I was transfixed.

But that’s a long time ago, now, and nothing stinks like old directorial "concepts." In that production, moreover, Mimi and Rodolfo were sung by the London soprano Cheryl Barker and an Australian tenor named David Hobson, two artists whose musical chops excelled even their striking good looks. For Broadway Luhrmann has assembled an "international" cast that includes three different Mimi-Rodolfo pairs, two Musettas and two Marcellos. Some of these, like the Marcello I saw (Eugene Brancoveanu), and like the singers who play Rodolfo’s other two flatmates (Daniel Webb and Daniel Okulitch), may be perfectly good actors with perfectly good instruments. But the Mimi I saw, a Russian soprano named Ekaterina Solovyeva, looked (in her Act I trenchcoat and bad platinum wig) like character in a Saturday Night Live sketch—and seemed about as fragile. She had a tendency to stagger forward unconvincingly every time she coughed, bending slightly at the waist and clutching her stomach like one suffering from acute gastric distress rather than consumption. As for David Miller, her Rodolfo, it would be hard to envision a more wooden performer.

Ironically, though, the main drawback to this Boheme may arise from its chief asset. Ms. Martin’s scenery, of which there is plenty, seems to have created a rather serious acoustical problem; this, in turn, is exacerbated by a sound system so poorly designed (or manned) that voices not only appear separated from their point of origin but also, at crucial points in the score, from each other. I heard the opera from two rows in front of the balcony overhang, and the night I attended the children’s chorus seemed disembodied and off-key, and during all of those heart-rending melodic juxtapositions between the two pairs of lovers, what Mimi and Rodolfo were singing sounded miles away from what Musetta and Marcello were singing. (Talk about heartbreak!) Elsewhere, the production is peppered with arresting if familiar images, chief among them that of the two leads embracing before Luhrmann’s signature "L’Amour" sign. All of which is to say that Luhrmann’s Puccini is much like his Shakespeare was with respect to acting (his Romeo Juliet starred those giants of classical acting, Clare Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio). It’s full of clever visuals and fine as long as you don’t care at all about the music.

Luhrmann has stated, over and over again, that his purpose in mounting this production was to make the opera more "accessible" to young audiences. That seems like humbug. It would be hard to think of an opera more innately accessible than Boheme, whose plot was almost universally familiar even before Rent, and whose score is capable of stirring the emotions of a fish—even one with no knowledge of Italian. The libretto becomes no more or less accessible for being set in the bohemia of 1950s Paris than that of 1830s Paris. It’s far more likely that Luhrmann resurrected this production so as to squeeze every last penny out of it, capitalizing on the unaccountable success of his Moulin Rouge, another period extravaganza set in artistic Paris.

"High art" and popular culture really meet in Movin’ Out, Twyla Tharp’s electrifying new full-length ballet at the Richard Rodgers. Built around a score made up entirely of songs by the pop balladeer Billy Joel, the show isn’t so much an attempt to popularize the form of ballet as it is a statement about the relationship between "high" and "low" art and part of an ongoing dialogue Tharp has been having with her audience for decades about the nature of dance and its relationship to reality and to various musical forms. It’s an example of what Tharp has termed "crossover" ballet, a form she helped to invent, and which she has been exploring since the early 70s when she galvanized the dance world with a piece for the Joffrey Ballet called Deuce Coup, choreographed to Beach Boys songs. Since then, Tharp has created ballets using ragtime, jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley standards and new-wave rock, and juxtaposed classical and baroque music with contemporary dance idioms—all partly with a view to suggesting that demarcations between "serious" and popular forms are artificial and limiting in terms of what we allow ourselves to derive from art.

Joel seems, at first glance, like an unlikely collaborator for Tharp. For one thing, he’s not a songwriter of the first water. He’s not a gifted lyricist or melodymaker. For another, he takes himself very seriously as a musician and a composer. Unlike Elton John, the pop singer-songwriter to whom he is most frequently likened (the two are actually touring together just now), Joel has pretensions. His last album, a selection of classical pieces, some of which are used in Movin’ Out, is on sale in the theater lobby: it uses the old Schirmer’s trademark—the narrow green-black lettering and laurel-leaf border stamped on bright matte gold—for its cover art. It doesn’t allude to the design or incorporate it into some piece of original artwork, it simply reproduces it. This is essentially Joel’s approach to songwriting. The doo-wop stuff, the pseudo-classical pieces, the hard rock anthems, the soft rock ballads, the Springsteen imitations—24 of which are performed, in Movin’ Out, by a 10-man band (led by Michael Cavanaugh at evening performances and Wade Preston at matinees) from on an hydraulic lift that spans the stage—it’s all pastiche but without the wit and knowingness that would make it artful. (This is a man who sets lyrics to the second movement of Beethoven’s "Pathetique.") Joel is like a comic whose repertoire consists of doing impressions of other comedians. He can mimic. What’s missing is the impulse to comment and transform, to offer esthetic input. In this, he couldn’t be more unlike Tharp, who quotes others (and sometimes herself) for the purpose of saying something new.

In fact, one of the remarkable aspects of Movin’ Out is the way in which Tharp, consciously or not, manages to use Joel’s essential mediocrity—drawing on his banality and his propensity for cliche—so as to create places where the form of dance can supply a subtext. Essentially, what Tharp has done is to fashion out of an array of seemingly hackneyed tropes and images from American popular culture (many of them supplied or exemplified by Joel) a narrative that serves the purpose of dance the way certain age-old stories and popular legends served earlier choreographers. She weaves a generic narrative—a familiar, almost boilerplate Vietnam-era story of youthful idealism, disillusion, loss and restoration—around a set of characters most of whose names are culled from Joel’s lyrics, who come from Joel’s hometown of Hicksville, Long Island, and who metaphorically live their lives against a backdrop of his songs.

Tharp doesn’t make her narrative conform to Joel’s lyrics, though. Her use of the songs is tremendously varied. Rarely do the lyrics actually reflect what a character might be feeling, and they almost never correspond directly to the action. More often, Tharp is content to have what’s happening onstage bounce glancingly off the subject or mood of a song, making contact at only one or two points. Sometimes a song will offer an ironic contrast with what is happening in the story. At one point Tharp uses a love song ("She’s Got a Way") objectively, as music that’s actually playing while characters are literally dancing. We can’t help noting the contrast between the vacuousness of the lyric and the very real poignancy of what is happening onstage, in which characters thousands of miles apart, separated by war, are dancing with people they don’t know and don’t care about while thinking about each other.

The show is almost completely dialogue-free. The "libretto" resides in the conjunction between what we see and what we hear. What makes Movin’ Out Tharp’s show rather than Joel’s, however, is not this or the fact that of the two casts who dance the principal roles the first is made up entirely of dancers from her own company (Ashley Tuttle, Benjamin Bowman, Elizabeth Parkinson, Keith Roberts and John Selya) or the set by Tharp’s longtime collaborator, Santo Loquasto, but the degree to which, like most of Tharp’s work, it’s about dance itself.

Superficially, Movin’ Out is about Eddie, his girlfriend Brenda, his pals James and Tony, and James’ girlfriend Judy. Brenda dumps Eddie and goes off to find herself while James and Judy get engaged. Brenda reencounters Tony and takes a second look at him. But then the boys go off to war. James is killed in combat trying to look out for Eddie and Judy is left grieving. Eddie and Tony come back from overseas transformed. Tony, violent and uncommunicative, enters into an abusive relationship with Brenda while Eddie hits bottom, hanging out on skid row with drunks and junkies, shooting up a lot. None of this is remotely interesting, but none of it is remotely important either. What infuses the piece with meaning and drama are Tharp’s departures from the balletic structures and forms she has used to tell the story. What happens to the characters isn’t the point. What’s important is what happens to the way they dance.

This manifests itself in terms of the three things that Movin’ Out is more fundamentally about. They’re the three things that more than anything else absorbed the generation that came of age in the 60s: growing up, Vietnam and relationships—not love but literally relationships: the politics of partnering—how to be free, who was more important, where would the power lie? There’s a three-way pun in the title. The title song is about a young man leaving home to start life on his own.

And it seems such a waste of time

If that’s what it’s all about

Mamma, if that’s movin’ up then I’m movin’ out.

The title phrase has a military sense, though, too. (One speaks of troops "moving out.") It could also evoke the end of a relationship.

Reviews of the ballet, when it first opened, took gentle exception to the fact that Tharp doesn’t provide an explanation for the breakup that takes place during the first number. I thought she made it perfectly clear in the language of dance why the relationship founders. Both characters regard themselves as soloists—the man, Eddie, in particular. He’s thoroughly involved in his own heroic moves. As performed by John Selya, the extraordinary young dancer who plays the role in the evening cast, Eddie is epic, mesmerizing, Baryshnikov-like. But he never looks at Brenda when she dances. This is bad etiquette from a balletic standpoint. Courtesy demands that the traditional hero and heroine of romantic ballet take delight in one another’s virtuosity. That is, after all, what each is falling in love with in the other. If we didn’t know that going into the performance, we learn it from the couple who dance primarily in the language of the classical pas de deux. James never takes his eyes off Judy. Tharp seems to have given Eddie a vocabulary that precludes partnering. No wonder Brenda ditches him.

By the same token, Brenda seems drawn to Tony because his idea of partnering demands input from her. He wins her with a kind of challenge step. It’s a device you see a lot in backstage musicals. One dancer improvises a fancy step that the other picks up. The first dancer is impressed and this creates heat. Then the second dancer does a fancier step that the first has to pick up. More heat. My sense was that by not offering a motivation for the breakup that could be read on any other plane, Tharp was forcing us into reading the choreography in a way we might otherwise have escaped having to do. Tony’s approach to wooing is fun because it’s competitive—almost combative—though ultimately about the joy of the dance; and that’s significant because of the way Tony dances when he’s alone. Movements of Tony’s that start classically tend to turn martial halfway through. With the advent of the real war that Tony naively fantasizes about, the joy disappears from the idea of conflict, and a different style takes over, one that marries Eddie’s epic prowess to Tony’s aggression. And this remains the dominant mode until the idea of the agon is resocialized in a grand, ecstatic pas de deux between Brenda and Tony.

I asked a friend who had seen Movin’ Out to help me think of a word that would take into account the three notions of separation inherent in the show’s title. He asked if there wasn’t some word in one of the classical languages. I thought about it and said no, I didn’t think there was. Because separation anxiety isn’t an heroic concept. Maybe that’s the point. Movin’ Out, like the generation it chronicles, is really all about fear of growing up, fear of war, fear of relationships. The baby boomers were an unheroic generation—anti-heroic, if you want to be kind.

If you want to be really kind, you could say that they were the generation that sought to make navel-gazing heroic, to ennoble alienation by experiencing it on a grand scale. There’s a sense in which Tharp’s choreography picks up on this, too. Not that there’s any navel-gazing in the ballet, heroic or otherwise. What’s heroic is the dancing, particularly the solos and variations of the male dancers, particularly Eddie’s. And it’s chiefly embodied in Selya’s performance. It reaches its pinnacle, though, where Eddie is at his most abject, when the joyous moves that defined his narcissism and ability to revel in self-love morph into drug-addled disconnectedness.

Make no mistake: Movin’ Out isn’t The Deer Hunter or The Things They Carried. But it’s for an audience that has internalized The Deer Hunter and other keynotes of popular culture—novels like Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, songs like White Rabbit and Sam Stone, movies like Who’ll Stop the Rain, Coming Home and The Big Chill—to such an extent that they have become a part of that society’s experience of itself.

And that, in the end, is the difference between Baz Luhrmann and Twyla Tharp. For all his self-righteous high moral tone, Luhrmann, who reminds us in his program notes that grand opera was the television of its day, and that one should only hear it in the original Italian, doesn’t really care about the audience for opera or Puccini. If he did, he would never condescend to us by cluttering up the production with supertitles in funky typefaces intended to indicate the tone of every utterance. He would not capitalize on our ignorance by directing the scene where Mimi and Rodolfo hunt for her key as though the verb "to search" (cercare) were synonymous with the verb "to gaze" (guardare). ("Are you looking," Mimi asks? "I’m looking," he sings, eyes fixed on her so that the audience laughs knowingly.)

Luhrman can patronize us because he thinks the populace needs him to interpret high art for us. Tharp is probably incapable of condescending to either her audience or her material (she probably even likes Billy Joel) because she doesn’t see "high" and "low" art as adversarial or distinct. In Tharp’s estimation—and this is the whole point of Movin’ Out, really, and what makes it the intellectual feel-good hit of the season—art and popular culture are interdependent. Or, in the words of a sticker I once saw on a desk at the New York Press office, "without pop culture, there can be no culture."

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