ALL GOOD GIFTS/ON THE WILLOWS (from ‘Godspell’)

 

I thought I heard, recently, that there was going to be a new national tour of this classic old 70s musical –perhaps I dreamt it, or if I did hear it, I might have now missed it –still, just the rumour got me a bit excited!  Though of course, nothing can possibly match the first time…

And the first time I saw ‘Godspell’ (a Tuesday night in the New Theatre, Cardiff –I’m guessing 1976) I was so blown away by it that I went back nearly every other night that same week, (I even sneaked in during the interval in the Saturday matinee where my wife to be – who coulda thunk back then – was watching it with her one-day-to-be-bridesmaid), to see it again and again. Mr Obsessive, even then.  Even today, i’m not exactly sure what Stephen Schwarz had intended as the effect of his musical (apart from money in the bank, obviously), but the impact upon me was pretty momentous –despite what it might be easy to see as crass, irreverent, flippant, gimmicky-hippie interpretations of gospel narrative, ironically I found that, with searing freshness it brought to life not only the narratives and teachings of Matthew’s gospel, but even, in some weird way, the person of Christ himself.  I can remember writing a (very bad, cringingly prosaic) poem about this, called ‘The Man’, the idea being that the musical had somehow helped to flesh out his reality for me in a new and unexpected way.

The other impacting effect of the musical is akin to hearing  gospel narrative all in one sitting –as I experienced most powerfully in one Edinburgh festival seeing Alec McCowan performing/reciting ‘The Gospel According To Saint Mark’ –it’s the shock, the unusual experience of seeing the arc of Jesus’ ministry from its beginning, the calling of the disciples, through to the end – betrayal, crucifixion (and of course, mysteriously, gloriously, what follows!)

These two songs are kind of book ends in that respect.  ‘All Good Gifts’ is sung, initially, by one of the disciples in the excitement of the early days of following the master, and intersects passages from the sermon on the mount.  It is, of course, that old chestnut of favourite harvest hymns, ‘We Plough The Fields And Scatter…’ – originally 18th century German, and translated into English in the 19th century (and mercifully cut down from its original 17 verses) –and given here a great new stirring melody.  As soon as I could, I taught it to our congregation for our own harvest celebrations!  In the context of the musical, the disciples are still bubbly, anticipatory and confident.  In the third verse they join in glorious harmony while the soloist improvises soulful responses of gratitude –“I really wanna thank you Lord…” etc.

Within an hour or so of dramatic action, and in theatrical terms in the second half of the production, the mood has slipped to a more realistic awareness of conflict, threat, impending suffering.  ‘On the Willows’ seems a strange insertion –an old testament psalm of exile in a minor key, sung ‘out of action’ by (at least every time that I have seen it) the musicians themselves rather than the actors, while on stage, there is a stylised re-enactment of the Last Supper with, most affectingly, Jesus embracing each disciple with some unique gesture reminiscent of their own story or actions from earlier in the narrative.

The mournful psalm captures just the right tone for the occasion –‘but how can we sing/Sing the Lord’s song/In a foreign land?…’ It’s Psalm 137,isn’t it, and it’s inspired lots of interpretations and versions -there’s the ’round’ that Don Maclean used to do; there’s a Leonard Cohen song based on it; my old house-mate Tim wrote a great song based on it, I think. (yes, Tim?) And..should we mention Boney M? But this version is lovely – all acousticky like an early Paul Simon song, all minor chords and sweet sad harmonies.The song symbolises the end of more naive idealistic rejoicings; or at least it signals significant grief-times, sobering times when those kind of songs must give way to more plaintive dirges.  Perhaps a repetitious cycle of experience most communities of believers must necessarily encounter, if they are also to know ‘reviving’ experiences and rediscoveries of resurrection joy and hope.

The movie version was…worth avoiding, but theatrical performances of it still give me a buzz, and yes I still find the music , admittedly  ‘of its time’ but despite that, compelling- for me, these two songs especially; I am glad to have become acquainted with it.  It’s now – for good or bad – a part of my internal musical fabric.  [smiley face signifying acknowledgement of pretentious phrase]

A SIMPLE SONG from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’

Started singing this, this morning, while I was showering and changing after a swim at Merthyr Leisure Centre. What triggered it I can’t imagine. I haven’t thought of it in a long time.

Its place in the timeline of my music-life is easy to pinpoint: 1976, I’d just started my PGCE teacher’s training in Cardiff University and bought the LP in a wander-about-town, one lunchtime, on a total whim. The purchase of such an item hints quite strongly at a complex confluence of attractions: not just the exotic and (at that time, for me) alien appeal of a liturgical Eucharistic mass (as opposed to the distinctly low-key non-conformist ‘communion’ services) but also – what seems an incongrous alliance – the excitement of performance and of experimental  musical ‘theatre’– after all what I mainly knew of Bernstein was that he had created the great score for ‘West Side Story’. The liner notes suggested, too, an attempt to blend a variety of musical styles and traditions in this enterprise of re-interpreting ancient liturgy. And even then, 40 years ago, such attempts at a kind of artistic synchretism always appealed.

This song sort of opens the performance, or..no, it kind of breaks across a grander, more traditionally choral ‘false beginning’ to the Mass, and it speaks to yet another internal impulse within this worshipper. I’m not sure whether, by this time, we’d discovered the simpler worship music songs of John Wimber and Vineyard; I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet discovered Taize or (even later) John Bell/ Wild Goose Worship chants, but the longing for less-cluttered expressions, to balance wordier, more cerebral hymnody, was certainly there. [Of course we were becoming familiar with songs emanating from the house-church movement, many of which meditated on single phrases: ‘Jesus/ He died/He rose’.. etc.. And many of the songs coming from the charismatic movement eg. Fisherfolk/Church of the Redeemer songs were both ‘simple’ (Consider their famous ‘8-fold Alleluia’) and frequently open-ended in a way that encouraged improvisation (‘Come into his presence singing’.. and Max Dyer’s work song ‘Pulling the Weeds’, and  Diane Davis’s artless-timeless’Thank you Lord’ and many more…)]

So yes, this song eloquently addresses that need: along with ‘simplicity’, an invitation also to  improvisation. ‘Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.’ There’s truth in this. Of course, there’s a quaint and obvious irony  in the song’s premise – ‘Sing God a simple song/Lauda laude/Make it up as you go along…’ – that this is a constructed casualness, only apparently improvisational (ars celare artem!): this ‘simple song’ is of course exquisitely and consciously crafted by a master musician’s skilful artistry.

I’ve only ever seen Bernstein’s Mass performed on one occasion (in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – beautiful but often criticised for poor acoustics) and found it on the one hand a bold and exciting project and on the other a little awkward in overall construction and ultimately not totally satisfying. Still, the ‘simple song’ has stuck with me, as a song and I suppose as a concept – and it was a nice surprise to find, since it came popping up out of my head this morning, that it must have taken some kind of root in this little brain; and this heart still thrills to ‘make it up as you go along’ and sing out semi-improvised Laudas and Laudes to its God.

LOVE THEME from ‘LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG’ – Michel Legrand

Of course you could say that the whole of ‘Les Parapluies..’  is one long song – it is after all a seamless piece of sung dialogue –recitative, like opera – from beautiful beginning to beautiful end.

I watched the film one evening, while I was still living with my parents, presumably because there was ‘nothing else on’, or perhaps I convinced them it would help my A level French studies.  It’s hard to imagine Mam and Dad watching it with me (Did she knit her way through it? Did he read the Echo? ‘Watching’, in the same way, perhaps, in which I ‘watch’ TV with my family –doing a jigsaw on the coffee table, doing ebay negotiations or playing scrabble on the laptop) but –at an impressionable age, of course –I found the whole thing very poignant; the delicious sadness of that final scene stays with me –soft snow falling on a petrol station in the dark …

I don’t know if the main protagonists –the delectable Catherine Deneuve and… the bloke -sang their own parts [no they didn’t – note to self:Check on Wikipedia before writing! ] or whether they were dubbed, but the sound was sweet, clear and affecting,  and the music, like all great opera, soon made the unnatural device of singing everything (even the most mundane, casual remark) seem as natural as breathing.

The particular ‘song’ I’m thinking of here I always assumed was called ‘Ne me quittes pas’ which the Deneuve character begs her boyfriend more than once during the lyric.  Perhaps Jacques Brel’s song of the same name meant that Michel Legrand  thought that he would call his something else, and popularise it internationally under its English title (‘I Will Wait for You’).  But I’m just guessing.

The song covers the pivotal part of the narrative.  The young man announces that he has been drafted to do his National Service and will be away for two years; she is distraught, not sure how she can cope with such a long absence; since this is their last night together, he tenderly leads her up to his room (in the familial apartment) where they will have a night of physical congress to remember (and from which, of course, a conception occurs).  The song covers all that dialogue –the revelation, the anguish, the tender reassurances, and also in fact covers their goodbye the following day – remarkable that the one song spans so much of that central narrative without it appearing strung out or contrived, and the romantic sweeps and swoops of its melody are entirely appropriate and entirely captivating.

I was reintroduced to the song through the singing of Nana Mouskouri who, on her appropriately titled album ‘the Exquisite Nana Mouskouri’ gives a sensitive, faultless rendition of the song – in French, I think.  Yes, certainly: ‘No je ne pourrai jamais vivir sans toi…’ or something like that. ‘O mon amour, ne me quittes pas,’ she sings, soaring confidently and sympathetically over the gorgeously rich orchestral accompaniment.[ More than just a pair of glasses, that woman.  More even than a campaign for the return of the Elgin marbles.]

And yet from somewhere, I’m also familiar with its English ‘translated’ incarnation –‘the clock will tick away the hours one by one..’ .  Still, it’s the French that will give me the goosebumps, and send  me back to that first viewing, that uniquely moving 1964 film and all of the ways in which it touches the trembling consciousness rawly aware of the potency of love.

‘WHO WILL BUY’ from ‘Oliver’ by Lionel Bart

The more that I think about it, the more I delve into these songs that have been pals and markers for my days, the more I feel that I’ve had quite a blest upbringing, ‘musically’.

One perfect example is this.  When I was about just seven or eight, my sister Judith was working in London, as a teacher in Upminster, then Surbiton.  On several occasions she invited us to stay with her and –now I appreciate what a sacrifice and expense this must have been –on those occasions she would book tickets for West End shows.  Now, I may well be blurring together memories of separate visits, but in my mind, it seems probable to me that in one single week she took us not only to a West End cinema to see The Parent Trap (thus beginning my lifelong fascination with Hayley Mills), but also to two theatre visits: ‘The Sound Of Music’, a smash new hit musical transferred from Broadway; and the equally new British hit musical theatre version of Dickens’s Oliver Twist! With historical hindsight I now see this to have been indeed the original production – Ron Moody, Georgia Brown and all.

Perhaps I was at a very impressionable age; perhaps I might already have heard some of the songs on the radio (‘As Long As He Needs Me’ very possibly); perhaps I’m imagining it, but, I recall finding that every song in ‘Oliver’ seemed instantly engaging and memorable: from the opening workhouse boys chorus of ‘Food Glorious Food’ onwards, I was transfixed.  If I hadn’t already committed most of the songs to memory, on the following Christmas, as a gift for our parents, Judy bought the LP of the original London cast’s recording of the musical’s songs, and then, with repeated listens, they were sealed for ever inside me…

Part of Bart’s genius was that the songs of the production cover the whole range of moods – seemingly something for every feeling.  My particular favourites included ‘Where Is Love?’ which I would sing when I wanted to feel mawkishly sentimental or self pitying, or when I was savouring some delicious slice of childhood solitude.  For more boisterously happy occasions, I might have chirped up with ‘Consider Yourself’ or the aforementioned celebration of food; but the real feel good song for me, and the one that won out most of the time was ‘Who will buy?’

Most people will remember its theatrical context I’m sure (especially since, when a film was made of the musical some years later, they made something of a choreographical meal of this very song…), with all those early morning mongers, costers and barrowboys hitting the streets to ply their wares and their produce –their individual cries and voices alternating and interweaving to create a musical collage (‘ripe, strawberries ripe…’… ‘any milk today, mistress?’…  etc.).  Into and over this, young Oliver, entranced with his touch of Brownlow luxury, a good sleep and a bright morning, sings ‘Who will buy this wonderful morning..?’

Now, we could get quite analytical here and find several layers in the lyric worthy of discussion: you might say for instance that the song romanticises the drudgery of work and commerce –after all these singing salespersons got up at the crack of dawn to push their barrows, peddle their knife grinding skills; and how much fun being weighed down with a yoke of milk pails?-all from the viewpoint of the lucky leisured classes’ high balconies.  Or we could discuss the ‘buying’ concept, and the commoditization of nature and beauty; but we be missing the point – more probing ecological songs will consider this (eg Artisan’s ‘What am I bid?’) – this one doesn’t.

No, this is simply a song about wanting to capture and savour a beautiful experience and because we know it’s ephemeral, particularly that sense of joy, beauty, freshness of a new day – and okay, especially one that’s free of responsibilities.  And I suppose there’s a particular kind of joy attached to city morningscapes as opposed to country side ones (Think of Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge’ for instance)– that sense of the miraculous mix of humanity, its endless range of colours, activities and interests coexisting and even somehow harmonising.  That’s the feel of the song, of course, somewhat simplified, but the nine year old still inside me still loves it.

And perhaps those of us who scribble a bit have all tried to write something about wanting to stop time, crystallise a moment etc.  I can think of a couple of my own songs echoing that sentiment, even one called ‘Hold On To the Morning’!  But for that sheer crazy sense of morning time wonder, all filtered through a child’s innocence, this fondly remembered musical set piece takes the biscuit.

SOMETHING’S COMING by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (from ‘West Side Story’)

“Allan, I can’t sleep –tell me the story of West Side Story,” I can remember saying to my poor beleaguered brother in the days when we shared a bedroom.

If the early sixties was the age of the single (45 rpm) record, the late sixties was the age of the album, the 33 rpm LP, especially as Allan left school, got a job and started earning.  The first LP he bought was Gerry and the Pacemakers ‘How Do You Like It?’ (cleverly combining the titles of two of their hits –geddit?) but then his purchases broadened, and one of those purchases was the soundtrack of ‘West Side Story’ because he had seen the film and enjoyed it.

At that age both Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim were just names to me, of course –and would not ‘flesh out’ into reputation for another decade – both of them; but the LP was magical.  There wasn’t a bum track on it, and I was fascinated about how it all fitted together.  So, imagine my poor sleep deprived brother as I’m asking “so who sings ‘Somewhere’?  What point does that come into the story’?  And who is Officer Krupke? Why does the girl who’s feeling pretty feel so pretty? Who’s telling her ‘a boy like that/could kill your brother’?  Why do they like to be in America?  Where were they before?

I probably memorised all the lyrics, as you do.  But I can remember a particular fondness for ‘Something’s Coming’ – any teenager should be able to buy into that – hey, something special just around the corner – the world full of possibilities.  I can remember (embarrassing) solitary walks on the hill behind our street, and singing this out like a little X factor wannabe diva – five decades too early?

It’s a masterful little construction –changing pace between the staccato, breathy ‘Could be…  Who knows…’ until you come to the breathless, swift run of ‘I got a feeling there’s a miracle due gonna come true coming to meeeeeee…..’ Those sentiments tap into a genuine youthful excitement.  And those youthful excitements, I can’t stop believing, are genuine God-given signposts to the pregnant potency of life itself. And OK, only when the majority of your presumed threescore-and-ten stretches out before you can you really indulge in that heady optimism…but I see no reason why us ol timers shouldn’t also be able to know the occasional shivers of attentiveness and expectancy  ‘only just out of reach…down a block…on a beach….maybe tonight…’

I did eventually see the film! It’s got its flaws, it’s got its charms, it’s got some stunning choreography set pieces (‘America!’). I’m glad I knew the music first, though – Bernstein and Sondheim, my hat is tipped to your combined brilliance.

Our Time by Stephen Sondheim

Blame youtube for my obsession with this song.  Even more, blame the wonderful modern phenomenon of theatre–live–to–cinema relays, or ‘recordings as if live’.  I saw this musical, ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ in the cinema earlier this year, and was entranced by its simple poignancy – three friends who cannot hold onto their friendship – and how that is reflected melodically.

Because of the story being told backwards –not original but nevertheless and very effective –this song, representing the inception and idealism of their friendship and the accompanying the youthful optimism, is what closes the show.  Musically it’s stirring and gorgeous, all three main protagonists chipping into the growing excitement and joined by a swelling chorus at the end.

There are dozens of youtube clips of this song –I’ve checked most of them out.  Perhaps my favourite, though least polished, comes from the sophomore acting and musical theatre majors from Ithaca College performing this as an ensemble.  What must it have been like for a group of 19 year olds (?) to be together, singing these lyrics?  Feeling, indeed, like it’s their time –‘worlds to change and worlds to win’.  Almost everyone in the class gets a line or two to sing –one girl goes a little off key and the camera catches her face crumpling to disappointment after her contribution –but this too is precious.

And oh, Mr. Sondheim, how wonderful that this musical theatre production which starts at the relationship’s end with cynicism and disappointment, should end so joyously, at the relationship’s beginning with this  joyous, forward-looking, uniting anthem to purposeful living.  Long live youthful idealism!