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29 April 2009

Ramblings on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Music Man, & Mismatched Couples


My good friend and critique partner, Penny Williamson, and I just got back from our annual spring trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s wonderful going to the theater with a good friend who’s also a writer. I've found some wonderful literary inspiration on visits to Ashland, Oregon--the allusion to Othello which sets the theme in Chapter 1 of Secrets of a Lady, the Hamlet references running through Beneath a Silent Moon, the question "whom do you identify with in Julius Caesar?" which runs through the as yet unpublished The Mask of Night.

This trip was no exception in the literary inspiration department. Between performances Penny and I indulged in some of our favorite activities--we walked, shopped, lingered over meals at favorite restaurants, and analyzed the plays.

The plays were a rich and wonderful mix. One favorite was Equivocation, a world premiere by Bill Cain in which William Shakespeare is commissioned (or rather commanded by King James’s right-hand man Robert Cecil) to write a play about the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot. A brilliant, layered play about politics, writing, family–and theater. (It may spark a blog post when I have a bit more time to think about it). Another surprise favorite was Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. When Penny and I first heard OSF was doing The Music Man, we were a bit skeptical about a Broadway musical mixed in with OSF’s usual blend of Shakespeare, modern and older classics, and edgy new plays. We left the theater completely entranced. It was a wonderful, clever, sweet-but-not-sappy production that brought out how River City, Iowa, is changed by musical con man Harold Hill and how Harold Hill is equally changed by River City and its inhabitants.

Particularly Marian Paroo, the town librarian. The romance at the heart of The Music Man is delicate and heart warming. Con man Harold Hill who is looking for a “sadder but wiser girl” and librarian Marian Paroo who is waiting for her “white knight” seem complete opposites and yet you root for them to get together. More than that, you believe in their happy ending. Perhaps because, as Penny and I discussed, while Marian and Harold are both misjudged by those round them, they see each other with surprising clarity. Marian falls in love with Harold knowing he’s lied about his past. Harold sees past Marian’s frosty demeanor. Meredith Wilson’s clever lyrics point to the fact that this seemingly mismatched couple may have more in common than one thinks. In the song “The Sadder but Wiser Girl,” Harold refers to The Scarlet Letter and the goddess Diana. He may be the most well-read person in River City next to Marian, who shocks the town by reading Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac. Musically, their two signature solos, “Goodnight My Someone” and “Seventy-six Trombones” have the same melody, disguised by different tempos. A clever way of showing how in sync their minds are beneath the outward show.

This got me thinking about other favorite mismatched literary couples who are soul mates under the skin. Such as Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing (which OSF is doing later this year). Despite their war of words Benedick believes Beatrice without question when she swears to her cousin Hero’s innocence. He sees through the truth of the situation while the other men in the play are taken in. Or Mulder and Scully who begin as skeptic and believer but become each other’s touchstone.

Arthur Clenham and Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit (I came home last night and curled up with the last episode) are mismatched not by personality but by age and circumstance, which prevent Arthur from seeing Amy’s feelings for him or acknowledging his own for her. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are also mismatched in age, not to mention her interest in theology and his rationalism and the lack of interest both have in marriage (and echo of Beatrice and Benedick). Yet the spark of sympathy between them is clear from their first scene together in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. (Speaking of Holmes & Russell, I just bought The Language of Bees and am having to remind myself I can't stay up all night reading it).

For me to believe in a happy ending, I need to believe that the characters are somehow uniquely right for each other. That realization can be that much more powerful and interesting when they are seemingly an impossible match. In my own series, Mélanie goes into her marriage to Charles knowing they are an impossible mismatch in ideology, loyalties, background, and life experiences. Yet when she realizes she loves him it’s because “though he might not know her true name or any details of her life, he understand her as no one else ever had”.

Do you like stories about mismatched couples? Any favorite examples? What does it take for you to believe the characters have a chance to be happy? Are there literary mismatched where the author didn't convince you the differences between the characters could be overcome? Writers, do you get inspiration from the theater? Who else watched Little Dorrit (have you seen the 1988 Christine Edzard films, which are equally engrossing)? Who else is looking forward to Russell's & Holmes's latest adventures in The Language of Bees?

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12 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, I loved Ashland, and was so looking forward to the OSF production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" last summer ... but I was sorely disappointed by the uneven cast and the director's high-concept production that didn't always work. After telling my husband, who doesn't have a background or a job in the arts, how great OSF was supposed to be and what a wonderful play he was going to see ... you should have seen his face by intermission.

Oh, well ...

My niece was in a truncated version of "The Music Man" in school a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the mismatch of the couple and how predictably (if one knows literary Romance structure) the romance between Marian and Harold plays out. I've never seen a full production on stage, though I've seen the movie (not recently). But even the 8th grader who performed Marian in my niece's school play had such a "frosty demeanor" as you put it, that she came across as bitchy and I wondered what Harold, or any man, would see in her. I wasn't sure whether it was in the lines, or in the performance, but the frostiness was not appealing to me. It's a problem I see in some romance novels, too. Okay, so the heroine is guarding her heart, or is bitter for some reason. But unless we see the glimmers of vulnerability, then why care about whether she earns her happy ending?

One of my favorite mismatched couples is actually the perfect match: Petruchio and Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew," a play that is too often woefully misinterpreted as a Punch & Judy show, ignorning the tremendous humanity in the text. Kate, for all her outward bravado, is immensely vulnerable, nursing a powerful hurt and humiliation before she even meets Petruchio(thanks to her father, who very openly prefers her baby sister Bianca -- the real shrew) and lets the entire town know what a problem daughter Kate is.

5:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

If technicolor costume epics awakened my childhood romance sensibility, my parents' old Columbia showtune LPs certainly sealed the contract (as in David's reverie in Almost a Gentleman that's shamelessly lifted from "Maria" in "West Side Story").

I love the smart, witty musicals like "The Music Man" (before the advent of those bloated impossible-dream anthems to self-esteem).

And I also love musical mismatched couples: Billy and Julie in "Carousel," Nellie Forbush and Emile De Becque in "South Pacific," best and most romantically of all, Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown and gambler Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls." (I knew there was a reason I stuck some lyrics from "Carousel" and "Guys and Dolls" on the recommended reading list for the class Janet Mullany and I will be giving at RWA National this summer.)

7:58 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

One of my favorite mismatched couples is actually the perfect match: Petruchio and Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew," a play that is too often woefully misinterpreted as a Punch & Judy show, ignoring the tremendous humanity in the text.

I know you and I have discussed this play before, and that our takes on Kate are very similar (and not entirely in line with what most people seem to think). I used this play as the touchstone for my couple in LORD SIN because it’s always been one of my favorites.

Chopin and Sand are another favorite mismatch for me (esp as played by Grant and Davis in IMPROPTU). And I'm pretty much gaga over all the mismatched couples played by Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I didn't have as many problems with that "Midsummer" production as you did, but it wasn't my favorite. I hope you go back and give OSF another try some time - I think you'd find it worth it. As with any theater company, I don't love and adore everything in a given season, but I usually enjoy most and find a lot thought=provoking, and I've seen some of the best productions there I've seen anywhere.

I think one of the reasons this "Music Man" worked so well on an emotional level was that it was cast with performers who were actors first, singers second, so every character, even the chorus (who all had individual personalities) was richly detailed. There were lots of layers to both Harold and Marian. Marian's difficulties as a town outcast (everyone thinks she was the mistress of the wealthy man who founded the library) and her and her mother's and brother's problems coping with her father's recent death made her both interesting and sympathetic. Similarly, you saw a lot of layers to Harold beneath the con man exterior.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, I loved our family's musical LPs growing up too--I knew most of the songs, even if my singing voice is atrocious. We also went to musicals a lot and would sing songs in the car. I'm very intrigued by the lyrics you included in your and Janet's reading list--which songs? what made you pick those songs?

11:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, I *love* "Impromptu" (I should look for it in dvd). And it's a great example of a mismatched couple who you really end up believing belong together. Ditto the mismatched couples played by Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (the couple in "Bringing up Baby" are particularly mismatched). And I agree with you and Amanda that "Taming of the Shrew" definitely comes off that way in productions that bring out the emotional layers.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I think man of our (the great collective "our") favorite couples/romances are the mismatched ones. There's something about the mismatched, fill in the holes, compelte the other sort of love that speaks to us.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

And yet ... I'm trying to find enough time to post next week on one of the only happy marriages in the Shakespearen canon -- when we meet a well-matched couple in the middle of their story. I won't jump ahead and give it away.

When I was a little girl I used to dance around the living room singing along with all the original Broadway cast 33 1/3 LPs. I could imitate some of the singers, too, like Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, as well as Gertrude Lawrence in her performance of Anna Leonowens in "The King and I."

2:10 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Interesting point, Kalen. I hadn't thought of it as being one of the couple who's mismatched, so much as that they seem to be opposites and so mismatched with each other. There's also the sort of story where the scarred, damaged person (most often the hero, though I think it's interesting when it's the heroine) is healed by love, but I think it's a bit different when those seemingly at odds (like Beatrice and Benedick) find common ground and battle their way to a happy ending.

Amanda,your post sounds fabulous. Already trying to guess which couple you're thinking of...

2:21 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Gertrude Lawrence in her performance of Anna Leonowens... I whistle a heppy chune...

As for The Taming of the Shrew, I guess I'm in the minority here, as it has always seemed to me a mean-spirited play with a few loose screws, like a malfunctioning carburator that will only run on fumes of irony.

Though a performance did make it work for me was a 2007 performance by San Francisco's edgy Cutting Ball Theater, where they use most or all of the lines but set it south of Market Street among SF's S/M clubs. Using a lot of Commedia del Arte, stressing the play within a play, they call upon the performativity of S/M "play" and allow for many levels of "performance" -- with the homeless guy who's been recruited to play Petruchio ultimately tossed out (rather like Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Kate ending up happily on top of a compliant Bianca who's finally getting what's coming to her.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Not to gloat too much, but my theatre company, Survivor Productions did "Shrew" up right in 1993. We set the play in a tavern setting from the getgo. And we performed the prologue as well. When companies cut the Christopher Sly prologue they are eliminating the crucial set-up. If you analyze the prologue when the traveling players come in, it's easy to imagine Player 1 and Player 2 as the actors who will become Petruchio and Kate. And you realize they are going to present a parable about an aspect of the human condition. A production that comes across to the audience as a "mean-spirited" play has missed the point by a mile or several.

We had the actors pulling their costumes for the play within a play out of a trunk during the prologue. The actors playing Petruchio and Grumio used authentic Commedia masks for their entrance in the wedding scene.

We even had high school audiences during a couple of performances; inner city kids who were reading the play in their English class. It was a thrill to have them approach members of the cast after the show and tell them how much they related to the Kate/Petruchio relationship.

Another production that did it up right was performed at the Delacorte Theatre in the summer of 1977. Meryl Streep was Kate and Raul Julia was her Petruchio and you could see how perfectly the characters were matched. I have also seen the matchless Jimmy Smits play Petruchio. He got it right, but the production (and his Kate) were problematic.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great comments on "Taming of the Shrew" (which is probably worthy of a blog post in its own right). Pam, I agree, in some productions it can come across as mean-spirited and one-note. Like Amanda, I totally agree the Prologue helps set the story up.

9:30 AM  

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