Thursday, September 19, 2013

No Frills and Furbelows


Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Oliver!, original London cast album. A good number of years before I would hearken to tales of heroic hobbits or fall for four moptops from Liverpool, I wore out a record about a rootless young London urchin welcomed into a rowdy and resourceful hideout of lost boys, and upon a revisit to this beloved cast album--not the first I loved but the first that was truly mine rather than a hand-me-down--I can see that its uniquely English vision of camaraderie, of knockabout band-of-brotherhood, is what attracted me most, and what still gives at least half this score an undiminishable glow of joy.

I'm talking about the sequence of delights that starts with "Consider Yourself," continues with "Pick a Pocket or Two" and "Be Back Soon," stops for two indispensable diversions led by Georgia Brown's roaring Nancy ("It's a Fine Life" and "Oom-Pah-Pah") and wraps up with the sweetly courtly "I'd Do Anything." The rest of the Dickensian drama sounds a bit hit-and-miss to me now--particularly its ugliest strain, Nancy's selfless love for her cartoonishly brutal abuser, Sykes--but the heart of the score still beats strongly with that music-hall esprits de corps. It still sounds to me like one long, often raucous idyll of adorable Cockney mischief and play-acting, and it's a party I feel like I'd still love to go to (as I essentially once did, repeatedly, in my imagination).

Listening again, I can also detect in Oliver! a few bread-crumb pathways to later loves of mine. The premise and setting surely prepped me for the romanticized poverty of Charlie Chaplin's films, while the severe minor key terror of "Boy for Sale" puts me in mind of Sweeney Todd's Beadle. I can also detect a few faint but unmistakeable Brecht/Weill links: The cynicism of the beggars' general Fagin anticipates Threepenny's Peachum, while the modestly chugging chamber-band sound of this London cast recording, which I vastly prefer to the souped-up orchestral arrangements of the film, sounds close in spirit to a familiar Weill template. Certainly the music-hall bounce of my favorite tunes here whetted my appetite for the Doolittles' songs in My Fair Lady and for the likes of Gilbert & Sullivan.

What's more, Lionel Bart's crunchy wordplay, full of exotic words like "larder" and "cadge" and "furbelow," was an early lyrics feast for my eager young mind (and I honestly don't care about the false rhymes and mis-accents I've since regrettably learned to spot). I would add that the Semitic-folk shadings of Fagin's songs pointed me in the direction of Fiddler on the Roof, except that by the time I found Oliver! I was already a Fiddler fan--not that I understood the connection then (and I should pause to note that my discomfort with this character, the fault for which I lay almost entirely at Dickens' feet, is mitigated slightly by this adaptation's sweetly doting take on the old rascal).

I'm not immune to the whole-step heart-tug of "Where Is Love," but even as a kid I found the naked emotional excess of "As Long as He Needs Me" icky. And the way the haunting modal plainsong of "Who Will Buy?" morphs into a bluesy showstopper has sounded increasingly ludicrous to me over the years. But give me those boxy foxtrots and dainty marches sung by scrappy, let's-stick-together moppets, their kvetchy ringleader, and their bawdy den mother any day.

Comments:
Catherine Trieschmann Miller Of course, as an eight-year-old girl, I loved “As Long as He Needs Me” best.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Sure you did. But how about that choice bit in "Fine Life" in which Nancy sings: "Though you sometimes do come by/The occasional black eye/You can always cover one/'Til he blacks the other one/But you don't dare cry." I now hear "As Long as He Needs Me" as a song-length elaboration of those four awful lines from the fun song.
Catherine Trieschmann Miller That did not register at all when I was eight. It was like watching the PBS broadcast of “Sweeney Todd” and realizing that he murdered people and that he sold pies but not putting two and two together.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Oh God, I literally couldn't watch SWEENEY when I was a kid, I was such a wuss about the blood. I was scandalized. I don't think I even got to the meat pies part. Which reminds of a great quote I heard leaving the London production some years ago: "I knew it was about a guy killing people and a woman making them into meat pies, but I didn't know it was going to be so grim." (Got a chance to quote that directly to the man himself:http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/apr11/sondheim.cfm)
Jack Lechner Never read that interview before, Rob -- it's terrific!

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