The big con

My entire Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to the premiere of Bonnie J. Monte’s new adaptation of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. Here’s an excerpt.

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Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s great contemporary, is well remembered and frequently performed in England, but he’s only a name—if that—to the average American theatergoer. “The Alchemist,” by common consent the best of his verse comedies, doesn’t seem to have received a major production over here since the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C., gave it a poorly received modern-dress revival in 2009. It’s not hard to see why, either. Not only is an uncut performance of “The Alchemist” about four hours long, but Johnson’s flamboyantly archaic diction (“Thou look’st like antichrist, in that lewd hat”) is often more challenging to modern audiences than anything you’re likely to stumble across in Shakespeare.

For these reasons, Bonnie J. Monte’s brand-new adaptation of Jonson’s 1610 tale of a trio of unscrupulous London conpersons, which is currently being performed by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, is of obvious interest. More on the text in a moment, but the bottom line is that it works, and that Ms. Monte, the company’s artistic director, has treated “The Alchemist” to a staging whose frank bawdiness and knockabout comic vigor are tremendously appealing.

tn-500_stnj_alchemist_4269The title of “The Alchemist” refers to Subtle (Bruce Cromer), a phony scientist-magician who claims to have discovered the fabled “philosopher’s stone” that will change base metals into gold. He sets up shop with Face (Jon Barker), an unscrupulous butler, and Dol Common (Aedin Moloney), a woman of more than usually easy virtue, in a vacant London townhouse wherein the trio endeavors to mulct a parade of pigeons out of all they’ve got….

The latter-day appeal of Jonson’s plot needs no explaining, and Ms. Monte has made it more accessible not by updating “The Alchemist” but by cutting and compressing the text (this production runs for a bit more than two and a half hours) and modernizing the language without leaching away its period flavor….

Toffee-nosed purists will look askance at what Ms. Monte has done to “The Alchemist,” but Elizabethan comedies are meant to be seen, not read, and unless you’re already closely familiar with the play, I can’t imagine that you’ll have any serious objections to this full-blooded production, in which the laughs hurtle by like a runaway bullet train. Ms. Moloney, an accomplished stage comedienne whose pungent performance in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2011 revival of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” caught my eye and ear, is no less memorable here as the hoydenish, rough-voiced Dol, whose charms are a function of her availability….

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Read the whole thing here.

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What is “American music”?

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I write about a new foundation devoted to American music—and make a suggestion about how it should go about its business. Here’s an excerpt.

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Lawrence A. Johnson, a music critic who also runs a group of web-based classical-music sites, has had a corker of an idea: He’s launched a nonprofit foundation whose purpose is to boost the number of performances of American classical music. Not only will Mr. Johnson’s foundation commission new compositions and ensure that they get performed and recorded, but—even more interestingly—it will also make grants to musical ensembles and concert presenters that want to perform previously existing works by American composers.

amp“I’m starting this foundation because I feel American music is underrepresented in American concert halls,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview with Chicago Classical Review, one of his publications. “I think we have a real responsibility to present this music, and I believe many of these works would become standard repertory if audiences only had a chance to hear them.” Part of the problem, he explained, is that “nobody gets excited about doing a second or a third performance. Ninety percent of [new works] disappear.” Hence his plan to underwrite performances of pieces by such important but insufficiently known midcentury modernists as Paul Creston, David Diamond, Irving Fine, Walter Piston and William Schuman, who wrote accessible, impeccably well-made classical works that deserve a second hearing but simply don’t get played nowadays.

I couldn’t approve more. I have only one quibble, and it’s with the name of Mr. Johnson’s foundation, which he calls the American Music Project…

Yes, it’s catchy and to the point. But I’m sure Mr. Johnson knows very well that the phrase “American music” doesn’t just mean “American classical music.” As Virgil Thomson once observed, all you have to do to be an American composer is to be born in America, then write whatever you like. Classical and jazz, Broadway shows and bluegrass, hip-hop and zydeco: All fit comfortably under the vast umbrella that is “American music.” To suppose otherwise is to miss part of the point of what it means to live in what Paul Hindemith, the great German composer who spent a productive decade living and working in Connecticut, wittily called “the land of limited impossibilities.”

So Mr. Johnson should change the name of his outfit to the American Classical Music Project, right? Maybe not. In fact, I have a better idea. Instead of coming up with a new name, I’d like to see him expand the range of the American Music Project’s activities. Not infinitely—money only stretches so far. But what he could do without altering the AMP beyond recognition is start making grants to composers, performers and presenters who are interested in large-scale jazz composition….

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Read the whole thing here.

A rare 1958 TV kinescope of George Russell’s Concerto for Billy the Kid, performed on The Subject Is Jazz by the Russell Smalltet, featuring Bill Evans on piano. The other musicians are Art Farmer, Doc Severinsen, Gene Quill, Tony Scott, Barry Galbraith and Jimmy Cleveland. The host is Gilbert Seldes:

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Almanac: Edward Bond on life’s cruelty

INK BOTTLEWILLY: If you look at life closely, it is unbearable. What people suffer, what they do to each other, how they hate themselves, anything good is cut down and trodden upon, the innocent and the victims are like dogs digging rats from a hole, or an owl starving to death in a city. It is all unbearable, but that is where you have to find your strength. Where else is there?

ROSE: An owl starving in a city.

WILLY: To death. Yes. Wherever you turn. So you should never turn away. If you do, you lose everything. Turn back and look into the fire. Listen to the howl of the flames. The rest is lies.

Edward Bond, The Sea

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