Last night I saw Showboat — the grand old musical — in what was supposed to be a gala concert performance at Carnegie Hall. I don’t know how it can be very gala if hardly anyone in the cast can inhabit their roles. (Nathan Gunn was the big exception. He really knows how this music goes, and both sings and acts well enough to bring it off. He belongs on Broadway.)
But let that be. What fascinated me — and, I’ll admit, made me a little sad — was the orchestra. The musicians, in theory, were star quality, the A-list people from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. If you’re talking about classical freelance gigs in New York, this is as good as it gets. If you read through the list of the players, printed in the program, you can see (if you know the instrumental scene in New York) that these are top people.
But they didn’t seem to know how the music goes! I’ve heard them play 18th century music, Mozart and Haydn, with radiant attention to stylitstic detail, but in Showboat, they sounded — especially by comparison with their classical work — like they were merely marking time. They never launched their melodies — or, rather, Jerome Kern’s melodies, as orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett — with relaxed affection, or lingered over all the little pauses in the tunes with any kind of audible delight. They didn’t step up to the climaxes, bounce the brassy Broadway stuff, or energize the sometimes corny transitions from one tune to another with the kind of wise indulgence that can overcome the corniness.
Maybe this was the conductor’s fault, though he was a big Broadway name, Paul Gemignani. Maybe he’s good with the kind of pit musicians who traditionally have played this stuff, and know how it goes without his help. Maybe he can’t inspire symphonic musicians, or teach them the style.
But I think the musicians are a problem, too — though the problem isn’t their own fault; if they don’t know the style, they don’t know the style. I heard the same thing in South Pacific, at LIncoln Center, a famously triumphant revival, which I loved from beginning to end. (As an aside, I want to say that both shows give me little patriotic thrills. “I’m an American,” I found myself thinking, with a grin, “and I love this stuff.”) But the orchestra couldn’t make the music go, something that became especially clear after I relistened to the original cast album from 1949. That orchestra knew exactly what it was doing, with the brass (just to cite one example) sounding completely at home in symphonic passages, and also when they had to strut out playing bits of Dixieland. Whoever they were, they sounded like they’d played both styles a lot, and didn’t even have to think of making a transition.
Whereas the orchestras I heard last night — and also in South Pacific, though less so — sounded like classical players who got timid when they had to step out in some other style. One mark of a serious classical player in the climate of the past few decades has been a kind of dignnified restraint. You just don’t get gloopy. But to play Broadway, you can’t be restrained, and you have to play things — and love them! — that from a strictly classical perspective might well be embarrassing. But still you’ve got to give them everything you’ve got, or else you’ve betrayed the style. (And thus, if I want to get fancy about it, betrayed your prime directive, the very notion that made you so restrained in the first place — you want to play everything in the proper style. But if that style demands you be improper…)