• My guest for the Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was an actress friend. We were both disappointed at intermission (and stayed that way in the second half), and in the process of trying to explain our unhappiness to one another, I said, “Bill Irwin is the wrong voice type for George–way too light, a tenor in a baritone part.” She immediately replied, “You’re thinking like a music critic. If he was really inside the role, that wouldn’t matter.” Of course I was, and of course she was right: in a straight play, there’s no such thing as a “tenor” part. (Or is there? George Bernard Shaw thought in terms of voice types when writing his plays–but, then, he was a music critic.)
“The world presents itself to me, not chiefly as a complex of visual sensations, but as a complex of aural sensations,” H.L. Mencken, himself a sometime music critic, once wrote. I’m far more aesthetically polydextrous (if that’s a word) than he was, but my long experience as a musician did make me so sensitive to what comes in through the ear that it may well amount to a kind of bias. I know, for instance, that it has a great deal to do with the way I respond to people in my daily life. At brunch yesterday, I was seated near a woman whose voice was so harsh and grating that it interfered with my ability to enjoy my meal.
Here’s something I wrote a few years ago:
I like voices. My best friend is a woman whose speaking voice sounded so engaging to me on the phone that I asked her to lunch, sight unseen. (We’ve been friends for seven years now, so I must have been on to something.) Not surprisingly, I also like singers of all kinds, from cool Swedish mezzo-sopranos who specialize in nineteenth-century German lieder to rumbling bassos from Texas who wear white Stetsons and sing sardonic ditties with titles like “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.” I once wrote a profile of a jazz singer in which I described her voice as sounding like “wild honey with a spoonful of Scotch,” and it was probably the happiest moment of my professional life when I showed up at a nightclub to hear her sing and saw those words printed on a poster hanging outside.
The singers in question were Anne Sofie von Otter, Junior Brown, and Diana Krall, but can you guess who the woman on the phone was? Our Girl in Chicago, of course.
• Everybody I know seems to be in a reading group these days. Just to be different, I’ve joined a three-member movie group. Member No. 1 is a young writer who hasn’t seen many movies and wants to find out what she’s been missing. Member No. 2 is a friend who loves movies but hasn’t seen many black-and-white ones and wants to find out what she’s been missing. Accordingly, we gathered in the Teachout Museum (i.e., my living room) on Sunday evening, ordered pizza, and watched, at my suggestion, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. It was a hit, though both my guests were startled–and rightly so–at how frightening Humphrey Bogart was. That kind of self-lacerating, unsparing anger isn’t something you expect to see out of a Hollywood star circa 1950, especially one who had established himself as a romantic lead. No wonder the film didn’t do well then, and no wonder it’s so greatly admired now.
Next month, Grand Illusion….