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From ‘Sweeney’ to Puccini: the jug band effect

By Bob Hicks
September 27, 2012

Starlight parade: Outside of Keller Auditorium, the crowd watches the concert action indoors on a giant screen. ©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

If Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht had known jug band music existed when they created “The Threepenny Opera” in 1928, they’d have scored the whole thing for banjo, jug and washboard. Or so Dave Van Ronk declared after recording his rousing, raspy “Mack the Knife” with the Ragtime Jug Stompers almost 40 years later.

Maybe, maybe not. The hoots and scratches of jug band music are an inspired fit for the bloody excesses of “Threepenny,” but as we used to say in a less sensitive century, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And there’s more than one way to sing a song.

I mention this because of an intriguing coincidence of programming in town last weekend: Portland Opera’s second annual “Big Night” celebration on Saturday, and Portland Center Stage’s opening the night before of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

It seems a long way from jug band to opera, but maybe not so long, after all. Along with Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and the gang in a greatest-hits program, “Big Night” featured the effervescent “Ice Cream Sextet” from Weill’s 1947 opera/musical drama “Street Scene.” And although Sondheim’s musical roots reach toward Broadway royalty such as Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein (his breakthrough was as lyricist for Bernstein’s “West Side Story”) and his childhood mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, “Sweeney” bears a striking family resemblance to “Threepenny,” a penny-dreadful melodrama about madmen and murder and a world turned morally upside down. Bernstein’s “Candide,” which Portland Opera produced last season, snuggles up against this territory, too. And Bernstein, Weill and Sondheim, plus operetta master Franz Lehar, who was also in the intensely melodious “Big Night” lineup, all occupy that fascinating fuzzy territory between opera and musical theater, which is where the weekend seemed to thrive.

The reviews for Center Stage’s “Sweeney” are in, and the whole town seems to be poppin’ those people pies enthusiastically:

  • The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley, in his customarily witty and graceful way, files his report here.
  • Portland Monthly’s Aaron Scott is positively rapturous here.
  • BePortland’s Chanelle Fournier praises the show’s “gleeful mélange of gore and dark humor” here.
  • And Willamette Week’s Rebecca Jacobson offers more measured applause here.

I’m not going to write a review in this space, because why throw yet another hat into such a well-filled ring? Besides, I pretty much agree with what the others said: It’s one of the very best Broadway musicals, Aloysius Gigl is a broodingly fatalistic yet curiously sympathetic Sweeney, and director Chris Coleman pushes the story along at breakneck but never out-of-control speed. Choral scenes are terrific, and the cast brings just the right amount of broad humor (much of it supplied by Eric Scott Kincaid’s oily elixir entrepeneur Pirelli and, especially, Gretchen Rumbaugh’s cooingly psychotic Mrs. Lovett). Coleman and company do a bang-up job of laying out the play’s baleful outlook on privilege, power, and the human soul. ’Nuff said.

Gigl and Rumbaugh. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

So let’s talk about the music. Is it musical theater? Is it opera? Does it matter? What is “Porgy and Bess”? Is it opera when Leontyne Price sings it, and musical theater when Audra McDonald sings it? Is that just a silly hair to split? Is a work musical theater if it has dialogue, and opera if it has recitative? What about those Gershwin-musical recordings starring Dawn Upshaw? “South Pacific” and “West Side Story” with Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa? We’re accustomed to thinking of opera as high culture and musical theater as low, or at least middle-brow, culture. But in fact the lines have always been blurry. In one sense, opera since the middle of the 20th century has been pulling away from the popular theater in its de-emphasis on (if not outright abandonment of) melody. In another sense, it’s drawn ever-closer: Probably never in the history of the art form have stage directors and opera companies paid more attention to acting skills and the demands of the drama in addition to the music. The fat lady doesn’t just plant her feet and belt it out any more. Very likely, she’s slimmed down a lot, too.

I’ve seen and heard a lot of “Sweeney”s, and over the years I’ve come to think of it more as opera than musical theater. By that I mean, I prefer it when it’s sung by what I think of as operatic voices, full and true, not with the slip and slide of musical comedy. (Mrs. Lovett is an exception: she seems to cry out for the musical liberties of the Broadway stage.) That’s a personal preference, I hasten to add. What’s intriguing, and often exciting, about a “tweener” musical drama like “Sweeney” is that it has stretchability. There are limits: it’s not as if Anything Goes. But there are lots of ways to do the thing, and that jug-band version, if anyone anywhere ever attempts it, might be a revelation. Certainly the subject matter encourages a lot of get-down-and-dirty: maybe the least successful “Threepenny” I’ve ever seen was slick and smiley and gorgeous and sung as if it were “No, No, Nanette.” Finding a consistent tone that suits the material can be tricky. One thing that unites “Sweeney,” “Threepenny” and “Candide” is the creative dissonance between their lurid stories and their sophisticated musicality.

A word about orchestration: Rick Lewis, this production’s savvy conductor and musical director, has split the difference between the traditional Broadway full-orchestra version and John Doyle’s 2004/05 London/Broadway revivals that used no orchestra at all, instead casting actors who carried instruments with them on stage. That was an innovative approach that helped cut expenses and also gave the show a jolt of fresh energy, but it also sacrificed the lush sound that a full orchestra provides and the music deserves. Lewis leads a 10-piece orchestra that strikes a nice balance between economic necessity and richness of sound. The band is brassy and sharp on the attack, giving the show a little bit of a cabaret edge and heightening the book’s tawdry tone.

No banjo, though. Or washboard or jug. Maybe next time.


At Portland Opera’s “Big Night,” by contrast, the orchestra was rich and big (65 pieces) and sounding lively under the baton of George Manahan, the former New York City Opera music director who’s just taken the same post in Portland. Manahan is compact and exquisitely balanced – a ballet dancer might envy his line – and both efficient and demonstrative in his motions, and the orchestra seemed to enjoy responding to his lead. The full opera chorus was on hand, too, more than 50 voices strong, helping to lend the evening a four-alarm, full-firehose excitement. This was a program (to return to a musical metaphor) for pulling out all the stops.

“Big Night” is meant not just to introduce some of the coming season’s singers and songs to the audience, but also to introduce potential fans to opera itself. And like one of those pieces of tweener musical theater, that called for a certain creative stretchability. The festivities spilled out of Keller Auditorium onto the street and sidewalks outside, and on into the Ira Keller fountain and park across the way. Food carts dotted the area. A beer garden was in the park. Actors wearing giant Marx Brothers puppet-heads roamed the premises, and a couple of popular acts, Vagabond Opera and the Rose City Swing Band, warmed up the crowd for the main  event. While the dress-up crowd headed into the theater, lots of people stayed in and around the park to watch the concert being broadcast live on a giant screen, and had the added attraction of having the show emceed by actor Sasha Roiz, the hunk (“Ooh, I hope he takes off his shirt!” one matron in the crowd exclaimed) who plays the provocatively beastly Captain Renard on NBC’s “Grimm,” and who happens to be a big opera fan. After the concert, the big screen stayed up for a screening of the Marx Brothers’ delicious comedy “A Night at the Opera.”

Indoors, the crowd seemed significantly bigger than at last year’s inaugural “Big Night,” which is good news for the evening’s beneficiary, the company’s Pogo, or Portland Opera to Go, program, which sends small teams of singers to schools around the state. And that, in turn, is good news for the future of the company and the art form itself.

The program was lush and approachable and built to appeal to novices as well as seasoned opera fans: short takes from mostly familiar operas (and musical theater: “Some Enchanted Evening,” from “South Pacific,” put in an appearance) with big melodic appeal. From the matador chorus of “La Traviata” to “Carmen”’s toreador song to Borodin’s Polovetsian dances from “Prince Igor” and even “O Sole Mio,” the program was constructed solidly on a base of hummability, determined to send the crowd home happy and eager for more. If it wasn’t the most challenging program, it worked: the singers aced the material, the songs reminded the audience of why they love opera, and pretty much everyone left in a good mood.

Of course, it might have been even better with a jug band.








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