Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Payoff

I went and got myself a little culture last night. (In the land of my upbringing, here in the great northeast of the United States, that’s pronounced “cult-chah”.)

In my current music-ed line of work, I’m mostly in front of or otherwise in charge of some artistic endeavor or other. So, although it’s not a politically-correct phrase anymore, it’s still true: it’s nice every once in a while to be an Indian and not a Chief.

So I jumped in the car, drove for a while, found the former firehouse that had been converted into a little black-box theater, and settled into a seat in the back corner of the house (the better to not have anyone whisper “down in front!” at me). For twenty minutes, I perused the playbill and watched other people come in and decide on their favorite general-admission seats … and then the lights above me went down, the lights on stage went up, and the community-theater presentation of a rather famous musical show began.

To this show, I had carried a couple of items of unfortunate baggage.  Here’s the first:

In the mid-1990s, a snarky little movie was released called “Waiting for Guffman”, which told the story of a community-theater group in a Midwestern town. The movie was made by the same people who made “A Mighty Wind”, “Best in Show”, and “This Is Spinal Tap” – all “mockumentaries” which poked fun at recreational activities and their participants. “Guffman” has been a favorite of mine, not merely because one of the characters is played by an actor to whom I bear some resemblance. A lot of its humor comes from the foibles of some purveyors of the amateur musical-theatre activity. It does so as gently as probably can be done, revealing most of its story’s small-town would-be actors as enthusiastic, doggedly serious about their craft, and blissfully unaware that most of them are only vaguely good at it … and perhaps pathetically noble through all of that. Still, Fred Willard is in it, so there’s going to be a certain amount of over-the-top.

So I went to last night’s show having not been to a super lot of what could be called “local amateur community musical theater” productions. I’ve been involved in children’s theater for quite some time now, and I understand all too well the truth that in those shows, utter perfection will likely not be achieved. There, we’re focusing at least as much on offering our kids the experience of Putting On A Show which may inspire them to keep doing it throughout their lives … as we are on hitting marks, singing great notes, saying the funny lines such that people will laugh, and speaking clearly so the audience can hear.

I wasn’t sure what I should expect from, if you will, “grownups’ theater”. Or even whom I should expect.

The cast ranged in age from “just out of college” to “my kids are just out of college”. There were some very, very fine voices attached to a lot of those people, even if all of them hadn’t been voice majors. Good thing: it was challenging stuff. And much more often than not, the acting made me forget that it was acting.

And, as a pit-orchestra veteran, I appreciated how well last night’s pit orchestra rose to the challenge of the particular score they were tasked with playing, and also how well they did it from a location that was completely out of sight of the stage. That’s how “little” this little black-box theater was. The pit was somewhere backstage. I think. It was either telepathy or, more likely, a whole lot of quality rehearsal that gave the audience reason to believe that the pit was “out of sight” figuratively as well as literally.

A few paragraphs ago, I did mention that I’d carried more than one piece of baggage to the show. Here’s the other. It’s a piece of baggage that weighed on me at the start of the evening.

I own the DVD of the Broadway revival of this particular show, from about seven years ago. On top of that, I’ve bookmarked and carefully watched the video of a recent staged-concert version of this show, which is currently posted (infringing copyright heavily) on YouTube.

The people in those productions are professionals with the experience, and the willingness to study their craft, and the kind of talent, that gets people in position to be On Broadway in the first place. Slaving at the five-and-ten, dreaming of the great day when … they’ll be in a Show.

The Broadway people whose names we know – and *the influence of whose performances we can recognize in other people’s interpretations of their roles!* – are phenomenal performers. They are so good at their job that they can do it practically in their sleep … while deathly ill … or while myriad offstage calamities are simultaneously befalling them. No matter what, they are utterly, reliably skilled, such that they make us believe it’s effortless. They make us forget that they’re humans, and could flop at any moment unless they bring their “A” game all the time.

Most other people on earth who try to do what they do … stand a nearly-one-hundred-percent chance of not looking or sounding quite that good. Because for the majority of us (and I am part of that “us”, no doubt!), our “A” game will not look like their “A” game.

The people on stage last night were bucking those odds. As well, they were putting on a show that at least a few of the people in the audience, myself included, knew backwards and forwards. I found myself mouthing most of the words to most of the tunes. It sure wasn’t a totally new show, never-before-seen. It wasn’t one of those shows which closed after three performances on Broadway in 1951 and then faded into obscurity, songs and all. People knew what that show was supposed to look and sound like. And yet more perilous: some of us had brought precise and recent images of award-winning performances with us into that black-box theater last night.

Probably not fair to load all this on top of a cast made up of people with degrees in subjects other than greasepaint. But boy, it was fun. It was almost as if the cast was gleefully thumbing its collective nose at the risks of putting that sort of show on.

All of this is not to offer some kind of patronizing apology for the fact that the Broadway Illusion Of Complete Perfection tends to be seen only on Broadway. (Broadway people will probably be able to quote you chapter and verse about the miscues and screwups and other imperfections that they’ve been part of, even though the paying customers might not have noticed any of them.) No need to say something condescending like “not bad, for amateurs”. Last night’s was a thoroughly enjoyable show – probably because of, not in spite of, the fact that the presenters were taking part in the activity for the love of it.

The word “amateur” has taken on an unfair connotation. It’s come to imply low-quality performance, or a lack of training. But at heart, doesn’t it mean … “we’re just not getting paid”?

In fact, I think I had such a good time because the presenters generally didn’t make a living at it. Only a couple of them had majored in this stuff. Many had plenty of experience treading the boards, but it was their avocation, not their vocation. I think I discovered that, as much as I enjoy laying out big bucks every so often to see someone like Harry Connick Jr. strut his stuff, or to listen to the Boston Symphony Orchestra play a definitive version of a classical work, the payoff of a performance presented by people who don’t do it for a living can often be at least as great. That curtain call last night seemed genuinely joyful.

True: in my case, it helped that I knew a couple of the folks involved with the show. Full disclosure. I was rooting pretty hard.

Regardless … last night’s payoff was good and big.


[Most of the shows in the Marblehead Little Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” are sold out, but there may yet be a couple of tickets left for one of next weekend’s shows. Please do go here to find out. I think you will not be sorry you did.]


March 15, 2014 Posted by | arts, entertainment, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Not Them… It’s Not Them… It’s Meeeeeee!

Not long ago, the kindly people at Facebook saw fit to adjust some things about its users’ pages. Ostensibly it was an upgrade of the look, feel and function of their website; but I suspect really so that advertisers can more easily ferret out user information so as to bug us with ads we don’t want to see, that advertise products we don’t want to own.

This is not a comment on, nor a protest about, Facebook’s curiously stealthy way of adjusting itself for its own benefit under cover of “adding value for the customer”. That’s what every corporation in the world does; some do it more craftily than others. Anyway, I also suspect that all of my data has already been mined; there are simply no new facts about me to be gleaned. Nothin’ to see here… move on… go vacuum out someone else’s virtual world.

Rather, this is a note to say that I’m peeved: my carefully crafted responses to important questions like “What’s Your Favorite Movie, TV Show, Political Party, Kind of Cheese…?” were wiped out. Erased. Gone. Thanks for playing. Maybe it’s a gentle hint to me, to back up my darn hard drive.

So I’m going to inflict them on the world again, one category at a time, until Facebook apologizes or until I’ve run out of categories. And I know what’ll come first.

Ahem.  Today: Favorite Music.


Favorite Music:

[] Alison Krauss + Union Station. I own their live concert DVD, and I have yet to find any other artist who can talk for six solid minutes (between tunes) about her bass player’s love of huntin’ and have you wish she’d keep on going with it.

[] The Dixie Chicks. Their controversial moment in 2003 aside, for the moment anyway, they’re just fun to watch and listen to.  A few years ago, I almost had my Uxbridge HS rock band perform the Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” tune; then I considered the possibility that my onstage disclaimer of not advocating violence might take longer than the song; so we did “Not Ready To Make Nice,” instead. It was a good decision all ’round.

[] Al Jarreau. He’s a genuinely weird guy. I saw him once on the Johnny Carson show, and the interview was utter Twlight Zone. But as a scat singer, he’s still the top of the heap, after 35 years! I saw him live when I was a student at UMass (during the height of his “Moonlighting” theme’s popularity): “well, well, well… Al Jarreau goes to college!” … and although a friend of mine who was working backstage that night later described some distinctly idiosyncratic dressing-room-supply requests by Mr. Jarreau, he had the audience eating out of his hand.

[] Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. This is just scary good music-making. Victor Wooten on the bass just makes your jaw go all slack.

[] Christine Lavin. Gives quirky folk singers a good name. I particularly appreciate her song, “In Praise of Bald Men”.

[] Duke Ellington. I trust I don’t have to explain why.

[] Frank Sinatra. Likewise. Except: as a teacher of choral technique, I wish he’d have hung onto the first vowel sound in a diphthong longer than he did, most times. (“…And did it Myyyyyyyyy Wayyyyyyyyyyy…”). If you’re the Chairman of the Board, I guess you get an exemption. But my favorite Sinatra work is his Rat Pack silliness alongside Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. The occasional male-chauvinistic or racially insensitive joke aside (it WAS the early 1960s, after all), they just simply do not make entertainers like that anymore.

[] Huey Lewis & The News. I went to a concert of his twelve-ish years ago, which meant he was at least 13 or 14 years removed from the Top-40 success of “Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll” … and he didn’t sound a darn thing different than he did when I first figured out who he was.

[] James Taylor. There’s not a single JT performance, recorded or live, that isn’t museum-quality, for-the-ages stuff.

[] Johannes Brahms. His Requiem, yes, OK; but I discovered his Serenade No. 2 awhile back, and his Symphony No. 4 last year, and I’m willing to forgive him for being a dead, white, male, German composer.

[] Keb’ Mo’. I understand why Kevin Moore didn’t think he had quite the right name to be a monster blues performer. Get your hands on his music, pronto.

[] Kristin Chenoweth. …I take it back. They do make performers like that, anymore. Whether you’ve heard her tackle the virtuosic, high-E-flat-ridden “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s Candide, or “Taylor the Latte Boy”, you gotta admit – if they stuck her and Nathan Lane on stage with no props or scenery, really bad lighting and an out-of-tune piano, you’d pay your money to get in.

[] Louis Armstrong. I trust I don’t need to explain. Even though in the middle of “What a Wonderful World, I would SWEAR, still, that he sang, “I see trees of green / And clouds of white. / The bright blessed day, / The dogs say good night”.

[] Percy Grainger. He was an utter loon. He should have been the inspiration for the phrase, “there’s a fine line between genius and madness.” But his “Colonial Song” alone is grounds for loving the English military band tradition.

[] Randy Newman. It’s just a shame that the current generation of kids thinks he’s that guy who sings in the Pixar movies.

[] Steely Dan. Ever tried transcribing some of those chords?

[] Tom Lehrer. He was subversive and no one at the time knew just how subversive. Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect.

[] The Wailin’ Jennys. The purest female vocal trio sound there is. And the best name for a band.  Go to YouTube and search for “The Parting Glass” and see if you don’t agree.

[] The incidental orchestral score of the first Austin Powers movie. You may not realize how good and actually respectful of the early James Bond scores it is … until you go back and watch the early Bond movies again. (At which point you also realize how glacially slow the editing pace of the early Bond movies was.)

[] The 2007 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Company”, wherein all the actors also play all the instruments and accompany themselves. It’s like “Blast” with singing and dialogue.


Not an exhaustive list … haven’t even gotten to Bobby McFerrin and the London Symphony Orchestra brass section … or, come to think of it, the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain … but that’s an occupational hazard for a music teacher, I guess.

November 14, 2010 Posted by | entertainment, Famous Persons, media, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments