Thursday, April 26, 2012

Leap of Faith: A New Ministry on 44th Street

Elmer Gantry's greatnephew Jonas Nightingale has opened his tent on 44th street at the St. James Theatre to swindle chumps, I mean save souls. I went to the last preview courtesy of a very talented friend, whose company produced an important element of the production (which I can't specify because it's a spoiler).

There are many ghosts swirling around Broadway's new musical, Leap of Faith, and much infectious high school spirit, but for a story that is about religion/spirituality, there's not much of a presence of the real thing. It's Old Time religion for those who would rather not.

Leap of Faith was an original screenplay by Janus Cercone for the 1992 film starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger. The story is fairly simple: a crooked faith healer with a kick ass Gospel choir roams the midwest to bilk people out of cash in carefully orchestrated 3-day scams. It's an interesting choice of property to bring to the Great White Way.

"Can I Have an Hallelujah"
The culture of Evangelical revival tent meetings has little presence today outside of their television grandsons. One touchstone film buffs have for the crooked variety is Burt Lancaster's riveting Academy Award winning performance as Elmer Gantry, who manipulates the true believer Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) to tragic ends. (Not sure why these preachers gravitate to bird surnames.)

Sinclair Lewis's novel Elmer Gantry was published in 1927, the same year the theater Jonas is in was built by Abe Erlanger as The Erlanger. When he died in 1930 the Astors, who owned the land, took control and, great Anglo-American Episcopalian snobs that they were, renamed it the St. James Theatre, after London's St. James's Theatre (but wisely giving up what actually is the correct punctuation of a proper name ending in "s": an apostrophe with another "s.") And thus was the ground for Jonas's Broadway tent sanctified by the name of two of the 12 Apostles.

Another by-chance spiritual benediction for Jonas is Broadway history: the main set of Leap has a row of realistic cornstalks against the changing sky in the very theater that Oklahoma! debuted and played all 2,212 performances. Jonas is in Kansas, not OK, but surely the set designer is tributing the granddaddy of American musicals.

Sing It, Sisters
The centerpiece of the musical is the Angels of Mercy Gospel choir. The singing is uniformly excellent. What a thrill. It starts with Kecia Lewis-Evans as the Gospel song leader with the enormous range---the real, solid, alto notes up to the dizzy heights of the commanding soprano---opening up the first number, "Rise Up." Her two children, Krystal Joy Brown and Leslie Odom, Jr. (yes, of Smash) have effortlessly beautiful voices filled with rich musicality.

The music is by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, and it's good in what is for me a generically, pleasing Broadway way. There are no songs you will com out humming ("Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. . ."), no song that matches "Popular" or "Defying Gravity," but nothing clunky. The songs move along the themes of how good people can talk themselves into doing bad things, and so book and songs are tight.

But. This Gospel choir should be singing some actual Gospel hymns. Where is "I Saw the Light," "Blessed Assurance" or "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (both in the movie), "How Great Thou Art." Having the choir occasionally be, well, a choir, would have added a much-needed depth to the story. I didn't even hear a sample of a hymn in any of the songs, not even a nod to other faux Broadway hymns like Loesser's "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat."

(And, as if to underscore the point, on the subway home,  I realized the "doors are closing" tones are the opening notes to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!)

Devil in the Red Coat?
This is a star-reaffriming vehicle for Raul Esparza, as though he needed one: he easily pumps up his natural charm to the snake oil variety for Jonas. His singing is thrilling throughout, but really powerful at the end when his devil side is being challenged by simple human decency and the power of faith in people and in Christ.

Everyone's favorite Glinda, Kendra Kassebaum, matches Esparza's acting and singing chops as his sister, and Jessica Phillips as the Sheriff is strong though given some less-than-believeable action points.

So, What Are We Worshipping?
The musical frames the action in a cute way: when it opens, it's as though the audience is in the tent, which is the main set, imaginatively constructed to sometimes blend into the proscenium curtains. The action is the present moment on 44th street, with Jonas calling everyone a sinner and testifying his tale.

Then the action goes back several years to Sweetwater, Kansas, and the corn stalks.

Besides the tent, there is one other piece of the set that dominates the beginning and end: an Arco gas sign at the gas station where the revival bus has broken down, bringing them to the town. It's enormous, it towers over the actors and the corn, like a real-life one is tall enough to be seen from a distance. It is cross-like in shape itself, and lists today's obscene prices of gasoline.

Contrast that with the small neon cross that hangs on the tent. Hmm.

It's true that tent ministries had very simple altars and the sign of the cross was modest. And the character Isaiah, who is visiting from Bible college, tries to confront the Angels that if the are scamming people, they are no longer followers of Jesus. Which is an important point: Sinclair Lewis was writing about a con man. For the early decades of the 20th century the likes of Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson brought true Christian community to isolated towns across the midwest.

But, in today's world, is it a subliminal accident that the symbol of much of modern life's power struggles--oil---hovers over this story of taking a leap of faith? One could argue that the love/need of oil is the root of much evil: Middle East conflicts; corporate greed/price gouging; environmental disasters from the Exxon Valdez to BP in the Gulf.

Everyone in the tent will have his or her own revelation in the St. James Theatre, and you can't ask for more than that from art. As they say, God works in mysterious ways.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday: Saint Peter's Worst Day

Thanks to Gwen Toth, the amazing director of music at Immanuel Lutheran Church and founder/director of the early music group ARTEK, I learned an astonishing piece by the great Renaissance composer Orlando di Lassus.

It's Lagrime di San Pietro, The Tears of Saint Peter, a setting of a twenty-verse poem by the Italian poet Luigi Tansillo (published in 1560), to which Lassus added a final motet.

The work is uniformly described as exquisite, and it is. It is scored for seven a capella voices, but Gwen is alternating solo voice verses with full chorus ones and just instrumental ones.

The music is rich and soaring and dense and transparent all at the same time, like all the masterworks of Renaissance polyphony.

But it is the text that is such a discovery for me. The poet Tansillo imagines the grief beyond grief that Peter feels after he has actively denied Christ three times before the cock crows. It's a rich, relevant thought for contemplation that speaks across the ages.

At the Last Supper Jesus told Peter that he would disown him three times before the cock crowed.

Peter replied: "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." "I tell you the truth."

OF course that's not what happens. From Gospel of Luke, the third denial:

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean." Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

When Eyes Met

Tansillo's verse focuses on that image of Jesus turning and looking straight at Peter, imagining what it must have been like for their eyes to meet and for Peter to comprehend the magnitude of what he had done.

The entire poem is worth reading, because it tells such moving story, but these excerpts give you an idea. Peter's fear and shame projects onto Christ that Christ is angry at him for the denial. But Christ has no such anger or hatred of Peter, and when Peter realizes this he can barely stand it.

When noble Peter, who had sworn
that midst a thousand spears and a thousand swords
he would die beside his beloved Lord,
realized that, overcome by cowardice,
his faith had failed him in his great moment of need,
the shame, sorrow and pity
for his own failure and for Christ's suffering
pierced his breast with a thousand darts.

But the bows which hurled
the sharpest and most deadly arrows
into his breast were the Lord's eyes, as they looked at him;

It looked as if his Lord, surrounded by many
enemies and abandoned by his peers, wanted to say:
"What I foretold him has now come to pass,
disloyal friend, proud disciple"

"More cruel", He seemed to say, "are your eyes
than the godless hands that will put me on the cross;
nor have I felt a blow that struck me as hard,
among the many that did strike me,
as the one that came out of your mouth.

I found no one faithful, nor kind,
among the many that I deemed worthy to be called mine:
but you, for whom my love was so intense,
are more deceitful and ungrateful above all the others.
Each of them offended me only by leaving me:
but you denied me"

The words full of anger and love
that Peter seemed to see written
on the serene, holy eyes of Christ,
would shatter whoever who heard them.

Like a snowbank which, having lain frozen
and hidden in the depth of the valley all winter,
and then in springtime, warmed by the sun,
falls apart and melts into streams,
such was the fear which had lain like ice
in Peter's heart and made him repress the truth;
when Christ turned His eyes on him,
it melted and was changed into tears.

And his crying was not a small spring
or mountain stream, which dries in the warm seasons;
for although the king of Heaven forgave him
immediately for his disgraceful deception,
not a single night in his remaining life passed
without the cock's crow waking him up
and reminding him how shamefully he behaved,
and inciting new tears for the ancient betrayal.

Realizing that he felt much different
than before, and unable to bear to remain
in the presence of the scorned Lord,
who loved him so, he didn't wait to see
if the harsh tribunal would hand down
a severe or clement sentence, but,
leaving the despicable place where he was,
bitterly crying, he returned outside.

By denying my Lord, I denied
life itself from which every spirit springs:
a tranquil life that neither fears nor desires,
whose course flows on without end:
because then I denied the one true life,
there is no reason, none at all, to continue this false life.
Go then, vain life, quickly leave me:
since I denied true life, 1 do not want its shadow.”

So Peter is in despair, almost it seems to the point of suicide. But we know he rallies, and is the rock upon whom the Church is built. The stone rejected by the builders is now the cornerstone.

And yet, that moment of looking Jesus in the eyes after he denied himself 3 times when it really counted was a cross for life.

The end of the Lassus piece is an older, Latin motet re-set. Its words are also pretty incredible: Christ on the cross telling us that as horrific and painful are the nails and spears, they are nothing to the pain of ingratitude. Imagine that.

Behold, mankind, what I suffer for you,
To you I cry, I who am dying for you;
behold the pains with which I am afflicted;
behold the nails with which I am pierced.
There is no pain like that of the cross;
and great though my body’s suffering might be,
the pain of ingratitude, however, is worse,
such ingratitude as I have experienced from you.

Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter, 1610
 Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Madness Parties On @Paley Center

I helped to throw the day job's Mad Men season premiere viewing party last Sunday. It was a smash success because it rode the wave of Mad-ness that viewer's have for Don Draper and associates. The combination of the sixties universe, great writing, and the ever-compelling, good-looking cast has made Mad Men that most enviable of series: event TV.

We didn't know that the premiere itself would focus on a party at the Drapers, and ours did not have a Zou Bisou Bisou number, but the party grooved before the screening—-complete with candy cigarettes, a special Maker's Mark cocktail, and red carpet photos with the cast—-and watching it as a group was a lot of fun. We also treated people to commercials from 1966 instead of the current ones.

For more photos pop over to the Paley Center NY Facebook page.