Sunday, February 04, 2007

Turning gold into lead

Yes, that transmutation (granted, not that rare in the arts) is what David Byrne achieved Saturday night at Carnegie Hall: He managed to make a disco musical about the life of Imelda Marcos uninteresting.

On paper, Here Lies Love, about the former Muse of Manila and First Lady of the Philippines had it all: the shopping obsession, the trips to New York discotheques, the various official functions, such as Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary. That, and the fact that Byrne is a clever guy who kept referring to dance music and Studio 54 in interviews. And yet Here Lies Love was worse than bad: It was a crushingly boring exercise in bland, middle-aged taste. In concert form, it was like watching a beige Crate & Barrel couch for two hours.

Where to begin…Part of the problem may well rest in the very definition of the project: Is it a song cycle or a musical? Using Joan Almedilla and Ganda Suthivarakom to sing the parts of Imelda Marcos and her housekeeper Estrella Campos, respectively, indicated a certain musical-theater ambition of creating distinct characters. Alas, this was not reflected in the lyrics, which are heavily narrative, devoid of any personality and of the wit one has come to associate with Byrne himself. At one point he remarked that the words in a song's first verse were taken directly from Imelda's high-school yearbook—"this is reportage," he dryly added to the crowd's knowing laughter. But reportage, you see, does not automatically make compelling art. Things flowed more naturally when Byrne himself reprised a couple of the songs previously performed by the women: If he just sang all of Here Lies Love himself and called it a song cycle, it might actually work better.

It's symptomatic of the project's timidity that Byrne pointed out at the end of the evening that there hadn't been a single song about shoes, because Imelda's footwear obsession was discovered only after her fall. Right, but if we wanted reportage, we'd read the newspaper. A show requires a certain amount of unhinged vulgarity, which unfortunately is the one word that least describes Byrne's oeuvre. You can bet Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber didn't worry about reportage when they wrote Evita.

That singular lack of over-the-top glee was reflected in the music itself. For the first 15 numbers, Byrne and the two lead singers fronted a four-piece band. Most numbers were perfunctorily funky. If you're going to mention Studio 54 when talking about your show, you'd better understand that classic late-’70s disco mixed a deeply ecstatic nature with stupefying musical precision; both were missing at Carnegie Hall. (On his website, Byrne describes "Dancing Together" as "Imelda’s philosophy of why she needs to be beautiful for the Filipino people. A song about the exciting world of socialites, celebrities and expensive items." And yet listening to the song, you'd think he'd never heard Chic.)

At last, a string and a horn sections came in for the final five songs—typically, after the big Studio 54 number! Even though their charts were rather primitive and not used particularly well, they did add a welcome luster to the overall sound, as well as more questions: Why add the extra players so late? When two of the numbers were reprised at the end, they did have the strings and horns—so why weren't they used the first time around? The great disco musical still needs to be written.

For a master class in the orchestrated mix of ecstasy and precision, Byrne might want to listen to these two protodisco tracks, remixed to epic lengths by Tom Moulton. Poetry in motion.
MP3 Detroit Emeralds "Feel the Need in Me" from A Tom Moulton Mix (Soul Jazz)
MP3 Eddie Kendricks "Keep on Truckin'" from A Tom Moulton Mix (Soul Jazz)

I guess we can add David Byrne to the ever-growing list of pop/rock musicians struggling to cross over into musical theater. Randy Newman came close with Faust, a show I believe got an unfair shake and needs to be reeavaluated. Significantly, it's Duncan Sheik, the one whose solo career was rather perfunctory, who's made the most convincing transfer with Spring Awakening. Go figure.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i was at the concert on saturday night, and i have to say, with a little bit of cringing reluctance, that your review of the show was bang-on. like all people, i'm a big fan of david byrne, but man alive, i found myself flipping through the program, wondering how many songs had to listen to before i could head out to my reservation( by the way, ouest is not that great a restaurant) in no time. my favourite component of the evening was listening to byrne talk between songs, and you know that can't be a good sign for an evening of music. i admired the three plucky people who decided to dance, or at least sway, in the aisle to the left of the stage--by god, they were going to make their own fun!

of course, it's a work in progress, and it needs more work, more progress, and more david byrne, i think. he has a beautiful voice and i just wish he sang more, that in fact, he sang the whole damn thing, however, i was charmed by him--a sincere and authentic guy who seems genuinely happy and privleged to be sharing his interests with the world.

word and respect!