June 14, 2001  


The Wicked Stage


by Rob Kendt


I once heard an actor I admire say that among his main influences was the German lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This actor wasn't a singer; what inspired him was Fischer-Dieskau's interpretive artistry. American singer Dawn Upshaw is in the same rank, on the evidence not just of her brilliant career but also a recent master class she led at Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre as part of the nearby Ojai Music Festival. In two hours, the sunny, gracious Upshaw gave four young student singers pointers on meter, language, and diction but above all on interpretation. "What might that musical gesture mean?" she asked the first singer about an ethereal ostenato in one of John Harbison's "Mirabai Songs" (which Upshaw performed definitively that week at the Ojai Fest's Libbey Bowl). Indeed, when she did talk shop--key changes, tempi, timbre--it was toward a more truthful and personal interpretation of the composer's intentions. Echoing a central tenet of acting teacher Uta Hagen, Upshaw said, "Have a reason for everything. Pay attention to details, to what you can make them mean. So much of performing is making choices--decisions that help you get that much closer to the piece." Later, Upshaw opined, "Every time you pick up a song, you're telling your own story, but you want to do it through the character's story." When soprano Amy Rogers gave an aching rendition of "Willow Song" from Douglas Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe, the elder singer was visibly moved and had little to suggest. She spoke instead about taking a moment to "enjoy singing your own language." Indeed, though she has successfully tackled works in many tongues, Upshaw is distinctly at home singing American English, whether set by Vernon Duke or George Crumb. She's no diva; she didn't sing at this master class, instead keeping the focus on the students and their work. So I don't imagine a playwright will ever memorialize her a la Terrence McNally's Callas-based Master Class. But for anyone called to the interpretive arts--to share some truth about the human experience with an audience--Upshaw's artistry is a bright, shining example.


I've always had a soft spot for Hair, the "tribal love rock musical" that's younger than I am but not by much. For many it evokes a world they remember firsthand; for folks my age it's a period piece that evokes a world we largely missed--which, through the disarmingly sexy and silly prism of Hair, seems to embody that great line from Sondheim's Follies about a time when "everything was possible/and nothing made sense." I spoke recently with Galt McDermot, the composer who appears famously on the Hair cast album in a tie and crew-cut next to the show's longhaired writers, James Rado and Gerome Ragni. He recently helped lead a concert reading for New York's Encores and may do the same for the upcoming Reprise! rendition here in L.A. (opens this weekend at the Wadsworth) featuring Sam Harris, Billy Porter, Steven Weber, and Jennifer Leigh Warren. McDermot had been toiling in Manhattan as a church organist and jazz pianist when Joe Papp hooked him up with Ragni and Rado, two young actor/writers from the East Village, to do the music for a new musical by, about, and starring members of the free-loving, drug-taking, draft-card-burning counterculture. "They said they wanted to make it a rock 'n' roll show. I was more interested in R&B," said McDermot, who attributes great influence to a youthful residence in Africa with his diplomat father. What's more, he said, Rado and Ragni's lyrics weren't "typical rock lyrics. They were funny, witty. Most rock songs aren't funny." So is Hair a rock score? Yes and no. It is exuberant, funky, eclectic, occasionally cheesy, but above all it manages to sound both accomplished and innocent. I had to ask McDermot about Rent, Jonathan Larsen's recent through-sung youth-rock hit. He was mixed: "I liked certain moments of it; it didn't kill me." But then, he's not too sanguine on Broadway, anyway: "After a while I realized that theatre isn't where it's at in terms of music. In the New York theatre, their minds are mostly back in the '50s, or back further." He's worked on more modest projects since Hair, but that's fine with McDermot: "I don't want another Hair. One is enough."