Marni Nixon


You’ve heard Marni Nixon’s voice hundreds of times, even if you’ve never seen her face.  West Side Story.  My Fair Lady.  And one of the few musicals I enjoy, The King and I.  These and many other movie musical performances were the incomparably versatile Marni Nixon.  She was probably the most famous ghost singer in film history.  The studios would call her in when they didn’t feel the leading actress had a strong enough singing voice for the role.  Actresses like Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn were immensely talented (and highly photogenic), but not great singers.  They weren’t bad, but they weren’t as good as Marni.

Here’s one of my favorite musical clips ever, with Marni Nixon singing for Deborah Kerr.  “Shall We Dance” also happens to be one of the sexiest scenes in movie history, so feel free to enjoy the afterglow.  RIP, Marni.



If you know me, you know I am not a fan of musicals, outside of a select few.  But maybe the genre is catching up with me a bit, because I plan on seeing Hamilton when it hits LA.  It might not have this cast, but I’m sure they’ll cast good people for the touring company.  It’s scheduled to hit here in August 2017.

“One Night in Bangkok”


Thought I’d add a bit of spice to my role as a Tiny Pepper.  I have a feeling I’m going to be kind of introspective and quiet in my musical choices this month, but then again, this little bit of biting Pop-Rock just might be the start of a trend.

Yeah, this is from a musical.  We saw Chess in London as part of my senior trip to Europe, although “One Night in Bangkok” had been released as a single some time before the play was ever staged.  The producers and the composers (Tim Rice on lyrics, Bjorn and Benny from ABBA on music) recorded and released the score to help finance the stage production.  This song was a decent hit in the U.S., making it all the way to number three.  And yeah, that’s Murray Head, older brother of Anthony Stewart Head (aka Giles to all us Buffy fans), doing a charmingly nasty performance.  This was the character of the American in the play, which was extremely loosely based on the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky matches from the 1970s (you know, before Bobby went completely nuts).  The American is supposed to be sarcastic, caustic, selfish and generally intolerable, and Murray does a good job of it.  You can’t remove all the sympathy from the character, of course, because that wouldn’t be very much fun.  But he’s got a nice edge to him.

I enjoyed watching Chess, and I still really like the music, but I doubt I’d ever see it again.  The show itself is kind of dated, although the way things are going with Putin’s Russia, it looks like the Cold War may be on again, in which case Chess might be coming back into style.

“Hard Candy Christmas”


Back to our regularly scheduled holiday programming . . .

I’ve bumped into The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas on TV a couple of times recently.  It’s not a musical I especially enjoy, but it does have a few good songs sung by the wonderful Dolly Parton.  My favorite has always been “Hard Candy Christmas,” which I don’t think was ever meant as a Christmas song.  But it does dovetail nicely into what’s rapidly becoming the theme of melancholy Christmas songs.  Who knew this is where I’d end up.

I suppose I should’ve seen this pattern coming, though.  I’ve been a little blue around the holidays since Dad died.  Even though he was kind of Scrooge-like about things like decorations, he loved to spend time with people.  He tried to call relatives and friends he couldn’t see to wish them happy holidays.  My father genuinely liked people for the most part.  Like Grammy used to say, he never met a stranger.

But even though this song is sad, there’s a hopefulness to it.  Things might be tough right now, but it’ll change soon.  “I’ll be fine and dandy.  Lord, it’s like a hard candy Christmas.  I’m barely getting through tomorrow, but still I won’t let sorrow bring me way down.”

Gone to the Movies: “Superstar”


I debated a little with myself about posting this one, mostly because I am not a Christian; I’m not entirely sure this is my territory to cover.  The message of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t quite separate from more traditionally religious or conservative interpretations of both Christianity and Jesus, but there is a decidedly liberal bent to how Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber portrayed Jesus, Judas, and the rest in their musical.  Most importantly for me, though, is the fact that you don’t have to be a believer to take part in the discussion this musical and movie bring up.

Let’s start with the music.  Although many churches now incorporate Rock/Pop music into their services, back in 1970, turning the last weeks of Jesus’ life into a “Rock Opera” was tantamount to heresy.  I think it was a brilliant move on Weber and Rice’s part; the music helps make Christianity and the spiritual questions raised by the story accessible to younger people who were often alienated from the staid formality of religion.  The musical is about a conflict between Jesus and Judas over the direction of Jesus’ ministry, which ultimately leads to Judas’ betrayal, and both their deaths.  Judas is portrayed sympathetically, as a man concerned that Jesus has become more important than the message.

It’s not an unusual viewpoint.  Nikos Kazantsakis used a similar perspective in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ (a beautifully written book with lyrical prose, just in case anyone is interested).  In the novel, Jesus had planned everything leading up to the Crucifixion, including Judas’ betrayal, because he knew that’s what had to happen; Judas was the sympathetic best friend trying to talk Jesus out of it for much of the book.  The problem with Judas being a sympathetic character is that it removes him as a villain from the story, something many conservative Christians don’t approve of.  It introduces and element of ambiguity to the traditional narrative: “Did you mean to die like that?  Was it a mistake, or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”  If Judas wasn’t evil, if he was in some sense doing exactly what Jesus wanted him to do, then is Jesus always purely good?

I like this version.  I think it makes Jesus even more supernatural, and more spiritual.  If he knew what he was doing, what would happen if things continued down this path, that makes his sacrifice even greater in my book.  It also means that he understood what he was giving up–the chance at a long and happy life, a family, a comfortable living as a carpenter.  And Judas is redeemed.  He might have felt overwhelming guilt at giving up his friend and savior for thirty pieces of silver, but he was doing what he had to do, what Jesus required him to do.  That makes his love for the man even greater.

This doesn’t even touch on the brilliance of casting a black man as Judas in the film.  Carl Anderson was exciting and charismatic, and he belted out “Superstar” like a Baptist preacher.  And his very presence raised a whole host of questions about race that never get fully resolved by the musical (largely because these questions still haven’t been resolved over forty years later).  “Superstar” is the climactic song in the musical, summing up the one question everyone (sometimes literally) danced around throughout the entire film: “Jesus Christ, superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?”

That question can only be answered with, or without, faith.  Or more accurately, faith in one answer or the other.  But while “Superstar” the climactic song, it is not the final scene.  That’s reserved for a shot of everyone leaving the scene of the crucifixion, then, in modern street clothes, climbing back on the bus that will presumably take them back to the modern world.  Of course, only one cast member is missing.

It’s one of the most affecting final scenes I’ve ever watched.  It leaves the final question of faith entirely up to the viewer, but also makes it clear that this is something enduring and eternal.  Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t convert me to a believer, but it does help me understand belief.

Gone to the Movies: “Adelaide’s Lament”


Let’s lighten things up around here a little bit, shall we?  Although from today’s perspective, this song perpetuates a lot of stereotypes about women.  I chose it mostly because my cold reminded me of it.  (I’ve moved into the congestion stage, which means I’m feeling better but I’m all stuffy nosed. Sudafed is my best friend right now.)

Vivian Blaine played Adelaide in the 1955 film version of the Broadway hit.  I’m not a particular fan of musicals, but I have a bit of a soft spot for Guys and Dolls.  It’s a favorite of my father’s–although I don’t know if that’s because he read the original Damon Runyon stories, or if he liked the connection to the Salvation Army (the only charity he gives to on a regular basis).  Either way, he loves Guys and Dolls; so needless to say, I’ve had to sit through it one or two times.  Luckily, the music pretty much makes up for the silliness of the plot.  My personal favorite is Marlon Brando singing “Luck Be a Lady.”  He’s not much a singer, but he puts so much of his marvelous acting behind it that I find myself riveted to the performance.  (I feel I should note here that Don Henley did a terrific reggae-tinged version of “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” for the soundtrack to the movie Leap of Faith.  I like that song a lot, too.)

“Adelaide’s Lament” is comic in intent.  The subplot of the romance between the cold-footed Nathan Detroit and his long-suffering girlfriend Miss Adelaide is the comic relief counterpoint to the main romance between Sky Masterson and Sgt. Sarah Brown.  You’re supposed to laugh at their antics.  Vivian Blaine is by turns sweet and fierce, a sexpot with her eyes on becoming an “honest woman.”   How she intended to become an honest woman by marrying a gangster is left unanswered.  But as charming and lovely as Blaine’s performance is, I can’t help but feel a little irked by the myths perpetuated by the “medical” book she reads from.  I understand that both the movie and the musical (not to mention the short stories) are from a different time.  The 1950s isn’t exactly known for being a feminist wonderland, but it’s hard to turn off what I know is the truth.

The fact is, while marriage is considered beneficial for both partners, studies have concluded that men gain far more physically and psychologically from being married than women do.  Married men live much longer and are healthier than their bachelor counterparts–whether because someone takes care of them, or they’re more motivated to take better care of themselves, I don’t know.  Women do still live longer, but marriage’s benefits are less pronounced for them.  So instead of developing a cold, women are almost as well off in terms of health if they stay single.  “Adelaide’s Lament” is funny, but wrong.

Wow.  So much for lightening things up.  This kind of went in a direction I didn’t expect.  It is a cute performance . . . as long as you ignore the sexist stereotypes.

“The American and Florence/Nobody’s Side”


I’ve mentioned before that I don’t particularly like musicals.  I’m pretty good at the willing suspension of disbelief required for plays/movies/television/Fox News, but I find my ability to accept the ridiculous and sublime tested when people keep bursting into song for no apparent reason.  Really.  This grave and great moment just inspired you to make up a soaring anthem complete with perfectly choreographed dancing?  Even if the music is absolutely brilliant, I find myself unable to put up with the mental acrobatics required to accept all the singing and dancing in an otherwise ordinary story.

That said, there’s a few musicals that I happily put up with, although in most cases it’s for the music more than anything else.  As a senior in high school, I got the opportunity to spend a month in Europe.  Two teachers from our school organized an annual senior trip to the Old World, including hotels, transportation, tickets to attractions, and most meals.  It was an incredible deal that I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist anymore.  I am eternally grateful to my parents for doing what was necessary to send me on this trip, and for the fact that I missed an entire quarter to mononucleosis for the chance.  (I was a student of one of the organizing teachers, and I think he felt bad for me, so he made sure we knew there were still seats available.)  When we were in London, one night was reserved for a show in the Theater District.  We had tickets to Chess.

Chess is (very) loosely based on the matches between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky for the world chess championship.  It’s a Cold War love triangle (or quadrangle, if you include the Russian’s wife) between The American, The Russian, and Florence.  There are lots of references to what was then-current politics, but which have made it rather dated and stale today.  It was originally released as an album in 1984, which partially financed the stage production.  Murray Head (older brother of Buffy alum Anthony Stewart Head) was the original American, and had a hit single with “One Night in Bangkok” (that song opens the second act, and really makes a lot more sense when taken in context of the show).  The music for Chess was by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from ABBA, with lyrics by the magnificently sardonic Tim Rice.  The show was okay–not great, not horrible.  But the music was terrific.

My favorite has always been this number.  It’s the penultimate number between Florence and The American.  He’s aggressive and abrasive, and she’s his long-suffering girlfriend and assistant.  He’s trying to justify his childish behavior at the match, and Florence is coming to the realization that he’s self destructing and she’s falling in love with the Russian.

I’ve always identified with Florence’s anger in this tune.  She’s so lost and alone, trying to figure out which side of the equation she’s on, knowing deep inside that the only person who’s ever going to look out for her is herself.  “Better learn to go it alone, recognize you’re out on your own.  Nobody’s on nobody’s side.”  Elaine Paige really knocks this one out of the park.  It’s a showcase for any female singer, really, one of those numbers you use as an audition piece.  It’s a showstopper, and it stopped me in my metaphorical tracks.  It’s angry, but it’s also a declaration of independence: I’m not on your side because you’re not on mine.  I’m going to look out for myself for a change.

Florence’s fate at the end of the show is uncertain.  The Russian leaves her to return to his life and family in the Soviet Union, but the American is still waiting in the wings (literally in the production I saw; he’s walking out on stage toward a solitary Florence as the lights fall).  But if she goes back to the American, he’s going to find out she’s not the same.  She’s willing to stand up for herself and what she believes.  Hmm, I’m starting to think this show might not be as dated as it looks.