Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dramatic Fugues

Yesterday I had a delightful coffee with Hip Colleague, and we talked about our book projects. He's writing his second book and had a question for me about Renaissance drama. One of his chapters is on Tony Kushner's play Homebody/Kabul and he described the way that play (and much of the Kushner oeuvre) explores a theme or issue through one character, then pass the theme on to the next set of characters, who in turn pass it on to the next, etc. He wondered if there was a literary or dramatic term for this.

I thought about it. And truth to tell, I couldn't find it operating in early modern drama or classical drama. I tend to think of political issues in Shakespeare operating in a somatic way (the body politic, the humors, the veins, the trickling down), and I tend to think of ethical dilemmas in Greek drama and tragedy working vertically downwards from the top to the bottom. Nowhere could I find an early modern or classical drama in which a problem is passed from hand to hand the way my friend was describing.

So I volunteered the term "transference," which sort of sounds literary and theoretical, maybe psychoanalytical too, though I have no idea why it popped into my head at the time. This term, of course, made me think of the pattern my colleague described as a kind of viral movement, which would make sense for Angels in America, though perhaps less so for Homebody/Kabul.

Then I thought of music- fugues in particular. In his fugues, suites and partitias, Bach takes a theme, breaks it down to its smallest elements ("motifs") then works it through different voices, inverting it, turning it inside out and upside down, and augmenting it into larger chord progressions. By the time the fugue finishes, we have seen the theme and its motifs carried through a metamorphosis.

And this kind of musical fugue happens on the 20th century stage as well, most notably in American Musicals- for some reason especially those to which Sondheim contributes. In what I consider his best musical, Sweeney Todd, Sondheim takes the opening of bars of the Latin Mass, inverts it and it becomes "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Then he takes the Dies Irae and uses it as a repeated counterpoint motif (as musical accompaniment to a different melody) to signify Sweeney's descent into insanity. You can hear it in the background when he sings "We all deserve to die" in "Epiphany" and it appears in the same song when he returns to the tragic fate of his wife ("My Lucy lies in ashes"). It comes back significantly in the very end in the musical surge when he slits the throat of the beggarwoman.

A concurrent motif from the Dies Irae theme is the tritone interval, a diminished fifth known in Medieval and Renaissance music as diablos in musica, or "the devil in the music." The tritone has a hauntingly unresolved feel to it. It's dissonant and begs for a resolution. Sondheim and Bernstein made great use of it in "Maria" and the opening "Rumble" in West Side Story- you can hear the tritone on "Ma-REE-", and it's resolved on the "-ah." But it's really used to much better effect in Sweeney- you could even say the tritone is the main musical calling card of Sweeney Todd. It shows up in the male ingenue Anthony's ballad "Johanna" which is very similar to "Maria," but much creepier because Sondheim doesn't resolve the tritone into a major triad for a several lines; he keeps it suspended longer. And it shows up again in the harmonies of the hilariously macabre duet "A Little Priest," which closes Act I. When Mrs. Lovett joins Sweeney in cadencing the refrain, they are usually a fourth or a tritone apart, and at the very end, the orchestral accompaniment rises to a series of fast syncopated tritones, an antic and uneasy way to pull the curtain down.

So musically, Sweeney Todd passes the themes of demonic possession, Judgement Day (dies irae or day of wrath) and tragic loss from character to character until they culminate in the "Final Sequence," the tragic denouement in which Sweeney kills his wife and learns of Mrs. Lovett's deception too late.*

So I said all this to my friend and he said he had actually spoken to one of our colleagues about musical motifs in Kushner before, which kind of validated what I'd said, even though I was sort of stretching.

I think one of the reasons why I don't write about Renaissance drama (I prefer poetry and book history) is because if I wrote about drama, I'd really prefer to write about American Musical Theatre.

* I highly recommend the Original Broadway Cast recording from 1979 with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, though nearly as good is "Sweeney Todd in Concert" (2001) with George Hearn (Sweeney No. 2 on Broadway) and Patti Lupone with the New York Philharmonic and a number of noted opera stars, along with Neil Patrick Harris who is excellent as Toby.