Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Evita

Writing the vegetables

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In the huge interview with Empire that I recommended earlier this week, Christopher McQuarrie shares a story from the editing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. McQuarrie and Tom Cruise had assembled a rough cut of the entire movie, and it wasn’t playing well. To be fair, it never does, especially when it includes a lot of unfinished visual effects, but what they were seeing left them particularly depressed, and after watching the first half, they walked outside to get some air and brace themselves for the rest. (McQuarrie refers to it as a “Cut me, Mick” moment, and anyone who has dreaded going back to a troubled project can probably relate.) McQuarrie describes what happened next:

We went back in and sat down and Eddie [Hamilton] had cut together a big chunk of the second half of the movie. And we got to the moment—no music in it, nothing, total rough cut—and [Ilsa] said: “Come away with me.” Tom and I looked at each other, and we’re like, “Do you feel that? That kind of worked! That was actually good!” And then there was the scene in the safe house when they’re all fighting with each other, and that was working. All of a sudden, we were looking at it and going, “You know, all the vegetables of the movie are actually tracking. They’re actually playing really well. It’s all the action that’s not worked out yet.”

McQuarrie quickly moves on, but the notion of a story’s “vegetables”—the scenes that exist to get from one high point to another—stuck with me, along with the idea that you can evaluate a work in progress by keeping an eye on those interstitial scenes.

On some level, this seems to run contrary to one of the central tenets of storytelling, which is that if you nail the big moments and don’t actively screw anything up, the rest will take care of itself. (As Howard Hawks put it: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”) And in practice, viewers or readers will forgive almost anything if a story delivers when it counts. But the vegetables are important, too—to facilitate the climaxes, as worthwhile scenes in themselves, and as a kind of index of the whole. I’ve noted elsewhere that the famous moments that we remember rely on the surrounding material to have an impact. Revealingly, such scenes rarely, if ever, come at the very beginning, which is when writers feel the most pressure to start off with a bang—which only indicates the extent to which they depend on context and preparation. That pattern holds throughout the story. A novel or movie that consists of just one high point after another is likely to be exhausting, while one that conceives itself as a delivery system for awesome moments may fall flat whenever something amazing isn’t happening. To some extent, this is a matter of personal taste. I gave up on Game of Thrones in part because of its tendency to sag between character deaths, while I never got tired of Mad Men, which was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. The most reasonable approach, unless you’re Matthew Weiner, is a deliberate balance in which the quieter scenes enable the more conventionally exciting sequences. The vegetables may not be the main attraction, but they play the same role in a story that aromatics like onions and garlic have in cooking. They add flavor and bind the rest together.

The vegetables can also be tasty in themselves. A few weeks ago, I finally saw Hamilton onstage, and my big takeaway was how good the second act is—it’s just one great song after another. Yet on paper, it also consists mostly of vegetables, with characters talking about politics or setting up information that will pay off later on. You can see this clearly in “Take a Break,” a purely functional song that exists solely to establish the fact that Hamilton is away from his family, but is so lovingly written and performed that it becomes a showstopper. Even better is “The Election of 1800,” which just moves the political pieces around, but thrills me to no end. (I love it in part because it reminds me of Evita, which is nothing but vegetables, but so cleverly delivered that we don’t even notice. And neither musical could exist, at least not at this level of success, if they hadn’t found solutions to the problem of treating politics in song.) You may not notice such functional scenes on your first encounter, or even your tenth, but the more you listen to a soundtrack or watch a movie, the more they stand out. They’re often the ones that I end up revisiting the most, in part because they can’t take our attention for granted, so they have to exist at a high level of craft. I’ve read the novel The Silence of the Lambs maybe ten times, but the one chapter that I never tire of reading is the one in which Clarice Starling searches the storage unit that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. It really only exists to get the plot to the next stage, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches, like how the resourceful Clarice fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. And you really start to appreciate this sort of scene when you notice its total absence from Hannibal Rising.

For a writer, the best thing about vegetables, as well as a potential pitfall, is that you can always find ways of improving them, which isn’t always true of the big moments. Novelists may not be in the same position as filmmakers who have to wait for special effects to be rendered, but if you’ve ever written a novel, you know that you eventually stop seeing the scenes that made you want to write it in the first place. You’ve read them so many times that they become invisible, and it can be hard to look past your preconceptions to see what’s actually on the page. With purely functional scenes, it’s easy to retain your detachment, and you can keep tinkering with them even when you lack the energy to tackle larger issues. Ideally, the vegetables can even serve as a gauge of quality, as they did with McQuarrie and Cruise: if the small stuff is working, there’s reason to hope that the big stuff is, too. But proportionality also matters, and endless fiddling on minor details can blind you to a scene’s true importance. (Martin Scorsese threatened to take his name off Raging Bull because he couldn’t hear a background character ordering a Cutty Sark in a bar.) Fretting too much over the vegetables can turn into procrastination, or a form of avoidance. As Carl Richards of the New York Times points out, it’s when you’re looking for excuses to avoid moving to the next stage that you seize onto finicky little items: “What color should the logo be?” “I can’t find an agent.” “It could use another round of edits.” “I’m not sure what font to use.” That’s when the vegetables tend to call to you the most. The best approach is to utilize this impulse to polish the small parts until they shine, while keeping it under control so that you don’t lose sight of the overall picture. Vegetables in a story are good for you. But you don’t want to neglect the meat.

Alexander and Eva

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Patti LuPone in Evita

On the Fourth of July, I finally sat down and listened to all of Hamilton. My wife and I have owned the original cast recording for a while now, but because we rarely have two consecutive hours these days to do much of anything, I hadn’t played the whole album from start to finish with the degree of attention it clearly deserved. Not surprisingly, it blew me away, and I’ve been listening to little else ever since.  At this point, the last thing we need is another rave review, so I’ll confine myself to observing that its strengths and weaknesses come from the same place, which is another way of saying that I wouldn’t change a note. It’s written from the head, more than from the heart, and its emotional impact, which is undeniable, is more the result of impeccable musical theater than of an experience that Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to have lived through for himself. At times, it’s so determined to include everything that it narrates the action when it really should be showing it instead. But its compromises are inseparable from what makes Hamilton special. It wouldn’t be so compelling if it weren’t so overthought and overstuffed, and it repeatedly pulls back from being the worst version of itself—a musical that history teachers will play for bored high schoolers for decades—to the best, simply because it has the technical ability to master so much intractable material.

And on that level, it reminds me a lot of my favorite musical of all time, which, oddly, hasn’t been raised as point of comparison before: Evita. I’ve loved it ever since I was a teenager, and I know it better than just about any other show. My cassette tape of the Broadway cast recording wore out from overplaying, and I can still sing pretty much every syllable by heart. I looked forward to the movie version so intensely and for so long that I was recently startled to realize that it came out almost twenty years ago. And I’d frankly have trouble explaining why. When I saw it onstage for the first time in New York a while back, with the competent but charmless Elena Roger in the title role, I was reminded of how deeply weird a musical it is. There are barely ten minutes of unfaked feeling in the entire production, about half of which belongs to Perón’s unnamed teenage mistress, who promptly disappears after “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” The rest is opportunism, cynicism, or calculated emotional manipulation. Entire verses are devoted to the intricacies of issues like Argentine trade disputes, which is arguably even harder than writing a song about the Federalist papers. Like Hamilton, Evita was inspired by a chance encounter—lyricist Tim Rice caught the tail end of a radio broadcast about Eva Perón one evening—that spiraled into an obsessive dive into research, and in both cases, there are times when we feel like we’re being given a briefing on facts that will appear on the final exam.

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton

Yet Evita works like gangbusters, at least for me, and it took me a long time to understand that I respond to it because of how unlikely it is. I’ll start with the simple observation that this musical wouldn’t come off at all if it weren’t built around one of the great show tunes of the last fifty years: “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is such a showstopper that the score falls back on it constantly, beginning with “Oh What a Circus” and continuing through “Santa Evita,” as if Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber realized that it was an armature strong enough to allow them to get away with anything. But what, exactly, is the song really about? Even Rice himself dismissed it as “a string of meaningless platitudes,” and it’s only the prettiness of the melody that allows listeners to enjoy it without recognizing that Eva is lying through her teeth. Look at it closely, and it turns into a symbol of how artificial a musical can be and still work—which is why it has never ceased to fascinate me. Les Misérables is probably the gold standard of megamusicals, and I’ve been listening to it a lot, but it’s far easier to ask an audience to care about Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette than about Juan and Eva Perón, and the technical trick that Evita pulls off in making the result even halfway credible still amazes me. This show wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t executed at a high pitch of proficiency at every moment, and the emptiness at its core only renders the surfaces all the more impressive. It comments beautifully on two insincere people because it’s the most insincere of musicals.

Hamilton has much the same kind of virtuosity, with a far more sympathetic figure at its center, which is why I think it will probably outlive Evita. The most striking difference between the two shows is how effortlessly Hamilton encourages the audience to identify with its hero, while we’re always looking at Eva from the outside. Their narrative arcs aren’t so different: both come from nothing and rise to a position of power and celebrity, and neither is above capitalizing on the openings that circumstances present. Both are driven by ambition and destroyed by fate. But you leave Hamilton wanting to be more like its title character, while you leave Evita wanting, if anything, to be more like Patti LuPone. Part of it has to do with how seamlessly Lin-Manuel Miranda’s presence onstage blends with that of his protagonist: it’s the artistic manifesto of a man who willed himself into his position, as Hamilton did, through sheer brains and talent. Evita is more of a clinical case study written by two men who viewed their subject as a vehicle for their own gifts. I’ve been playing both albums for my daughter, and I suspect that Hamilton will mean more to her over time than Evita will, which is precisely how it ought to be. The latter is a show for viewers who cherish the artifice of musical theater, which has no much in common with the artifice of politics, while the former transcends politics in its insistence that both art and government can be something more than a diversion. These days, more than ever, we need a musical like Hamilton, which encourages its fans to be a lot smarter, work a lot harder, and write like they’re running out of time. Because we are.

Written by nevalalee

July 8, 2016 at 8:52 am

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