Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Les Misérables

The point of counterpoint

with one comment


If you’re a certain kind of musical theater fan, you can’t resist a good counterpoint song. You know the sort of number I mean: it usually occurs at an act break or another hinge moment in the story, and it involves at least two singers—and often a bunch more—singing different melodies at the same time. The effect, when properly executed, is one of convergence and multiple levels of simultaneous action, and it can give us the sense of characters on a collision course, as the themes that the musical has developed separately clash and combine into a larger pattern. “Tonight Quintet” from West Side Story is maybe the definitive example, and its use of counterpoint and quodlibet to push forward numerous subplots is topped only by “One Day More” from Les Misérables, which is both the trope’s high point and a ripe target for parody. And a stunning utilization of counterpoint is one of the most striking aspects of the best numbers in Hamilton. In songs like “My Shot,” “The Schuyler Sisters,” “Non-Stop,” and “Take a Break,” Lin-Manuel Miranda seamlessly stitches together multiple characters and trains of thought, until counterpoint comes to symbolize the deepest themes of the musical itself. America, it implies, is a notion that emerged out of the interactions of diverse needs, agendas, and points of view, and it has a synergistic complexity and resonance that isn’t there when any of the threads is separated from the others. It’s a political value system embedded in the structure of the songs themselves, which I think is a pretty neat trick.

It’s also a virtuoso technical accomplishment, to the point where it occasionally pulls us out of the narrative. (“Take a Break,” for example, is an eminently cuttable song—Miranda says that he was advised by at least one trusted advisor to remove it—that winds up seeming indispensable, thanks mostly to a bravura display of counterpoint.) Whenever I listen to the soundtrack, I find myself wondering how just one man could make all these pieces come together. And I got my answer, unexpectedly, from Hamilton: The Revolution, the very good coffee table book that was published earlier this year as a companion to the show. In a note about the climax of “My Shot,” Miranda writes:

So how do you build an ending like this? Endless conversations with [director Thomas Kail], [orchestrator] Alex Lacamoire, and [choreographer] Andy Blankenbuchler. Seriously, so many versions of different counterpoints to build to just the right finish. In these meetings, I find I’m more the editor than the writer—Alex will have fifty musical ideas, Andy will have fifty staging ideas, and Tommy and I will sift them in the middle. It’s like this for most of the buttons in the show.

He says much the same thing about “Non-Stop,” the climactic number of the first act:

This all-skate came from tons of trial and error between me, Andy, Tommy, and Lacamoire. Take pieces from five different puzzles and make something new, that sets us sailing into intermission: that’s what’s at play here. As the guy who gets to play Hamilton, let me also say, it’s a helluva view from the center of it.


I love this for a lot of reasons. First, it’s a reminder of how long it takes to figure out this kind of thing, and that countless other versions that had to be tried and discarded along the way to get it right. Miranda has spoken of how it took years to write certain verses in “Hamilton,” and he recently tweeted out a picture of his notebooks with the comment: “Songs take time.” It’s also noteworthy that these overwhelming effects are usually the product of more than one person’s contributions. (Unless you’re Bach, an ambitious counterpoint piece is probably too complex to hold in your head at once, which leaves you with two alternatives. Either you figure it out in pieces over time, collaborating with your past and future selves and keeping good notes to bridge the gap, or you bring in a few trusted collaborators to work on it together. And in practice, you tend to combine the two, aided by software tools like Logic Pro that allow you to manipulate the result.) There’s also the important point—as Miranda’s mention of Kail, Lacamoire, and Blankenbuchler implies—that what seems at first like a problem of composition is really one of direction, orchestration, and choreography. It’s easier to conceive of a number like this when you’re already dealing with a healthy number of moving parts onstage. Miranda originally envisioned Hamilton as a concept album, complete with a guest reading of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense by the rapper formerly known as Common Sense, but there’s no question that there are also elements that never would have occurred to him without the input of real actors interacting with one another in front of a live audience.

And the punchline, of course, is that this is true of everything in musical theater. A counterpoint number impresses us because it’s clearly the outcome of months of hard work compressed into something like two minutes—but that’s equally the case with any two minutes in a well-constructed musical. It’s just more obvious here: in counterpoint, all those invisible interactions come to the surface to invite our admiration. When properly done, this can seem miraculous, but it’s a little dangerous, too. If overused, it can overwhelm or exhaust the audience, which is why composers generally save it for act breaks or other big moments. (Hamilton deliberately pushes the envelope here, as it does in so many other respects, as to how much counterpoint the listener’s ears can handle.) But at its best, it becomes an emblem for the enterprise of theater itself, which weaves the extended engagement of its author and the contributions of its collaborators into a tapestry that we can deconstruct into its component parts or enjoy as a whole. Writing about a similar moment in the movie Frozen, I said: “It amounts to a fantastic structural trick that moves us before we even know why.” That’s true of Hamilton, too. I’ve loved this musical since I first heard it, but I was also inclined to underrate its emotional power because of its sheer technical facility: “It’s written from the head, more than from the heart,” I once wrote, “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.” After repeated listens, I’ve come to realize that the two things are really the same: Hamilton is both by and about a team of rivals grouped around a single charismatic figure, working in counterpoint toward a common dream. And it’s all the more powerful because of it.

Written by nevalalee

September 12, 2016 at 9:43 am

Alexander and Eva

leave a comment »

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

Elsa and the two Ilsas

leave a comment »


Last weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Disney on Ice, about a third of which was devoted to a Cliffs Notes version of Frozen. Hearing those familiar songs again in an arena with a raucous family audience, I was struck once more by how that film’s spectacular success emerged from the intersection of two peerless bags of tricks: the musical and the animated cartoon. Disney has taken cues from Broadway for a long time, of course, but in Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, they found a creative duo that understood those stage conventions inside and out, and the movie runs off their knowledge like a battery. Lopez, in particular, emerged as such a fluent ventriloquist of the Sesame Street style in Avenue Q that I remember talking to an acquaintance of his—a member of the same musical theater circles—who assumed that he could do nothing else. In fact, as it soon became clear, he can do just about anything. He reminds me at times of a less cynical version of Stephin Merritt, a master of formulas who has imbibed the grammar and, yes, the clichés of his medium so completely that he can deploy them almost without thinking. And what sets Lopez apart is that he’s both totally aware of how manipulative that framework can be and willing to use it in the service of what feels like genuine, unfaked emotion.

When you watch Frozen through that lens, you start to notice how many of its most memorable effects are achieved by an ingenious rearrangement of those basic components. In “For the First Time in Forever,” for instance, when the movie cuts away from Anna—who takes the song up a half-step with every verse—to Elsa singing the emotional counterpoint of “Let it Go,” and then begins to cut between them, it amounts to a fantastic structural trick that moves us before we even know why. During the reprise at the ice palace, Anna sings in major key, Elsa in minor, and it culminates in a miniature quodlibet that somehow evokes all of Les Misérables in less than a minute. Most famous of all, of course, is “Let It Go” itself, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, seems to have recentered the entire movie as soon as it was written. And the really revealing point is that the Lopezes began with certain stock elements without worrying too much about where they fit into the script. “For the First Time in Forever” is a classic “I want” number, which is often ironically reprised later in the story, and “Let It Go” was known as “Elsa’s badass song” in the outline before it became something closer to “Defying Gravity.” (Idina Menzel was cast before any of the music had been written, so they were clearly writing with her strengths in mind.) And once the song was in place, the whole movie was reshaped around it, like the tail wagging the dog. As Lopez-Anderson has said: “If it weren’t framed by the right story, [the song] wouldn’t connect with people.”

Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

And musicals aren’t the only genre in which a compelling character can result from the spaces left by the manipulation of big blocks of narrative. In an interview about the writing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie said:

The…question for me was figuring out the structure of the movie, and we decided to just start with the action—we thought about what kinds of action set pieces we always wanted to do, and then we put them into some semblance of an order to try and figure out what journey that would put our characters on…I rearranged two sequences and changed one specific detail. I took the underwater sequence and the motorcycle chase and put them back to back, creating one monster action set piece in the middle of the movie. When I did that, it created a great relentless set piece, but I blew up the movie—suddenly, characters’ motives that made sense in the previous draft didn’t work anymore. If Ilsa is running from both Ethan and Lane, where is she running to? Figuring that out necessitated the creation of act one and the introduction of British intelligence into the movie, and that in turn led us to all the consequences in the third act. So action really drove story.

Critics have long noted that the action and musical genres have a lot in common, but I’m not sure if anyone has ever noticed how both can recombine stock elements to generate information about a character. In this case, it resulted in Ilsa Faust, who—with apologies to Imperator Furiosa, with whom she shares her initials—is the most interesting woman in an action movie in years.

And it applies to other genres as well. At the risk of stretching the argument, I’d argue that the most famous fictional Ilsa of all—as played by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca—benefits from the same kind of narrative recombination. Casablanca is a kind of musical already, both because of its memorable songs and in the way its great set pieces play like solos or duets of unforgettable dialogue. And if much of Bergman’s appeal comes from her real confusion on the set about which man she was supposed to love the most, with her scenes being constantly rewritten on the fly, that embodies a kind of musical logic, too: director Michael Curtiz and his team of screenwriters seem to have chosen sequences based on how well they played in the moment, with Ilsa’s motivations evolving based on the emotional logic that the scenes imposed, rather than the other way around. If the result works so well, that’s a tribute to Bergman’s performance, which provides a connective thread between inconsistent conceptions of Ilsa’s character: the scene in which she pulls a gun on Rick to get the letters of transit doesn’t have much to do with anything else, but because of Bergman, we buy it, at least for as long as it takes to get us to the next moment. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca is made up of memories of other movies, but the intersection of all those incompatible elements resulted in a character that no one can ever forget. Ilsa and her two namesakes have that much in common: they emerge, as if by icy magic, when you set the right pieces side by side.

The thumbnail rule

leave a comment »

Book covers by Chip Kidd

In his charming book Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, the legendary cover designer Chip Kidd writes: “Here is a very cool, simple design trick: If a piece of visual information looks interesting when it is small, then it will look even more so when you make it big.” More recently, in an interview with the Longform podcast, he expanded on the origins of this insight:

Even when I was in school, pre-computer, there’s a reason that thumbnail sketches are called thumbnail sketches—because they are small, and they are distillations, and they are supposed to be a simplification of the idea that you have. So that hasn’t changed. Most graphic designers that I know sketch stuff out small…I’ve been mindful of how this stuff looks like as a postage stamp pretty much from the beginning, and part of that was also because—probably before you were born—there was something called the Book of the Month Club. And the Book of the Month Club used to buy a group ad on the back page of The New York Times Book Review every week, where they showed as many of these goddamned books—all, you know, current bestsellers—at postage stamp or sub-postage stamp size. And so it wasn’t like I was ever told to design with that in mind, but it was always interesting to see how one of my designs would be reconfigured for this ad. And sometimes it would change it and take away some of the detail, or sometimes they would keep it.

As a general design rule—if it looks good small, it’ll look good big—this isn’t so different from the principle of writing music for crappy speakers, as memorably expressed by the record producer Bill Moriarty:

All that low end in the guitar? It’s useless in the small speakers. It’s just taking up frequencies the bass or drums or organs or tenor instruments can occupy. You have to be ruthless in cutting away useless frequencies so the record is loud and jumps out of all speakers. Make the record sound outstanding on little crap speakers since that’s where most people will hear it. I’ve found when I do this it still sounds great on the fancy speakers.

A reduction in scale, in other words, is a kind of editing strategy: by forcing you to remove everything that doesn’t read at a smaller size or at a lower resolution, you’re compelled to simplify and streamline. It also allows you to see patterns, good or bad, that might not be obvious otherwise. This is why I often do what I call a visual edit on my work, reducing each page to a size that is almost too small to read comfortably as I scroll quickly through the manuscript: sections or paragraphs that seem out of tune with the overall rhythms of the story jump out, and I’ll often see things to cut that wouldn’t have struck me if I’d been reading as I normally would.

Ad for the Book of the Month Club

Navigating changes in scale is central to what artists do, particularly in fields in which the intended user could potentially experience the work in any number of ways. It’s why smart theater directors try to watch a play from every section of a theater, and why film editors need to be particularly sensitive to the different formats in which a movie might be viewed. As Charles Koppelman describes the editor Walter Murch’s process in Behind the Seen:

The “little people” are another one of Walter’s handmade edit room tools. These are paper cutouts in the shapes of a man and a woman that he affixes to each side of his large screening monitor. They are his way of dealing with the problem of scale.

As an editor, Murch must remember that images in the edit room are only 1/240 the square footage of what the audience will eventually see on a thirty-foot-wide screen…It’s still easy to forget the size of a projected film, which can trick an editor into pacing a film too quickly, or using too many close-ups—styles more akin to television. The eye rapidly apprehends the relatively small, low-detail images on a TV. Large-scale faces help hold the attention of the audience sitting in a living room with lots of distractions or ambient light. But in movies, images are larger than life and more detailed, so the opposite is true. The eye needs time to peruse the movie screen and take it all in.

And such considerations are far from theoretical. A director like Tom Hooper, for example, who got his start in television, seems to think exclusively in terms of composition for a video monitor, which can make movies like The King’s Speech unnecessarily alienating when seen in theaters. I actually enjoyed his version of Les Misérables, but that’s probably because I saw it at home: on the big screen, all those characters bellowing their songs directly into the camera lens might have been unbearable. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, Quentin Tarantino, a much more thoughtful director, will be releasing two different versions of The Hateful Eight, one optimized for massive screens, the other for multiplexes and home viewing. As Variety writes: “The sequences in question play in ‘big, long, cool, unblinking takes’ in the 70mm version, Tarantino said. ‘It was awesome in the bigness of 70, but sitting on your couch, maybe it’s not so awesome. So I cut it up a little bit. It’s a little less precious about itself.'”) And we’ve all had to endure movies in which the sound seems to have been mixed with total indifference to how it would sound on a home theater system, with all the dialogue drowned out by muddy ambient noise. We can’t always control how viewers or audiences will experience what we do, but we can at least keep the lower end in mind, which has a way of clarifying how the work will play under the best possible circumstances. An artist has to think about scale all the time, and when in doubt, it’s often best to approach the work as if it’s a thumbnail of itself, while still retaining all the information of the whole. At least as a rule of thumb.

%d bloggers like this: