Some time ago, I went to see a production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes in the splendid company of Sir Alfred (Freddie) Ayer, who, at 78, was game for anything. The former Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford who was also the model for the dotty hero of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers , loved musicals, and Cole Porter was, as the English say, right up his alley.
“Ah!” said Sir Freddie excitedly as we found our seats. “I find it very easy to achieve suspension of disbelief in the theater. On the other hand, I find it harder and harder! In musical comedy, it’s a question of nostalgia . That’s why all the musicals I like are revivals. When I was young, I believed musicals were what life was like. I always captured the heroine. Then there was the sheer pleasure of the songs, of course.”
During the show, Sir Freddie couldn’t resist joining in the songs. He was singing along to “I Get a Kick Out of You” when the lady in front went shush. “So sorry,” he whispered loudly. “I promise it shan’t happen again.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see him struggling to hold himself back, but when it came to “Easy to Love,” he cracked. By then, most people around us seemed to be singing and humming along happily to Cole Porter’s champagne score, including the lady in front. So it didn’t matter. Though his rendition of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” in Act 2 wasn’t quite a match for Patti LuPone’s on stage, that didn’t matter, either.
Anything went! Hummable songs, the wit of a lyric, the fun of musical comedy, romance, nostalgia-in effect, the professor of logic was defining the irresistible appeal of musicals before they became peculiarly confused with opera.
“How do you rate Cole Porter?” I asked.
“Is Cole Porter as good as Noël Coward?” Possibly ,” he replied, warming to the debate, though taking me by surprise. (I think Colie is superior Noëlie.)
“Coward sang Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’ in Las Vegas with a new lyric, and it wasn’t as good as the original- true ,” Sir Freddie continued, and got to the nitty-gritty. “Could we agree that Cole Porter is as much a genius as Rossini, almost as good as Gershwin, narrowly better than Gilbert and Sullivan, and less than Verdi?”
Agreed! Except for his “narrowly better” than those lusterless middlebrow stuffed shirts of jolly suburban English operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan-who can keep awake in Topsy-Turvy , Mike Leigh’s biopic of them?-we would surely concur that Cole Porter’s soigné genius lite has him up there with Rossini, that Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is sublime, and that Verdi is the tops.
I was reminded of Sir Freddie’s scholarly scale of values when Michael John LaChiusa, the creator of Marie Christine at Lincoln Center, declared in The New York Times that he couldn’t tell the difference between a musical and an opera. “Just how does an opera differ from a musical?” he wrote. “No one has found a convincing explanation …”
Well, my goodness, everyone in town has since been searching high and low for an explanation, and some have no doubt agreed with Mr. LaChiusa that Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute are, in fact, great musicals (but not as great, I feel obliged to add, as Gypsy ). Then the music critic of Commentary , Terry Teachout, declared with absolute certainty in The New York Times that Mr. LaChiusa’s own post-Sondheimian Marie Christine is an opera in spite of Mr. LaChiusa’s statement that it’s definitely a musical.
But what does Mr. LaChiusa know? He can’t tell the difference! Was Marie Christine (which has since closed) any good? The question itself seemed to get lost in this intense debate about the crucial differences between German singspiel and “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” But most reviewers (including me) found Mr. LaChiusa’s musical, or opera, which he freely adapted from Medea , an earnest misfire, a messy hybrid. It was neither one thing nor another, fish nor fowl. The New Yorker ‘s John Lahr wittily called it an “opsical,” which could be defined “as an empty vessel that makes a big sound.” But the big debate raged on.
Anthony Tommasini weighed in most recently at The New York Times , marching through what he called the safety of the “mushy middle zone.” The bold Mr. Tommasini dared to argue that words in operas aren’t as important as words in musicals. In opera, the voice is all. I agree, even though in overmiked musicals we catch what words we can. You never know who’s saying the words, either, but let’s not go into that now. Before supertitles, the language barrier never stopped me enjoying opera. My Italian isn’t all it should be, although it has worked quite well in Barcelona. But did that prevent me loving Il Trovatore almost as much as Footloose ?
No, siree. Actually, supertitles have spoilt opera for me a little. Here was I imagining the diva was singing: “I go now, my love, to hurl myself off the bridge! Away!” And it turns out she’s really saying: “Do you fancy a cup of hot cocoa?”
Mr. Tommasini is a fan of the great poets of Broadway-Frank Loesser and Porter, among them-and he relishes quoting their lyrics. The words themselves invoke the melody. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was/ Looked on as something shocking but/ Now God knows/ anything goes.” Does he know, I wonder, that one of the wittiest Porter lyrics was written, in fact, by Irving Berlin? It’s an affectionate parody of “You’re the Top”: “You’re an arch/ In the Rome collection/ You’re the starch/ In a groom’s erection/ I’m a eunuch who/ Has just been through an op/ But if, Baby/ I’m the bottom/ You’re the top!”
Be that as it may, the Three Tenors can sing “Moon River” all they want, but does that make it an aria? No more, I believe, than The Phantom of the Opera must qualify as an opera because it is sung through. Phantom is a musical, a show or, if you please, a pseudo-opera. As is well known, Andrew Lloyd Webber has been influenced by Giacomo Puccini. Hence the expression: You can put the Puccini in Lloyd Webber, but you can’t take the Lloyd Webber out of Puccini.
If only that supreme logician, Sir Alfred Ayer, were still alive to settle the whole issue. In his unavoidable absence, I’ve consulted with another sensible adviser of mine, Johnny B. Simple, who, as always, speaks plainly.
Here’s his handy guide to how to tell the difference between an opera and a musical:
Verdi’s Aïda -opera; Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s forthcoming Aida -musical.
La Bohème -opera; Rent -musical.
Don Giovanni -opera; The Sound of Music -musical.
Der Rosenkavalier -opera; Guys and Dolls -very good musical.
Carmen -opera; Carmen Jones -movie.
“Che farò senza Euridice”-opera; “There’s No Business Like Show Business”-musical, O.K?
He has a longer list, upon request. Johnny B. Simple also says that if we all keep our heads, everything’s gonna come up roses for you and for me.