It was a long one. But as the clock ticked I couldn’t tear myself away from rehearsal. Things were popping at the end of the day and there was no way I was going to buzz out early. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The whole day had been encouraging. Everything was coming alive, the music and words were sailing into the hall with a kind of freedom Bénédicte and I had hoped for. In several cases, we saw performances that started out with a fresh vividness, but which petered out towards the end. It was as if someone had turned the spotlight off before the show was over. Over and over again we heard the same thing from the singers, words to the effect of, “I thought maybe it was too much.” To quote Charlie Tuna, the old Chicken-of-the-Sea advertising mascot, we want tunas that taste good, not tunas with good taste. Particularly when your “good taste” leaves your performance trapped in the can. (Changes “tunas” to “tunes” and you’ve got the motto for the week.)
I imagined that by 6 PM everyone would be pretty tired and that we’d be in the land of diminishing returns. Bénédicte had breast-fed her baby a couple of times, and done some diaper-changing too—she looked as if she might be ready to get in the car. But the cast was getting its third wind and seemed happy to work on the American songs for another hour and a quarter. So be it.
I’d given Natalie a song by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields called “Make the Man Love Me.” She was singing it in F, and it sounded perfectly comfortable. But the other day she mentioned a performance by Maureen McGovern that she’d liked, and when Béné and I played it on the car ride to Westchester we found out it was in the key of D. Béné proposed that we give it a run in the lower transposition, and—-wow. In F it was formal, proper, sincere. In D, it was intimate, urgent, and sexy—an instant transformation. When it was over, I said, “OK, Natalie, I’ll make you a deal: I’ll play it in D, but now you have to sing all your songs that way.”
The guys are singing “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd, and it’s been lovely to listen to but somewhat cool in effect. I talked to Seonho and César. “Look, you have to be singing about something, preferably something you agree on. If it’s not girls, it can be chocolate cake. Or a Met contract. Something you want. Something you like. But please: enjoy it together.” It took a few runs, but the third time I felt the unmistakable glow of artistic communion. And man, what a song. (I never asked them to share their subtext—an artistic no-no.)
When I programmed “What You Don’t Know About Women” from City of Angels (by Cy Coleman and David Zippel) I assumed it would be a no-brainer. It’s a hilarious indictment of sexism, male narcissism, and mansplaining, and I was counting on Mer and Natalie to dig into it. But for three days they had been careful, almost apologetic. Béné and I had finally had it. But instead of firing up their anger (it was just too late in the day), I decided to approach it from a musical point of view.
“Look, ladies, this is rhythmic music. Vertical, Big band. On the beat. You’re a pair of alto saxophones”—and I belted out the tune in my best Charlie Parker imitation. “Now look, Mer, I know this is low in your soprano range, but give it whatever you got without stripping your cords.”
Natalie—a mezzo-soprano with a more potent low range—volunteered, “I could hold back a little so we could match—”
“NO, NO, NO! Nail it to the back wall, and bring her along with you! I mean,” I said, lowering my voice, “how many chances do you get to tell men to stop being such assholes?” A pause. “So hit those beats. Go for it.”
They proceeded to tear into their duet with roughly three times the vocal energy and nine times the emotional energy of the previous run of the song. I never doubted they had it in them—I just didn’t imagine I’d have to beg for it.
The encore is “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” in my vocal arrangement. The singers seem to love it, and I am especially tickled to hear Seonho Yu sing the opening lines, “I don’t like you, but I love you…” He picks up styles with amazing ease. So once again I found myself singing. “Ah dawn ah-lahk yew, but ah love yew,” I crooned à la Smokey Robinson, and Seonho sang it back to me—at first tentatively, but eventually with soul (no pun intended) and confidence. The day was over, and it was a wonderful day.