University of Hartford "H" Magazine - Winter 2019

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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Boublil: Miss Saigon; Weill: Johnny Johnson

05/27/2018 1:00 pm
05/27/2018 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

The Memorial Day holiday was originally called Decoration Day, when people decorated with flowers the graves of those who fought and died in the American civil War of 1861-65. Early in the twentieth century, after the First World War, the holiday was renamed and came to honor, by extension, those Americans who served in, or were killed in, conflicts in foreign parts. There are many Americans still alive now in the twenty-first century who fought in the Vietnam War. On this the Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend of 2018 we'll reflect on the Vietnam era as I once again present Miss Saigon.

Some of the best contemporary works in the popular American lyric theater genre have come not from Broadway but from the London musical scene. The same team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg who brought you Les Misérables also gave birth to Miss Saigon (1989), which is a modern reinterpretation of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. The story has been reset in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, 1975-78. London's reinvention of the traditional American musical brought it closer to opera. Miss Saigon is sung throughout--an upgrade of the traditional American musical comedy with its spoken-word dialog. Miss Saigon aroused controversy over its casting that brought attention to the racist/misogynist aspects of the plot--a controversy that overshadowed its first New York production. Way back in 1926 there were some who thought the element of interracial marriage in Jerome Kern's Showboat was scandalous, so this is nothing new in the history of American lyric theater. You will hear the original London cast recording as released on two Geffen CDs. I'm convinced you will be moved by the passion of the singing in this recording, if not by the poignancy of Miss Saigon's plight.

Then you'll get to hear an American antiwar play with extensive incidental music. Johnny Johnson (1936) was the first stateside commission for the German ex-patriot composer Kurt Weill. There was a monaural recording made of its 1956 stage revival as issued on a single Heliodor LP. I broadcast that LP on Sunday, May 24, 1987. Johnny Johnson is the story of an American doughboy driven mad by the horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front. Actor Burgess Meredith portrays Johnny and serves as narrator. The sound of the Polydor CD transfer of Johnny Johnson is such an improvement that you wouldn't believe it's not in stereo. The 1987 CD reissue was broadcast on the Sunday of the 1991 Memorial Day weekend following Miss Saigon, which got another airing on its own on Sunday, May 27, 2007. Listen for both of these works back-to-back today.