05 May 2014

Lady Gaga and 'Once'

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again, my friend Kirk chimes in with an interesting contribution to ROT, this time covering two topics in tandem.  He saw the Broadway production of Once on a recent evening and also a performance by Lady Gaga, one of her concerts for the closing of the Roseland Ballroom in midtown Manhattan.  Kirk wrote on this blog about Lady Gaga before, in “Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time,” 1 November 2011, though this is the first he’s seen her perform live.] 

I lived in New York City through most of the 1970s; then I moved to New Jersey, and since then it’s an event for me when I’m in Manhattan at night. I tend to forget what a marvelous place it is once the sun has gone down. The lights, the varied range of people, the availability of something different to do on every block . . . . It’s an exciting city, almost a living state of mind.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. Someone asked me the other day if it was the same when I lived there, and of course it wasn’t at all. When my friend asked me the question, we were walking down Ninth Avenue in the evening. In the 1970s I wouldn’t have done that on a bet. I also wouldn’t have done it without the company of a squad of police. Things have changed, though. The rents plummet; the artists move in; everyone else moves in; the rents go up. It’s the Great Circle of (City) Life.

I happened to be in the city several nights in a row during the first week of April of this year, and had two real New York experiences: I went to the noisiest event of my time in the city, and the quietest.

The quietest was the last fifteen minutes or so of the musical Once, currently playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Once opened on Broadway on March 18, 2012, so it’s been running a little over two years. It received eleven Tony Award nominations, and won eight of them, including the award for Best Musical.

The reviews were also excellent. Ben Brantley of the New York Times reviewed the show when it first opened at the New York Theater Workshop in 2011, and seemed to be focused more on the movie of the same name (2006) that the musical was based on, adding somewhat sarcastically that the musical was “steeped in wise and folksy observations about committing to love and taking chances.”

When Once opened on Broadway, however, Brantley wrote that “what is essentially the same production feels as vital and surprising as the early spring that has crept up on Manhattan” – an observation that strikes me as wise and folksy. Anyway, he liked it.

I didn't know a thing about Once when I went to the theater to see it, except that I'd read it was a “bittersweet love story.” That's correct, if limited. It's set in Dublin and is about an Irish singer-songwriter who's having no success at all – basically singing in pubs and on the street, when he can – and a Czech immigrant girl who sees potential in him, connects him with a record producer, and eventually sends him off to the United States to rekindle an earlier relationship and presumably to make his fortune.

It's a musical in which the songs are all “performed” as part of the story – nobody exactly just bursts into song; instead they sing for plot reasons. It has a small cast, just the two leads and eleven others who both play instruments and sing, and also play roles in the story. Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee originated the roles of the Girl and Guy, the leads; the current leads are Joanna Christie and Paul Alexander Nolan, both wonderful.

The songs, some from the movie and some composed for the show (both written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), are Irish flavored and infectious. There’s a unit set, a half-circle Irish bar that makes you wish it were just around the corner from where you live, and the show invites you to come onstage before the performance or during intermission and have a drink. It seems like a natural thing to do.

So what was the incredibly quiet experience? Most Broadway musical hits are noisy, and they progress over the course of the evening to really noisy. This show went the opposite way. A great deal of it is boisterous, but it also provides a number of moments of simple human responses that are striking, like the slowly dawning realization on the face of the owner of the bar (played by Paul Whitty) that, despite his fantasies, he’s never been the one for the Girl and never will be. It’s a sad, sweet, true moment of the kind you don’t necessarily expect to experience in a Tony winning musical hit.

And at the end of the play, as the characters began to go their separate ways, you can hear a pin drop in the auditorium. The truthfulness and believability of the story wins the audience over completely, and it’s almost as though the spectators are afraid to interrupt the mood, not for themselves but for the characters’ sakes.

That’s my “quiet” experience – in a place I would not have expected it. And the noisy one? I went to the Roseland Ballroom, the famous dance hall on 52nd Street in Manhattan, to see one of my favorite performers in person for the first time.

The current Roseland is the second one; the first was a block south, built in 1919 and torn down in 1956, after hosting a spectrum of events like marathon dancing, weddings, and appearances by (among others) the orchestras of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Chick Webb, often nationally broadcast on radio.

The new hall was originally an ice skating rink, then a roller rink, then a ballroom, then a disco, and it has struggled to survive as entertainment fashions have changed. Now it’s slated to be torn down and replaced by luxury apartments (illustrating the Great Circle of City Life again). To close the hall in style, the redoubtable Lady Gaga (née Stefani Germanotta) was brought in for seven concerts between March 28 and April 7, 2014.

Roseland is, or was, depending on when you read this (I’ll stay in the present tense), a big rectangular room, mostly painted black, with a balcony running around a main floor that can hold 3,500 people standing if there’s nothing else on it. For Gaga’s shows a stage was erected at one end, with a huge red curtain in front.

All seven of her shows there sold out, and she also took an audience from the David Letterman show over and did some numbers for them one afternoon. Letterman’s studio is right across the street from Roseland, the old Ed Sullivan Theater where the Beatles made their famous TV appearances on his show. New York!

The audience for Lady Gaga’s concert, the night I was there, seemed to me to be mostly people in their twenties and thirties. There were some Gaga look-alikes, both men and women, and the mood was festive and noisy. It was a standing event – no seats, except a few on the balcony.

Standing events can be tough on the feet, and on the spirit. If the room is crowded, you can’t move; getting another drink or going to the bathroom is practically warfare. Two times people asked me to back up and give them more room, but I couldn’t. Once a couple of belligerent guys pushed and shoved their way through the crowd; that was irritating, but it did reduce the tedium of waiting.

I arrived around 7:30 PM for an 8:00 PM show, which cut down the potential standing time some; a few years ago I stood for two hours before a similar concert by Bob Dylan (not at Roseland), which I wrote about on this blog. I had a good view then, but an equally good view this time; I ended up the equivalent of about eight rows from the stage, and I managed to maneuver to one side of the really tall guy in front of me.

The opening act, from about 8 to 8:30, was Lady Starlight (née Colleen Martin), an old pal of Gaga’s from the days when they did a sort of stripper-vaudeville-performance art act together in the East Village area of Manhattan. It’s lovely of Gaga to give work to her friend and mentor (Starlight is older than Gaga), but – well, here’s what Starlight did: she stood at the console of a Roland sound machine, programmed beats and sounds that blasted at volumes so high they literally shook the room, and bopped along to the bone-crushing vibrations with a sort of idiotic grin. For half an hour.

Performance art is structurally a kind of practical joke. I suppose I wasn’t in the mood, because Lady Starlight’s act drove me almost out of my mind. First I tried to endure it. Then I hated it. Then I bitterly regretted the time I’d lost and would never get back again. Then I wanted to shoot her – no one would have heard the gun. A very New York scene, I thought.

She stopped finally, ending – incidentally – that “noisiest experience” that I referred to earlier. (Gaga’s volume was nothing compared to Starlight’s.) Then followed an idle half hour of standing around, then the huge red curtain dropped to the ground and was carried off and Lady Gaga appeared, on a sort of perch above the stage, posing and playing a slow, expanded version of her song “Born This Way.”

She wore a huge, messy blonde wig that made her look a little like Dolly Parton peering out of the mouth of a lion. She talked, when she spoke to the audience, which was often, in a sort of baby-talk Marilyn Monroe voice that she adopted for the whole show (her natural speaking voice is exactly like that of Fran Drescher of The Nanny). When she came down onto the stage floor, she began with a couple of Madonna-like numbers with dancers, at high (though not the highest!) volume.

So I found myself wondering: If I didn’t know who she was, would I even think she was any good? Then about four numbers in, I realized I was dancing and grinning from ear to ear, and it occurred to me that I was having a wonderful time. Gaga is an extraordinary singer, with a big sound, big range, and the ability to change from mood to mood at will, turning on a dime. (In the lower registers she sounds something like Bette Midler, who can do the same thing.) Her keyboard playing – there was a lot of it – is also excellent. (She’s a classically trained pianist.)

And she’s endearing, even in her fairly frequent bouts of self-admiration. Part of the reason is that she’s really not a typical star type at all. She’s short and kind of fireplug built, and not particularly pretty in a conventional sense, except that her face is mobile and she can make it look like nearly anything she wants. She’s also not a great dancer – but really, does she have to do everything as well as it can be done? She works hard to move well (and she had major hip surgery just over a year ago).

But she really, really relates to her audience, who ate it up. And she works hard, uses everything she has, has ideas for everything (whether they work or not), and in general packs about a dozen shows into one. At one point she climbed on a ladder onto the balcony, and back down again, backwards, while singing at full volume. I wouldn’t try that, particularly in a show, under any circumstances, and she was wearing heels. She wasn’t particularly graceful doing it, but I thought the moment perfectly expressed her determination to make everything she does into something more than a little special. 

She played both familiar and new songs, approaching her hits in creative ways and demonstrating again, if it needs proving, her superior musicianship. (I actually heard somebody say afterwards, “She sang well, but she didn’t do her best-known songs.” I have no idea what that person heard – half the show was made up of hits.)

My favorite moment in the concert: Gaga was performing at a little set that looked like a subway car, built on the main balcony, singing and playing the keyboard while surrounded by audience members standing practically on top of her. She was in the middle of a fine slow version of her song “You and I,” very soulful, just piano and vocal, when all of a sudden she stopped and said to somebody nearby, “Are you taking a selfie? . . . Selfies are taking over the world!” Then she returned to the song. A charming moment.

And here’s what I thought was the most revealing and truthful moment of the concert: at the end of the show, she staged her curtain call like the show was a play. She and the dancers lined up, held hands, and as they say in the theater, “took the bow off her” – bowed when she bowed. Then the dancers moved upstage, the musicians came down to the front, formed the same kind of line with her and held hands, and bowed. Just like it was the end of a Broadway show . . . .

And it was a show in more than one sense, because Gaga is at heart a performance artist, like Lady Starlight except not unendurable. Her show is an act – except the act is her. This is complicated, aesthetically speaking – I thought of the lines from the Beatles song “Penny Lane”:

Though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway.

But because Gaga is so talented and shares so much of herself, it’s a delight. I had a ball (at Roseland Ballroom!), tired feet and all. I would do it again, even if I had to stand. It was that much fun.

[Kirk observes that Lady Gaga is a performance artist, so ROT-readers may recall that I posted an article on this blog about the history and structures of performance art in . . . well, “Performance Art,” 7 and 10 November 2013.]


1 comment:

  1. In the "Arts, Briefly" column on 18 August 2016, the New York Times reported the following announcement:

    "'A Star Is Born' This Way: Lady Gaga Goes Hollywood"

    Lady Gaga . . . and Bradley Cooper . . . are joining forces to remake "A Star is Born," Warner Bros. announced.

    Mr. Cooper, 41, who has been nominated for four Oscars including for acting in and producing "American Sniper," will make his directorial debut with the movie, while Lady Gaga, 30, will make her feature film lead acting debut.

    Warner Bros. did not give a release date for the project.

    "A Star is Born," the story of an aspiring young starlet who arrives in Hollywood and is helped by an aging leading man, was first told on the big screen in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. It was remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976.

    In the new film Lady Gaga will compose and perform new songs. (REUTERS)