Fun Home

I saw Fun Home at the Victory Gardens Theater. It was an incredible production. They invited cartoonists and visual artists to show their work before the show. I appreciated the interactive wall for audience members to draw pictures associated with their own memories. Prompts included drawing your home, your first love and other sentimental topics.  Through these activities, audience members were engaging authentically with the work from the moment they walked in the doors of the theater. I thought this was a smart way to connect audience members emotionally to the content of the musical.

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The musical is adapted from Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. I’m interested in the adaptation of a graphic novel into a stage musical. What elements are retained? I’m also curious about how the coming of age story of a queer artist is treated. I’d like to explore the musical with these considerations in mind.

Lisa Kron, who adapted the graphic novel to the musical, developed the idea of having three Alisons on stage (small Alison, college-aged medium Alison, and present day Alison). Kron talks more about the process, which she call painstaking in this interview. With the oldest Alison creating the graphic novel on stage, the creative process seems more present than in reading the novel. She describes her choices, how she is uses objects to conjure her memories.

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In the graphic novel, the literary references are much more prominent and run throughout. One of my favorite themes in the novel is how she connects her relationship to her father to the inverse to the story of Icarus and Daedalus. In the graphic novel, she is explicit about the connection to the myth from the start and end of the story with the game of airplane to Alison’s desire to enjoying reading Ulysses (with Stephen Dedalus) like her father, and the drawing of maps from a bird’s eye view. Journey and distance are evoked through literary references. Also, like Joyce’s Ulysses, the chapters evoke stylistic elements of English literature. Bechdel’s chapter titles harken back to famous English works of literature.

The references are intricate and consistent throughout the graphic novel. For example, the first scene shows the airplane scene with the book Anna Karenina on the floor beside her father. The book seems to foreshadow his suicide and calls forth the famous first sentence of the novel “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and Anna Karenina’s step in front of a train. Throughout the whole story, it’s as if we see the truck coming to hit her father.

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Although the musical shows that books are important in Alison’s relationship with her and in her coming-out, it minimizes the references in favor of capturing emotion. It seems fitting that the literary references should stay in print and emotions come alive on stage because this is generally what we associate with each medium. The airplane scene in the musical gets its own song rather than its own book. Musical themes are repeated in emotional moments and give depth to what the characters may be feeling.

In some ways, a graphic novel is particularly poised to transition to the stage. The panels can make up scenes complete with dialogue. Music helps us hear the many voices sounding at once. I think that is another reason why the three Alisons is all the more genius. We can hear her perspective concurrently at all three phases of her life. We also get a chance to hear a song by Alison’s father who we don’t have access to his inner thought process in the graphic novel. The staging allows deeper access to the internal thought process of more characters.

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The show feels closer, the emotions more reckless than in the graphic novel. The characters are right in front of us proclaiming how they feel through song, whereas in the graphic novel, the starkness of conversation in an east coast family leaves the emotions more implied and distant.

These different emotional registers make each interpretation effective in its own way. Both are playing with the idea of distance. The emotional distance differing in each, makes the themes of motion and physical distance even more prominent.

Both start and end with playing airplane. This game brings Alison and her father close physically, while an airplane implies travel or increasing distance. She says it is one of the rare moments they make physical contact, but it is through a game that imagines her soaring away.

Throughout both interpretations, we hear about trips, maps, and cars. In the musical, Alison’s coming out is phrased as she “leapt out of the closet.” The motion is all tarnished with Bruce’s suicide, stepping in front of a moving vehicle as she immediately adds. “I leapt out of the closet and four months later my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck.” Motion is exciting, motion is painful. This is summizes in the perfect last line of the graphic novel “…he was there to catch me when I leapt”

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Throughout the graphic novel, we see Alison’s journey, like the Odyssey and Ulysses, twisting with her dad. Moments of motion are are emphasized with this mock-hero’s journey framework. Her coming out is navigating through Scylla and Charybdis, her exploring Joan’s body is “landing on a new shore” and the last “hurtling into the sea.” Traversing distance is a metaphor for the oscillating emotional distance between Alison and her father.

Ultimately, the graphic novel adds a layer of complexity to the prominence of distance metaphors through the hero’s journey that is missing in the musical. On the other hand, the musical gives greater access to the emotions of the characters to the audience. Motion and distance are essential to both portrayals and the way they are presented gives us an idea about what is different between the two mediums of storytelling.

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An Odyssey through Music and Words

I saw the Friday night performance of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria as part of Monteverdi 450 at the Harris Theater.

Monteverdi’s opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, tells of the second half of the journey of Ulysses. It is considered one of the earliest operas and one of the three surviving operas written by Monteverdi.

The Odyssey itself is held in regard as the oldest written text next to its prequel, The Iliad. I was interested in the adaptation of this story into a musical form. Since the Odyssey comes from an oral storytelling tradition, vocal music seems like a particularly fitting way to present the story because it is conveyed orally.

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Monteverdi’s work laid the foundation for opera going forward and are sometimes referred to as the “first modern” operas. Although, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria has even made its own return. After its 1640 premier, it was rarely performed until Robert Haas published a manuscript of the opera in 1922. This publication created a stir that the opera was not written by Monteverdi himself. But now, it is widely held to be authentic. How has the opera survived until today?

In the case of the Odyssey and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, oral performance has survived because it was recorded in print media. The print music and the libretto survived. Whereas, for the other seven operas he is to have written, they have been lost almost entirely, with only a few librettos.

The reason the work can be performed today is because both the music and the words were documented and preserved. We needed a page in order to lift the words off of it with song.

Ellen Hargis said in her pre-concert lecture of Monteverdi’s operas “prima la parola.” Words were of more importance than music. This principle is opposed to later composers like Wagner or Salieri who claimed “Prima la musica.” This unique feature guided my ear in listening to the opera. The story and the character of the words came through quite clearly.

The music in this early opera is much more foundational and simplistic musically than what we’re accustomed to today. Cadences were repetitive and the vocal style reserved. Although, stylistic changes stood out more prominently than I was expecting. Monteverdi uses changes in the style of the music to outline complex emotions and expressions.

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As for my experience as an audience member for the Monteverdi 450 performance, I enjoyed discovering the work. Being so familiar with classical orchestral music, I felt dropped in a foreign land with the baroque instrumentation. It was an interesting experience to rack my brain for the names of the instruments. I imagine that must be how many first time orchestra attendees might feel.

Although Classical music and instruments may seem such a part of our culture, the practice dates back hundreds of years. What is another couple hundred to place us in the world of the Baroque?

Below is a breif timeline of a few notable adaptations of the Odyssey in the context of cultural developments.

circa 750 – The Odyssey is written

1640 – Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is first performed

1750 – End of Baroque Era

1857 – The phonautograph is invented, the first device that could record sound waves as they passed through the air. It was intended only for visual study of the recording and could not play back the sound.

1911 – L’Odissea, silent film, is released

1922 – James Joyce publishes Ulysses AND Vienna Manuscript of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is published


The story of Odysseus has become a pillar in our cultural landscape across different forms of media. One consistency in what adaptations have lasted, there was some way to document them.

Now, we are lucky to have video and sound recording to preserve performance. But how will these technology formats evolve to be useful for future generations? And who chooses what has enough value to get preserved?

I was surprised to find L’Odissea on youtube, but without the film transferred to the digital formats we use today, would it end up as dusty film on a shelf? Perhaps lesser known titles will dissolve this way.

Why did 1922 see a surge in Ulysses related publication?

1922 – Mussolini rises to power. The Irish Civil War begins. Joyce was Irish, living in Trieste, which had just become a part of Italy. Robert Haas was Austrian and became a member of the Nazi party.

Perhaps in a time turbulent with war, the idea of the epic journey became more intriguing. Or perhaps with modern technologies, the creation and distribution of these works was more conceivable than earlier times.

Ulysses, in particular, juxtaposes references to historic English literature with many vocal music songs (and many other things in between). Joyce seems to play with the idea of what is written vs. what sounds aloud. Rooted in the oral history of the Odyssey, spoken, sung, or sounding noise has lasting impact when written down in Ulysses. Although Joyce references many songs, only once does musical notation appear. It appears in reference to a gregorian chant style piece. Otherwise, he references songs through their names or lyrics.

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Joyce’s reliance on words is quite different than what led to the preservation of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria which was Robert Haas’ publication with score and libretto. The lost operas of Monteverdi, if you’ll remember, only had librettos or pieces of librettos. Although words had primary importance in Monteverdi’s writing, the opera is incomplete without both music and words.

Regardless, these works have had a lasting impact and continued the legacy of the Odyssey while continuing the discourse about spoken v. written word. Their preservation in print has led, in part, to their lasting contribution.


Odysseus, Ulysses, Ulisse, Nobody, Homer

Homer, Monteverdi, Shakespeare share something in common. It has been claimed of all of them that they have not written the works that bear their names.

James Joyce plays with this idea in Ulysses heavily referencing Shakespeare and the question of his authorship. I think this reference is connected to Odysseus’ famous interaction with the Cyclops. When Odysseus spears the cyclops in the eye, the cyclops asks his name, to which Odysseus replies, “My name is Nobody.” This will force the cyclops to respond if asked, that “Nobody” stabbed him. Just as Odysseus’ work is separated from his identity, these creators have become distanced from their work and called into questions as it has been passed down generations.

Homer is claimed to just have written down the story of the Odyssey that was passed around orally by many storytellers. It is also said that the story of Romeo and Juliet was a common tale and Shakespeare was the one to write it down.

Monteverdi’s authorship was called into question because of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. The musicologist Giacomo Benvenuti claimed that the work couldn’t be by Monteverdi because it wasn’t as beautiful musically as his other operas. He declared “Il ritorno d’Ulisse non e di Monteverdi.” Here, it is was the music not the story that sparked the controversy.  I do think the question of authorship, though in different forms, unites these works and complicates their preservation.


I created a piece that took the idea of the Odyssey and told it using a temporary medium. Since it is fall, I thought leaves would be the perfect material to use for my adaptation. I chose write and illustrate on leaves the three books of the Odyssey; the Telemachiad, the Odyssey, and Nostos.

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Then I released them back out into nature. This way they my find readers, but may disappear and rot into the ground. I added my own artist signature if they are discovered.

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I wanted to emphasize the temporality of works of art and give a twist to the question of authorship. While someone who finds a leaf could not connect it to me, I have this digital account of my work. Through the photos the work can be understood by future audiences, but the original, will almost certainly be lost.

Chicago’s Nutcracker

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photo by Cheryl Mann

The Joffrey Ballet’s new presentation of The Nutcracker came in with a flash, but fully demonstrated its intention to become a fixture in the Chicago performing arts scene. Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the production will run until December 30.

I appreciated the connection to Chicago with the production taking place during the construction for World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. It’s a musicologist and dramturg’s dream. Continue reading

What is Artistic Quality? On Dog Art, One Minute Plays, and The Musical of a Generation

 

Rent was a huge component of what got me interested in adaptation. La Boheme turned 90’s Aids Crisis, how did Jonathan Larson, musical wizard, create this masterpiece?!? That sincerely spoke to me when I was in high-school, full of angsty and artistic dreams.

But there are moments of the story that can come across as heavy-handed or cliche. It’s not perfect. A 1996 reviewer for the New York Times states it well as “one forgives the show’s intermittent lapses into awkwardness or cliche because of its overwhelming emotional sincerity.”

This staging of RENT at Theo Oubique had a stunning balance of pluck and intimacy. It was an incredible set for the performance and the artists made the audience feel as if they were another member of the circle of friends.
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This staging made the elements that are still relevant today shine.  Continue reading

Inside, Outside

I scanned my book shelf looking for something that was a classic and had some artistic depth. I ended up pulling out Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”…

Good news friends, I’m starting a new page to stage project! I’m adapting classic literature into musical pieces. There is more that can be explored in the relationship between music and writing than just song lyrics. I intend to replicate moods, tones, structures, characters of great works of literature through music alone.

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BUT in my process of digging up research for exploring music related to “A Doll’s House,” Continue reading