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Gigi (1958)

22f11555026If I had a time machine and could go anywhere at all, I would go back to the opening night of My Fair Lady in 1956. My Fair Lady has what is for me one of the most glorious, exhilarating, beautiful, even magical, scores of any musicals. However, while My Fair Lady was enjoying its sensational run on Broadway, the composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner came to Hollywood and helped turned Colette’s novella Gigi into a musical.

The stories are so similar, it’s almost impossible not to compare the two. Critic Bosley Crowther even joked that Gigi “bears such a basic resemblance to My Fair Lady that the authors may want to sue themselves.” The first time I saw it, my reaction was tepid. The music just never seemed to take off and soar like it does in My Fair Lady. However, on viewing it a second time, I have to admit that as a movie, Gigi might be more successful than the later 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady. Vincente Minnelli directed, some filming was done in Paris and on the whole it feels far more fluid and attractive than the more stage-bound and slightly stiff My Fair Lady (which I still watch frequently because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to the opening night in 1956 and I really shouldn’t complain).

The story occurs during the turn of the century in Paris. Gigi (Leslie Caron) is being raised to be a courtesan by her grandmother, Mamita (Hermione Gingold), and Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Meanwhile, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) is wealthy and bored, while his uncle, Honore Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), seems to love every minute of his life as a roue. The only people Gaston feels like he can relax with is Gigi and Mamita…until he realizes that Gigi’s no longer a child and he offers to make her his mistress.

When I watched Gigi this second time, it struck me that though the musical is called Gigi, it’s not really about her as much as it is Gaston (though I suspect that is not the case in the novella). Gigi seems like an enigma to me. We never find out why she’s like she is – unaffected, innocent despite being trained up as a courtesan, dissatisfied with the prospect of being a courtesan and playing the games of love. What makes her so different? Was it her grandmother’s doing?

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Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold

Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez – “Mamita”-  provides an unexpected center and heart for the film, suggesting all sorts of depths of character. She’s savvy, has a sense of humor, knows how to ingratiate herself with men, even Gaston. She was, after all, a professional courtesan, though she doesn’t seem to have made out as successfully as her very wealthy sister Alicia. Was she, perhaps, not as hard-core as her sister? Alicia is the one who really preaches to Gigi about pleasing men and making sure you get the right kinds of jewels from one’s lovers and so on.

But Mamita, after all these years, seems to harbor a soft spot for Honore Lachaille, though he was untrue to her while they were together, and carries a touch of sadness and wistfulness. Life didn’t really give her all that she wanted, it seems. And she lets her daughter work in opera, even though she cannot sing. Whatever makes her daughter happy, apparently. Ultimately, Mamita has the same approach with Gigi. They seem to be an unorthodox bunch.

I have not seen Louis Jourdan in much (except in the beautiful Letter From an Unknown Woman), but he evidently did all his own singing, somewhat in the style of Rex Harrison. Initially, when we meet his character, he seems like a crank. He’s “bored” with everything, while his uncle, Honore, finds so much to enjoy in life. However, as the story progresses, one begins to understand why Gaston is so bored and to feel less sympathy with Honore’s attitude towards life and women.

Gaston pretty much does what everyone tells him to do – especially Honore – and what society expects of him. Ironically, the film shows how a promiscuous society can be just as much a prison as excessive puritanism, with its own rules and codes of conduct. Gaston hops from mistress to mistress, without love or affection. He must defend his “honor,” pretend to be a cheerful bon vivant and at all costs never appear ridiculous. Why? Because that’s what everyone does and he hasn’t yet realized that he neither needs nor wants to live that way.

The best songs in the film, in my opinion, are the ones that Gaston sings. They reveal his character and show his inner thoughts and how he comes to understand himself better – especially in the song “Gigi” when he realizes that he loves her. Lerner and Loewe seem especially good at using music this way. They do the same thing in My Fair Lady when Professor Higgins sings that he’s “grown accustomed to her face.” And the songs are long enough to make the transformations feel plausible.

leslie caron & louis jourdan - gigi 1958I was watching a video on youtube recently, where a film editor explained that emotions take time and film editors have to take that into account and not rush the scene along. What Lerner and Loewe do is use music and song to give us that time. Those moments, for me, are some of the most compelling in Gigi.

One of the best scenes is when Gaston realizes that Gigi has grown up and he loves her – something that comes as a complete shock to him because it never before occurred to him that she was someone he could love (like how we put certain people off-limits for ourselves. It doesn’t occur to people to love siblings or cousins because it is not really an option. It’s partly a social construct, a mental block we put up. Gaston discovers that he doesn’t need to have that mental block about Gigi).

The other song is between Honore and Mamita, as they sit and reminisce. It’s such a gentle song, witty and amusing, but with a touch of sadness and a layer of irony. Honore clearly does harbor fond memories of Mamita, but the lovely things he tells her (like how he loved her so much he had to have an affair with another women to remind him that he was not the marrying kind) sound so nice we want to believe them, but it is clear that Mamita does not, but she harbors no rancor towards him.

I still can’t entirely decide what I feel about this movie. It’s charming, I like it, the story is intriguing, but the music never quite captures my imagination the same way that My Fair Lady does. My Fair Lady is sheer exhilaration. The acting in Gigi is good. I was especially impressed with Louis Jourdan and Hermione Gingold this time around. Perhaps the greatest mark of its affect on me is that I would like to watch it again and give the movie a chance to grow on me, because I suspect I will like it the more I see it.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Making of My Fair Lady – Keith Garebian

Julie_Andrews_Rex_Harrison_Robert_Coote_My_Fair_Lady[2]When I get interested in something, I really get interested in something and I want to know everything there is to know about it…I think it’s called obsession. Anyway, my current obsession is “My Fair Lady.” I’ve been listening to it for months now; I take it with me when I have errands to run and sing and gesture while I’m driving and hum my way happily through stores and libraries. If I am in the middle of a song when I finally pull up to the house, I pause a moment with the motor idling so I can finish it. I even fall asleep listening to it.

I’ve been feeding this obsession with a book called The Making of My Fair Lady (1993) by Keith Garebian. Garebian takes the reader through a brief history of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and how it was made into a movie in 1938 by the unlikely producer, Gabriel Pascal….who was broke at the time. Garebian then proceeds to a brief summary of the life of Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist, and his collaboration with composer Frederick Loewe. Before “My Fairy Lady,” the two had done “Brigadoon” and “Paint Your Wagon” and would go on to write “Gigi” and “Camelot.”

Evidently, many composers had considered turning Shaw’s play into a musical, but had all found the task too challenging. Oscar Hammerstein felt that it couldn’t be done. At the time, musicals were supposed to have subplots (“Pygmalion” does not) and a chorus, which no one could figure out how to insert into a musical Pygmalion. There was also the problem of how the play was not a romance (believed to be necessary for a musical) and was essentially confined to a drawing room (many of the events we associate with the musical – the ball, Eliza’s finally speaking correctly – occur offstage in the play).

They solved their difficulties, however, by determining to follow the film version more than the stage version of Pygmalion. They also felt they could dispense with adding any subplots since the characters present were sufficiently interesting. Likewise, they decided to embrace  romance, although Lerner felt that Leslie Howard (Professor Higgins in the movie) was a little too sympathetic and aware of Eliza’s feelings and Lerner wanted to make the musical Higgins more self-absorbed, as in the play. “My Fair Lady’s” Higgins only has his moment of self-awareness and revelation at the end, when he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Julie_Andrews_My_Fair_Lady[1]From a very early stage, Lerner and Loewe wanted Rex Harrison to play Higgins. He couldn’t technically sing, but developed something similar to Sprechstimme (German for speech-voice) and would basically talk on pitch. Lerner and Loewe  wanted the actress who played Eliza to be roughly the same age as the character Eliza and they cast nineteen year old Julie Andrews, who was getting good notices for her performance in “The Boyfriend.”

The rehearsals were slightly tense. Rex Harrison was irascible (just like Higgins) and was constantly trying to make sure that the Americans writing the musical (Lerner and Loewe) stayed true to the very British “Pygmalion” and the lines. He was so insecure about singing (especially with the full orchestra, which made it difficult for him to find his pitch in the mass of sound) that he nearly refused to sing on the opening night in Connecticut. People had come through a blizzard to attend the opening and Rex Harrison only emerged 30 minutes before the show began.

Julie Andrews also encountered difficulties. She’d been performing for most of her life, but she was lost at the beginning of rehearsals. Eliza Dolittle is a difficult role to play and she couldn’t get a handle on the character. The stage director, Moss Hart, wasn’t sure she would ultimately cut it, so he dismissed the rest of the cast and spent two days drilling her in the role. Miles Krueger, who as acting as an assistant, was the only witness to the session and later said “it was like lifting the veils. And two days later, when rehearsals resumed, Julie Andrews was, full-blown, the Julie Andrews we know today…”

The results for the musical were spectacular. Both Andrews and Harrison were superb on opening night (and how I wish I could have been there). Along with rave reviews, it became the longest running musical of the time and won 6 Tony awards, was nominated for 10 (Harrison won, Andrews lost). Alan Jay Lerner always thought it was simply the  perfect combination of actors, director, set designer, costume design, everything.

Garebian spends the last portion of the book detailing why the musical was so successful and how the songs fit so well, psychologically, to the story. Garebian considers it one of the most literate musicals ever performed, with an attempt to take Shaw seriously and not just use his play as inspiration. Dedicated Shavians never quite forgave the addition of a romance, but they did admit the musical was delightful.

Garebian also makes the case that although it does not look like a particularly cutting-edge musical, it was quite unique at the time. There are no duets, no real choruses. Eliza and Higgins never have a duet…let alone a romantic one. In fact, the word “love” is never even mentioned. It is the music that brings in the romantic subtext, while the lyrics stay largely true to Shaw’s original words.

My_Fair_Lady_Cast_Recording[1]Notes: I have been alternating between listening to two cast recordings. “The Original Broadway Cast Recording” (1956) and the “Original London Cast Recording” (1959). Both Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews reprised their roles in London several years after opening in New York, where the British were eagerly – almost ecstatically – waiting for the musical to arrive in England, where they adored it and were impressed at how well Americans were able to adapt one of their plays.

Both recordings have Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway (as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Dolittle). One difference is that the Broadway album was recorded in mono and the London album was recorded in stereo, but I’m not a very astute listener, apparently, and difference is almost negligible to me.

The big difference is the speed of the music. The London recording is much more upbeat and when I’m listening to it while driving, I find myself speeding along at a slightly unlawful pace, especially with songs like “Show Me”. Also, Julie Andrews had to put back some of the Cockney in her accent for the British audiences that she had toned down for the Americans.

When the original Broadway recording was released, it became such a huge seller that it topped the charts for 15 weeks (at various stages in 1956). I wonder what was the last time a musical topped the charts?

Random Thought: I was thinking about what “My Fair Lady” would be like as a non-romantic musical. I don’t think it would have been as good a musical…at least musically speaking. I’m not sure what kind of a musical it would have made. Garebian argues that Lerner and Loewe make the romance work, mostly through the music (specifically through the last song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”) and that his last line “Where the devil are my slippers’ is more an example of saving face than anything else. However, whether you agree with him or not, I don’t think there’s any denying that without a romantic framework, Lerner and Loewe could not have written music as gloriously, romantically, sweepingly thrilling as they did.

Links

See here for images of the recording session for “My Fair Lady.”

And to hear Jeff Lunden’s story, on NPR, about the making of “My Fair Lady,” see here.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Books

 

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I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story – Marni Nixon

With Stephen Cole

Part Book Review and Part Tribute to A Great Singer

I’ve often read of Marni Nixon described as “The Ghostess with the Mostest,” a phrase which came from Time magazine. It’s very appropriate; though Marni Nixon is much more than a ghost singer for famous Hollywood stars.

Though you have to admit that as a ghost singer, there’s no one quite like her. Most famously, she dubbed Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice in My Fair Lady. She also dubbed Natalie Woods (and Rita Moreno for the one song “Tonight”) in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in both The King and I and An Affair to Remember. She was the singing voice of Grandma Fa in Mulan. When Margaret O’Brien had to sing a short Hindu song in the 1949 The Secret Garden, they got Marni Nixon (she was seventeen at the time and it was her first job dubbing for anyone). She was all three geese who sing during the chalk picture interlude “Jolly Holiday” in Mary Poppins. And if you happen to notice that Marilyn Monroe hits some unusually lovely high notes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, that is because those notes belonged to Nixon.

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Marni Nixon, singing a trio with herself in Mary Poppins

Marni Nixon was not a huge star, like Julie Andrews, but it was fascinating to read her autobiography I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story (2006). She seems to have done nearly everything there is to do in musical entertainment (and even non-musical entertainment) and there’s scarcely a medium she didn’t try (stage, film, radio, television, recordings; she was a dialect coach and teacher), and in the process she encountered many diverse people. It’s a wonderful look at the performance world: the stars, the composers, the music directors, the actors, the directors, agents, musicians, the writers. One comes away from the book with a wonderful sense what a lifetime of work is like – not as abstract art or glamorous jobs – but what it really means, in all its glamorous and un-glamours aspects to

She is quite honest and open in her book, about her personal life (like her nineteen year marriage to the composer Ernest Gold, who wrote the scores for Exodus and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World), her choices, her disappointments and her successes and triumphs. She started young, as a child. While participating in choral works, concerts and shows, she also worked as an extra in movies, such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, In the Good Old Summertime.

As an adult she did everything from working with Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein to recording television jingles. She sang in operas, did a tour with Victor Borge ( pianist and comedian) and with Liberace in Las Vegas. She did musicals, playing the role of Eliza Doolittle and Anna Leonowens on stage. She had a solo career and recorded several albums (for example, Disney asked her to record an album of the songs from Mary Poppins) and also appeared on the radio. Also, look for her, in person, as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music.

She had a beautiful soprano voice; very clear and bright, and she had perfect pitch, even as a child. Conductors would tell her to sing an A and would tune according to that. She could sight read nearly any piece of music, including difficult modern composers like Arnold Schoenberg, and this ability led her into circles where she met and recorded for Igor Stravinsky.

Of course, it’s for her ghosting that she is most remembered and nowhere is there a better example than in The King and I. Unlike with Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, who both desperately wanted to sing on their own and took lessons while preparing to film (though studio heads were ultimately unwilling to allow them to sing) Deborah Kerr knew that she could not sing the role of Anna Leonowens.

She and Marni Nixon worked very closely together to blend their sound. Marni Nixon would shadow Deborah Kerr while she was blocking out how each song would be choreographed, even imitating hand motions, to try and get inside the character. Marni Nixon also worked very hard to match her voice to the timbre and accent of Deborah Kerr’s speaking voice (Nixon’s various accents in films include proper British, Cockney, Hispanic, and Irish – as well as a song sung in Hindi). They wanted to know exactly how Deborah Kerr was going to act the song, so Marni Nixon could record it to match.

The most brilliant example of their work together can be heard in the song “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You,” which was cut from the movie, though the song can still be heard on the soundtrack. The song alternates between full out singing and talking on pitch and Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon rehearsed the song over and over again until they could record it, each in separate recording booths. Deborah Kerr started it off, then pointed at Marni Nixon, who would sing the more sustained parts, then point back at Kerr, who would take over the more talking parts; and they did this back and forth for the entire song. (Note: I can’t show the video on this site, but you should definitely watch it, here; which shows when Deborah Kerr is talking/singing and when Marni Nixon is singing).

Sadly, on all three of the top selling albums, The King and I, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady, Marni Nixon’s name was nowhere to be seen (even though her singing made up more than half the music) and she had to fight to earn any royalties at all from West Side Story and My Fair Lady and received none for The King and I.

In all, I Could Have Sung All Night was a very engaging book and I enjoyed learning about her life. She always seemed to be expanding, trying new things, taking opportunities, working to improve her art. She had a remarkable and utterly unique career that was a pleasure to read about.

Notes: for an excellent article about how Marni Nixon went about her work dubbing the singers, see this one in The Guardian, “Standing in for the stars – the art of dubbing singers”. She also makes several spot-on observations about how, in recent movies (like Les Miserables), there has been a dramatic shift from the extreme of the excessive use of dubbing (without credit) to no use of any vocal help for the actors, when they really could use some help. I couldn’t agree with her more on that.

Below, is the clip of Margaret O’Brien, “singing” a Hindu lullaby to her cousin, Colin. MGM had brought in an Indian swami to teach Marni Nixon how to sing the words properly.

Click here for an interview with Marni Nixon, about her dubbing and how the studios attempted to keep it a secret that their stars were not actually doing their own singing, about how the stars felt about her dubbing their voices, and more about how she went about her dubbing work. And it is lovely to finally see her in person and hear her own speaking voice.

If you’re curious what Audrey Hepburn sounded like in My Fair Lady, click to hear the clip of her, in her own voice, singing “Show Me.”

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2014 in Books, Musicals

 

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