Over the past few months, I have been lucky enough to enjoy several theatrically oriented Chicago events in between my own performance and teaching obligations. Included among these are:
Bravo Broadway (Grant Park Music Festival) Clouds in My Coffee (Ravinia Festival) South Shore Dance Company (Auditorium Theater), To Kill a Mockingbird (CIBC Theater), Chicago Sound Collective (Beat Kitchen), Lucha Teotl (Goodman Theater), Dennis Watkin’s Magic Parlour (Goodman Theater), Ryan Opera Center Auditions (Lyric Opera of Chicago), the Joffrey Ballet’s Frankenstein (Civic Opera House), and Taylor Swift, Eras Tour film (AMC Block 37).
There are a few others mixed into the list above, but you get the general idea. My choices were wide and varied. However, of the laundry list of presentations listed above, two of them stand out in particular: Frankenstein and Swift. Hence the title of this posting: Swift-enstein or Franken-Swift?
Both performances affected me in odd and unexpected ways. Let me take them one by one.
This new to Chicago ballet production had its world premiere in London in 2016 and features an impressive coterie of dancers, collaborating with the wonderful musicians of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. With choreography by Liam Scarlett and music by Lowell Liebermann, one is transported thru the spheres of normal AND paranormal life (we all know the story). With high production values, excellent technical execution, and sheer ability to tell a story through dance, this event will be positively burned into my memory for life. Despite having attended countless dance performances, I have NEVER attended a repeat performance. This week, I will do just that. This is especially significant because, by and large, I am far less of a dance fan as I am a fan of ‘spoken theater’, ‘opera’, ‘musical theater’, and ‘symphony’. Therefore, this old dog has now been taught that choices can be swayed when an extraordinary production is put onto the stage.
Taylor Swift, Eras Tour (Film):
There is currently no brighter star in the world of popular entertainment than Taylor Swift. Grammy Awards galore, sold-out concerts wherever she performs, huge bonuses to her production team (well-deserved too), and actual recorded earthquake tremors attributed to the dedicated “Swifties” who stomp, scream, cry, and sing along with every song. Appreciating her talent to write and produce music, and create such a fan-base, I decided to take in the Highest Grossing Concert Film ever made this past weekend. Being a ‘non-Swiftie’ (meaning that I am not a ‘drop down to my knees’ acolyte), but extremely literate musically, I was able to go into the event with an open mind and an open set of ears and eyes. The result? Both appreciation and a solid dose of ‘not completely on-board’.
Stunning were the production values (on a scale probably never so vast for a single entertainer), the support team of singers, dancers, lighting designers, stage crew artisans, costume designers, camera operators, and ever-so-much more were mind boggling. Then there is Ms. Swift…a beautiful 33-year-old woman who clearly loves what she does and has seemingly endless control of her fans as she commands the labyrinthian stage designs created for this tour. She performed an arsenal of hits that spanned the entirety of different musical eras thus far in her career. She did so for a nonstop 3 (plus) hours, much to the delight of the fans at So-Fi Stadium in Los Angeles…and the sold-out crowd in the movie theater where I attended.
As a musician who has sung every style of music, I was puzzled throughout her performance. Each song was about the same. Same chord progressions, same basic vocal range, non-varied rhythm packages, and decisively similar themes. With only a scant ‘half-a-dozen’ breakout moments vocally in over three hours’ time, I was left deeply desirous of more such moments. When Taylor Swift opens her pipes, it was eye-popping and ear-raising. Unfortunately, such moments were few and far between. So, WHAT IS IT about her that results in such fervor?? As the cameras panned the crowd–almost as much as they did her–and judging by what was happening in the movie theater, I finally figured it out…(maybe).
What is infectious about Taylor Swift’s musical compositions is that EVERYONE can sing them! The span of vocal range and where her songs basically ’live’ (‘tessitura’ as we loosely call it in the classical world) is not difficult to navigate overall. Similar in the way church hymns can be sung by an entire congregation, with melodies that folks can easily grasp, it makes for a nice participant match. Adding to this are the extremely creative lyrics that are more “thought-bundles” than anything… but telling nonetheless.
I interviewed two 17-year-old attendees (Jordan and Keelynn) at the film to ask them why they were so enchanted with Taylor Swift (they quietly sang along with every song). They responded, saying that she was an incredible performer who can command a crowd. They attended the film because they were both “too broke” to attend a live concert event, they said. As young women they also said that the relationship threads and storytelling found in her songs “ring true” to their own experiences thus far in life.
When I asked if they felt they could BE or felt that they WERE Taylor Swift because they were able to readily sing all the songs because of their modest vocal range, their eyes lit up. “My god, I never thought about that!” said Keelynn! “Wow”, said Jordan, “YES, it’s like she is living through us, or we are living through, her when we sing along.”
I left the film (and thus the concert experience) feeling OK. Happy that I heard her entire battery of music, and deeply impressed with the logistics associated with such an over-the-top production. But then I began to wonder if a Taylor Swift concert would be as effective on a small, more intimate scale, as Prince did in 2004 with his ‘Live at Webster Hall’ program. I don’t know…but would like to find out.
I realize that producers want bigger, BIGGER, and BIGGER which translates more readily into $, $$, $$$$. But larger productions do have their place. They employ lots of workforce, which those of us in the performing arts can truly appreciate.
Am I now a ‘Swiftie’? No, not really. Can I accept her inestimable accomplishments?? Absolutely.