Monday, June 30, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “Way Back to Paradise”

It’s a challenge to contemplate selecting only one song from Marie Christine to single out as great. Not only is it a moving, passionate score of the kind we don’t see often enough these days, but the songs weave in and out of the story with such dexterity that entire sections of the score play better than just one cut.

“Way Back to Paradise,” like the rest of Michael John LaChiusa’s work, is more complex than the surface of its lyrics and music. A catchy melody beautifully performed by Audra McDonald on the Original Broadway Cast Recording, it at first appears to be a traditional feminist anthem, proclaiming the struggles of women living in a world dominated by men, with lyrics such as:

We are rules by our brothers.
We are rules by our husbands.
We jump at the voices of our masters
And do as they say.
We are bartered and traded,
Along with cattle and cotton.

In it, Marie Christine proclaims that women were thrown of out Eden (the Paradise of the title) because of the jealousy of Heaven (the angels who came to call), who put the garden into men’s hands. Her solution is to:

Study all men.
Learn what they lack.
Sweeten and stroke
Before you attack:
Put up a front
And then slip through the back
Be on your way back
to paradise

And a short time later she further instructs:

But there is a way back to paradise,
There is a way:
Bide your time.
Be clever and wise.
When you look at a man,
Look him dead in the eyes.

Do not be seduced,
Tell him elegant lies.

All this well-intended cautioning, however, dissipates when Marie meets Dante Samuel Keyes because, as one prisoner knows before Marie says anything, she gets seduced. And not only does she get seduced, she gets thrown out of Eden after she has fallen for Keyes’ elegant lies. Indeed, she does later sweeten and stroke before she attacks and puts up a front and slips through the back to murder his fiancée, but it is out of the weakness of defense, in response to falling for his own front, that of undying love and devotion.

What is interesting about LaChiusa’s work that I’ve heard on recording (particularly Marie Christine and Bernarda Alba) is that he writes about female characters who are seemingly strong and in control—the violent Marie Christine, the dominant Bernarda Alba, the strong-willed Adela—but these are actually complex creations with insecurities and foibles that create within them passionate, strong-willed external responses that belie their core weaknesses. In comparing these seemingly strong women with strong female characters from classic literature—Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, Miss Alice Henderson, for example—the truth of LaChiusa’s characters (and their depth) becomes apparent.

the Broadway Mouth
June 30, 2008

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