Monday, May 10, 2010

Todd On Monday : Up Against It

There weren't too many favorable reviews of "Up Against It," the 1989 Joe Papp production of playwright Joe Orton's unproduced screenplay for The Beatles, adapted for the stage by Tom Ross and Todd Rundgren. (phew)

I saw it. I didn't love it. But it wasn't, at least from what I can remember, as bad as the review below. And quite frankly, the music, which you will find here in demo form, was daring and at times, wonderful. The critic Mel Gussow said, "Mr. Rundgren composed an inferior pastiche of everyone from Brecht and Weill to Gilbert and Sullivan and proves totally unable to transform Orton's wit into lyrics." Personally, it's that exact description that makes these tunes work.

Some of these tunes found their way onto Rundgren's 1991's release "Second Wind," while the just about flawless "Parallel Lines" ended up on 1989's "Nearly Human." (I often wondered if "Parallel Lines" was written earlier and then used as an afterthought for the musical.")


when worlds collide
free, male, & 21
smell of money
if i have to be alone
up against it
life is a drag
parallel lines
lili's address
love in disguise
maybe i'm better off
you'll thank me in the end
from hunger
we understand each other

Here is the ZIP for this long, out of print, Japanese only release, and below that, the New York Times review, if you have a few more minutes.


New York Times Review/Theater; Joe Orton's 'Up Against It,' a Screenplay Staged

Published: December 5, 1989, Tuesday

In ''Up Against It,'' his unproduced screenplay for the Beatles, Joe Orton tried to combine the irreverent spirit of ''A Hard Day's Night'' and ''Help!'' with his own far more mordant sensibility. Since the playwright's death, the screenplay has remained a tantalizing footnote to Orton's career. Although the film script is not in the same class as his plays, the published version exists for reading and imagining, raising the question of what the movie would have been like.

A partial, unrewarding answer is given by the production that opened last night at the Public Theater, a musical stage adaptation by Tom Ross and Todd Rundgren. Perhaps Richard Lester or members of the Monty Python troupe could have realized the script (with revisions), but not the current collaborators and their director, Kenneth Elliott. Together they have obliterated whatever charm existed in the screenplay. The musical itself is emblematic of one of the evening's several unnecessarily repeated songs, ''When Worlds Collide.'' On stage, everything collides - book, score, direction, performances, even the push-me, pull-you plasterboard scenery.

Because ''Up Against It'' was conceived as a movie musical, there would seem to be a rationale for enlisting someone like Mr. Rundgren, a popular rock composer. Unfortunately, when it came time to create a theatrical score, Mr. Rundgren composed an inferior pastiche of everyone from Brecht and Weill to Gilbert and Sullivan and proves totally unable to transform Orton's wit into lyrics.

One of the most grating songs is the title number, which has the additional misfortune of being sung by the actor with the most unmusical voice, Dan Tubb, in the role that would have been reserved for John Lennon. There is, in fact, only one good song, ''Parallel Lines,'' which, in reprise, is given a plaintive urgency by Philip Casnoff (as Ian McTurk, the Paul McCartney role). In style, ''Parallel Lines'' seems out of context with the rest of the show.

Following the screenplay, the story chronicles the misadventures of three prodigal friends (Orton had eliminated the George Harrison role after the Beatles turned down the script) who are victimized in a flagrant battle between the sexes. They become involved in a plot to assassinate the first female Prime Minister of Britain. Wherever McTurk turns, on land or at sea, he encounters the entire cast.

The book is spotted with rude Orton remarks about Church, State and sex. In response to a statement that a priest has been wrestling with his conscience all afternoon, McTurk asks, ''Who won?'' Such moments are far outweighed by the alterations in the script and by the interruption of Mr. Rundgren's score. The show, which is set in the 1960's, also reaches far afield for anachronistic jokes. (In her acceptance speech, the Prime Minister gushes, ''You like me, you really like me.'') Mistakes are exacerbated in Mr. Elliott's comic strip-style production. Best known for his direction of plays by Charles Busch, he approaches Orton in a similar vein, turning absurdist farce into camp caricature and overplaying the war of genders to the point of misogyny.

One of the pivotal decisions was whether to attempt to imitate the Beatles. The show's response is self-contradictory. The three characters speak in insecure Liverpool accents. Two have Beatle hairdos and mannerisms, while the third, Mr. Casnoff, acts less like a Beatle than like a Rolling Stone. Roger Bart, in the guise of Ringo Starr, is the closest to having a Beatle-mien, but, in common with his colleagues, he is undercut by the circumstances.

The only character to emerge relatively unscathed is Miss Drumgoole, the parlormaid who adores McTurk but whose love remains unrequited until the finale. Alison Fraser plays Miss Drumgoole with a kind of impassioned innocence that is one of the evening's few assets, although in the second act she suffers the indignity of a coarse Spanish number that calls for her to sing to a Yorick-like skull.

Mr. Casnoff carries the primary burden of the score, including the cliched ''If I Have to Be Alone,'' in which he sounds as if he were still trapped in the musical ''Chess.'' Other actors are even less fortunate, including Toni DiBuono as a strident Chief of Police and Mari Nelson as a bimbo.

After John Tillinger's recent authentic revivals of Orton's three full-length comedies, the author seemed to have achieved his proper recognition and respect as a Wilde for our age. The musical at the Public reminds one that Orton is still up against it, even though in this case the opposition is not from philistines but from misguided admirers. 2 Beatles, 1 Stone And No George UP AGAINST IT, music and lyrics by Todd Rundgren; based on a screenplay by Joe Orton; adapted for the stage by Tom Ross; directed by Kenneth Elliott; choreography by Jennifer Muller; set design, B. T. Whitehill; costume design, John Glaser; lighting design, Vivien Leone; sound design, John Kilgore; orchestrations, Doug Katsaros; vocal arrangements, Mr. Rundgren; musical director, Tom Fay; associate producer, Jason Steven Cohen. Presented by Joseph Papp. At the Public Theater/LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street. Father Brodie and The Old Man...Stephen Temperley Miss Drumgoole...Alison Fraser Ian McTurk...Philip Casnoff The Mayor...Joel McKinnon Miller Christopher Low...Roger Bart Connie Boon...Toni DiBuono Rowena...Mari Nelson Bernard Coates...Tom Aulino The Man in the Hole and Lilly Corbett...Judith Cohen Georgina...Marnie Carmichael Jack Ramsay...Dan Tubb Guard...Scott Carollo Ensemble...Brian Arsenault, Scott Carollo, Mindy Cooper, Dorothy R. Earle, Julia C. Hughes, Gary Mendelson and Jim Newman


The Phantom Creep said...

I always wondered whether or not that show was as bad as the Times review.

Thanks for posting the songs, thoough...still absorbing them.

misospecial said...

gussow really had a hissy fit on this one. my guess is that given his "oscar wilde for our times" line, he felt that the production betrayed the author's intent.

but geez, he falls all over himself hating on the score, and all that proves is that he was too pissed off to really listen. yes, it's a pastiche of G&S, Weill, and bernstein/sondheim—as todd writes plainly enough in the liner notes. thing is, it's really *good* pastiche, very sophisticated musically. in "we understand each other," a song about two people definitely not on the same page, todd gets the point across by having them sing the same lines but just slightly unsynched, maybe a sixteenth note apart. it was so hard to sing that it was dropped from the production.

and saying the lyrics are witless is just perverse. hate it or love it, show a tiny shred of objectivity and grant that the lyrics are what we expect from todd at his best: inventive wordplay; complex emotions expressed clearly and poetically; one ("in the end") that gets close enough to the inside workings of a despot to be unpleasant listening; and a fair amount of downright silliness.

the money line in the liner notes is todd saying that the composers above were his influences not only here, but also in his so-called pop music. that's very revealing and helpful to those of us who want to understand his sensibility and presentation.

hell, if he had been born 20 years earlier he might have *been* sondheim. and then we wouldn't be talking about this, would we?

Sal Nunziato said...

I've always respected "Up Against It." Knowing of Rundgren's love for Broadway, Gilbert & Sullivan, and pop music, it seems to gush all of that with passion. Todd used to be the king of gushing passion.

cmealha said...

I'd heard a couple of things here and there but never all the songs They're not bad but then I'm not a theater critic.
I think you said these are demos. Was there ever an official recording?

Sal Nunziato said...

NO official recording.

hugoid said...

I saw that production and was so taken with it, I went back at least once. I didn't understand the reception it got. I could quibble about the staging and some of the voices weren't strong enough to really pull it off, but I thought the score was remarkable. I can't understand why it's not been done elsewhere. This is coming from someone who isn't a Rundgrenite. 85% of his music I don't understand. 15% of it is the best stuff I've ever heard.