American Music(als)

by:  Phaedra Scott at 12/11/2015

What is a song that reminds you of the holidays? What about the theme to your favorite television show? Music is a part of our everyday lives and has the power to evoke memories, inspire generations, and lift our spirits.

Two productions in the Huntington 2015-2016 season have used American musical tradition to tell a story:  Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and the world premiere adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. In both, music plays a big role on stage. 

While both productions share a reliance on American musical heritage, they quickly diverge: A Little Night Music comes from American musical theatre and A Confederacy of Dunces owes a lot to the folk music of the American south. Sondheim is a musical theatre genius. His hits range from Sweeny Todd to Into the Woods to A Little Night Music, and his name has become synonymous with the American Musical. Meanwhile, the music in A Confederacy of Dunces stems from the rich heritage of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Despite these differences, in both A Little Night Music and A Confederacy of Dunces, songs are an important way for characters to express themselves in a way a simple monologue can’t.

In A Little Night Music, the servant character Petra sings “Miller’s Son” to express her opinion on relationships and social climbing from the perspective of a woman. The song serves as a way to develop Petra’s character from a submissive servant to a woman with power and sexual agency.

As she faces a pivotal choice – where she dreams of what it would be like to marry the Miller’s Son or the Prince of Whales - the music reinforces the tension and excitement she feels about her social status. Take a listen to Leighann Larkin’s version of “Miller’s Son” in the 2009 Broadway recording.

A Confederacy of Dunces has its own turning point in the play though music. During a misguided protest led by Ignatius J. Reilly, the Levy Pants Factory workers are instructed to sing the traditional hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”  Below is a version of the song sung by the legendary Mahalia Jackson in 1964. As the scene continues, the factory workers wrest ownership of the protest from Ignatius, change the whole affair into a party, and add their own New Orleans flair by singing the upbeat song “Joe Avery’s Piece.”  

Music in both instances is used as a way to say more than can be spoken in words. Petra sings her thoughts about her circumstances, a refreshing take on the role of women at the turn of the 20th century. The factory workers use music to take action against the exploitation by both Levy Pants and ultimately Ignatius as well. Petra and the factory workers both use music to celebrate, put their foot down, and ultimately say, “I am more than what you tell me to be.” What’s more American than that?

There is still a chance to catch these songs live on stage -   you can catch A Confederacy of Dunces thru December 20 at the Huntington !


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