Last year I saw a ‘new’ musical theatre piece that was a collaboration between lyricist Vid Guerrerio and the greatest musical theatre composer of them all…Mozart. The piece was called Figaro (90210), and it brilliantly updated the opera to present-day L.A. Susanna is an illegal immigrant who has been working in a sweatshop, and is now a maid working for ‘Paul Conti’, a shady businessman who has promised to sponsor her for a green card in return for services rendered. First performed in L.A. before the presidential primaries a couple of years ago, it was/is of our moment and of all time (since it is Mozart!).
The lyrics are clever, meaningful and recreate the connivings and longings of the da Ponte libretto in colloquial 2015 English and Spanish. Particularly moving was a refitting of Cherubino’s “Voi Che Sapete”, sung by ‘B-Man’, an aspiring rapper who is encouraged to rewrite his love song in a spirit of honesty and open-heartedness. I wept. I first saw this during the primary season last year, and then once again recently in the age of Trump. On second viewing I cried through half of the piece; partly because there are so many emotional moments in the Mozart opera, but mostly because it felt like the writer gave me a journey back through time: I felt the sense of immediacy and danger that audiences must have felt in the 1790’s, the depiction of a world where everyone feels threatened, and where order, loyalty, respect, humanity, fidelity are tenuous values.
Guerrerio made what at first seemed an unforgivable choice: he removed the emotional high point of the Mozart/ da Ponte, Susanna’s “Deh Vieni” in Act Four (a declaration of longing that she makes when she knows that Figaro is secretly listening). When the curtain call came I felt bereft that this production had eliminated it…but then a final coda came, with Susanna (played by Samarie Alicea), the Mexican immigrant, singing that aria directly to the audience with these words:
My friends let’s all join hands we’re in this together
Whether we like it or not, the only choice we’ve got
Is try to ‘turn back time’ to some simpler fiction
Or embrace life’s complexity and contradiction.
It’s messy and so very stressful, yes it’s very stressful and scary too
True, but messy humanity? That’s nothing new.
Tough times may test us
But they also can bring out the best us
God has blessed us
Not with the answers, no, answers always get it wrong
We’re blessed with questions and song.
Answers divide us, we’re meant to search and seek and strive
And sing…together…as long as we’re alive
This is my final selection, with it’s simple but far-reaching message…It applies to all facets of life, and to the challenges that each era and each generation faces. It also expresses why I and myriad others are so grateful for our NYFOS journeys. We have been brought together by artists who have enlightened and moved us; like Astaire, faced the music and danced with us; like Mary Cleere Haran, mused on this funny world; have given us love songs and lullabies; made us feel more sure of ourselves through the gifts of their artistry, and blessed us with questions and song.
Beautiful choice and beautiful commentary, Lee. I look forward to more weeks with your songs of the day.
What a delightful and moving week this has been under the direction of maestro Lee Stern. HE is the great curator of music and lyrics, the “lyric laureate” is, perhaps, a fitting moniker for him. Thank you for enlightening and inspiring all of us who also love music and song, but who can’t even approach your grasp of it all. And how refreshing to have Lee remind us how relevant Mozart remains today. Dear NYFOS: Please invite Lee back. I want to learn (and feel) more.