Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Hogmanay—A Very, Very Big Deal in Scotland

Torch bearing Scottish warriors in an Edinburgh Hogmanay street parade. 

Scottish nationalists had a bad year.  They lost their long sought-after vote on national independence by an unexpectedly large margin.  The nationalists, always promoters of the unique Scottish culture, will perhaps take extra solace this year in the celebration of Hogmanay—the last day of the old year and the coming of the new.  This national festival and holiday is far more than just a big New Years Eve Party—it is the principle winter celebration, unabashedly pagan in its dim origins and current practice, eclipsing Christmas or New Years Eve after the pale and sickly manner of the English.  It is a very, very big deal indeed.
The celebration is both ancient and complicated, incorporating elements of the Winter Solstice traditions of the Norse Yule, the Celtic Samhain, and the Twelve Days of Christmas, recast as the Daft Days, minus any religious celebration of Nativity.  You can thank those dour old Calvinists of the National Kirk of Scotland—the Presbyterians for more completely scouring Christmas from the calendar than Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans ever dreamed in England.  If Scottish Catholics kept Christmas in their hearts, the kept their mouths shut about it and the practice faded even in their communities.  Christmas did not become a legal holiday in Scotland until 1958 and only then because so many English were moving into the border areas and were employed at firms in the big cities.
But Hogmanay was always a holiday.  In fact the whole damn country shut down to celebrate.  Both January 1 and 2 are Bank Holidays.  And if the second day, New Years Day, falls on a Sunday January 3 is a Bank Holiday.
If truth be known, the Kirk was not thrilled with Hogmanay either.  They predictably denounced it as pagan, which it surely was.  But either they despised paganism less than Papism, or they simply despaired of wiping out the most treasured celebration of the culture, but they could not wipe it out.  After perhaps dampening somewhat the excess of the season for a while, it came roaring back while the preachers in their wigs, bands, and Geneva Gowns whistled in the dark.
The origins of the word Hogmanay is as obscure as the origins of many of the customs associated with it.  Arguing the entomology of the word, which has had more than 30 variations in spelling depending on region and dialect and has only been standardized in the late 20th Century, is practically a national sport on its own.  Partisans of various theories are passionate.
Among the chief theories of origin advanced are.
·         Greek—the scholars of the Kirk surely got it wrong when they argued in the 1693 Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence that it was derived from a corruption the ancient Greek for Holy Month.  This was simply putting lipstick on a pig to dress it up for company.
·         French—This theory holds it was introduced by the French via the Auld Alliance—the traditional alliance between France and Scotland against England.  It is suggested it came from rural northern dialects of Middle French, aguillanneuf meaning either a gift given at New Year, a children’s cry for such a gift.  This is associated with traditions of ritual begging associated with the holiday in some areas.  It is also suggested that it might derive from the use of mistletoe as an emblematic gift of the beggars as in au gui mener or lead to the mistletoe.
·         Gaelic or Celtic—Although the term for New Years in Scots Gaelic is usually either  Oidhche na Bliadhna Ùire, the Night of the New Year or Oidhche Challainn the Night of the Calends, there are clues from folk usages in various areas.  In Manx, for instance there have been reported a remnant of an early folk song that begins with the line “Tonight is New Year’s Night, Hogunnaa.”  But other sources believe this refers to Halloween, once celebrated as New Years.  Others suggest an old Scottish begging plea thog mi an èigh/eugh corrupted over time.
·         Norse—This theory suggests that both the French and the Manx usages derived from a common Norse source, suggested in an old chant, “Hoginanaye-Trollalay/Hogman aye, Troll a lay/Hogmanay, Trollolay, give us of your white bread and none of your gray.”  The troll would refer to the people under the hill—the elves or the hoghmen, and that the begging chant originated in an ancient Troll banning invocation.
The truth is that the word origin is anybody’s guess.  We may just as well accept that it came down from heaven as a special gift to the Scotts.
The customs of Hogmanay vary considerable from location to location in Scotland but certain things are common—fire or pyrotechnics to welcome the New Year, communal conviviality, hospitality and visiting, and the invocation of one very special song.
The lighting of fires to greet the Solstice was common to both Norse and Celtic traditions.  In some rural areas the old hearth fire is extinguished, ashes removed and a new fire kindled.  In this tradition, visitors often bring as a gift a lump of coal to contribute to New Year flames.  In Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire in the northeast slinging torches are created by stuffing newspaper wadding, rags, and sticks into chicken wire balls which are lit and swung around the heads of revelers marching through the town arriving dockside at midnight and throwing the torch balls into the water.  Bon fires are common.  In Edinburgh, a reproduction of a Viking long ship is burned as a symbolic warning to those old invaders.
 Nowadays spectacular fireworks displays accompany The Bells, the striking of the midnight hour in major cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling, and Inverness.  Unlike the fireworks seen in American cities which often are a cue for revelers to head home, festivities in all of these cities continue through the night and into the next morning.
Revlers from the 1950's link arms for the singing of Auld Lang Syne at midnight.

In addition to wide spread communal and street celebrations, pubs, restaurants, hotels, and many families host large gatherings.  These parties involve festive traditional foods—shortbread, a black bun, special cakes for children, herring in coastal and fishing villages, and steak pie for a feast on New Years Day—story telling, dance, the exchange of small gifts after midnight, and plenty of free flowing whiskey.
At these parties it is common to clear the room so that at midnight all of the revelers form a circle to sing Auld Lang Syne.  Arms are linked at the beginning of the final verse which goes:

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.
At the conclusion of the song all of the guests rush to the center of the room, their clasped hands held high.  And then the revelry continues.
Auld Lang Syne, of course, was written by the beloved Scottish National Poet Robert Burns in the late 18th Century based on fragments of much older folk songs and set to a familiar air. Although not originally intended as a Hogmanay or New Years song—it was intended for any occasion of parting—the Scotts were singing it for these celebrations by the mid-19th Century.  Scottish regiments of the British Army introduced the song around the world.  By the early 20th Century it had found its way into very different New Years Eve celebrations in the U.S. really taking off when Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians began their long run of New Years Eve broadcast from a New York Hotel in 1928.

A First Footer with gifts, including symbolic coal for the hearth.

An important part of the home celebration which continues into January 1 is First Footing.  The first person to step foot across the threshold in the New Year is said to bring good luck.  It is important that the First Footer be a dark haired man.  A blonde or ginger is considered bad luck supposedly because the raiding and pillaging Vikings has light colored hair.  The First Footer is expected to bring gift of spirits, a black roll or other treat, and coal for the fire.  He and his party are elaborately welcomed with a fine breakfast and a dram or two of whiskey.
Visiting between homes continues throughout the day and into the following Bank Holiday and even beyond.  Presents are exchanged.  In some areas the old ritual begging by children continues.
By the time Hogmanay winds down, the whole nation is sated.  Those Scotts know how to party.  Pass the whiskey….

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Broadway Bliss—Shakespeare and Porter

Patricia Morrison, Alfred Drake, Lisa Kirk, and Harold Lang in the original Broadway production of Kiss Me Kate.

Cole Porter had a problem.  More than one, actually.  One of the most acclaimed composers and lyricists of his time was in the midst of a long dry spell.  The onset of World War II had driven him from his beloved Paris where he had churned out hit after hit while living an extravagant life style.  Back home in the U.S. and in constant pain from a horseback riding accident left both of his legs crushed, he had not had a genuine Broadway hit since DuBarry Was a Lady with Ethyl Merman and Burt Lahr in 1939.  His two most successful subsequent shows produced no hits or durable standards, three others had modest runs, and two were out and out flops.  Although he continued to contribute memorable songs to a string of Hollywood movie musicals, he yearned to once again reclaim the stage triumphs of shows like Anything Goes.
Worse than that, Porter saw an old rival who he considered to be no more than a journeyman lyricist—Oscar Hammerstein II—rise to unprecedented success.  Hammerstein, the son of a famed theatrical producer had collaborated with the like of Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, and others producing a long string of hits.  He had teamed up with tunesmith Richard Rodgers, former partner of Lorenz Hart, and together they had created Oklahoma! in 1943, a show that revolutionized musical theater by fully integrating the songs and dance numbers into advancing the plot.  Almost immediately the revue style shows and flimsy farces during in which songs were inserted almost at random—the kinds of shows Porter had mastered—were out of fashion.
Porter was frankly not sure that he was capable of writing one of the new book shows.  His specialty was highly sophisticated patter laden with innuendo and often wry detachment which he did not think would lend themselves well to the new form. 
Then Bella Spewack approached him with an interesting proposition—collaboration on a musical based on William Shakespeare’s bawdy comedy, The Taming of the Shrew.  Bella was the distaff half of a prolific playwriting couple.  But she was currently estranged from her stormy relationship with husband Samuel Spewack.  Both were Eastern European born Jewish emigrants to New York who had met while working on the Socialist Daily Call.  The state of her tempestuous marriage clearly attracted Spewack to the project.
Despite the enormous differences in their backgrounds and politics—Porter was a wealthy WASP from Indiana who, as far as he had any politics at all, was a Republican—the composer agreed to give it a try.  At first it did not go well.  The tunes did not flow.  There was trouble with the book.  Eventually Samuel was brought in as a collaborator.  Working sessions were tense, and Porter clashed with the valuable male partner of the writing duo.
It was Porter who arrived at a solution to a major problem.  Instead of just setting the Bard’s play to music, why not make it a backstage musical and feature a show within a show—an operetta of the play being performed by bickering stars who mimic their personas on stage.  For bickering dialogue, the Spewack’s had a wealth of experience to draw on and Porter was comfortable in backstage milieu similar to some of his previous plays and several of the movies to which he had contributed.
Once that decision was made, things went much better.  Porter was able to salvage songs written for the original play and add very different material, to the behind the scenes high jinx. 
In the Spewack’s book an egotistic writer/director/producer, Fred Graham, is putting on a musical production of The Shrew casting himself, naturally as Petruchio and his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, as Katherine.  She is a full blown diva who returns to the stage after her once glittering career as a movie star begins to dim.  Graham seems to have an ulterior motive for the casting—to win back his ex-love.  All of the action takes place on opening night of the musical.  His ambitions are thwarted by being caught with a roving eye for the ingénue, Lois Lane—not Superman’s paramour—who plays Bianca.  Lois’s ne’re-do-well boyfriend, Bill Calhoun who doubles as Lucentio provides complication by signing a gambling marker for 10 Gs in Graham’s name attracting to Damon Runioneque hoods out to collect their boss’s money.  Fussing, fighting, and hilarity ensue on stage and off.

Morrison consults with Cole Porter during the recording of the original cast album.

Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayers, the producers, came up with brilliant casting.  For Graham/Petruchio they snared Alfred Drake, a handsome, booming voiced baritone who had catapulted to fame in the original production of Oklahoma!  Born Alfred Capurro in New York as the son of Italian emigrant parents from Genoa, he was perfect for the part.  Mezzo-soprano Patricia Morison as Lilli/Kate had a career that mirrored the part she played.  An exotic, raven haired beauty she had mostly minor rolls on Broadway in the 30’s before being signed by Paramount Pictures looking for a clone of their big star Dorothy Lamour.  She appeared in a string of mostly B movies, usually cast as the villainess, vamp, or other woman in both dramas and minor musicals.  She occasionally got leads in forgettable films.  So she was more of a starlet than a star.  But she gained a lot of attention when she went on a USO tour to Britain in 1943 with Al Jolson and Merle Oberon.  Her singing was broadcast back home.  Her voice, her striking beauty, and here experience with mercurial movie rolls made her a perfect fit for her bow as a Broadway leading lady.  Morrison, by the way, is still alive at 99 years of age and was active enough to sing a number from the show last year at a charity event.
Rounding out the cast were husky voiced alto Lisa Kirk, an accomplished comedienne and dancer as Lois/Bianca and British dancer Harold Lang as Bill/ Lucentio.
Kiss Me Kate had a short, hugely successful, three week try out in Philadelphia before opening on December 30, 1948 at the New Century Theatre, where it ran for nineteen months before transferring to the Shubert, for a total run of 1,077 performances.  It was by far Cole Porter’s longest running Broadway show.  Everything about the eye catching production wowed the critics and public alike—especially Porter’s songs.
It was an especially rich collection of future standards and memorable specialty and novelty numbers including in the original production the curtain raising Another Opening of Another Show, Wunderbar, So In Love, Tom Dick or Harry, I Hate Men, Too Darn Hot, Always True to You in My Fashion, Bianca, Brush Up Your Shakespeare, and the finale for both Act I and Act II, Kiss Me Kate.
The show nearly dominated the Tony Awards for 1949, the first year in which musicals were included in the competition.  It took home Best Musical, Best Author/Book for the battling Spewacks, Best Score for Porter, Best Producer for Subber and Ayers, and best costume design for Ayers.  Its four stars, however lost out to the cast of another show that opened that year, a little thing called South Pacific.
After the Broadway run ended, Morison successfully stared in a London East End production.
Kiss Me Kate has subsequently been revived successfully several times in both London and New York as well as enjoying productions around the world.  Most memorable was a 1999 Broadway revival that took home five Tony Awards, and five Drama Desk Awards.  It also was mounted several times on television on both sides of the Atlantic including a live 1958 production with the original cast.
Ann Miller, Bobby Van, Bob Fosse, and Tommy Rall in one of the dazzling dance numbers from the MGM musical.
But most people are familiar the show from its dazzling mounting as an MGM Technicolor extravaganza in 1953.  All of the major parts were re-cast.  MGM had its own deep pool of musical talent.  The beautiful Katheryn Grayson and the studio’s resident theatrical soprano, hot off the success of Show Boat was cast as Lilly.  Howard Keel was the big—6’4”—hyper masculine baritone who was an MGM heartthrob in such blockbuster musicals as Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, and Calamity Jane was a natural for the male lead.  Leggy Ann Miller, then the reigning queen of the tap dance whose numbers stopped a lot of films, took over as Lois and Bianca.  Dancer Tommy Rall was the least known of the four leads and he shared memorable dance numbers with a couple of other rising hoofers Bobby Van and Bob Fosse.
In the movie the relatively minor characters of the two hoods, Lippy and Slug, were particular scene stealers.  Veteran character actor Keenan Wynn was cast as Lippy and rising star James Whitmore, known best then for his gritty soldiers in war films was Slug.  Their rendition of Brush Up Your Shakespeare is rightly considered a movie musical classic.
The movie also inserted a character named Cole Porter as the composer of the staged Taming of the Shrew.