After starting life as something of a flop, Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, won a Pulitzer Prize. How often does that happen, I wonder: something that's different (and it's certainly different to some of Wilder's other plays) fails to make the grade initially, yet ultimately outsmarts all its critics and indifferent audiences, and becomes a classic.
It's estimated that Our Town is playing somewhere in the world every night of the year, including Boston - the place where it was first a flop. (So if you're an actor looking for work in the Boston job search site, it's probably not a good idea to apply for a performance of this particular play. Just kidding!)
I've got the script of the play here at home, included in a book with a couple of other Wilder plays (The Matchmaker is one) but I've only ever seen the play performed once - back in the early sixties, when it was done here in Dunedin. (Obviously Dunedin is another place where it's not regarded highly enough to be performed regularly). It's a play, as I recall, that manages to be both universal and local, of its time and timeless.
Talking of scripts, I find it somewhat curious that what one director and his actors will do with a script can be entirely different to what another director and his cast will do with it. Yet broach such an idea to the musical world and they'll throw up their hands in horror. The composer's intentions must be honoured to the last staccato dot.
Yet a piece of music is really no different to a play script. Both are scripts, in fact, and orchestra A will actually play the thing differently to orchestra B, though the difference may not be entirely discernable to most people's ears. Interpreting the composer's intentions is a major work of art in itself, and while most decent musicians will do their best, they will produce something different to other musicians, and will even produce a different performance of the piece themselves from night to night.
Take myself as an example of both a composer and a musician 'interpreting' my own work. I never play any of my pieces the same way twice. In fact, I probably can't. So to be horrified that this musician or that isn't fulfilling the composer's intentions is, I think, on a par with insisting that an opera must be performed in the original language when sung before an audience who, for the most part, doesn't understand the language.
Yes, there's a certain beauty in the original sounds and the way they fit the music, but there's a certain dulling of the experience for people who don't understand what's being sung. I heard a radio broadcast of The Daughter of the Regiment on the weekend. Though the composer, Donizetti, was Italian, this piece was written in Paris, and has a French libretto.
The audience at the Met - that most snobbish of opera houses - listened politely to the rantings and ravings of the spoken dialogue with barely a titter. The cast (which included Kiri te Kanawa in a small non-singing role) did their utmost to give life to the French dialogue, but it was all wasted on the audience, who only laughed when there was some visual comedy. (Which was lost on us listeners!)
How much more successful would the piece have been if it had been sung and spoken in English, especially since French isn't the most attractive language to sing anyway. The photo to the left, (by Silver Jade Deutch) by the way, is from a production by the Boston Lyric Opera - and was performed in English. Good old Boston - you get some things right!