Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Book review: Song of the Lark

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

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Author:Willa Cather
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Year of publication:1915

I am always blown away when a novel that is nearly 100 years old speaks to me as compellingly as Song of the Lark did. The story of Thea Kronborg, one of many children in a family


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Song reflection: Out There by Dar Williams

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

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Freaky lyrics in this Dar Williams song.

Are they about loss of memory or just about getting to the point in a relationship when you forget all the good things that you enjoyed together?

Even after the anger, it all turned silent
And the everyday turned solitary, so we came to February
First we forgot where we’d planted those bulbs last year
And then we forgot that we’d planted it all
Then we forgot what plants are altogether
And I blamed you for my freezing and forgetting
And the nights were long and cold and scary, can we live through February?

And February was so long that it lasted into March
And found us walking a path alone together
You stopped and pointed and you said, “That’s a crocus”
And I said, “What’s a crocus?”,
And you said, “It’s a flower”
I tried to remember, but I said, “What’s a flower?”

Full Lyrics

Musical Review: Rent

Friday, August 20th, 2010

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Some musicals strike us as perfect, or at least nearly perfect. We’ve seen Into the Woods nearly fifty times and would be willing to watch it weekly or more if we could afford to. The book is interesting to us, most of the lyrics are clearly intentional and speak to us, the music is complex and beautiful. Sure there are songs that we think could go, or be improved, but still.

Rent seems terrifically unfinished to us. My teenage daughter who did not experience the 1980’s when AIDS first began to wreak havoc with so many lives and who had never heard the acronym AZT was utterly confused by the initial half hour. (We paused the DVD to explain what was happening and why.)

We admired Rent as an impassioned, furious, context-free snapshot of that awful time. The performers on the DVD are gorgeous, with voices to match. But the music and lyrics don’t rise to the cause they represent. The perfect song that Roger runs away to Santa Fe to write is not.

Wonder if perhaps, if the creator, Jonathan Larson, had lived to see the show on Broadway, he would have refined it further.

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Movie/musical Review: Oklahoma (London stage version), the musical

Monday, April 13th, 2009

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Author:Rogers and Hammerstein 
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Year of publication:1999

X-Men have been, and remain, our favorite super-heroes. We watch the movies; have not gotten into the comic books. Have recently also enjoyed Hellboy. Some of us really admire The Incredibles (but some of us do not).

We must write our homage to X-Men someday. After all, this is a group that thinks that hiding out in a school for the gifted will somehow shield its members from bullies. A creative, if foolish, concept.

Plus, they have both Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman. And very cool superpowers. And great special effects.

We are waiting with great anticipation for the release of the latest X-Men movie, Wolverine. Although, judging from the previews, it's probably going to be depressing as anything. And meanwhile, since we love and admire Hugh Jackman (have started watching Australia), and we love and admire musicals, we sat down and watched this production of Oklahoma.

Plot spoiler alert: plot spoilers follow below...

As we have pointed out before, Broadway musicals, at least the good ones, are much more than song and dance. Musicals' pretty costumes and music often disguise powerful messages.

Oklahoma is an odd one -- the messages are truly of their original time -- 1955.

  • There's a guy named Jud. He's got some unattractive habits. (Kind of like the X-Men -- they accidentally kill you with their thoughts, he impulsively brandishes switchblades.) Plus no one normal likes him. (Kind of like the X-Men, huh?)
  • Then there's Laurey, Jud's young woman employer. She is not yet ready to commit herself to her true love, Curly, and instead teases Curly by agreeing to let Jud take her to the barn-raising. Teasing is not nice. And so Laurey gets everyone into real trouble.
  • There's also a loose woman and the two men who love her -- Will Parker (a cowboy) and Ali Hakim (a Persian peddler, played with an accent that seems to waver between NY and who knows where by Peter Polycarpou). Wow, Persian. Put there in the 1950s. An outsider from the Middle East with enough money to buy whatever he wants, but -- perhaps we shouldn't let our women get involved with guys like him. And yes, Ali Hakim IS Persian in the original.
  • And "Why is it that Aunt Eller runs the town? Did any woman wield that kind of power in those days?," my daughter didn't think that was in any way realistic. I speculated about there not being many women surviving childbirth into "old age" in the days before OK statehood; but then, in this production at least, there are a LOT of women -- they overwhelm the wedding scene, for example.
So how DO our musical Oklahomans deal with this bully? (Even if he's one that they've sort of created. Or, maybe he's just crazy and not really their responsibility, just a problem for them to dispose of?)

If you are Curly and just want Jud gone, perhaps you sidle over to Jud's hovel and sing him a song encouraging him to suicide. ("Is this FORESHADOWING?," my daughter asks.) And when that does not work, you and Laurey try various other things, all of which end up infuriating the bully further. And then .... Go here to skirt spoilers























You accidentally kill the guy (see! it WAS foreshadowing) in self-defense, stage a trial in a convenient venue, are let off in seconds (since everyone, even the farmers, KNOWS for sure that the murder was in self-defense), and then you get on with your happy life. You settle down and become a farmer. Oklahoma settles down and becomes a state.










What DID we actually think of this version of the musical?

Well, the famous songs are famous for a reason. The choreography is by Agnes del Mille. My daughter found it a bit intrusive. "So now here comes the next DANCE number." Laurey's dream sequence is VERY disturbing. Hugh Jackman does not disappoint. Shuler Hensley, who plays Jud Fry, has a remarkable voice and keeps us vacillating between sympathy and digust for his character.

The filming decisions were odd too. We see the audience clapping after most scenes, and that is ok. And we get to see SOME of the stagecraft (much is made of the revolving stage). But the peeks into the stagecraft made my daughter want to see MORE of the stagecraft, and she came to doubt that we were actually seeing the musical as it was presented to a real live audience. We noticed some shoe changes -- boots to toe shoes to boots -- that we found very confusing.

Should your sophisticated children watch Oklahoma? If they have an interest in musical theatre, absolutely. But, beware: Musicals' pretty costumes and music often disguise powerful messages. And the messages of Oklahoma are -- hmmm -- disquieting. As messages of musicals often are.
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Book review: Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

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Author:Georgia Byng
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 5 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Year of publication:2003

"Why don't they make books like THIS one into movies?," my 12 year old exclaimed. I was listening to this book on tape and dear daughter, who had read the book a few years earlier, was lured into listening.

Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism like Molly Moon's Hypnotic Time Travel Adventure, which we read a while back, narrates the story of Molly Moon, an orphan, and her best friend Rocky.

Unlike Harry Potter, Nathaniel, and many of Diana Wynne Jones' fictional heroes and heroines (all of whom we enjoy reading about), Molly does not inherit her gift, but instead studies and works hard to master it pretty much on her own.

In this first book in the Molly Moon series, a celebration of independence and librarians, Molly learns to be a very powerful hypnotist. Although at some points in the book, she uses her powers "for the dark side", she eventually reflects on the ethics of her actions and comes up with creative solutions that make amends for the problems she caused.

Highly recommended for children and for lovers of books.

-- Emily Berk
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Book/musical news: Wicked

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

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Wonderful piece about the author of the book Wicked

My now-12 yr. old has loved the musical since she first saw it when she was around 9. But we (her parents and older sister) have suggested that she not read the book until she is older, although we agree that the book is much more wonderful than the musical.
— Emily

\”Before seeing the Broadway musical “Wicked” for the 25th time, Gregory Maguire, who wrote the novel “Wicked,” was in the lobby of the Gershwin Theater last month persuading people not to read it. Granted, the people were 9, 10 and 13, and Maguire was telling their respective mothers that the book could be “a destination read for freshman year in college.” But when he saw the girls’ hangdog faces, he conceded that, if their mothers read it first and approved, they might try it at 16 instead. …\”

Mr. Wicked by ALEX WITCHEL

Songs: Imagine

Friday, June 2nd, 2006

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A 14 year old, 12 year old, and 11 year old, passengers in a car, on a long ride with much traffic, are trying to agree on which songs to listen to…

John Lennon: Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
 11 yr. old: \”Hmmm, no heaven, huh? That’s kind of bleak.\”
John Lennon: No hell below us
 11 yr. old: \”No hell either. Well, that might be ok.\”
John Lennon: Above us only sky
 11 yr. old: \”Nothing above us only sky. No birds, no trees, no —
14 yr. old: \”OK, kid. That’s enough. You don’t get to listen to any Beatles any more.\”

The album

Songs: Men don’t buy pajamas for pistol-packing mamas, and other hard lessons I’ve learned from Broadway musicals

Tuesday, May 30th, 2006

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Books etc. / For children 5 and under / For children 5 and up / For children 8 and up / Learning to read / For children 12 and up / Sophisticated readers / Fat books (Deep books for sophisticated but young readers) / About educators educating / Technical Books / Gifted Education / Books whose protagonists are gifted, intellectually / All book reviews

Caution: This piece includes spoilers. If you don’t want to learn much about the plot of Annie Get Your Gun, please don’t read on.

About 11 years ago, desperate for a distraction for my then-4 yr. old daughter, I sat her down in front of a TV, popped a tape of Carousel into the VCR and walked away. When I stopped by to check up on her 45 minutes later, I found her facing the screen, tears streaming down her face. It was then I should have
realized that musicals’ pretty costumes and music often disguise powerful messages.

Years later, I found myself in the video rental store on my birthday. The plan was to eat a festive dinner and watch a video of my choosing.  “Old musicals are always safe,” I thought, addled by the aging process. I brought home the 1950 screen adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun, starring Betty Hutton and Howard Keel.

Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of Annie Oakley, best shot in the West, in music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Much-loved songs from the show include Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly, The Girl That I Marry, I Got The Sun In The Morning,
Anything You Can Do, and There’s No Business Like Show Business.

Annie Oakley sings the theme of musical loud and clear in the brilliant lyrics of You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun, which include:

… When I’m with a pistol
I sparkle like a crystal,
Yes, I shine like the morning sun.
But I lose all my luster
When with a Bronco Buster.
Oh you can’t get a man with a gun.

While Frank Butler, the man Annie aspires to wed, sings:

The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery

The girl I call my own
Will wear satin and laces and smell of cologne

A doll I can carry,
The girl that I marry must be.

There we sat, the daughter (by now a teenager) who cried through Carousel, younger daughter about 6, parents, and even the cat watched, rapt, as the music traced Annie Oakely’s life. Annie evolves from an ignorant hillbilly (Doin’ What Comes Naturly) whose shooting must be sharp if she is to feed her family, into the most talented and renowned sharpshooter in the world. Which threatens to destroy her romantic relationship with the second-most talented sharpshooter in the world, Frank Butler. So after watching for nearly two hours, the lesson my daughters learn is that in order to catch and keep the man she loves, a talented, beautiful, intelligent young woman does best to convince him that she’s just not as good a shot as he is.

Which is why, several days later, I was not thrilled to observe my usually-retiring young one scale to the top of a pile of bags of manure outside our drug store and unabashedly belt out multiple choruses of There’s no business
like show business
to the amazed and delighted stares of our fellow-patrons.  “That’s alright,” I told myself,  “these people have no idea that this song, which has no doubt delighted millions, is from a reactionary musical that delivers a negative message about the need for girls to scale back their ambitions and hide their talents in order to succeed in the world.”

My feelings of failure as a parent worsened when my young daughter became infatuated with a CD of the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun starring Bernadette Peters. Not only is the message of the show in this very recent production unimproved — and how could it be, it’s deeply embedded in the book? — but the performance by Peters is a real disappointment. Her hillybilly accent goes in and out and is embarrassingly influenced by Brooklynese.

Thank goodness my daughter was most interested in the funny competition song, Anything You Can Do, which Annie (at a point in the story where she is still mercifully unaware that a woman’s place is second to the man’s) sings with her rival/intended, Frank Butler:

Anything you can do,

I can do better.
I can do anything
Better than you.

Since dear daughter objects to “mushy love songs”, she (and I) were mostly able to avoid Annie’s decision to permanently hide her gifts. Unfortunately, You can’t get a man with a gun is such a funny but direct description of the thought process that leads to Annie’s capitulation that it proved impossible to ignore. I hate the meaning in the following words, but I just adore the word play:

A man’s love is mighty
It’ll leave him buy a nightie
For a gal who he thinks is fun.

But they don’t buy pajamas
For pistol packin’ mamas,
And you can’t get a hug

From a mug with a slug,
Oh you can’t get a man with a gun.

Anyone who rode in our car listened to this song over and over again until our local librarians finally compelled us to return the CD.

We’re now on to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and Weird Al Yankovic. The music and lyrics aren’t as fantastic, but at least the messages are slightly more positive, for girls at least.

The lessons I hope I’ve learned from this experience are:

  • Musicals do pack a punch. The songs that make them compelling also project their messages to impressionable children.
  • Children do listen, hear, and, worst, understand these messages. Stephen Soundheim told us this in Into the Woods. But I had forgotten.

Happy listening.


If you’re going to watch Annie Get Your Gun, get the DVD or VHS video of the 1950 movie. The CD of Bernadette Peter’s performance is certainly interesting, but the Ethel Merman version’s the one I recommend.

Carousel, on the other hand, is gorgeous, if depressing. There’s a VHS version but the DVD is not much more expensive.

Rants and reviews table of contents / Into the Woods / Annie Get Your Gun / Learning to Build and Program Robots / Stomp / The Armadillo Dance

Book review: The Mozart Season

Saturday, April 1st, 2006

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\”Allegra Shapiro is me,\” says my daughter, who adores The Mozart Season. Granted, dear daughter, now 8, is not a 12-year old violin prodigy. But then few people are. In fact, there are actually few similarities between my daughter and Allegra. But the few there are are enough.

Both are intelligent, inquisitive, thoughtful, beloved children, children who are growing up in a world in which sometimes parents have to give their children away to save them. A world in which parents, no matter how loving, sometimes cannot save their children at all.

The Mozart Season is the story, told in the first person, of a young girl who comes to understand, deeply understand, the depths of good and evil in the world. This coming-of-age novel describes the process by which Allegra comes to cherish the eccentricities of her grandmother, (who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor), her mother’s brilliant best friend (who lost her child and her equanimity in a dreadful accident), a street person (Mr. Trouble, who lost his brain to lead poisoning and his quality of life to an indifferent system), and Mozart’s Fourth Concerto.

My young daughter read The Mozart Season so slowly that my husband had to beg a special dispensation from our library. Allegra painstakingly describes the process by which she masters her violin piece. She collects challenging words, which my daughter wanted to master before she went on. Defining every single unfamiliar word in the book became an obsession. This mastery took time. \”I need to know what a delphinium LOOKS like NOW,\” my daughter cried. \”It’s a flower,\” I insisted. \”It’s time for bed. We can figure this out tomorrow.\”

The words of The Mozart Season flow smoothly and truly as if spoken by a precocious twelve-year old girl, but don’t let that deceive you. Parents who are reluctant to have their children think deeply about how evil in the world can destroy even the most ordinary family should steer clear of this one.

The virtues of The Mozart Season are those of The Giver or Ender’s Game, but the horrors it describes happened and do happen. Its matter of fact presentation adds to the power, and terror, of its message.


Book review: Dragondrums

Monday, March 13th, 2006

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Author:Anne McCaffrey
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 8 and up
Genre:fiction, dragons
Year of publication:1979

Menolly's friend Piemur (a boy) comes of age (confronts bullying and anti-intellectualism).

Not as compelling as the previous two in the series, and Dragonsinger, and beware the love scene at around page 238.
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